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Posts Tagged ‘narrative’

A little knowledge goes a long way sometimes… and maybe not in the direction we’d like.

As I’ve noted before, my college degree is in computer animation, specifically geared to film making.  In the course of earning that degree, I learned a lot of film making tricks and tactics, as well as the extra layer of tomfoolery that computer graphics permits.  As such, it’s very hard to watch a movie these days and not see all the little hacks and cheats.  I can’t help but see behind the curtain because I’m so familiar with what goes on back there.

I have a similar problem with games.  Since I work in making games, usually creating, texturing and animating 3D models, and I’m very familiar with the industry, I see all the little tricks that other game developers use in their games.  Even if I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and just be entertained, it’s a reflex to see, catalogue, and examine how things work, and perhaps more importantly, how they don’t work.

Similarly, since my degree is technically a Bachelor’s of the Fine Arts, and I’ve been an artist who studies art for a long time, I have a lot of experience with art, both creating it and in analyzing it.  I see art problems way too easily.  Even my hobbyist knowledge of astrophysics, physics, math and science makes some things hard to swallow, like the awful science in that recent Star Trek movie.

This is the effect underlying the Uncanny Valley effect.  Y’see, we’re all experts at being human, just by virtue of, well… living life.  When we see something that doesn’t agree with our experience, it just seems wrong, no matter how well-crafted it is.  It need not even be conscious; we notice the inherent wrongness whether or not we want to, and it colors our experience.  Even something like basic kinesthetics can be thrown off, as is the case with the Kinect motion sensor control system for the XBox.  The functionality is wrong compared to what we know so well, and it just doesn’t work.

So when we see something like this, where a psychotic nutjob’s murderous actions are blamed, in part, on video games, as gamers, we cannot help but shout:

OBJECTION!

We know enough about the reality of games from our own expertise to call “shenanigans!” on the media narrative.

Of course, there’s a flipside to this.  If we don’t have personal expertise in a topic at hand, and don’t want to bother informing ourselves about it, it becomes very easy to just go with the flow, accept fallacious authority, and accept whatever we’re told, especially if it’s something we think we agree with and fall prey to confirmation bias.  If we want to hate someone or something, we’ll find reasons to do so.  If the narrative suits our taste, we’ll happily ignore facts.  We embrace ignorance and live in our own little perception bubble, because we’re happy there.  Manipulative agenda-riddled media is more than happy to play along.

This is certainly obvious in politics and the so-called “mainstream media”.  This is one reason why blogging is changing the world and why it’s important to protect in the face of political opposition and Big Brother control; the “news” networks get called on their lies and matters of public policy can get a bit more transparency with concerned citizens involved.  Nothing quite dies on the internet, and it’s increasingly easier to do a bit of research and do a little fact checking.  Of course, even then, so-called “fact checkers” are usually biased, too.  You really have to go do your homework and proper research if you care about something.

Remember the murderer who played WoW?  When there’s a causal link implied by shoddy reporting and poor courtroom procedure, and you know the argument is pure crap, you don’t trust the narrative, and you are right to be distrustful.  You know better, no matter what the talking heads on the magic light box try to tell you.

The really crazy part is when you see through the curtain sometimes, but decide to let it slip back into place later, say, if the same media outlet reports something you want to hear.  They are no more trustworthy than they were before, but this time, since it’s something you agree with, it doesn’t matter what goes on behind that curtain.  The narrative is what matters, not the truth.

WoW subscription numbers down 300,000?  The game is finally dying!  Thanks for the brave reporting, guys!

WoW subscription numbers steady next quarter?  Must be a statistical blip or someone cooking the books.  They are desperate to show they aren’t dying!  Lousy lying media!

So what?  Just sayin’…

Trust, but verify.  Understand your own bias and get past it… at least, if you care about truth.  Sometimes, we just want to be lied to.  Being able to swallow the lies, benign or otherwise, certainly makes it easier to be entertained.

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“Video Games” run a theoretical spectrum from almost purely mechanical beasties like FoldIt to barely interactive… things, like Dear Esther, Trauma or one of those atrocious “Full Motion Video” games from days best forgotten.  I’m not certain that you could ever have something purely mechanical with no context, and something purely narrative with no input wanders off into “Movie” territory.  I’ve written before on some of what I think games are and what they perhaps should be, even specifically about narrative in games.  There’s a blog devoted entirely to the notion, and many others that are quite eloquent about game design.

So… yeah, nothing really new to offer on that count, but I did want to highlight a post from Tobold today.  He’s writing about skill requirements in WoW over thisaway.

I was going to comment there, but it got long and linky, so I brought it here.  I think that putting level, group size and skill gates on content that completes the WoW narrative is asking for angst.  I see two major avenues to relieve the stress:

1. Give raids several levels of difficulty for the same content, from an uncapped zergfest to solo.

2. Pull the narrative out of raids.  (Alternatively, drop dev narrative, but that’s not going to happen.)

In any discussion of raiding and the dichotomy between the elites (self-defined, of course) and the unwashed hordes (the other guys, no matter their actual skill level), I think it’s also crucial to split the discussion of playing content from receiving rewards.  (It’s also worth noting that I say “playing content”, not “watching content on YouTube”; they aren’t the same thing.)

I am all for special rewards for demonstrating skill.  To me, that’s the essence of gaming, developing skills, learning game systems, and being rewarded for it with further tools to explore the game systems.  The whole “play for a while, watch a cutscene, repeat ad nauseum” design we see in a Final Fantasy RPG uses narrative as a lure and reward for grinding through the game, which is far less satisfying to me than expanding the gameplay itself.  I do love most Final Fantasies and many other RPGs, but that’s usually because there’s some good gaming under the hood.  The story is only tangential to what I think of when I play these games.

…and yet, I do like the story and characters sometimes.  I’m one of those that bought Advent Children and actually like it (yes, it’s cheesy, yes, it has problems, yes, I still like it).  I don’t want to go back and play through Final Fantasy VII to see that story, but I’d probably happily go through a tour of the cutscenes and crucial story points.  Yeah, I had fun with the chocobo racing and materia wrangling when I played the game, but I won’t do it again just for the story.

Maybe that makes me a terrible, no good, awful tourist or consumer or something, but hey, I did buy Advent Children, and I bought almost every Final Fantasy, so I’m a customer.

Point being, these “game” things we play tend to be a mishmash of interaction and passive fluff.  If the fluff is going to be important to all of your players, they need to be able to get to it.  I see no problem gating loot and even some game mechanics behind skill tests, because that’s what gaming pretty much is.  I’m not a fan of gating fluff behind skill checks, especially if you’re trying to build up a narrative that you want players to care about.

RPGs tend to alleviate that by letting players overlevel content, RTS games allow cheat codes and so on… MMOs have no such release valve for raiding.  Even the much-vaunted (or vilified) Looking For Raid doesn’t open the gates much, and what it does do tends to just mash together more people with different gameplay goals, always a stressful thing.

I’m not convinced that dev narrative needs to be the “fourth pillar” or dev focus for MMOs, but if it’s going to be important, it has to be accessible to as many players as possible.

Oh, and latebreaking but oh-so-relevant, Mass Effect 3 and multiplayer… apparently, the “best” ending demands multiplayer.  Ick.  Bad designer, no twinkie.

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I just wanted to point out a few excellent articles and make a pithy comment or three about this SWTOR game that is much-ballyhooed of late.

First, Raph Koster’s excellent article on Narrative:

Narrative is Not a Game Mechanic

EDITED TO ADD Koster’s followup post, Narrative Isn’t Usually Content Either

Then there’s Richard Bartle’s take on SWTOR:

Bartle’s Notes

aaaand then there’s this little snippet from the WoW guys, who apparently concede that linear, heavily scripted and directed gaming might not be the best approach.

Blizzard Seems to Think That Cataclysm Was Too Linear

I’ve written about these things before.

Death Grip on the Reins

and then there’s this oldie about the business model:

SWTOR Cost?

and my old huge article on MMOs with endings:

The End of an MMO

Y’see, I consider the narrative-heavy “fourth pillar” to be a Bad Idea for MMO play.  To quote myself from Klepsacovic’s place:

Yeah, I should clarify. There’s no problem with devs telling a story, but the structure of MMOs is about playing off of other people in a persistent world (whether through direct or indirect interaction). The most interesting parts of that (the parts that drive interest and retention) are going to be the stories that players are enabled to tell because it’s a unique part of the genre. Those ephemeral moments of Awesome or Weirdness are what sell these MMO gamespaces as somewhere worth visiting.

Sure, you can get your watercooler/blog discussions about how your Smuggler handled that one moral choice in SWTOR, or how your guild downed the Lich King, but you could get much the same thing talking about an offline game. MMOs simply have the potential to *function* differently from other games, so it’s baffling to me that devs seem to want to put the experience on rails. It bothered me in WoW, it bothers me in the core design ethos of SWTOR.

It doesn’t bother me because the dev stories are bad, either (though they may be), it bothers me because they aren’t letting players *play* in these great potential playgrounds. They are just pushing them through the motions.

So when I say that MMOs *should* be about player stories, it’s because I think that’s the unique selling point and strength of the genre. That doesn’t mean devs should be forbidden to tell stories, just that they might be missing the point if they can’t let go of the reins.

Then again, this is a problem I have with game design on a larger scale; way too many devs seem to be frustrated filmmakers, not really *game* makers. It’s a different sort of entertainment, this “game” animal, and it can’t really be expected to function the same way. It’s a spectrum, though, not a binary “sandbox/theme park” dichotomy. *shrug*

There’s a place for barely interactive movies.  There’s a place for story in MMOs.  I just think that MMOs work best with greater freedom and a more malleable world, largely because it’s those crazy moments out in the game’s world that really make them unique.  That’s the legacy of tabletop RPGs that I think MMOs could be poised to inherit.  You can get great scripted narratives in something like Uncharted 3, and that works fine… but it’s not really the point of MMOs.  As Koster notes, there’s a difference between an experience and a game.

There’s a place for great narrative, grand epics and stories with endings.  I just don’t think that place is in MMOs, especially not subscription MMOs that almost of necessity need to be built around grinding and the sense of neverending play.  There’s a strong case to be made that such isn’t really what is best for games in general, but that’s how sub MMOs work, for better or worse.

I don’t want SWTOR to fail (though Scarybooster is right, some have that mean attitude), but dagnabbit, the stresses inherent in shoehorning strong narrative into the MMO mold shouldn’t have been hard to see.  It should be no surprise that players are “finishing” the game and moving on, or that the focus on the storytelling might mean a weaker effort on the “retention” schemes that makes the subscription system work (good comments over at Yeebo’s place).  This is what BioWare does, it makes single player games.  Even if SWTOR as it is might make for a stupidly grindy single player game (hattip to Chris at GameByNight)… I enjoyed Disgaea and several Final Fantasy games, so a long game doesn’t scare me.

…and yes, if they sold SWTOR as an offline game or even series of games, I’d still probably buy in, as I noted in that SWTOR Cost article from months ago.  The game might be grand as a single player game, it’s just… trying to be something it isn’t.

Oh, and incidentally, MMO Melting Pot has a good roundup of some of the commentary, too, found thisaway:

Is SWTOR Screwed?  The EA Stock Fall Edition

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