Is Gordon Freeman a Character?

Over on ihobo today, I take a crowbar to the popularity of Gordon Freeman as a ‘character’. Here’s an extract:

Every poll asking gamers to rate the best videogame character is topped by Half-Life's Gordon Freeman. But is Gordon even a character, let alone the best that games have produced? This question hinges upon what we mean by 'character', of course. The argument that Gordon qualifies – despite his lack of a clearly recognisable personality or identity – rests on the assumption that a player-character should be an empty shell for the player to inject themselves into… Trouble is, player-as-Gordon has precious little choice because his world consists solely of puzzles to solve, things to crowbar, or things to kill. So if this is the relevant criterion, it doesn't seem like Gordon has the substance to back up his claim to supremacy with any kind of legitimacy beyond popular mandate.

You can read all of Is Gordon Freeman a Character? over at ihobo.com.


Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing


PTFVW The IGDA's Game Writers Special Interest Group has produced a sequel to the book I edited (Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames) entitled Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing. The new book is edited by Wendy Despain, whose consultancy Quantum Content is part of the International Hobo family, and who sits on the executive panel of the SIG. I received a copy of the book from Wendy when I met her up in Yellowstone Park before leaving the States, and enjoyed reading it on the plane back to the UK. The new book is a great supplement to the first one, with lots of useful information and advice from professional game writers covering a wide variety of interesting and useful topics. But don't take my word for it - there's a review on Slashdot which also praises it.


My Words in Other Voices

Microphone03_2 There are few aspects of being a game writer which are truly rewarding, but the one shining jewel in the experience of writing for games is the amazing transformation that voice actors perform in bringing a script to life. Good voice actors – and there are many such people – can rescue a lacklustre script, invigorate an average script and immortalise a good one. It is not much of an exaggeration to claim that the appalling general quality of videogames narrative taken as a whole would seem even more dire were it not for the incredible work that voice actors perform in making dry text into living people and tangible emotions.

My first voice recording sessions were for Discworld Noir, which was also my first videogame script. I’d worked on the previous Discworld game, but not in a lead role. I was lucky to get a truly exceptional voice cast to work with. (I mentioned them briefly before, when I noted that three out of four of them worked on Mirrormask). I was also extremely lucky to have the Discworld author himself, Terry Pratchett, edit the script for the game (while on holiday in Australia) – with the minimum of tampering, Terry brought out the comedy in the script, and polished my rough work to a neat sparkle.

Rob Brydon, a Welsh comedian now most famous for the BBC comedy Marion and Geoff, provided the voice of the protagonist, Lewton, and several other minor characters. Since the game features a hard boiled monologue for the delivery of almost all information, including error messages, Rob had to endure a grueling week of recording several thousand lines of speech. One particular aspect of the script caused ever growing frustration: a mistake in the way the shooting script had been compiled meant that every door in the game produced a line of dialogue in the script: “After all, a door is just a door”. After reading this line about twenty times, it became Rob’s own personal hell. I can only hope that he has successfully blocked it from his memory in the years since!

Nigel Planer, probably still best known as the moping hippy Neil in the BBC comedy The Young Ones, was perhaps the most meticulously professional in his approach to the recording sessions. He spent some time getting the studio set up just perfectly to his requirements, then delivered all the lines with comfortable aplomb. There was no doubt he had done this sort of voice acting job many times before.

The voice of all the female characters in Noir, Kate Robbins, was a sheer delight to work with. She completed all of her lines in a one day session, delivering them with a glorious lustre and a seemingly infinite supply of accents. Carlotta, the femme fatale of the story, exudes a smouldering quality heightened by the lustrous accent Kate performed. Most amazingly, the script called for the troll diva Sapphire to sing a song (a pastiche composed and written by Paul Weir) which Kate recorded on the day, from the sheet music, without ever having heard it before. Classy!

Finally, my favourite of the voice actors for this game was Robert Llewellyn, most famous as the android Kryten in the BBC Comedy Red Dwarf (although he is also a writer of popular novels). Throughout the long recording sessions, I was keeping myself sane by tallying a scorecard for whose lines were getting the most lasts – mine, or those added by Terry in the editing phase. (In the end, we broke about even). One line in particular has stuck in memory: it came in Robert’s lines for the Butler, my favourite character in the game. The Butler – a savagely deadpan wit – introduces Lewton (the protagonist) to the Library at the Von Uberwald mansion, saying: “The Libraris Apocrypha is a collection of obscurities and rare volumes from across the continent. If knowledge were an animal, the Libraris would be a great dragon. Sir by the same scale would be kebab on an ant’s barbecue.” It cracked Robert up so much, we had to take a short break to restore order.

I’ve had many other voice sessions since then, but few so memorable. It was, however, a great personal honour to record the narrator script for Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition with Tom Baker back in 2004. (Do I need to make it explicit that Tom is most famous as the fourth Doctor in the BBC science fiction serial Doctor Who?) He arrived at the London studio where we were holding the recordings as larger than life as ever, and immediately launched into a discussion about the tone of the script, and the use of the word “inculcate” in the introduction. Later, after recording hundreds of narration lines with effortless aplomb, he launched into a random anecdote about somebody he had been involved in years before, then straight back into reading lines. There was something magical about the whole experience.

In the book I edited on Game Writing, Coray Seifert’s chapter on voice actors is called “Adding Magic”. Undeniably, that’s what the many great voice actors and actresses contribute to every game script they animate: a miraculous, supernatural talent to bring mere words into spectacular life. Our videogame stories would be utterly impoverished without them.


Why There Are No Great Game Stories

Sevensamurai01 Battle_beyond_stars

It is unfortunate that there are no great game stories. It would be nice, when people ask what I would single out for excellence in game narrative, to have some quick and easy retort; some title I could comfortably pull from memory with the confidence of many days repetition. But alas, I am at a loss to find anything in the literary history of videogames thus far that aspires to greatness. This is not to say that there are not good stories in videogames, nor that there are not excellent writers and narrative designers working in videogames – one of the toughest storytelling media around.

The thing about great stories, in any medium, is that they are not simply of their time – they’re timeless. Great stories can be told again and again, in many different settings and retain some hint of greatness. This said, there can be a marked difference in quality. Akira Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai achieves greater mastery of the cinematic form than Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars, despite the same essential plot (which achieved its greatest commercial success in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven). Great plot. But as entertaining as Corman’s sci fi hokum may be, it is significantly shy of the subtlety of Kurasawa’s narrative. Seven Samurai doesn’t just have a great plot, it’s a great story; The Magnificent Seven does a decent job adapting it to a Western, while Battle Beyond the Stars is... well, fun.

And maybe that’s the problem. Battle Beyond the Stars, and practically any romping genre piece (space opera, fantasy quests, treasure hunters and so on) can be fun, but can’t quite aspire to greatness, because great stories, in the sense that literary critics mean, are about the human condition – the ineffable essence of life; diverse enough to fuel endless stories, and inescapably authentic. Most game stories are either silly fun, or clumsy revenge tales that facilitate violent power fantasies in the play of the game. Maybe fun stories are better suited to videogames because videogames (or at least, their commercial form) are about having fun?

Another problem – the seedy underbelly of videogames, in fact – is the repetition. Would you like to be running down a corridor shooting droves of enemies, or running through a forest hacking down droves of enemies (and then a mine... a desert... dungeons...)? Or you could optimise an economy over and over again, or drive down the street over and over again, or perhaps you could repeat a jump over and over again? Repeat until you get it right. Which is fun – for a surprisingly large number of people. 94% of gamers say they are okay or good at completing repetitive tasks, and over a quarter of these say they find it very easy.

(Not to mention repetitive tasks are habit-forming, essentially by definition: if you learn to do it over and over again, you’ll keep doing it as long as it’s fun. And understandably, habit-forming games sell better – or at least, sell more reliably.)

Most successful videogames involve repetition – either to learn the skills to progress, or to hoard the supplies (including experience in cRPGs) needed to succeed. Great stories thus far in history have never been as repetitive as videogames, which makes it difficult to know how one would make a great story in this new form. But I think we can be pretty certain it isn’t by any of the methods we’re currently using – not by the tacked-on animated movie, neither by the well-orchestrated spookhouse ride, nor the pulp adventure story shuffled into a game. We have found many ways to make fun games, and indeed there are many great games, and some such games have good stories. But still no great stories, alas.

Yes, it’s unfortunate that there are no great game stories yet, but isn’t it exciting to see how things might develop? 


Funnelling and Breadcrumbing: Examples Wanted

In one of my chapters in Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, I discuss part of the game writer's role in keeping the player on track. In fact, I suggest in this piece that one of the principle goals of game writing is to communicate necessary information to the player in the most unobtrusive way possible. In the chapter, I talk about two general techniques that can be used:

  • Breadcrumbing is about leaving a "trail of breadcrumbs" that the player can follow that will lead them through the game spine. Sometimes these are pick ups (as in Turok 2), sometimes they are lines of dialogue (as in most adventures and RPGs), sometimes they are action points the player must visit (as in GTA).
  • Funnelling is the companion to this, and involves guiding the player back to the "trail of breadcrumbs" if they wander off. Sometimes this is a character who points the player back on track when they get lost, sometimes it is a quest journal or equivalent tool, and sometimes the funnelling is implicit in the breadcrumbing because the system presents itself openly (as with the action points in GTA).

This chapter has been very well received, and referenced in talks by other game writers, which is very flattering.

And, I am pleased to announce that I have been invited to speak at Austin Game Developers Conference this year to provide a session on this subject, entitled What Do I Do Now? Narrative Devices for Guiding Players.

As part of my preparation for this, I am considering some examples of breadcrumbing and funnelling techniques from recent games - and for this, I need your help! If you have any examples of breadcrumbing or funnelling techniques that you have seen in anything you have played recently, please let me know.

Think about what helped you work your way through the game, and any support that was provided to guide you when you lost track of what you were doing. If you have any examples you can share with me, please do so in the comments.

Thanks in advance, and hope to see some of you at Austin GDC!


The Inefficiency of Games as a Narrative Medium

Two_infinities_by_freydoon_rassouli Games and stories have become inexorably intertwined – but we should be cautious about stories in games, as videogames are an extremely inefficient narrative media. The question must be raised: when is it worth the cost of rendering a narrative in a game?

Much has been written about the relationship between games and narrative, here, there and everywhere else besides. In general, I think it can be agreed that while games do not need an explicit narrative (there will always be games such as Tetris which are entirely abstract, for instance), there is a class of games which depend upon their narrative element as a crucial part of the experience of play. These narrative games are quite unlike other narrative media.

But when you have a particular narrative, how do you judge if it is suited to games? And when you have a game, how do you judge what you can do with its narrative?

A problem which game writers, and others interested in game narrative, often choose to overlook is that it is tremendously inefficient to render a story in a game. For instance, suppose you have a short story to tell. You can write it in prose in a few hours. You can shoot and edit a short film of it within a day or so. But to make the same short story into a game takes hundreds of man hours.

Now it is true that by making a game of it you add something that you cannot get in other media – namely interactivity. But there is a flipside to this, which is that not all stories benefit from interactivity. If you want to tell the story of Job, for instance, there is very little point in making it interactive... In fact, by making it interactive you probably collapse the narrative, as it depends upon the protagonist reaching a state of despair from which they fall into inaction. This is essentially impossible to render in an interactive form, except as an absurd pastiche. Similar arguments can be made for Shakespeare’s Macbeth, say, or James Joyce’s Ulysses.

It is not that these stories could not be made into (or at least used to inspire) games – it is rather that what makes these narratives interesting is not necessarily compatible with an interactive form. Furthermore, it is such a tremendous investment of resources to render a narrative in game form that one had better be certain that the narrative is a good choice for a game before beginning.

Far too many people, especially students and amateurs, have an idea for a game, which is actually upon analysis an idea for a story. But they do not then try and write the story (as a novella, or screenplay), they set their sights on a game and have high hopes of bringing their story to life in game form. Most fail. Even those that succeed often do not produce a very satisfying narrative, as if one does not have the skills required to write a story as a novel or a screenplay, there is no reason to believe that one has the skills required to render the narrative in a game – a considerably more complicated task.

It cannot be overemphasised that it takes a tremendous volume of resources to make a game narrative, and the more interactive the narrative, the more laborious it becomes. Façade is an impressive piece of work, but it represents hundreds, perhaps thousands of man hours of work for only half an hour of play (ignoring replay). It was only worth doing because it was pioneering new techniques (which were absolutely worth exploring!), and even then, it is doubtful that any commercial game will follow in its footsteps.

Certain game stories are comparatively simple to implement. For example, if one is creating a linear, or fairly linear, shooting game, then one can render the story as a series of cut scenes between the action – this is in fact the de facto standard for game storytelling, whether for good or ill. In these cases, the story is simply a gloss upon the gameplay. These are cases where the game narrative serves its purpose; the game is already being made, and the narrative adds positively to the experience of the game.

But this is not the case for every narrative idea proposed in the context of games. Indeed, it is arguable that the game concept should precede the story concept, unless it happens that the story concept implies gameplay (which does happen – Ico is an example).

Thomas at Mile Zero asks as part of this month’s Round Table on games and narrative (albeit accidentally!) why there are no game stories with the richness and unique identity of art house movies such as Junebug, and why we are instead doomed to heroic (or anti-heroic) archetypes in videogames. I feel that the answer to this question is the inefficiency of rendering narrative in the medium of games.

The audience becomes used to the high production values they experience with upper market franchises such as Grand Theft Auto and Final Fantasy, and the budgets for such games require a sufficiently large audience to justify their creation. That audience is not generally courted by inventive narrative, alas – I wish that it were. Rather, the few interesting examples of game narrative occur despite resisting commercial factors.  And even if one makes an interesting narrative on a smaller budget, it is still grossly inefficient to do so, compared to how much it would cost to make a short film with the same story content.

There is no way to avoid the fact that games are an inefficient medium for delivering narrative. But there is also no way to avoid the fact that interactive narrative can only be attempted in a game, or something very much like one. What is lacking is the commercial impetus to justify the costs required in making creative interactive narratives, and while the market for videogames remains focussed on games of harsh challenge and fleeting entertainments, this commercial impetus remains absent. It is not even clear that we will ever find such a market. Creative interactive narrative might always be a by-product of the games industry, and never a commercial goal.

But it will not stop those of us enchanted by the potential of the medium trying to push its limits whenever we can. 

The opening image is Two Infinities by Freydoon Rassouli, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is implied, and I will take the image down if asked.


Games and Storytelling White Paper

There is not a great deal published exploring our notions of game storytelling in high-level abstract terms, so it gives me great pleasure to shill the new white paper published by PJ's Attic entitled Games and Storytelling: A Working Definition of Storytelling that Encompasses New Media. You can download the white paper directly from here, or from their publications page here.

The white paper sets itself the goal of providing specific definitions for Narrative, Plot and Story that together provide a new perspective on the storytelling process, thus allowing for a better understanding of what can be achieved in interactive (or even participatory) story. As games such as Spore highlight the increasing focus being placed upon the player contribution to their own play, this is a timely examination of the potential of the medium of games for creative narrative purposes.

Here's an extract:

Once the audience receives the narrative, the true storytelling experience begins. Storytelling is a communication. It does not happen in a vacuum. You can write novels, design games, or film movies your entire life, but if it does not end up in the hands of an audience, you're not really storytelling. Any analysis of games or other narrative media that does not take into account the audience's participation is incomplete and lacks relevance.

I'm honoured to be referenced in the paper; it's a great privilege to be mentioned alongside such luminaries as Umberto Eco and Marshal McLuhan. Quite a change of pace from someone who previously denounced the writings of dead intellectuals!