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.

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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!

Interacting with Fiction

What makes a game a game? A game can be almost anything that has rules that define how to play and how to reach the end of the game. However, there are many games that feel more like an interactive story or experience than the traditional idea of a game. This is the case with That Dragon, Cancer where the main mechanic is to point and click on different locations and characters in order to interact with them and advance the story. Aside from a few mini games to illustrate the fight they are in against the cancer, the game acts like an interactive story. Each click leads to a scene that plays out in front of you through dialogue, letters, and limited movement. In order to advance the story you have to take in your surroundings and listen to what the characters are saying. After playing the game many of my classmates expressed that they disliked the game with some of them pointing out the lack of interactivity as a reason that they did not enjoy playing it. Personally, I liked the game and felt that this game style fit very well for an emotionally charged game like That Dragon, Cancer where more free input from the player would have detracted from the story that the parents wanted to tell. Instead of the controls getting in the way of the story it allows you to experience the game at your own pace without any extra factors such as camera angle or free player movement to distract you. However, I can see why many of my classmates would not like the game particularly since many of the games I have enjoyed that were interactive stories or contemplative experiences were much shorter and That Dragon Cancer is very long. For example, The Temple of No only takes 15-20 minutes to complete depending on which route you choose and The Plan is only 5 minutes long, allowing you to control a fly as it journeys upwards through the trees. The Temple of No is a game that is almost entirely text based though it has some illustrations and music for certain scenes. It is also an example of how games that are story focused can vary widely because it is very sparse with graphics and sound where That Dragon Cancer has very beautiful graphics and many of the scenes are told in voice overs from the parents. 

On the other hand, The Plan has very nice graphics and the story is based only on your movement and is directed by the music since there is no written story you are following.ss_46464261147b27033478ada0c7962f8bf7edac20-600x338

Each of these games feature very simple controls that help to drive their story or the experience they are trying to show you. In fact, That Dragon Cancer utilizes these simple controls to pull you into the story and encourage reflection to ensure that you feel the full impact of Joel’s life story.

Make (AAA) Video Games Great Again

Being a business-minded person (ironically majoring in English), it hurts to me to see the state of AAA titles, or titles that have major (designer) studios and massive budgets behind them. I’m not going to try to make this a nostalgic, grass is greener type of post, but there has been an undeniable decay in quality titles. I attribute this to a variety of factors, the foremost being the push of financial interests overwhelming any sense of artistry for designers and storytellers. Many famous studios since the seventh generation of consoles (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii) have become “sell-outs” pumping out sequel, after sequel each year, releasing incomplete, glitchy games and selling them for $60 a pop. Why, you might ask, do they have the audacity to release half-baked titles? Because the seventh generation of consoles introduced the ability to PATCH games. Patching means they essentially offer online updates that you download straight to your console. In its best use, it fixes gamebreaking bugs that play testers missed, at worst it allows developers to meet their deadlines on products and just update it later.

From a studio standpoint, tension has grown between “hey, we’ve got this $100 million dollar game brand that’s super valuable, lets leverage that and sell it again, slightly different, for the full price!” and “hey, lets create something new and original, and see where it goes!” The operative term for this phenomena is risk.

Risk has always been an important facet of success in game development, people conceptualize all kinds of unique, wacky ideas, and generally if their team was behind them, they would get to work. Now, most big conglomerate video game companies have acquired these studios and have essentially told them to take far less risk, and to design titles that encourage the customers to spend even more cash on downloadable content. My favorite example of taking a unique idea and injecting old fashioned corporate greed is Evolve. Evolve took a unique concept, one player plays as a massive powerful monster trying to evolve (lol) and destroy the planet or kill the hunters. 4 other players pick hunters, categorized by roles, in order to combat the titanic beasts. Sounds interesting right? Check out this cool screenshot:Image result for evolve

It’s a AAA title that had a lot of unique promise to it. But then, on day 1 (yes, ONE, UNO, EINS) of its release, it launched with approximately $136 in buyable, downloadable content for players in the form of new characters and monsters…

Developers all started out in the same place, getting into game development either out of the interest in the challenge, or true love of creating stories and entertaining the masses. As soon as the sixth generation of consoles, that is, the PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube era, each platform had incredible AAA products come out, these games were complete because they had to be, you couldn’t issue software updates to any game-breaking glitches. Releases had multi-year gaps between them, meaningful space to respect their current offerings, and to properly develop their newest titles. Now, we have this:COD.jpg

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You really gotta ask yourself: what’s going on?

-Tom