Monday, 15 March 2010


Ah, a beautiful forest!
I can have a wonderful time in here, chopping down those trees and fashioning them into paper birds and leafy diadems and wooden dresses! Hurrah!
Chop, chisel, weave, pulp, fasten, saw, hammer.
Gosh, that was fun!
Oh, but look now! My forest has all gone. Cripes, there's nothing to do here now; it's no fun any more. :o(

So our player moseys around the first act locations, solving puzzles and poking her nose into dusty alcoves and she's having a ball. Then she unlocks the end-of-act chokepoint and pootles around some new environments...
But when she comes back to those first few locations, there's nothing left for her there any more.
So what the game designer has cleverly done is to insert a well into that opening act, and that well can only be utilised once our player has collected the well transmogrifier gun from a later act (which she fires upon the well, metamorphosing it into a time-travel capsule, or somesuch)!

One of the greatest lessons I've learned as a writer is that things must constantly change. Or develop, if you will. Nothing stays the same. And for as long as our reader senses that things are moving inexorably towards the climax of a lifetime, she'll continue to read.
Not only is this true of games too, but it also affords us an opportunity to redefine those deforested areas (which often persist as floppy and redundant appendices) through developments in narrative, context, and/or functionality.

Here's an imaginary first act.
It's an explorable area containing three puzzles, each of which needs to be solved before the chokepoint opens into the second act.
It would be simple enough to lock the chokepoint the instant our player progresses to the second act area, and to never revisit the first act locations again; but this ain't good when you're working with a small team and small budget: I need to get bang for my bucks, which means reusing assets where possible.
It would also be simple enough to leave those first act locations as they were; but then they're no fun at all!

The riddle we can guess, we speedily despise - not anything is stale so long as Yesterday's surprise.
[Emily Dickinson: The Riddle we can Guess.]
So into act one go those act two puzzles!
And I'm sure you can see how this would build up over four or more acts!
(I have no idea at the moment what proportion of puzzles in the first act should be approachable in act one, act two, act three, and act four: I'm presuming that the majority should be doable in the first act itself. Gonna be trial and error for now. I'm also experimenting with the proportion of previous acts that can be revisited.)
But we can go further than this!
We can use the narrative to change the context of that opening act and, with a few graphical adjustments and a new soundtrack, the opening act is transformed!
Perhaps act one is set in a tranquil forest, and then, in act two, our player enters a laboratory and unwittingly releases a mutagenic virus, and then, on returning to the act one forest, our player discovers that the trees now have columns of beady eyes and limbs burgeoning with teeth, and that once mellifluous soundscape of warbling birds and buzzing bees has become one of splintering, straining limbs and buzzing flies.
And best of all, the narrative is/can be changed with minimum dialogue! Wahay!

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Intoxicating Breadcrumbs

PROFESSOR FARNSWORTH: Good news everyone!
FRY: That sounds like bad news.

I'm very pleased to announce that we've been able to lasso the incredible Helen Lawson who has provided us with a theme song: This Town. Furthermore, we've pressganged the phenomenal Julie Ann Dean who is working wondrous wonders with the voice-overs, bringing our characters to life.
It's quite something to type a few lines of dialogue and then to hear them voiced by a pro just hours later. I am frequently assaulted by the urge to write tongue-twisters.

Anyone for pix?

My good friend and incomparable art talent Mister Ben Andrews created this concept (yes, concept!) for the country lane scene. Once I have organised the gaming and narrative requirements for any given scene, Ben and I knock out pencil sketches (often over a beer in The Fountain which nestles in the shade of Ely cathedral and has lovely little alcoves within which we can secrete ourselves and our pencils, and it has a log fire and the logs are laced with incense); Ben then hits his tablet, working in colour themes and tightening perspectives, after which we perform a quick review, make minor adjustments, and then start over on the next scene.

The idea of 'showing' is now, I hope, permanently and irreproachably fused into my neural network. In this scene we see an archway in the foreground wall, a broken bridge in the midground, and a light in a tower beyond. Our publishers are keen to see, what they refer to as, the 'string', which is a visual foreshadowing device, designed to create anticipation - intoxicating breadcrumbs if you will. How can I reach that tower? Why is the bridge dismantled? What's through that arch? Certainly, this is no big shake for us writerly folks.
This is a super discipline, telling a story through pictures and sounds, and occasionally dialogue, and I'll be coming back to all this very soon; but now I'm hungry and I have tuna sandwiches and a spicy peperami in my lunchbox.

Sunday, 7 March 2010


Sofonisba Anguissola: Portrait of the Artist's Sisters Playing Chess.

The adventure continues!
Yes my lovely little sausages, we've certainly discussed many writerly outlets over the years, and now I find myself in the humble role of Creative Director for a small casual games outfit. (I understand that our games expect an audience of around three million people.)
The job is an amalgamation of game designer, concept artist, artist, art director, screenwriter, storyboarder, director, project manager, tea maker and dancer. And probably other stuff that doesn't come instantly to mind.

Where to start? After making tea, obviously.
How about: Know your audience.

So here's the rub:
How to design narrative for an audience that tradionally dislikes narrative?

You buy a novel and you expect a good read;
You buy a casual game and you don't.
Indeed, whilst I've been given free reign on the entire narrative design, it is with the caveat: include 'skip' button.

Perhaps it's simpler to make comparisons between the 'casual' and the 'hard-core':
You engage in something 'casual' and you (should) expect no deep reward;
You engage is something 'hard-core' and you expect a whole lot more.

I have to wonder if casual gamers (or, indeed, hard-core gamers) simply dislike anything that gets in the way of the gameplay, or if they are, in fact, open to anything that enhances their experience and the sad truth is that they are so rarely offered anything of merit. And I also wonder how many 'casual' gamers would, in fact, relish a deeper experience.

At which point, we turn our attention to the publisher and wonder if their suspicions towards narrative are based on a misperception of feedback and statistics, or if they really have nailed the desires of their audience.

My thinking is that some gamers want nothing more than to pootle about some beautiful looking locations whilst being constantly bombarded with not-too-difficult puzzles, whereas others want a 'deeper', more emotive experience. And whilst a brilliant narrative with a skip button would, I hope, appeal to both major camps, I'd be very interested to know the relative sizes of these camps.

Playing through the best-selling releases on our pub's roster, it's clear to me that narrative takes a back seat (quite as it should), and that it tends to manifest as a wad of exposition and/or backstory between acts. (And I use the word 'act' with hesitation, for an 'act' in such instances is defined simply by the progression through a major choke point: for example, after one hour or so of gameplay, a meaty puzzle is solved, a door unlocked, and the player is reorientated with a little more story which develops the plot, and then the player is unleashed upon a fresh miasma of puzzles and locations.)

The concept of reversals is still, on the whole, foreign to these games; furthermore, and perhaps of greater significance, the concept of emotional topography is little more than a cliché of an afterthought. Moreover, there is scant evidence of any emotive dynamism: typically, a bunch of techniques based around a single theme are cobbled together and no more is said on the topic.

I can only wonder if this is, in reality, all that the casual gamer desires.

Dire Grove: not one of ours.

A recent big-seller, Dire Grove (the latest installment of the ever-popular Mystery Case Files brand), was unremittedly lambasted for its heavy-handed employment of narrative. The player would discover video tapes which she would then have to place into a device in order to watch several minutes or more of actors delivering backstory. Such an event would occur regularly. And the waters muddy further: we should consider the content of these tapes (almost exclusively exposition/backstory through 'tells'), the quality of acting, the quantity of the tapes, and also the need to manually play them (the lack of immediacy).

Here's my belief:
I would suggest that the majority of casual gamers require little or even no narrative. To those people I must deliver beautiful environments and lashings of varied and not-too-difficult puzzles.
I would also contend, however, that it is my duty to ensure that the second major demographic (assuming it exists) is catered for, and that I must utilise any technique I require in order to provide these people with an unforgettable experience, and to ensure that our brand - The Margrave series - comes to be regarded as both pioneering and consistently enjoyable.

Well, with the release date looking set for September, we won't be waiting too long to see how I do. And even then, how do we make sense of any feedback beyond statistics?
I predict that many people will be upset at the inclusion of any narrative/dialogue whatsoever.
And that will always be so for any and every game.
However, if I can touch people on a deeply emotive level, through all the means at my disposal (hey, they're mainly subliminal don't you know!), then I suspect that we might be raising the bar...

If little effort has thus far been made to imbue the narrative and dialogue (indeed the emotive content) of casual games with any degree of professionalism, do we assume that this is because it is unnecessary?

Anyone for a round of 'show don't tell'?

Pretty pictures and more blogging to follow toot sweet.