Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Plague of Arrows: Yes, I’m Actually Explaining the Joke

Skyrim GuardLook at this guard. What do you know about him? He doesn’t have a name. He doesn’t have a face. You don’t know him. You don’t know his friends or family, or if he even has either. To you he’s background noise as you navigate the city-scapes of Skyrim, with no more history, hopes, or dreams than the shrubs. Well, except for one thing (all together now):

He was once and adventurer like you, until he took an arrow to the knee.

There’s a lot of information in that statement. Now you know that this guy lived a life of danger. He raided burial mounds, fought bandits, and collected piles of treasure. He was living the medieval fantasy equivalent of the good life. Then one fateful day, a single arrow shattered his knee. The injury was too severe for the healers to do anything about. His bum knee is too much a liability to keep up the adventuring life. Now he’s a lowly town guard, the equivalent of the desk job, never to see the adventuring life again.

That’s a hell of a specific story, even with a lot of those details being assumed parts of the standard narratSimpsons McBain bitive. As far as character backgrounds go, it’s not bad. If you learned that detail about Guardsman Greg, you’d think, “tough luck, Greg.” Then you’d steal all his shit, ensuring that he’ll never get that promotion. Normally that would be the end of it.

But life in Skyrim is not that kind to guards. You walk down to the end of the street to find Greg’s pal, Guardsman Steve. And you learn, strangely, Steve was also once an adventurer. And he also had his career stolen by an injury. And wouldn’t you know it, it was also to the knee. And you go to a third guard, and it’s the same. And a fourth. And so on. And before you realize it, there’s only one of two explanations:

1) There’s a serial sniper out there, looking to ruin the lives of adventurers.

2) You’re playing a video game.

Now, I know I’ve said in previous blogs that the player always knows they’re playing a video game, and we aren’t going to fool them into thinking otherwise. I’m not trying to contradict that. Where the Arrow-in-the-knee bit is problematic is that it is an unintentional break in the agreed parameters in the player’s reading of the game. The player understands that the compass and quest text and the unsustainable bandit population are all part of the game’s conventions. These mechanical elements are not immersion breaking because the player understands they’re part of the media.

The same is true with interacting with the game world and NPCs. Bartleby the ScrivenerIf an NPC has a specific name, he is a particular individual in the world of Skyrim, and his dialogue and place in the world are therefore allowed a good degree of specificity. Bartleby the Blacksmith can have a birthday, a social security number, and a tragic, unfulfillable balloon fetish. If Bartleby dies, that’s the end of Bartleby and his temporally-inappropriate looner desires.

If the NPC’s name is actually a job or archetype, he’s a faceless mook, interchangeable with anyone else with the same name. Assassin is just a jerk that kills people for money. Kill Assassin, and it’s completely okay if you encounter another Assassin five minutes later.

That is, so long as the fidelity on Assassin’s written content is dialed back. “I’ve got you now!” and “I sure do like money,” are just about the right sort of innocuous tone for an infinitely repeating faceless mook. It’s in line with his place in the world as presented to the player, while creating no incongruities. Now, if every third Assassin yells, “I have a lazy ovary!” then suddenly there’s a dissonance.

Ezio from Assassin's Creed

And players are smart. They know how that shit is supposed to read. It’s like in the difference between noticing the seams in Kermit’s face and seeing a boom mic drop down into frame: The viewer understands to ignore the physical reality of the seams, and invest in the character being portrayed; but that boom mic, that was an unintentional goof by someone on the crew, and now the viewer is just watching a manufactured piece.

No player seriously reads Skyrim as being plagued by handicapped guards. If the same reading convention for all the other mook lines—that they’re safe to take at face value for everyone of batman BAM!that archetype—is applied to the arrow story, then the world of Skyrim contains an element of farce at odds with the rest of the work. (Here I’m ignoring M’aiq the Liar and other smaller, clearly intentional elements.)

To be completely fair to Bethesda, by and large they were spot-on in avoiding this problem with their dialog. Bandits and assassins say appropriately mean but generic things. Named NPCs have varying degrees of backstory and personalities, with no blatant repetition. Given the scope of the game, this is impressive as hell.

It’s the high level of control on the rest of the game dialogue that made the arrow-to-the-knee meme take off. The fidelity is too high, too specific. It creates dissonance in the narrative. That dissonance is the source of the humor in the meme. Nearly every Reading is Fundamentalpermutation of the joke revolves around X being a Y, until X takes an arrow to the knee. It’s that specific detail, “arrow to the knee”, that is the punch line. We laugh (maybe) because the joke is presenting the narrative exactly how Skyrim suggests it should be read.

So if you find yourself writing barks, mook dialogue, or any other repetitive content, take care you know in what context your words will be read. Details can enrich a narrative, but careless detail can just as easily break it. You can’t always rely on your game being a runaway hit to redeem it.

Spawn's Redeemer

Thursday, November 10, 2011

SR3 Fun: Ben from Full Throttle

Hey guys. Sorry for the downtime. If you've been following CCP news at all, you can probably gather things have been a bit busy in the last few months.

As a shameless distraction, here's Full Throttle's Ben lovingly recreated in the Saints Row 3 Initiation Station.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Deus Ex: Gonna Go Back in Time

Invisible War Box ArtIf you’re at all into them-there video games, you probably know that Deus Ex: Human Revolution hits the US this week. Like many nerds of my age bracket, I can’t wait to put on some mirror shades and fight the technocratic oligarchy. (Scientists now believe Invisible War would have sold a billion more units if the PCs had mirror shades.)

If you haven’t played Deus Ex (because you weren’t a PC gamer at the time, you aren’t into FPSes, or— god help us— you weren’t fucking born yet), the game still has a lot to offer a modern player.

Deus Ex is a cyber-punk FPS-RPG that depicts a world rebuilding after a devastating economic collapse. Sovereign nations are giving way to a global community. New advances in technology at once give governments a tighter grip, but also empower rebellious factions and civil war. And the hero is a nanotechnologically enhanced super-soldier, working for an counter-terrorism group formed after a terrorist attack on New York City.

In short, it is almost the perfect representation of the post-9/11 zeitgeist.

Except it came out in 2000.

Deus Ex NY SkylineOkay, back up again. That stuff I said up there about the plot? With the terrorists and the technology boom and the governments collapse? That’s all true. Those things happen. But I’m selectively elevating certain elements. These are the bits that stick out to me as I’m playing back through. These are the parts that are reverberating, bouncing around in my 2011 head.

Something’s off, though. It’s not like the game only became a hit after 9/11. I’m irrationally proud to say I played Deus Ex when it dropped in 2000, and I played the shit out of it. The story was just as strong then as it was a year later. But what was Deus Ex actually reacting to?

Buckle up for a journey in the Wayback Machine. We’re taking a trip to the 90s.

(Also, fuck New Critics.)

Fresh PrinceDo you remember the 90s? It’s okay if you don’t. It was a bit of a shit decade. Parachute pants, grunge, Howard Stern, Russian mob, Windows 95 release parties. When 90s nostalgia comes around, I will force VH1’s “I Love the 90s” off the air with my pure hate until people forget that horrible null space of human development.

Shit, where am I? Right, the 90s. There’s some stuff that’s easy to forget now.

If you forgot or were absent, we were actually paranoid as fuck about terrorism before 9/11. And it seemed not without warrant. There was the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. The US embassies in Kenya and Tanzia were bombed in 1998. Jihadist terrorists have been kicking around long before that, but we’ll stick with the 90s here.

So yeah, Deus Ex already had a lot of terrorist stuff to play off of. Except foreign terrorists weren’t the biggest boogeyman at the time. It was us.

There was this fear in the back of the American consciousness that we were a country coming apart at the seems. Ruby Ridge and its big-budget sequel, Waco, in the early 90s gave us the Oklahoma Musicalimage of US agencies violently botching raids on US citizens. With bullets. And fire. I think there was a tank, too. The Oklahoma city bombing—the big sumbitch of the 90s—showed the destructive potential individuals could pose to those very same agencies. And with the arrest of Ted Kaczynski in 1996, the series of events got its meta-narrative through an American-bred-crackpot’s manifesto.

Sum of All Fears movie posterFor a while, it seemed that around was a group of survivalist nuts out in Montana preparing for the next American Revolution against big government. So when Deus Ex set told 2000 players they were fighting a group of domestic terrorists called the Northwest Secessionist Forces, they weren’t whiting up the terrorists (thanks, Sum of All Fears). Domestic terrorism was demonstrably a very real threat. When Deus Ex was released, it had only been 5 years since Oklahoma City. We’re twice that past 9/11 now. Unless something bigger happens, it takes a while to forget that shit.

There are a host of other things going on in the story that still work, but have lost some of their context. Like greys. Remember them? The little alien dudes that just couldn’t get enough of abducting people. They were bigger than fat Elvis. Fire in the Sky, The X-Files, Men in Black, etc., made greys and the related men-in-black common figures in the popular conscious. So, Deus Ex is a game about government conspiracies and stabbing MiB’s in the face with a laser sword? Gotta have some greys in there. (Granted, making them mutated venom-spitting monkeys was goddamn outta left field.)

Speaking of X-Files, any discussion of the original Deus Ex has to bring up FEMA. In Deus Ex, the bad guys plot to overthrow the US government with injudicious use of FEMA’s emergency powers. Declare emergency, declare martial law and nullify the constitution. Today, that plot sounds goddamn ridiculous. Well, okay in 2000 it was crazy-pants paranoia stuff too, but it wasn’t zany. But in 90s conspiracy theory land, the emergency powers FEMA could use were a popular topic. Sure, FEMA hadn’t overthrown the government yet, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t. Post-Katrina? Obama’s Death Panels sound like a more reasonable threat.

Millennialism was also big. That giant round magic number was coming up, and goddamn if we weren’t heading towards something apocalyptic because of it. Suicide cults were offing themselves to get on the Hale-Bopp comet. Angel sightings were vying for real estate with the greys. And we were paranoid as fuck that our technology was out to get us.

Bad political toon on Y2K

Oh, I can still taste that sweet Y2K paranoia. All of our computers were going to run out of magic year bits when the year hit 2000, making every computer convinced it was Jesus-o-clock. The punishment for our folly was going to be the simultaneous collapse of the internet, banking, and a huge fuck-off nuclear holocaust. Y2K clearly didn’t destroy civilization, and looking back at it all you can really see is a number of embarrassing newscasts and sitcom episodes about stockpiling canned tomatoes. But Deus Ex builds off the millennial tone perfectly. Deus Ex presents a world filled with hubris and apocalypse, all through a veil of anxiety over the progress of technology.

So where does that leave the current reading of Deus Ex? Are people going to enjoy it less without the 90s anxieties and concerns pulsing in their heads? Of course not. I played Deus Ex on a nearly yearly basis for ten years after launch, and I forgot most of that 90s shit in the first two. Hell, I had to Google half of that just to write this up.

Deus Ex is a large and complicated game that asks a lot of political and philosophical questions. Its questions aren’t about the 90s any more than they’re about post-9/11. They’re about the relationship between power and corruption, security and freedoms, and the march of technology. The topics and events that Deus Ex presents can be read and re-interpreted in almost any year, and the odds are good that the reading will hold up. Like any good work, it lives beyond its original context and loses none of its real impact.

And that is why you should just goddamn play Deus Ex.

JC Denton

Monday, August 1, 2011

Pictures Are Like Content

Hey all. No big post today. I hope to have something ready for you a bit later on.

As an apology/distraction, I offer a picture of this amazing piece of promotional brilliance.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Item Descriptions: Your First Steps Into Madness

Vehicle VoltronYou’re a writer on a moderately-sized game studio. The world build is solid. Your lore bible is synergizing the shit out of people,  like Moses and MLK forming Voltron at a team-building camp. And those scenarios you’ve worked on with the LDs? Nobody will ever forget the Omaha Beach Bouncy Castle level.

Wait, what’s that creeping up the schedule? Surprise! GD’s got a collection of some 200 items ready for production. Grab your hammer, word smith, because it’s time to stamp out item descriptions, the hubcaps of video game writing.

1. What’s Your Word Budget?

Words per item. Figure this out. Live by it. Adopt it as your new god. Worship it above all others. Render the temple of your fathers to dust in the name of the word budget.

A word budget is not precisely word count. Word count measures the whole deliverable. How many words you have to play with for all the descriptions. The word count itself is determined through a lot of factors (memory, localization costs, etc.), but I’m assuming the larger word count was set elsewhere in the great chain of production.

The word budget is instead how many words you get to use for any given description. At the simplest level, you can figure out your budget with some magic middle-school level algebra:

Word Count / Number of Items = Word Budget

Let’s say you have a total word count of 30k to work with. With 200 items, that leaves you with a budget of 150 words per item. For most games, that’s pretty damn good.

Hamlet & PoloniusKeep in mind that, in a vacuum, the word budget is something that can be shifted around. Let’s say of those 200 items, 50 are super special death-spitting guns that GD wants to make sure get highlighted. So each of those are bumped up to 250 words. That leaves 17500 words for the rest, or roughly 115 words per item.

Most likely each individual item is going to shift a bit. Some will be a bit above, some a bit below. Just remember that when you use extra words in one, you’re really taking them from elsewhere. If you remain faithful to the budget, your work will look consistent and production won’t have an aneurism.

If all of your descriptions keep blasting past the budget, and you don’t make the cuts yourself, someone else is going to do the cutting. And if you make the boss man cut back your words, it won’t take him long to figure out it’s easier to just cut you.

2. What Information Are You Communicating?

Item descriptions can end up doing a lot of work. Generally speaking, there are about four common jobs: Quick Reference, Mechanics Explanation, Lore, and Cheap Joke.

Quick Reference

Just what the hell is this item? In an ideal world the name would cover this case. But even the clearest naming convention can get confusing for a player, particularly in a game with a lot of items. Sometimes the best thing for it is to slam in a bit of text spelling out what the item is.

“This is a gun. It can be used to murder people.”

Clint Eastwood with a gun

Sweet. Now the player knows this item can be used to murder. Quick, clean, direct.

If you have a particularly lengthy description, make sure this bit gets to the top. A player calmly looking for lore or to crunch the numbers on the stats will breeze past the quick reference without much complaint. A player frustrated and confused by your items will have no tolerance for your epic Jim Henson’s Storyteller bullshit. They’ll hate your game and you if you make them trudge through just do find out what the damn bauble he’s looking at is.

Mechanics Explanation

So we know what the object is, but what the hell does it do? Does it spit bullets? Does it heal you? Does it pop up when the turkey’s done? How many gold pieces is it really worth?

Many modern games now have magic UI elements spit most of this out with no authored words. Most MMO players are familiar with the now ubiquitous DPS stat on their weapon descriptions, as well as the usual array of stat bonuses. Check with your UI guys to see what’s being covered by the system. Retreading ground is sloppy, and uses up precious words. Words you can use on cheap jokes.

Louis XVISometimes the item has a mechanic that the generated stat block doesn’t handle. Take the Potion of Regicide. This diabolical poison is specially designed to only kill royal characters (i.e., it will instantly kill the quest target, but doesn’t work anywhere else, so screw you). So it’s best you put something appropriate in the text.

“Right-click to activate, left-click on target: Use this to instantly kill King Reginald. Will not work on non-royal characters.”

And hey, remember the UI guys? They probably have a style guide they’d like everything to follow. And it turns out mechanics should be in green. So play nice. Green it up.

Right-click to activate, left-click on target: Use this to instantly kill King Reginald. Will not work on non-royal characters.


Next Gen's Data and LoreLore in item descriptions is not a universal thing. Some games go nuts with lore info. Others play it conservatively.

A story-heavy RPG can use item descriptions to deliver great tomes of lore. That Glowing Sword of Pain-Stab? Turns out it’s the sword used by Grothar to kill the Old Gods, in the Time Before Dreams Ended. Kind of a big deal. But there’s no room in the schedule to get that worked into your VOed quests or any of the promo material. Cheapest solution is to write up some text and staple it right to the motherfucker. You’re up, writer-dude! Vomit forth many words!

By contrast, a sci-fi FPS can be relatively light on words. The Tridoclops Arms Sniper Rifle will have maybe fifty words. “This gun has a 20,000 inch barrel, and is used to assassinate moons.” Hooray! Back to shooty!

Depending on the project you might get a lot or only a little creative freedom here. An IP with a strict bible and a lot of hands in the lore bucket is probably going to have a quadrillion eyes on the item descriptions. Other games, particularly those with original IPs, may have the majority of their world build created through item descriptions. Just make sure you know which one you’re doing before you try to establish the tortured history of your primary trading town in the description of a vendor-trash trout carcass.

Cheap Joke

Despite its general uselessness, this is actually the second most common element in item description strings (after mechanics). It’s not terribly surprising. There’s a long tradition of one-line jokes attached to items, going back to Diablo, Magic cards, and D&D critters/items before that.

But the real reason—the super secret one that we all have to cop to if we’re pushed—is that we do them to entertain ourselves. We have 200 goddamn descriptions to burn through. Any writer left to his own devices long enough starts going to Silly Town (usually with their trusty sidekick, beer, in tow). If the writer isn’t being checked by a peer review or editor, the writer’s slow decent into madness will be documented well in the form of puns and pop culture references.

Mouth of Madness

That’s not to say joke descriptions are always a negative. World of Warcraft famously took the trend and made it a part of their style. Even EVE Online, the dark science fiction game of cheating your friends, has had some success with cheap jokes.

When EVE Content made an item called “the Device”, we were well down the road to Silly Town. One of our mandates at that time was to only create items that can be reused multiple times. The more generic, the better. So when it came time to create another item retrieval mission, one of our writers decided to poke lightly at both the policy and the whole MacGuffin structure to MMO missions. It commanded the player to retrieve an object, simply called the “Device.” Its description read:

This is a thing. It does stuff.

Now again, this was—at its core—a cheap joke on our part to amuse ourselves. But goddamn if players didn’t latch onto it. The Device developed its own following in the community. It has a facebook page. Its been used in trivia contests. A year later another writer came along and found the object, and decided to change the description to something a self-respecting professional would write. The fan outcry was so immediate that the text was reverted within a week of the patch note going out.

So yes, be careful with your cheap jokes. Maintain tone, and treat your property with the respect it deserves. But the occasional joke can be damned powerful.

3. What Are Your Narrative Tools?

This last part is seemingly simple, but its also the part that’s easiest to be inconsistent with. Just what narrative tools will you be using in your item descriptions? What voice are you using? What’s the style?

Dungeon MasterMost games just chuck the old D&D style description at things. Omniscient third, maybe with some second-person sensory stuff if you feel like it. And that’s perfectly doable. So many games come from the D&D mold that the GM-speak description seems natural. But if that’s the route you’re going to go, make sure its consciously.

Suppose you’re working in a spy property. Why work in generic terms for your item descriptions? Make the descriptions excerpts from CIA intel. Or what if your game is actually being framed by a storyteller character? Write the item descriptions in his voice, and let his personality seep in. In each case you’re not just conveying all the information you wanted, but your enriching the narrative of the world itself. This is double-awesome-win.

The Fourth Wall

Before I close, I’ll briefly touch the fourth wall issue. The odds are good that unless you’re working in an extremely jokey property or you’re otherwise working in a meta conceit, you do not want to directly remind the player he’s playing a video game in the fluff text.

The key phrase there is in the fluff text. Yes, keep your delicate world building and jokes and sagas in their appropriate mode, and don’t break immersion when you don’t have to. But if you’re trying to communicate something important to the player that could directly impact the way he interacts with the game, err on the side of clarity. Immersion is great, but the effect of breaking the fourth wall is too often overplayed for fear of taking the player out of the game.

Players know they’re playing a video game. They aren’t fooled by our bright flashing lights and loud noises into thinking they’ve entered some dream world.

Unless they’re epileptic.

But if it relates to a mechanic that it would be best the player has a clear understanding of, just outright tell it. If the game is any fun, the player will quickly get over the break in character. A mechanic obfuscated by fancy words or over-contextualization, however, will kick a player out of your world faster than any errant mention of mouse buttons.


In short, be kind to your player. Be clear.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Stormtrooper copsI’m walking around Taris, right? I just got done murdering a Sith officer and a couple of faceless troopers for being unpleasant to a jabbering alien guy (an alien guy whom—it must be noted—seemed to have some experience completely vanishing dead bodies). So, like you do after successfully killing intergalactic authority figures, I’m off to the bar to celebrate.

(Wait, sorry. I meant I’m off to the cantina. Because one scene in Star Wars took place in a cantina, the rest of the goddamn universe is robbed of bars, saloons, lounges, taverns, and dives. It’s like there are only two types of eatery licenses available: cantinas, and that Silver Diner Obi Wan went to when he was too lazy to do his own homework.)

I get to the bar (fuck you, Star Wars style guide), and there’s some dude standing around asking if I want to play cards. Only he calls it Pazaak. Sure, okay, like in the old west, right? Well, see, it turns out it’s not so much. It’s a lot like cards. Hell, it’s a lot like blackjack. But someone’s gone and spaced it all up.

Pazaak boardI’m not trying to make 21, I’m trying to make 20.

And I don’t just take whatever the hell I’m dealt. I get to play special cards from my hand, like in hold’em.

But instead of each player being dealt from the same deck, I only get to use cards that you own, like in Magic.

And there are these special cards, see, that allow me to switch up the values of the cards and OH MY GOD I WILL SHOOT YOU IN THE FACE, SPACEMAN.

For the life of me there are two things I will never fully appreciate about modern RPGs:

1) Every RPG developer feels the need to include a gambling mini-game.

2) Every RPG developer feels the need to reinvent gambling games.

KotOR is not the only RPG to do this bullcrappery. Witcher has its dice games. Mass Effect has Quasar. New Vegas. Etc. And each time it ends up annoying me.

Witcher Dice Game

My main problem is this: Pazaak is making the familiar strange—needlessly.

Almost every time a relatively straightforward game is muddied up and overcomplicated for no good reason. To go back to Pazaak, the game is goddamn blackjack. But sure, there’s no blackjack in Star Wars. So target number is changed to 20. Whatever. But there’s a hand to play from. Now it’s self-indulgent. On top of that, there are special wild cards that make it wacky. Now we’re in silly-land.

Why was blackjack so bad? Are there that many GDs with frustrated dreams of being tabletop designers, and this is the only way that their designs see the light of day in a world where physical gaming products are a dying market?

Perry Bible Fellowship Comic

Oh, right.

But that still doesn’t mean it’s a good reason. Mini-games should not be a place to work through creative frustrations and insecurities.

That’s what blogs are for.

Here I give some credit to New Vegas, for sticking to traditional gambling games for the most part. I get slot machines, I get roulette, I get blackjack. Didn’t have to wasteland it all up just for its own sake.

I blame Star Trek’s Tri-D chess for this. If you don’t know, in Star Trek everyone plays three-dimensional chess. It’s like normal chess, but instead of one flat board there are three or four smaller boards in a weird sort of tower. And what are the rules? Spock kicks everyone’s ass until Kirk does something unexpected. That’s fucking it because it doesn’t need real rules. It serves the same damn function as normal chess.

Wikipedia tells me that there are three-dimensional chess variants, but Star Trek didn’t give a shit. It’s a visual gag, pure and simple. So long as it stays Spock Tri-D Chesschess but with a visual gimmick, all’s fine with the world. The instant understanding the special space rules of Tri-D chess become important to following the plot, some writer is going to writer hell. SPACE CHESS, MOTHERFUCKER. SPOCK’S GOOD AT IT. END WORLD BUILD.

It’s the same with mini-games in a larger video game. What’s important is that the space game serves the same narrative role as whatever it’s standing in for. So Pazaak is like poker, right? I’m the goddamn space cowboy, and wandered into the saloon cantina, and I’m gonna win a space ship off of Lando. You remember that part, right? Han won the Millennium Falcon off of Lando in a game of chance. Probably some form a space cards. They don’t tell you what game it was, but you can guess it was probably something cowboyish, given that it was Han. A game of chance that involved skill, but ultimately can go to either player given the right conditions.

You know, like blackjack.

Blue Eyes White DragonYou know what it probably didn’t involve? Han scouring the universe for three hours so he could find the super-ultra-rare Blue Eyed God Fucker for his black deck. But that’s the Pazaak experience. It’s blackjack, but with the random bits of CCG design thrown in to prolong the consequence-less closed-loop experience despite serving no mechanical function and violating the only narrative purposes it had.

Pazaak isn’t about being a space cowboy. It’s about being a space nerd who drops way too much time and money into building my awesome deck, so my deck can be the best in the universe and all the jabbering, cop-killing aliens will stop laughing at me.

Again, going to give props to New Vegas here. Just a classic mix of casino games and cowboy aesthet—OH WHAT THE HELL, CARAVAN.

Fallout Caravan