Horror and Punishment

Over on ihobo today, my response to Jed Pressgrove’s recent criticism of 2001’s Silent Hill 2. While I concede many of his points, it is substantially to defend the game (and the team behind it) that I wrote this reply. Here’s an extract:

When my wife and I went on to play Silent Hill 2, it annoyed me with its obvious staged linearity and almost total absence of what I, at the time, considered characteristic of game design. Where was the open structure of the first game? The tightly constructed progression? Why am I so constrained in almost everything I do now?  So it was with some surprise that,  after a few more playthroughs and considerable reflection, Silent Hill 2 eventually came to stand out as an exceptional case of game narrative. Indeed, I am hard pressed to find any game prior to 2001 that fulfils its narrative ambitions to the extent of this game – which is not to say that it is an unqualified success on all fronts. But then, my general view of game narrative prior to 2001, when Silent Hill 2 was released, is rather negative. There are signs of what might be possible… but they are rare, and almost always dragged down by an overbearing emphasis on puzzles or combat.

You can read the entirety of Horror and Punishment over on ihobo.com.

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!