Jan 292013

“Are videogames a storytelling medium?” That is the question that kicked off this site. I’d been invited to speak at a small digital media event called “Television is Dead,” here in Sydney. I fought the urge to run screaming, and instead gave some thought to what I’d like to talk about. I started thinking about how games fit into Joseph Campbell’s classic Hero’s Journey narrative structure, and what I came up with was something like this:

As humans, we have a very long history of storytelling. In fact, some have suggested that it our defining feature as a species. Science writers Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen believe that humans should be classified not as homo sapiens, but as pan narrans – the storytelling ape.

In the days of hunter–gatherer societies, the primary storytellers were shamans. Their role was to protect and guide the tribe by communing with the spirits, and one of the ways they did that was to take a whole lot of hallucinogenic substances and go into trances. In the trance state, the shamans believed that they ascended to heaven, via the underworld, and spoke to the gods (or spirits). They would then return to the world of the living, and impart to their people the wisdom that they had received, in the form of stories.

Over the centuries, stories have evolved to cover all kinds of ideas and subject matter, across all human cultures, but what is interesting is what has stayed relatively consistent. In 1949, Joseph Campbell published “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, which is an attempt to draw together those features of stories that have remained consistent across the world and the centuries. The result is this idea of the “Monomyth”, or “Hero’s Journey”.

Continue reading »

Jan 112013

Should games always be created to be accessible? Or is there something to be said for making something that erects barriers to the “ease of use” of the player?

Watching the Director’s Cut of the film Donnie Darko was a strange experience for me. The original was (and remains) one of my favourite movies of all time. I found it profoundly moving and satisfying despite the fact that I couldn’t really have spelled out what was happening with the rabbit and the drugs and the discussions of time travel. I was excited to see what would be revealed once Richard Kelly had the budget and freedom to express his original vision.

It was fine, I guess. If I hadn’t seen the original, I probably would have loved it. The time travel stuff was much more overt, and it was clear that there was now a “correct” way to interpret the film’s strangeness. But a good chunk of the magic was gone. By adding material and making things “clearer”, he had robbed the film of something important and meaningful. At the same, this was a surprise to me.

I’ve been thinking about how similar phenomena apply in games. This line of thinking was precipitated by two unrelated things I’ve happened across recently.

The first was a complaint about Dark Souls that came up on my Facebook feed recently. The poster was arguing that combined aspects of the game – from the brutal difficulty to the lack of tutorial and clunky interface – amounted to bad game design. Clearly, there are contexts where all of these things could be considered to be bad design, and yet they have in no way blunted the critical and player acclaim for the game. Dark Souls’ Metacritic scores are mostly in the high 80s, with only some aspects of the PC version’s port drawing serious criticism. So have the Souls games succeeded despite their “flaws”, or is there something else going on? Continue reading »

Dec 212012

As the final stanzas of 2012 are chanted by the monks of time, it’s time to put on our reflective hats (as these hats are made of tinfoil, they’re also useful for deflecting Mayan apocalypti, which is convenient today). It may be bias on my part, but it feels like this has been an extremely important year for narrative(s) in and around games.

Inside our virtual metaverse, The Walking Dead delivered a moving and emotionally-responsive narrative, while Day Z, XCOM and FTL gave players plenty of systems from which to spawn their own emergent stories. Text-game tool Twine took off in certain circles, providing a medium for non-programmers to express themselves through interactive fictions. I plan to play as many Twine games as I can over the holiday period, and report back on my favourites, put here’s an initial recommendation: Cyberqueen, from the most recent Ludum Dare competition (it’s entirely text-based, but probably NSFW if your co-workers have good eyesight).

In my personal world, my company – SeeThrough Studios – managed to win “Best Writing in a Game” at Freeplay 2012 for Flatland: Fallen Angle, which was very gratifying, and I made my first solo game: Purgatorio. (And I started this blog, of course.)

But much of my headspace this half of the year was dominated by game-related narratives that took place in the “real world”. Continue reading »

Dec 132012

I had an interesting mix of responses to my previous post, where I gently suggested that one particular little internet shitstorm (on Nightmare Mode) could have been handled better. But the best thing that has come out of it for me has been a renewed appreciation for the complexities of individuals and group dynamics, from a whole variety of angles, and a welcome reminder that one should line up jumps to conclusions very carefully.

The most appreciative response I got was from Adam Ruch himself, who seemed genuinely devastated by the response his post had received. I was just calling it as I saw it, but he was thankful that someone else was willing to put themselves on the line over this. (For the record Adam and I live in the same city, but haven’t ever met.)

But I wasn’t the only one who was in his corner. Most interesting was seeing his conversation with Leena van Deventer. Leena is probably the most strident, taker-of-no-bullshit feminist games I know in person. Her Facebook and twitter often full of indignation at entitled men. (She also recently co-authored this article on the #1ReasonWhy phenomenon.) If one were to look at the recent gender/privilege conversation in a simplistic way, it would be easy enough to bundle Leena’s opinions in with the opinions of those who were attacking Adam’s article. But people are complicated. Continue reading »

Dec 112012

Image from Hug MarineThis is a response to the ongoing discussion about in-game relationships, gender and privilege on Nightmare Mode, sparked by Kim Moss’s You Know What’s Gross? We Often Play Nice Guysâ„¢ In Games With Romance Options, and Adam Ruch’s counter, Romancing the silicon wafer.

I’m not sure I’m in the best head-space today to write this. Then again, maybe’s my glumness may be the perfect angle to approach this topic from.

Sheri Graner Ray (co-founder of Women in Games International) gave a great talk at GCAP this year about diversity in the games industry. And one of the main things she tried to get across was that continuing to frame these types of arguments in anger ultimately doesn’t get anyone anywhere – it just leads to backlash and further conflict. That’s why #1ReasonWhy and #1ReasonToBe were so great – they were about acknowledgement of a problem and hope for the future, rather than righteous fury.

I’m a thirty-something white, male human. I’m flawed and I know it. I just want to put that out there up front. Anything I ever say is quite likely to be wrong or at least biased, in some respect or other. This is what makes it hard to be a writer – every time I put anything out there, I have to fight the fear that I’m going to upset people, make myself look stupid or like a privileged idiot, or whatever else. And these things will undoubtedly happen, because nothing I write can ever express every nuance of what I want it to. Continue reading »

Dec 062012

A recent Helen Lewis column on New Statesman lamenting the lack of solid games criticism in the mainstream media kicked off a bit of a shitstorm in critical circles. She’s since been good enough to post two responses to her article: the first from developer Ed Stern (“Do we really need more games criticism?”), and the second from critic Brendan Keogh (“Hells yes! But we have a lot already.”). I’d like to offer a few thoughts on Helen’s original question: why is it that despite their ubiquity, games don’t often grace the pages of traditional news/criticism publications (other than in “buying guide”-style reviews)?

As a new(ish) media form, it is natural to seek the approval and endorsement of the establishment (not pictured), even if only so that games can benefit from the kind of social support that is received by other art-forms. It is just as natural for the establishment to resist, proclaiming that what already exists is clearly more valuable than what is new. But is there something special about games that has allowed them to become so widespread in our lives, while remaining so utterly invisible when it comes to any acceptence of their cultural importance? There are no are likely numerous factors, but I’d like to look at a couple that I believe to be central. Continue reading »

Dec 012012

My interview with Obsidian Entertainment’s Chris Avellone has just gone up on Gamasutra. Chris and I had this chat sitting on strange orange carpet in the vastness of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre during GCAP 2012. The focus of our discussion is the narrative-strong RPGs that Chris and Obsidian is famous for, including their recent Kickstarter success, Project Eternity, which is a deliberate return to theold-school stylings of games like Planescape: Torment and Baldur’s Gate. Here’s a snippet:

In games, do you feel that you need to be able to let the players decide for themselves what’s meaningful or important?

CA: I think it’s fine to suggest a theme, and suggest a question to the player, but ultimately let them find their own answer in the environment. New Vegas obviously had one critical end point, but at the same time, the overarching goal of the game was just to find out where you stand with all these factions. Do you agree with their philosophies? All of them have good and negative points about them. Or do you feel that you have a better vision for the world? And if so, just go out and create your own story. I think that’s how you have to approach the narrative of games. Sort of like an open world narrative.

Read the entire interview on Gamasutra.

Nov 282012

Today’s post was going to be some narrative theory stuff I’ve been working on, but it’s currently disappeared up its own high-concept backside, so instead I’d like to address something much more pressing and topical – women gamers and game-makers – and why they’re very relevant to the mission of this blog (run as it is by a thirty-something white male).

In case you haven’t heard, there’s been something of a protest/solidarity movement happening on Twitter over the last day or so, with women (and supporters) posting under the hashtag #1ReasonWhy (in answer to “why aren’t there more women in the games industry?”). The tweets have been about bringing to light the rampant sexism and abuse that females have had to deal with due to working in our industry (or even just playing games). Go check out the thread – it’s pretty sobering stuff, although it has brought out a fair bit of love and support, as well (and the #1ReasonToBe tag is providing a more hopeful flip-side).

It’s great to see this stuff being brought into the open. But the discussion needs to keep spreading and deepening if anything is to change on a fundamental level. Continue reading »

Nov 242012

[This post contains no story spoilers, but does contain discussion of game mechanics which could be considered slightly spoiler-ish.]

This game series adapts to the choices you make. The story is tailored by how you play.

This is the message that greets the player at the beginning of every episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead game. But is it true?

After finishing the final episode last night, I resisted the call of the pillow and had a bit of a dig around some spoiler-heavy threads on the game’s official forum. Like me, most people had really enjoyed the experience, but there was one recurring negative response. In essence:

“The decisions I make don’t actually change anything! Everything’s the same at the end! Telltale are liars!” Continue reading »

Nov 222012

Thanks to everyone who’s checked out and given feedback on Katherine’s story! I intend to publish a lot more third-party stories in future, and also plenty of theory articles about narrative in and around games. But for for today, I just want to get into a good old-fashioned link-fest. Here are some game narrative-relevant stories from around the web this week:

  • Developer with Tourette’s explains his syndrome with a game (NBC)
    “If a tic goes off while you’re trying to carefully navigate between a group of dormant goblins, there’s a moment of panic, followed by a frantic race to escape. The game becomes infinitely more interesting when you start to think of the game as a metaphor and not just a dungeon crawler. What if the goblins are just people, and you’re an intruder disrupting their lives?”. Continue reading »