Button Bash: Life is Strange

DontNod’s “Life is Strange” is a wonderful game with a refreshing setting and design. But what impresses me most is the mileage they get out of their primary gameplay verb. The time rewind is fantastic in the context of a branching narrative, allowing you to see all the ways any given encounter can play out in the short term, but without removing the mystery of what consequences will happen later on. But it’s also used to retrieve information from the future, unlocking new narrative choices. And it’s used as means of teleporting past obstructions because in some areas the rewind does not affect your position. The game is a masterclass in getting maximum value out of a single mechanic.

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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.