Sunday, June 19, 2011

Die Hard Minus McClane

{Note: As of this writing, I’ve not yet seen Richard Dansky’s “Hero-Shaped Hole” talk from GDC 2011. I suspect I’m at best clumsily retreading the same material. If you have access to GDC Vault, I highly recommend giving it a look.}

Game writing is weird. Unless you’re lead on a heavily scripted, character-driven single player game, or game where story choices are the primary mechanic, you won’t be writing a story. All books you read on arranging the plot just-so and playing off the protagonist’s conflicts and motivations to create a complete and compelling narrative, they’re all going to lead you astray.

Okay, bad exampleGame writing is all about writing incomplete stories. You’ll write about Nakatomi Plaza. You’ll work with artists to fill its halls with the appropriate d├ęcor. You and the designers will figure out that the basement of the building houses millions of dollars. You might be handed the entire terrorist/thief faction and asked to flesh them out, providing them with personalities, hopes, and dreams. And when it comes time for E3, you get to work with the guys at Blur and storyboard out the awesome scene when the bad guys take over the tower and hold the entire Christmas party hostage.

But that’s where it ends. You set all that up, but you’ll have leave the rest of the story just hanging out, waiting for someone else to do all the fun bits. It’s the player’s role to jump off the roof tied to a firehouse. Aside from maybe work with the LD to place the firehouse in the rooftop map, you don’t get do shit with that moment.

This is a high quality pun.Effective game writing—and this includes world building, dialog, scenario building, etc.—revolves around narrative potential. Your blood and sweat is going into making the ultimate funhouse/sandbox/murder-factory possible. But the interesting bit don’t happen until the player makes them happen. You’ll design a world with a hundred Chekhov's rifles, but only the player gets to pull all the triggers. And that’s good.

So if you find yourself writing the next great American video game, remember to let go of the story threads. You’ll go insane, otherwise.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

KotOR Replay 02: Burn Their House Down!

The opening section of Old Republic, the Endar Spire, is a fun little NPE. For those of you at home, an NPE is fancy-speak for New Player Experience, which is itself fancy-speak for the tutorial section of your game. For most MMOs, it’s Noob Island. In Half Life, it was the Hazard Course. Oblivion had the escape from the dungeon. Etc. There’s no set way to do an NPE. Many designers even question the need. Thankfully though, market forces are simply making that breed extinct.

So, Endar Spire. To be frank, this part of the game works pretty damn well. Tutorials pop up where they should. Gameplay elements are introduced piecemeal, so I’m not overwhelmed with five new concepts at once. I’m even provided with a friend, Captain Deadsoon, who will explicitly tell me what I need to do in audio, even occasionally breaking the fourth wall when needed to make sure my monkey brain knows what to do.

I dearly wish more games would break the fourth wall in their tutorials. In everything else, by all means try to contextualize. But when a player is just learning the game, for god’s sake, tell them what the hell button to push. You can have the best world build in the world. If the player can’t figure out what button to push to get to the next bit, they will hate your world, your game, and your bloodline for time immemorial. Give them the poop.

Apocalypse Now shotAnother thing I will note—which is not a complaint—is that Endar Spire follows the Bioware habit of burning down the player’s starting village. The player starts off in what should be a quiet environment, takes two steps, and BAM! OH GOD ALIEN DEVIL BABIES, KILL TO LEARN! KILL TO LEARN! The player learns the ropes during the battle, but at the end of it the village is destroyed and the player has to go off into the wide world for justice.

It’s a damned convenient device. Bioware gets to create one-use content, which means each bit can be custom-tailored to the NPE’s needs. They establish the bad guys quickly and clearly. Who needs to die? The guys who wrecked up your room and killed your buddies. It throws the player into the fray immediately, getting the hole game and story moving quickly. The last point doesn’t quite hold true in Jade Empire, but it’s not coincidence Jade Empire is the Bioware game I have the hardest time starting.

Conan's motherIt’s not always an actual village. Sometimes it’s a institution (NWN), sometimes it’s a quiet homefront planet (Mass Effect), and some times it’s actually your damn village (Dragon Age, Dragon Age 2). But every time, the player gets a quick and guided intro to the game’s mechanics, and they get to scream, “YOU KILLED MY MUDDAR! YOU KILLED MY FADDAR!”

Nothing wrong with that.