Archive for July, 2013

Storytelling in Games: Does Music Have To Be Poetry?

I want to follow up on my thoughts earlier this week about storytelling in games. I may have implied that all games need to have stories, or that the quality of the stories is definitely a factor in judging how good the game is. That’s not exactly true. It’s helpful to think of this in the same way we think of using words with music. Yes, some songs include wonderful poetry or tell stories, but that’s not a requirement. There are good songs with simple, inane lyrics, or even with no lyrics at all. While a person could argue that  songs should just be used to deliver poetry, they would need to use a very expansive definition of the word “poetry” and also ignore many qualities that music can offer.

This isn’t a perfect metaphor, but I think it’s instructive. Music can be focused on poetry, but it doesn’t have to be. And even when it is, we often look for different qualities in poetry that is sung than poetry that is written or spoken. Similarly, stories in games are going to be different than stories in books. When it’s a linear narrative, the point of the story is to give meaning and context to the player’s actions rather than to enjoy the story for its own sake. And when the player can influence the story, that changes everything. How do you discuss or review a story that became unique to you?

This isn’t an entirely new idea. Role-playing games and other shared storytelling experiences have been around for a while. And judging from them, the answer to “how do you discuss them?” may be “you don’t”. There are few things more annoying than a person trying to tell you all about their RPG campaign. On the other hand, the fact that people keep trying to do that is a testament to how powerful the story was to them. It just shows that stripping away the interactivity completely changes the value of the story, just as some effective song lyrics are weak when stripped of the music and written down.

My hope right now is to see games defined by stories that are worth coming back to. Do you know anyone who still plays Diablo instead of Diablo 2? Maybe they play Diablo 2 instead of Diablo 3, but that’s because they have quibbles with the copy protection or skill trees of the third one. Even with Diablo-esque games outside the series, such as Torchlight, the general consensus is that one new, better game can completely replace another. Old games are usually just replayed for nostalgia, or because they offered a unique gameplay element that hasn’t yet been made obsolete by the sequels.

On the other hand, people still read Lord of the Rings and The Great Gatsby. I do frequently argue that old works eventually get supplanted by new ones, but certainly not in the sudden way that games replace each other. I couldn’t imagine a new Terry Brooks series suddenly making Tolkien obsolete. Similarly, old songs become less popular as styles change, but their poetry and stories still stand on their own. Even the games that were revered for their stories ten to fifteen years ago (like Marathon and Planescape: Torment) are pretty much completely ignored today.

Maybe technological advances will always make video games fade faster than books or music. I like to think that this is at least partly because we’re still learning how to use the tools of the genre, though. I hope that someday, it will be common for people to play ten-year-old games because even if their mechanics and engine have been improved upon, the stories they tell are unique.

Thoughts about Neil Gaiman’s Wayward Manor, and General Storytelling in Games

By now, you’ve surely heard last week’s announcement that Neil Gaiman is working on a video game named Wayward Manor. As he puts it, “I’m a storyteller. What I tend to do is try and find the right medium to tell the right story.” That’s worth a lot of attention on its own, because historically, games have not been known for very good writing. Most gamers love the idea that there are things that make their medium right for stories, but there isn’t a lot of evidence yet to demonstrate that. I have to wonder how this new project is going to work out, myself: I love adventure games, and I love Gaiman’s sensibilities, so I expect to like this game. (Though admittedly, I had similar thoughts about Starship Titanic.) But, even though Gaiman has excelled in many different genres and mediums, I don’t know whether he appreciates the unique challenges of storytelling in a game.

Most stories in games have been static. When you reach a certain point, you see the same cut-scene that every other player does. Maybe there are slight variations, or a few different endings available, but none of that impacts on the gameplay or overall experience. If there’s no interaction, and they only meaningful way for the player to impact the events is to die and restart, then how is that really “part of the game” instead of a split up movie or novel? (And if your answer is that it wouldn’t be very good as a stand-alone movie, then is it really any good in the game either?)

The other problem is pacing. Traditional stories are meant to be read in a way controlled by the author. Games are meant to give the player a challenge that they may not be able to overcome for a while, if ever. I mean, I’ve never made it to the last cut-scene in Ms. PacMan. That’s not a big deal because I didn’t care about the story, but I sure would be upset if I couldn’t unlock the last third of American Gods. The specific genre that Gaiman is writing for is especially notorious for this, because each puzzle in an adventure game will stump some people for longer than others. If you are moving through the game quickly, but then you get stuck for three days on a puzzle right at an interesting part of the story, then it probably won’t seem as interesting once it resumes. The easy way to prevent this is to make sure that each puzzle happens in between concrete chapters of the story, but then we’re back to this being a serialization that feels separate from the game itself.

I’ll admit that I haven’t kept up with most recent games, so I can’t comment on the ways that they are trying to overcome this. I also haven’t been very active in the interactive fiction community, whose main focus is on the literary potential of games. But these are the three major approaches that I can come up with:

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Adam Johnson – The Ophan Master’s Son (Book Review)

The Orphan Master's Son cover

Adam Johnson – The Orphan Master’s Son

Usually, I have a pretty good idea what I think of a book after reading it. With The Orphan Master’s Son, I’m a lot less sure. Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is at times funny, horrifying, insightful, and boring.

Set in North Korea, it’s basically a real-life dystopia. Full of double-speak, blatant propaganda, and misconceptions from people who know no other life, it has a very good bleak humor to it. It is also full of horrors, and doesn’t shy away from emphasizing how cheaply the lives of children, families, and animals are tossed away. North Korea is largely unknown to us, so it’s difficult to decide how realistic this is. However, the setting still gives it a feeling of reality. Instead of enjoying this as a clever book in the abstract dystopian tradition, the horrors feel real. But after a few chapters, just when you’re wondering if you can take a whole book like that, it settles down into a more standard plot about an aimless young man with no identity. Rather than being about some place on the other side of the world, it feels like yet another naval-gazing American story about finding yourself. The main character goes through a series of increasingly unlikely adventures, and despite what I thought at the beginning, it got harder to read as it got further from the cruelties of common life.

A little before the halfway point, it suddenly changes. It jumps forward in time, after some major events have happened, and then unravels that story using flashbacks and new characters’ reactions. This gives the second half the purpose that had been lacking at first, with all the early disjointed plots and themes tying together nicely. It also feels less wild, though, as the reader now knows more or less where the flashbacks are headed. In general, this does save the book – the mix of memorable atrocities and arbitrary plot shifts just couldn’t have been maintained for very long.

Also, the book is saved by the themes it develops. Johnson chooses to make his study of North Korea to be about identity and story. In his vision of this land, the truth is whatever the leaders tell you it is, and no part of your identity is safe from the rulings they can impose. It’s no coincidence that the protagonist is named Jun Do (“John Doe”), and he goes through many very different positions in his life. At first, like a dystopian David Copperfield, he does nothing but accept every new identity he’s given. Eventually, though, he learns to take control of a system in which words redefine reality, and eventually extends that power to the extreme. This builds up gradually so that the result feels like a triumph over the system that defines North Korea, as long as you let yourself forget that the author’s conceit may bear little resemblance to the actual nation.

At times too ridiculous to take seriously, and other times so tragic you wish you couldn’t take it seriously, The Orphan Master’s Son is as full of contradictions as the land it portrays. Some scenes will stick with me for a long time. I have to conclude that it was worth reading, though I sometimes had to struggle to get to the parts that made it worthwhile.

Grade: B-

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! (iPhone Gamebook Review)

Sorcery 1Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! is an attempt by Inkle Studios to update classic RPG gamebooks to the iPhone. It’s actually a new version of an old Fighting Fantasy volume. Never having played that, I can’t comment on how much this edition changes, but it obviously does adapt quite a bit. Many choices that you have are dependent on other events, and where the book would have to say “if this has happened, you may turn to this page”, the app simply doesn’t show you the choices.

The design does a lot of things right: Your story is shown on a virtual parchment, and after you make a choice, that list of options disappears. That means that the results show up as another paragraph right after the earlier one, creating an appearance of one cohesive story rather than a scattered collection of pages. The writing from one paragraph to the next flows smoothly, with good reasons given for why you made your choice and some variations in the text based on things that happened earlier. The app seems to support many small choices that would feel awkward in book form, but are fun when you’re simply tapping buttons. (And even things like “do you take the right or left path?”, which normally annoy me in these games, are tolerable when making and undoing decisions is so easy.) After every small scene, your next choice is shown as a series of locations on a map. This gives you a visualization of your hero’s cross-country journey, and also provides an easy way for you to tap the old locations to rewind the story. Unfortunately, if you’re interested in reading your whole “story”, you can’t see the previous locations’ text again without rewinding and playing through that point. I didn’t really mind this, because while the text is well-written enough to enjoy in the moment, it wouldn’t really be worth re-reading without the fun of having choices.

The combat system is also very clever. Virtual dice are not as interesting as physical ones, so instead there is a mini-game in which you and your opponent simultaneously choose how much energy to put into each attack. The higher attack always damages the other, but if you “defend” with a very low attack value, you’ll be able to deflect much of the damage while recovering your own strength. Battle has been turned from a passive luck-based experience into one in which you make a lot of important decisions. Even if you don’t have too much information about what your opponent may do, this is still a big improvement.

Sorcery 2The app does a great job of updating an old game system that had been heavily dependent on a specific technology. I was a little more frustrated with the plot they chose, though. You play a promising young hero sent off on a mission of great import to your people, but it’s possible to play through the whole thing without getting a clear description of what that mission is or what this world is like. Yes, an opening dream sequence mentions a magical crown, but it wasn’t clear to me until halfway through my first game that that was my real goal. And even then, I had no good understanding of why it was urgent to find this item that was lost to the ages, what kind of culture my people had (aside from a few undeveloped hints), or even why I was chosen to seek the crown alone. I spent the first half of my first game feeling absolutely no connection to the events in front of me, even less than I’d expect from a physical gamebook. Though the whole thing plays through in a matter of hours, it still took me a few weeks to find the motivation to get through it.

I tried a second time, though, and that went much better. The knowledge of my first game gave the second more of a purpose, and I enjoyed seeing a lot of the different results available. Though you keep returning to the same general path, there are a lot of major branches, and also very different choices within them. This isn’t just a matter of playing through two or three times to see every result, because a lot of encounters will go differently if you found items or information from earlier in the journey. I’m sure this would feel repetitive after another couple games, but I’d probably still be making some major discoveries beyond that point.

A couple other notes: The game has a magic system with many spells, but only a few available at a given time depending on “the stars’ alignment”. Most of the spells require ingredients that you’ll only have if you made lucky discoveries earlier, and because you actually “line up” the star symbols when casting a spell, it’s not always obvious which choices you’d have anyway. In my first game, I thought this was annoying and unnecessary, especially since you are only given the chance to cast spells at specific times. But on my re-play, I found a few interesting things to do that were not immediately obvious, and I see that this system provides a lot of hidden options for people who want to search for secrets. The system of “gods” fared less well, though: As you make choices, your spirit animal changes to reflect the personality you’re displaying. Each one has a flowery, full-page description of its attributes, and this was one of the things that first drew me into the game. After all, traditional gamebooks can’t keep statistics that you are unaware of. But before long, it became obvious that the various gods all offer the same limited options. If they ever gave me new opportunities or changed the results of my actions, I didn’t notice.

The bottom line is that Sorcery! is a huge leap forward for a game system that I thought was bound to old technology. I have more mixed feelings about the story they chose, though. It eventually won me over and proved that it had more subtleties than expected from a 1980’s gamebook, but I can’t overlook the fact that it did not seem interesting for the first couple hours. Knowing what I do now, though, I can recommend it both for its design concepts and as a story worth the time to explore.

Grade: B

Village (Game Review)

Village box


In Inka and Markus Brand’s board game Village, you place family members in various buildings to improve your reputation score. However, the people age and die throughout the game. Success is a matter of adapting to the tempo of the generations so that you get the most benefit out of each family member’s life. This theme of death sounds morbid, but the game treats it abstractly and arguably as part of the natural cycle of things.

Let’s get this out of the way to begin with: Village is not a worker placement game. Everyone thinks it is (even the BGG page lists that as its sole mechanic), but “worker placement” has always been about more than literally placing workers. The term really refers to selecting actions and blocking them from the other players. Here, though the workers gain abilities (“professions”), they don’t return to your supply to eventually free up the space, but they also don’t block other meeples from joining them. Calling this a worker placement game does nothing to actually describe what it’s like.

The main board

The main board

Strangely, though, there is action drafting similar to what the term “worker placement” entails. It’s just separate from the worker figures: At the start of each round, colored cubes are spread around the available action spaces, and on your turn you choose your action by taking an available cube. The cubes are required to pay for certain actions, so you will sometimes pick an action for the cube you need instead of the action itself.

Personal board, with the time tracker, resources, and family members working the "farm".

Personal board, with the time tracker, resources, and family members working the “farm”.

Some cubes are black instead, which bring a “plague” advancing a time marker. Powerful actions also take time. All the meeples have numbered “generations”, and every time a player’s time tracker completes a circle, one of their lowest-generation meeples must be removed. You’ll need the powerful actions to win, but not so many that all your people die.

These family members do various things, either producing goods or providing points by increasing the family’s reputation. Keep in mind that when you train someone to produce a certain good, they won’t be around to do it forever. Also, some of the point-scoring areas are only counted at the end of the game, so there’s no reason to fight for them in the first generation. On the other hand, the “village chronicle” tracks the founders who passed on, which basically brings a benefit for early deaths.

The various things to do aren’t that interesting: Pay time and cubes to generate goods, possibly also training a family member in that skill for a future discount. Sell goods in a market, the place that seems disproportionately responsible for most of the points. Travel through distant lands, which is expensive but pays off well if you can visit all of them by the end of the game. Advance through the ranks of the town hall, gaining abilities that could give you goods, points, or the starting position every round. (Note for action-drafting purists: This game has a simple turn order, so if someone pays to go first, the person to their left gets the benefit of going second without paying anything.) And so on. Thematically, there is a lot of variety, with different levels of competition at different areas. Practically, though, I never felt very driven. You can make a plan (get certain colored cubes or goods for a specific action), but it’s never a long-term plan, and there’s rarely much tension in whether you’ll complete it.

After I played this game a couple times, I figured that I would rate it a B-. It’s got some clever ideas, but with nothing especially interesting about the implementation. It’s worth checking out, but there’s not much reason to stick with it once you’ve played a couple times and gotten used to it. But I’m starting to realize that we’ve recently seen a major increase in the quality of new games. My Origins report had more high ratings than I’ve ever given, and I’m excited about many of the games that I’m currently playing and haven’t reviewed yet. I don’t feel like there’s still much reason to recommend a game just because it adds a few twists to existing ones. Village came out in 2011 or 2012 (depending on your country), and I understand the design philosophy that led to it. But this is 2013, an exciting year flooded with excellent games that provide a more complete experience. It’s time to raise my standards. You won’t regret trying Village, but you certainly won’t miss it if you don’t.

Grade: C+


On Authors and Delays

This video from Comic-Con has been making the rounds this week: Paul & Storm start singing “Write Like the Wind”, their song asking George R.R. Martin to hurry up with his next book, when Martin comes on stage and angrily attacks them. It’s obviously staged, but has still struck a chord with lots of people.

It’s time for me to speak up, because I think the conversation is getting one-sided. The common point of view now is Neil Gaiman’s statement that “George R R. Martin is not your bitch“. And, yes, that’s true as far as it goes. The (few) people who are personally attacking Martin are offensive and wrong. However, I think this statement is usually being used to set up a straw man. It’s perfectly possible to be frustrated with a series’ delays without acting entitled.

The question that Gaiman was replying to wasn’t really that strong at all. Someone asked whether or not it was realistic to feel that Martin was “letting him down”. My answer: Hell yes it’s ok to feel let down! The fundamental assumption of my blog is that people have a right to feel any arbitrary way they want about works of culture, and that emotional responses are good. No matter how disappointed I may be in a work, I don’t personally judge the creators for it. But I have every right to feel good or bad about my reaction to the work, and to make it known.

Series are tricky things. The individual installments affect each other, and a new one can change how we see the earlier bits. If you’ve never had an old story retroactively ruined (or saved) by a sequel, then you read very differently than I do. And a book that leaves plot threads dangling would normally be bad, unless you buy into the promise that they will be resolved later. If we aren’t enjoying the work in a vacuum, then those external factors can change it later. (I’m not touching on the balance between timeliness and quality here. Yes, sometimes it’s best in the long run to make fans wait while you make a story right. It’s a fine line to walk, and I’ve seen plenty of successes and failures both ways.)

Authors want us to buy into the promise of the ongoing story. As Gaiman says in his article, almost no one can afford to write an entire series ahead of time and only publish it after it’s complete. But the reason consumers are willing to buy the story before the final installment is complete is because they trust the author to work on it, and their experience will be an open and ongoing thing in the meantime. The claim that “if you enjoyed the work at the time, you have no right to complain now” is a fundamental betrayal of the way series are supposed to work. If authors really believe that, then the only rational response is for people to wait until the series is finished before risking any money on it. And if everyone waits, of course, it would destroy the industry.

We need to accept a middle ground between “authors should slave away for the fans” and “it’s selfish for readers to let delays impact their experience”. The new era of crowdfunding and social media is teaching us a lot about the contract between creators and their fans, and it should be relevant even to existing publishing systems. People support the creators that they like in order to see new works from them, and creators need to respect that trust. There’s no contract in place, of course, but the fans are taking it on good faith that the author will try. It turn, fans need to show good faith when unexpected events get in the way. Fortunately, transparent Kickstarters are helping to teach everyone about all the things that can delay projects. Good reasons typically earn forgiveness. Taking on side projects or saying “sorry, I had no idea what I was getting into when I took your money” typically does not.

In the end, fans have every right to make inferences like “the author will make it a priority to continue his best-selling series”, and every right to complain when delays are justifiably hurting their enjoyment of the books. George R.R. Martin is not our bitch, but we’re not his trust fund, either.

Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band – Bless This Mess (Music Review)

Bless This Mess cover

Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band – Bless This Mess

When I reviewed Jayke Orvis’ first album, I said that he needed to find focus in order to make the masterpiece he was obviously capable of. Now he’s back as part of an official band, with a bit more focus, but I wish I hadn’t said that. It’s All Been Said took a long time to grow on me, but it’s an amazing work. Think of it as a stoner mix tape tied together with a strong country music focus, and you’ll have an idea of how it worked. Now, with Bless This Mess, Orvis and The Broken Band have deemphasized that side of him to focus on the country music.

I still believe that Orvis should be able to put out an absolutely stunning album. I see him releasing a work as disruptive and ground-breaking as Hank3’s Straight To Hell, but one that builds on country foundations instead of gleefully tearing at them. Just listen to the opening instrumental of Bless This Mess, which layers traditional country instrumentation in a rich, complex way. Unashamedly country, but intelligent and forward-thinking, this goes far beyond not only from soulless modern pop country, but also from the classics he’s building on.

But an opening instrumental, no matter how strong, needs to lead into another strong song. Instead, only two of the first five tracks on Bless This Mess are originals. As much as I love the culture of traditional songs in country, Orvis feels limited when he’s not doing his own thing. Even the classics generally were not very musically adventurous, and these excellent composers are held back. These tracks are still done well, but the band can’t be entirely themselves. “West Wind”, that other original, is a relief. Thematically similar to the covers around it, it nevertheless lets Orvis mix a confident slacker persona into the upbeat country. Once again, the album brings us something powerful and unique.

After another (great) instrumental, the second half slips plays to their strengths. The charismatic loner of “West Wind” returns on “Crooked Smile” and “Long Way Home”, while “Slow Down” brings some introspection to the album. “Lead Me Astray” touches on that Hank3-style rebelliousness, but with a B-movie ending that feels unique to Orvis’ own tastes. And the sea shanty of “Black Ship” closes it with the sort of experimentation that defined Orvis’ last album. (While an untitled bonus track goes too far out into weird territory, that’s actually reassuring after the more traditional songs that came earlier.)

Bless This Mess suffers as an album by putting an early focus on the things that do not define the band’s strengths. Looking past that, though, this is still a great collection of songs, and The Broken Band is capable of backing up Orvis’ wandering moods. I’m still waiting for that classic album, but releases like Bless This Mess will tide me over nicely.

Grade: B+