Monday, October 31, 2011

A... Mid-Mortem? on the Brothers Riley

After having been stuck for a couple of months, I've picked up progress again. This first update concerns my addressing the shortcomings of the prototype as of its previous showing; it's written as a post-mortem, but as I'm continuing to develop the project I guess it's more like a mid-mortem or a self-criticism.

PROJECT SUMMARY
"The Brothers Riley" is a point-and-click adventure game following Alex Riley and his younger brother Jack, two boys in a downtrodden family in 1850 London. With their father recently dead and their mother delivering a baby imminently, the two need to find someone to help deliver their new sibling. They have three options set out for them: gather enough money up to pay Dr. Gossar, their family physician, to perform the delivery; depend on the charity of the Church; or employ the aid of Richard Darrell, a criminal with sinister ulterior motives. The player takes on the role of Alex as he struggles to fill his father's shoes, and his actions directly change the attitude and responses of his younger, more impressionable brother.

WHAT WENT WRONG
The story of Alex and Jack Riley's struggle to find someone to deliver their mother's new child wasn't interesting or remarkable in any way. Alex himself wasn't a very interesting protagonist, and his younger brother's contribution to the story wasn't really worth the effort of trying to get him to respond dynamically to the player's actions, nor did anybody I showed the prototype to seem to feel that it had that much impact on their perception of either their own character or the story at hand.

The decision-making scheme itself, I felt, was inherently flawed, with no relationships being developed between the player and tangible resources. There was money, yes--but it had one use, and that was advancing the plot. There was multiple ways of acquiring it, but not multiple alternatives to spending it--so the element of risk, so heavily emphasized in my research, wasn't really present. There was a sense of personalization, but it was very weak as there was no risk or ambiguity of player identity; the game puts the player firmly and foremost as a boy trying to care for his mother, and interactions as a big brother, as a boyfriend, and as a worker are comparatively minimal as none of THOSE are used to advance the story or made out to be goals.

The only thing I had to fall back on was emotional investment in the characters, which I don't feel I obtained. Because of the limited scope of this project, I overly constrained myself and rushed to meet quotas for introducing characters and different types of decisions simultaneously, with little in the way of build-up or context. Richard Darrell, for instance, is barely established, coming out of nowhere and seeming to just assume himself as an important figure without the player learning anything about him. Other characters for this game were stilted and heavily founded in stereotypes, such that I was barely able to remember anybody's name apart from the two lead characters. For me that's a big problem: I'm known among friends and colleagues for being able to create characters with memorable names with remarkable consistency, so if I'm calling someone "the girlfriend," or "the priest," or "the bully," instead of by their given name, I am definitely doing something wrong.

WHY IT WENT WRONG
A big part of what threw me off was relative inexperience developing adventure games. There's a certain way these games have of introducing characters and surprising players, I realized. You don't play an adventure game to deal with people your character is familiar with--in this case Alex's entire neighborhood. You play an adventure game for that odd experience where you're at a subway station and have to ask a stranger for directions, but he turns around and -- oops, he's a platypus! You then embark on what will undoubtedly be a very memorable anecdote. Expositing on existing relationships is difficult in this particular genre since the player and their character do not share a memory of past experiences, but starting a new one is very easy. The mode of interaction lends itself very naturally to the act of meeting and inquiring as opposed to the act of having a reunion or a discussion.

My first pass at this project wasn't much at puzzle or interaction design, either, and in hindsight it seems like each character could be made more memorable by adopting some kind of a puzzle around them. 

Phillip Stone, for instance--the owner of the factory where Alex works--could be more of an interesting character to interact with if he's constantly and stupendously drunk. This could then become a puzzle, a character trait, and a choice all in one: sober him up to get information out of him, try to interpret his rambling as hints for some other objective, or try to make him pass out so that you can safely steal a possession from his person. The player then has tangible experience with one of his core character traits, and getting key objects from his home becomes more interesting than walking in and just picking them up. Interacting with Mr. Stone must be necessary, as should be the case with most of the other characters. As it stands, most of them can be ignored and offer no challenges like this.

A greater distinction must thus be made between "goal characters," "puzzle characters," and "tool characters," and some traits must be identified for them beyond their basic identity. Characters can not exist merely to offer opportunities for interaction--each one must serve a purpose in either offering direction, offering a resource, or offering a challenge--or else, a hint, or an opportunity for a future challenge/goal that the player does not yet recognize. If a character does not serve a purpose with respect to any of these design goals, at least in the context of the point-and-click adventure game genre, it is almost entirely wasted. This is a fundamental difference from traditional fiction writing, which was the perspective from which I was originally writing this.

WHAT WENT RIGHT
There were a few things that have worked about this project so far--they were just on a very small scale compared to the fundamental issues holding it back.

I did find an effective way of introducing personal choices. While characters in themselves can't exist JUST to offer choices for no reason, characters that the player interacts with can be helpful in presenting theme-based, personalization-oriented questions, both to help introduce their own core character traits and to help the player's character develop and the player orient their point of view to those character traits. A good example of this is Margaret Darrell, who tells the player to put their trust in God; Alex is then offered the choice of putting their trust in her words, or refuting her and blaming God for the problems his family is facing. As religion is a defining trait of the time period, it is a major character trait and offers one of the most important devices for developing the player's character. That said, this is a pattern that could be taken further, with different, important aspects of the story--the player character's attitude towards crime, or authority, or his family's reputation, for instance--being meted out among the main cast as they are met. This method is rendered ineffective when it is unnecessary to interact with most of the cast--and thus the player wouldn't experience most of these events--but nevertheless proved an interesting way to build context if experienced.

PLAN OF ACTION
I am working on a revision to the project, trying to develop a stronger, more localized structure for it. IE, I'm going to axe the city and go with someplace smaller. Maybe a portion of the city--a single street instead of two--and Phillip Stone's mansion, as Mr. Stone presents the strongest opportunity both for mischief and revision (I just presented a means of revising him).

I will also be trying to mete out the risk factors among the NPCs as opposed to depending on one partner NPC as the sole risk factor -- IE, getting Mr. Stone drunk may carry certain consequences, using mischief as a means to get what you want may anger people that could help the player later, et cetera. It's very likely that Jack Riley will become the player character in lieu of Alex, as Jack has stronger conflicts and more growth to do and, as a mischievous young urchin, is probably the most fun to follow ("Horse's arse." "What was that?" "I said Holiday Pass.") and should be allowed off the leash of his big brother.

A revised document on this revision will follow shortly.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Case Study to-do list

I've been evaluating a lot of games by my Personalization/Discernability/Gameplay Integrity/Narrative Integrity rubric, but you'll probably notice that this dropped off sometime not too long after my initial push with my thesis. This is for a couple of reasons.

First and most obviously, games with narrative choice systems are incredibly time-consuming and I've been a very busy grad student, tending to spread myself thin and overextend my resources volunteering for other projects. I've been focusing a lot on filling out my technical background, which means I've been in workaholic mode for the last quarter.

Second, I've had to refine my thesis and its goals a lot. There's been a good few times I've re-considered narrative choice in general due to my interests as a game designer being on a little bit of a different path, scope issues with the material of the thesis and my presentation to the thesis board (which I expected to fail up until the very last week, when I figured out exactly how to wrap it all up), and, in particular, due to scope issues trying to discern a good visual component. That said, I didn't want to jump the gun and spend hours evaluating these games if my thesis should change dramatically.

Third, as I've stated previously there is and has been a need to clean up my rubric a little bit and make the qualifications for good/bad discernability and personalization a little bit more concrete and streamline the process. Ideally I'd like to judge it on five or more sub-points so as to create a clear -5 to 5 or a -10 to 10 scale. From my previous case studies I should be able to do so easily.

That said, I've gathered together a to-do list of games that I still need to perform full evaluations of.
  • L.A. Noire
  • Dragon Age: Origins (referenced in thesis, playthrough not complete)
  • Alpha Protocol
  • The Witcher 2
  • Fallout: New Vegas
  • Overlord (Playing it anyway, might as well analyze it)
  • StarCraft 2 (Played, not evaluated)
  • Fable 3 (Playthrough not complete)
  • Deus Ex
  • Iji
Too many case studies, too little time to get them all done. I may need to narrow down my choices.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On scope and engine research

For the last quarter I've had a bit of a crisis with regards to this thesis and how to go about executing the visual component. The research I've had well in hand since the beginning, and the overall process for developing nonlinear story content, I feel, I've made into something pretty straightforward. The really big issue up to this point has been more a matter of what's in scope for me to reasonably make. For the last few months up to this point, I've been trying to conceptualize a one-act play based in part on interactive cinematic games like Heavy Rain, with full emphasis on the narrative system in lieu of mechanical systems in order to more fully develop the potential that I saw in that sort of project. For a while it looked like I was going to base it on the "Kobiyashi Maru" from Star Trek, which I felt would keep the project self-contained and provide an interesting theme to explore.

Such a project is more appropriate to a cinematic designer or game animator than it is to me, my skillsets being more in game systems, technical design, content design, and writing. The vast majority of the work on my project would come down to heavy animation and cinematic directing, which I have positively no experience doing--much less for a nonlinear story. I'd have to recruit someone to do that for me while I plan the content, and I can't abide having a thesis project where the majority of actual production work is being done by someone else rather than myself. As such I had to re-think some things in order to make this project feel reasonable and underwent a few discussions about it with Professor Cookson. To sum up his advice on the matter: I'm making too big a deal out of making the presentation of it super-professional and cinematic and should just be focused on the content. He suggested it wasn't entirely necessary to make an Unreal game and that I could just as easily put this together in Flash and it would be perfectly acceptable.

In the meantime I've been doing a lot of work with Unrealscript this quarter, developing a scripting library and tutorials that will enable students to more easily develop original content and games. It's been highly successful and as such I've become confident in my ability to generate content and mechanics with it. Professor Cookson and I agreed that the work I've already done in this regard is definitely a feasible foundation for the project. As such, I'll be making this a 2.5D side-scrolling game based on my side-scrolling platformer scripts. I'll have more information on this project very soon as I've got a clear picture of what I'm trying to make. As usual scope control will be an issue, but I at least feel confident in my ability to generate gameplay-oriented content as opposed to cinematic-oriented content.

Revised Production Schedule

·      March-June: Development environment research
·      June 10: Design documentation, thesis paper outline
·      June 5 – June 27: Team recruitment period
·      June 11-June 27: Documentation revisions
·      July 11: Thesis case studies
·      July 25: Alpha build of visual component
·      July 28: Thesis body first draft: research, development, production process outline
·      August 15: Beta build of visual component
·      August 15-August 29: Beta testing of game and narrative systems
·      August 18: Thesis body second draft: evaluation of production process thus far
·      September 1: Beta testing results and revisions based on feedback
·      September 12-Oct 3: Crunch
·      Oct. 3: Full content freeze, final bug testing
·      Oct. 24: Bug testing and fixes completed; user tests for effectiveness of narrative begins
·      Nov. 14: Final draft of thesis paper, first pass – factoring user feedback
·      Nov. 25: Final draft of thesis paper, last pass: full development retrospective

Thesis Prospectus


Nonlinear storytelling systems offer a chance for players to explore and actively interpret themes and relationships within a dramatic narrative. However there is no consistent structure for writers or game designers to use in developing this type of media and such systems are often made with respect to utilitarian, game design-oriented goals rather than a sense of dramatic interest. By combining dramatic structure with principles of interactivity and examining their relationship with respect to the psychological architecture of judgment and decision-making, we can deconstruct nonlinear storytelling systems to their most basic components. We can apply these building blocks within the context of their impact on dramatic narrative and player interpretation to create more impactful and satisfying nonlinear stories with a greater sense of thematic focus.

In developing this system I first identified the ideal tenants of narrative choice, those being personalization, discernability, and narrative integrity. It goes almost without saying that a nonlinear narrative should still be a good narrative; one with a logical flow and with strong themes to explore. As stated earlier, the themes that drive a story provide grounds for decisions to be meaningful; meanwhile logical structure is fact doubly important as a nonlinear story is derived from decisions made firsthand by the player as much as it is from an external author's machinations, and therefore it must make sense in the player's head as much as it does in the designer's.

To that end the principle of discernability--the ability with which the player is able to perceive the impact of his or her choices on the flow of the narrative--is important for establishing this sense of narrative integrity within the nonlinear narrative and bringing its events to a conclusion that is psychologically satisfying as well as dramatically satisfying. This principle is derived from the rationality, a school of thought regarding judgment and decision-making. It details the risk-versus-reward mechanisms that people use to make calculated decisions in their everyday lives and a general architecture for how our expectations of risk are built, namely in terms of uncertainty and our limits in processing and retaining information; we do not tend to make willful and certain decisions so much as educated guesses. Discernability is reflected in the risk-and-reward principles that games already encompass, but also provides a means for us to develop logical, discernable, and reasonably unpredictable consequences in a decision tree.
The principle of personalization, meanwhile, speaks to the player's sense of interpretation, that being a key term for this thesis; authorship and agency on the player's part aren't our focus so much as providing players with room to personalize their experience. This is achieved through providing the player with the opportunity to build relationships between themselves, their player-character, and other characters and concepts in the setting, combining elements of character growth and development with experiential learning and identity-building. These principles are defined in a second school of judgment and decision-making called rule-following, which details devices we use to build identities and how we use those identities as heuristics for how to make choices appropriately. Many of these concepts parallel role-playing, which is in itself the act of taking on and interpreting the identity of a character and a driving element of many choice-driven narratives.
With these tenets in hand I have developed a system for outlining nonlinear narrative, plotting it out by different kinds of choices at different organizational levels in a decision tree, encompassing divergence or non-divergence in the decision tree itself, decision-making logic, and dramatic impact.

At the highest level, we look directly at the way the decision tree is laid out--either in dramatic (divergent) or constructive (non-divergent) events. Dramatic choices are places where the story changes direction in a dramatic way; divergent choices, in other words. Because of the technical constraints we face in how many of these we can allow--we can only paint divergence with a very broad brush--it doesn't allow for a high degree of personalization within the narrative on its own, but it presents clear opportunity for calling attention to dramatic turns and major overarching themes. Constructive, or non-divergent choices, on the other hand, are extremely flexible, able to be arranged either sequentially along a branch or in a non-mutually-exclusive fashion with optional events. Whatever the case, these create the opportunity for experiential learning and identity-building, which provides context for the more major dramatic turns.

Looking a bit deeper, we next must examine the logic with which a given decision is made. A decision can be direct or indirect; IE, it can be a prompt spat directly at the player, or it can be determined from other actions that the computer reads and catalogues for the purpose of interpreting the player's character. A good example of this in action would be Silent Hill 2, where the game uses the percentage of time the player spends at low health to determine whether or not the player-character is suicidal or values his life.
And finally, we have the dramatic impact the decision itself makes on the narrative within the player's mind, which is where our psychological principles really come into play as we're now dealing with questions of the player's preferences. I break these down with respect to either immediate preference or preference with respect to the whole of the product as well as bias towards either rationality or interpretation. On the immediate scale, we're dealing with rational problems--clear in-game goals, obstacles, and information--or, conversely, just personal preferences; what type of ice cream does your character like, for instance. On the overarching scale, we're talking about wholly practical issues in the player's mind regarding the metagame, or else moral issues regarding overall outlook on the themes of the story.

These types of choices are organized by the ideals of narrative choice that they are meant to satisfy--discernability or personalization--and therefore also by the psychological effect that they have on the player with respect to the two schools of psychological thought: the risk-and-reward psychology of rationality, and the identity-building principles of rule-following. They are then filtered into dramatic narrative terms, thus making them into a viable tool specifically for the writers who are charged with developing nonlinear scripts for games, giving them a way of finding a sense of focus, consistency, and control while also understanding the importance of the choices they're developing to the player's experience and outlining their input in that experience in a way that a game designer can easily respect.

Currently I am outlining the overall process by which these building blocks are meant to be used, which entails identifying a set of themes, characters, and a setting for the player to explore, maintaining focus on those elements, and using a series of constructive choices to satisfy that sense of exploration and build context for divergent choices with strong, long-term dramatic impact. I will illustrate this process by developing a short game with a nonlinear storyline, aiming for a play time of roughly thirty minutes. In my conclusion I will examine the effectiveness of this development model in planning the game content alongside the narrative content as well as the project's impact on players during tests.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Engine Research

For the past week as I've been at GDC I've been conducting engine research regarding the Unreal Engine and Unity, currently my two prime candidates. I even managed to acquire an Unrealscript DVD to start tutoring myself in the scripting language, finally, but it doesn't clear up a whole lot about the overall structure of the script library and what commands are or aren't available. Documentation is what I need more than tutorials, but it's a start at least, the most valuable thing it points out being a coding tool that does an awful lot more than the standard unrealscript program--namely Pixel Mine's nFringe for Microsoft Visual Studio--as well as the workflow for getting the scripts to show up and do their work. I'm continuing with hands-on work in Unity this week. I rather wish I had CryEngine 3 with its new Maya syncing feature, but alas, 'tis not meant to be. For the record I tried out the Sandbox editor as well, and ho boy, do I not want to open that can of worms. It's an awesome tool, but I know far too little about it versus Unity and Unreal for it to even be an option.

Additionally, I got back the review form from the office upstairs at Monty; evidently I passed with almost every flying color and my thesis is seen as being extraordinarily progressive. The only low note was on that of my demo, which I acknowledge was modest. The professors suggested that I aim for about 30-40 minutes rather than an hour worth of play time, so I'll be re-thinking my project with respect to that timeframe.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Not Bringing Studio 2 Into This

I spoke with Adam last night. Decided after much deliberation not to bring his Studio 2 into this, convenient a source of helpers though it may be. I think he and his Studio 2 class would be better served by coming up with their own project rather than piggybacking on my thesis. The trouble is that Studio 2 class tends to have a very limited scope--not that the scope of any of the projects I'm proposing is that daunting compared with most things I could think to do, but there's a certain problem in the way this type of game is broken up versus the way another type of game is broken up. To give an example:

StarCaster, a pet project I work on in my spare time, a real-time sci-fi action-adventure that can be described as Metal Gear Solid meets Final Fantasy meets Blade Runner, is a very ambitious project. It requires tons of content, a robust physics engine to drive its spell system, and necessarily Euphoria so that the AI can take advantage of the very heavily physics-based gameplay. It's meant to take around 20 hours to complete. This game would require a team of 100+ people two years to make and very likely would cost upwards of ten to fifteen million dollars to make. My estimate is around twenty million. This is a AAA production that I will probably not get to pitch for about five years yet.

La Tarasca is an adventure game with some action in it--it takes place in the Old West, after all, it'd be a disappointment if the player didn't get to pick up a revolver. Overall most of the interactions are dealing with characters, engaging in dialogue, and gathering clues, which are relatively simple things to implement and don't even necessarily require the full power of the Unreal Engine. It's meant to take a comparatively smaller scope, focused around one location and a fairly small set of characters--namely the residents of the town of La Tarasca. In terms of play time I'd estimate the game to take around four or five hours; scaled back to a student project the full mystery could take one to three. This game could be made on a very small budget of under a million dollars in about six months, making it suitable for independent development.

Now here's the bomb. It would be more reasonable for me to try to get that Studio 2 team to create one playable level of StarCaster than to try and create one level of La Tarasca--the reality of a Studio 2 class being that there's only ten weeks to develop an entire project, that everybody is splitting their attention necessarily between multiple classes, and that technical problems would present huge roadblocks; even if our artists can generate the assets for more than one level, we'd only be able to generate one level of actual interactive content, and maybe the AI for one enemy type.

The mechanics of StarCaster are very focused and relatively straightforward, being a combat-based game and all; the length estimation of the entire game comes mainly from sheer content. We could develop just enough guns to make it clear that there's more than one, have the player earn one spell to give them a taste for the magic system, and develop one level focused on this content. It wouldn't be as slick and polished as God of War III, by any means; Euphoria certainly wouldn't be implemented; but it would be a reasonably good demo with a relatively tight asset list. Probably even this isn't a reasonable expectation, but were this ONE LEVEL worth of content completed within the quarter it would be acceptable as a demo and would give both players and prospective employers alike a representative portion of the game.

The gameplay of La Tarasca is completely dependent on the story, however. If we were to generate comparable content to the single level of StarCaster that I outlined above then it would likely be tighter and more well-polished, but it also wouldn't be complete by any means. The demo would end just as the story is starting to ramp up and the intrigue is starting to set in. For the purposes of my thesis it would be more than acceptable as I intend to be working on it for much longer than just next quarter and it would at least get the groundwork laid, but it would not be representative of the entire product and likely not nearly enough to impress anyone.

In other words, La Tarasca overall is a much more doable project, but a portion of it would not be acceptable; as a story-driven experience, however short, it requires the entire story to be seen through to completion to provide a satisfying experience. This is likely to be the case with any game that I try to develop for this thesis, but its' especially true of La Tarasca, which is the game that we've been leaning towards.

I haven't written this plan off entirely just yet, but I've warned Adam that it's probably best to keep my thesis out of his Studio 2. We'll see if I can't use my television writing knowhow to come up with something more self-contained and episodic, but that's the demand this project would have--it would need to be a pilot, not a full game, and that rather distresses me as a pilot for a TV show doesn't necessarily see its themes through to completion.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Presentation Script

It occurred to me that I should probably post the script for my presentation here:

I will posit that by using thematic elements and psychological architecture to develop a consistent structure for creating choice-driven narratives, we can bring more focus and weight to nonlinear storytelling systems in games.

Narrative choice or nonlinear storytelling systems are becoming increasingly prevalent in the game industry. What was initially the purview of choose-your-own-adventure books and role-playing games has now spread through a variety of different genres, including brawlers and shooters--suggesting that our industry sees a lot of potential in this area of the field and that we are eager to explore it.

The reasons why are very clear. Games are spaces where we learn, develop skills, and explore our emotions in relative safety. Stories do much the same thing, allowing authors to explore themes pertaining to the human condition through dramatic structure. Bringing the two together ideally creates a more direct connection between the player and the themes of a story by allowing them to explore those themes and the relationships used to represent them firsthand; essentially, we substitute parables with experiential learning.

The truth is that narrative choice is handled with a great deal of inconsistency between companies and projects, with every studio developing their own scheme and tools for it,
and there's little in the way of guidelines for writers or content builders to refer to aside from a fistful of developer opinions regarding their current line of experiments.
In fact, traditionally writers themselves have very little to say about the content or subject matter of the narrative choice systems that they help build. They think of it more in terms of the control they have to give up to accommodate the player's sense of "authorship," as some put it.

More often it's the lead designers of a project that have the first and final say in the way that a story develops. There's a good reason for this. Gameplay flow has certain demands that require compromise as far as story structure goes--what kinds of challenges, goals, and rewards we want to see and the pacing between those elements. In exchange, the designer's perspective and its risk-and-reward psychology gives us a lot of the tools we need to make decisions meaningful and allow players to explore various styles of play and express themselves.

This utilitarian perspective isn't without its shortcomings, though. Systemic or metagame elements run the risk of overriding players own interests within the narrative and deny them their interpretation of the story. In the worst-case scenario, though, there just isn't anything to interpret because game content designers simply approach the generation of narrative from a point of view divorced from thematic storytelling elements, being more concerned with the introduction of mechanics and challenges than their dramatic weight.
To give an example, one of the many introductions in Dragon Age: Origins casts players as the son of a noble house. In this scenario you run upstairs to deliver a message to your brother, then kill rats in the larder. That night a visiting noble whom you saw for all of two seconds and had no reason to suspect as a traitor stages a coup d'├ętat against your house and you have to fight your way out of the castle. The ingredients here are interesting--a struggle between two noble houses, political strife between families during a time of crisis--but there's little to no exploration of these thematic elements and therefore no dramatic weight to the events that the characters play out. It is a purely utilitarian scenario, constructed purely to introduce the player to the game's systems when it could allow players to explore a more focused story.

To quote Janet H. Murray, an imaginary world is little more than a costume trunk of empty avatars unless it has been called into being by an external author. Just as someone must write the rules for a game, someone must devise the central themes around which a story is focused and the central characters the story is about and an appealing identity for the player to assume. I will posit that players don't want authorship over the experience, as is often suggested, but rather that they want to interpret or explore an otherwise focused narrative--to personalize their experience, to borrow a term from Obsidian Interactive. They want to be posed questions, assume different roles than they usually do, and learn about themselves through the experience--to project a character upon themselves rather than project themselves upon a character.

Traditional narrative structure is thus quite relevant for developing choice-driven narrative content; themes drive a plot, its dramatic turns, and the struggles of its characters; they're what characters learn and where the interesting issues come from; and therefore it's themes that decision-making systems should focus themselves on allowing the player to explore.
The game designer's point of view gives us some models to build a relationship between the player and their participation--an otherwise unknown factor in dramatic structure. We thus have a foundation--a framework. We know what we want out of narrative choice systems: room for interpretation, and discernable changes in dramatic turns based on our interpretations. But, we're a bit short on the information necessary to build a full narrative choice system--just a goal.

This is in part due to the conflict of needs between these two disciplines, so we must look to a neutral party--one that dictates the terms of both for our answer, and that's human psychology.

Specifically, in our case, we are interested in the psychology of judgment and decision-making, which is broken down into two major architectures, each of which has its uses.
The first is rationality, which boils down to the risk-and-reward psychology that we as game designers are familiar with. It's defined by a person's preferences as to what variables they wish to maximize and minimize, the alternative choices apparent, how they expect those choices to turn out, and how risky each alternative is. It acknowledges that we tend to act on probability rather than certainty--hence the importance of risk, an element defined by a lot of factors that we simply don't know, don't understand, or can't predict. Most importantly, Rationality states that we construct the world in our mind as a decision tree, not unlike how we define a branching narrative--although it defines risk in much more abstract terms than we know in games, more in line with what we can work with as writers trying to establish dramatic tension and conflict between characters.

Rule-following, on the other hand, sees decision-making as being more a matter of fulfilling an identity; a concept often explored in role-playing; and it deconstructs this concept very thoroughly in terms of social context and experiential learning. It details several tools we use in everyday life to help understand these identities, which in turn are also valuable tools for guiding players into the identities we craft in our characters.

What we get from all this data we've been crunching is a way to break down individual decisions and their purpose in crafting a nonlinear drama--and thus we are able to develop building blocks by now re-examining the concept of the decision tree from the top down.
At the highest level, we look directly at the way the decision tree is laid out--either in dramatic or constructive events. Dramatic choices are places where the story changes direction in a dramatic way; divergent choices, in other words. Because of the technical constraints we face in how many of these we can allow--we can only paint divergence with a very broad brush--it doesn't allow for a high degree of personalization within the narrative on its own, but it presents clear opportunity for calling attention to dramatic turns and major overarching themes.

Constructive, or non-divergent choices, on the other hand, are extremely flexible, able to be arranged either sequentially along a branch or in a non-mutually-exclusive fashion with optional events. Whatever the case, these create the opportunity for experiential learning and identity-building, which provides context for the more major dramatic turns.

Looking a bit deeper, we next must examine the logic with which a given decision is made. A decision can be direct or indirect; IE, it can be a prompt spat directly at the player, or it can be determined from other actions that the computer reads and catalogues for the purpose of interpreting the player's character. A good example of this in action would be Silent Hill 2, where the game uses the percentage of time the player spends at low health to determine whether or not the player-character is suicidal or values his life.

And finally, we have the dramatic impact the decision itself makes on the narrative within the player's mind, which is where our psychological principles really come into play as we're now dealing with questions of the player's preferences. I break these down with respect to either immediate preference or preference with respect to the whole of the product as well as bias towards either rationality or interpretation. On the immediate scale, we're dealing with rational problems--clear in-game goals, obstacles, and information--or, conversely, just personal preferences; what type of ice cream does your character like, for instance. On the overarching scale, we're talking about wholly practical issues in the player's mind regarding the metagame, or else moral issues regarding overall outlook on the themes of the story.

Bringing all this together we are able to show, from a writer's perspective, clearly and efficiently, the building blocks and logic that makes up a decision tree with respect to dramatic principles. Pictured here is a single scene broken down in terms of the choices a player is able to make using these building blocks and the purpose each one serves in creating dramatic context for major decisions. This scene specifically details the player, as a major crime boss, meeting with a rival crime boss to discuss why he's suddenly horning in on the player's turf. The player is faced with a number of choices that allow them to build their characterization and context, then an overarching moral decision that brings the theme of mistrust to a head as the player must decide whether Fat Larry is too much of a threat to let live, or whether they feel comfortable trying to compete with him and don't want to risk open warfare over him.

This is phase 1 of my visual component, its purpose being to clearly demonstrate each type of narrative choice as I've detailed them--and I have a demo to showcase the scene, simple as it is.

Phase 2 will be a complete narrative at a length of about one hour, also constructed in UDK for the sake of flexibility. Preproduction will begin once my thesis is approved, will continue through March, and then I'll begin production on phase 2, which will continue until August, when I'll initiate a content freeze and focus on bug testing. November will mark the final focus test.

To conclude: Though the needs of different productions between companies will obviously vary, giving writers and designers building blocks with which to structure narrative decision-making systems in terms of dramatic events presents an opportunity to enhance players' experiences as they take part in meaningful, thematically-driven stories.

Thoughts on the Project

So far I've identified a fistful of potential projects in past works I've developed:

1 - "Maddox," a concept for a web sitcom I developed some time ago, as an interactive game. My worry about it is that it will inevitably wander too close to Sam & Max as it's very similar in tone and concept.

2 - A new project based somewhat on the concepts I'm analyzing in Deus Ex, based on neutralizing a terrorist threat or hostage situation. Depending on how this gets defined it may turn out too heavy on gameplay and too light on thematic elements.

3 - "La Tarasca," a story a friend and I developed for a game some time ago revolving around a fellow named Edward Jones, a city slicker who returns to his hometown of La Tarasca on the border of Texas and Mexico to solve the mystery of his sister's death. It's a historical western, one of the important aspects about the town being that nobody in it is who the player would want to have doing their job. The priest is also the town bartender, for instance, the town undertaker is the most exuberant, friendly man in town--and always looking for the player's business--and the telegraph operator is a nice old lady who hogs the telegraph to gossip with someone at the other end of the line. Nothing I pick is free from ambition, but I fear this one may be among the most ambitious projects I can pick. It's also the one I'm most excited about thus far.

The other unsolved question in all this is what platform I'm going to use. I've been leaning towards Unreal, but there's the chance that a ten-week deadline may be imposed on this project next quarter as my friend Adam Price has an interest in incorporating it into his Studio 2 and Unreal... tends to be a little unfriendly. It's the most powerful tool there is for what we're trying to do, but Unrealscript is a very obtuse language with little resources as opposed to Unity, which is extremely open but not as powerful. One way or another I'm going to need to devote a good portion of my time in the next several weeks toying with both of these to see what I can do with these.

Thesis Approved! ... Oh crap, now what?

Passed my review with flying colors. The only comment the board had was that my demo was very standard and didn't entirely show my principles, but again, I was only hoping to re-create the current norm with my building blocks to see if I was on the right track. Now begins the real work, as I have to find a project that's practical, doable, and narrative-driven, figure out a platform for it, organize a team, and make it.

Information Overload

Over the last couple of times I presented my thesis to the class things turned out pretty awful, with a lot of criticisms towards the information I'm presenting and whether I've even actually got a thesis. This time, however, I had the dead-opposite reaction: way too much information to be able to process, all of it very heavy and academic. I'll take this as meaning I'm on the right track--but I need to reorganize my slides a bit. Fortunately that's not such a problem; I can edit slides 'til the cows come home, and I can certainly find ways to cut down my script for time. What is a problem is my demo as it's still only partway to being ready to show. Let's cross our fingers and hope I can make this all come together in time.

Testing -- Meeting with Fat Larry

 Struggling to get my flow chart in here, but my demo for the presentation is nearly complete. I built it around a meeting between two mobsters. It's not Shakespeare, in fact by all rights it's very standard, but I felt it was worth seeing if I could re-create what developers are currently doing with the structure of different types of choices I've outlined.

The scenario features a number of constructive choices that build up to a major dramatic choice--IE, whether to kill Fat Larry or not--by developing context and letting the player make personal choices to develop/interpret their character. It doesn't look like much, but it should be effective enough for the purposes of my presentation.

Dramatic Re-Purposing

I've re-purposed the terms I've set down specifically with respect to building a dramatic narrative, re-defining them as follows:

Divergent Choice = Dramatic Choice
Non-Divergent Choice = Constructive Choice

Both are organized under "Priority."

Direct and Indirect remain as before. Both are organized under "Logic."

Rational/Personal/Practical/Moral are now organized under "Dramatic Impact." Rational/Personal is in the "Minor" or "Immediate" subcategory, concerned primarily with immediate decisions and problems, Practical/Moral is under the "Major" or "Long-Term" subcategory, concerned with overarching issues across the entire game, whether they be major thematic choices or metagame elements.

The most radical change is in the way I view divergence, as I'm now defining it specifically within the context of its purpose in building up to a dramatic turn; IE, a dramatic choice. This means of examining these types of choices, I think, is more effective than the utilitarian/psychiatric method I outlined before as they're defined in terms that are there specifically for writers to understand.

Thesis Statement Take 2!

"By using thematic elements and psychological architecture to develop a consistent structure for creating choice-driven narratives, we can bring more focus and weight to nonlinear storytelling systems in games."

Hashed out the wording a bit with John Thompson; suffice it to say that I feel a lot more confident about this than I do about the idea of focusing on some sub-element of my psychological research.

To explain where this whole thing is going...
First: I decided to focus the presentation purely on the development of a system that writers can use to develop choice-driven narratives--rendering my evaluation rubric, which I've given a ton of focus up until this point, practically irrelevant for the purpose of presenting my thesis to the board. This meant cutting out a lot of content and focusing much more strongly on the different types of choices as building blocks. This has always been the goal of my thesis, I've just been too distracted by the piles and piles of information I've had to dig up and regurgitate to get to it.

Second: I dug up an interview with Bioware lead writer David Gaider, and was surprised to find just how little control writers actually have over these games. The writing process for these games is essentially utilitarian in nature, with designers calling all the shots about what events go on and telling the writers to develop the dialog for them. There's a lot of really good reasons for this approach, as I know from experience. When I developed my design document for StarCaster I ran into a ton of problems trying to develop a satisfying gameplay flow and only quelled them when I approached it from a utilitarian point of view, basing locations and events off of where would be the most fun place to gain specific weapons and powers and whatnot rather than thematic elements--but I knew enough to be able to return later and fit the meaningful thematic elements to that structure I developed.

This is particularly important to narrative choice-driven games as thematic elements and dramatic questions, as I asserted earlier, are what the player is there to explore. They're what give the story weight, what the characters are there to learn, what seeds the most interesting conflicts, and therefore what the player most wants to interact with. It's no wonder I have such a difficult time getting into these stories when developers aren't thinking about that content at all, even when they're particularly strong at it; they're just adding it because they feel it's mandatory to put it in. 

This reflects my experiences with Dragon Age rather well, now that I come to think of it. The opening scenario slates the player as the son of a noble house. The player goes upstairs to deliver a message to his brother, then kills rats in the cellar; after that, there's an attack in the middle of the night as a visiting noble--whom the player met for all of two seconds and has no reason to suspect as a traitor--stages a coup d'├ętat. There's a lot of interesting elements here, certainly: rivalry between two noble houses during a desperate time, political strife, perhaps. It's almost the stuff of Shakespeare, but that's not what the player actually explores.

This, I find, illustrates the need for my system very effectively as we can build much more effective content by focusing on thematic elements and dramatic turns. More importantly, it gives me something I can use to focus my presentation.