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Tag Archive for Videogames

Terraforming in Games

Welcome to the first of a monthly series on science-fiction in video games. The full version of this article can be found over at Amazing Stories, and the abbreviated version gets posted here a month after.

Terraformed World

Making the uninhabitable a nice place to be since 1942.

The goal is not to deliver a “how to video game ur sci-fi” series of posts.  I want to take a look at how closely science fiction in games is entwined with the science fiction expressed in books and other media.  Sometimes it’s licensing, sometimes it’s homage and sometimes is it something new and unique.

So let’s start off this column by looking at the worldbuilding of a recent entry, “Anthem”. Anthem is a new type of product referred to as a “split narrative MMO”. It’s best described as a single player story cleverly couched in a massively multiplayer online world. The game is from BioWare, a studio known for building deep storytelling experiences within their games.  They handle both science fiction and fantasy narratives with equal grace and engagement.

Underpinning all the bright colors and big alien sky, the world of Anthem contains a classic “man vs nature” backstory. Some time long ago, the planet was terraformed by an object called the “Anthem of Creation.” Along the way, someone failed to turn it off, resulting in a planet with an ecosystem that is in a state of constant, dangerous flux.  The formerly enslaved human population has overthrown their alien masters and begun to thrive despite this ever-changing and sometimes openly hostile environment.

In 1942 the idea of terraforming first shows up in a short story written by Jack Williamson (under the pen name Will Stewart). At the time he used a more hand wavy “far-flung future“ science in order to make this happen. Much like Williamson’s original work, and the work of the many many authors to follow, Anthem is less worried about the “how” of terraforming and has instead focused on the end results (and the challenges that they bring).  

In action-heavy games the lens of time is always dedicated to the immediate, human-scale view.  This means that terraforming in hard-science terms is difficult to work with.  In video-game terms, if we want to include the environment as a potential hazard/ally, this timescale is simply a non-starter. Instead, Anthem has embraced the more catastrophic short form terraforming that you see in places like Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan’s Genesis device, or the Arkfalls from Defiance. Not only does it make for a much more visually stunning environment, but it allows for a great many incidental hazards for a player to overcome, allowing the design team to build towards a more emergent style of play to fill in the gaps between the must-do missions that push the story forward.

This aggressive terraforming idea serves as the core foundation on which the game mechanics and story are built.  In order to first overthrow their enslavers, then later deal with a constant onslaught of threats driven by the Anthem running off the chain, the human population develops the “Javelin”, a powered exo-suit via which the player can survive encounters that would turn even a top-form human physique into a sticky paste.

The Javelin provides the perfect vehicle (no pun intended) by which the player can customize their experience.  Different Javelins support different styles of play.  Over time there are modifications and upgrades that players can pick and choose from, earn or outright purchase, thereby feeding the beast of in-game transactions (and ensuring the ongoing creation of new game content).  Upgrading the Javelin is a personal and immediate action, the suit becomes the tool by which we give the players agency.

The exo-suit has been a very popular piece of kit in the more action-driven science fiction games for over a decade. From the vehicle-scale, human controlled machines in games like Titanfall or novels like John Steakly’s Armor, on down to the entirely robotic frames of Warframe or the more lightweight frames of Elysium, they are a solid “science fictional” way to rationalize the ability of one person to punch through an army of killer robots.

You can put off the danger for another day maybe, you can wrap up a mission, close out a chapter, but this does not a long-form narrative make.  Anthem, like so many stories before it, has tackled this need for conclusion by introducing a villain and, of course, taken advantage of the biggest, shiniest piece of science fiction on the planet, the terraforming engine itself.  So now we have not only the immense, uncaring power of the Anthem, but we have a near and viable threat. We have a bad guy looking to take that power and put it to deliberate use. Something that requires immediate (for human-timescale values of immediate) action, which is something game players find supremely satisfying to deal with.

As we all know, once you create a world that clicks, the fans of that world, be it Anthem or Gotham City, are going to consume as much content as they can lay hands on.  They will be perpetually hungry for new stories, new characters and new toys. If you’re lucky, you’re going to get a bunch of players that take your world and run with it, giving you a vibrant and active community. By going with an active terraforming scenario, the team at BioWare have given themselves (and us game players) an open door for everything to change in the future and thereby ensure the vitality of the game for years.

The Hero’s Journey and Useful Frameworks

So let me talk a little bit about Campbell’s “heroes journey”.  Thanks to Mr. Lucas and a number of other well-known storytellers over the past decades, Campbell’s “heroes journey” has become an easy reference for the uninitiated, a touchstone for critics, for commentary.

The idea of Campbell’s “Monomyth”, the idea that there is one single structure that appears over and over throughout all cultures and narratives is hugely compelling, isn’t it?  That ALL humans have this in common, that any story written to fit this heroic structure is going to instantly connect with every member of the human race.  Like it’s some kind of built-in genetic proclivity.

But look, storytelling is a *profession*.  Whether you’re penning narratives for Telltale’s latest IP-driven opus, orating in a Hellenic-era amphitheater, or trying to convince the innkeeper that you can keep his rowdy customers entertained long enough to be worth the price of a beer and a corner by the fire, it is a craft.  And like all crafts, elements of it become standardized.

Many high-producing authors, writers who crank out multiple books in the year, or journalists who pen ten to twenty pieces per day, have to develop their own process, their own standardized format that they can hang their story on. I would suggest that this is, the fact that storytelling is a business, is the reason the “Hero’s Journey” format still exists.

It serves as a useful tool, a way to frame a narrative in such a fashion that the author knows that the readers will be able to understand it. Most readers have been exposed to it or something very much like it. They may not recognize it as such (much like nobody ever seems to notice that one episode of Colombo that was essentially Macbeth but with early-80’s hair), but they are unconsciously familiar enough to be able to follow the beats. It reduces the workload on a storyteller, they can focus on character building, they can focus on world building, and they can focus on their luscious purple prose without having to worry that the reader will be able to follow the plot.

BUT, as with all such tools, it can become as much of a hindrance as it is a help. Many stories (even different episodes of the same longer storyline) will do better with a different sub-structure, this kind of repetition is an easy way to get Franchise Fatigue. BUT because the “Hero’s Journey” format is such a convenient shortcut  when you’re writing to a deadline (or coming up with a story on the fly to keep the innkeeper from making you sleep in the barn) it has been the default setting for a thousand years or more.

But you know, as creatives, (writers, filmmakers, sequential artists and more) part of our job is pushing the envelope. Stories that once were too experimental (the lunatic structure in Inception comes to mind, as does the “everything’s connected” wrap-ups in Dirk Gently) are cropping up more and more.  Audiences that are getting tired of sequel-itis (oh look, it’s the same as the first movie, with a different bad-guy and more kissing) are starting to look for more surprises in their storytelling, and anyone still relying too heavily on old, unmodified story structures is going to find themselves in a niche market.

 

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.