Tuesday, 2 April 2013

GDC 2013 Talk

The Script
I just finished cleaning up the script for the GDC2013 talk and it can be gotten from here:

Additional Resources
The following blog posts are probably also of interest:

This goes into more depth on how to view a story. I think this is really important in order to come to terms with interactive storytelling.

Repetition is a problem when presence is a goal. Here is a list of pitfalls and how to solve them.

This articles explores the "agreeable action outcome" design some more.

Both of these explore the construction of a story space.

These articles use the "interaction for presence"-axiom to view puzzles in a new way.

These should hopefully help clear out a few things from the talk.

I also have a more academic, and much more detailed, version of the talk. It can be found here:
This versions does not discuss story-spaces, but provides a lot more rules for how to create interactions that support presence. It has also sources for most of the claims a I make and some more advanced discussions.

Finally, I wanted to give the question, "Why does Minecraft and Dark Souls, despite being gamey, have such a strong sense of presence?", a better answer. So here that comes:

The reason why this can be true is because the fiction of these games correlate 1:1 with their mechanics. Let's take Dark Souls as the example. Just about any action that you make is directly, or very closely, related to the combat. It is a game about killing monsters and it takes place in world where you are tasked to do just that. The game does not suggest that the monsters have feelings, daily routines, or something like that. Their only purposes in life is to kill you and others like you. There is nothing in the game's internal systems that can take away from this fiction, it can even handle AI acting up and similar. It is a robust fiction. The same line of thinking can be used for Minecraft.

I think that the above is what has led many people astray. Right now the games that can provide a strong narrative that emerge directly from play, are games that very gamey and containing tight core gameplay loops. It is easy to think that think of this as the way forward, that to evolve storytelling we must simply find other core loops; a belief that often leads to seeing tech as our ultimate savior.

My talk (and paper) on presence and storytelling is a description of why this is not a way forward. Core loops only work so far. We must start thinking in different directions in order to take our stories into new territories.


  1. How about a Dark Souls review? (:
    Or some thoughts at least?

    Can't think of anything intellectual to say about the actual post :P great stuff tho, as always

  2. Write a book on video game plot structure. Really! I'd definitely buy it. Now I'm just aching for A Machine for Pigs more now.

  3. Core loops are extremely important, it being a game and all, and the problem emerges when you have clumsy global mechanics in benefit of a narrative (recent examples of this being Tomb Raider and BioShock Infinite). As games come dangerously close to being an all-purpose multimedia paste of books and movies the reason you need core loops and an explainable system (no matter how subtle you do that) *is so that they don't become books and movies*. Games are games. They can and should be an experience, but foremost they are games. I'm a story nut, I believe in strong narrative near fascistically, but the moment my story ruins the gameplay throw me out of the building. We make games. The moment that prerogative changes is the time to go write books instead of working in the game industry. Because when you don't you will write an ending that everyone hates.

    1. "but the moment my story ruins the gameplay throw me out of the building."

      I think that this sentence betrays an error in your thinking. If we want to do proper interactive storytelling, there should be no difference between the gameplay and the story; they are different sides of the same coin.

      Bioshock does not have issues with combining gameplay and story. If regarded as a narrative experience, it has issues with its storytelling. Period.

      There is no gameplay vs story friction in games; in the same way there is no fightscene vs story friction in a Jackie Chan movie. The core activity of the gameplay is the core activity of the narrative. It is no wonder that it is hard to make coherent plots in games when the protagonists only actions are shooting, running and jumping. But that does mean there is some inherent problem with the medium, in the same way Jackie Chan movies does not point out a problem with films. It all boils down to what you make the core experience to be.

    2. "If we want to do proper interactive storytelling, there should be no difference between the gameplay and the story... If regarded as a narrative experience, it has issues with its storytelling. Period."

      Thank you for clarifying this.
      It seemed you were advocating doing away with strong gameplay in place of uninteractive narrative the way many AAA games have.

      I see now you're advocating creating complex core loops; specifically in adding a layer addressing the elements of overall player experience, such as tone, motivation and arc.

      Frictional seems to be following a genre of game like Call Of Cthulhu and Pathologic that I personally love but is rarely done or talked about: the Fist-Person Adventure Game.
      I'd both like to see more of them and see more designers talking about them. It's mostly unexplored territory.

  4. Oh boy, I just typed out something to post, and now for some reason there is a character limit on this page, and now I can't post it!!! :(

    -Jesse P

  5. Thomas,

    When are you guys going to give some new information about Machine? Seriously, it's been months...

    Would be nice to have something leading up to a release in Q2.

    Consider it, sir.

    1. Its coming out in q2 2013 because the game play build has been finished, that's really all you need to know. It a horror game, so the concealment of its story and content are vital to the experience. Honestly, I think they already spoiled enough of it. I think the game title and the trailers telling you what the monsters are is already a huge loss because there is speculation and story theories from players before the game has been played, and there is plenty to go on if you do a little research. Arguably people already know the story. Hopefully this is not the case, but I fear that it will be unless the game plans on throwing a huge curve ball and its not as all as obvious as it appears to be. If the experience is to remain true to the first game, then there must be a stronger sense of discovery and mystery, which some of it has already been lost.

    2. Summary: Game is pretty much done in terms of content but needs polish. We are currently polishing. We polish until we are satisfied :)

    3. So, does that mean you are just cleaning up the bugs, and gameplay? If I may ask.

  6. Would love to read a blog post about your experience with Bioshock: Infinite. I really liked the game until I read your twitter posts about it. So on some level I wish I hadn't read those then I could go on blissfully unaware of all its issues.

    1. haha sorry for ruining your memories :)

      A blog post on Infinite is coming, I have lots of notes, bullet points and thoughts swimming about. Just need to get some other stuff done and then I will write it down.

  7. Interesting script. Do you like the old Ultima games, Thomas?
    You mentioned it in your script and compared it to Skyrim. But what about the Gothic series? PiranhaBytes, the developer of Gothic and Risen series used Ultima 9 as their main inspiration and I think, this games have much more common to Ultima instead Skyrim.
    I really can't understand why all people use Skyrim as a model for RPG design. The art of design is NOT the international success! The art is to make a pithy game for a special niche of players. Amnesia and Dear Esther are also games for a niche and examples for a decent gameplay. So, I wonder why you NEVER mentioned the Gothic series or Risen in all your blog posts.

    Did you ever play it?

    We have a Gothic forum in germany and we're also talking about Amnesia there. I know that some guys of PiranhaBytes also played Amnesia and they liked it very much.

    In an interview they said:

    "More radiant shimmer outstanding projects such as "Dear Esther", "Journey" or "Limbo" in the firmament, and the more they earn such a title, to be praised for their courage.  For me the most are the games that follow a strong vision and are faithful to themselves, without too much pandering to the market. Unconventional, edgy games are much better than me allglatte mainstream monster. A guarantee of success of this approach is certainly not, but it leads to strong character playing with re-identification value and that special "something", which in turn helps to build a brand."

    - Kai Rosenkranz, composer of Gothic and Risen

    I think, this games are worth to get mentioned when taling about high-level story telling and design. I am disappointed that I never get an answer when I scribe about this games here. Indeed, the english synchronisation is quite not the best (compared to the german original) but still some of the best RPGs in history.

  8. Adding to your point about Dark Souls, I totally agree with that explanation you give for why it creates such a strong sense of presence.

    I actually felt that Demons Souls did a better job at that, because in the fiction of that game the souls of mortals were trapped and forced to continue to live is a hellish vision of what the world was. Unlike Dark Souls, that fiction gave a reason for the trial-and-error style gameplay, it felt like some great evil was forcing me to re-live hellish encounters as some sort of punishment. I always hated that trial-and-error style of gameplay, but it totally worked in that game because the structure fit so perfectly with the fiction.

    The only other game I can think of to make that work so effectively was System Shock (original), where all the challenges & puzzles created by the developers was given a fictional reason in that there was an evil AI who controlled your environment (a space station), and was creating challenges for you to have to go through, because it hated you. That was a fantastic metaphor for the developer :)

  9. Skyrim & Dark Souls compared to Gothic & Risen

    is like

    Doom & Dead Space compared to Penumbra & Amnesia

    I wonder that nobody here played these rare masterpieces.
    People who like unique games with a strong vision that does a better job than triple-A mainstream monsters, normally should have played the Gothic series and use it as an example for RPG design.

    Thomas, if you actually don't have played Gothic yet, I wish you will do that in future and make a blog post about the game. But you need to play both (Gothic I & II inkl. Night of the Raven).

    Give it a chance please, and you will see how good a RPG could be.
    It's different to all the others, it's not the crafting, it's the story and the atmosphere what comes first. Gothic is "slowly" and decent, not like a "game". There are some gamedesign ideologies equal to Amnesia.

  10. Having read all the previous posts as they came up, this seems like a pretty good compilation of the thoughts expressed in those posts, along with some extra embellishment and development.

    Do you know of anyone else who's thinking about these problems on these terms? I've heard many speak of "lack of immersion" and "mechanistic," but to my knowledge you're the only one formulating these as "lack of presence," which sounds much more precise to me.

    1. Adrian at The Astronauts (http://www.theastronauts.com/#our-blog) have been writing a lot on similar stuff. Brian Upton also has a book in the works that share some thoughts.

      Other than that I know people who share similar thinking, but not anybody else that are writing about it.

  11. What do you think about the hidden storytelling inside Dark Souls? If you look at all the descriptions of the items you pickup around the game a interesting background is revealed. Bosses and even normal enemies you fight start to have their own characterization, with always some subtle "holes" between things they tell you so you have to think about your own version of the thruth.
    Even some player choices and graphical details in the enviroment reveal additional information.

    Personally i think it's interesting to have this kind of feature in a game but probably the "normal" player isn't even subtly notified that he can search for these things. So now most of these "secrets" are emerged from dedicated wikis and youtube lore videos

    1. I love that stuff and it is currently the best way games currently tell stories in. This sort of thing has a long tradition starting in text adventures where most of the story was told through various in-game lore sources.

      However, the problem is that it does not make you feel part of a narrative, but it works more as a sort of world flavor. That does not mean it is bad and can be REALLY effective and change the experience. But it is all passive storytelling, pretty much pure exposition.

      So the more interesting approach is how we can make the player feel part of a narrative, and not just dragged along (cutscenes) or get fed it (notes/audiologs/etc). This does not mean we should skip notes or cutscenes, it only means we need to not rely on it for most of our storytelling.

  12. Where do strategy games fit in all this?