This is the second post in a 6-part series on Designing for Interactive Story. I hope you find it interesting, and thought provoking. You can find Part 1 here.
THE IMAGINARY ROAD
Let’s start with a fun thought exercise, after all that’s all we have on the Imaginary Road anyway. Let’s suppose for a moment, that we had the most advanced and sophisticated Interactive Story simulation technology ever. Imagine that we could put you into an advanced Simulation where you could go anywhere or do anything you wanted. You could speak, and control your human avatar perfectly. Suppose our virtual reality came with totally believable, procedurally driven AI characters, perfect physics, and incredibly detailed consequence to every action you could think of doing, or anything might say. In fact, suppose we could create a simulation that was so real, it was indistinguishable from real life. Imagine that your life, right now, as you’re reading this sentence IS that simulation. Pretty impressive, huh? Don’t you love virtual reality?
Now let’s put on our game designer caps and ask the question…. how fun is this game? Is it going to sell? Sure the graphics are great, and that avatar is really good-looking, but how engaging is it? How do you win? Where in this simulation do we put our camera to capture the most interesting story? For that matter, how do we guarantee that the story will be fulfilling at all, and when does the game end?
Have I beaten this point to death enough yet? Even with the most advanced simulation in the world, we still don’t have a fun video-game….far from it. Clearly this means that creating an advanced simulation can’t be our only goal. Creating deeply believable human-seeming AI (even if it’s an alien or a robot or whatever) is a huge challenge. Creating a simulated, “living world” is a huge challenge too. But even if we manage to pull off both of these amazing feats of design and engineering, it’s not enough. We still don’t have a fun game.
OK…so… what’s missing? What makes for a fulfilling video-game experience, at the most basic level? Also, if we are able to have stories emerge from our simulated experience, how can we make sure whatever stories result will be fulfilling and complete for the player? These are two good questions (thank you very much. I asked them myself) Our first question, “what makes for a satisfying video-game experience?”, may seem almost too basic, but ironically, things that seem obvious to us, tend to get less explicit attention. Being clear on what is fundamentally important to all video games might help us in our design process. …Or then again, it may not. Since we’re not in any rush, lets take a look and see.
WHAT MAKES A VIDEO GAME?
So, what would we need to have in our simulation to turn it into a successful game experience? Here are a few things: clear goals, challenges, and clear success conditions. Video games set us up with some fictional context, and then they provide us with a clear purpose, or goal. They put obstacles in our way and they give us a means of overcoming those obstacles.
Another defining aspect of video games are rewards. These rewards can be explicit elements within the game, things like points and badges, fanfares, or progress indicators, all of which stroke our egos and make us feel competent; or they can operate on a more subtle physiological level in the form of shots to our systems of adrenalin, or dopamine. Needless to say, this type of reward is a little harder for designers to plan, and we might get some of this by chance from our advanced simulation, but video-games strive to be “addictive”, or perhaps more favorably put, “irresistibly appealing”, and this is part of why this works.
Oddly enough, simple movement is a key part of video-game expectation. Think about it for a second. What do you see when you walk the floor of a game convention, or watch game trailers in a video-game store. Almost all video games involve players controlling movement …lots of movement. Human beings are visual creatures. Our visual cortex takes up significant real-estate in our brain-organs, and vision is… well pretty big for most of us. This movement can be fast or slow but more often than not it involves a certain level of animal-brain movement-response stimulation that is designed to put us into a flow state. We’re like cats chasing the laser light on the floor. This flow state can excite us, or it can relax us and give us a release from daily stress. (how many video games you have on your mobile device?)
In short, video games are like microcosms of life – they give us clear purpose, and ways to clearly succeed, and then throw manageable obstacles at us. They engage us with movement, put us into flow-states when they can, and reward us, chemically and emotionally, by telling us how awesomely competent we are. It’s no wonder video-games make billions of dollars.
This overly simplified view of video-games may seem a bit cynical, so perhaps it’s worth adding a nod to game makers out there. What we’ve described is what all video games have in common, and why they “work” on us, but this is by no means all that they are, or can be. Crafting a microcosm of life that challenges, engages, stimulates, rewards, and sometimes teaches is no easy feat. Creating games that elevate us, or that push the boundaries of interactive innovation is truly an art. A developer friend I used to work with had a saying….one he would say to me almost every day when we worked together, and it eloquently captured the vast array of challenges that game developers face every day... …“Making video games is hard.” Mike Badillo (well said, Mike).
There’s actually one more piece of the definition to “what makes a video game” that I forgot to include. Ok, I didn’t forget, it just wasn’t so relevant to the point above. This definition is actually part of the broader definition of “all games”. It’s the fact that games are arbitrary, and their primary goal is to entertain us. Sure, games can sometimes train us and teach us, but the overriding perception of the purpose of games, especially video games, is they exist simply to entertain us.
Think of the phrase “what do you think this is, a game!?” What does that mean? It refers to the fact your motivation for doing something might be only for entertainment, and you might not be taking something seriously enough.
This leads us to the topic of non-gamers and (shudder) game haters. When have you heard this before: “Games are a waste of time and offer nothing of value”, “I prefer the ‘real world’”, “Games are not art”, “Video-games are way too violent”, “Games are for anti-social self-stimulating geeks” (ouch that one hurts).
Do we care about any of this? Well if you hang out on Facebook you probably love these statements because they offer an awesome excuse to climb up onto a soapbox, flamethrower in hand, and gloriously defend all games and gamers. Still, understanding why many people don’t play video games is a clue to understanding how to make games that offer value to a wider audience. This doesn’t mean we will necessarily choose to appeal to non-gamers. Maybe we’ll pull some of these people into the gamer-fold and maybe we won’t, but in the process of understanding how to build experiences that even die-hard non-gamers find meaningful, and valuable, we’ll push our own boundaries, and make games that we gamers love even more.
So, what is it these non-gamers want? Well, allow me to now speak for all those people because I know exactly what everyone else wants….. ok not really. Still speaking as someone with one foot in the gamer camp and one foot in the “Is this all the game industry has to offer?” camp, I’ll take a brief shot. If you happen to be a non-gamer and are reading this (which would be really impressive) you can attest to how spot on, or not, this assessment is…
What most non-gamers want: Less repetitive actions, less killing, way less blood, more meaning, more humanity, more mature and sophisticated story, more beauty, more relevancy to the real world, and more value in the area of learning. It’s not that non-gamers don’t enjoy story or entertainment; many of these people are big book readers, movie goers, and board game players. Generally what they are interested in is people-to-people interaction, and character-based stories. There is probably a strong correlation between action lovers and video-gamers, after all, that’s what videogames tend to be. Portraying deep and interesting characters, interactive-dialogue, and life situations; and making that interactive without the killing, isn’t what the game industry seems to be good at, or very interested in doing. …Certainly not so far. What we do, we do really well. One thing the game industry is good at, that overlaps with these non-gamer interests, is cooperative play, or family play, and giving people reasons to laugh and smile together. This has been our main avenue to reach this audience so far. Perhaps Interactive Story will open up some new paths.
In addition to that population of people who have trouble connecting with the world of video games, there is another big group out there of people (like me) with one foot in and one foot out. These are people who love the idea of playing games, but simply don’t have the time or room in their lives for hours and hours of gaming that isolate them from family members. For these people the answer lies in shorter play experiences, and in non-aggressive multi-player experiences that can pull other non-gamer family members into the experience with them.
Well let’s leave that for now and take a look at the ‘Real Road” we mentioned above, which is to say, our current state of the art in Interactive Story. We’ll start with a look at the most common structure used in current Interactive Story-Games. In fact I’ll make a bold statement as say that perhaps 80%, or more, of all of today’s story-games use this same structure.
THE ‘REAL’ ROAD
There are quite a few different genres of video games. Sometimes you will hear the terms “story-game” or “interactive story game”. These terms don’t have very clear boundaries and it can be debatable as to what qualifies as a “story-game”. Most RPG games have some sort of story in them. Lots of tactical games with campaigns and cut scenes offer stories. Even arcade style games will often have some story-set up and story resolution that caps the experience. For our purposes, we’re going to call a video-game a story-game if its primary role is to allow players to live through some story, and if it’s difficult to describe the game without describing the story. Again, this is admittedly vague, but so be it.
Today’s story-games may look very different on the surface, and have wildly different art styles, themes, play mechanics, and scope, but oddly enough, when you look at them from a structural perspective they are all very similar. This is so true, that we have come to think of this general structure almost by default when we think about “story-games”, and many game-makers launch into building with this structure without even considering alternatives.
We’re going to slap a label on this structure and call it the “Path Structure”. In these “Path” games, players move along a pre-determined path which can be narrow, wide, or of variable width. Obstacles and gates are placed in the player’s way. Obstacles take the form of movement based challenges, puzzles, fighting challenges, or keys and locks of various types. Almost always, path games have a combination of these barriers. Minor story elements are often delivered along the path as players progress. When players reach points that stop them completely, and that they must pass through, we call these gates. Gates are usually where major story elements are delivered because players are guaranteed to experience these before advancing. Gates also give designers the ability to require other conditions be met for advancement (for example, having collected resources, or leveled up, or having achieved story-state related accomplishments, etc.). They also allow designers to load new levels with new backgrounds and audio visual assets, characters, mini-games, bosses, or change the story context.
Big Blockbuster AAA games like: Tomb Raider, or The Last of Us and Uncharted, Dark Souls, BioShock, Metal Gear Solid, and Mirror’s Edges, as well as medium scale games like ICO, and Shadow of the Colossus, Journey, Heavy Rain, Tearaway, or even smaller scale indie story-games like 2-Brothers, Magicka, Beyond Eyes, or Orphan all use this same game structure. This isn’t to say that these games are similar in other ways, and it’s not to suggest for a moment that they aren’t imaginative and original. Within this basic structure they all bring new things to the table when it comes theme, art style, scope, audio, writing, and especially play mechanics. Still, the goal of the player is almost always to progress forward along a path, or set of paths, and the main ‘job’ of the game is to place challenging and entertaining obstacles in the player’s way, while delivering bits of pre-created story.