Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Unique Snowflakes

It isn't a coincidence that all engaging stories are about someone. Sure, they often stray into the realm of being about something, but while metaphor and meaning are interesting they are not the meat of great tales. It all comes back to character, because character is where conflict and resolution lie. The draw of character is so powerful that many non-fiction writers use it too. The most compelling biographies, true crime novels, history books, marketing books, whatever, draw you in by creating or relating characters to you, or even go so far as to make you a character in their narrative. They build a sympathetic connection you are able to follow, tying you to the actions and motivations of the characters. The main character(s) become proxies for your own temporary escapism. We read to be transported which happens best when we connect to a character and, in some small way, become them.

Games with immersive storytelling in their core design usually depict the main character as a strongly defined individual or a faceless avatar. On one had you have characters with recognizable profiles, pronounced design, carefully written dialog, and even voice acting. The character is crafted to fit the role and each touch builds a better character. The idea is to create a strong link with the avatar by making it distinct and catchy — something you would want to emulate. The other hand holds the blank, generic, undefined, and sometimes unshown visage. There is minimal writing, and almost never any voiced dialog. By leaving the avatar as blank as possible the designer hopes that the player will imagine himself in the role, adding their own (possibly adopted) behaviors and reactions to the character to bring it to life. These techniques are amplified echoes of similar character development styles in traditional writing, but with a heavier focus on agency. The players are encouraged to become the characters, either by emulating the character given, or by assuming the role of the character left blank.

It is this agency in games that acts as a further step towards transparent escapism, when done properly. Rather than following along inside the character's head, or hovering, invisible, just over their shoulder, we take control. We inhabit their head, decide their motivations, direct their actions, and reap their rewards directly. Agency is the most powerful interactive story tool because the direct connection we have to the character can be exploited to create tension, conflict, and other story elements. Properly directed, and with a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief a game may even be able to induce self-reflection and internal change in the player. I'm getting off track. The question I want to address is: why is understanding character connections and motivations important for video games?

Focus and Intent

A book that is written from the perspective of a nobody who inhabits a world where nothing interesting happens is boring. No one would read it because there is no conflict, and our connecting character is uninteresting. Even books that claim to be about nothing, or have boring characters, are lying; the theme is a facade for the internal conflicts and meat of the story happening inside the outwardly boring world. I just want you to imagine the impossibility of a narrative that has no story, because nothing happens. Now we can make a small change and create story without altering our boring character: Make Mr. Boring a witness to interesting things happening to other people. Conflicts create interest, but notice that the focus is now on world (and people) that surround our non-character. The focus has shifted without our intended avatar changing. You can move the focus back to our boring guy by having the interesting things around him change him. With the conflict internalized again (even if the actual events are happening to a 3rd party), our relationship is now with our intended character again and nothing interesting has to happen to him directly. Notice that he also isn't as boring as he used to be. Of course this would make for a shit game.

In a story and character focused game (like most cRPGs, MMOGs, FPSs, and Platformers), if there is nothing interesting happening to your avatar in the game world then there is no direct action, and passivity makes for unsatisfying gameplay (hence all the complaints about cut-scenes). So games tend to be about exciting things happening to you. And because games are relatively immature (as a storytelling form), they tend to be about fantastic things happening to you. So you fight Hordes of Terrible Monsters and Save the World, or battle the Unstoppable Armada and Save the Galaxy, or travel through Impossible Worlds and single-handedly Save the Princess from captivity. You act and your heroic efforts turn the tide and save the day. You are special and important (the mantra of all good escapism, and most public schools), or you become so because to do otherwise would — we assume — be boring. This is the general motivating force behind most non-abstract games, from Mario to Shadow of the Colossus. The fiction is that you are the center of the world's attention, the sole hero. So what happens when you aren't alone?

Repeat After Me

Everyone's special, Dash.

Which is another way of saying no one is.

One of the things I find absurd about many MMOGs is that they try to support a focused story and a core linear narrative. Everyone follows the same quests, does the same trials, fights the same bosses, gets the same loot (Corvus beat me to talking about this). You sit down, you load up, you log into a city where everyone is a hero or villain (can anyone guess which game I'm think of as I write this?). In fact the active, intelligent population is 100% special, with abilities far above the "norm" of society. Except the game isn't about living in a world peopled with superhumans (or Underwear Perverts). The narrative being told is about how your actions affect a world filled with normal, helpless people. Normal, helpless people that had to be invented. I find it bizarre that in a world where everyone has incredible power the majority of the population has to be created out of digital stuff. Special people wouldn't be special without everyone else. To support the player-as-hero infrastructure, the world has to be constantly refreshed and maintained, rebuilt and changed, so that the repetitiveness of the actual gameplay can be hidden beneath a thin, shifting veneer of self-important storytelling.

Jeff Freeman and Raph Koster have been recently back-and-forthing about rewards in a linear style MMOG. Their discussion has been mostly about how rewards are related to progress and prestige, and how those status symbols are corrupted by a system that allows people to purchase advancement. I'm more interested in Raph's later comments about the control developer's have over the feedback the game provides. In one comment he says this:
With the games we’re making now, people are mostly going around and doing stuff independent of one another. We aren't even measuring and then giving out prizes based on how WELL they slew the dragon — just that they took the ride.

Reaching New Depths

Eventually, video games will strive to new depths of creativity, interactivity, and (ultimately) storytelling. What that may look like is anyone's guess. It may also depend on how we play our games in the future. Games intended to be played alone may look very different from games intended to be played in community. Single-player stories can achieve incredible levels of pathos if we learn to use the tools of storytelling we have in new ways. Massive worlds may become interesting and sustainable if we learn to create balance and diversity that allows players to tell their own stories from anywhere inside the complex world of the game. Realism isn't something that the graphics designers have to worry about. Storytellers, world builders, game designers have to be reaching for new ways to make something real — tell something true — in the story-worlds that they are building, whether they are meant for one or meant for many.

Perhaps the greatest design change we can look forward to is the realization that different tools lead to different ends. As an outside observer I see a lot of time and effort being thrown at "problem areas", when oftentimes the answer isn't in the code. This is a common engineering design flaw which has bled into games through programmers (engineers of instruction sets) and designers (engineers of play structures). We see something that we think needs a particular solution and single-mindedly drive through hell and high water to find a solution. What we often miss is the beautiful and elegant solutions already around us, and the irony. I'll illustrate with a simple question:

Why are single-player games being designed to solve the problem of complex social interactions, while massive online worlds are being designed as linear stories with limited playable scope?


  1. Great post! So much to comment on... let me start with these two:

    I agree that character is central to the narrative experience. But rather than being more important than metaphor, I'd call it the primary metaphoric hook -- the one representing your audience.

    I do feel that it wouldn't be terribly exciting to log into a MOG and play a non-adventurous character. My issue with current MOG design is that no matter what sort of character you play, you wind up having the exact same experience. Rogues hunt lions, warriors fight elemental, mages go toe to toe with armies of Orcs. No differentiating flavor exists.

  2. I would argue that, carefully crafted, many different types of play (including non-adventurous) should be possible and compelling in an online world. Look at Star Wars Galaxies before the focus change. There were people who played purely to craft, or build homes, or facilitate those professions. Some of the better non-combat specialists even had complete supply lines - harvesters and sales people - so they could concentrate on one aspect. Eve Online does a similar thing. There are places and jobs that never require you to take up arms, if you want to play them that way.

    I'd like to see that kind of living diversity grow within the online worlds. Then people's personal stories can develop into aspects of the meta-story told by the world itself.

  3. We're actually agreeing, but using adventure in different ways. The fault is mine, so let me refine my statement.

    I think it wouldn't be terribly exciting to log into a MOG and play a non-mythic character. What we're aiming to provide with the HoneyComb Engine is the ability to have a mythic play experience which meets your story needs, whether your story needs involve baking, money laundering, cat burglary, arena combat, or monster hunting.