Frontiers in Storytelling: The Elder Scrolls V

I’ve just devoured GameInformer’s preview of TESV:Skyrim, and it’s encouraging stuff. The animation improvements sound excellent. Something we learned working on an internal project at TT was that seamless, varied, context-sensitive animation contributes far more than clever AI to the verisimilitude of a character. And the lighting improvements over Fallout in the first official screenshot are glorious.

But what’s got me most excited is the Radiant Story tech, which basically custom-creates side quests by taking an authored template and inserting characters who the player has developed a relationship with – so instead of quests from random strangers, you will be approached by someone you know to undertake a task involving someone you like. It’s essentially what a good Game Master of a tabletop RPG would do, and something I’ve wanted to try out in a game for over a decade. Sadly working full-time on other people’s games has prevented me from exploring it myself, but I’m delighted to see Bethesda tackle it.

The compelling thing about role-playing is your attachment to your character, and their role in the world of the game. Every decision you make as a player, whether in a tabletop game, LRP, or CRPG, makes your story a little bit different to anyone else’s. Mostly in subtle ways – a few points in this skill instead of that skill, or a grudge against an NPC forgiven instead of held – but they all add up to making the player feel invested in the story, even if the final encounter turns out exactly as the referee expected. By customizing the peripheral content to reflect the player’s prior investment, Bethesda could be creating the most immersive CRPG ever.

And when developed to a point that it could be used in the main storyline, this could be a fantastic alternative to the tired old branching plotline. An AI system that understands story, and can populate Campbell’s mythic archetypes in each player’s quest with characters whose skills, power, and personality traits complement or contrast with the system’s analysis of the player. A system that can engineer moral dilemmas and opportunites for dastardly betrayals, tragic heroics or glorious rescues. A system that could sculpt whodunnits or soap opera as well as epic fantasy.

Now that’s the bleeding edge of modern gaming.

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Choice of the Dragon

Choice of Games have released a free web-based multiple-choice game called Choice of the Dragon. It’s basically an RPG pared down to the most meaningful choices. Imagine half-an-hour of random combat and exploration between each of the choices, and you’ve got Mass Effect or Fable.

It’s a striking design choice, which works well – the text is terse but witty, and the choices reveal character…forcing you to decide whether your dragon is cruel or merely disdainful. And the consequences of your choices play out later in the story. My only real criticism is that with such concise vignettes you have little time to develop empathy with any of the characters your dragon meets – but that may also be because you’re a dragon, who doesn’t have a whole lot of empathy anyway.

The best thing is that they are working to make the scripting language and interpreter available to anyone. It’s not just a branching tree of options, they have support for simple variables so that extra choices can be made available based on past actions, or the success of a given choice can depend on your previous experience. I hope we’ll see a whole crop of games exploring the strengths of this minimalist format – anything from intimate character dramas to epic tales of world domination. I can even imagine major games studios prototyping their plot arcs in this engine.

The interpreter has been ported to several mobile phone platforms too, so you can download Choice of the Dragon for free for your iPhone or Android phone. And finally, they have a blog discussing the finer points of creating games in this format, which is well worth a read.

So, why not go and write a game?

Doctor Who RPG

Since it’s now on the shelves, I’m fairly sure the NDA I signed has lapsed, so I’m going to blog about it…

I was lucky enough to get to playtest Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space a few months ago (all thanks to Jac Rayner), and I’ve been biting my lip ever since. There are detailed reviews elsewhere (Try rpg.net), so I’ll keep it short: the game is utterly inspired.

Cubicle 7 have created a simple system with a built-in bias against violent solutions, which really captures the essence of the show. Some reviewers have interpreted the minimalist rules as a sign that it’s targeted at younger novice players; which it is, but that shouldn’t put off experienced roleplayers. My favourite systems are those with the fewest rules; Amber and Nobilis in particular.

But the best thing was that I got to play the Doctor. And it was amazing.

I’ve been a Who fan since I was about 4, so I am steeped in that universe. The Doctor was my first and strongest role model. The system is designed to promote dialogue and problem-solving over fighting, and as the Doctor I honestly felt like I could march into ANY situation, hold court and solve everything – but if not, I could always run away and try something else. Over a decade of ground-in roleplayer’s paranoia evaporated in minutes. It was like flying.

The only flaw we detected in our playtest was that the companions can have little to do (or perhaps I just monopolised the GM and ordered them around). The simplest solution seems to be to split up the party so that the Doctor can’t do everything himself, but careful character design could also alleviate that problem – making sure the party have complementary skills, and that everyone has at least one specialist skill they can do better than the Doctor. Also, we used characters we’d generated that afternoon, so the group didn’t have much chance to build up relationships between the Doctor and companions. A few more sessions and I think we’d have settled into a comfortable partnership.

Character creation is astonishingly versatile, allowing you to create humans, aliens, robots, even Time Lords. And the game encourages alternative party setups such as a group of Time Lords or Unit agents. They really have made anything possible. I can’t wait for Cubicle 7’s expansion books…

A little background…

So, what’s the point of this place? And why “Winterblood”?

Well, I’ve set this up as a place to share my thoughts on the subjects that interest me – the making of films and games. So here’s a little background to put my comments in context…

I love games, and I’ve been programming them since I was at school – I starting off typing BASIC listings into a CPC464 circa 1982. Went to university, got a degree in Computer Science, and got a job at the bottom on the ladder. 13 years later, I’ve worked my way up to Associate Lead Programmer at Traveller’s Tales, and have worked on a dozen different games. I’ve watched the industry develop from outside and inside, and I’m still excited by the possibilities and by by other developers’ creations.

At university I was introduced to tabletop and live role-playing, which opened up a whole new field of gaming to me – a form far less controllable, but so much richer for the participation of fellow players. I have a lot of ideas about how to bring the same depth of experience to video games, which I’ll elaborate on in future posts.

Turning to films, I have a similar passion for a good story skilfully told with beautiful visuals and sound – and a fascination with the mechanics of constructing that narrative, much of which can be applied to video games. However, unlike games where I started at the bottom and worked my way up, with filmmaking I simply decided “I want to direct!” and began developing my skills by working on progressively more ambitious projects. I’ll detail those experiences later, along with short articles on cinematic art, camera geekery and visual effects techniques.

And why Winterblood? It’s just a memorable and evocative conjunction that isn’t used much on the internet. To me it conjures bleak images of a snow-covered battlefeild…read into that what you will.

If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll find something of interest in the posts to come. See you soon…