Sunday, October 10, 2010

Fable 2: Mission Structure

Although I said Fable 2's narrative choice systems are generally indiscernible, it does actually contain quite a lot of features made for building dynamic narrative. Specifically...
  • Mission Structure -- the player can choose to take quests in any order.
  • Property ownership -- the player can buy and manage property in any town, adjusting prices and rent as they see fit.
  • Life Simulator Junk -- The player can take mundane jobs to raise gold, since killing monsters no longer yields gold.
  • Good/Evil options -- the player can select either a good or evil alternative to completion of specific quests.
  • Relationships/Expressions -- The player can form relationships with NPCs and take specific attitudes to different events in the story.
  • Exploration -- The game has a strong emphasis on exploring the world of Albion, moving off the path and finding things to do/loot between quests.
In all likelihood I'm forgetting something, but that's a pretty good overview of the systems the player ends up interacting with. While quite a few are implemented and even generate some amusement, all of them carry virtually no weight and generate no interest outside of practical problems like having to get gold to buy new weapons every so often. Even then, the new weapons aren't that interesting--they feel like less of a reward and more like a quota to be met for the player to be allowed to continue.

Otherwise, a consistent problem I end up having is finding some emotional context for these choices. When I pick missions, I don't really know anything about the town in which they take place or the people I'm working for. I have no connection with them, so how the job gets done doesn't matter. Additionally, I have a hard time even remembering where the jobs take place or where I'm supposed to go in order to complete them due to navigational problems, which are alleviated only by the "golden trail" directing me back to the place I have to go for the current mission. I'm not learning the world at all, nor am I immersed in it--I'm just going along with the motions.

This is an example of why narrative choice systems actively trying to avoid explicit narrative or character development are fundamentally flawed--I have no context on which to base my decisions, therefore I don't care and am unengaged. It's like they focused really hard on trying to make a lot of choices more than trying to make what choices they had meaningful. We'll see if Fable 2 continues this trend as I play further, but in the meantime it's off to a fairly sorry start.

Fable 2: First Impressions

I recently managed to re-acquire the Xbox 360, giving me the opportunity to try out Fable 2 between classwork.

Thus far I have yet to perceive any narrative choice systems at play whatsoever--and I don't mean that in the sense that they're subtle, I mean that in the sense that I feel like no matter what I do it won't make a difference to either me or the world around me. I feel detached and uninvolved with this game and its story even though it practically waves the element of player-choice in my face--and I'm even aware of a major decision-arc having passed by.

The first part of the game involves the player as a homeless orphan living in the gutter with his sister. It's got a Dickensian aesthetic. To make a long story short you have to do five quick jobs to earn a few pieces of gold, and each one has a good or evil equivalent. Depending on whether you did the good or evil version most of the time, after a ten-year flash-forward you'll re-visit the town and find that it's either flourished or languished, with your five mundane errands apparently having meant all the difference. It's laughably implausible and patronizing. The choices have little to no context, and there's very clear "right" answers to each of them.

Policeman: "Hey kid. Find me these five missing warrants and I'll give you a reward."
Me: "Okay!"
Bad Guy: "Hey kid! Give me those warrants or I'll make you regret it!"
Me: "Convincing offer, but I've got a guy offering me gold over here."
Bad Guy: "I'll give you gold too!"
Me: "Aren't you the guy who keeps trying to rape my older (still underaged) sister?"
Bad Guy: "Yeah, but what of that?"
Me: *is already handing the policeman the warrants*

This is roughly the most interesting and most heavily weighted choice of the bunch summed up, and it's clear to see why it's so weak. The rewards are equivocal, so I can't evaluate it from a practical standpoint, and from a narrative standpoint one of the characters is bland and has no context and the other has an extremely negative context. Even if I don't care much for my sister, he threatened to hurt me, so I'd rather the policeman arrested him. The only reason I'd ever want to deal with him (I don't even KNOW his name, he's so forgettable) is if I were just curious about what happens if I give him the warrants instead.

Even so, can't the policeman get new warrants anyway? It seems to me the court's approval of these criminals' arrest is a bit more important than the piece of paperwork. How is it that my failure to peel these flat, pressed pieces of wood pulp from the gutter and hand them to him results in the entire city becoming a crime-ridden heap?

Many of these choices fail to carry weight due to logical holes and presentational problems like these. The actions themselves, in this instance, anyway, are so mundane as to be meaningless, and the characters aren't remarkable or interesting in any way. What's more, I'm playing Fable 2--the sequel to the game with the "Hero's Guild." I know that I'm going to essentially be a Dickensian superman as soon as the prologue ends, I know from the back of the box that I'll be fighting 15-foot tall earth troll things, so petty threats aren't a very good deterrent coming out of the average street-thug with one of the generic re-usable street thug models. I also know I'm not going to get to pick what the reward gets used for; I'm specifically raising the 5 gold to get the music box that I have to get for the story to move on; so I'm denied a decision that actually matters to me and completely disinterested in how I get the gold, whether or not I'll ever get more, or where I'll get it from. I'm forming no attachments to either this neighborhood or any of the characters in it because I know that after these five errands I'm not going to be coming back here--the narrative that's evolving will just be cut off at the knees.

Here's my proposed alternative: instead of playing the crook up as a stupid child molester who can't make a deal to save his life, let's play him up as an actually likeable, charming kind of criminal, like Jack Nicholson's character in The Departed. Make him like an uncle to the little street urchins, give him a name that I can remember, and a unique appearance. Make him seem generous even though he's keeping most of his profits to himself. Make him look like a clear threat to the law, a lord of the streets. Have him talk pleasantly with me the first time I meet him as I wander into town instead of talking about how he wants to rape my sister. Make my sister like him, too.

Now, let's meet the policeman, find out about his thing with the warrants for his gang... and maybe witness a murder from the crook. Spare no blood for the little children, you're not sparing it in the rest of this game. The evidence that he's not a good guy has to be really clear after I'm conditioned to like and sympathize with him so that the policeman has a clear argument for why he should be locked up--even if he has no quarrel with me.

Now I've got an interesting choice. Give the warrants to the policeman and put a man who I like behind bars, or give them to the crook and let him roam free to continue spreading corruption around town. Positive versus Positive instead of Positive versus Negative, and now there's a discernible consequence that will have personal, far-reaching consequences on my character's world. When that crook gets out of jail ten years later to reclaim his gang, he'll remember me--but the town will be in a better place, maybe even not be a slum anymore. Or, when he becomes king of this town, he'll remember me too--but the town will be in worse shape than it was before. I don't need to re-play the game to understand it or appreciate the magnitude of those changes--and that's good. A discernible choice that carries clear magnitude is a lot better than a series of cryptic, mundane choices. Working in the context of characters I know I'll be seeing more of carries a lot more magnitude than ones I know I won't see or interact with ever again.

I'll write more on what I think of Fable 2 later. Next time we tackle mission structure and exploration.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Types of Choice

After a bit of a hiatus due to family issues, I'm back and ready to roll. This update: progress on discerning the different types of narrative choice that exist and their particular purposes.

The different types of choice derive from the two psychological architectures we identified earlier, those being rule-following and rationality, as well as the elements of our rubric--gameplay, narrative, discernability, and personalization. I've identified them in three pairs of choice types:


These choice types are not necessarily mutually exclusive, nor are they linked in any particular order with the rubric elements; that is an element I'm still exploring, and these are subject to change as I develop them further, but in the meantime this is how they are defined:

Direct - Choices presented directly to the player. Most narrative decisions are presented like this, offering dialog options or menu-based options.

Indirect - Choices not presented directly to the player, but made indirectly through emergent action and factored into the game's reasoning. Only a small handful of games are known to employ this, the most famous of which is Silent Hill 2, which changes endings based on things like the player's average health level throughout the game.

Mass Effect: One of many examples of direct choice in game narrative

Practical - Choices related directly to the game's end goals as the player perceives them; a type of rational decision-making as opposed to rule-following as players will be actively pursuing what they perceive to be a "right" choice that will get them a step closer to completing the game. Dictated by the player's play-style and the value they place on specific in-game resources.

Moral - Choices related directly to the themes in the game's narrative and how the player relates to, understands, or interprets them. Dictated by the player's own moral values and interpretation of the story.

Rational - Choices specifically related to overcoming in-game obstacles and solving problems. Similar to practical choice but for a sense of immediacy and short-term challenge as opposed to long-term goals related to the metagame concept of "winning." Distinct for the fact that it's much easier to role-play in this situation and that an immediate rational decision can conflict with long-term goals just as easily as it can support them. In other words: players are more likely to satisfice when it comes to an immediate, rational choice as opposed to maximize, creating more realistic responses.

Personal - Choices specifically related to the act of role-playing, exploring the story, and forming relationships with elements and characters within it. Distinct from moral choice in that it covers a far broader array of concepts than merely the focal element of the story. Important element for creating a more three-dimensional narrative, immersing the player, and giving them a sense of personalization. Personal preferences can conflict easily with practical or rational preferences, presenting players with dilemmas.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Thinking out the program

Just taking some notes for myself on how to build out this choice interface from here out. This is still rough terminology.

First, each decision node has to be its own class; a decision node, or decNode, is comprised simply of two or more choices.

A choice is one of those choices, and each one contains a variable stating what the next decNode is.

FirstChoice, SecondChoice, ThirdChoice, and FourthChoice are the names of each choice under the decNodes, and each one also contains a variable called decY, which is different for each one of these. Using purely hypothetical numbers, FirstChoice.decY would be +10, SecondChoice.decY would be +5, ThirdChoice.decY would be -5, and FourthChoice.decY would be -10. This all relates specifically to how the decision tree chart will fill itself in. Each Choice and each decNode has a "name" variable for labeling purposes. Each decNode, of course, has the text corresponding to its narrative passage, and each Choice has text corresponding to what exactly the choice is.

Specifically: the chart starts at the first decision, moves forward by an "X" coordinate value with each decision, then moves up or down by the "Y" value contained in each choice's decY value, then creates the node referenced in the NextNode variable under each choice. Repeat for every node until we reach a decNode that has a boolean that says "LastChoice=true." We now have somewhat of a system that allows us to draw the chart procedurally, moving from one decNode containing multiple choices to another. We have one parser that automatically does this, alleviating me from having to sit down in Flash and draw the entire chart and reference its coordinates by hand, and we have a second parser that saves the user's decisions thus far in an array--with the array saving not the names of the choices but the decY variable for each one--and then traces through each one of those until the current decision node.

In the main program:
currentNode is the player's current choice node.

is the array containing the decY variables of all the player's previous choices, which the second parser uses to draw out their path.

op1, op2, op3, op4 are all corresponding to four buttons in the main program, namely the ones for the choices. They automatically fill themselves with currentNode.FirstChoice.text, and their event listeners reference functions that immediately substitute currentNode with currentNode.FirstChoice.nextNode. Their functions also parse through the prevNodes array until they count to the end of it, then add 1 to the last position and stick in currentNode.FirstChoice.decY at that position into the array.

The chart will draw itself, but it'll look sloppy as branches will end up crossing with one another and nodes will end up overlapping visually. It would go +5 for one decision, then for the next one go -5 and run straight into the +5 node for the next one, which isn't what we want to have happen right now. At least we have the basic logic for getting these charts to work, but we'll have to find a better way to get the nodes to diverge visually.

Prototype in Progress: Choose Wisely

Figured I may as well update on the state of my prototype. Right now it's DEAD simple. Just one choice, simple interface, STUPIDLY simple choice. Do you take the crappy cup (the real Holy Grail) or do you take the gold cup (fake Holy Grail)?

Click here to see the full-sized image

My plan right now is a little crude as I'm just exploring what all has to happen for there to A: be a tree of multiple choices with this interface and B: be a bubble diagram of all the narrative choices available that will dynamically color itself to indicate the path the user has taken thus far. It's less challenging than I thought it would be, which makes me feel really stupid for taking so long to get started with this.

Displaying text dynamically and making the buttons work is the dead-easy part. Right now I'm grappling with how to make the bubble diagram view work; AS3's not been cooperating with me too well on that score as I've got the chart on a different frame of the timeline and it keeps erasing things. I'll probably need to find a different solution to get around Flash's errors. I'll need to make the main variables global, for one, which involves a really loony workaround by turning them all into a package but makes them all accessible everywhere, and I'll have a lot of stuff to do with arrays and dynamic instantiations, which I'm a little out-of-practice with. The big pain in the butt as this thing scopes upwards is that I'll have to figure out the coordinates of each node in the bubble diagram--which means a lot of clicking back-and-forth between the code window and the stage--and record them in such a way that the code can access it. I keep thinking there's got to be a better way to get this thing to procedurally build the diagram. If I make "choice" into a class of its own I should be able to do that in some way, but first thing's first--let's get this thing generating that chart...

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Additional Pylons: More Starcraft 2

Took the time to get a little bit farther in Starcraft 2 between work on my screenwriting class and attempting to program. Finally came up to a REAL choice, displayed below.

Baby, you can construct additional pylons with ME any day, heh heh heh... .... what does that even mean?
Note: Right-click and use "View Image" to see the full-sized screenshot.

Up until now I've just been taking and leaving missions, and no, the choice I mentioned in my last post didn't matter--I ended up doing both missions. Most of the time the player has a choice between multiple missions, with each featuring a brief outline of the job to be done, a number of protoss or zerg research points, a cash reward, and a new unit the player earns by doing the mission.

In sheer gameplay terms that is a ton and a half of stuff for players to think about when they choose missions. All stuff earned heretofore carries over to subsequent missions, so it's important to build a formidable arsenal by taking jobs tha are profitable. At the same time, every completed mission unlocks more missions, and the storyline thus far has presented me with a few ongoing goals: fight the Terran Dominion and protect Terran colonists from the ever-growing Zerg onslaught. Forgetting any moral ramifications surrounding these goals, I feel obligated to pursue missions that directly pursue them simply because they have been presented to me rather subversively as the possible means of winning the game. To do that, I need help, which means doing side missions and getting the allegiance of other characters and parties, which means I'll be framing the missions I take in the context of who I need to please.

The choice presented above is one of the bigger ones. I've taken a mission to investigate a colony that's been blacked out. I've been helping these colonists for a while. It turns out they've been infected by the Zerg, which means they'll turn into a pack of mutants any day. The good doctor on the left is their advocate; I picked her up on my crew when I saved them. She's working on a cure for the infestation, which is incredibly unlikely. The protoss lady on the right just wants to fry the colonists, purging the infection before it begins. Either one is a reasonable solution to the problem within the context of Starcraft; I've seen infested colonists before and I know they're huge trouble and that Zerg in general need to be eradicated when possible; but I'm also a humanitarian who wants to believe they can be saved--especially since I've been spending several missions babysitting them and I don't want that investment to go to waste.

However, time's a-wasting and I can only side with one of these two. If I side with the doctor I have to protect the colonists from the Protoss attack while she works on the cure; the Protoss, long-time allies from the past game's continuity, will be angry wtih me for taking so many of their lives. If I side with the Protoss I have to clean the infestation out myself. The doctor will be pissed, and I'll still have to work with her in the future. Either way I get some research: whether the doctor's successful or not she'll unlock a bunch of Zerg research, and likewise the Protoss will happily provide me with some of their knowledge and tech for further upgrades if I side with them.

There's a lot at stake here and a lot of context built up to help frame this decision. I'll need to spend a bit more time picking it apart under my rubric, but first thing's first--I've got some work to do on this program.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Goals for the next few days and also the adventures of Jon Arbuckle in Sad Land

Present work: Building a prototype app in flash to display a narrative choice architecture. I'll be using the Choose Your Own Adventure book "Space and Beyond" as a placeholder for original content. By Monday I want a prototype working.

Present research: Hamlet on the Holodeck, Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty, Heavy Rain.

Still waiting for Hamlet on the Holodeck to arrive from Amazon--with my luck it'll turn up Monday, if at all--but it should provide some kind of perspective on interactive narrative, which is a body of research I'm lacking in right now. I've got a few more gaming textbooks on the way also, all of which comprised basic reading for other SCAD students but none of which I've ever laid eyes on.

Heavy Rain... time to indulge in the adventures of Jon Arbuckle in Sad Land. I've found a Let's Play that actually does a good overview of the different kinds of decisions you can make, but it's only gone about as far as I have--which isn't far enough to show the ramifications of the branching paths... Meaning it's time to bite down and spend a couple of evenings playing it. Right away I can tell that it's not really a game about choice and personalization so much as a game about success and failure. It's more like they wanted to test how much players wanted to get into the story than that they wanted to provide room for personalization.

Poor Mr. Arbuckle. So sad that Garfield shipped his son off to Abu Dabi.

There's still a sense of personalization to it in that everything that the player interacts with skews their interpretation of the characters; for instance, on one hand Ethan can be a responsible, loving dad, on the other he can be a broken-down, tormented, and cowardly drunk. The events don't change, but who and what he is ends up falling on the player. Otherwise the branching element comes down to mostly success or failure on specific tasks. There's probably a lot more to it than that, which is why I've got to play it far enough to see that branching element at work, but that's the impression I have so far.

Meanwhile I also have to play Starcraft 2, which purportedly ALSO features a narrative decision system. I dove in and I'm actually surprised at the level of detail they put into the narrative so far. For ONCE these characters don't feel like they're just blips on my radar. Mainly the decisions boil down to which missions you take and which ones you don't take. I've only hit the third mission, which presents such a choice, and I have yet to see if you give up one to take the other at this stage, but I'm aware that this DOES happen and that the magnitude of decisions escalates quite a bit.

Evacuate the colonists, or help an old friend...

The decision I've got: nab a priceless artifact for a bunch of black marketeers, gaining hundreds of thousands of credits in the process, or help a colony evacuate from a zerg invasion, gaining hundreds of thousands of credits--but a few thousand less--in the process. Each one gives me a different heavy unit--some generic heavy infantry unit called a Marauder or the classic Firebat, an anti-infantry flamethrower trooper; thus a gameplay incentive behind the decisions is attached as well. Additionally I've got a buddy character named Tychis with me who has a deal with the guys I'm selling the artifacts to. Already I'm feeling a lot of weight behind this choice as Tychis purportedly saved my ass in Starcraft 1/Brood War and he's already helped me gain a lot of ingame resources, but at the same time in fulfilling the identity of main character Jim Raynor I feel an obligation to help the colonists; plus I'm left wondering which of these two units I want more. It's legitimately a dilemma as I have no idea what consequences there will be, if any, further down the line. I've got a rebellion to organize and zerg to squish... choices. It SEEMS like a good reflection of the practical philosophy behind WDL--IE practical decisions over moral decisions--but we'll see how far Blizzard took it.

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Proposed Architecture

In my exploration of viable prototypes I've developed something of a proposed architecture for a narrative choice system; I'm still looking for the right narrative, but at least I've got the mechanics in mind. The architecture is called "WDL," or Win-Draw-Lose.
WDL follows a structure wherein the player is given a choice of different events to take part in within an ongoing story. Whichever one they choose, they must deal with the consequences of the other events moving forward without them. Antagonists and other parties involved in the story's events pursue their goals regardless of what the player decides to do. One way or another, each choice offers a logical decision that conceivably advance's one or more of the player's goals, if not necessarily the overall goal of defeating the antagonist. A few nodes into the story, however, that overall goal will reach its expiration date and the player will be forced to confront it.

Depending on what decisions they've made, what long-term threats and short-term threats they've neutralized, what support they've gotten from third parties, et cetera, players will encounter one of three entirely different end scenarios, approaching this ovearching goal from different perspectives. On one hand, the "lose" scenario, wherein the antagonist has gotten a major foothold and will probably get away with whatever plan is being carried out; the player is left, at best, to take care of damage control and insure that the situation is at least not a total catastrophe. On another, the "draw" scenario, where the player and the antagonist have fought one another to a standstill. On another still, the "win" scenario wherein the antagonist is all but fully thwarted and the player gains some major advantage.

To put what kind of outcomes are possible here into perspective: a "win" would mean that Indiana Jones gets away from Cairo with both the Arc of the Covenant and Marion Ravenwood safely, which means that Indy will simply have to defend them. A "lose" means the Nazis get it and have Marion prisoner, which means Indy will be forced to go after them one way or another--and as long as Marion is within their grasp they know exactly where to expect him to show up. A "draw" means the Nazis got the Arc, but not Marion, which means Indy has more of an element of surprise and more options as the story continues.

As should be implied by this only partial coverage of a "Raiders of the Lost Arc" scenario, the WDL format isn't applied to an entire game but rather pieces of it; it branches across one level at a time rather than throughout an entire game, giving each level one of three different endings rather than trying to apply a colossal branching structure to every possible event in the game. This gives a strong sense of variety without overloading the production. In an ideal situation the levels are episodic and self-contained, and the player is exploring the same story no matter what way the game branches.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Shadow the Hedgehog Revisited

I've already said a lot about Shadow the Hedgheog and given my two cents on the whole thing, but I think it would be best to give it the rubric treatment. To give a quick rundown of the rules again, we're working off five categories: Narrative Integrity, Gameplay Integrity, Discernability, Personalization, and Supporting Factors from reviews and articles. The game starts with 0 points in all of these and either gains points for good things that support and enrich the game or loses points for bad things that take away from the game. The technical execution of the game itself isn't being taken into account here so much as the narrative choice system's impact on it.

Narrative Integrity

Story makes no sense except with respect to a fistful of specific paths. Character development and plot flow are very inconsistent (-2). Scenarios between different levels may not be relevant to one another, undermining any sense of dramatic tension until the very last stages; tension is undermined further with consecutive playthroughs as the player realizes that the grid is completely arbitrary in its arrangement (-1). The story is only completed when every level has been played and the "real" ending scenario is unlocked, completely undermining all the other "fake" endings from the main game and any sense that any of those events actually mattered (-1). At the very least the narrative choice system reinforces the game's themes surrounding Shadow's internal struggle (+1), giving players the chance to explore it for themselves.

Final Score: -3. Shadow's Narrative Choice system actively harms its narrative.

Gameplay Integrity

Choices affect which levels the player visits and are made by selecting one of three potential goals for completing each level. These goals are not consistent between levels, however, and can range from "kill all enemies of one type" to "find all the switches and activate them." Many of these goals can change what would be a straightforward five-minute level to a frustrating twenty-minute scavenger hunt in a looping stage for that one tiny bat the player didn't kill, making the game's overall pacing very inconsistent (-1) and possibly discouraging the player from making particular narrative choices that they ordinarily would want to make based on the relative difficulty of the goals presented (-1).

Final Score: -2. The narrative choice system in Shadow the Hedgehog offers players the choice of either having gameplay impose decisions on them or of having their decisions impose heavily on the pacing of the game.


Player's choices essentially don't matter as the same ending scenario can be accessed through multiple, completely different paths. If the player goes evil for one level, then goes completely good, that one evil choice will more or less be completely forgotten, without so much as a minor manifestation of consequences (-1), meaning that an hour into the game players will completely forget their choice as well. There's absolutely no sense that the other characters are acting on this story or reacting to the player's input in any way (-1); if the player helps the aliens in one level, Sonic won't care three levels down the line as choosing to help him still has to be an option, and vice-versa.

Because levels aren't necessarily in a logical progression, characters and entire plots may in fact disappear, creating confusion as to the player's preferences but not necessarily ambiguity (-1), as they can be nursing a friendship with a specific character or faction only to have it suddenly be gone for an entire level with no further reference. The recency effect takes hold as players are more likely to make choices based on what they've seen in the last cutscene and how they interpret the identity that's been built for them up until now (+1), but this is extremely tenuous.

Final score: -3. Shadow the Hedgehog is so married to a specific scheme of choice that it completely disallows the manifestation of consequences, and the lack of logic to the game's narrative progression actively harms its discernability.


Players don't necessarily get the sense that they're building Shadow's identity so much as choosing paths. Shadow makes the real decisions entirely on his own depending on what levels the player moves through, leading to arbitrary conclusions that players wouldn't necessarily draw on their own (-1). Relationships with other characters are nonexistent as they do not respond to Shadow's choices (-1). Enemies of one faction or another will attack Shadow whether he's helping them or not, and there are no rewards or penalties from either side or any of the ancillary characters one way or another.

As said before, the progression of stages/cutscenes does influence the way the player perceives Shadow (+1), which can influence their own choices and make them feel like they're doing something, and the game does build a new narrative for each playthrough (+1), even if it doesn't make sense. However, as cited in the Narrative Integrity section, there is a canonical "real" ending that the player unlocks from completing all the different paths available in the game, completely undermining any sense that the player's participation matters in this story (-1).

Final score: -1. Players make choices that affect the outcome of the game, just not in any logical fashion.

Supporting Factors

Metascore for the PS2 version of the game: 45 (-2).

Most reviews cite that the choice system is a neat addition, but poorly executed due to lack of response in-game; IE, opponents from either side will always attack Shadow whether he's helped them or not (-1).

Final score: -3.

Average Score

-2.4 -- Shadow features an extremely harmful narrative choice system, owing most of its problems to a lack of discernability and a highly inconsistent narrative.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Rubric, Defined/Refined

In my paper I detailed my rubric, citing four aspects that define a good narrative choice system. Here I'll explore the rubric in greater detail.

Each game starts at 0 points in each of the categories listed below. For every strong or reinforcing element that the narrative choice system showcases, it gains a point. For every bad, broken, or contradictory element, it loses a point. Systems that have negative points are clearly detracting from the games they're a part of, while systems that have positive points are clearly either defining or enhancing the games they're a part of and systems with close to zero points aren't adding or detracting anything and are therefore superfluous with respect to the category at hand. The potential problem with this scale is that there could be a system that performs really well in one aspect under a specific category but fails miserably at all the others; as such the different aspects that gain or detract points must be recorded for careful subjective evaluation.

Narrative Integrity

This refers to a narrative choice system's ability to tell a good story. Factors at play here include:
  • Character growth and development.
  • Reinforcement of the game's themes/motifs.
  • Dramatic tension.
  • Narrative Pacing.
  • Narrative Consistency.

Gameplay Integrity

This refers to a narrative choice system's involvement as a game mechanic. Factors at play here include:
  • Balance; whether or not the narrative choice system imposes itself in favor of one play style or another.
  • Imposition; the opposite--whether or not the gameplay makes narrative decisions for the player.


This refers to a narrative choice system's ability to satisfy psychological elements of the human decision-making process; IE, maintain interest through creating realistic dilemmas and choices. Factors at play here include:
  • System's ability to generate consequence and remind players of past choices.
  • System's ability to manifest risk using one or more of the following: ambiguous preferences, multiple actors, or limited knowledge.
  • System's manifestation of identity mechanisms (Experiential Learning, Categorization, Recency, Social Context of Others) to enforce player's identity.
  • System's use of identity influences (modeling, cues, experience) to give players tools to piece together their identity.


This refers to the player's satisfaction in the narrative choice system's ability to allow them to personalize their experience; how unique a given playthrough is from the player's perspective, and how much they feel like their involvement made a difference. Factors at play here include:
  • Impact of decisions on player's perception of either their own character, the game's themes, or the narrative as a whole.
  • Player's ability to define and maintain one or more identities for themselves within the game world.
  • Player's ability to define relationships with other characters within the game world.

Supporting Factors

This refers to additional support from outside sources such as reviews, articles, and metascore, which don't necessarily refer to a single one of the above categories but nevertheless provide some grounding. Factors that will be consistently referenced here include:
  • Metascore; 70+ = 1 point, 80+ = 2 points, 90+ = 3 points.
  • Review feedback from 4 major reviews (IGN, Gamespot, GameInformer, Edge) and 4 minor reviews (The Escapist, Kotaku, GameCritics, Destructoid). These reviews will be evaluated for content rather than score, the specific aim being to identify consistencies in the reviewers' remarks on the narrative choice element specifically.

Monday, July 26, 2010

New Sources

The following are new bibliography entries that I've added since last week.

Adams, Ernest. "Gamasutra - Features - The Designer's Notebook: How Many Endings Does a Game Need?" Gamasutra - The Art & Business of Making Games. 22 Dec. 2004. Web. 28 July 2010. .

Chandler, Rafel. "Gamasutra - Features - It Builds Character: Character Development Techniques in Games." Gamasutra - The Art & Business of Making Games. 10 Aug. 2005. Web. 28 July 2010. .

Luban, Pascal. "Gamasutra - Features - Turning a Linear Story into a Game: The Missing Link between Fiction and Interactive Entertainment." Gamasutra - The Art & Business of Making Games. 15 June 2001. Web. 28 July 2010. .

Swain, Chris, Steve Hoffman, and Tracy Fullerton. "Gamasutra - Features - Improving Player Choices." Gamasutra - The Art & Business of Making Games. 10 Mar. 2004. Web. 28 July 2010. .

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Narrative Choice Paper

Decision-making has always been an important component in the realm of interactive medium; games from all eras have strongly stressed skills involving resource management and allocation as well as quick thinking. As games have grown into a storytelling medium, likewise developers have been seeking ways to make the stories they tell through games interactive in themselves; to bring player choice into the process of crafting a narrative, usually by offering decision-trees. Relative to the rest of the gaming world, though, there's relatively few titles and very little academic material that explores this method of storytelling, the only consensus between developers and academics alike being that it seems as though narrative choice systems preclude a certain degree of explicit characterization or cohesion within a story in favor of giving the player control over its events. With so little material published on this subject, though, we can likely assume that there is an awful lot yet to be understood about what constitutes a strong narrative choice system in a digital game and therefore plenty of room to develop a decision-making paradigm that can act as a tool to help writers rather than impose on their ability to craft characters and situations. Fortunately we do have a thorough understanding of what constitutes a satisfying narrative as well as a satisfying game, and decades of psychological research can give us a strong insight into how the human mind makes decisions and expects them present themselves.

The bulk of my research thus far has been focused on the latter two of those three topics--that is, games and psychology, as the basics of narrative are well-established and relatively stable while the basics of decision-making and game design are more malleable and carry more immediate weight in terms of the direction of this thesis. My exploration of choice purely in games has branched mainly in two directions: first choice as a general gameplay element, IE breaking down a choice in gameplay systems to determine their level of interest; and second choice as an interactive narrative element, IE how developers have approached the focus of this thesis thus far. As a gameplay element choice is relatively well-outlined, tactically, strategically, and managerially. The foundation of this branch of decision-making is basic risk and reward; whether players are evaluating what weapon to use and how best to use it or crunching numbers on equipment in a role-playing game, the consensus among designers is that gamers will inevitably try to maximize their reward; therefore inconsequential or minor decisions should be minimized or avoided while necessary and important decisions--IE ones with direct and visible impact on the flow of the game--are what designers should strive to create; critical decisions, IE life-and-death situations with a high degree of pressure--can become just as cumbersome as inconsequential decisions as players can be just as easily frustrated by frequent fail states as they are by frequent inconsequential choices slowing down the flow of the game. High numbers of critical decisions become an exercise in trial-and-error (most space shooters) or punishment for curiosity (King's Quest, Space Quest) rather than engaging decisions. If we were to translate this onto a narrative-based paradigm, we could imagine a decision tree where the player is given choice A or B, and B results in an immediate fail state or being denied a major branch of the game while A progresses normally. Even if choice B is a realistic option, it's either a frustrating penalty or else a choice that common sense would dictate that nobody would ever choose if they understood the consequences; therefore there's no reason to include the decision.

Rather, what designers should strive for is dilemmas, or choices that require careful evaluation and have ambiguous circumstances and data surrounding them. As a small-scale example, say we have an action-RPG with a focus on managing equipment. The designers narrow down their ideas to two options: either A: represent every possible facet of equipment on a person's body--boots, greaves, gloves, shirt, armor on top of the shirt, helmet--so that players can mix and match as they choose, plus one accessory; or B: roll the more minor elements of equipment into the accessory slot and just represent major pieces of equipment; chestplate, greaves, helmet. Depending on the game's execution either of these methods may be fine, however, the designers decide that boots consistently add progressively larger movement speed bonuses, with some occasionally designed for specific character classes and granting bonuses to their primary stats. For the player, if setup A is used, this isn't interesting as they simply find a new set of boots, compare its speed bonus to the previous' boots speed bonus, see whether it helps maximize their primary stat, and equip whichever set of boots is higher. The decision is obvious and therefore almost inconsequential but for the fact that they have to stop the game for a moment in order to equip the new boots. If boots are rolled into accessories, however, there's a dilemma as the player now has to decide between either the speed-boosting boots or any number of other items that present equally attractive bonuses--amulets with strength boosts, rings with magic spells attached to them, et cetera. The decision isn't immediately obvious and depends largely on the player's current situation and preferences, making it much more interesting.

If we open this up to a narrative-based paradigm, we see narrative choices granting systemic rewards and therefore instantly becoming less interesting as players invariably select for whichever reward is greater based on their preference and play style rather than whichever narrative choice they find more agreeable. We see a prime example of this in the game inFamous, where the player is granted something on the order of 40 narrative choices that grant points for either being good or evil; if the player can balance the scale in one direction far enough, they'll unlock stronger powers and eventually gain unlimited energy if they max out on either side. Being closer to the middle grants no bonuses. Players are interested less in the moral ramifications of their decisions and more in obtaining the systemic reward, and therefore will bias entirely in one direction or another with no sense of middle ground or personalization. Another example still is evident in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, where early on in the game players are asked to seek out a bounty on a woman wrongfully accused of murder. While at this stage the good/evil biases are relatively weak, taking the time to investigate the incident further yields a greater experience point total. Additionally, should the player choose to spare the woman's life and simply lie to the crime boss who wants her head, they still claim the reward for killing her and obtain a gift from her in return for their kindness; the reward for the "good" path in this narrative is easily and measurably greater, with the only factor being the amount of time the player wants to spend on the quest--which isn't a systemic factor. While some players may be ignorant and will overlook this choice, anyone aware of even the possibility of the systemic rewards involved will find it uninteresting, and it becomes more of a matter of punishing players for ignorance or lack of observational skills within the game than an interesting narrative choice. What would make this an interesting dilemma, on the other hand, is if the woman were, in fact, guilty as charged and clearly a bloodthirsty killer, offering no reward in return for sparing her life, but also had a family she was trying to escape with. Instead of a clear case of a victimized woman at the hands of a crime lord, we have an ambiguous situation; either leave a killer on the loose, leaving the possibility of her coming back later to do more wrong, or deprive a family of its mother and possibly incite them to revenge later. By dissociating this situation of a clear systemic reward we dissociate it from a clear "right" choice as well, making the matter more the player's evaluation of their own guilt versus their sense of justice than the matter of whether the player is more observant or less--or, more importantly, whether they want to kill her simply for the sake of maxing out their dark side points. To put it simply, we have a narrative dilemma. While we could introduce reward into narrative choice as a systemic dilemma--IE, create two different items that the player could receive for any of several choices, and they only get one of them--it still becomes less a dilemma based on the ramifications within the narrative and more a dilemma based on which item the player prefers; there may be interest present, but it won't be in the narrative choice.

Already we're able to apply a lot of fundamentals of choice in game design to choice in narrative, but readings on narrative choice as a subject itself are sparse at worst and ambiguous at best. Books on game development and game narrative tend to categorize this under "nonlinear" or "branching" narrative, and tend not to clearly outline the goal of implementing such a system as much as simply outline their existence, citing tree, module, or grid systems as a means of tracking them and simply stating that they put control of the story more in the hands of the player than in the hands of the writer, which seems an oversimplification and contrary to the point of a narrative-based system: ideally it seems that it should enrich one's ability to tell a story rather than limit it in favor of a superficial sense of control or authorship; make players feel more involved with the characters rather than distance them from each other or preclude a sense of character development. Still yet more ambiguous is the matter of how much "authorship" players are meant to have in these systems; whether we should lean towards smaller, more subtle decisions or larger, more direct ones; whether we should script major storylines around branching paths or try to incorporate choice as an entirely emergent function. One way or another the mainstream gaming industry has explored many methods from one end of the spectrum to another with seemingly a very small degree of certainty. In trying to fill in this gap I elected to explore psychological texts on judgment and decision-making, most particularly James G. March's A Primer on Decision-Making, which outlines the many ways that psychologists study and break down the everyday human decision-making process, the interest here being that, in the tradition of seeking immersion in games, if we know how people actually make decisions and expect them to present themselves in real life we can better replicate them in an interactive narrative. To that end, March handily breaks down decisions with respect to two different psychological frameworks: rationality and rule-following.

Game designers are familiar with Rationality. With respect to the name of this architecture we should not misunderstand the term "rational" to mean "intelligent" or "sound-minded" as much as we should understand it to mean "conscious" or "intentional." It simply holds that people consciously make decisions based on a risk-versus-reward analysis, intent on maximizing their reward. There is some disagreement, however, as to whether they do as they intend, and Rationality is divided into two subsets to account for this: Pure Rationality and Limited Rationality. Both hold that people make decisions based on probabilities, not certainty, and that principal characteristics of Rational decision-making include post-decision surprise--either good or bad--as well as regret--the awareness of a better choice--and risk--or variation in outcomes. Pure Rationality holds that people do not, in fact, maximize their reward with 100% accuracy but rather try to maximize an expected value based on probabilities and risk factors. Expected value analysis involves developing an imaginary decision-tree, with branches representing either acts on the part of the decision-maker or "acts of nature," or acts outside the decision-maker's control. We see, then, that there's a clear parallel in this model of Rationality and in game design as many games do represent their stories with decision trees; almost never do we see an "act of nature" represented in these games, however. What would constitute a reasonable "act of nature" in a branching narrative remains to be seen, but we can suppose upon the previous example regarding the woman in Knights of the Old Republic, where the player constructs the narrative in their mind as possibly involving her returning to do more damage or possibly not; her family possibly taking revenge on her death, or possibly not; and also within what timeframe either of these events might happen. Those would each be examples of potential acts of nature in the game's decision tree, which would influence players' expected value analysis of these choices.

Before we explore Limited Rationality, we must first explore the factors that define risk in greater detail. Those factors, as outlined by Pure Rationality, are knowledge, actors, and preferences. Knowledge simply refers to how much the decision-maker knows about the state of the world and any other actors in the decision-making process. Actors refers to, literally, the number of actors in the process, with each actor increasing the number of potential branches and weighing in on the probability of any given situation. Preference refers to the decision-maker's values; IE, what constitutes a good reward to them and what doesn't. Each of these factors can create a high degree of ambiguity; people can make decisions with a certain degree of ignorance about the world or a situation, experience uncertainty about other actors, or even have ambiguous or conflicting preferences.

Limited Rationality states that although people intend to be rational, there's simply too much ambiguity and too many bottlenecks in the human decision-making process to create a sense of perfect Rationality. People don't know all alternate choices, they don't consider every consequence, and not all preferences are immediately evoked. Only a few of each are known, and they're reviewed sequentially rather than simultaneously. As such, people tend towards satisficing, or selecting an option that's "good enough" rather than maximizing, or choosing an option that's "best possible." Additional constraints imposed by Limited Rationality include Attention--peoples' ability to deal with multiple signals or streams of data at once; Memory--peoples' ability to retrieve previous lessons; Comprehension--peoples' inherent difficulty in organizing information for use in a decision or recognizing its relevance; and Communication--a more organizationally-based constraint than an individual one, wherein knowledge is differentiated between specialized individuals with differing identities and preferences. Each of these offers designers a good set of tools for either building ambiguity where necessary and creating dilemmas or eliminating ambiguity where it isn't desired.

While Limited Rationality is a difficult study due to its inherent ambiguity, it yields for us a several ways in which people break down decisions, giving us an insight into possible mental processes that players can be applying to their decisions. The first method is editing, wherein people re-construct problems with respect to a set of core elements, ignoring the unexpected in favor of the expected and ignoring things that seem relatively minor or peripheral to the problem. The second is called deconstruction; IE, the re-organization of a problem into multiple, smaller problems and decisions in order to make each element easier to digest. The third tool for breaking down problems is heuristics, or shorthand stereotypes that people can substitute as variables in place of complete calculations. The fourth, framing, simply refers to frame of reference; the identity and preferences of the decision-maker biasing them to think about the problem in a specific fashion.

In addition to Pure and Limited Rationality March also presents us with Rule-Following, an alternate form of decision evaluation that states that people don't necessarily think in terms of rational risk versus reward but rather in terms of trying to adhere to an identity. They recognize a situation, ask "what kind of person am I?" and then ask, "what does a person like me do in a situation like this?" In other words, they follow a set of rules. While this sounds like a relatively simple architecture compared with Rationality, Rule-following is most assuredly a very conscious and deliberate process, and as with any knowledge the concepts of identity which drive this process can be ambiguous. People can possess multiple, conflicting identities--professional versus personal is a classic example--and can even misunderstand the identities that they possess; or they can not immediately recognize the relevance of a particular identity to a particular situation. The mechanisms by which identities are built or accessed are equally as complex as the ways in which people evaluate risks in Rational theory. Those processes include Experiential Learning--"learning on the job," so to speak, experiencing rewards and punishments for specific actions and learning to evoke an identity based on those lessons; Categorization--organizing and prioritizing rules and ideas around central concepts of an identity; Recency--a simple fundamental that states that people will tend to repeat identities that have recently been evoked; and Social Context--wherein the expectations and rules of an identity become highlighted by the presence, real or imagined, of other people in the system.

If we were to equate Rule-Following to a term in gaming, it would most certainly be role-playing as it very literally boils down to the construction of an assumed identity by the player, which makes Rule-Following a very fitting metric for understanding decisions from the player's perspective. What Rule-Following also highlights is that this role need not be constructed by the player themselves; much of it is understood with respect to professional identities within an organization, which are notably not constructed by people themselves but rather constructed for them by the organization they are a part of, with a variety of devices outlined in the reading: the providing of models, allowing people to learn by example; the use of cues, visual, audio, or otherwise to set professional context and outline appropriate behavior; and the providing of experience itself, as outlined under experiential learning. In the context of a strongly narrative-driven experience the player almost can't construct their own identity outside of a few constraints based on a given title's mechanics and flexibility; the stronger the sense of character development that the developer wants, the fewer means of self-determination that there can be. These devices, then, outline a means by which developers can help players to assume the identity that they need players to resonate with, or in the case of less constrained titles, tools which they can use to make suggestions and help players define and understand their identities more strongly.

While this research is strongly focused on a single psychological text, it nevertheless has revealed a great deal of information about how decisions are constructed in the real world, reinforcing earlier conclusions about the relationship between systemic rewards and narrative decisions as well as the development of dilemmas while also providing a set of tools with which to dissect any decision; a series of real-world metrics by which narrative choice can be measured. Additionally, it has helped to expose a direction to the narrative decision-making paradigm which we are trying to construct in this thesis, wherein we wish to preserve narrative integrity but still allow a strong sense of personalization; the key being "personalization" and not "non-linearity." I have therefore developed a rubric with which to evaluate choice systems based on the preferences of this thesis.

1 - Gameplay integrity. Is there a systemic preference for one choice or another in the decision system being evaluated?

2 - Narrative integrity. Are the basic pillars of a good narrative--IE, character development, plot, rising tension, et cetera--still intact within the title being evaluated?

3 - Personalization. Does the narrative choice system enhance the player's sense of personal involvement or investment?

4 - Discernability. Does the decision-making system exhibit clear consequences, strong dilemmas, and generally evoke the elements of human decision-making, or is it mostly superficial?

This rubric needs some additional substantiation and refinement, which will follow in the coming week, but in the meantime it at least offers a solid set of criteria.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

In Defense of Choice

One of the things it seems I need to establish for my cynical professor is why choice is even a relevant element of storytelling in games. To paraphrase his point of view: choice in narrative doesn't really matter because most of the time people play through a game once and have no frame of reference for what it would be like had they made all the other choices anyway. From their perspective, it's still a linear narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.

Frankly I've struggled with trying to understand this myself, being that there have been plenty of totally linear games and narratives that I've enjoyed immensely. In fact, I tend away from a lot of games that involve branching narratives, not because I don't see the appeal but because it tends to deny consistency in character development.. or having character development at all. I like Commander Shepard of Mass Effect fame as much as the next guy, but at the same time she feels like a hollow vessel for the player rather than a real protagonist. 95% of her dialogue is questions. "What're you doing here?" "What can you tell me about your family?" "What can you tell me about the Geth?" "Any idea where they might be now?" "How many licks does it take to get to the center of one of those things, anyway?" There's clearly meant to be some significance to this character with the game centering on her to the point that the game's antagonists all obsess over the threat she poses, but at the same time because the developers don't want to take any control over her actions and even her thoughts away from the player she undergoes absolutely no growth and exhibits almost no personality traits outside what attitude the player chooses for her at any given time. This seems contradictory, but in an odd way the player-controlled character in this instance is actually more of an automaton than the non-player characters. This makes it really difficult for me to relate to her, see her alleged significance, or even understand what themes the game is supposed to be centering her story on. In theory the player really doesn't care about this, simply perceiving Shepard to be themselves and filling in all the blanks left by the script, but the storytelling methods of Mass Effect are so explicit there's almost no room for imagination to speak of.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Ludography Analysis: Shadow the Hedgehog

My professor probably raised an eyebrow seeing this game in my ludography. Shadow the Hedgehog is well-recognized as a mediocre if not outright terrible game, showcasing a lousy camera, lousy level design, lousy storytelling, and lousy tacked-on gun and vehicle mechanics. Even among Sonic fans it's regarded as where the series jumped the shark, suffice it to say that its attempt at being a "darker and edgier" look at the Sonic franchise and its ham-handed efforts to explore its lead character's ambiguous morality failed to impress anyone. However, it still bears some examining as Shadow is nothing if not a remarkable example of every possible pitfall in developing a branching story progression.

In Shadow, the chestular character (Shadow) has just recovered from the events of Sonic Heroes, where he was inexplicably found in a capsule after what was supposed to have been a certain demise in Sonic Adventure 2. His memory of all those events and his entire past completely erased, he sets out to find out who and what he is. Just as he does so, aliens drop in from out of nowhere and their leader, Black Doom, claims to know everything about him, saying he'll reveal everything about Shadow's past if he helps him find the chaos emeralds.

The game progresses through stages in more or less the traditional Sonic fashion; every level is a run through an obstacle course to the finish line as well as a war zone, with Black Doom's alien hordes battling humans and Shadow caught in between trying to decide who to support. The player is presented with three goals--"hero," "dark," and "neutral," each of which results in completing the stage. Neutral can be described as simply reaching the end of the stage while "hero" and "dark" concern themselves with more specific challenges, like killing all aliens, killing all humans, collecting specific objects, et cetera. All three are mutually exclusive.

Shadow the Hedgehog level grid
(Above: Level grid from Shadow the Hedgehog)

Depending on which of these goals players choose to complete the next stage they play will be different, with the player moving along a grid corresponding to how good or how evil they decide to play; the central path is totally neutral, the lower path is totally good, and the upper path is completely evil. Whatever path Shadow takes, he's eventually forced to make a choice at the final stage, skewing him towards a "good" or "evil" version of one of the game's many end bosses and one of multiple different possible endings to his story. The game very literally branches in one direction or another at every stage, presenting the most literal and most visible interpretation of a "branching narrative" in any game.

Very clear pitfalls are demonstrated with this decision-making paradigm. The architecture forces the developers to contrive some "good" or "evil" equivalent goal in every level but the ones farthest to either side. Additionally, not every progression makes any kind of narrative sense, with disjointed locations tied together by the weak premise that Shadow just magically teleports between them and plot elements frequently raised and forgotten along any particular route. Several paths, for example, simply drop the premise of Black Doom's invasion completely in favor of a storyline that adopts series mainstay Dr. Robotnik as the main villain, changing premise mid-game. Depending on what the player decides to do Shadow may meander down this alternate plot for a while only to return to the Black Doom storyline inexplicably at the very last stage with no reasonable explanation. A few paths have some logical connection, but many demonstrate glaringly obvious inconsistencies, like Shadow suddenly finding himself in space after spending the entire rest of the game on Earth. These disjoints in staging and plot are often accompanied by considerable disjoints in characterization as well, with Shadow following a plotline where he believes himself to be a robot clone of himself and then suddenly changing his mind about it as if he'd never undergone any of that character development at all.

These disjoints and inconsistencies are characteristic of the worst-case scenario of the branching narrative scheme. Yes, it does branch and react to the player's decisions, it does present a significantly different level flow based on those choices--IE, there's significant consequences--but it also produces a largely incoherent story fraught with irrelevant and contrived episodes and inconsistent characterization. Furthermore the actual player choice element is highly repetitive and extremely shallow, effectively boiling the decision-making down to picking a different door at the end of each level.

Because of the inconsistency of the game's episodes the sense of causality is also very shallow, with players being unable to reasonably predict what the consequences for choosing the "good" or "evil" path at any given time actually are or what kind of level they'll be led into next. It doesn't give the sense that Shadow is making decisions that affect the course of the game's narrative (IE who's winning and who's losing the aliens vs. humans conflict) so much as the sense that he's literally taking different paths through the same narrative, moving through different sets of events running parallel to one another in different locations, with his presence at those events having no impact on what happens in the story whatsoever until the very end.

This may come as a shock coming out of a post-Dreamcast Sonic game, but it's all a very unsatisfying and downright clumsy choice scheme showcasing very probably every pitfall there is to developing a decision-making paradigm for a game. The polarized values lead to highly inconsistent characterizations and narratives, the over-development of the grid system enforces more possibilities than the developers could account for, and every single stage is forced to contrive goals relating to these alternate paths that very frankly don't always mix so well with the forward momentum of a Sonic game. In fact, in order to compensate for the fact that very often it's impossible to go backwards and search for items the player may have missed, the developers had to incorporate a teleporter at the end of each stage that would loop players back to the beginning. If this isn't an effective illustration of how morality is definitely not a one-size-fits-all-games decision-making paradigm, it's at least an effective illustration of exactly how not to build one. In the future we'll definitely see echoes of some of the problems highlighted here, most particularly character inconsistencies, overly consistent, un-engaging choices, and lack of foreseeable causality, but not to the degree where we see all of these in the same game.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Class 6 Log - Amazon Sucks

Spent the class going over other students' theses. Not exactly any remarkable new revelations about my own thesis yet, though looking at other students' bibliographies does give me at least one or two new sources I can look up.

Amazon's taking their sweet time sending me the texts I ordered. This could be quite bothersome depending on how much research I need to present next week. It is worth mentioning that most of the texts I've seen so far (apart from the ones I've ordered) cover decision-making under pressure, suggesting that those are the most important decisions that we perceive. I can say this: for the most part, no game I've played has had the element of pressure or consequence added to its decisions, they've been mainly cosmetic character interpretation-type decisions. The question here in designing this paradigm will be how to develop a causality without making this an un-doable project.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Class 5 Log - Need to Focus

Presented my thesis statements/abstract, which I evidently got completely backwards. I basically wrote 12 different abstracts and 1 super-short abstract, and as we tried to come up with a quick sentence in the middle of class to condense all these it became pretty clear that I've got, metaphorically speaking, an 80-card deck that I've got to cut down to a 60-card deck. As I try to conduct my thesis statement I'm going scattershot at EVERY possible means of making a story non-linear when I've got to pare it down to just one particular method. Fortunately I know which method that is (the more explicitly narrative-focused, branching structure), I just need to take the time to come up with those ten new short statements.

I didn't get much in the way of additional suggestions for research; mainly an article published by Wizards of the Coast on different player archetypes. Should still be useful as it says a lot about how gamers make decisions, but not necessarily the immensely broadening new perspective or enlightening psychological study I was hoping for. If I'm right, I should find that gamers universally think about intrinsic/material value rather than morality and that they'll do what they think gives them the greatest reward over what they think is good/evil. Right now that's all conjecture, though.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Early Research

Class off today due to the 4th of July occurring yesterday. Using the time to scout out my early research. I can categorize it into a few specific categories so far:

  • A ludography of games that showcase branching narrative or decision-making systems
  • Psychological texts on cognitive psychology, judgment, and decision-making
  • Books on game design, narrative in games, and interactive narrative in general
  • Recent articles garnered from respected sources (IE: Gamasutra) concerning topics of choice in games and interactive narrative
What I've been hoping to see is some kind of psychological study of gamers' decision-making habits in tabletop role-playing games, but so far I've turned up just about nothing; every psychological study of games seems to be focused on whether or not they cause violence in children. Maybe I'm just using the wrong buzzwords; maybe "habits" and "virtual environment" should be the next ones I try.

The sources I've gathered thus far are as follows below. I'm hoping that with a few suggestions from my classmates I can broaden it out a bit more as the texts I've selected seem to have a very narrow focus.

  • Fullerton, Tracy. Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games. Burlington, MA: Elsevier, 2008

  • Sheldon, Lee. Character Development and Storytelling for Games.
    Boston, MA: Thomson Course Technology PTR, 2004

  • Murray, Janet. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace.
    New York, NY: Free Press, 1997

  • Bateman, Chris, Ernest Adam, Richard Boon, et al. Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames. Boston, MA: Charles River Media, 2007

  • Medlin, Douglas, Brian Ross, and Arthur Markman. Cognitive Psychology
    Danver, MA: John Wiley & Sons, 2005

  • Plous, Scott. The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making.
    N.p: Mcgraw Hill, 1993

  • March, James. A Primer on Decision Making: How Decisions Happen.
    New York, NY: Free Press, 1994

  • Bossche, Andrew V. "Gamasutra - News - Analysis: Out Of My Hands - Player Decisions In Bioshock 2." Gamasutra - The Art & Business of Making Games. 29 June 2010. Web. 07 July 2010.

  • Bossche, Andrew V. "Gamasutra - News - Analysis: What We Get Out of Choice in Video Game Design." Gamasutra - The Art & Business of Making Games. 8 Apr. 2010. Web. 06 July 2010.

  • Remo, Chris. "Gamasutra - Features - The Story Thing: BioWare's David Gaider Speaks." Gamasutra - The Art & Business of Making Games. 8 June 2009. Web. 06 July 2010.

  • Zoss, J. M. "Gamasutra - Features - Ethics 101: Designing Morality in Games." Gamasutra - The Art & Business of Making Games. 26 May 2010. Web. 07 July 2010.
  • Alpha Protocol, Des. Chris Parker and Chris Avellone. Dev. Obsidian Entertainment
    Sega, 2010

  • Facade, Des. Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, Dev. Procedural Arts
    N.p, 2005

  • Heavy Rain: The Origami Killer, Des. David Cage. Dev. Quantic Dream
    Sony Computer Entertainment, 2010

  • inFamous, Dir. Nate Fox. Dev. Sucker Punch Productions
    Sony Computer Entertainment, 2009

  • Deus Ex, Dev. Ion Storm
    Eidos Interactive, 2000

  • Baldur's Gate, Dir. Ray Muzyka, Des. James Ohlen, Dev. Bioware
    Black Isle Studios, 1998

  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Dir. Steven Gilmour and Casey Hudson, Dev. Bioware
    LucasArts, 2003

  • Mass Effect, Dir. Casey Hudson, Dev. Bioware
    Microsoft Game Studios, 2007

  • Mass Effect 2, Dir. Casey Hudson, Dev. Bioware
    Electronic Arts, 2010

  • Dragon Age: Origins, Dev. Bioware Edmonton
    Electronic Arts, 2009

  • Fallout 3, Des. Emil Pagliarulo, Dev. Bethesda Game Studios
    Bethesda Softworks, 2008

  • Black & White, Des. Peter Molyneux, Dev. Lionhead Studios
    Electronic Arts, 2001

  • Black & White 2, Des. Peter Molyneux, Dev. Lionhead Studios
    Electronic Arts, 2005

  • Iji, Dev. Daniel Remar
    N.p, 2008

  • Shadow the Hedgehog, Dir. Takashi Iizuka, Dev. Sega Studio USA
    Sega, 2005

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Class 4 Log - Uplifting Revelations

Well, my exposition of skills wasn't great, but it was okay, but my thesis topics went swimmingly. All three were met with great enthusiasm, and my professor gave me some extraordinarily uplifting feedback! For the first time in months I feel like I genuinely belong here.

Evidently the Unreal 3 editor is a lot more malleable than I initially gave it credit for, and even without a whole ton of scripting it's quite possible to develop some branching dialogue or HUD-based option selection--that being the major feature that would be forcing me to work along the lines of NWN2 or the Elder Scrolls tool set were I to go with... well, practically any of these.

Having viewed sample projects from Level Design Mechanics over the last couple of days I'm actually really impressed with the kinds of things that everybody's been able to do just getting their feet wet with Unreal. I'll be looking into teaching myself the tools as I get the chance--though for right now I've got a lot to do as it is.

Most likely I'll be going with Topic 1: branching narrative, as it has the most doable and most provable project. The idea would be to develop one level following a particular narrative, then do several iterations of it, each one showcasing the particular decision-making paradigms employed by other developers, plus an additional one showcasing my own paradigm for comparison's sake; then I'd have a sample of gamers take the Pepsi challenge to discern which one is the most satisfying. It'd take a ton of effort to build and balance and even more effort to get testers, but it's doable enough that I could have this thing put together before I graduate, if not then not too long after I graduate.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Class 3 Log

Went over other students' thesis proposals and expositions of skills today. Mine's next class.

I'm still nervous about it; less about the thesis proposals and more about the exposition of skills. My friends tell me I have nothing to worry about, but personally it's been a very long time since I've felt impressed with myself or felt like my own work is something worth bragging about. Maybe it's just me.

Anyway, nothing's changed. Sticking with the three topics I outlined, sprucing up my slides a little bit. Added a few to make it flow better visually, so I'm not freeze-framing on the same slide for like eight minutes while I rant about a tabletop RPG I made.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Brainstorming: thesis topics

I've taken the time to think on potential topics I can cover, and mostly it came down to a fistful of subjects that I've continually criticized throughout my study of game design and observation of the digital gaming industry and its recent trends. In general I think there's lots of room for improvement on all fronts--more realistic development expectations, better, more natural scriptwriting, et cetera--but these three things are probably the most thought-out and tangible and probably the most reasonable projects for theses, and definitely the ones I've been most able to connect to concepts outside of gaming. What follows is a brief overview of those topics and my rationale and possible plans for each of them.
  1. Player Choice and Branching Narrative
    There's been a big push lately for non-linearity in games in one fashion or another, either in the form of open-world or "sandbox" games or else in the form of branching narratives that give players limited degrees of choice based on some kind of decision-making rationale. As I see it, though, these decision tree systems have been defined by a short list of pioneering titles, severely limited in the subject matter they explore--usual by some kind of morality-based system. Literally, when I see game developers talk about putting "choice" in their narrative, they almost always say "moral choice," as if that's the only rationale for making choice that exists.

    That seems like an awfully generalized blanket statement, but when you think about recent releases you start to see this is pretty much the case. Mass Effect, inFamous, Bioshock, Fable, and most other games that tout choice as a way of paving the way through the narrative focus on some kind of morality system, which I think is a real waste, first because I don't think that's how people really make choices, and second because morality is incredibly restricting, instantly dominating all the themes of whatever story it becomes a part of.

    What I see here is a need to identify other rationales and techniques for developing decision-making paradigms in games. What do people really think about when they make a major choice? Threat assessment? Resource management? Long-term versus short-term benefit? More to the point, what kind of decision-making paradigm would be something that the storytellers could use as a tool as opposed to something that forces the storytellers to work around it? How could we use decisions to create more engaging games as opposed to simply creating the illusion of control? These are the questions that this thesis would seek to answer.

    The research: Psychological texts on judgment and decision-making and general cognitive psychology.

    The project: Most likely a game of some sort showcasing the new decision-making paradigm. Engines I could work with: The Oblivion toolset, the Neverwinter Nights toolset, RPGMaker, Adventure Game Studio. All very limited, very dated pieces of technology that aren't liable to impress prospective employers, but at the very least they could get the point across...

  2. Alternative Storytelling Genres and Game Mechanics
    The game industry has come under a lot of criticism for applying itself to a very narrow set of storytelling genres, usually falling under the header of one action-adventure formula or another. Gameplay genres are well-defined (perhaps too well-defined) and very broad, of course, but it's nearly always fighting and action that's being explored, and less often do we see comedies, mysteries, or dramas. Companies like Tale of Tales and Quantic Dream explore the possibilities outside this genre, and certainly we've seen an abundance of interactive adventures, dramas, and mysteries like Phantasmagoria and Ripper, but in a way all these designers are almost flat-out ashamed to be making games. They openly state that game mechanics in the traditional sense would be more of a distraction than something that could drive or enrich the experiences they try to create. They make "interactive films" or "interactive paintings," colored by their envy of other mediums' perceived sense of legitimacy and establishment.

    But we've seen games explore alternative genres. We've seen bona fide games explore comedy, mystery, and drama before. Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game is a political drama; Clue and Scotland Yard are mysteries; Kill Doctor Lucky and Munchkin are both comedies; and all of these games, while their presentation does a lot to create their individual senses of flavor, achieve all this entirely through mechanics. That, if nothing else, is solid proof that we can develop games in alternate genres--we already have, just not in the semi-cinematic, explicit storytelling-driven form we've come to associate with digital games, but rather in the procedural, emergent form of board games. All we really need to do is find a way to bridge the gap, then do it.

    The research: Story/narrative structure and narrative genre formulas, as well as a long ludography of board games.

    The project: Likely a board game, followed by a digital adaptation of the board game's mechanics plus a more explicit story structure. This... could be a pretty hairy, really ambitious project, for as much as it could prove.

  3. The Rhetoric of Game and Level Design
    This is far and away the least most tangible of the three theses I'm considering, but it's also the one that's the most dear to my heart and the dream that made me want to study game development in college in the first place.

    In examining other mediums--poetry, literature, film, photography--we can always identify some kind of rhetoric. Poetry has rhetorical devices like synecdoche, anaphora, and alliteration; filmmaking has a number of camera and editing techniques; whatever the case they have some subtle means of using the medium's own substance, be it words on a page or composition of an image, to subtly make its audience resonate with whatever message is trying to be communicated or whatever story is trying to be told.

    But what about digital games?

    Games certainly have a lot of things that can be manipulated in terms of mechanics, interface design, and level design; but there's no consistent rhetoric or terminology that developers--and maybe more importantly, students--can reference. Certainly I can think of games that do employ their medium meaningfully; Half-Life 2 is nothing if not a masterful manipulation of the player's perception of the story through level design, and I've frequently expressed an admiration for designer Hideki Kamiya (of Okami, Viewtiful Joe, and Devil May Cry fame) and his ability to create games whose very mechanics instantly evoke the unique character and visual style of his works. More often, though, developers tend more towards arbitrary decisions and challenges for challenge's sake instead, the technical element of trying to make even a passable game being more than enough to occupy their time.

    The goal of this thesis would be to get a start at developing some rhetorical terminology for game and level design; some kind of taxonomy which we could use to be more purposeful in the way we build our games. I'd try to research existing rhetorical or literary devices and find the game or level design equivalents, then illustrate them through my project. The trouble here: how can I prove a project like that? How can it come off as being more than just "look! I made a level!"?
We'll see what my classmates and my professor have to say about these. Hopefully I'll get some suggestions that'll help me hone in on one of these topics and make it something doable.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Class 2 Log

Second class: Spent going over past theses at the library. Previously I was intimidated by the expectations of a graduate thesis, but after looking at these with the class it's pretty clear that I've got some solid ideas to work with and that the project expectations aren't in any way out of my league.

The specific theses I viewed covered the topics of symbolism in level design and creating emotion in digital games. The first was a very interesting read with very strong, very tangible research and comprehensive analysis of the games it covered, which included the likes of Psychonauts and American McGee's Alice, and it made a very strong case for using environments as a representation of the protagonist or the antagonist's psyche.

The second thesis... not so much. It just seemed to re-state over and over "games can create strong emotions! Look! Planscape: Torment! Isn't this just such a beautiful story?" Maybe it's just me, or maybe I just didn't look it over thoroughly enough, but its arguments just seemed intangible and uninteresting and it didn't seem to have any really conclusive, clear illustration of what it was trying to prove or why. According to Professor Cookson it was more of an artist's statement than a thesis, which is perfectly valid, but in order to really appreciate it you'd have to both have read it thoroughly and played the game that the writer created.

Overall the theses we reviewed seemed strongest when they had a tangible mission and when they brought in concepts from outside gaming to further develop on existing fields' foundations. Being that I've got a strong background in humanities, history, and literature I should have no problems finding material to work with, and being that I've got lots of theories, ideas, and general industry improvements I'd like to see bouncing around in my head it shouldn't be much of a problem to marry my background in writing with something in gaming. In fact, that's what I got into college for in the first place!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Class 1 Log

Our first class was spent in simple introductions and quick overview of possible directions for our theses. Not much to say so far, though it did become clear to me that clarifying the way I state my topic is going to be a big challenge. I have an "everything is relevant" point of view that tends to bring me down tangents when I speak, and I nearly brought us into a debate about moral choice systems while trying to relate about general decision-making.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Thesis Blog Introduction

This is the grand opening of the thesis blog of Michael Scott Prinke, graduate student at Savannah College of Art and Design.

My major: Interactive Design and Game Development.
My focus: Narrative.
My goal: To tell stories through games; to make them meaningful and see them resonate with players through the game's mechanics.

This blog will serve as a log of my thesis concepts, research, and feedback I receive. All that said, let's dive right in!

A note: simply put I got sick of my Wordpress blog's crappy formatting and decided that a blogger account was the only way to go. Thus, I am moving all my blog stuff over here.