The Advanced Game Narrative Toolbox (ed. Tobias Heussner)

advancedgamenarrativeThe Advanced Game Narrative Toolbox is a brand-new followup to The Game Narrative Toolbox, which I covered previously. The “advanced” bit means that the book doesn’t re-cover all the same ground already found in game writing books. The authors suggest that if you are entirely new to game literacy and writing advice, you should go to the first book in the series, to Skolnick’s Video Game Storytelling, and/or to McKee’s Story.

Where the first book walked the reader through steps for building a basic portfolio of game design documents and related materials, The Advanced Game Narrative Toolbox is more topic-driven, each chapter written by a different author (with just a couple of repeats).

The topics cover a range of craft, commercial, and cultural considerations. Many (but not all) of the chapters end with a suggested exercise for the reader, as they did in the first book; but the feel here is less of a core syllabus and more of a set of electives you might pick to round out your understanding.

Many of the chapters approach their subject by defining process: what are the steps that you would take to go about a given task, what considerations should you apply, who else needs to be involved, what could go wrong, and how will you know when you’re done? So, for instance, a chapter is more likely to say (I paraphrase) “next, make a map that shows where each step of the quest will occur in the game world,” and less likely to dive into deep analysis of different possible map designs and how they will affect player experience. Typically, that process guidance is really useful, especially as it comes paired with lists of references if you need more technique training, but you should be aware which you’re getting.

The book is expensive. I bought it as soon as I heard of it, and I’m glad I did, but I flinched at checkout. Price is not typically something the authors can control, but it means I talk later in the review about how to tell whether you’re likely to get enough value from it to justify the price. That’s not meant to reflect on the book’s quality: it’s good, no question. If you get a chance to pick up a used copy for $15, just buy it.

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Story (Robert McKee) and the Expectation Gap in Interactive Story

McKeeStory is one of a handful of screenwriting books that turn up constantly in the bibliography of game writing books. McKee himself gives courses — I’ve never been, but I hear they’re very good shows, whether or not they’re good advice. It’s advised at least as often as Save the Cat, and possibly more so.

It is also, I think, more applicable to non-cinema writing than Save the Cat: McKee is interested in structure, and he has a lot of formulaic rules to suggest, but he cares about content as well. At one point he has a speech about the need for emotional truth, and how this can only come from within the author.

There are aspects of the book that aren’t entirely to my taste. In support of his points, McKee often spends quite a while reprinting classic screenplays — he’s particularly enamored of Chinatown — with his own commentary interspersed. I did not generally find his comments to be that much more instructive than the original dialogue, undisturbed. And even when he’s not giving verbatim chunks of screenplay, he spends an awful lot of time summarizing the events of various movies you’ve probably seen. He’s also a bit grandiose with his rhetoric about the great imaginative work of writing.

Then, too, quite a lot of his advice belongs to the “add an appropriate amount of salt” school of recipe writing — warning that too little or too much of something will be bad, but offering no heuristics.

All the same, there is a lot of basic vocabulary about how plots are assembled and how scenes are designed, which this book introduces as well as or better than many another. Personally, I’d be inclined to go for e.g. Wonderbook instead, if you want an introduction to basic structure vocabulary, and you’re not specifically writing screenplays. For most purposes, Wonderbook is more varied and goes deeper than Story.

There are, however, a couple of points — the ideas of expectation gap and of internal subconscious conflict — where I think it’s interesting how those concepts carry over to interactive work.

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Save the Cat (Blake Snyder)

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Save the Cat is one of those screenwriting books, like Robert McKee’s Story, that you can’t help running into if you’re looking at writing advice at all. The title refers to the idea that you must establish your protagonist in a movie with some sympathetic action. There are a lot of musts in this book. Snyder is telling you specifically how to write a three-act, 110-page movie script that fits a Hollywood formula of a few years back — down to which pages of the script should feature major events and reversals; how many beats should appear within each act; and how the hero should be feeling at the midpoint of the movie.

He explains that the heroes ought to be in their 20s at the latest because Men Under 25 are the most coveted viewing demographic. He does not overtly say they should be white, but that assumption is I think implicit. The book is a few years old; after Black Panther and Get Out and Crazy Rich Asians and so on, perhaps Snyder would now have something different to say about representation.

In any case, the book is largely about formula — and a formula much more genre-bound than my nemesis The Hero’s Journey. Snyder has very little to say about theme, other than to acknowledge that you probably should have one and mention it early in your screenplay. He has not much to say, either, about developing characters or about representing personal truths. He doesn’t very much care what the substance of your work might be. This book is about how to package it, how to make it accessible to audiences in a format that is familiar to them and that will help them quickly understand the emotional landscape.

So if this is mainly formula for a different medium and different market from games, does it have anything to offer?

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Beckett (Simon Meek)

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The author of Beckett reached out to me and suggested I have a look at it. So did a couple of unrelated people on Twitter. But when I looked at the website, I couldn’t figure out what it was meant to be: the premise, the play experience, how long it was likely to take. What was this thing? No one seemed eager or even able to describe this game to me. It was only after I’d downloaded and played a bit that I encountered this explanation. It has a clearer plot overview than I could really offer myself.

I’ve played the first several scenes of it now. I’m not sure whether I will play more: it is off-putting, intentionally so, and I am not sure whether it’s giving me enough to make me put up with its off-putting qualities.

But here’s what I can tell you so far. Mechanically, it is a point-and-click adventure, albeit one with a fair amount of text, and set in a moody sepia world generally viewed from above:

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As for genre and premise: I am not quite sure of the ground truths of the world, yet. The place is old-fashioned and noir-ish. The protagonist appears to be a form of detective, though he “doesn’t do domestics.” People use physical paperwork and old-fashioned desks. Images hung on the wall look like they come from the 1920s. At one point we visit a bar and to enter we have to speak through a buzzer at the door; it suggests a speakeasy. Someone tells us to plant a bug, and the bug that we see is of the animal variety, shown in video and from a disquieting proximity. Indeed, insects appear frequently and in contexts where you might not expect to see them, including at one point on the neck of an attractive woman, as though it were a kind of jewelry.

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IF Comp Roundup

IF Comp is now over for the year! Here are a few recommendations for different audiences, depending on what you’re looking for.

 

If you want serious story:

cover.pngBogeyman (hypertext) is a story of children who have been taken away by the eponymous character as punishment for behaving badly. It’s a little simplistic to describe it as horror, because this is less a work about fear and more a work about moral queasiness, complicity, and responses to abusive power. It made me feel vaguely ill a good portion of the time — but despite how that might sound, this is a recommendation.

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Dead Man’s Fiesta (hypertext, on the dynamic fiction end of the spectrum) is the story of the after-effects of grief.

 

 

 

 

If you want evocative, illustrated story:

cover-1.pngÜrs is an illustrated hypertext piece about a rabbit who has to learn to manipulate the technology of the ancients in order to save their warren. The art is really good: beautiful, stylish illustrations for every location that manage to communicate the functionality of the technology, the wonder of the setting, and the viewpoint of the rabbit (along with a little Watership Down flavor) all at once. It’s very mildly puzzle-y in a way that I think most people will find easy to solve, but that component gives the story a bit of body and some agency for the player.

 

If you want playful story:

cover-2.pngRe: Dragon (hypertext/fake email interface, executed with Inform and Vorple). Though framed as a meta-piece about the IF Competition, the piece swiftly becomes a charming and well implemented comedic fantasy. This game included some of my favorite turns of phrase in the competition. There is a cocktail recipe that looks pretty good, frankly, though you might have to omit the unicorn sparkles.

 

 

If you want something reminiscent of a Choose Your Own Adventure or gamebook:

cover.pngWithin a Circle of Water and Sand is an attractively illustrated story of a Polynesian girl who has undertaken an adulthood ritual that requires her to visit other islands. The setting is unusual for IF — Aotearoa is vaguely reminiscent but is told from the point of view of a white visitor, for instance. Structurally, this is a bit of a gauntlet: there are many ways to die suddenly and relatively few ways to manage the final ordeal, and you’ll likely need to replay several times in order to build the necessary understanding of the world. There’s a lot of text between choice points, as well — but as you replay, you’ll likely stop reading those closely and move towards a more mechanical traversal.

 

If you like a story/puzzle balance:

magpie.jpegAlias ‘The Magpie’ (parser-based) sees you playing a gentleman thief infiltrating a manor to acquire a priceless artifact. It’s Wodehouse-y farce with one ridiculous scenario piling on another, complete with implausible disguises and unreasonable excuses. As a nice bonus, it comes with stylish virtual feelies and a map of the estate you need to rob. The game does depict mental illness in a pretty unrealistic way for comedic effect; if this is a concern for you, that’s something to be aware of.

cover.pngErstwhile (hypertext) is a murder mystery in which you’re trying to solve the question of your own death, from beyond the grave. As you explore the testimony of the suspects, you’ll build up an inventory of clues and topics, which you can link together to discover new evidence.

 

 

If you’re interested most of all in the texture of language and interactive poetry:

cover.jpgTohu wa Bohu is both puzzleless and storyless, a piece that explores particular ways of thinking and states of mind. Built in Texture, it asks the player to pay close attention to the individual words, and to changing words as a representation of changing thought. Very formally experimental.

 

 

If you mainly want puzzles:

showimage.jpgJunior Arithmancer is your bet for mathematical puzzling. None of the mathematical operations are more difficult than you’d see in a pre-algebra course — there’s some square root-taking, and that’s about it — but some of the challenges require a bit of thought in how you string the operations together. Written by Mike Spivey, who contributed last year’s excellent A Beauty Cold and Austere.

 

showimage.pngAilihphilia is a workout for fans of palindrome-based wordplay. It’s the work of prolific wordplay game creator Andrew Schultz, so if you’re already familiar with his work, you’ll probably have a good sense of whether you’ll enjoy it.

 

 

cover.pngTemple of Shorgil, meanwhile, is an Arthur DiBianca game — this too is becoming something of a brand. DiBianca’s work often has a very light fiction wrapper, gameplay that relies on 2-5 core verbs, with brainteasers around maths, timing, sequencing, and understanding symbolic references. The Temple of Shorgil’s premise is that you’re exploring an ancient temple full of tricky puzzles, as ancient temples always are in Indiana Jones/Infidel-style fiction. Wall paintings and snippets of legend provide additional clues. This was a bit smaller and more focused in design than DiBianca’s earlier comp game Inside the Facility, but both games involve exploring a gridded map in quite a systematic way.

 

If you’re a fan of superheroes with silly powers:

cover-1.pngThe Origin of Madame Time (parser-based) is a sequel to last year’s The Owl Consults: there are a bunch of characters with strange powers, but they’ve all been frozen in time, and you need to rush around dealing with a crisis-in-progress, sometimes drawing on the abilities of these characters in various ways. Solidly constructed, not terribly difficult.

 

If you’re really feeling it being 2018:

There were several games in this comp (Bi Lines, A Woman’s Choice, Ostrich, Careless Talk) that in some way or other address currents of incipient fascism, government oppression, the possibility of fighting back, and the treatment of women at the hands of men. I didn’t play all of these, but we did play Ostrich in the London IF Meetup; I think that was an ideal context to experience. The satirical aspects were broad, but that played pretty well in a group experience.

Guest Review: Three Games from IFComp

The following reviews are from an anonymous-by-request friend who played a number of games from IFComp, had a good time with the judging, but didn’t have a good venue for posting his own responses. I invited him to share some reviews of his favorites here. His background is mostly in film and theatre rather than interactive media, and he was drawn to several of the choice-based games. Without further ado…

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Disclaimer: I know Emily Short, but I’m not a game designer or programmer.  Neither I nor anyone I know (that I’m aware of) has games entered into this competition.  

This was my first time reviewing anything from IF Comp, so I’m looking at it from the standpoint of a relative newcomer.  As such, my opinions are obviously my own, not Emily Short’s.

There are quite a few games in this year’s competition – seventy-seven in total –  of which I played about thirty.  What really leapt out at me was the sheer variety of gameplay experience.  Let’s Rob a Bank, for instance, was stupidly fun but over so quickly that I felt I hadn’t really gotten the full value until I’d played it multiple times (which I was happy to do.)  On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cannery Vale, with its sophisticated interface and immersive story, was much more involved, and was a standout as far as shaping the player’s adventure.

Here are three I really liked, in no particular order:

 

Animalia (Ian Michael Waddell)cover.png

To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting much with this one, based solely on my reaction to reading the blurb.  (Blurbs can be tricky.  Sometimes they’ll capture the basic premise of a piece, but they won’t communicate the tone.  This was the case here.)  Animalia’s description mentioned it was a 30-minute game.  I figured it would be a simple, paint-by-numbers animal adventure…

…so I was completely unprepared for Waddell’s off-the-wall humor and the remarkable variation of storylines contained inside. 

Animalia kicks off with an emergency gathering of woodland creatures.  The annual offering to the Forest God has backfired, putting the forest at risk for human incursion.  During the opening chaos we learn that the animals’ offering was, in fact, a nine-year-old human child (!) named Charlie.  It seems like this ritual is all fairly routine for the cuddly little murderers, but this time their child sacrifice has been getting obnoxious texts from his worried mother, who has tracked his GPS location.  Now the entire forest is in an uproar over the inevitable search-and-rescue that will bring a deluge of humans.

The critters’ solution to this disaster?  Stage an elaborate cover-up, obviously.

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