"Being able to go back and fix your mistakes is not the same as being forgiven for them. Maybe that’s what all those storybooks were trying to tell us." Lovely.
"If you’re an adult who’s at a place in life where you need to pretend you’re interested in people whom you are not actually interested in, then “fake following” should be more than adequate for your needs. But, if you’re here to actually read things and to enjoy the thoughts, photos, and opinions of actual people who have good and bad streaks, it wouldn’t hurt to have an easy way to hit “snooze” for a while." Merlin Mann is very sensible.
"It seems to me that Tim and the nameless characters of the epilogue represent archetypes of some kind. They don’t stand in for every man and woman, certainly, but they’re emblematic of a certain kind of dysfunctional relationship, one where “I’ll protect you” turns into “I’ll control you.”" A smart, sharp reading of Braid, that understands its gameiness.
"I think, in these fleshed out circumstances, an RPG could be the most remarkable place for getting to grips with matters like abortion and euthanasia. I think _because_ they’re the sorts of subjects it’s completely pointless to talk about in the pub, because it inevitably descends into people entrenching themselves in their currently held position and then hurling stones at the other side, that the RPG would be a space in which the emphasis of thought and consideration would be squarely on you." John Walker on the problem with BioWare's attitude to morality, and some potential solutions.
"Opentape is a free, open-source package that lets you make and host your own mixtapes on the web. Upload songs (via web or FTP), reorder, rename, customize the style, and share what you like on other sites with an embeddable player."
"I've heard that Japanese developers, who have traditionally held American game development in low esteem, have a great deal of respect for Bungie, and you can understand why. Bungie has done for shooters what Nintendo did for platformers: they've turned the visceral joys control and motion into the centerpiece of the game."
"Thomas Finchum, an American diver competing in Beijing, describes the view from the 10-meter platform at the Water Cube." Incredible, interactive panorama from the top board in the Water Cube.
"Greebles are the parts that "look cool, but don't actually do anything". There's an entire discipline here composed of special effects artists and asset designers working to hide the plywood spaceships and simple game world polygons beneath an encrusted surface texture." And this is the trick to make the little bits look like part of a whole. Lovely talk from Mike at UXWeek.
"One of the new features of FriendFeed (a Twitter-like thingie) is "fake following". That means you can friend someone but you don't see their updates… It's one of the few new social features I've seen that makes being online buddies with someone manageable and doesn't just make being social a game or competition."
"I don't begrudge Blow an attempt at addressing important historical events, but the weight of the atomic age seems too much to address with a few lines of text that feel incongruous with the rest of the production." This is, I think, a worthwhile point. I'll be returning to the whole "atomic bomb" question in a blogpost soon, I hope.
"Given that Valve is being forced to charge for the update, they wanted to ensure that 360 owners were getting their money's worth." Such a shame they have to charge for it – but still, more TF2 on 360, and that's a good thing from my perspective.
A nice simple explanation of what using Git is really like.
"What the hell is wrong with me? There are a lot of ways to win at Civilization Revolution that do not involve taking a happy, peaceful city and reducing it to a smoldering gravesite filled with radioactive trinitite." Clive Thompson on a case of Walter Mitty syndrome.
"Keldon Jones has published an artificial intelligence opponent for the game Blue Moon with an user interface written with GTK+ toolkit. This is a native Mac OS 10.5 version of the game written with Cocoa, so there's no need to install X11 and GTK+ libraries. It runs straight out of the box (on Leopard)." Heck yes.
"This is a write-up of my diploma project in interaction design from the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. The project is entitled ‘Adventures in Urban Computing’ and this weblog post contains a brief project description and a pdf of the diploma report." Well worth a read, and beautifully presented. I need to chew over this more.
"It's a shame to me that a game with Braid's narrative, artistic, and aesthetic aspirations is inaccessible to so many people hungry for exactly those things." Yes. Much as I adore it, Braid can be awful hard at times. A smart game for smart gamers, alas.
"A popular misconception about agile is that it doesn’t allow for plans. This isn’t true. Agile focuses on the activity of planning rather than focusing on a fixed plan."
"Anecdotal feedback also confirmed that without exception, the PSP was regarded as the best sales presenter ever received. As a result, Foster’s is now reviewing further rollout of the tool." Fosters use a pre-loaded PSP as sales demonstration tool; it does very well.
"Each world has a specific mechanic and overlapping rarely occurs between world mechanics. Instead, the player is given just enough objects on the screen to solve the puzzle with the limited tools available. By being able to concentrate on one mindset of solving the puzzle, eventually the solutions make themselves apparent." A nice Manveer Heir piece on why the puzzles themselves in Braid are good: because the game creates complexity out of limited tools, rather than throwing every mechanic in all the time.
An interesting series of concept images of what context-aware, mobile search and data-diving tools might look like. Some neat thinking around transparency and context.
"I wanted to take portraits of people that would reveal a hidden part of their character. So I had them play videogames."
"Why did Weight Watchers work so well? For a really fascinating reason: because it isn't a normal diet. It's something more. Something fun. It's an RPG." Of course. Fantastic deconstruction from Clive Thompson.
Braid papercraft. Delightful.
Eesh. Tetris in 500 bytes of Javscript and HTML. Yes, they're obfuscated and unpleasant, but wow, etcetera.
Stories built around core mechanics
07 August 2008
or: “what games story can learn from Stephen Moffat”
So Braid finally came out. I was in shock when I saw the release date; wonderful as it was, I was never sure I was going to get a chance to play it. I shouldn’t have worried. It’s out, I’ve got it, and so far, it’s been very, very special.
And it’s had me thinking, because with all the coverage of Braid in the past few weeks – not to mention Jonathan Blow’s excellent keynote at Games:EDU last week – I’ve been thinking about games, and stories, and narrative, and writing (which is a special interest of mine if only because it’s one of the few things I know about that I actually studied). To understand what stories that can only be told in games look like, you need to know what stories that can only be told in other mediums look like. And that was when I realised I had some really good, mainstream examples to hand, and that I should explain this on the internet.
Now, to do that, I’m going to have to talk about Doctor Who.
Stephen Moffat wrote easily the best episode of new Who, Blink (from Season 3), and probably the best episodes of the most recent season – Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead.
His episodes have received critical praise (ie: praise from adults); at the same time, they haven’t deviated from the core premise of the show: exciting sci-fi adventure aimed at the family market, which is basically 8-12-year-olds. This is a good thing. I’m very much with Mark Kermode when he points out that there’s far too much of an onus right now for entertainment targeting children to have “something for adults too”. If it’s good, it should appeal to everybody.
Stephen Moffat’s episodes are classic family entertainment; at the same time, they demonstrate very clearly that he understands the medium he’s working in – TV – explicitly, and he’s capable of writing stories that can only be told in TV and film.
Moffat’s episodes are designed around mechanics of fear. Specifically, the very things that most children are afraid of, or have been afraid of at some point in their life.
Blink is about creepy statues (which turn out to be aliens) that only move when you’re not looking at them. It taps into a fear of the uncanny, the ancient, and the inexplicable.
Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead are about many things, but at the core of them is the primal fear of the dark. In it, shadows turn out not to be an effect of light, but creatures – the Vashta Nerada, vast clouds of tiny creatures that eat people.
Who hasn’t been afraid of the dark?
Both are great plot devices. Neither requires much in the way of complex effects. But the most important thing about them – certainly in terms of this article – is that they are plot devices that are entirely native to television and film.
Blink is an entire drama made possible by the fact that whilst TV is a linear medium, the audience understands editing. Editing as an artform has evolved over time; it was developed after the initial invention of film, and it was only a reasonable period after film’s creation that it was understood not only as a technique, but also as an art in its own right. (For a great example, look at the first five minutes of Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now – a very important sequence in that film, where it’s important that the editing shows how the characters are perceiving events as much as how they’re happening).
Anyhow, Blink and editing. The audience understands (even implicitly) that the statues aren’t moving in a blink of our eye; they’re moving in a blink of the characters’ eyes. This means they move in that simplest of scary-movie techniques, the jump-cut.
Because this jump-cut takes us by surprise, the creatures scare us like they scare the characters – even if we know that they’re not really moving when we don’t look. This particular kind of delivery of shocks isn’t possible (or at least as effective) in, eg, written fiction, because there is no possibility for edits, for jumpcuts. Prose flows in a linear manner forward, and whilst the writing may contain careful pacing, the act of reading is paced fairly consistantly.
The two-part story in Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead is a drama all about light and dark. The Vashta Nerada, as mentioned, are clouds of creatures that look exactly like shadows – and are, of course, represented as shadows on screen. There are a few important effects shots where characters are seen to have multiple shadows, but most of the time, there’s no need for trickery.
All the “magic” is in set and lighting design, and script: dark corners, nooks and crannies, and the characters telling us they’re afraid of the dark. When the Doctor says “stay out of the shadows,” he reminds the audience that they too were afraid of the dark once. And, of course, as a child, when you say you’re afraid of the dark, an adult tells you there’s nothing there. The Doctor has told us to be afraid of the dark because the dark really is a monster. He’s contradicted our parents and made us even more afraid. It’s terrifying.
We need to find stories that we can only tell in games. We need to find play mechanics that tell us things about the world.
Both of these stories are natively filmic: a story that can only be told when you understand editing; a story built around the visual representation of light. These are, of course, not the only things the story is about – far from it; their richness and brilliance is the real reason Moffat has been so admired. But it’s important to appreciate that these two storylines stem from an individual technique or aesthetic that’s uniquely represented by the medium (TV/film).
Or, to put it more simply (and I think more effectively):
something everyone is afraid of when they’re eight + a plot device that can be satisfactorily represented on television/film without being too expensive or convoluted.
So what has this got to do with games?
The notion of telling stories appropriate to a medium is one response to what Braid developer Jonathan Blow is getting at in his Games:EDU keynote. Rather than resolving the conflict between ludic and narrative elements by wrapping gameplay around the story, why not write stories that can only be told through gameplay?
Braid is a game about trying to reverse the past; its time-control mechanic is an important commentary on the central character’s predicament. Moffat’s Blink would make a poor videogame, simply because it’s unfair; the Weeping Angels essentially have a cheatcode to the world, and their movement patterns wouldn’t make for fun.
But a game built around shadows – genuine light and dark area – as a foe might work. It’s very gamelike – and it’s that that set me thinking on this whole endeavour. We have spent so much money on lighting technologies and graphics cards and we can now make beautiful light and dark – both realistic and expressive. Why can’t that be a game – or at least, the starting point for a game – in its own right? Just because at the moment it just a neat visual effect doesn’t mean we can’t put it front and centre. This is something that, for a while, James Cameron did very effectively. The Terminator, T2, The Abyss, even Titanic; these are all movies that require sophisticated visual effects to tell a key part of the story – the T-800, the T-1000, the underwater creature, the ship; without convincing, cutting edge effects technology, these movies fall apart. But Cameron is interested primarily in his characters: once he has his core, visual-effect oriented premise in place, he turns his camera to the characters. He wants to tell human stories; he just happens to have found stories about that need remarkable visual effects to play out.
We need to find stories that we can only tell in games. We need to find play mechanics that tell us things about the world. And if we’re stuck for inspiration, it’s worth considering how other mediums have approached this issue. Above, there are a few examples; there are many more, when it comes to literature, and film, and radio drama, and theatre (and especially those last two). But when it comes to games, there aren’t enough.
We need to start considering what they might look like. Stories about shadows and lighting. Stories about physical worlds told through physics engines. Stories about direct control, or the lack of it.
Some of these exist; more need to. That’s the challenge facing games right now. If you’re looking for an example, download Braid and savour it. It really does succeed at the things Blow hints at. It tells a story you need to experience, and you need to experience the mechanic at the core of it to appreciate the game’s message. It’s remarkable.