Tag Archives: Games

From Zork to Halo and Back Again, Part One

zork_1[1] A guest post by Aaron Scott Hildebrandt

When you start a conversation about storytelling in video games, it’s hard to not immediately jump to discussions about the writing in Halo, Call of Duty, Uncharted, God of War, and the other games that have graced living rooms across the globe. There’s a lot that can be said about the stories in these games–both how they’re written and how they’re presented. Some of these games tell expertly penned and deeply engaging stories, and there are some seriously talented people behind them. People like Ragnar Tornquist, Amy Hennig, and Chris Avellone have left their prints on the entire industry.

But at the same time, the industry as a whole seems like it’s stuck in a rut. There’s something oddly familiar about a lot of the stories being told. Since games like Dragon’s Lair first appeared in 1983, it’s been hard to avoid phrases like “it’s like playing a movie.” And that’s a pretty good summary of where we’re at with computer-based storytelling–we’ve been transplanting the movie experience and casting the viewer in the leading role, rather than leaving them as a disembodied spectator.

Of course, things haven’t always been this way. A lot of us remember the early days of computer gaming, and to compare those experiences to Hollywood blockbusters–or even low-budget indie films–would be kind of hilarious. In fact, those early games seemed like they were on a different medium entirely. So, how did we get using computers to tell stories about battling dysentery in Oregon Trail or exploring mysterious white houses in Zork to defending the universe in Halo? More importantly, where did the dysentery and white houses go? To find out, we’re going to have to rewind a bit. And by “a bit,” I mean “through most of human history.” It’s kind of a long story.

Marshall McLuhan’s phrase “the medium is the message” has gotten a nauseating amount of attention since it first appeared in 1964. There’s a good reason for that–the stories we tell are directly affected by the way we choose to present them. Some stories work across all mediums, while others are so deeply tied to their medium that it would be almost impossible to attempt it in any other. That might not seem like much of a revelation, but we’re living in an odd era that’s become obsessed with translating stories between mediums while pretending that the core of each story will remain intact.

For a while, almost every major movie release saw a companion “novelisation” released in bookstores. Some of the biggest movies (and TV shows) of the last ten years have been adaptations of popular books, comics, and graphic novels. And sometimes, this all works out. There are a handful of examples of beautiful synergy existing between the two mediums, especially when stories are translated from one graphic medium to another. Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez demonstrated this extremely well with Sin City, a movie that literally recreated the graphic novel panel for panel, shot for shot. But for each time it works, you have a hundred other attempts that are met with a shrug, followed by the damning phrase “the book was better.”

There’s always been an interplay between the different mediums we use to tell stories, and it’s pretty obvious as to why this happens. At one point, every medium is new. Early oral storytelling established a lot of the techniques we still use to string narrative together. Speaking words aloud could transport people to other times and places. Dialogue could be spoken on behalf of people who only existed in the imagination of the storyteller. But you can’t tell every sort of story with your voice alone.

When the first stories were written, it shouldn’t be surprising that what people wrote were, essentially, the same sorts of stories they were already telling orally, and the stories were told in much the same way. They transcribed. As time passed, though, we started to find new and interesting ways to tell stories. We discovered the novel, Don Quixote setting the stage for an entirely new way of telling stories that just wouldn’t have been feasible had Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra attempted to speak it aloud instead of commit it to paper.

Once we broke free from the previous mediums and embraced what made writing different, we were able to tell stories in totally new ways. Writing, as a medium, is still continuing to surprise us. Jonathan Safran Foer took a physical knife (okay, well, a laser cutter) to the pages of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, creating an entirely new book from its fragments (Tree of Codes). Both David Foster Wallace and Mark Z. Danielewski have written books that parody the medium itself, hiding the most interesting parts of the book in footnotes and sidebars. Even though they found their root in the same storytelling devices that preceded them, written stories evolved.

Every medium goes through this evolution. At first, we attempt to use new mediums to clone old stories, and while there’s certainly a sense of wonder and discovery as this happens, it’s the evolution that keeps us excited–the adventure of bending and twisting that medium to create something new. Every new medium opens up the possibility of telling original stories that excite and surprise us in ways we’ve never experienced before. Movies took ideas from theatre and radio and turned them into something new. Summer blockbusters would, by and large, make dreadful books, but movies can tell stories that are loud and bright and impossible to experience firsthand. They can actually show us things instead of simply describing them. They can hide details and use focus pulls to draw our attention around a scene in an extremely nuanced way. Movies like Timecode and shows like 24 played at telling stories in real-time, something that would be nearly impossible to experience if we were reading them instead of watching.

(A quick aside: I have no idea if anyone has ever attempted to write a real-time book. Essentially, every three hundred words you write would have to cover about a minute of action. If anyone knows of someone who has attempted this, please let me know, because I owe that person a beer.)

There is one medium, however, that ended up on a different evolutionary path than the mediums that came before it. When we started telling stories with computers, what used to be a cycle quickly became a rut.

Jump to From Zork to Halo and Back Again, Part Two

Guest Writer Bio: Aaron Scott Hildebrandt
Aaron Scott Hildebrandt is a narrative designer and animator living in Vancouver, Canada. His work can be found in a number of games, including Halo: Anniversary, Halo 4, and Remember Me, as well as the web series H+. He’s also the author of the upcoming web serial Hanna Buys the Farm.

Exploring Story Concepts Prior to Writing

Slot canyonThis month we’ve discussed great games that inspire, games that highlight effective storytelling, or that identify pitfalls in the creative process.  We’ve also discussed some of the dangers of trying to port game scenarios directly into book form (review that excellent post here).

I’m going to visit that topic from a slightly different angle and discuss the effectiveness of finding avenues for creative input.  It’s hard to build a great story, and harder still if we try to do it in a vacuum.  Utilizing creative input sources can prove effective in developing foundational concepts for your story.  The goal is not to try writing a book directly from a game scenario, particularly if it pulls in any material that may be copyrighted elsewhere.  However, it is possible to utilize a RPG or other creative input source to explore some of the general concepts you might be kicking around as the foundation of a story.

For example, if you want to flesh out a new magic system, inviting your gaming friends to utilize that magic system in a game scenario can really help.  They’ll try to break the rules, and they’ll try to use it in ways you never expected.  The experience will force you to think deeper and broader than you might have on your own, and lay down rules and boundaries you had not realized you needed.  This is particularly useful if you don’t have someone who makes a good sounding board to brainstorm ideas and plumb the depths of your new concept.

You can also explore other aspects of the world building in a game.  What are the nations and races that exist in this world?  Do they get along?  What motivates them?  What do people eat?  What kind of money do they use?

diceIn my family we play a customized RPG that utilizes only one 20-sided die for all decisions.  It removes a lot of the technical hassle of similar games and relies more on the storytelling skill of the person leading the game.  It’s also an excellent creative workout routine.  I rarely plan out the details of a game beforehand, so am forced to come up with each element in a just-in-time delivery sort of way.  I’ve found it helps break down creative barriers and triggers some exceptionally creative moments.

I’ve used this process as a way to explore multiple story concepts.  Many of them prove mediocre or uninspiring, so we drop those and try something different.  A few have resulted in ideas with lots of potential.  Those I set aside for later exploration, or launch secondary game scenarios to consider further.

Once I’ve got what I need, I throw away the specifics of the game, including the characters, and start building my story from scratch – drawing upon the foundational concepts we explored through the game.

The Boyhood of Raleigh by Sir John Everett Millais, oil on canvas, 1870

But RPG gaming is not the only creative input I use, and it’s not even my most productive.  Even better is good old storytelling.  In our family we tell a lot of stories, and I’ve used that verbal story time to develop magic systems and explore plot concepts with my kids.  It’s proven highly effective.  Kids (2 of mine are teen-agers now) provide instant feedback, and they are brutal critics.  If an idea isn’t working, I know about it instantly.  On the other hand, if a story generates lots of enthusiasm from them, I might be on to something.

The danger there, just as with using RPG games, is to recognize that the novel you write will not be the same as the game (or verbal story).  A couple years ago, I spent a lot of time developing a story line with my kids.  They actually came up with the original magic system idea, which I then fleshed out and used to launch into a series of stories where we explored many other aspects of the world building.  The resulting story proved so engaging that I decided to write a book based on all the material we produced.

At first I tried to follow the story line we’d developed, since we were all so enthusiastic about it.  However I quickly ran afoul of the hazards lurking down that road.  After those hard-learned lessons, I threw away that unproductive plotline and made a hard break – the story would not be a novelization of our hours of storytelling.  Instead, I would craft a novel from the ground up, building upon some of the foundational elements we explored in that storytelling, but the plot and characters were entirely new.  The resulting novel is a YA fantasy titled Set In Stone, which is now in the hands of my agent.  Hopefully we’ll find a home for it soon.

Take Away:  Use any creative avenue available to you to explore creative ideas, but remember the limits of what you can accomplish.  Take the foundational elements, strip out the rest, and go build a great novel.

Where else do you turn for creative input to explore story concepts as you begin working on a new novel?

On Cannibal Dwarves and Other Character Problems

So, I’m sitting in a living room with a bunch of people I know only marginally, next to a friend of mine that I’ve known for years. This is a role playing group my friend has been a part of for years, and the campaign has been long established. In an effort to speed things along, I’ve inherited a player character, a dwarf, who seems awesome on the page, then I’m told, “And he eats his own kind after they’re killed.”

Um. Okay.  I can roll with that. I mean, I don’t have to play it that way. It’s my character now, and that little oddity was far outweighed by an ability to kick serious bootay.

I should have known, though. I really should have.

We proceed to play the game, and I start to realize that my character’s cannibalistic tendencies are the tip of the iceberg.  The next clue came when the game master brings in a non-player character who is supposed to be the group’s guide, the priest of some god…and he hates everyone.  And I mean everyone.  Come to find out, this guy is the group’s guide because they are cursed by said god for defiling its temple.

I figure, okay, I can roll with that, too. I like non-heroic characters. This could be fun.

And then one of the other players decides that his character is going to go perform basically a home invasion on a farm nearby. A couple of other players decide to go with him, and about half the room toddles off to have their jollies, and just when I think I can roll with that too, the first guy decides he’s going to rape the women at the farm.

Yes. He insisted on role-playing it. And yes, the GM let him.

I don’t know about you, but…seriously?

A few years earlier, I was playing D&D with some friends I’ve known for a long while. The guy running that game was laid-back enough to let us play any type of character we wanted, including non-heroic verging on evil characters. And then he proceeded to try and have a normal, epic-type fantasy campaign that requires characters other than non-heroic verging on evil. Just getting these guys to get together into the same room required one of the other characters to go completely against type (this irritated me). Never mind becoming a cohesive, cooperative group. In the end, we were all fried by a dragon, and some god or another gave us all a choice to either change into lawful good characters or die (this made me get up from the table).

After these experiences, I’ve come to learn a very valuable lesson. Well, three lessons, really, the first of which is never role-play with the first group–like, ever. The second was that role-playing evil characters can be, shall we say, problematic. The third was that forcing characters to behave against their nature is frustrating to the point of uselessness, but letting them run roughshod over you won’t get you anywhere.

The same is true when writing, I’ve found. Characters should always be true to their nature, and if you find you’re having to wrangle them into the plot, it’s possible they don’t belong in that story. On the same token, characters who decide to go their own way and get away from you can easily derail the story and probably lead everyone on a tangent that will mostly likely turn into a giant waste of valuable writing time.

And take if from me. Stay away from cannibal dwarves. Nothing good comes at the end of that road.


Game Mechanics and Story Structure

board_games A guest post by Tom Buller

When was the last time you played Monopoly? I’m not asking if you’ve ever played, because most of us have endured that ubiquitous game. Chances are you didn’t want to touch it for years afterward. Dare I ask if you want to join me for a game of mostly random chance that drags on and on with only rare glimpses of entertainment—tiny bursts of enjoyable conflict amidst crushing boredom and steady, mild, unproductive stress?

I thought not. Thankfully, these days board games stomp all over Monopoly with its own pewter boot. The best games now play in less time and keep players engaged throughout, from first card drawn until the last roll of the dice.

The difference? Mechanics. Order. A well-constructed system. Monopoly presents a broad theme with very basic options that fail to drive the experience to its conclusion before half the players want to flee the table (or wander off looking for some wet paint they can watch dry). Modern games, like Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride, to name a couple of popular options, offer focused gameplay with play times well matched to their premise and structure.

The system and mechanics are to board games as story structure is to fiction.

One of the most compelling mechanics is the type that offers players multiple options but limits their choices. If you desperately want to do three different things on your turn but can only choose one, the tension will keep you always wanting just one more turn. Or three, or a dozen.

In fiction, we are guiding the players through the game. Outside of certain children’s books, readers aren’t making choices about the story’s direction. We choose for them. But can we create and maintain that tension and interest? Character development can blur the lines and get readers cheering for more than one character, even ones supposedly on opposing sides. Shades of gray give readers doubt and engage them in thoughts about competing motivations.

Speaking of what readers want, we can look to games like Ticket to Ride as reminders to hold off. Let the anticipation build. Two of Ticket to Ride’s game mechanics are card drafting and set collection. The former means choosing cards from a limited pool, and the latter is exactly what it sounds like. Players seek particular cards, but often miss out on them or simply don’t see them pop up on their turn, so when the moment finally arrives, it’s a big payoff. Delayed gratification. As writers, we of course want to give readers what they want, but it’s better for everyone if there’s a struggle toward the jackpot.

Then there’s the element of chance: rolling the dice. Many of the more successful games these days have stricter limits on randomness. A greater percentage of actions must be deliberate, chosen tactics part of a greater strategy. It’s a lesson for building plot—random chance can only act on your story so much before you begin to lose the audience. Coincidences happen more often in real life than they can in fiction. The author and the game designer are perfect analogs of each other. Sorry, author, you must carefully lay out the events in your story or risk writing a dice-laden game of Monopoly that drives readers away.

Remember your last game of Monopoly that just wouldn’t end, no matter how much money you pilfered from the bank so poorly guarded by Cousin Becky? If only Parker Brothers had designed the thing with a well-structured and timely end game. It’s no Settlers of Catan, which sets an exact winning bar and employs a system that allows exponential growth toward the goal, speeding progress as players vie for victory.

When crafting your story’s resolution, modern board games reiterate a message that always bears repeating: choose a specific end point and give plenty of thought to timing.

With board games, theme can take the experience to the next level, as with setting in fiction. The theme can support the mechanics, keeping players or readers engaged even despite elements of the underlying structure that aren’t quite dialed in. For example, if you love everything ancient Egyptian, you’ll probably stick with a lesser game that’s dripping in hieroglyphics and has a board festooned with miniature pyramids. Maybe you’d even play one more round of Monopoly: Sphinx Edition. But if The Great Pyramid is simply a title pasted over Park Place, you won’t be playing much longer. Systematic structure separates the games and books that sit on the shelf gathering dust from those we invite all our friends to enjoy.

Guest Writer Bio: Tom Buller Tom Buller writes corporate marketing copy by day and is a freelance editor by night, juggling a toddler somewhere in between. He stumbled upon board gaming a decade ago when a friend introduced him to Settlers of Catan, forever changing his conception of what a board game can be. Favorite fiction genres: thrillers, science fiction, and fantasy.