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.


esruel said...

Good to see you around, solvey! :-) I do wonder if the games being created have already been subject to surveys or questionnaires. And also, given the 3 million players, that they are serving the market for which the games were intended.
Do you really need, or feel you need, to change anything within the games? It may not be such a wise thing to attempt to effect changes that are not called for.
Of course, that may not be what you are doing, and you are just exploring possibilities. In which case, giving players choices (e.g. buttons for 'explain storyline/plot', 'skip', etc) without having them integral or embedded in the game, may be all that's necessary.
Making the games deeper, with more far-reaching effects and outcomes may be more satisfying to some, but are they required by the current audience (customer)?
Just mulling over some thoughts, which might not be very helpful lol

solv said...

Well hello my friend! How come we keep missing each other on msn?
I'm always very grateful for every thought and comment! Thank you.
Yes, you're quite right: I have mahoosive amounts of statistics and market reports at my fingertips.
What's very clear is that the casual games market is still in that magical golden age of evolution, with each new release under the 'revitalised adventure game' umbrella trying out new things. And, as one of the MDs at Popcap games suggested, it's our duty to innovate in an ever-welling pond of indie devs.
Time and again, I read articles that may be informative within this market, but to semi-seasoned writers like you and I, seem naive.
The art of story-telling now seems requisite to casual adventure games:
'...a series of puzzles intertwined with an entertaining story... solves puzzles using items found in the scene to advance the detailed and compelling story.' (Casual Games Market Report 2007.)
However, we still find the art of storytelling typically relegated to an afterthought - a pretty bonus. There is scant evidence that the demand for a 'detailed and compelling' story is being met with much professionalism; I have yet to encounter a dynamic emotional topography or any depth of character.
For me, the question is one of balance: To what degree can I use those emotion-spanking literary techniques within the medium of casual puzzle-adventure game?
It's going to be a fun few months watching our game develop and then seeing what becomes of it!

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