Thursday, 17 February 2011

Exotic Paints

A Nice Pair! Wish You Were Here?
Who'd have thought somebody would have painted Pink Floyd album covers onto naked women?

Had to wave farewell to my comfort zone yesterday. In putting together our marketing materials, we discovered we needed a bit of blurb to go on our Big Fish page. I guess we'd assumed that the BF team handled this; but on closer inspection, it became evident that the standard and style of the blurbs are so varied that they could not come from a single source.

So we're already at step one: Study the other blurbs.

I took the first handful of CE blurbs from the current top 100 and compiled them in a Word doc and did a quick word count. Eighty words seemed the limit. (Don't know why this information isn't explicitly given to us, but hey.)
At this point, I had an idea for an experiment. I could safely assume that the Thirteenth Skull blurb would be excellent, and so I chose not to read it; I figured I'd study the others, decide what was good and bad, write my own copy, and then compare my copy to the Thirteenth Skull copy.
And that transpired to be a super idea, for reasons you'll witness anon.

So check 'em out: here are the blurbs I studied before composing my own, along with my immediate thoughts. And bear in mind that these blurbs are for the elite - the highest rated iHOGS (or HOPAs if you prefer) currently on the scene. I will do my best to mask my distaste, but I make no promises.

Welcome to a town where something that should not exist runs free; where a desperate wife will risk her beating heart to find her husband; and where a terrible secret lies buried behind an orphanage. Search for clues, solve puzzles, and unlock new areas as you visit spine-chilling locations, play stimulating mini-games and locate Hidden Objects. Stray Souls - A Dollhouse Mystery will take you to a dark and spooky world!

I kinda admired the poetic approach to this one - that's to say I appreciate the idea, but the execution is dire. Consider the context: The blurb appears on a page with screenshots and a video, and a genre description. Ergo, the latter half of this blurb is utterly redundant; half the copy could apply to absolutely any iHOG. What a waste of an opportunity. And the poeticisms are pretty darned dodgy: '...risk her beating heart'?
I went on a lengthy google search for advice on use of adjectives in marketing copy. The results were terribly inconclusive beyond a certain point, and any decent writer will be fine up until that certain point.
As you'll know, your verbs should be well-considered. A well-considered verb typically negates the need for an adverb: more often than not, adverbs point to poor writing, being indicative of poor choice of verb. Also, well-considered verbs can negate the need for adjectives, but not exclusively. Hem was rather outspoken about his distrust of adjectives; on that basis alone, it's worth considering their applications.

I read up on power adjectives in marketing copy. Opinion seems to be vehemently divided, but does appear to converge on the idea that, if you are intent on employing adjectives, they'd better be concise and clear and powerful. Their meaning should be irreproachable: one person's image of an old house potentially bears no resemblence to another person's image of an old house. There's also support for the idea of exotic adjectives, used extensively by paint manufacturers and restaurateurs (you are allowed to place an 'n' into that word, but it's considered incorrect by some. Apparently): Shangrila Silk and Delhi Bazaar and Peppermint Beach; pan-fried and deconstructed and triple-whipped and so forth.
Play a game of guess the paint colour! It's fun! And thought-provoking. Like strip scrabble.

So, let's check out the adjectives in that copy: desperate, beating, terrible, new, spine-chilling, stimulating, dark, and spooky. (I'll ignore Hidden and Stray.) That's eight, of which most clearly have far more interesting, mouth-watering alternatives. I'm sure you could think of twenty adjectives to urinate upon 'dark and spooky' in a flash! Heck, I'm sure my eleven-year-old son could.
Again, let's remember that these are the top dogs, and consider the respect given to writing in this industry.

Okay, fag break and then we can move on. Meet back here after these messages...

Called into a small city from the capitol, you have been put in charge of solving a string of mysterious murders! Around the same time as the murders, a wolf has been appearing around the town and spooking the townsfolk. With rumors of a werewolf swirling, it's up to you to get to the bottom of the mystery and set the record straight in Shadow Wolf Mysteries: Curse of the Full Moon!

Man, I'd really like to like 'swirling' rumors! Check out the repetition: mysterious and mystery; murders and murders; around and around; werewolf and wolf... this is first-pass stream of consciousness copy knocked out over a ham and pickle sandwich at noon. Right off the bat I'm thinking 'summoned' or 'invited' or any number of superior, cleaner verbs. Really no sense examining this further. Still, while we're here, let's look at those power adjectives: small, mysterious. Ho hum.

The time has come for Nelly and Tom to stop a potential catastrophe and save the world in Treasure Seekers: The Time has Come! With new powerful devices, such as the Ring of Time and the X-Glass, Nelly and Tom must go on their most exciting adventure yet! Is Totenkraft really as evil as they previously thought? Find out in this incredible Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure game!

'...To stop a potential catastrophe and save the world...'? That's scaredy cat tautology! For those of you who routinely follow the pro pub blogs, you'll recognise those dreaded rhetorical questions: 'Is Totenkraft really as evil as they previously thought?' Pubs hate that. Each day, they settle down to their slush pile and read the opening gambit: 'Have you ever wondered what your life would be like if you could read minds?' or 'What would you do if you discovered that your wife was a vampire?' The idea of drawing the reader into the narrative of a fictional world is great, but it requires a sophisticated touch. What's also interesting here is the mention of Totenkraft. It's meaningless to me. Is it a place? Some inanimate object? I'll make my point after the next attempt.

After crashing your car in the middle of nowhere, you stumble upon The Drowned Dead Hotel, a lonely forgotten structure leaning from a cliff. Beneath lies a dark and cold lake that used to be a lively town. What secrets are buried at the bottom of the muddy waters? Who are the mysterious inhabitants of the hotel? Dive into Phantasmat, an incredible Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure game, and get to the bottom of a long forgotten tragedy.

See? There it is again. Another place. All that real estate handed over to an inanimate thing. Strikes me as queer. You really think the player would identify with the plight of a building over the plight of a human being? The 'Fiddlesticks - I've crashed my car next to an abandoned hotel/mental asylum/cemetery' scenario is fast becoming cliché in the iHOG genre; however, given that these games can take a year or more to make, I'd put that down to some form of natural selection - at least, for the time being. I think this blurb wins the wtf? adjective award: lonely, forgotten, dark, cold, lively, muddy, mysterious, incredible, long forgotten. Quick - let's move on...

Okay, it's easy to dish it out eh? Here's what I came up with:

Deep in the English countryside, Edwina Margrave has returned to the cottage where her parents died, eager to speak with the one person who might shed light on the tragedy - the volatile landlady, Miss Thorn. But her shocking revelations are not what Edwina expected. Enlist the aid of the spirit world to solve devious puzzles, and evade the wrath of a disfigured beast as you embark on this heart-breaking adventure. Nobody escapes the curse of the Severed Heart.

I'm not altogether happy with it: I'd normally leave something like this overnight, and return with fresh eyes the morning after. However, time was against us.
I like my verbs, and I controlled the adjectives, selecting them with great care. But the rhythm of the adjectives in the penultimate line disturbs me: if you emphasise each adjective as you read - and I'm not sure if this actually happens in the mind or not - then the rhythm is too regular.
I wanted to focus immediately on the characters, and especially on Edwina's plight; then, I hastily bring in the reader (without recourse to the pronoun 'You'!), coddling her in a cloak crocheted from some of the things I figure she most appreciates (ghosts, puzzles, scares, mystery, jerking of tears); finally, I throw down the gauntlet, again without recourse to a pronoun or rhetoric.
There's no doubt in my mind that this is more successful in many ways than the preceding blurbs. That said, let's go see the Thirteenth Skull blurb! Take a deep breath now...

Shortly after moving into a creepy mansion in Louisiana, Sara Lawson is struck with tragedy when her husband mysteriously disappears. Sara's daughter, Magnolia, believes her father was kidnapped by the ghost of a vengeful pirate seeking to protect his lost fortune. With the locals terrified of the pirate's curse, you are the family's last hope. Only a Master Detective with incredible Hidden Object skills can locate Marcus Lawson in Mystery Case Files: 13th Skull!

Well lookee here! Characters at the heart of the blurb! I like. Set up the intrigue, slip into the goal, and finish with a gauntlet. I was pretty chuffed to see that I had reached such a similar set of conclusions as the MCF copywriter. I think my adjectives are better, but if adjectives bog the narrative down then that's a moot point. I think the MCF blurb is more polished than mine and I especially like the praising of the player - that's you, and you have incredible Hidden Object skills! You're great.

So, reflecting on this mini experiment, what's the verdict on adjectives? I'm really not sure; although I think it's safe to say choose them with care and don't use too many. Wahay!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011


Watched it?

One of the topics du jour (and it's been a very long jour) centres around the idea of handing control to the player: rather than removing the player from the game, relegating her as a passive bystander whilst a cut-scene/cinematic plays out, devs are attempting to allow the player to create her own outcomes.

First problem here is that the player probably isn't a brilliant storyteller; ergo, give her free reign and she might not come up with something as emotive as a good writer.
Would she rather accept an amount of passiveness in order to be fully moved, or would she prefer to do her own thing at the expense of a memorable experience?
In the Aeris' death climax, the player is allowed to navigate to Aeris (choked), and then to fight the Jenova creature. Both outcomes are fixed, but the player is given the illusion of free will for a time. However, give her the choice of whether to fight or not, or whether to give Aeris the watery send off or not, and there's a chance that the most powerful emotional topography will be defiled... unless her actions, whatever they are, lead to an equally powerful, albeit different, resolution. And there's problem two: in this case, the writer still controls the narrative flow, but now has to create lots of narratives. A game like Mass Effect, where the player is allowed to make many important decisions, is really presenting the player with hundreds of narratives, each one controlled, and the player simply hops along a complex hierarchy of predefined plot points.

Problem three is simple, and is connected to problem one: If you allow the player to define her character through the choices she is making, this needs to be reflected in the consistency of the outcomes. If you've prepared a scene in which the character must rescue a child from the clutches of a beast, but have allowed the player to define her character as a child-hating coward, then all credibility is lost. (Reminds me of the 'Is character plot?' debate :o)

The latest Mystery Case Files game, The Thirteenth Skull, had a stab at a solution. I knew it was coming: I had been chatting with our Producer about some of the techniques I was planning to use in M4, and we touched upon NPC (Non-Player Character) interaction. She suggested that there would be interesting developments in this area anon. I was all excited, wondering how the mighty MCF team would handle this multiple-thorned problem. The results were ultimately disappointing.
Player interacts with NPC through dialogue box; player selects one of three questions; NPC answers question; player asks next two questions; NPC answers them too; fourth question appears in dialogue box; player asks it; NPC answers it; next stage is unlocked.
None of the choices make any difference to the immediate outcome, or even give the illusion of doing so. Furthermore, the only real choice the player could make was in which order to ask the first three questions, and the order in which they were selected was irrelevant.
In a standard cut-scene, the player is entitled to press the skip button in order to progress rapidly through the scene, or to skip it entirely. Thirteenth Skull's approach to NPC interaction appears to me to be little more than a substitute skip: player has to negotiate their way from one end of the cut-scene to the other, and does so by clicking lines of dialogue, rather than clicking on a skip button.
Still, the idea of masking mechanics does appeal and I have a selection of doves secreted inside my own pants...

Will likely undress this iceberg some more very soon.

In the meantime, here's Agro's death from Shadow of the Colossus.
Note the valedictory buck, a brilliantly subtle movement, which transforms the scene from a simple death to an act of sacrifice!

Aeris' Death

Having a little tete-a-tete with Nadia Oxford over on gametheoryonline which you're welcome to follow. (I say 'follow', although such public discussions do tend to degrade or dissipate rapidly.)
For those who never experienced the death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII, I've exhumed it from the youtube vaults for your emotive pleasure. It truly was a seminal inspiration and, to this day, remains one of only two gaming moments to 'manipulate' me to tears. I'd say that's a true accomplishment, and that the attainment of such a degree of emotional attachment is a noble and worthwhile pursuit, every bit as valid in games as in other media. However, others may disagree.

So take out those handkerchiefs and enjoy.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Essence 3

I wanted to share this with you!
One of the most rewarding parts of my job is shepherding the art team. It's brilliant having such talented artisans around me.
Now, if I were to leave them alone with the design doc, they'd go off and produce wonderful work, like Ben's first concept for the arcades above. The scene does everything I required. Functionally, it has a foreground window; it has a navigation point up a staircase, and another through an arch; it captures that evening sunlight, with the long shadows; it is built from the overgrown ruins of a long-dead civilization; the vegetation is authentic given time and place. And, of course, it looks splendid and has a good vibe.

And this is where the writer comes in!
Sure! A half-decent writer will be practised in rooting for the essence - the mot juste - of a moment. If I'm moved by a view, what precisely is moving me, and how? Oh, I'm quite sure this isn't just the reserve of the writer, but in my experience a half-decent writer is usually a safe pair of hands for sourcing the soul of a scene.

It took a while, I'll confess. There's usually some moment of realization (what the heck is the German loan word for that? It'll come to me in a very ironic moment). Just as with the writing (check out my coastal moods post), I riffle through lots of pix, putting to one side those that make an instant impact on me. Then it's a case of studying those selected pix, looking for commonalities - or, indeed, differences - between them, wrestling for the essence - the heart of the emotional response.
When the essence is decanted, the instant revelation is rapidly superceded by a feeling of foolishness. That's how it goes.
So Ben and I made more of the hanging vegetation, ruinified the scene some more, and... took out the sky.
It's incredible! Try it! Try adding or removing the sky from any receptive project you have to hand. Compare your emotional responses to the top pic, and to our revised concept below!
Add to that scene the ambient music and sound fx - the occasional woodland bird song - and the visual fx - butterflies, and/or branches swaying in intermittent breeze - and you have somewhere cool to hang out.

As ever, please respect all copyrights and do not reproduce without permission. Then I can continue to give y'all sneak peeks!

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Poetry Challenge

March the third!

Okay, one-and-a-half days remaining 'til we submit for vigorous and rigorous testing.
I'm just about on top of it all now.

You can imagine the workflow: everyone sits staring at me, waiting for sketches and designs and lines of dialogue and puzzles to manifest at my fingertips; then environment concepts go over to Ben and puzzle designs go over to 3D Raul; then illustrations radiate to Reb whilst Mr Chant uses placeholder graphics to build the puzzle code and Biggsy wrestles to make music based on my impossible descriptions - make it sad but happy and airy, like wind, but more pathos and mossy, make it mossy and old like Tomb Raider, with a bit of weirdness, but not such that it suffocates the pathos, and echoes like in an endless cavern, if endless caverns have echoes, if not then like a wooden space vessel whooshing through a bit of space that facilities whooshing.
And when everyone's busy, the headphones go on and I settle into bits and pieces of dialogue and misc stuff. (I'm currently listening to Seetyca's Nekton Falls!)

Here's a good 'un for you:
One challenge I set myself was to write a poem.
First, it had to be very short, as there is little tolerance for lengthy dialogue. I figured thirty words or less.
Second, it needed to include the words soul, heart, rain, shadow, and fire. These words are necessary for the dream cards puzzle.
The poem would have been composed by a lonely blacksmith, lamenting the loss of his wife, destined to live for hundreds of years all alone. So it needed to be soused in longing and sadness.
If you're so inclined, give it a shot.
If not, consider the nature of self-imposed frameworks, and consider the person who claims that writing is easy and recognise that it probably is in their undisciplined and sprawling vision. :o)
I'll stick my solution at the bottom.

I love Reb's pic (at top of post)!
She's really captured something special!
For me, puzzles and mini games are as much opportunities for subliminal impressioning as they are means of generating 'fun'. (There's a good few blog posts in that single word; know that I'm using shorthand here :o) After all, we're considering the player's experience as a whole!
When adding extra material, my first question is Where?
(Imagine that you need to slot a specific scene into your ms. It's the same thing: its positioning is crucial not just to its impact, but also to any damage it might do to the established narrative.)
For our extra Hidden Object Scene, I chose to develop (and, by proxy, postpone) the meeting with the lonely blacksmith, Oban.
Next, I needed to find a Where?
We had suggested a wooded area, and it was easy to open the trees a little and create a clearing with a shrine. Super! Hidden Object Scene in shrine!
And central in that HO, I wanted a photo of Oban's family, surrounded by candles and pebbles and other shrine-y things, all of which lend themselves characteristically to the HO mechanic.
HO's are wonderful places to hold a player - ours usually play out for between three and five minutes, but often substantially longer. There aren't many other places in the game where it's possible to root the player for such a measure of time. So player searches for hidden objects, all the while absorbing Oban's sadness, spending time in the company of his lost family, feeling his heartache. So by the time she actually meets the chap, there's already a preconditioned response.

Better crack on. Need to finish the dialogue for voice-overs, amend hints and strategy guide, and keep an eye on the clock!

Grant me peace
In the shadow of death
Where our hearts beat like rain.
Grant me sleep
And the fire of your breath
'Pon my soul once again.