Seveneves: The Role-Playing Game!

 

[featured image taken from https://www.nealstephenson.com/news/2015/05/26/seveneves-site/%5D

When you were a kid, did you ever play those games where you would look up to the sky and imagine the clouds as bunnies, dragons, or anything in between? Did you ever play the ever-popular “the floor is lava” game? If so, fantastic, because as a kid you’re sort of expected to have an active imagination. But why does this expectation fade over time? What about “growing up” means that you have to lose your creativity? Well, we believe there is absolutely no reason for that imagination to wane, and in this blog post we’d like to suggest a fun way to keep your inner kid alive and well.

It’s called a role-playing game (RPG for short), and you may have heard about more popular ones, like Dungeons & Dragons, as there has been a resurgence of interest following the use of this particular RPG in popular culture (think Stranger Things). We made an RPG that was a combination of Dungeons & Dragons, Stars Without Number (a sci-fi RPG), and Seveneves (a science fiction book by Neal Stephenson). Ours may not be the best RPG out there, but if anything we hope this blog post shows you how, without enough time and thinking, anybody can have a great time making and playing an RPG.

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The idea of the RPG is one that has been solely rooted in the fantasy genre, and by association, the wider genre of romance, something that we have discussed at length in this class. The RPG brings together a group of people, often with varying skills and interests that offset each other, with a shared goal. There is usually some form of quest, self-redemption, or self-revelation that occurs, and because RPGs are more focused on player character development than most other forms of interactive media that we discussed, we thought it best to use to remediate a science fiction novel. Additionally, we both have years of experience playing role-playing games such as D&D and Pathfinder, and have planned our own campaigns before as well as played personal characters in others. All of those campaigns were solely in the fantasy genre, however, so if we were going to make a science fiction RPG, we would have to do a little research.

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The first order of business was understanding the book in which we were basing our RPG. Internet synopses can tell you more than we can here, but this is the gist: the moon was destroyed by an unknown “Agent,” and in the two years before the moon rocks crash to Earth and destroy everything, humanity stashes itself in space to return thousands of years later as collection of seven races, stemming from the seven fertile women who survived in space. You can see more contextual information later in the post and in our notes, or if you’re really invested you can even read the book. The point is this book was perfect for creating a sci-fi RPG.

Furthermore, we scoured the Internet for tips and resources on how to make a sci-fi RPG. From Googling those exact words to thumbing through Reddit threads, we took a few days to amass as many ideas as possible. We settled on the system Stars Without Number, as this RPG system was freely available and seemed to be quite well developed for our purposes. Specifically, this system did a great job at reframing D&D classes into various jobs and skills that were more suitable for life in space, rather than a fantasy world, and the system itself was flexible enough to modify.

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Why would we need to modify the system? Well, our goal for this project was to develop a “one-shot” game, or an RPG that is meant to be played in a single session rather than in a multiple-session campaign. With this in mind, our primary concern was providing the players enough time to explore the world we were creating. We easily adjusted the mechanics for making skill checks to be less based on players stats and more based on intent and narration. In more practical terms, players could essentially do whatever they wished without all the role-playing and messing about that takes time, so the Game Master (GM) could provide more narration about the environment. It worked out pretty well, as you can see in the videos we’ve placed here and throughout the post.

There are many other mechanical considerations you have to make when planning an RPG. Where is the game set? What is the history of this setting? What is society like? What maps do you need to make? Who might the players encounter, and what will that encounter look like? Is there a point system? Since we based our game on the world of Seveneves, we had a lot of the contextual questions taken care of already. We answered the RPG-specific questions, and you can see our notes in the Google document link in this post later on. The doc can speak for itself, but we’d like to briefly elaborate on the point system, which we developed from the ground up. Normally “points” in the RPG world are experience points that accumulate to level up the player. However, we used “assets” as a way of measuring how well the players were forming bonds with the species on Old Earth, and so whichever team (Red or Blue) had the most assets by identifying and succeeding in more opportunities by the end of the session won.

We gathered up some of our friends to play a short one-shot on a Monday. In RPG terms, a “one-shot” is usually a game or storyline that takes one or two sessions to finish (as opposed to usual longer story arcs in regular play). We planned on filming the session to use in our presentation, so we wanted to have every possible race represented. Our friend Penn played an Ivyn engineer, Jacob played a Camite priest, Nick played a Julian aspiring politician, Jamz played a Moiran biologist, Ethan played a Teklan transport specialist, Jordan played a Dinan astronavigator, or “astrogator,” and Matthew played an Aïdan technician. Torie acted as the “GM,” or the Game Master, who essentially narrates the campaign and prompts the players to make various “checks” in order to see if they successfully complete the actions they wish to perform.

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The plot itself was simple: each of the player characters had been gathered as part of a co-racial mission from an orbiting space station around the Earth to explore a newly terraformed surface and investigate for human life. You can read more about it here. You can also see the racial traits and backgrounds we provided for our player characters to choose from. In our game, which lasted about three hours (typical for a standard RPG session, at least for us), our group encountered a race of humans that had adapted to living underwater for over 5,000 years that the orbiting population nicknamed the “Pingers,” after the sonar-esque transmissions they intercepted from their society. While at first a little hostile, our group managed to curtail the growing violence and managed to establish good terms with a group of Pingers. (Here is a video of their “first contact”). They shared technological knowledge and made some vague promises at treaties with military leaders, and were pointed to the underground race of humans (“Diggers”) to assist them in repairing their broken communications device.  

As a player character, or PC, I found the sci-fi context fascinating. Personally, I’ve always loved engaging with any media from this genre; though everything is scientific and futuristic, it’s still all imagined and possible, so it makes me feel optimistically youthful. For this game, we had a mix of rambunctious and withdrawn players, so that made the three hours we played pass with much entertainment. I was in the unusual position of being a quasi-GM, meaning that I was privy to everything that might happen in the game, but I still had to engage as a player who did not know these things. Thus, I found myself motivating the players to pursue various paths that I knew would keep the action in the game flowing. I wish we had had more time to thoroughly explore the world that we had created, but that’s just the nature of a one-shot game.

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As a GM, Torie found that there was a lot of the story that she did not prepare for. Unfortunately, only one member of the group besides us had actually read Seveneves ( a couple of them did read it after the session, though!), and this proved to be a bit of a problem when Torie ended up killing a lot of game time explaining background situations and mechanics of the players’ society and objects to them. Both of us (Torie and Matthew) have been Game Masters for our own games before, and while Torie had over twenty pages of GM notes, we both knew that planning a successful campaign and story took a much longer amount of time than a single month. Even with the most careful planning, though, the fun of RPGs is that the players make their own decisions, which means that there is always something happening that the GM has zero plans for. Torie expected this, and because of it, was able to work mostly successfully with the players’ wishes as they went. We were hoping to have contact with both the Diggers and the Pingers in this, but, after three hours, the group had only made it to the Pingers, and we decided to call it a night. (This is common with our experience as GMs and players, stories always take a little longer to tell/roleplay than you think they will). 

In conclusion, we loved the opportunity to take something we both love to do as a hobby and integrating it with the themes that we have learned in ENGL 3726 with Professor Clayton at Vanderbilt. We have both grown up with these “new” forms of media that we have discussed in class, and have been fans of the fantasy and sci-fi genres since childhood. Being able to put those together in this new creation was a really satisfying culmination of these themes for us, and we know that our friends enjoyed playing through the story with us as well.

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Learning the Ropes about Tropes

ENGL 3726 - Gone Home

Spoiler alert for Gone Home — Don’t read further if you want to avoid spoilers.

Just say the word “western,” and I can immediately visualize a high noon showdown, as if I were hiding behind a barrel on the porch of a saloon. Say “sci-fi,” and now we’re zipping by the stars at light speed and shooting lasers at corrupt galactic empire forces. I played a game called Gone Home recently, and everything about it was telling me “mystery” and “horror,” so you can well imagine my thoughts as I stepped into the dimly lit, sparse mansion in the middle of a forest on a dark and stormy night.

Turns out, it’s not horror — your character, Katie, is just trying to figure out why the house is empty on the night of your return from abroad. The reasons are dramatic, rich with complexity, but totally benign of anything supernatural.

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Why was I so scared, though? Why were my immediate thoughts upon entering my family’s new home, “Something horrible has happened here”? Granted, I scare fairly easily, but I think there was more than my lack of fortitude at work. I’d like to say a word about tropes, how they’re used in Gone Home, and how mystery and horror tropes were perfect for this game.

trope is an easy way to make the participant feel standard things: just like I described at the top of the post, they provide a framework for thinking about setting and emotions. I’ve definitely been one to harp on tropes in the past, but really, they’re crucial to storytelling. Without some expectation for what’s about to happen, there can be no surprises, no twists, no novel deviations — the things that are more beloved of a story. Tropes may be a heavy-handed way of establishing the expectations, but they can be incredibly important when used right!

All that said, I think Gone Home uses tropes expertly. In Gone Home, even the title screen, with its silhouettes, secluded look, and one light eerily lit, is a trope of horror, and it immediately makes you feel jittery. I even used the word “eerily” just now, and I’ve already played the game and know it’s not horror! Throughout the game there are a number of tangible cues that make you feel like something in the house is amiss: the house is called “The Psycho House”; the lights flicker constantly; your father has an obsession with conspiracies; the list goes on. My favorite example is the upstairs bathroom stained with red, but you find out it’s just hair dye.

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You might now be thinking, “So what? Why does it matter that Gone Home uses these tropes?” Well, if you think about it, this game desperately needs to rely on them. You are the only player in the game, and you have only one environment to explore. Without the notion of mystery and horror, you would have very little incentive to explore the house — actually, you would have no incentive to explore. This and many other games relies on the assurance that the player, when confronted with a mystery (Sam saying, “Don’t try to find out what happened”), will promptly disobey and begin to search. The trope of flickering and dim lights, secret passages, and a paper trail are tediously common, but they draw you in so the true story can unfold. I guess that’s what I’m trying to get across: the tropes do not make the game; they create the tension players need to discover the game.

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Moreover, I find the implications of the horror tropes in this game fascinating. How many times have you awakened in the wee hours, gone to the bathroom, and then the floor creaks in just the wrong way, making you complete your mission a little too early? Certainly in such circumstances, we have the very same tropes of horror in mind, but we can still recognize they’re just fiction, right? I think Gone Home recreates the very same effect we experience in real life. There is absolutely no danger in the game, but good grief it just feels like something is going to get you!

I’ll leave you thinking about that — is a trope really something you feel just in a book, a movie, a game? Or is it something you carry with you and project? Gone Home wrestles with these questions and blurs the lines between virtual and real experience. It makes an ordinary home come alive with mystery, mythos, and the thrill of discovery. Isn’t that what we all want, a way to make the unremarkable, unforgettable? If that’s the case for you, I have a great game to recommend.

Thanks for reading!

Matthew

Tell me a story

What do you value over everything else when it comes to video games? For me it’s story, every time.  I don’t care if it’s an old game or if the graphics are just bad, or if the gameplay is a little clunky, or if it’s too long or short of a game.  If it has an original and/or compelling story, there’s a good chance I’ll like it quite a bit.

Recently I’ve been quite into the fantasy/dark fantasy genre, specifically Dark Souls.  Through my experiences with the Souls series, I’ve realized that it’s not only the content of the story that I enjoy, but how it is told and presented to the player.  In many games, the story is basically told to you straightforward, without making the player do a whole lot of work to discover the story.  There may be puzzles or little notes that you find to delve deeper into the story, but it is rare to find a game that just says “Go.”  That’s essentially what the Dark Souls series does to the player.  You begin the first game with a cutscene that means  quite a lot if you are familiar with the series’ lore already, but is quite overwhelming to the novice player. The player is then given a simple instruction to ring two bells and then gets tossed in the (kinda) right direction.  Now this might just seem like a bad game and, based on the evidence I’ve given, that wouldn’t be a terrible first impression.  I promise that’s not the case.

Dark Souls found a way to have a vastly complex world and lore, with interesting characters and history; and the game doesn’t hand any of that information to you.  You have to go out and throw yourself at seemingly impossible levels until you master them or quit.  And bit by bit, the more you explore and the more characters you meet, the more of the story you uncover.  FromSoftware took a gamble with this style of storytelling (which they started with in Demon’s Souls, the spiritual predecessor to Dark Souls).  If you put in the work to find the story and learn what all is going on, Dark Souls will be one of the most satisfying gaming experiences you have.  Because it’s not just about what the story is, it;s about how you tell it.

Character development and communication in gaming

There are a lot of ways that characters can be developed in games. This could be something as simple as their communications with other characters in the game, dialogue, or simply a narrative. Every game has a different approach to the way they develop their characters, however almost every game depends on some form of communication to achieve this. Some of my most favorite games such as the Ratchet and Clank series on the Play Station Portable follow the idea of using a narrative to develop characters. The game uses short films in the middle of game play to both develop characters and further the plot of the game. This form of character and plot development is seen quite often in many games.

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https://www.playstation.com/en-us/games/ratchet-and-clank-size-matters-psp/

Journey is one game that uses a very different way to develop the main character and communicate between characters and the gamers. Journey is set in a vaguely Egyptian region, with appearances of several things such as many glyphs and symbols and of course the figure that possibly depicts the Egyptian goddess Isis, that point to this Egyptian influence. The way this game communicates between characters and gamers is something I have never seen before and find very interesting. Throughout the game, we control a robed figure that travels through a desert towards the mountains in the distance. What’s surprising to me was that the game had no mechanics allowing us to communicate with other characters, and we didn’t even see any cinematic scenes where the characters talked.

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journey_(2012_video_game)

We start off as single player but often come across other characters, soon to realize that these are actually other players playing the game from around the world. Usually in cases like this, you would expect to be able to communicate with those players, for example, in Lord of the Rings Online, the world chat enables us to communicate with those characters, and we can also interact with them, and challenge them to duels or form a fellowship with them. However, in Journey, we can’t do any of this and the only possible way we could “communicate” with those characters is by “singing” and signaling to them. I found this form of communication very interesting, and after watching a couple of walkthroughs, I found that gamers ethos plays a big part in the game. I saw that many gamers would guide new gamers through the game and wait for them as they followed them – even though they didn’t actually know them. The game has an overlaying theme of maternity and has a very calm feel to it, and the actions of the gamers really represents it. The game shows clear and definite themes of romance, and this game really shows that games allow portray their creativity by using familiar themes in and shows that the same effects can be achieved in different mediums in variety of different ways.

Sunk Cost versus Characterization

There are a lot of good reasons to like a character in a narrative, whether it is a novel, movie or even video game. They can be written well with witty dialogue, have upstanding morals, or even can just be attractive. But there are those characters, who, like in Journey, are likable despite not saying anything or doing anything significant on their own. Now, there are micro-manipulations writers and developers can make to influence the consumer to actually want to like their creations (e.g. their physical mechanics including gracefulness, their coloring, the music that plays when focusing on them), but one possible thing to take into consideration is how much time the player is putting into these characters, and how that interacts with the character’s likability.

There’s a well-known fallacy/concept known as the sunk-cost fallacy, in which a businessman (or investor, etc.) will continue to put resources into something, despite having already put irrecoverable resources into it with no real gain previously, simply because they invested in it (and often heavily). This fallacy mostly is constrained to the world of economics, where it is most relevant, but it may be interesting to investigate its possible interactions with video games.

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“Failing to Ignore Sunken Costs”

In a lot of video games, especially ones with heavy grinds such as MMO’s, the sunk cost fallacy manifests itself very strongly. Take, for example, the game Runescape, which is essentially one whole time sink machine. For most people, the ultimate goals are to reach the maximum levels in their skills (99 for oldies like me), which involves hundreds of hours of time put into single skills and eventually hours upon hours for single levels. If you’ve already put two hundred hours into reaching the next milestone, you will be much more reluctant to give up your lot and simply stop playing without actually reaching the milestone.

Narratives will have a different interaction with the fallacy than things like Runescape, though. In games like Journey, you’re not spending hundreds of hours trying to reach the end of the game. But you’re still putting in time, guiding this red-robed character with no real unique identification markers across the world to the mountain for the goal of completion. It is hard to say that the player-controlled character has any real markings of characterization – we don’t know its gender, it doesn’t speak, and we certainly don’t know what the exact motives of the character are throughout the story. Part of it might be that we have such a high level of control compared to many other games, where the character is predetermined, but in Journey the player is in charge of everything the character actually does.

Without real characterization, it might be hard to really answer why this character is likable, why we would want to sympathize with this character. I would primarily lay my claim as the idea that, by the time we start really thinking about whether or not we care about the character, we have invested enough time into the game for us to not really care about what’s been given to us about them, just that we’ve spent enough time with the character to want to ride out the rest of the story with them.

Which is certainly not to say that Journey isn’t worth finishing by itself. With such a fantastic soundtrack, interesting mechanics, intriguing and well-built up mystery, and some interesting but not complex landscape puzzles to figure out, the game maintains enough drive for the player to want to see the ascent up to the top of the mountain. While Journey certainly comes lacking in characterization, it is rare to find a game like it that can pull off that kind of experience without needing it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That Dragon, Cancer, and the Role of Crowd Funding

Even a quick glance at the home page for That Dragon, Cancer reveals the origins of the game. While originally a small-time endeavor, many donations through Kickstarter, a crowd funding website, allowed the game to achieve the style and recognition that we see today. It’s not surprising, then, to see the home page for the game littered with messages giving thanks to those who have donated and multiple options for more people to buy the game. There are also links to the corresponding documentary and soundtrack. All of this may seem to some like monetizing a terrible event, but I think we can view all of this as some sort of coping mechanism, and a sincere desire for parents to share their story with anyone wanting to sympathize.

What I find really interesting about this entire process is what this could mean for the future of some indie game developers. To a genre of gaming that inherently struggles more with funding than the big producers, could the sort of crowd funding exhibited by That Dragon, Cancer become a new venue for success? The critical acclaim might indicate so, but we should be mindful of some of the issues facing future games that decide to try this method, especially if they employ the same sort of gameplay as That Dragon, Cancer.

In game, notes like these were created by those who donated to the game’s creation.

Though the route to success for That Dragon, Cancer may not be indicative of any trend, if there are future games looking to find funding in this way, they must be mindful of legal challenges to some past crowd funded endeavors. According to Kickstarter’s Wikipedia page, some of their recently funded projects have run in to issues over copyright, fake contributors, and even rights to certain aspects of the product once it has been funded.

That DragonCancer, also allows for people to experience much of the game without actually buying it. The game’s page mentions that there are several “Let’s Play” videos for the game that allow viewers to watch someone else play the game and experience much of the action themselves. This particular game suffers more from this aspect than most, I think, since the actual action of playing the game is rather barren, and someone could get a lot of the narrative and metaphorical impact simply from watching someone else. Future producers will have to make some sort of choice in this matter, knowing that some will donate to their cause, but others may find alternative routes to experience the game play.

What do you all think? Will we see more games attempt funding through Kickstarter or other sites? What sort of issues might arise?

Walking Simulators and the Importance of Narrative

In class on Thursday, one of the complaints that people had towards That Dragon, Cancer was that it wasn’t really a “game;” instead, it was more of an interactive narrative.  They went on to say that, since they were expecting a more gameplay-driven experience, the extreme focus on story and lack of choices that That Dragon, Cancer had left a disappointing taste in their mouths.  However, I would argue that lack of choice is incredibly important to the story.  Furthermore, I would argue that That Dragon, Cancer does count as a game, because the very act of playing serves a purpose and communicates core concepts to the player.

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A scene where gameplay matters.  Source

A major theme of That Dragon, Cancer is the sense of helplessness that Ryan and Amy feel.  At a certain point, they realize that there’s not really anything they can do to save Joel’s life.  While faith (specifically Christian faith) gave the pair a way to cope, by the end of the game they realize that there is nothing they can do.  While it is subtle, much of the gameplay in the game leads you to have the exact same feeling.  The scene shown in the screenshot above is a good example of this.  In it, you play as Joel and eventually a man who died of cancer in the family’s church.  While there is a lot going on in this scene, one thing in particular stands out.  If you are good at fighting the dragon, Cancer, (see what he did there), then you will realize something interesting; no matter how long or how well you play the game, you will eventually succumb to the dragon because the dragon will never die, but stay at 1/2 heart until you eventually die.  What is interesting is that the game is not exactly hard; if you’re good at retro video games (which I am not) and figure out the pattern(which I did not), you can theoretically stay alive and continue fighting indefinitely.  However, if you want to continue the game, you have to give up.

There are many other places where you have to give up in order to continue.  Specific scenes where this is a theme are the Temple of God scene where you have to stop moving to continue and the scene where you play as Ryan and the only way to continue forward is by swimming deeper into the ocean.  These scenes serve to make an important point-moreover, they make you, the player, feel the point in a way you would not from simply hearing the characters describe it.  This is why I consider it, and many other “Walking Simulators” like it, games: because games aren’t just narratives that you affect, they are narratives that affect you in ways that a novel or movie does not have the ability to. Thanks for reading and I hope to hear from you guys in the comments!