Monday, February 21, 2011

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.

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