Archive for Videogames

Story is Essential in Game Development

This post was written in response to Ian Bogost’s article here: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/04/video-games-stories/524148/.

Let me point out that I highly respect Ian and his work, but since my bailiwick leans toward narratives and visual development, I felt he missed a few points and would like to respectfully respond.

Story is essential to games.

The linear progression of an idea from point A to point B to a logical conclusion lies at the corner of almost every single type of gameplay. In order to build a game structure, a progression that most people will understand right out of the box, you’ve got to structure it as a narrative of some stripe.

Most games have a beginning, a middle and an end.

When Ian sketches out the difference between the “narrative” of the game and the “environment” of the game he seems to be putting forth the idea that, by building your story into the world you are thereby doing away with the need for narrative.  But that story is still needed to inform those design decisions, in order to maintain consistency throughout the design of multiple environments, multiple levels, a narrative is required.  The artists and designers need a story that will steer the design choices they make so that the entire game fits together in the mind of the player.

Even when it comes to the mechanics of the game, the key component that makes a game “fun” and “compelling” the narrative is important with regards to how the mechanics are presented to the player.  The player, ideally, never sees the math.  They see the UI, the visual (and story-centric) elements that allow them to run those mechanic.  Without an overarching narrative to guide those decisions, you get a series of “really cool” mechanics that may never quite come together into a whole.  You get a “meh” experience that loses it’s lustre fairly quickly.

Even puzzle games like candy crush benefit from the addition of a story. As cheesy and clunky as that narrative may be it’s still provides an essential path for the player to follow. It allows them to get the satisfaction of “completion” in a game that will truly never have a conclusion.

Remember when Computer Generated Imagery first became a big THING for film?  It stumbled and staggered quite a bit.  It INHIBITED storytelling in a great many cases, it broke the suspension of disbelief that decades of practical effects had honed to a believable experience.  Filmmakers leaned on the tech too hard and gave up good narrative in favor of vertices and ray-tracing.  It took Toy Story finally push through the idea that you can’t take the narrative design out of an experience.  You can’t rely on the tech to tell your story for you, you can’t rely on the mechanics to make a game that will last longer then ten minutes.

The argument has been made that “narrative” games tell stories poorly, that they cannot compare to the experience that one gets from cinema, or television, or even reading a book. Games as storytelling art-form are still in their infancy. The technology has advanced, absolutely.  We can build you worlds that absolutely look and feel as real as the one you are sitting in while you read this blogpost.  But the use-cases for that technology always take longer to catch up.  They need a breakthrough.  We are still trying to find ways to keep a player’s focus on a linear story in a world that is so much bigger than what you have in books or film.  Linear narrative is all about constraint and that is exactly where our problem lies.  How do you keep the player following and interacting with a story when they can go ANYWHERE in the world you built?

The current example of games as simply linear narratives with player engagement is far too limiting. It’s too simple of an idea. It’s the easy road out for an industry that needs to pay it’s staff.  The potential for games can, and will, go far beyond that point. We just haven’t made that next leap yet.  It’s coming, someone out there, some grad student or assistant producer or overworked QA tester has it in them to make that leap.  We are looking for our Toy Story, our IMAX, our Gertie the Dinosaur.

There are (as there always are) notable examples.  The Halo franchise being the shining AAA example, but also on the indie-games front we have experiences like Undertale and A Night in the Woods that use simple graphics, simple mechanics but strange and compelling narratives to pull the players in.  None of these games really have their “secret sauce” in the mechanics.  If you take out the story, you can simply reskin those exact same mechanics with another world, another time and have an equally serviceable game.  None of those titles would be the breakout hits they have become without a compelling story.  A story so strong (in all three cases) that players are continuing to tell their OWN stories, to build new narratives in those worlds, to fill in the blanks left by the constraints of game design.

Is it possible to have a game whose mechanics are so good that players will be compelled to play it?  Absolutely.  They will play *that game* and go home.  It will be swapped out by another mechanics driven title as soon as they get bored or frustrated.  They are as interchangeable as the sneakers you have in your closet.  But a game with a story drives loyalty, brings players into the world (and allows for multiple iterations) in a way that mechanics only games cannot.  Players will forgive not-perfect mechanics if the story is compelling, if they have a *reason* to keep going.  They will come back to a franchise and play something new even if those mechanics don’t get a significant update of change between story one and story two.

So, while games may not deliver pure narrative quite as cleanly as books or film or TV, I think saying that narrative is unnecessary is far too limiting a view.  From the overarching idea that drives the underlying structure and creation of visual assets to the final delivery of your shiny shiny game mechanics, games are built on a narrative experience, and trying to take that out limits the experience for everyone.

 

 

Pocket Recipes for the Pokémon Trainer – Pidgey

Pocket Recipes for the Pokémon Trainer
Kanto District:

So you’ve gone and done it. You’ve cast off the chains of your middle-school and have set out to become a Pokémon Trainer. Good for you! The open road, new and exciting creatures to discover and conquer. It’s going to be just like camping, except Dad’s not there to carry the cooler. And as jobs go, hunting Pokémon doesn’t really pay very well. But that’s okay, right? You can live off the land, collecting berries and making your own fabulous meals over the campfire. I thought so! So to help you on your way, we’re bringing you the best in Pokémon camping cuisine. Each recipe is easy to make (provided you’ve captured the right Pokémon, of course) and is tailored to the regions those Pokémon come from, so ingredients should be easy to find.

 

The Pidgey

 

Shōyu de Poppo

8 Pidgey (bone-in, skin on, split)
I know, it seems like a lot for just one person, but the little f*ckers are everywhere. You can bag a dozen per day if you have enough pokéballs. In their first evolution, they are pretty small, so you want to cook as many as you can fit in the pan.

1 cup of water
It’s clever, isn’t it? Pidgey is known for hunting over water (especially Magikarp, which explains why Gyarados are just so hard to find, the Pigey’s eat ‘em all before they can evolve!)

½ cup razz berry vinegar
If you’re still young enough to enjoy Pokémon Go, you may not yet have a bottle of this in your kit. Hip up a Pokéstop, they’re bound to have some to hand. Trust me, this makes everything taste good, they even put it on ice cream.

1/3 cup soy sauce
That’s about 25 soy sauce packets if you’re swiping them from your local Panda Express.

2 ½ Tablespoons sugar
About 8 sugar packets if, like me, you snag a couple extra when buying your morning latte.

1 Figy, split and the seeds removed.
Just remember, like the habaneros you find in the supermarket, it’s the seeds of the Figy that pack the real punch!

Put all the ingredients (except the Pidgey) into a saucepan and boil it for about 20 minutes. Add the Pidgey and cook, turning frequently until the liquid has been reduced to a sticky glaze.

Arrange on a serving platter (we may be camping, but we’re not savages!) and spoon the remaining glaze over the Pidgey before serving.

If you are going with a later evolution, you can feed a couple of people with just a single Pidgeotto, and if you are truly lucky and have managed to bag a Pidgiot, well you’ll need to quintuple this recipe and call the whole family to enjoy!

Public Speaking at the IGDA

I was invited to give a talk to the IGDA in partnership with DAGA in Salt Lake City a couple of months ago. Had a wonderful time! They were kind enough to record my talk (I do a lot of talks, but I don’t always get to see how they turned out from the audience perspective, so this is especially cool for me).

Check it out!

Back when I started, there was no clear path into the games industry. You got there by asking around, talking to people, finding ads in the back of local newspapers, showing up for a night of tabletop gaming with the right group of people. While the idea of working in games has become mainstream over the past few decade, I find that a lot of students still think of it as a rather monolithic entity. They get hung up on the idea of having the *perfect* skill for this job or that job, where the reality is, there are a LOT of different niches in games and, if you have spent the time to develop skills that apply, even if you don’t have a degree, you have a chance to find a home here.