Keeping Gameplay Narrative in Context

A short piece entitled “Narrative as Gameplay” by Jonas Kyratzes made me think today. His key (and rather eloquent) point is this:

“In some games, you click on the enemy soldier and the enemy soldier dies, removing an obstacle to victory. In my games, you click on an object and it gives you a description, removing an obstacle to understanding.”

I like this thought in principle, but I think it’s missing a caveat: the revealed content must be appropriate to the player’s current context.
For example, if I were to to nit-pick The Book of Living Magic, I’d complain that the setting is SO surreal that the wealth of little asides do not really increase the player’s understanding. Many of them are charming little storylets in their own right, but it’s very hard to build a coherent picture of a world where the distinction between animals, people and other bizarre entities are so blurred. It must be acknowledged that this is the whole point of the Land of Dream, but it highlights my point.
In contrast, the superb The Infinite Ocean presents a very tightly focused narrative, each scrap of content referencing the already-established facts or themes. It’s only when you can hook the new information onto some existing part of your world model that it feels rewarding. Without that framework, each new piece of content has no obvious relation to the whole.
That, I think, is why some people don’t grok the Book of Living Magic – the content is more like a bag of marbles than a LEGO set. I happen to love world-building and was happy to comb through the descriptions looking for the links and occasional Lovecraft nods, but I can see how more casual players might find the Mountains of Oddness somewhat impenetrable.

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.

Teaser details for “Winter”

Scriptwriter extraordinaire Steve Turnbull has announced details of our latest project on his blog, adaddinsane. This is the flagship project in our shared story-world, which is very exciting because the setting Steve has created is far too rich to fully explore in one short serial.

The words “epic” and “independent” are strange bedfellows, but I think we have the right mix of skills to pull it off. I’m particularly impressed with the script – it’s technically draft 2, but in practice it’s a complete rewrite, bringing the core storyline into our shared world. Somehow Steve has managed to fix all the issues various readers had with draft one, AND throw in a host of additional layers of story.

Head on over to his blog for some tantalising hints about the story – we’ll reveal more details once pre-production starts in earnest…

Index Card Frenzy

I’m a bit behind on pages, as my ScriptFrenzy profile shows. But tonight I have managed to index card 80% of the story – just got to sort out the endgame.
It doesn’t make an immediate difference to my page count, but I now have 26 empty scenes all ready to flesh out, and a much clearer idea of how my key plot and character points fit together. So I can really start jumping around the story now, writing the stuff that I’ve had in my head for years, which will inform the less developed sections. That page count is an excellent motivator…

Let the ScriptFrenzy begin…

Still not ready to start writing, or even fully recovered from The Cough That Ate Manhattan. I’ll just have to outline as I go, and throw out the stuff that doesn’t work. I’m only expecting to get a first draft out of this month, anyway. Hopefully the relaunch of Doctor Who on Saturday will prove inspiring!

In other news, I’m getting used to Blender, which is very satisfying. I’ll post my experiments here when I have something worth showing. A key shot for the Monsters trailer is developing nicely…

Preparing for ScriptFrenzy!

Well. I’ve been busy at work, then ill, so it’s about time for a quick update.

Work is progressing on the Monsters trailer – I’ll post about that in more detail when it’s finished, but Steve has some nice comments on the work-in-progress version he’s seen. But I need to nail it ASAP in order to prep for ScriptFrenzy.

For those who don’t know, it’s the screenwriting version of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which I’ve always fancied doing but never got round to. However, since I already have a half-complete outline for a feature that needs writing, this seems like the perfect opportunity to churn out a first draft. The trouble with screenwriting is that it needs to be much more structured than a novel – there’s no room for anything that isn’t essential. So you need to know your story before you start.

Currently, I don’t. I have my setting and protagonist, and character arcs for him and several secondary characters. I even have the rough shape of the plot…with an antagonist-shaped hole in it. Well…I have a rough idea of that character, but he has no motivation because I haven’t fleshed out part of the setting yet. So I have a lot to do in 12 days…

Doctor Who pitch for Big Finish

Big Finish make Doctor Who audio dramas, and recently issued an open invite for new writers to submit pitches for a standalone story. I procrastinated for a couple of weeks because I didn’t have a strong story idea. Then I summarized what I’d come up with do far to my wife, who immediately joined the dots for me.

Unfortunately, this was about 12 hours before the deadline. Still, it was too good an opportunity to miss, so I wrote an outline, pruned it ruthlessly to get it under the 500 word limit, and scrawled a sample scene. Audio drama is a different beast to TV and film, and not one I’m used to writing for – it was hard to resist putting visual elements in. Even simple physical actions are hard to convey in an audio format, so the plot has to turn entirely on character interactions and sound effects.

By this time it was 4am, but at least I delivered it on time. Big Finish received over a thousand pitches, so I doubt my rushed effort will get very far, but if nothing else it was a fascinating exercise.