Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Forward Motion and Immersion Cocoons

Ooh, my counter has hit 10,000. I'm not sure what it actually counts... but 10,000!

This caught my eye - presumably due to its claim to the 'experimental interactive narrative' throne.
Reviews are all acceptably favourable, with the same flaws being flagged across the board.
Intrigued, I followed the pixel trail to the dev's blog.

I have to say, I greatly admire Alexei for what he has achieved and for what he attempted to achieve. And throughout his blog, he references a canoe-ful of the major game design books, so he's clearly studied his craft. Most impressive is the way he's handled the recurring negatives (although you'd have to question his 'I agree' remarks for it's difficult to imagine that the public would give two marsupials whether he agreed with them or not).

Anyhoo, do go and take a looksee.

Sooo... two days from usability submission and I got to play the opening act today. Yep, two days to go and we start the playthrough. Sigh.
We're looking at major pacing issues, placeholder ui components, a HO scene with no HO, yet-to-be-implemented music, sound fx and vo, cursor inconsistencies, obscure leading and no exit button. It's a terrifying shambles.
But the wind effects are smashing.
As I maundered my way through the act compiling pages of notes, poor sweet coder Lucy turned rather pale. I do hope she's hardy enough to weather the approaching storm...

What the playthrough highlighted - or highlit - for me was the importance of immersion, and the influence that controlled forward motion wields over immersion. Every time a placeholder graphic sicked upon the screen, or a series of interactions invoked no aural response, or a line of dialogue came and went before I could register the meaning of its arcane shapes or even when a line of dialogue duelled for attention with the pretty coloured forms of a new zoom window, I was jolted further from the world. I can see the world there, interred in the earthy inadequacies and inconsistencies, and I even get to caress its bosom during those stolen moments of uninterrupted flow, but then she is dragged deeper beneath the soil, rent from my lips by the Valkyries of brokentude.

Silky forward motion is the womb of immersion, and credibility of meaning the, um, urethra. That would likely make sensory stuff the fallopian tubes.
Or, to put it another way, for the player to respond to any of the stimulae laced throughout the game like bear traps, the real world has to be kept apart from her conscious mind at all times. Hiccups within her artificial reality will fracture the cocoon which she willingly builds from the materials we provide for her. If the player isn't immersed, she won't care. It's one thing for me to state mid-blog post that Miss Thorn steps off a cliff, and quite another to immerse you into a vivid and interactive world of ethereal sights and sounds and lead you delicately to that one moment in time.
And that cocoon can be so very easily fractured at every single step.

MCF8: Escape from Ravenhearst came out. As predicted, the public reaction to this strange shaped wheel was mixed.
The two principal bones of contention were the morphing object scenes and the abstention from hints, followed closely by the text-less and user-unfriendly strategy guide, the invisible integration of CE material, the discriminatory minimum specs, and the question of taste, chased up by the omission of puzzles or mini-games.

There are two mechanical differences between a HO scene and a MO scene.
In a HO scene, the player is essentially given the instruction: Find several items in this scene.
In a MO scene, the instruction is: Find several items in this scene... oh, but they're only going to appear every five seconds or so.
You could also read the instructions this way:
HO scene: Find several items. Here's a list of those items.
MO scene: Find several items.
The results were:
* The momentum stalled as the player was required to wait for objects to reveal themselves. (The favoured simile was ' watching paint dry'.)
* In order to identify items from subtle changes on the screen, players developed headaches or migraines.

I personally didn't mind the MO scenes (although they did appear with a dogmatic frequency).
It's certainly no surprise seeing Big Fish attempting to breathe new life into a tired formula.
It was a marginally risky decision. The bad decision, though, was to penalize the player for misclicking. Select a non-morphing object and a previously discovered morphing object is returned to the scene.
Attempting to find items in a HO scene causes a lull in the forward motion (due to the repetition and isolation), but does not interrupt it for the items are findable at all times.
Waiting for items to appear in a MO scene stalls the game.
Returning items to the scene reverses the flow of the game - just as the author who attempts flashbacks runs the risk of facing backwards.
Yep, we're back to the importance of forward motion - of continuously developing towards, and promising, a satisfying denouement.

Another way to stall is to remove hints. Player noodles, player reaches impasse, player thinks for a bit, player presses hint button and is back on track.
Take the end off that sentence and you leave the player in limbo without sign of resolution.

Curiously, the stalling and the reversing were sustained for longer than expected due to the life-giving nutrients provided by a cocoon wrought of detail and atmosphere - of rain splashing on leaves and lightning burnished upon the Irish Sea. This immersion cocoon was barely even grazed by the bottle opener which was used to move a boulder.

You know that 'instant rejection' faux pas? - that phrase in the covering letter that instantaneously raises a literary agent's blood pressure and hackles..?

Please find attached chapters five and seventeen. I know you requested the opening two chapters, but chapters five and seventeen are much better.

Yes, it's blinkin' difficult taking a sack of nothing and turning it immediately into something riveting and meaningful. But that's one of the skills a decent writer needs. I had the privilege of reading the MCF8 journal a few weeks ago. It was compelling stuff. (The last page was missing and I found myself cursing!)
So why oh why did Big Fish choose to open so coquettishly?
And do you know what they posted in the MCF8 forums?
Link This game has many chapters with several twists and turns, so you may want to play through more than just the demo before leaving feedback.

Really? You keep all that juicy stuff out of the demo and expect people to assume that the game is going to improve and that they should take your word for it and buy the full game?

Righty, that's an evening of Skyrimming that I've sacrificed for you my lovely maggoteers (or, more likely, for the opportunity to alchemize formless thoughts into barely decipherable sentences to see if I have anything to be concerned about). Are we doomed, or simply at a necessary and inevitable point in the development cycle? In the spirit of forward motion: let's go find out. (Insert ellipsis here.)

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Christmas's Children

Continuing a thread from my last post: here's the John Lewis Christmas advert that's reducing everyone to tears. It's one minute and thirty seconds long.

My thoughts on the employment of children as emotional pawns in fiction have changed several times over the last five years or so. They're such easy triggers. I have to confess that I wasn't expecting the young Edwina scene in M3 to move people to tears - rather, I was expecting goosebumps as a prelude to the denouement. I felt terribly amateurish when I learned that I hadn't controlled my players.
I guess children are the embodiment of all that is good, pure and innocent in the world, which gives us a pretty darned powerful default to begin with.

Here's Hemingway's six word flash:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Here are the Man Booker winners.
I'm not counting, but I can see at a glance that a healthy dollop of them, and possibly the majority, adopt the pov of a child, either in first-person or in third limited, either in flashback (recollection) or in present tense (or even both). Certainly I can recount a good deal of short-listed child povs too. (M. J. Hyland's Carry me Down is still a personal fave.) Moreover, it was Anne Enright's The Gathering that made me begin to question my treatment of fictional children (and last year's short-listed Room [Emma Donoghue] was a wholly predictable confirmation). I'd done my share of child cruelty, riding on the wave of child abuse books that were en vogue at the time, but I knew I would always, always make amends before the closing line, and I would avoid anything relentless. Anne's relentless tone disturbed me* - which is as valid an emotional hit as any other - and I vowed there and then (-ish) to find my own ethical and emotional stance. And we mustn't forget the trauma of Torey Hayden's unresolved Ghost Girl.
As such, I refused to allow young Edwina to watch as her father burned to death AND I would only allow such a flashback to occur once I had clearly imparted the knowledge that adult Edwina was just fine.

I'm genuinely haunted by The Darling Buds of May. I simply can't get my head around it. See how I was mentally subverting the plots not so long ago, warping them into drama. That's to say that it really doesn't qualify as drama, does it? (Or am I mistakenly assuming that drama is comprised of the dramatic?) I adore that show, and countless other people adore that show, but my head cannot imagine how I could make such a tepid (I use that word without any derogatory connotations) topography work for today's audiences, let alone for your average gamer. I guess Ico comes as close to the Darling Buds topography as any other game (and hopefully The Last Guardian: see video on right), with its gorgeous environments, bloodless skirmishes, and ethereal soundtrack and ceaseless winds.
That's where I've pitched Margrave 4, and I'm comfortable with that decision...
Could it be, however, that the big money is buried in horror..? Here's the trailer for the forthcoming MCF release: Escape from Ravenhearst. (Those teeth are far too clean!)

*On second thoughts, I think I found The Gathering depressing more so than disturbing. Anne's world seemed bleak and grey to me, in stark contrast to the previous winner, in which Sai inhabited a world of exciting and vivid colours and smells and tastes.

Thursday, 3 November 2011


Edwina will even have animated hair this time!

Following on from our previous topic, I noticed today that Melissa from Passionfruit Games posted on the Big Fish forums. Her question sacrificed upon the altar of the vox populi was simply: Do you watch cut scenes?
Naturally, I've emailed her inviting discussion, fantasizing about witty and incisive exchanges of ideas over a flagon of gluhwein and, naturally, I'm expecting no response and a black mark shaped like a Ferengi ear adhered to my name. But hey... he who dares!

I'm uncertain how I feel about devs approaching the public in this fashion. In theory, it seems like it might be a good idea. However, I do think that devs should knuckle down and figure stuff out for themselves; after all, the public have no idea what they want. (The epitome of this is the interchangeable use of the words 'story' and 'plot' to encompass everything and anything.) Moreover, a cursory glance over the responses reveals absolutely nothing that any respectable dev wouldn't already be familiar with.

Our first cut scene (actually I'm going to revert to hyphenating that) - our first cut-scene is going in. Exciting times. Sal has done a smashing job overpainting (and I'm going to make overpainting into a word) the photos we took a month or so back, bar a few expressions that need a tad more definition. Capturing expressions is one of the hardest jobs an artist can tackle. The slightest slip in observation can devastate an expression which, in turn, can subvert the purpose of a cut-scene. (If you have five minutes spare, do go and participate in Professor Ekman's latest smile recognition test. For the curious/competitive among you, I scored fifteen.)

We're devoting a lot more energy to our cut-scenes this time round. The vfx are going to blow you away. Yes they are. And Ben's townscape is a miracle of beauty and convolution. I've been poring over my storyboards endlessly, contemplating the same questions over and over: How can I emotionally engage the player right from the get-go without resorting to melodrama?
And whilst I have absolute confidence, misguided or otherwise, that the denouement is going to shatter even the most obsidian of hearts, I wonder how close we can get to that kind of emotional connection in the intro. Is it possible to conceive of, say, a movie that has the viewer so immediately involved and emotionally attached that she is weeping within the first five minutes?
Well, we're giving it our best shot, using a blend of the story-independent techniques of wonder, peril, and character relationships.

My slightly facetious answer to Melissa's question would be: Are they worth watching?

Which leads us to another question that's congesting my neurons with far too much attention-seeking tomfoolery: Is it worth it?
What's the cost of this kind of endeavour?
I had the unbearably difficult task of letting my good friend 3D Raul go a couple of months back. My response to that arduous day was the blog post Rules.
When everyone ups their game and starts believing that we truly can create something super special, it becomes painfully apparent when someone has no, or little, capacity for improvement, and I was unable to find any way at all to save my friend, and believe me I tried.
As such, we're now over two months behind schedule and I've been using every bit of cunning available to me to massage the schedules into something viable.
Interviews over; on Tuesday we welcome 3D André.
(Interview anecdote: I had another of those 'I'm a writer!' types. He asked if we all write the story together. Despite being afflicted with the urge to reply 'Yes; and my deceased grandmother does all the coding!' I was very humble and polite. You would have been proud of me my dear maggoteers!)
Here's what I want André to know...

There's a saying amongst actors, but I've also heard it in other creative disciplines. It goes: Directors don't know what they want; they just know what they don't want.
I guess it's meant to be disparaging(?)
However, if you need to, give it a moment's thought.
I have no idea how this project is going to turn out. How can I? It's like playing a game of Guess the Celebrity by looking at their atoms. It's like dear Margaret Bingley - the author and consultant I visited many years ago - confiding in me that, even after all her successes, she still fears every manuscript she types - fears that it will be a major dud. It's like the cast of Star Wars who, when offered the choice between a percentage of royalties or a flat fee, took the flat fee (if urban legend is to be believed).
And, if you've ever written a full length ms, you'll know perfectly well yourself how organic the process is - how it is far more than the sum of its plot devices and characters. You have to observe - to watch where the project is going - to guide it, but not to stifle it - and to quickly identify those magic moments that fall from the preternatural aether and to nurture them and suckle them and clothe them in bottle green velvet and brass buckles.
(E.M. Forster reckoned that the writer who's fully in control of her characters hasn't even started to do the work.)

I empathise with my team. On Monday I might say one thing, and then change my mind on Tuesday. As the emperor of damage limitation, I try to impress upon my team the importance of testing the waters - of consulting me iteratively and concepting alternatives; and of the importance of research and consideration before that digital pen is even sniffed.
I'm also unapologetic about mind-changing. I've provided every microscopic detail of an invisible five plus hour game and I've made everything as, um, transparent as possible. But all of this cannot be anything more than a first pass: I am nothing more than a lowly human being attempting to pluck three hundred minutes of stuff from a magic land and capturing it and recording it and ordering it and moulding it into hyperreality.
I've learned that the easiest way to spot a professional is by asking them to revise something. The pro's understand; the amateurs are offended. The supreme ease with which Ben and I develop and refine our art is testament to that.

Ben and I performing thorough damage limitation.

And so it is that I face the prospect of derision and vitriol every day.
Today we received the first round of test dialogue from our luscious voice artistes. Some of the characters have been interpreted perfectly! In particular, Julie-Anne's take on Madeleine, the prophetic doll, is genuinely frightening. (Madeleine utters one line in the entire game. I gave J-A no direction other than: as scary as you can.) And Nigel, who may or may not be her hubby, has nailed most of the Seer heads. (Cargan is a scream!)
But Ula and Rudo are way short of what we want, and I have to find a way of attaining my vision without causing offence. Alternatively, I can sacrifice my vision. Which brings us back to my question: Is it worth it?
How many people get hurt along the way?
The answer: If they are all talented and foster a professional attitude and have the gift of ego suppression, none.

Can't recall whether I made Keelin laugh or cry. Perhaps Professor Ekman has a test?

But that's a perfect world. And, just like our Cyclopean town, that world drifts in and out of reality, and when it is with us the rewards far outweigh the hardships.