Monday, December 26, 2011

The Necessary Information Awards: Best Use of Narration in a Video Game

It's the end of the year, and I have half-formed essays on a bunch of games from this year floating in my head, so I decided it was time to do what everyone always does with their half-formed thoughts at the end of the year: Hand out some awards! Whoo!

Our very first award in this, the inaugural Necessary Information Awards blogcast, is a very prestigious one: Best Use of Narration in a Video Game.

And the winner is....


There's a moment near the start of Bastion that I think I've seen mentioned in every review of the game. Your character, The Kid, has just received his first weapon, a hammer. And, if you're the standard gamer, you do what gamers do when given a smashing weapon and a destructible environment - you whale on everything in sight, seeing what pops out. But then...

"The kid just rages for a while..." That's Rucks, Bastion's narrator - or maybe more accurately, its storyteller - commenting on your actions and showing off the game's wonderful "dynamic narration" system.

There's nothing technologically impressive about dynamic narration - responding to player action is what games do, after all - but its use in Bastion allows the designers to tell an engaging story about the act of storytelling. Let's break down that first moment and try to understand why it's so affecting.

On the surface, it's simply clever - it's always fun when game designers anticipate common, or even bizarre, player action. It's also not especially groundbreaking - the TV Tropes article The Dev Team Thinks of Everything is full of fun examples of this sort of stuff. PC Gamer UK writer Tom Francis's in-development game Gunpoint, for instance, responds to players continuing to punch unconscious guards with a text pop-up reading "It, er, only takes one punch to knock them out." Hideo Kojima's games are as well-known for their responses to weird player behavior as they are for the sneaking action or bizarre metaplots.

So why is this moment special? Why does it stick in the mind? Because it allows you to feel empathy for the little guy you're controlling. Bastion is a story about the end of the world, and about the pain of surviving. You, you're just some schlub (or schlubette) holding a controller and smashing some boxes. But The Kid... Well, The Kid just watched his whole world get destroyed. Everyone he's ever known is dead. And when he picks up a hammer... The Kid just rages for a while.

Rucks's narration bridges the space between player action and character motivation, re-interpreting and providing in-universe meaning to the player's actions. You hit some buttons, and the game told you a story about it - again, you could argue that that sentence is what games fundamentally are, but, by addressing it directly, Bastion draws attention to the disconnect between you as a player and The Kid as a character - and invites you to empathize with the poor guy.

(The next paragraphs have spoilers for Bastion. If you haven't played it, I strongly recommend it - and it's on sale today on Steam, so... go! Fly, monkeys, fly. If you must read on, skip ahead until you see END OF SPOILERY BITS)

In Bastion, the world forms around The Kid as he moves, like a storybook being filled in with detail as the tale goes on. But the question is: Whose story?

Bastion is, essentially, a narrative told from two different perspectives to two different senses. Your eyes (and your hands) are playing the story as it's perceived by The Kid as he travels through Caelondia, slowly restoring it and searching for cores to repair the Bastion. At the same time, your ears are hearing Rucks's gravelly voice describe what's going on. These two stories almost always overlap and complement, but there are points of divergence.

The first comes when The Kid ventures into a poisonous swamp. The fumes force him into a dazed sleep, where the player must play through a demented nightmare that re-uses old areas in nonsensical ways, while Rucks's voice taunts and misdirects. Both senses are lying to the player, but it's a reminder that, for better or worse, the perspective that we, the players, are most attached to is that of The Kid's. Eyes and ears aside, The Kid is the one whose hands we control, the one whose choices we make.

And in the end, it is at another moment of choice that Rucks's control* of the narrative is potentially broken, where "his" story is shown to be just one perspective of many. In the end game, your "enemy" lies before you, abandoned and beaten by his own people for his crimes. There is no boss fight, no big speeches. Just a choice. Leave Zulf to his fate... or drop your weapons and carry him to safety. Pick the latter, pick the choice that the person telling the story wouldn't, and he'll go on talking... about how you must have left your foe behind. In that moment, Rucks's is wrong about what kind of story this is, and it's a wonderful moment of freedom, the feeling that you've broken an old narrative of revenge and fear in favor of something new.

And when you return to the Bastion, Rucks is no longer the only person with a voice. Now, your friend Zia can also talk (in all your previous descriptions, Rucks simply described what you said to each other), urging you not to follow Rucks's advice and use the Bastion to turn back time, but to move forward into a new story (and it's strongly implied that you should, that restoring Caelondia dooms the world to an endlessly repeating story of woe). By integrating its narration so fundamentally into the core of its gameplay, and then allowing the player to subvert and defy that narration, Bastion gave me one of the most enjoyable feelings of player freedom I've felt since the first time I told GLaDOS to go screw herself and escaped the fire pit at the end of Test Chamber 19.

*I'm kind of harsh to poor Rucks here - and it's one of Bastion's joys that our disembodied voice adviser doesn't inevitably turn evil like so many in the past. He just has a very particular perspective -one that makes him an active character instead of simply a narrator - and that allows him to be wrong at times.


Finally, it's hard to say too many positive things about Logan Cunningham's work as Rucks. His voice is soothing, compelling, funny, warm. It incentivizes exploration and achievements, because you know you'll get a little more of Rucks to reward you for it. In a game that is inherently about story-telling and narration, it would be impossible to care about any of this nonsense without an incredible voice anchoring the character.

So, congratulations, Mr. Cunningham, (and writer Greg Kasavin, and everyone else who helped to make this one of my favorite games of the year) - enjoy your meaningless, fake award!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Best Taekwondo Head Kick Knockouts

As per a search result I got today, I present: The Five Best Taekwondo Head Kick Knockouts

(Note: this list was written before the publication of John Hodgman's That Is All, which features, briefly, a similar joke about a town of Shirley Jackson worshipers. Given that this list is a deliberate homage/pastiche/rip-off of Hodgman's distinctive style, that seems somehow appropriate).

#5: 11:30 PM, 08/23/1986 - Sante Fe, NM - 500 ft above where the Gold's Gym used to be on San Mateo Boulevard

Kicker: Ryan Appleburry, disgruntled gym patron

Kickee: Milos Sardos, disgruntled Gold's Gym night janitor

The Kick: Accidentally performed while jumping from a helicopter, piloted by kickee.

Surviors: None, except for a series of How-to manuals, including "How to Rob a Gym," "How to Rappel from a Helicopter Without Kicking Anyone," and "Kako pilot helikoptera bez uzimaju─çi nogom u glavu," a Croatian edition of "How to Pilot a Helicopter Without Getting Kicked in the Head." Investigators at the scene determined that none of the books had ever been opened.

#4: 12:15 PM, 06/05/1960 - Berrywood, NH (Pop: 400)

Kicker: Berrywood, NH (Pop: 399)

Kickee: Mike Millsop (Pop: 1)

The Kick: Founded in a hidden valley in 1953 by a mixture of Korean monks and die-hard Shirley Jackson fans fearful of being swept up in Sen. Joe McCarthy's HUAC meetings, the town of Berrywood has long celebrated a quaint tradition. Every year, all of the residents gather in the Town Square and pass out copies of Jackson's famous story, "The Lottery." Whoever draws the copy of the story marked with a black dot is quickly seized, dragged onto a platform, and simultaneously Taekwondo Head Kicked by every other resident of the town. It is believed by the townspeople that this brutal sacrifice will ensure good harvests in the coming year, and also that it might convince Shirley Jackson to come visit some day, dispensing autographs and lyrical allegories for the evils of man. Tragically, it did. (See Best Taekwondo Head Kick Knockouts #2).

Survivors: These days, when HeadKick Day comes around, Berrywoodians wear foam shoes and cloud-spun socks, and kick effigies spun from the lightest gossamer, in the hopes that no one's feet might be indecently bruised. A local clown facepaints the children's cheeks with Shirley Jackson's grim visage. Much revelry, good-spirits, and laughter are had.

The corn harvests, needless to say, are terrible.

In Mike Millsop's day, you weren't considered a true Berrywood Bruiser unless you'd smelted the steel for your own steel-toed boots for HeadKick Day and brought laminated sheets to keep the blood off your new copy of The Lottery. I don't want to get into gross imagery, so I'll just say this: Mike Millsop popped like a pimple. And that's why he's #4.

#3: 2:30 PM, 03/18/1996 - The Set of the Movie "Space Jam"

Kicker: Beloved character actor and fifth-degree Black Belt Wayne Knight

Kickee: Michael Jordan

The Kick: It's a little known fact that, buried deep within one of his many mansions, Michael Jordan has a notebook. Inside it appear the words "I will not use the phrase 'Hey Newman, get me a beer, you fat little turd,'" repeated hundreds and hundreds of times, apparently under great duress.

Survivors: If you ask Jordan about the notebook, he'll look off into the distance for a moment, gently rubbing the back of his head. Then he'll ask if you want to see him dunk.

You will.

#2 12:15 PM - 6:30 PM, 06/05/1965 - Berrywood, NH (Pop. 397)

Kicker: Shirley Jackson

Kickee: Berrywood, NH (Pop. 397)

The Kick: From "The Haunting of High Kicks: How Shirley Jackson Kicked Us All In The Head," by Alex Millsop - "Perhaps it was some sleight of hand. Perhaps, as my grandad used to say, the Jackson woman was a Wordwitch, deadly in her wrath. Maybe the Lewis child, who handed out the books that day, had been playing with a pot of ink, supplied to him by sleight of hand, and brewed by a Wordwitch. I don't know.

In any case, every copy of The Lottery we handed out that day was marked with the Black Spot. All except Jackson's.

We lined up around the square, from oldest to youngest, and approached her as the wheat approaches the reaper [Ed. Note - like most Berrywood residents alive that day, Millsop suffered mild brain damage that plagued him until his death]. To each Berrywoodian, Jackson would bow, smile, and then dispatch with a perfect Taekwondo Head Kick Knockout. Unconscious bodies began to pile up on either side, but the woman was nothing if not determined. By the end of the afternoon, her foot had swollen to be the size of an egg that was the size of a loaf of bread! But she just kept kicking, kicking, kicking. Finally, she kicked the town's youngest resident, the aforementioned Ink-hand Lewis, and, with a smile, fell over, dead. We buried her in the quarry, then burnt the quarry down, and tried to forget any of this had ever happened. Frankly, I don't know why I'm writing this book. I should stop. Okay, I stopped."

Survivors: Jackson, whose literary style reflected a cynical disappointment in the follies of human nature that belied a hope that man might someday overcome his inhumanity to man, would never have willingly taken a life with her masterful Taekwondo skills. She was the only casualty of the day.

#1: ??/??/???? - Hypothetical Improbable Robot Testing Lab



The Kick: Sublime. Perfection. An arrow is built to arc through the air as a bird in flight, striking true its target. A poet's quill, to solidify glory on the page. A head kicking-robot to kick a robot designed to be kicked in the head. Who can deny the beauty of a purpose fulfilled?

Survivors: Please visit my Kickstarter page,'t-know-I'm-still-working-out-some-of-the-details-Oh-also-the-robot-knows-Taekwondo-the-kicking-robot-I-mean-not-the-other-one.html

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Timed Hits Part 2: Fight, Magic, Item, Cycle All Your Stats and Powers Into One of Hundreds of Different Templates, Run

Note: This is Part Two of "He knows WAAAAAAAY too much about Timed Hits", a series on how to breathe life back into RPG combat systems. Part One is here, Part Three is here

So, the question remains: How do you break up the monotony of the FIGHT/MAGIC/ITEM/RUN paradigm of RPG combat? Last time we looked at the addition of timing elements, and complete conversion to action gameplay. This time we'll take a look at how you can increase player engagement from within the "classic" turn-based RPG system. This essay focuses on how to increase the available choices open to players, while the next one will be about crafting challenges for the player that force them to innovate within the space you've given them.

How do you overcome boredom in RPG combat? Give the player more to think about, more to do.

This one is so basic that you'd be excused for thinking I was padding my list by adding it. But it really can't be overstated - finding ways to increase player choice, and making those choices more meaningful, is the cornerstone that's kept interest in the turn-based RPG alive. Every designer looking to work in the genre must figure out how to approach these issues if they hope to make an engaging game.

Repeating: For combat in a turn-based RPG to be successful, the player must be presented with varied, interesting decisions that evolve and change as the game progresses.

(I know that RPGs have long been seen as the domain of "story," and, certainly, some of my very favorite video game stories have been told in this genre. But there is nothing inherent to the turn-based RPG that makes it an ideal vector for good storytelling beyond the willingness of the people making them to try telling one. As that willingness has spread to other genres, turn-based RPGs have remained, if not as culturally dominant as they once were, at least still relevant. So, there must be some aspect of the games, beyond their narratives, that keeps them interesting to players.)

Characters as Trees (And no, I'm not just talking about Exdeath)

In a turn-based game, battles are reduced to a series of discrete decisions. These individual choices are the core of the combat experience, and they MUST be interesting if the player is going to be engaged.

Once again, we're starting from that ur-RPG, that basic building block from which so much innovation has been constructed: Dragon Warrior.

In Dragon Warrior, there's only one tree that choices are being pulled from, and it's very simple - the one representing the player character's combat actions. In any situation, you choose either Fight, Magic, Item, or Run. Magic and Item have sub-choices, but those choices carry the cost of using up resources (MP or the items themselves). This tree expands when new items or spells are obtained, and the values for some of the decisions can be altered by new equipment, but this is the basic structure through which the player responds to every challenge in the game. Further, each choice is an optimal response to a particular situation - Fight is ideal for dispatching weak opponents, Magic is needed to destroy strong opponents quickly, Item for emergency healing or the occasional rare buff, and Run when survival is uncertain. The strategic element of Dragon Warrior, then, is not one of devising real plans, but one of assessing the danger level from turn to turn and choosing which of the four basic responses is most appropriate.

Once you begin to add other party members, things become more interesting. Every active character in an RPG party is a separate decision tree, sometimes only distinguished by the odds and numerical effects of their basic commands (Bob's Fight command does more damage but hits less often than Mary's, say), but usually also featuring unique commands that allow them to fulfill specific battle roles. A typical "White Mage" character, for instance, will have a tree featuring a fairly weak Fight command, but will compensate for this by having a much more complex Magic sub-tree, allowing the player to make more nuanced decisions about what type of healing or support they want to give their party via this decision.

By presenting the player with not one single decision tree, but multiple trees being cycled as character turns come up, we vary the gameplay experience (Hopefully. Early RPGs often fell into the trap of giving "Fighter" classes an extremely simplistic tree in exchange for a reduced need for healing and an increase in the power of the "Fight" command. Useful in-game, but not tactically very interesting. Later games often give the Fighter a selection of different types of strikes to use, each with different costs and effects). In a static party, though, even these multiple trees can only get you so far. To keep things interesting on the player side, we need to vary the trees/characters available.

The easiest way to vary the trees available to the player is to switch characters out of the party as the plot demands. After all, in the context of the whole game, a character isn't just the sum of the choices they allow in battle, but a hopefully well-realized person with their own motivations (Final Fantasy V gives us an interesting inversion of this, where a new character replaces a party member, but keeps the former character's abilities and, consequently, their decision tree). At the same time, new mandatory party configurations force the player to adopt new strategies to take advantage of the shifts in the decisions available to them (This can be used for narrative weight, too. For example, the sequence in Final Fantasy IV in which the Dark Knight Cecil escorts fragile-but-powerful wizards Palom, Porom, and, later, Tellah, up Mt. Ordeals is both an interesting gameplay challenge - keeping your "Glass Cannons" safe until they can take out your enemies with their spells- and reflects on Cecil's journey from invading general to stalwart protector).

Still, by assigning specific decision trees/characters to the player, an avenue for player choice is removed, possibly hampering engagement. To redress this, we have to take a step back from the battles we've been focusing on so far, and look to party composition and character (tree) customization.

Uh...If we bring more than three people into the dungeon, it'll.... explode. Yeah. - Party Composition

By choosing the members of your party, you're making a choice about which decision trees are being presented to you in battle. It's now up to you to figure out which sets of choices dovetail, intersect, and overlap in ways that allow you to win battles with the lowest amount of resources expended. Some games do this by allowing you to choose character classes at the outset (based on various decision-impacting features, such as the class's cost to operate and the "bushiness" of their decision tree) and letting the character trees develop as a natural outgrowth of the class (the first Final Fantasy game, for instance).

Others give you a certain pre-set number of characters and ask you to form a viable party from these ingredients. This can vary from a small group of potential characters (Final Fantasy VIII's three-person teams formed out of six total party members) to a staggeringly large one (Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, which has three party slots that may be filled by any of the game's 300+ recruitable demons). The key to generating interest here is to create a variety of trees that are distinct from each other, but which interact in useful ways. A large roster of playable characters means nothing if it doesn't reflect an increase in interesting choices available to the player. In terms of combat, distinct characters are less important than the distinct decision trees they represent.

It's at this point that meaningful strategies can begin to develop, allowing a player to tune their party to individual strengths or to countering a particular challenge. The player ceases to reactively pick one of the choices presented by the game, but to begin creating their own.

Get a Job System! - Character Customization

Beyond choosing which decision trees to include in the battle, most games also allow the player to customize their characters; that is, use in-game systems to edit the decision tree each character represents. This can and has been done in a vast multitude of ways, but one pitfall that needs to be avoided is one of homogeneity. This relates to something I call "the problem of the optimal," something one of my favorite game writers, PC Gamer UK's Tom Francis, discussed recently in the context of his stealth game Gunpoint. To wit, if there is a clearly optimal solution to a problem, most rational players will choose it. Any choice presented to the player between an optimal option and something else is a false choice, and player freedom isn't really being expanded. In RPGs with extensive customization, this can be seen in character decision trees that narrow down and become extremely similar to each other (Final Fantasy 7 is the example that leaps to mind, where endgame characters essentially act as holders for the modular Materia that represent actual player choice in battle). If there is a "correct" character build, one that overcomes in-game obstacles most efficiently, most players will choose it.

The obvious solution is to establish game challenges in such a way that there is no single "optimal" build (more on this later). But it's also possible to constrain character customization in ways that still allow the player significant choice in their available combat options. Anyone who's spent any time with World of Warcraft or similar games will be familiar with the multitudes of ways designers have tried over the years to inject variety into the standard Tank/DPS/Healer paradigm (although competitive environments like MMORPGs are usually extremely aggressive in working out mathematically "optimal" character builds and punishing players who do not follow them - again, limiting player choice). In single player games, the Etrian Odyssey series on the DS stands out for including a larger-than-average set of distinct classes, each of which contains multiple specialized sub-classes based on which skills the player chooses to invest points in. In essence, you end up with a party of five hand-tailored decision trees, each focused on a different aspect of combat, each reflecting a conscious, engaged choice on the part of the player.

I firmly believe that enjoyable gameplay derives from a sense of player accomplishment, a feeling that I, as the player, was victorious because of the choices I made. By expanding those choices (while, possibly, quietly guiding players toward more useful options), the designer allows me to feel responsible for my victories in a way that a more game-controlled system wouldn't allow.

Of course, all the choices in the world are meaningless if the obstacles I'm overcoming with them aren't interesting and challenging. Next time, we'll talk about how the other side lives - how enemies and bosses in turn-based RPGs drive player innovation and engagement.