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December 2007

In search of narrative, character, and empathy

Bioshock233_2 I've focused much of my attention recently on storytelling and character development in video games. I attribute this to the impact of major releases over the last six months--Half-Life 2 Episode 2, Bioshock, Halo 3, Mass Effect, Persona 3, Call of Duty 4, and others--all of which have attempted to synthesize compelling gameplay with engaging narratives depicting complex characters.

Respondents to my posts on these games have debated their relative successes and failures as storytelling vehicles, and some have bluntly observed that games have no business telling stories at all (apologies to these folks as I plunge ahead with more "games as stories" posts. I promise this won't be Brainy Gamer quicksand).

One comment crops up more than any other, however, and it goes something like this: We keep celebrating games like Bioshock and Mass Effect as pioneering or breakthrough games, but they don't hold a candle to Game X made way back in Year Y. Cool graphics and Hollywood-style cinematics are nice, but if you want a really good interactive story with nuance and ambiguity, you can't get much better than Game X made way back in Year Y.

Amfv1 I've decided to put that theory to the test. I'm going to embark on a gamer's travelogue, of sorts, in search of narrative, character, and empathy. I'll revisit two landmark titles from two prior eras of gaming: A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985) and Planescape: Torment (1999)  Focusing purely on storytelling, thematic resonance, and my empathetic attachment to the characters, I will attempt to compare these games to the experiences on offer in today's narrative games.

My plan is to create a gamer's diary tracking my progress through each title, recording thoughts and impressions along the way. This seems more useful to me than summarizing my impressions at the end, especially since what I'm interested in here is the ongoing way each game works on my thoughts and emotions as I make my way through them. I'll log these entries as posts here on the blog. I hope a few of you will make this trip with me, even through your memories of these games, and feel free to comment on my observations along the way and share your own.

Planescape_01 In the end, I hope to revisit games like Bioshock and Mass Effect and consider in a richer context where we have come in 20 years of video game storytelling. Maybe I'll discover the old games don't hold up so well. Maybe I'll discover they have much to teach us. Perhaps it will be a mix of both. I honestly don't know, and that's a big part of the attraction for me in this project. I have powerfully positive impressions of both older titles, but it's been a *long* time since I've played either, so I'm anxious to reacquainting myself with them after all these years. I do have serious doubts about my text-adventure chops, which I'm sure have atrophied badly in 20 years of non-use.

I hope you will find this useful and interesting. I'm looking forward to it. Watch this space.

Your ad is in my game

Moneydog We've begun to see the arrival of in-game advertising--embraced by some, reviled by others--but most of what we know about these ads comes from game publications, websites and blogs. What about the advertisers themselves? How do they see video games fitting into their overall marketing strategies, and what exactly do they expect these ads to deliver? Should any of this matter to me as a gamer?

Cory Van Arsdale has some big ideas on all of this. He's the CEO of Massive, an in-game advertising network with more than 40 publisher partners. His clients include EA, Activision, Toyota, and Major League Baseball, and he manages in-game advertising for both Madden '08 and Guitar Hero III. In an interview with marketing industry site ClickZ, Van Arsdale lays out several strategies marketers can use to reach gamers:

...There are five ways that marketers can reach gamers, which vary in intensity and complexity: gamer-focused Web sites (, IGN, GameSpot); around game-sponsored events and content (Discovery Channel sponsored on Xbox Live exclusive downloadable content for "Gears of War"); dynamic in-game advertising (what Massive does); hard-coded product placement (in Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow from Ubisoft Entertainment, players use Sony Ericsson phones); and advergames (Burger King Xbox 360 Advergame).[1]

According to Van Arsdale, dynamic in-game advertising is by far the most cost-effective of these strategies. In addition, the Interactive Advertising Bureau recently outlined for its members the following marketing strategies for leveraging the popularity of video games:

  • Advergame: Custom-made games specifically designed around a product or service (e.g., Burger King's Sneak King).
  • Dynamic in-game: Advertising elements within a connected game itself that can be dynamically changed depending on location, day of week, and time of day (e.g., vending machine fonts, billboards, and posters).
  • Inter-level: Display or digital video ads shown during natural breaks in game play, such as between levels ("inter-level") or between rounds of play.
  • Game skinning: Includes game sponsorship of display units around the game and/or custom branding integration into the game itself.
  • Post-game: Ads shown following completion of the game.
  • Pre-game: Display or digital video advertisements shown before game play begins or as the game is loading.
  • Product placement: Brand messaging, sponsorship, and/or products [integrated] into a game (e.g., beverages, mobile phones, and cars)
  • Sponsorships: Advertiser owns 100 percent share-of-voice in and around an existing game, such as sponsorship of a tournament, zone (level), or session of game play. Advertiser might also sponsor the release of new exclusive content associated with a game.
  • Static in-game: Advertising elements within a game that may not be changed. These may reside within game play itself or on menus, leader boards, etcetera. This type of ad format is also referred to as "hard-coded" advertising.

No stone left unturned, apparently.

It remains to be seen what impact, if any, advertising will have on video game design and content. But I think it's useful--and revealing--to see how the advertising industry intends to target video games as a key component in their never-ending strategy to sell us stuff.

"Advergame"? ... Oy.

image courtesy of grungepuppy at deviantart

We need new stories

Misssmith4 Games tell stories. That's great. The problem is, they keep telling the same ones. The dark lord threatens all that is good and must be defeated by the conflicted hero. The plucky kid with no parents must save the world. The commander and his daring crew must scour the galaxy and defeat the rogue with the doomsday device. Themes and variations.

There's nothing wrong with these stories--we've been telling them in one way or another for centuries--but as reliable as they are, they don't always convey a recognizable version of life as we live it today. We need modern stories that capture something of the essence of modern life. I see no reason why video games can't tell these stories. Unfortunately, most game designers seem content to respin the same Tolkien or sci-fi or anime inspired tales, focusing the bulk of their efforts on updated graphics, realistic animations, and gameplay upgrades.

Maybe what we need are a few fresh narrative ideas. With that in mind, here are a few stories I'd like to see video games tackle.

  1. A wheelchair-bound boy discovers he has special empathic powers enabling him to tap into the true thoughts and feelings of others. He must use this ability to help his diplomat father bring two warring nations together and restore peace.

  2. A down and out shoe salesman in Ohio decides to chuck it all, sell his possessions, and drive his beat-up Honda Civic west to see the mountains and ocean for the first time before ending his life. The journey will either confirm or reverse his decision.

  3. A 15 year old girl must navigate the treacherous experience of being a freshman in high school, surviving peer pressure, dating, classes, drivers ed, and a well-meaning single father who loves her but simply cannot understand her.

  4. A happily married older couple receives a newborn baby on their doorstep and must learn to care for it with no skills or training. The player can choose to play as a parent in single player mode, with another player-parent in co-op mode...or you can play as the baby. Sort of a highly ramped-up version of Nintendogs.

I make no claims about the viability of these ideas--and you may have some much better ones up your sleeve--but we need to start somewhere. These are decidedly non-epic stories and will require some rethinking about what makes a game a game. But to those of us hungry for alternative narrative experiences, such stories would be a welcome departure. After all, how many more orcs do you need to kill?

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 6

Girlandradio Super Mario Galaxy's big idea; voice-acting in video games; and an analysis of Mass Effect - all in this edition of The Brainy Gamer Podcast!

  • Listen to the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.
  • Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes by clicking here.
  • Download the podcast here. (right-click and choose save)

Show notes:
Mario Galaxy design
Mass Effect essays 1 2 3
Best co-op games for holidays

The Mass Effect on racism

Bele_and_lokai I've kicked Mass Effect around lately for its unfortunate infatuation with cinematic storytelling. Some of these filmic effects work well, especially as transitional devices (such as the Normandy's rousing departure from the Citadel under Shepherd's command), and they often do a god job of establishing locales. But dialogue scenes and extended conversations too often appear stilted with limited camera setups and repetitive animations.

Nevertheless, Mass Effect is an amazingly effective RPG with a rich and engaging narrative. One reason the game succeeds so well as a story is that the writers of Mass Effect have endowed the game with a point of view about racism that permeates the storyline and avoids the usual pitfalls of moralizing and oversimplification.

The sci-fi genre has always portrayed the future as commentary on the present, and Mass Effect is no exception. But what really stands out in this game are the subtle ways racism emerges as Shepherd moves through the narrative and the significant impact those attitudes can have on her relationships with other characters.

The writers wisely chose to depict humans as outsiders in the world of Mass Effect, which often forces them into a position of needing to prove themselves to aliens they may regard suspiciously. Shepard's interactions with Navigator Pressley are particularly revealing as he represents the kind of "old school" soldier who clearly harbors racist views of all non-humans.

Interestingly, if you play Shepard as a commander who will not condone such intolerance, when you later return to speak with Pressley he will appear to have disavowed these beliefs. But the fact that he won't engage with you on the topic of aliens anymore suggests that he has decided to suppress them in the presence of his C.O. rather than truly examine them. Despite his silence, it's impossible to dismiss the relish with which he described the slaughter of an alien battalion in your previous conversation. So you're left always wondering about Pressley, and it remains unclear whether or not he can be trusted.

A hallmark of good writing is a certain degree of purposeful ambiguity, and the character of Ashley Williams is an apt example. Full of self-doubt and uncertainty, she expresses sentiments that seem patently racist. If you speak to her while exploring the Presidium, for example, she will observe "You can't tell the aliens from the animals." However, if you take the time to investigate her, over time you will discover much about her background that explains her deep-seated insecurities and conflicted loyalties. She has suffered much, which may not excuse her racist sentiments, but like nearly all the characters in Mass Effect her backstory provides the player with a more thorough empathetic engagement than other contemporary RPGs.

The racial tensions portrayed in Mass Effect are further complicated--and thus made more interesting--by the fact that the story involves multiple races with conflicting interests, rather than the typical binary presentation we have seen so often. Easy answers and conflict-resolving platitudes will not work in this environment.

Remember the original series Star Trek allegory "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" in which two intractable aliens wage war against each other based on the fact that one of them has a white left and black right face, while the other has the opposite?

There's no one alive on Cheron because of hate! Give yourselves time to grieve; give up your hate! You're welcome to live with us. Listen to me -- you both must end up dead if you don't stop hating!    --Kirk

Pop culture science fiction has come a long way from such well-meaning but simple-minded depictions of race and culture. With many hours of gameplay ahead of me, I cannot tell how these conflicts will be resolved in Mass Effect. That in itself suggests a maturity in video game storytelling we ought to celebrate.

If not like movies, then like what?

Thepath2 I've written recently--some might say too often--about the growing convergence of film and video games - and why that's a bad thing. My belief is that while narrative games like Mass Effect can borrow useful tools from film (and novels and comic books, etc.), ultimately the medium must develop its own language to exploit its unique interactive properties.

We don't watch video games; we play them. Mass Effect is a terrific RPG with exceptional writing and high production values, but it falls down badly when it attempts to mimic a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster.

So if video games shouldn't be like movies, what should they be like? If we remove the cinematic framework from video games, what remains? How can video games tell stories without filmic devices?

Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn may have an answer. Creators of The Endless Forest, together they are designing a short horror game called The Path, a dark version of the Little Red Riding Hood tale that plunges the player into an immersive world in which "every interaction expresses an aspect of the narrative."[1]

Since the release of Bioshock, much has been made of player choice in games. Whereas Bioshock offers a linear path with disguised predetermined outcomes (and does so brilliantly), Harvey and Samyn are determined to create a game where player choices construct the narrative. As they recently told Edge Magazine:

The process of playing becomes the process of not finding the story but creating one, with things that we offer in the world...Most things are very heavy with symbolism--there are sad girls and angry wolves and the scary forest--things that have meaning in themselves. But the way in which players combine them generates a story...The world is a living universe and a big part of the game is a freeform world that you can run around.

The Path refocuses the player's experience on being in an environment and responding to the stories contained within it. Harvey and Samyn call it 'inescapable narrative' and find an apt comparison not in film, but in architecture:

It's the perfect non-linear narrative environment. You walk through it and there are all these stories around you, and in general they're part of your culture. Our favorite games have strong emotion...where you're really there and you never stop being curious about the things around you...It's about being, rather than seeing, and that's why games are more closely related to architecture than film.

It's easy to talk ambitiously about your game when the release date is listed as 'tentative early 2009.' Lots of games sound good on paper, but fail to deliver on their promises (howdy Peter Molyneux). I hope The Path isn't one of them.

Will players feel bereft without their cutscenes, achievement rewards, and rules-based play? Will The Path really be different? Meet me back here in 2009.

That one big idea

Supermariogalaxy9 I love listening to artists talk about their work. Not to hear them "explain" it (in fact, I hate it when they do that), but to discover how the "big idea" was born. Artists willing to share their process--even when it's as mundane as "I get up every morning at 5am and write for three hours before breakfast"--never fail to make me sit up and pay attention.

Working in the theater surrounded by collaborative artists, I have found that it's process--the meat and potatoes of work habits and production methods--that we learn from our mentors. The creative stuff emerges from this gristmill in mysterious and personal ways. So when an artist can articulate his or her work methods and also pinpoint when and how that big idea clicked, I'm like a schoolboy in love with his pretty teacher.

Just listen to that school bell ring:

The concept was to play with Mario running around on spherical objects – something Miyamoto had come up with 5 years before, and something I came up with too. Why spherical worlds... What distinctive features attracted us to spherical worlds? Was it just because they were novel?

Game director Yoshiaki Koizumi explains the germinal idea that eventually led to Super Mario Galaxy. The big idea was the sphere. Thinking hard about what makes a sphere special unlocks what will make the new Mario game special. The right questions lead to pivotal answers.

No matter how large you make the playing field, if you walk long enough you will run into a wall, and that will make you turn around, which makes the camera turn around and runs the risk of making the player lost.

Koizumi and team examine the existing paradigm of 3D Mario games and consider its limits. This model works, as Mario 64 proved, but it introduces nagging issues the team wants to overcome. The problem of the camera in a 3D environment has eluded designers' attempts to make it feel as tight or elegant as a 2D Mario game.

With a sphere, Mario can run all he wants without falling or hitting a wall... a useful concept for getting players totally absorbed in the moment...The best thing about spherical worlds is the “unity of surface," and the “connectedness.” Neither will the player get lost easily, or need to adjust the camera – by using spheres, Koizumi said, they had created a game field that never ended.

The designers discover that the solution to an identified problem can be more than simply a fix. The sphere becomes a new design paradigm upon which the old play mechanic can be joined with a new improved one.

This became the overall theme of development – "we should tune the game so people can play without ever having to think about the camera," Koizumi said. "Frankly, it took a very long struggle, but we finally found the direction we needed."

Bingo. Koizumi takes us from the big idea, through the deliberative process, to the team's arrival at a solution that finally defined the entire game experience. A big idea indeed. Man, I love this stuff.

Koizumi's keynote presentation at the Montreal Games Summit, including more details on the evolutionary design path from Mario 64 to Galaxy, can be found here. Thanks again to Gamasutra for being everywhere at all times.

It's official: video games to blame for all human woes

Blame_game_3_by_donnyhood The ongoing torrent of blame targeting video games for youth violence, obesity, attention deficit disorder, sleeplessness, illiteracy, rickets and broken bones, and what my old algebra teacher used to call 'bad attitudes' has found one more victim: Team England.

Goalkeeper Robert Green blames video games for England's failure to qualify for the 2008 European Football Championship:

If you want to have the best national side on a longer-term basis, you need to go into every household and throw away the PlayStation, Xbox and video games. Maybe in 15 years' time you'd have the best national side.

It's a society thing. Look at countries who always seem to bring up world-class players, like Brazil and Argentina. If you look at the situations that they live in, it's football or nothing. We live in one of the leading countries in the world and we have choices.[1]

Disappointed UK football fans apparently have other worries as well. An independent study commissioned by Microsoft suggests that 76% of parents in the UK are concerned about the content of video games. Coincidentally, Microsoft is rolling out its "Family Timer" feature for the Xbox 360 this week.

Maybe Green is right about English football, or perhaps he's venting because he got left off the national team roster. Maybe the Microsoft-funded study is accurate, or perhaps its real purpose is to sell hardware. Who can say?

What I do know is I've got a headache, the Chicago Bears stink, our baby has gas...and I blame video games.

Graphic courtesy of Donnyhood at DeviantArt

Meditative gaming

Meditation Games, by their very definition, are designed as rule-based systems. They emphasize competition and achievement and reward higher scores, faster times, and completion of objectives. Games have winners and losers. We play them, and they offer us obstacles and challenges to make it worth the effort.

Except when they don't.

Games like Endless Ocean, Harvest Moon, Knytt Stories, The Endless Forest, and Animal Crossing contain almost none of these elements. Even when they do, the player is free to ignore them in lieu of exploring or just watching the clouds go by.

Labeling these "video games" hardly seems appropriate, but so far no one has come up with anything better.  "Interactive media" has been tossed around, but no one outside of academia seems interested. We're probably stuck with "video game" just as we're stuck with "movie"--derived from "moving pictures"--an even less suitable moniker.

Persuasive gaming theorist Ian Bogost has been giving these kinds of game experiences considerable thought, and he concludes they provide gamers with the potential for a personal meditative experience. He contrasts typical 'leaning forward' gaming with a more pensive process:

Leaning forward is useful when the desired effect of a game is high-attention and twitchiness. But what if we wanted another kind of experience from a game, from time to time at least: a relaxing lean back experience. A Zen game.

Bogost concludes that many games designed to provide a meditative experience (FlOw, Cloud) do so less effectively than games like Harvest Moon, where "the daily reaping, milking, chicken lifting, and related chores require precision, duty, and calm."

While this kind of play occupies only a small portion of my overall gaming, I have long felt that devoting time to a game like Animal Crossing enables me to focus my attention and cultivate a state of mindfulness and concentration. What else could there be for me in such a simple, even childish, game? The cycle of festivals, the changing of seasons, the repetitiveness of tasks like fishing or planting trees - all enable a quiet means of bringing me back to myself. The fact that the game relies on a graphically primitive, highly stylized presentation--rather than a realistic depiction of the world--only enhances this experience for me.

I realize many gamers have no interest in this kind of "gaming," and that's perfectly fine. But if we believe video games truly have the capacity to engage us, we must accept that this engagement can occur on many levels and provide different kinds of meaning for players.

Plus, from what I hear, if you fill that museum with enough fossils, insects, and will achieve total enlightenment.

Game of cruelty

Angel I came across the GayBoy video on YouTube today and am struggling to know how to respond. If you haven't seen it yet, it's a compilation of a young gay man's encounters with extremely hostile Halo 3 players on Xbox Live. He collected this sampling over the course of 11 days and, according to his accompanying post, made no effort to taunt or provoke anyone. The treatment he received was purely based on player reactions to his gamertag, GayBoy, which he purposely selected in order to gauge responses. He is remarkably thick-skinned:

Not everything in this video was said with hate. I can take a joke, and I never took offense to what was said in it. My purpose for this video was only to raise awareness.

Here is the video. I share it only because it provoked me to write this in the first place and is contextually significant. You needn't watch the entire thing; you'll get the gist of it within 30 seconds. Be aware that it contains virulent and exceedingly hostile behavior and vulgarity. Please watch it at your discretion.

I think it's often more useful to generate conversation rather than editorialize or stake out a position, and that's my intention here. The epithets directed at this man are despicable, of course, and I have strong feelings about such aggressive homophobia and hateful behavior. They are, unfortunately, nothing new.

The young man who compiled this video is clearly attempting to provide a snapshot of a particular segment of the online gaming world for all to see. He makes no particular claims or accusations, aside from wishing to raise awareness, but the video raises some important questions, especially for those of us who care about video game culture and the image of video games in society.

My experience with Xbox Live in particular suggests that it has gradually degenerated into a sort of virtual wild west where anything goes and few are held accountable. The degree of malevolence and anti-social behavior on display there can be nauseating. That's not to say it's impossible to have a positive experience, and many players are respectful and considerate. But the raw frequency of belligerent, racist, sexist, and otherwise contemptible behavior has nearly driven me from the service altogether.

Leigh Alexander's latest Aberrant Gamer column highlights several recent incidents, including the GayBoy video, that suggest all is not well in the world of online video games.

Lately, many have found themselves asking whether, as our own society with its own set of norms and behavioral standards, gamers are approaching--if not already crossed--a line from the justifiably passionate into the alarmingly vitriolic. As certain kinds of gamer behavior, mainly online, reaches a fever pitch, many of us have found it increasingly difficult to take a defensive stance. It's becoming harder not to ask certain questions about ourselves.

So, back to those questions we need to ask. Here's a stab at a few. I raise them because I don't know the answers. They aren't rhetorical.

  1. Is this a real problem, or is it a relatively small number of idiots behaving like idiots?
  2. Is this behavior more pronounced in online gaming environments, or is it merely reflective of society at large, gamer and non-gamer alike?
  3. Do companies like Microsoft bear any responsibility to ensure that players aren't verbally attacked or otherwise victimized by players on the network service they provide to their subscribers?
  4. Is there a connection between the competitive virtual violence in a game like Halo 3 and the aggressive behavior of its online players?
  5. Is it mostly adolescent boys engaging in this kind of behavior, or is it more widespread across age groups and sexes?
  6. Has it always been this way, or is it getting worse?

I honestly don't spend much time fretting about how we're all going to hell in a handbasket, but I do find myself increasingly concerned about the mean-spirited and hateful ways people treat each other, online and otherwise. Am I seeing what's really there, or am I just growing older and inevitably more worried about "these kids today"? I really want to know.