Archive for category: Fiction

Second Skin

27 Apr
April 27, 2013

It’s interesting, how close writing is to acting. At least, in my experience.

When I’m writing a character, I feel myself slipping into their skin. My posture changes, how I sit in my chair, my facial expression, what I do with my hands.

Often, I feel the need to get up and move, just pace about, my movements channeling their imagined body language. I’ll shift into a cocky swagger, pushing my shoulders back and my chin out. Or pull myself inward, sullen like, chin dipped and peering sullenly out at the world from under a pulled-up hood. I’ll mime taking drags from a cigarette, and stare into the mirror, seeing someone else there. I can feel their emotions welling up in me, drawn from countless sources of consumed media and remembered emotions in my past. Aggression, lust, glowering anger, sly humor, wry amusement.

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Music helps. The right background track, if I can find it, helps me shift into a character. And once I can fully feel the persona, wrapped around me like a cloak, I sit and I write, their speech patterns slipping from my fingers without conscious thought.

Definitely an interesting experience. I need to do more writing, explore this phenomenon.

This week’s best reading

24 Nov
November 24, 2012

Two excellent pieces of writing I’ve read this week, thought I’d share them with you.

Firstly, Rockpapershotgun (which you should already be reading, as it’s the finest gaming publication on this here internet) does a fantastic series of articles called “Gaming Made Me”, where folk share their stories about the game that first truly ignited their passion for games, that opened their eyes to gaming’s potential as a medium.

In the latest article, writer Patricia Hernandez writes about playing Fallout 2 for the first time. It’s a wonderful piece of writing, showing that games definitely are an art form, that they can have cultural and personal relevance beyond just being entertaining. And also perfectly demonstrating why RPGs are my personal favourite genre of games.

Give it a read here.

The second is an article written by Jonas Kyratzes for Nightmare Mode on mature storytelling in games. It’s an excellent critique covering a range of different viewpoints on the subject of what storytelling in games should be, and what it’s currently lacking. I’ve called Jonas a whiny idiot for some of his opinions in the past, but this is an excellent read. Credit where it is due.

Check it out on Nighmare Mode (itself a lovely site) here.

Ludonarrative dissonance…

20 Nov
November 20, 2012

…is a rather fun phrase to say, don’t you think? Say it with me : Luuuudonarrrrative dissssonance. Marvelous.

Not only is it fun to say, it’s also the primary reason why I switched themes for my game, from Urban Fantasy to Cyberpunk.

So what exactly is it?

Basically, ludonarrative dissonance is when there is a conflict between the explicit narrative being told by a game and the “story” that is told by the actual gameplay, ie the player’s interactions with the game’s mechanics and reward structures.

For example, say non-player characters (NPCs) keep lots of valuable loot in their houses but those same NPCs aren’t programmed to notice the player stealing their wares. This can (and frequently does) result in the player stealing the silverware in front of an NPC, only to have that NPC greet the player warmly in conversation later, as a “hero” and “a welcome guest”. This sets up a conflict between the observed reality of the gameplay and the explicit story being told by characters and cutscenes.

There are dozens, if not hundreds of examples of ludonarrative dissonance in games, many of which have entered the fabled halls of memedom.

The infamous Skyrim NPCs, who you can shoot full of arrows and still hear them conclude that it “must have been nothing” once you’ve been out of sight range for a while. The games that urge you to make all haste as your quest is of utmost urgency, only to have every actor in the game wait patiently in place while you finish up your side-quests and chase all the achievements. The games where you’re the only hope for the survival of everyone on the planet, but weapon sellers still demand that you pay for each upgrade. And perhaps worst of all, the ones where you’re soundly thumping the end-of-game boss, only for it to fade to a cutscene once his health gets low, where you’re informed that the boss is “just too powerful to defeat” and you need some special ritual or item to actually defeat him.

This collision between the experience of the gameplay and the narrative is rather jarring, and it is one of the ways in which writing a good narrative for a game can be difficult. You have to make sure the mechanics are not sabotaging the narrative, and vice versa.

This is essentially the problem I was was running into, with the Street Sorcery theme. The setting was inspired by World of Darkness and Constantine and the Dresden Files, supernatural intrigue and treachery. But the story told by the mechanics is much simpler, and more akin to an RTS. The player has only one real way to interact with the story, fighting. Straight-up skirmishes between two small groups of opponents. If I had more mechanics in the game, more support for branching dialogue and choices and exploration, if it had been an RPG or adventure game essentially, it would have been fine.

But that isn’t the case. And the card battle mechanics are not abstract enough to represent a generic “conflict” that could be adapted to represent social interactions too. This is a game about dudes fighting other dudes in groups. I needed a narrative where it felt like a more natural fit.

If you look at other CCGs, you generally see that the theme is designed to provide a context for regular strategy battles. Magic is a world where mages can create just about anything out of thin air, armies included, but the source of that magic, mana, is drawn from territories they control. A perfect setup for frequent conflict with disposable armies. The world of Pokemon is one where it is normal for children to wander around, collecting monsters and training them by fighting other Trainers in non-lethal Pokemon gyms. Again, the narrative fits the mechanics.

I got tired of feeling like the story I was writing wasn’t fitting the mechanics. So I decided to put that setting aside until I could do it the justice I feel it deserves, and pick a more appropriate context.

After trying a few things, I finally settled on Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk fit my needs well, “Runners” are essentially mercenaries, so it makes sense if most plot points are built around a clash with opposing forces in a “run” on some target. Also, since they’re mercs working for money, it’s ok thematically if both you and your enemies have access to the same pool of Agent cards. Helpful, when you’re working on a budget and need to minimize your card count. And finally, I really like Cyberpunk, as a setting. I like the “low life meets high tech” themes and conflicts. And it feels like an under served niche, though with games like DX:HR and CDProjeckt’s upcoming Cyberpunk 2077, that’s starting to change.

So now you know the reason. Ideally, I shouldn’t have changed direction, should have had the theme fixed from the start. But some things you learn only by doing, and now I know what to consider for the next game. And I’m sure I’ll continue to learn these kinds of lessons, as I make more games and more mistakes. 😉

The Tomb Raider Debacle

15 Jun
June 15, 2012

Because fools rush in where angels fear to tread, I made a video discussing the recent controversy surrounding the revelation that Lara Croft would suffer a near-rape in the next Tomb Raider game.

The Socratic Exercise

09 Apr
April 9, 2012

I had promised myself that I was done talking about Mass Effect 3 now, the topic seems fairly played out. But then I saw this video on Shamus Young’s blog and thought it rather excellent. Not just in discussing the problems with Mass Effect 3’s ending, but in analyzing what makes a particular story work, whether for games or otherwise. The part about the Socratic Exercise and Star Trek, in particular, nailed why that show is so enjoyable.

I was dubious at first, but it turned out to be well worth the 40 minutes to watch. Have a look, if you’re not completely bored with the topic.

The points he raise illustrate why I enjoyed ME2 so much. I felt the narrative coherence, up to the Human Reaper bit, was a lot stronger. It was a plot about Shepard gathering his ‘Dirty Dozen’ for a suicide mission, and it worked well. The RPG mechanics could have been better, I thought, but the plot overall was pretty satisfying.

Gameplay and Story are Exactly Like Music and Lyrics

19 Feb
February 19, 2012

Well, in response to the recent debate on whether narrative is a gameplay mechanic or not, Kirk Hamilton of Kotaku has posted an excellent article comparing gameplay and narrative to music and lyrics in songs.

I think he’s rather hit the nail on the head there, eh?

Putting the Humanity before the Fantasy

13 Feb
February 13, 2012

Some backstory, I finished the 3rd book in the Song of Ice and Fire series last week. I’ve been taking my time with the books, pacing myself, I don’t want to read all of them and then have to wait years for GRRM to finish the last two. Such a marvelous series, I’m in total awe of Martin’s skill as a writer. And I got to thinking about what made it special, why it has become my favourite fantasy series and what I feel it does better than all the rest of the fantasy I’ve read.

One of these things that the series does best is putting the humanity before the fantasy. Most fantasy novels you read, and I’ve read many, it’s the other way round. The humanity is there to showcase the fantasy, usually by serving as a mundane contrast to the fantastical. Humans are kinda boring, but look over there! Elves! And Dwarves! And now someone is teleporting and shooting lightning from their hands! And that guy’s sword is on fire!

The issue isn’t whether you have fantastical elements in your story or not, Martin has those in SOIF, with the Dragons and the Others and so on. The issue is which is “the star” and which “the stage”. Martin breathes an incredible amount of richness into his characters through their personality and actions, their struggles and development. Where he does add in fantasy elements, it’s with a light touch, never stealing the limelight from the characters he’s created. The fantasy is the spice to the meal, not the meal itself.

And the struggles those characters face are so very satisfying because of how human they are. The primary conflict is not really against terrifying fantasy creatures (the Others), it’s between human personalities, humans with all their ambitions and flaws. No Ancient Evil Awakening has ever been as interesting as the relationship between Tyrion and his family.

Compare and contrast this with, say, the Dresden Files. I enjoy the series as light entertainment, but here the fantasy is clearly the focus. Dresden’s character doesn’t develop much, conflict and challenge comes in the form of new magical beasties introduced each book, whether that be fairies, werewolves or vampires. And of course, since the fantastical becomes mundane with familiarity, the power curve of these enemies needs to ramp up each book, a problem similar to what comic books face.

A show like “The Walking Dead” only needs the one fantasy enemy, zombies, to create a rich tapestry of drama. And not many types of zombies, as has now become popular. Just the one, the classic shambler. Because, like SOIF, the fantasy is a backdrop to showcase the human drama, the relationships between flawed people under pressure.

Whether you’re writing for a novel or a game, and no matter how in love you are with the fantasy world you’re creating, don’t forget the most important element : your characters and their personalities. Give them the depth and development they deserve.