Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

My wife and I went to James Cameron’s Avatar for her birthday recently.  I just had a couple of things to mention about it:

  1. My wife liked it.  She really liked the 3D aspect; it reminded her of the fun of experiencing 3D movies as a kid in Disneyland.  She’d like to visit Pandora, albeit via an Avatar, perhaps, for safety’s sake.
  2. tvtropes has plenty to say about it.
  3. I consider it to be Art, but don’t think highly of it as a film.  I still like it.

Let me expand on 3 a little.

I really like what they did with the visuals of the movie.  The 3D was good when it wasn’t broken, since it was more atmospheric and spatial than a mere gimmick.  The art direction is solid, with consistent visual appeal.  The world is lush and interesting.  The characters are actually my favorite part, because they feel plausible.  The animation and characterization is excellent; they don’t feel animated, they feel alive.

Compare the characters to those in the Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within movie.  The difference in static appearance isn’t much (stills from either film read pretty well compared to each other), but the Avatar characters move more plausibly, complete with imbalances, personality and body language.  I’m not sure whether this is a leap in motion capture or animation technique and technology (or just more money thrown at an issue), but there is a marked difference between Jake Sully’s Big Blue and Aki Ross.  Dodging the Uncanny Valley by using not-quite-human characters also probably helped significantly.  Either way, this is why I tend to stress that animation itself is more important to selling the sense of life than high resolution textures and 3D glasses.  The Disney animators tend to believe similarly.

Pandora, the movie’s fictional world out thataway somewhere in Plot Space, looks like it could be a real place.  It’s interesting and pretty.  The floating mountains are especially awesome in my eyes, though the biophosphorous neon jungle might be more appealing to some.  I can only imagine that an IMAX viewing of the show would be rather exhilarating, especially in the flight scenes.

So… it’s all very pretty.  The story is almost paint-by-the-numbers, though, and it really clashed for me.  It’s been compared to Dances With Wolves, albeit with blue body paint and technogeek body swapping (the titular “avatar” technology).  I could certainly nitpick a LOT of things in the film, but it’s not really worth it.  It’s not a bad story, exactly, but it’s nothing all that spectacular, innovative or interesting.

Then again, one might wonder if the market really wants innovation?

I had a similar reaction to Cameron’s Titanic, actually.  It was pretty, and the visuals of the boat sinking were spectacularly crafted.  The story, though… cut it out, and I might like the film as a whole.  It would have made a great documentary or historic dramatization, sans DiCraprio and the naked chick.  (Is it terrible of me to find it funny that Global Warming nut DiCaprio effectively froze to death in that film?)

Similarly, Avatar would have been a great artistic tech demo (Picasso’s early Cubism could be considered a tech demo, and it’s considered Art), or even a fantastic game, sans the caricature story and almost-romance with blue almost-naked almost-people.  It’s not a terrible film, and it’s a pretty good “experience”.  It looks really good.

I guess that’s enough to make money, though.  Why do we even care about innovation, again?

I mean, there’s got to be something more importan… ooh, sparkly blue thingy!!!

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Erwin Schroedinger may or may not have liked cats.  Considering his famous thought experiment, one might detect a bit of antipathy towards the critters, as he willingly thought of them in mortal peril, but then, we don’t really know until we open the box and find out.

Do we really know what Star Wars: The Old Republic will be like?  Do we really know what the next Final Fantasy will be like?  Do we know what the next blockbuster game will be that shapes the game industry?

The future is in a bit of a quantum uncertainty state, especially considering the economic stresses and a lot of shadow play behind the financial scenes.  The game industry as a whole is juggling concerns of used games, digital sales, DRM, legal wrangles, censorship, business models and economic viability, and a butterfly over in the Federal Reserve can create storms for the industry at large.

Each individual game that we don’t know about can be said to be in a similar state.  Until each one of us takes a long, hard look and observe something, can we really be sure what it is?  Perhaps most importantly, do we know what it is for us?  Observation and objectivity are kissing cousins, but in the absence of omniscience, all we have is a set of probabilities and guesstimates, measurements of trust and “weighing the options”.  Numbered “reviews” are just one shallow, biased tip of the informational iceberg that constitutes an informed purchase.

For example, I love the Valkyrie Profile games.  I played the original on a whim, since it was developed by Tri Ace, the guys behind Star Ocean: The Second Story.  (A game I picked up on sale and counted myself lucky to have done so.  It’s a great game.)  I picked up the second Valkyrie Profile (Silmeria) a year or two ago, and have enjoyed it as well.  Prowling around Goozex, I happened to notice a third game in the series, a tangential Tactical RPG for the Nintendo DS.  Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume looked interesting, since I’ve been enamored with Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre of late, so I put in a request for it, and wandered over to GameFAQS to check out the reviews and comments on the game.

It doesn’t have a lot of press exposure (a perpetual problem with the VP series), so there are just a handful of reviews.  They tend to fall into two camps, not unlike Schroedinger’s superimposed cat.  Reviewers tend to either really like the game or really dislike it.  There’s another divisive set of opinions, and it’s curious to me that they don’t perfectly intersect with the “like/dislike” split.  Some reviewers think the game is abusively hard, while others think it’s too easy.  There are very few opinions in the middle.  Some like hard tactics games, but think CotP is too easy, so they rate it poorly.  Some like easy games, but think it’s hard, so they rate it poorly.  Some like hard games and see it as hard, so they like it, and some like easy games and see it as easy, so they like it.

It’s actually a lot like genetics, with a Punnet square mapping out the probabilities of player response to the game across the two axes:  Like vs. Dislike, Hard vs. Easy.  Any given player will have their own phenotypical reaction to the game that can only be experienced firsthand, and is entirely dependent on the player.

I find this sort of review set to be more useful than a universally hailed game that nearly everyone drools over.  The smaller sample and clear delineation of opinions is more useful to me in determining my possible reaction to the game than a few hundred mini reviews worshipping something like GTA3, which I hold only in contempt (due to the subject matter rather than the structure).  Of course, clear writing and explanation of why those scores are what they are is a huge help.

At any rate, even though there is a nice set of quantum probabilities for CotP, and I had a fairly good bead on where I’d sit in the Punnet square, I still had to observe firsthand what the game held before I could really know for myself what my response would be.  I found myself looking forward to what I thought the game would be, and hoping for certain specifics.  The game was in a state of quantum flux, or at least, my observation of the game was in a state of flux.  I was cautiously excited and optimistic.

Sometimes, this is the best part of gaming.

It’s interesting to me that sometimes I like that period of anticipation and imagination better than the experience of actually playing a game.  It’s certain that I have more control over my perceptions at that point, and the game is more a product of my imagination than the developers’ work.  It can be everything I dreamed it to be and more.

This is not coincidentally how game development works as well.  Devs have great ideas about what they want to do, and it’s only as the project moves on through time that the quantum states settle down… sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.  This is why the concept stage of a project can be far more exciting than the production phase.

Hype machines, like that built around SWTOR, are the game equivalent of a flux capacitor, framing the experience in such a way that people can superimpose their own wishes and aspirations on the game and get excited about it.  Even though no two people will have the same genotype, they can still get excited about what the game might be when that box is opened.  Good hype magnifies the flux, letting players rush ahead with their own imagination.  Great hype keeps the capacitor from overloading by injecting just enough stabilizing reality to keep expectations within the reach of the developers, or at least within a few percent of reality.

Of course, with all of this, reality doesn’t always comply.  It’s wise to temper expectations, since reality doesn’t usually measure up to our wishes.  This is why sometimes the heady rush of “what might be” is more exciting and fun than the mundane realizations about “how things really are“.

This is why I love being a creative sort of person.  I spend a lot of time thinking about the “what if” and “if only” aspects of life.  Then I go out and create, making imagination into reality.  It’s a nice mix of dreaming and work that I find very satisfying.

This is also why I keep wishing that games would allow players to control more things about the game, making more choices with consequences that reflect the player’s actions, rather than their reactions to dev-imposed ideas.  The reality of a tightly scripted game on rails doesn’t mesh well with the freeform expectations of many players who succumb to the hype machine.  If a game is designed to give players control and mold the game’s reality into something more closely approximating the players’ dreams, it has a chance of forging a deeper connection with the player.

Not all games can work like that, but I think that the best games will try to give players as much control as possible.  It’s why storytelling in games is more about how the player acts and reacts, and less about what the devs created.  It’s one thing to “play” through a barely interactive movie, it’s quite another to mold a game world to your whim.  (And notably, even in something like FFX or FFXII, players are given significant control over how their characters develop.  That is no mistake or coincidence, and without that control, the games would be significantly weaker as games, and may as well have been movies like Final Fantasy: Advent Children.  It’s a different sort of storytelling.  Both are certainly valid and valuable, but will scratch different itches.)

We may not be able to hold on to that “what if” Schroedinger dream state as we go through life, but the more power we have to make the most of what reality does come our way, the happier we are likely to be.  That usually just means controlling ourselves in the real world, and our reactions to events.  In games, though, where “what if” is a key component of how games work and how the narratives function, players can have extraordinary power.  It is a blessing and a curse of games, part of their unique potential and power, and it needs to be exercised carefully.

*Addendum*  I wrote this in bits and pieces, and since starting it, writing about Role Playing has rippled through those blogs that I frequent.  Wolfshead has a great article up, and Psychochild wrote another great one earlier, and even the Rampant Coyote chimes in, each linking to other ones worth reading.  This is tangential to those concerns, but some of the themes of Role Playing intersect neatly with the ideas here espoused.  Namely, player imagination and power to change the world, since those tend to be huge tools for the player interested in playing a Role within one of these MMO worlds.

I’ve actually always thought that would be the draw of these games, to be able to assume a new identity within a completely fictional world, taking part in and changing things aggording to those “what if” questions.  The reality to date has been somewhat… different, and ultimately, underwhelming in my eyes.  I’m actually not all that disappointed, since such design might have the potential to be even more distracting from the real world, and the current generation of these games is plenty deleterious as is.  Still, current MMO design is so underwhelming compared to what I imagined for the genre years ago (reading ads for Ultima Online) that I can’t help but just be less than interested in playing them much.  Designing them, now… that’s another thing entirely.

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(With apologies to J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Bhagavad Gita.)

Sendoku isn’t Vishnu, but as a newly minted Death Knight, subject of the Lich King, he is a harbinger of death, one who uses terror like a madman’s cudgel and fear like a torturer’s scalpel.

Early in his career, he was told that the hunger gnawing at his soul could only be sated by killing.  His very first fight set the tone for his existence, as he was told to fight a fellow initiate to the death.  The later massacre of scores of soldiers was only a mild escalation in his ultimate task to eradicate all life on Azeroth under the direction of the Lich King.

He is not quite alive, having been reanimated to serve in thrall to the Lich King, nor is he truly dead or undead.  He and his brethren are at least somewhat mortal, as some have not survived the Lich King’s war efforts.  So he’s understandably confused about his existence, and the suggestion to focus on obedience to the will of the Lich King and the tasks at hand undoubtedly help efforts to ignore exisistential musing.

All his homies agree he really looks good in black, and he’s got a really cool hat.

Even when he will eventually break free of the Lich King’s will, as foretold by this oracle, he will still serve Death, and be a slave to his eternal hunger for killing and destruction.  He will turn his blue, glowing eyes to the North, pushing forward with his kin, looking to bring death to the Lich King.  …who is already dead.  Sort of.  And who wields Death for fun and profit.

Death Knights aren’t exactly the sharpest cutlery in the rack, but they may well be the angriest and the angstiest.  (Three Panel Soul is highly recommended.)


Short story long, the Death Knights are a mishmash of most emo and necro tropes, complete with big old honkin’ swords that glow like Azerothian lowriders, proving their utter dominance over all things edgy and cool.

Like any other WoW character, they enter the world with a nicely done flyby with a narrative to convey some backstory, and then they look around for questgivers with gold exclamation marks over their heads, positively itching to go kill stuff, but unlike other characters, they kill stuff with Death!!!  (Or a big old honkin’ sword, diseases, and maybe a pet Ghoul or three.)  Of course, they look better than other newbie characters, as the beneficiaries of years of refinement of Blizzard’s art assets and rendering engine, and they enter the world in full plate armor, at level 55, far more dangerous than a level 1 character.

The lore and art on these Death Knights is very tightly designed, and very well rendered.  I make light of it a bit, but that’s because I’m not a fan of the theme of the Death Knights.  As an artist in the game industry, I can look at what they are doing with these guys and applaud their art direction, animation and the very strong story and theme that Blizzard has developed, and I give credit where it’s due; the Death Knights are among the best designed characters in the WoW universe, both artistically and mechanically.  I personally find the overbearing (even if occasionally lampoonish) focus on Death and Destruction to be distasteful, but I’ll readily concede that even that is extremely well presented.  (Is it too punny to give Blizzard brownie points for execution?)

That said, the Death Knights do get bonus points for being honest.  Any WoW character embarks in the world as an agent of death, with a long career of slaughter in front of them.  Sure, it’s handwaved aside by saying that Druids are “maintaining the balance of nature”, or some other way of villainizing various critters and humanoids (it’s a war, after all, right?), but mechanically, the bulk of the game is about killing stuff.  (A point my wife has remarked about on more than one occasion, and really, from the outside, it is pretty silly.)  Death Knights know what they are all about, and they embrace it wholeheartedly.  That’s not a virtue, especially since they are just out for revenge and killin’, rather than any noble goal, but at least they are honest about what they do.

So what?  Do the Death Knights shake off the “monster pinata” complacency that most of us have slipped into?  Does it really make a difference when your “kill ten rats” quest turns into “kill 100 soldiers”?  Should it?  It’s just a game, right?

Hyperbolic German reactions aside (as Longasc points out, German leaders are coming down hard on violent gaming), desensitization is real.  The Death Knights are told to kill human characters who will cower and beg for their lives, innocent people who would otherwise be content to see to their village’s need for wood or hay.  It’s all very much in theme for the Death Knights, and Blizzard has carefully crafted the experience to give a sense of what a Death Knight’s existence is all about.  Does any of that sink in as players just go about, completing quests and killing stuff?  Do they think about it, or just go on with the business of prepping a new tank for raids?  Do they care even if it does sink in?

Again, it’s extremely well crafted, but I find the subject matter doesn’t sit well with me.

If Blizzard would take this level of work and turn it to a more noble pursuit, I’d be more impressed overall.  Of course, they aren’t really trying to impress me, so I doubt they care.  That’s just my take on things.

As I’ve noted before, the DK starting quests are very nicely designed, with a clear sense of progression, great spatial location, excellent art direction, and smart teaching mechanics.  (The flying eyeball recon quest at the start is a fantastic way to show people around in a low stress manner.)  Players don’t get a “this is an optimal DPS rotation” tutorial, but jumping in and playing a DK is a very smooth and forgiving experience.  (Ironically so, perhaps, since such would seem to benefit newbies more than vets who have qualified for DKs by having a high level character somewhere.)

The Phasing technology gives a nice sense of progress along a timeline, and really sells the storytelling.  It’s still not Hemingway or Shakespeare, but it’s a LOT better than what any other new character will see in WoW.

The Runes and Runic Power system is an interesting mutation of a mating between the Rage and Rogue Combo mechanics, and I found that it nicely promoted optimization of DPS rotations just by how it works, considering the cooldowns of runes and the gradual building of Runic Power.  It seems complex at a glance, and it certainly has the potential to be so, but getting up and running with it was a smooth experience.

So, I’ll add my voice to the choir saying that the Death Knight design and starting area is awesome, and that Blizzard really did a great job on them.  I won’t sing the praises during the chorus, when the theme is embraced, though.  I’m very glad that I had the chance to see a bit of the DK experience first hand, and I have some good screenshots to study… but I can’t honestly say that the experience was a pleasant one, on balance.  It was downright uncomfortable, and not something that I’d really want to do again.  (Which is not unlike the Arthas novel, actually… well crafted, unappealing characters and theme.  It works for some, certainly, just not me.)

The Death Knight experience offers some of the best work that Blizzard has done to date, and if dark magics, necromancy, Death and Destruction don’t bother you, the DK starting zones may well be the best part of the game.

A final note, though… I do wish that Blizzard would turn their eye to crafting this sort of experience for single player games.  If this sort of thing, complete with Phasing and a renewed focus on storytelling, is the future of the MMO genre (including SWTOR), I’m really going to be miffed that they didn’t just make a brilliant single player game.  More and more, I’m convinced that storytelling just isn’t meant to be a major component of MMO design.  Players should be telling their own stories, and all that effort crafting great narrative really should be in single player games, or even films.  But that’s another post…

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Games have power.  This story hits on why I want to make games in the first place, as a natural extension of my initial desire to work in movies.

Valkyria Chronicles

Interestingly, I like the Valkyrie Profile games for much the same reason; they tell interesting stories that have a way of digging into the heart and soul of the human condition through abstraction.

It’s also why I’m increasingly tired of MMOs, with their bland, lowest common denominator, static design.  They are indeed fun playgrounds, but I’m ready for something more satisfying.  I see MMOs as interesting commercial products, great places to try out some interesting design, but when it comes right down to it, it’s the single player, heavy story-driven RPG that will always be my home as a player, and as a designer.  I enjoy making a fun mental exercise like Alpha Hex, I enjoy zoning out for a bit bashing monsters in something like Fate, and I enjoy tactical games ranging from StarCraft to MechCommander to FFT.  I enjoy designing such games because people have fun with them and I like to help people smile.

But this, the power to help people learn, laugh and heal… that’s what I’d ultimately like to employ my skills in.  That‘s what games can offer, and the interactivity can make it all the more powerful.  That’s what I aspire to, wielding the medium as a force to build and heal, rather than exploring destruction in intricate detail.

Of course, VC has its share of explosions and destruction.  So does real life.  The key is that the game wants to tell a story of hope and healing in the face of those inevitable hard times.  Far too often, games just focus on the mechanics of destruction, and the bleak depression that some people think is the only way to actually feel anything.

In other words, games are in their emo phase.  I’m looking forward to the day when the industry matures and understands that the ESRB definition of “Mature” is what a pubescent depressed loner thinks life is all about, and that really being mature and growing up is something entirely different.  Valkyria Chronicles is a step in the right direction, and I hope we can get more games like this made, and made well so that they aren’t dismissed by angry people who never really grew up.

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My boss sent me a link to a fascinating little movie as a research datapoint.  There are a lot of very cool and interesting things happening in this, especially for a technical artist like me.  I keep looking at things, trying to pick apart what is going on, and how I’d replicate it or do it better.  There are some great visuals in this short film, and it would have been a blast to work on it.

One of the more interesting things that popped out at me is that the movie is designed to run on an endless, seamless loop.  As such, it really changed how I viewed the character that the movie “starts” on… but nothing moved, it’s entirely a matter of context and extra revealed information.  It’s a bit like how Shamus described a key character in Bioware’s Jade Empire game; the character is the same one, it’s just the new information that the viewer/player is given changes how you look at the character.

To me, that’s great writing, and I wish we would see more of that in games.

So, without further ado,


(And yes, that’s sort of spoilerish.  Sorry.)

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