Showing posts with label design. Show all posts
Showing posts with label design. Show all posts

Monday, 5 May 2014

Alien: Isolation and The Two Hardest Problems in Horror

So I recently saw this reaction video to Alien Isolation and I thought it showcased a few interesting problems with horror games. These are not issues that are specific to this game, but that plague horror games in general. We've had these problems in all of our games and are currently trying avoid them as much as possible in our upcoming game, SOMA. So I'm not trying to take a shot at Alien Isolation here (I'm looking forward to playing it!) but the video demonstrated these issues so clearly that it's worth focusing on it for this article. That said, let's move on to the two hardest problems in horror.

1) Death Means Relief and Repetition
If you watch the video you can see that the players aren't being freaked out of their minds when they die. They're laughing, and feeling relief. And the death sequence is non-interactive, which further enhances this sense of sitting back and becoming a spectator. You can clearly see the effect here, where there's a stark difference in emotion compared to the fear that was expressed earlier.  So when a death occurs, the situation has lost its sense of fear and the unknown. The player now knows what they're up against. It's gone from tense terror to "I need to beat this gameplay section".

We saw this in Penumbra Overture, where the player's experience of a chase sequence depended on the number of attempts. And what's important to note is that even if the first one or two attempts are exciting, the frustration that ensues from repeated attempts will spoil those initial memories and the sequence as a whole. Of course, there are only a certain percentage of players that will have this bad experience, and if that number's low enough it might not be such a big issue. But if your game is based around this kind of experience, like Alien Isolation and many other horror games are, then it becomes a much bigger problem. The game is under constant danger of losing its basic tension, the most fundamental ingredient of engagement that a lot of the game depends on.

What's the solution for this, then? The only proper solution is to make sure that death is postponed. Outlast has a monster that throws you to one side, giving you a chance to run off, a mechanic that works well in its story. Daylight has damage build up on the screen, which gives you time to escape. Both of these are great ways of extending the terror. Some kind of death must happen sooner or later, though, or the player will quickly realize that the monster is harmless - and that's no good at all. When death occurs I think it's important to remove this sense of repetition. For instance, in Amnesia we changed the map a bit after each death (which in some cases led to additional scares).

It might also be interesting to look into 'a fate worse than death', a subject that's perhaps too big to cover here (check here for some examples in various media). This is something we're trying out for SOMA right now. The basic idea is that "death" is not final but takes the player closer and closer to a very disturbing state of being.

I think the crucial point here though is to think outside the mechanics and to trust the player to be immersed in the fiction. From an abstract point of view of the game, there are only three options really: repeating, branching or skipping a section. Whichever is chosen the important thing is to keep the player in the right mindset and let their immersion do the bulk of the work.

2) Monster Exposure Makes The Horror Familiar
If you don't have weapons in your horror game - which, for many reasons, should be the case (for those needing arguments see this talk) - then you need to have some form of avoidance. This in turn leads to longer periods where the player's forced to pay attention to the danger, i.e. looking straight at it. This means that the player gets used to the monster,  figuring out details and their mental picture of the beast breaks down into the prosaic reality of the implementation. In the worst case, the player will start noticing AI glitches and animation issues. The possibility space for the danger is reduced and it becomes obvious to the player that the monster is just a puppet.

This is a serious problem. It's well known that the most effective horrors are the unseen ones. This is obvious in the most successful horror books and films. If games want to achieve good horror, they need to keep this in mind and be careful when and how the monster is seen. Having said that, I think that games have a bit more leeway, because players are not just passive observers but are also engaged in an activity and responsible for the outcome, and therefore prone to take the monster more seriously.

Which brings us to the first problem: showing the monster in a cutscene (as Alien: Isolation can be seen doing here). I can understand the reason for doing this, to be certain that the players "get it". But this is a major dent in the creature's effective level of horror. You leave the player passive, and free to notice tons of detail about the monster in a much more relaxed way than if they were the ones in control. It also means that you're missing out on making one of the most potent horror moments interactive. The reveal of the monster is almost always a high point in a horror story; it's such a waste to let it be a non-interactive part of the game. Actually, they've already had a good reveal moment here, which I feel could have been used better. This one also perfectly nails the proper alien look: a swirling mass of Giger-esque limbs and claws.

The problems deepens as the game progress. Here is a good example of this. Just imagine what sort of AI quirks and animation issues might pop up when you are under a desk and the alien is a few meters away in a tight space. On top of that, the player is getting a really good look at the creature, just throwing away any chance of the player having their own subjective mental image of the beast.

This is really hard to solve. Outlast has a good solution where they use the night vision mode on the camera to blur out the monster features and add creepy glowing  eyes. It doesn't work for the entire game, of course, but it makes it possible to have more glimpses of the monster without lessening the scare factor. In Amnesia we had the player's vision blur when a monster was in sight, something that worked pretty well. Or an even more successful monster was the water lurker, that just gave away its position with splashes in the water.

The best solution is really simple, though; keep monster encounters down to a minimum. I think the first basic problem is to rely on "monster hunts player" as a core gameplay foundation in the first place. This also exposes another big problem in horror games. If the monster hunting you is not what makes up the majority of the playing time then what does? This is an even harder nut to crack than the problems presented in this article.

In SOMA we try and solve this with a couple of tricks. First, all of the monsters are connected to the narrative; the more you figure out about them, the more you understand of the story. Therefore simply just looking for signs of monsters becomes a more interesting activity (compared to a game where the monster itself is not that interesting story-wise), and we can make do with fewer encounters. The inspiration from this comes from the SCP Foundation wiki, a collaborative database for weird artifacts, where many of the really spooky entries are just a collection of vague clues about a creature. Second, we keep the types of monsters fresh and varied throughout the game (which should fix one of the bigger issues in Amnesia: TDD). Finally, all of the monsters are connected to a sort of "worse than death" mechanic, to give the feeling that the encounters are more disturbing than simply "I will get a death screen if it catches me".

Again, I want to make it really clear that these problems are not specific to Alien: Isolation. These are things that just about every horror game struggle with, including our previous efforts and our upcoming Soma. Alien: Isolation is looking good and I'm excited to play it once it comes out. But that doesn't mean that it's not worthwhile looking closely at it and discussing any problems that might arise. Also, I felt the reaction video was great a springboard for the topics covered in this post. For me as a developer these sort of discussions are crucial, and whenever I see footage of a new horror game, I try to analyze what things might and might not work in it.

Finally, it's really fun to see this kind of game being made by a large studio. I wouldn't have imagined that happening a couple of years ago. No weapons, few monsters etc. are features not very common in a high budget game. Hopefully Alien Isolation will do well enough for us to see more of this!

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

4-Layers, A Narrative Design Approach

This blog post will be about a new way to approach narrative design in games - the 4 Layers Approach. It is based on a GDC talk I gave in March this year. The approach is primarily meant to suggest a workflow that focuses on the story and makes sure the narrative and gameplay are connected. The end goal is to create games that provide a better interactive narrative.

Narrative Basics
First off, "narrative" will need to be defined. At its most fundamental level, the narrative is what happens as you play the game over a longer period. It is basically the totality of the experience; something that happens when all elements are taken together: gameplay, dialog, notes, setting, graphics etc.; the player's subjective journey through the game. I know this clashes with other definitions that refer to narrative as a separate aspect of the game, but I think this is the one that's most helpful when discussing game design. It also fits with job titles such as "narrative designer", who is a person that doesn't just deal with writing or cut-scenes, but who works at a much higher level.

Quick note: A deep dive into various story-related terminology can be found here.

Let's compare this to the other basic elements of a game. Looking at a game second-by-second, you see the core mechanics. Moving up to look at it using a time-frame of minutes, you see tactics and problem-solving (which also includes things like puzzles). Higher still, often on the scale of hours, you see the narrative. Almost all game design is focused on the two lower levels, mechanics and tactics, and narrative mostly comes out as a sort of byproduct. Designing the narrative becomes a sort of patchwork process, where you try and create a coherent sense of storytelling from the small gaps left behind by the layers below. For instance, in games based on combat mechanics the narrative usually just acts as a form of set-up for encounters and is heavily constrained by how the fights work and so forth.

So a crucial step towards better storytelling in games is to give at least as much focus to the narrative layer as to the other two layers, mechanics and tactics. It is important to not devote all the focus to the story though; having a symbiosis between all of layers is a core element of what makes video games special. If we want proper interactive story, we need to preserve this.

Simply saying that we want to put more focus on the narrative level is still pretty vague; it doesn't tell us anything useful. So I'll make it a bit more concrete by listing five required cornerstones of an interactive story. This is where we get into highly subjective territory, but that can't be helped - there's a wide span of opinions on how narrative and gameplay should work together (some would even object to having focus on the narrative layer at all!). But in order to move on we need to have something concrete; if we just continue to talk in vague terms of "improving storytelling", any suggestion can be shot down on the basis of some personal preference. Doing it like that will just get us stuck in boring discussions and it becomes much harder to set a proper goal.

Core Elements of Storytelling
The following elements shouldn't prove too controversial and I think most people will agree with them. But it still feels important to acknowledge that this is an opinion and not something I regard as an eternal truth. That said, here are my core requirements for a game with focus on narrative.

1) The focus is on storytelling.
This is a trivial requirement, but still way too uncommon.  Basically, the main goal of the game should be for the player to experience a specific story.

2) The bulk of the gameplay time is spent playing.
We want interactive storytelling, so players should play, not read notes, watch cutscenes, etc. These things are by no means forbidden, but they should not make up the bulk of the experience.

3) The interactions make narrative sense.
This means actions that:
  • Move the story forward.
  • Help the player understand their role.
  • Are coherent with the narrative.
  • Are not just there as padding.
4) There's no repetition.
Repetition leads to us noticing patterns, and noticing patterns in a game system is not far away from wanting to optimize them. And once you start thinking of the game in terms of "choices that give me the best systemic outcome", it takes a lot of focus away from the game's narrative aspects.

5) There are no major progression blocks.
There is no inherent problem with challenge, but if the goal here is to tell a story, then the player should not spend days pondering a puzzle or trying to overcome a skill-based challenge. Just as with repetition this takes the focus away from the narrative.

There is a lot more that can be said about these requirements, all of which you can find here.

Good Examples To Strive For
Now for the crucial follow up question: what games satisfy these requirements?

Does Heavy Rain manage this? Nope, there's too little gameplay (requirement #2).

Bioshock, with all the environmental storytelling? Nope, too much shooting (requirement #4).

These two games symbolize the basic issues almost all video game storytelling have: either you do not play enough, or most of what the gameplay does is not related to the narrative.

There are a few good examples, though. Thirty Flights of Loving is a game that I think lives up to the requirements. But the problem here is that the storyline is extremely fuzzy and disjointed. The game is a series of vaguely connected scenes, and is lacking a certain pure storytelling quality.

We come much closer to finding something that lives up to the requirements by looking at specific sections in games. Two good ones are the giraffe scene in The Last of Us and the end sequence in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Both of these sections have this strong sense of being inside a narrative and fulfill my requirements. You are definitely playing a story here. But these are just small scenes in a much larger game, and that larger game breaks most of the core elements that I have gone over.  So what we really want is to have a full game filled with these sorts of sections. That would be perfect!

However, that isn't possible. These scenes depend on tons of previous game content and are extremely hard to set up. You cannot just simply strive to fill the game with stuff like this, it's just not doable. In order to get a game that consistently evokes this feeling, we have to approach it from a different direction.

This leads us to the main bulk of this post, where I'll talk about a way to achieve this. This is an approach named “4 Layers” and the basic idea is to not attack the problem directly, but reduce it into steps and thereby be able to get proper interactive storytelling into just about any section of  the game.

The 4 Layers Approach
 The framework is something that's been developed between myself and Adrian Chmielarz, the man responsible for Painkiller, Bulletstorm, etc. At Frictional Games we are using this a cornerstone for our new game SOMA, and Adrian's new company, The Astronauts, is using it for their upcoming The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.

They way this approach works is that you divide the design process into four big steps. You start with the gameplay and then work your way through adding more and more layers of storytelling. The additional layers are Narrative Goal, Narrative Background and finally Mental Modeling.

Before I get more in-depth it is important to note that in order to use this approach correctly, the game must be broken down  into scenes. Each scene could be a puzzle, an enemy encounter, and so on. Normally, gameplay refers to how the game plays out as a whole, but for this framework, we must split it up into sections. This is connected with the above requirement of not having repetition, and usually means that there needs to be a lot of logic and gameplay coded into the world. I think that this is presents a crucial piece of the puzzle for having better storytelling: to drop the need for an overarching play loop and instead make the gameplay fit each specific scene of the game.

So instead of having the gameplay describe the player's overall experience of the game, the narrative will provide this structure. Exactly how this is done will become more apparent as we go through the different layers.

Layer 1: Gameplay
First we need to start with the basic gameplay and it's crucial that the narrative aspects are kept in mind from the get-go. If the gameplay doesn't fit with the story, then problems will start to accrue and it'll make the later layers much harder to achieve and reduce the final quality. As a first step for ensuring this, there are four basic rules that must be followed:

1) Coherency
The gameplay must fit with the game's world, mood and characters. There should be no need for double-thinking when performing an action; it should fit with what has been laid out by the narrative. The player should be able to think about the actions made to get a deeper understanding of the game's story. What the player does must also make some sort of sense and not just be a sequence of random or nonsensical interactions. The infamous "mustache and cat"-puzzle from Gabriel Knight 3 is a shining example of what not to do.

2) Streamlining
It is important that the gameplay is not too convoluted and doesn't have too many steps. This is partly to minimize the chance of the player getting stuck. When the player is stuck for longer periods they focus on the mechanics or tactics for gameplay. Also, we want to have situations where the player can plan ahead and feel like they understand the world. If the steps required for any moment are too complicated, it's very easy to lose immersion and to lose track of the goal. This happens very often in classic adventure games, where the solution to something straightforward requires a massive number of steps to accomplish.

3) A Sense of Accomplishment
This sort of thing is normally built into the core gameplay, but might not be as straightforward in a narrative-focused game. It is really easy to fall in the trap of doing “press button to progress” type of gameplay when the main goal is to tell a story. But in order to make the player feel agency, there must be some sense of achievement. The challenge needed to evoke this sense of accomplishment does not have to be skill or puzzle-based, though. Here are a few other things that could be used instead: memory tasks, out-of-the-box thinking,  grind,  endurance tests, difficult story choices, sequence breaks,  understanding of the plot, exploration,  navigation, maze escape,  overcoming fear and probably tons more.

4) Action Confirmation
When the player does something in the game, they must understand what it is that they are doing and why they are doing it. For basic mechanics this comes naturally, "I jumped over the hole to avoid falling down", "I shot the guy so he would not shoot me back" and so forth. But when taken to the level of a scene it is not always as straightforward. For instance, the player might accidentally activate some machinery without being aware that this was going to happen beforehand and afterwards not knowing what it accomplished. If this occurs too frequently, the player starts optimizing their thinking and stops reasoning about their actions. This then leads to an experience where the player feels as if they are just pulled along.

Getting all of these four rules into a gameplay scene and also making sure it is engaging is no small feat. Most games that want to focus on storytelling stop here. But in the 4-Layer approach this is just the first step.

Before moving on to the next layer of the framework, I will give a simple gameplay example. Say the player encounters a locked door blocking their path. Some earlier information has hinted that there a key is hidden nearby, and now they need to search the room to find it. Once they find the key they can unlock the door and progress. Very simple, and not very exciting, but it fulfills rules set up above.

1) A locked door and hidden key should not conflict with the story.
2) Given that the search space for the key is rather small, it is not likely the player will get stuck.
3) It requires enough from the player to give a sense of accomplishment.
4) Set up correctly, it should be very obvious to the player that the door needs to be opened and the key is the item used to accomplish this.

I will come back later and expand upon this with the other layers to give you a better feel for how the approach works.

Layer 2: Narrative Goal
So, next step: the narrative goal. Normally the reason for the player to get through some gameplay segment is just pure progress. There is often some overarching story goal like “kill the evil wizard”, but that is quite far into the future, so when the player encounters an obstacle they try to overcome it because that is what the game demands of them. It is often very clear that they are in “gamer mode” at this point and until the obstacle is cleared. This is useful in order for the player to know what to do, but it is very problematic for the narrative - it removes the experience of being inside a story. The player stops seeing their actions as part of a story and instead sees them as steps towards an abstract gameplay goal. What can often happen is that the player starts thinking stuff like "Now I just need to get this section out of the way so I can get on with the story", a forced mental division between narrative and gameplay, which is diametrically opposed to the fusion we're striving for.

The way to fix this is to give the player some sort of short-term narrative goal, one that is directly connected to the current gameplay. The aim is to keep the player in narrative mode so they do not brush the story aside for some puzzling or shooting action. When the player is engaged in the gameplay at hand we want them  focused on and motivated by this narrative goal. This makes it harder for the player to separate the two, as the narrative goal is always in sight. It is no longer about "doing stuff to get the story going", instead it is about "doing stuff because of the story". The distinction might not seem that big, but it makes all the difference. Keep in mind this is at a local level, for a scene that might just last a few minutes or less; the narrative goal is constantly visible to the player and a steady reminder of why they are going through with the actions.

A nice side-effect of this is that since the goal is narrative in nature, it becomes a reward for completing the gameplay section. The player is motivated to go through actions because of story and is then promptly rewarded with a fresh piece of the story. In all, this binds the gameplay much more tightly to the storytelling. An additional side-effect is that it can keep the player on the right track. The player might not be sure what to do next, but if the narrative goal is connected with the solution to the obstacle, then the player will progress simply by being interested in the story.

Here are three different types of narrative goals that could be used:

The most obvious and simple is mystery; that there is something unknown you want find out about. It's pretty easy to have environmental assets that constantly reminds the player of this - this sort of goal is also pretty easy to fit into a gameplay scene.

Uncomfortable Environment
Another way is to give the scene a narrative reason for the player not wanting to stick around. The most trivial example of this would be a dark and scary environment; the player is scared and wants to leave. It could also be that the situation is awkward or emotional in a way that the player can't cope with and wants to escape. For example, it could be a depressing scene, like a funeral reception, that makes the player sad. It's important, though, not to get caught up in game mechanics; it must be a story reason that makes the player uncomfortable, not some mechanic (spikes popping up here and there, etc.). We want the focus to be on the narrative, not the underlying systems.

Character Conflict
Character-based conflict can also be used as a narrative goal. Walking Dead is full of this; what are really just fairly simplistic activities become engaging because of story reasons. A great example is the food distribution "puzzle" where the player is instructed to determine how the remaining stash of food is divided. What makes it interesting is that the player cannot come up with a division that doesn't upset at least one of the characters. Any gameplay that results in the player changing the social dynamics can act as powerful narrative goal.

These are just three examples of what could be done and there are bound to be a ton more. I think you could use basic writing techniques to come up with more.

Now let's update the example from before and add a narrative goal. To keep it simple let's go with some mystery. Say there's a man on the other side of the door trying to get in. He wants to retrieve something that's in the room that the player is currently in, and is asking them to open the door. Now all of a sudden there's a short-term goal for wanting the door open, and it's no longer just due to wanting to progress. “Who is this man?”, “What object is it that he's after?” You want to get these questions answered and that adds narrative motivation.

Important note: The 4-Layers framework is not a linear method, you'll have to constantly skip back and forth between the layers. In this case, you need to check the first layer, gameplay, and see if there's anything that could be updated in order to improve the narrative goal. You might need to change where the key is hidden, or even exchange the key for something else.

Layer 3: Narrative Background
With the addition of a narrative goal, the scene is now framed in a much more story-like manner. But there is still an issue: the actions the player does are quite gameplay-focused. In the above example, the player searches the environment simply in order to find a certain item; there is no proper sense of story-telling going on as the player goes through these actions. That is what this layer is all about fixing.

The basic idea is that the actions the player is supposed to be doing are immersed in story substance. So when the player is interacting, it is not just pure gameplay, they are constantly being fed story at the same time. When the narrative goal was added, the player's thinking was changed from "doing stuff to get the story going" to "doing stuff because of the story". With narrative background in place we change it to "doing stuff in order to make the story appear". Narrative-wise, the player's actions are no longer just a means to an end, they are what causes the story to emerge as you play. Or at least that's how we want it to appear to the player. By having the gameplay actions and the narrative beats coincide, we make it hard for the player to distinguish between the two. The goal is for this to lead to a sense of always being inside a story.

Here are a few examples of the kind of background that can be used:

Story Fragments
This means having narrative clues scattered through the environment which are stumbled upon while playing. An important note is that shouldn't just be the standard audio logs and diary entries. While it can consist of those sort of elements, it's important that they never mean a large interruption in the gameplay, and that they're found as the player goes through with the actions needed to overcome the obstacle. The act of collecting clues should not feel like a separate activity, but come as a part of the scene's main gameplay.

Complementary Dialog
There can also be dialog going on at the same time, giving context to the player's actions. Bastion uses this to great effect. All of the standard gameplay elements like enemies, power-ups and breakable crates are given a place in the world and a sense of importance. It also gives a great sense of variation to similar activities, as their narrative significance can be quite diverse. Dear Esther is another good example of this at work. Here the simple act of walking is given the sense of being vital to the story.

Emotionally Significant Assets
If the the items involved in the gameplay have some sort of emotional value or a strong connection to the story, the player is much less likely to see them as abstract tools. Inside of picking up "item needed to progress", the player finds something that can be a story revelation in itself. There is a huge difference in finding "standard knife A" and "the murder weapon from a hideous crime".

These three are of course not the only methods at your disposal to create narrative background. Just like with the previous layer, there are bound to be tons of other things too.

To make things a bit more concrete, let's go back to the example scene and add some narrative background. First off, let's add story fragments in the form of clues. These can give hints to the player about who the man behind the door is. Pictures, painting, documents and so on. So while the player is searching for the key they'll also be fed hints about the story. Secondly, let's have the man comment on the player's actions and give hints, making him reveal his character a bit. Third, we could say that it was the man who hid the key and that he did so for some very important reason. That way the key has some narrative significance and is not just an abstract tool. Getting all of these things in might require us to change the puzzle a bit, but as said before, this not a linear design approach. What you learn from the later layers must be fed back into the previous ones.

Layer 4: Mental Modeling
Now comes the 4th, and final, layer - Mental Modeling. The goal with this layer is to change the way the player perceives and thinks about the game. We want to tap into how the player evaluates their experience.

The first and crucial fact you must be aware of is that what is actually on the screen when the player is playing is not what ends up in their head. Nor does the player rely directly on any abstract system to make choices. The player's brain build up a mental model of the game, a sort of virtual representation based upon what they see, hear and do. It's this model that's used when you choose what to do next.

This might seem a bit bizarre and counter intuitive but it really isn't. Just consider how a player doesn't rely on direct feedback from the underlying systems in order to traverse a space. They don't bump into every wall in order to check where they can go. Instead they use their knowledge of the real world, intuition of the systems, and visual and auditory clues to plan a path. And once that plan is finished (which for simple tasks like walking takes a fraction of a second), the plan is executed. Stated like this it sounds really trivial, but if you think about it a bit more, it's actually quite profound.

The underlying gameplay systems only really become evident for the player if they do something wrong or when they directly contradict their mental model. Otherwise they play and plan largely part based on an imaginary game. Obviously the underlying system is what keeps it all working, and the feedback between the systems and the player's input is crucial for anything to happen. But the systems are never directly queried to lay out the boundaries and options available to the player. In fact, keeping the player's sense of immersion is often directly related to keeping the systems hidden. The player is not a computer and doesn't make decisions based on tables of abstract data. Built-in brain functions handle all that, and the smoothest sense of play comes about when the player is relying on gut feeling and intuition. Constantly having to probe a system to figure out its exact make-up is almost never a pleasing experience. (Unless that is what the game is all about, as is the case with some puzzle games).

Side note: I need to note that the player's intuition is updated the more that a system is revealed to them. If the player first assumes some enemies can jump but later finds out that they can't, their mental model is updated accordingly. This can have devastating effect on a narrative-focused game, making life-like characters turn into dumb automatons and so on. For more information on how all that works, check this out.

Brian Upton has a great example of mental modelling in action based on his work with the original 1998 Rainbow Six. In Rainbow Six the player dies from a single shot and has to be very careful how they progress. Since they are constantly on the look out for hostiles, even a very simplistic world can have a lot of gameplay, and that's without the player doing much. For instance, if they are about to enter a new room they stop and try to figure out the best approach. They need to consider if someone might be hiding out of sight and so forth. Based on their mental model of the game they will simulate many different approaches in their mind, trying to figure out which will work best. Even an empty hallway can conjure up these sorts of thought processes. The game is filled with possibilities that the player needs to be aware of, and the only way to do this is to use their intuition on how the game's virtual world and its inhabitants work. These constant mental gymnastics are a crucial piece of the experience.

The important point here is that most of what exists in the player's mind has no systemic counterpart. The player might imagine a guard hiding behind a corner, thinking of how he might be looking around. But in reality there is no guard behind the corner. Thus, a great deal of the playing time is spent just imagining stuff. This might seem like a cop-out, and not like proper gameplay, but that's not the case at all. It's sort of like chess, where most of the gameplay comes from you thinking about a situation, and the actual interaction only makes up minor portion of the playing time. Making mental models is very much a valid form of play.

The takeaway here is that there is a lot of gameplay which doesn't translate into an input-output loop within the game's systems. And more importantly, this sort of mental model-based gameplay comes from the player's high level interpretation of the game's systems, graphics, sound and so forth. This means that it basically ties directly into narrative. The mental model and the narrative lie on the same level, they are the accumulation of all the lower level stuff. And if we can get them to work together, then what we have is the purest form of playable story where all your gameplay choices are made inside the narrative space. This is clearly something worth striving for.

What's also interesting is that these sort of thought processes share the imaginary nature of books and film. The player doesn't have to be 100% correct with all assumptions, just like you don't have to have a perfect mental recreation of the locale a novel takes place in. If the player imagines a non-existent guard being around the corner then that is OK. He might approach slowly trying to get signs of the guard's whereabouts and not finding a guard behind the corner doesn't need to mean the fantasy is broken. The player can now imagine that the guard soundlessly snuck away, or something similar. When interacting directly with systems, like shooting bullets at a clearly visible enemy, the player's assumptions can't stray very far from reality. If the player imagines the bullets hitting when they in fact don't, that fantasy will quickly be broken.

Quick note: In case you haven't already noticed, this layer isn't just confined to a single scene. It's something that overlaps a lot of of the game. While you could potentially have mental models that only last for a short durations, it is more effective when it spans a greater part of the game.

Many narrative games already have some degree of mental modeling, but in the worst way possible: collectables. Say you have this story about a creepy forest and a protagonist trying to figure out what is real. And then picture the mental model constantly saying: “find all the thermoses, you know there are some around”. This will obviously make the game lose a lot of its potential. Be wary of this kind of issue.

Instead you want to have a mental model that fits with the rest of the narrative. What follows are a few suggestions:

There is something lurking about that constitutes a threat for the player. It's important that this threat is not some common occurrence that relies on twitch reflexes or similar, as it's just a normal gameplay element then. Instead it must be something hiding, only making brief appearances. The idea is for the player to constantly scan the environment for clues that the danger is near and present.

Goal-focused Mystery
This can mean that the player has the objective of solving a crime or similar. What we are after is that the player should see the game world as a place where important clues are to be discovered. So whenever the player finds a new location they should instantly start thinking about what new things it can teach them about the mystery.

Social Pressures
The player is amongst other people that they have to try and figure out. Now whenever the player finds something new or watches NPCs interact it updates their mental model of what makes the characters tick and what their motivations are.

The above should give an idea of what is possible, but as before, there are probably tons more to explore.

Now it's time to go back to the example scene and update it with the 4th and final layer. Let's add some sort of danger. Say the player is hunted by shape-shifting demons throughout the game and that these are also a big part of the story. This means the player won't be sure if the man behind the door is a friend or foe. We can tie this into the layer 3 stuff as well; as the player uncovers the narrative background they receive hints about the true nature of the man behind the door as well.

We've now gone from just having a really simplistic puzzle about opening a door to an entire story experience. The player is now under threat that there might be some kind of demon on the other side and is desperately trying to find clues on what the secret man's true identity is. At the same time, the man is also the key to a mystery, a mystery the player is very curious to figure out. The player is scavenging for the key, digging up more information as he goes along and when he finally finds it he needs to decide whether to use it or not. The basic gameplay hasn't changed much, but we've changed the wrapping and it totally transforms the experience.

What I think is extremely interesting about this approach is that it always forces you to think about story. Normally it's so easy to just be satisfied with a well-thought-out gameplay segment and to leave it at that. But when you follow 4-Layers you need to make sure that there's some story significance to the activity the player is currently doing. Story becomes an essential part of the game design.

It can also act as a filter. You can evaluate every gameplay scene and make sure it fulfills the criteria in each of the layers. This way you can easily tell if a some segment is just filler, or lacks in some other way. This is a great way to keep the design on track and make sure there is a strong narrative focus.

The method is not without its problems though.

First is that it requires a lot of planning. You need to design a lot of this up front and it's not very practical to build a scene from experimentation and iteration alone. Design documents are crucial, as there are just too many aspects to keep track of.

Second is that its core strength is also the biggest weakness. The gameplay and narrative are intertwined and if you change one the other needs to be updated too. This mean that you need to throw out and remake a lot more than usual during development.  But I don't see this as a failure, I see this as evidence that the approach really is bringing gameplay and narrative close together.

In a way this approach doesn't really change the core ingredients of a game. It just adds a bit of trickery on top. This is exactly what I like about it though. It doesn't rely on anything that we don't have at our disposal. And, as with all good storytelling, it relies on the audience's imagination doing the bulk of the work. I am really excited to see how this approach will turn out in the finished games. So far it's been of great use to us, and hopefully someone else will be inspired to give it a go.

Adrian Chmielarz, for all the great e-mail discussions that led to all this and feedback on the talk.
Brian Upton, for letting me read an early copy of his book and providing the basis for the Mental Model section.
Matthew Weise, for providing valuable feedback to the lecture.
Ian Thomas, for copy-editing this whole thing.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

GDC 14 Lecture Resources

I am making this blog as place with extra resources for a talk I will be giving at GDC on Tuesday next week (14.20 at the Narrative Summit). The talk is called "Making Storytelling a Fundamental Part of the Gameplay Experience" and will be about a new approach to narrative design called 4-Layers. I only have 25 minutes to give the talk and there is a lot of stuff I cannot explain at proper depth; this page is a way to make up for that. I will also post a link to the cleaned up script of the talk here when I get back.

If you are planning on attending this talk, these links should also serve as some warm up to some of the
concepts I will cover!

Here comes resources:

This is a huge stumbling block when discussing narrative in games, as story means so many things to a lot of people. Here I have tried to give a basic overview on what I mean with the different words. (Also check comments for further discussions).

Core Elements of Interactive Storytelling
This is more in-depth information on the core elements that I discuss in the lecture:
My post on Last Of Us go over some more examples of when a game manages to really shine with storytelling, as well as the moments when it does not.
This is a longer essay that goes over the idea that the core of a game is made up in the player's mind.

When designing puzzles, it is important to not just see them as some intrinsically interesting element, they must serve some purpose to the narrative. This means there is a lot of things you need to think about when designing one. Some of these things should also apply to non-puzzle gameplay.
Here I go over how the high level design of most adventure games is flawed from a narrative perspective.
When are puzzles useful?
Thinking of puzzles as a way for the designer to make the player do certain actions but still feel agency.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

The Five Foundational Design Pillars Of SOMA

First, here is a new video from SOMA showing off an environment captured directly from within the game:

Now moving on to the main topic of this post: The foundational design pillars of SOMA. When creating a game I think it is crucial to have a few basic rules that underlie all other decisions. That way it is much easier to keep everything on track and get the final game to play out as intended. For SOMA our intention is to craft an experience where players become deeply connected and affected by the game's world and themes.

Here are the five cornerstones that we hope will let us achieve this:

1) Everything is story
First up, we want the player to constantly feel as if they are inside a flowing narrative. It is so common that a game is distinctly split into story and puzzle/action moments. We want to blur the boundaries here and make it impossible to distinguish between the two. Whatever the player does it should feel as if it is part of the story. We do not want to have sections that simply feel like blockers to the next narrative moment. From start to finish the player should be drenched in a living, breathing world of storytelling.

A good example is how we design puzzles. Instead of having the puzzle by itself, as a separate activity, it always springs from and is connected to some aspect of the story. For instance, if the player encounters a locked door, there are more reasons for getting it open than simply to progress. There are always short term narrative reasons and rewards for getting it unlocked. On top of this, the very act of solving it results in the player taking part of a narrative scene.

Encounters with hostile beings are handled in the same way. A creature will never attack you without good reason; they never do it out of pure gameplay necessity. We want every encounter to feel like a bit of storytelling is happening. To get this working properly, almost every single creature has unique AI.

2) Take the world seriously
This leads us to the next point: that every detail in an environment is connected to the story somehow. Nothing should be written off as simply a requirement for gameplay or exposition. For instance, if you find an audio log you will be able to learn more about the story by pondering its placement alone. There should be no need to "double-think"; the game's world should be possible to evaluate on its own terms.

We constantly think about what each character would have done in a situation, and shape the environment accordingly. For instance, in one level, we started out with scratches on the walls but later realized the character had access to a whiteboard pen and changed the graphics accordingly.

It's so easy to justify design "because the game needs it" even if it doesn't make sense to the story. But for each such thing you do, the less seriously the player will approach the environment. In SOMA a big part of the game is to ponder the situation you are in.Therefore it's crucial that players consider the world from a story view, and in order for that to happen we must provide them the opportunity to do so.

3) The player is in charge
When you invest this much in a setting, it's important to make sure that players feel connected to it. In order to this we need to put a bigger responsibility on the player. An environment quickly loses its sense of realism if it is extremely streamlined and does not allow you to make choices. The player must be the one that drives the narrative forward.

The game never tells the player exactly how to progress. There may be hints and other implicit guidance, but in the end it must be the player that figures out what to do next. If a game is constantly flashing up cues with objectives or showing arrows pointing where to go, the player will never take on the world at a deeper level. If it takes some effort to progress, players are forced to understand and mentally map the surroundings in a way they would not do otherwise.

4) Trust the player
This brings us to the next point: that we trust players to act according to the story. We do not force players to notice events by use of cutscenes and similar, but assume they will properly explore the environment and act in a rational fashion. We simply set up situations and then let the player have full control over their actions.

This means that we will let players do stupid things even if they might break the experience a bit. For instance, if they skip talking to a character with important information then they are on their own after that. And if they get hints that a dangerous creature is approaching, they need to figure out that hiding is the best course of action by themselves.

While we do our utmost to make the narrative unfold in a fluent and intuitive way, we will not cater to players that make irrational decisions. The environment is set up to be taken seriously and we expect the players to do so too.

5) Thematics emerge through play
Now for our last foundational design rule: that the game's thematics will emerge through play. SOMA is meant to explore deep subjects such as consciousness and the nature of existence. We could have done this with cutscenes and long conversations, but we chose not to. We want players to become immersed in these thematics, and the discussions to emerge from within themselves.

It feels wrong to just shove information down the player's throat. What I find so exciting about having these thematics in a game is that the player is an active participant. There are plenty of books and movies that cover these sort of subjects, but videogames provide a personal involvement that other mediums lack. We want to explore this to the fullest degree

Just like all of the other design goals, there is a bit of risk in this. It requires the player to approach the game in a certain way and it will be impossible to make it work for everyone. But for those people where it succeeds, it will be a much more profound experience. I also find that it is when you are dealing with uncertainties that you are doing the most with the medium, and am extremely excited to see how far it will take us.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Gone Home - The Amnesia Edition

From time to time we get requests from people who want to license our HPL2 engine in order to make a commercial game. This is quite flattering, but the answer is always "no". Our reply is to simply state that there is no documentation, we do not have time for support and they are better off using Unity or UDK anyway. In all honesty, we also do not have any high hopes of these projects finishing at all. Choosing an engine is one of the very first decisions made when starting the development of a game, and very few games, especially indie ones, go beyond a pre-production phase.

So it came as quite a surprise for me when I learned that Steve Gaynor, one of the people behind the phenomenal Gone Home, had sent this sort of mail to us! I met him briefly at GDC this spring, and was quite amazed to hear that the very first prototype of the game was made in HPL2. He had mailed and asked if the engine would be possible to use for a commercial game, and got the usual response. Fortunately this did not discourage the team from continuing. It also seems like they took our advice since the final version of Gone Home is made in Unity. I really wanted to see the level, and told Steve that I would mail him when I got back from GDC. But as always other stuff happened and I just pushed the thing forward. I swear that I had "Mail Steve about Amnesia: Gone Home" written on my todo list for 6 months!

Then Steve mailed me for totally different reasons, and I decided I really had to get this Gone Home prototype over with. He scavenged his files and managed to dig out the map. This was during the whole SOMA teaser campaign and I did not have time to look right away. A few days ago things finally settled down a bit and it was time to take a look.

The prototype is quite short and very basic; it is really more of a proof of concept. But it still gives a very good sense of the game, and having played the full version, I could recognize quite a bit. It does feel a bit awkward to play an early test like this though. Gone Home is a very personal game, and playing this prototype felt like a meta version of the game's voyeuristic thematics.

We got Steve's mail regarding HPL2 engine on the 14th of January 2012 so this prototype must have been made before that. This means the prototype is over a year and half older than the final game and made almost 5 months before the game was announced. My guess it is the first time that the ideas for the game got some sort of substance.

Here is a few comparisons between the prototype and the final game. Prototype is on the right (as if you couldn't tell...):

The game opening is in the exact same place, on the porch of the house. There is even still a chair and small table with a pot next to the front door!

The first key is still found hidden under an ornament! I think this is a very neat puzzle as it explains to the player that it is worthwhile to do some extra scavenging and acts as a sort of unobtrusive tutorial. So it is not that incredible that it stuck so long. But still, very fun to see this intact.

And here is the first view when entering the house. It is not visible from the screen, but both versions have paths leading both to the left and to the  right, giving the player three different ways to start their exploration. Like the key puzzle, there are good reasons this stuck, but it is still awesome to see it this similar.

Taken together, the prototype is really incredibly close to the final game.

In case you are not amazed by the similarities in such an old prototype, check how Amnesia looked at the end of 2008 (a few months less than 2 years before release):

I also have to note the awesome handy work on this toilet:

If you want to try the level out yourself, you can download it from here:
Just extract the file in the "custom_stories" directory in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, start the game, press "Custom Story" and select and start "Test Game".

Finally, if you have not played Gone Home, do so now! It is a really unique and emotional experience that is a must for anybody interesting in videogame storytelling. You can get it here:

Lots of thanks for Steve Gaynor for saving this lovely slice of history and letting me (and all of you now) try it out!

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Useful Tips for Horror Game Designers

A while back Chris Pruett (creator of the excellent Chris's Survival Horror Quest and currently at work with some creepy stuff at Robot Invader) and I had some discussion about common horror / puzzle tropes over twitter. Now all of these little nuggets, and more that came up during subsequent mail discussions, have been collected into a nice blog post by Chris. If you are ever going to make a survival horror please read this first. Here comes:

No puzzles about equalizing pressure (or any other type of dial) by adjusting switches or knobs. Do not include puzzles that involve reconnecting the power, especially to an elevator. No sliding bookshelves with scratch marks on the floor. Avoid puzzles that involve pressing keys on a piano in a specific order. Do not require the player to collect paintings to reveal a secret image, or examine paintings to decode a correct sequence of buttons. No locked doors with an engraved symbol that also appears on the key. No important documents encrypted with stupid-simple substitution ciphers.

As you design, repeat this mantra to yourself: "I will have no keycard doors in my game." No feeding fertilizer or poison to giant plants. Check yourself before adding puzzles about inserting crystals, gems, or figurines into some ornate locking mechanism. Reconsider any puzzle involving a four-digit number sequence, found elsewhere, that opens a lock.

Do not employ sliding block puzzles. Ever. That includes sliding statues! No!

Deny the urge to take inventory items away from the player without a legitimate reason. When building puzzles that require combining more than two items, you must allow combination of arbitrary pairs of items even before the entire set has been collected.

Do not turn terrifying monsters into puzzles unless your goal is to kill all tension.

It's important to make objectives and mechanics clear, but if you just tell the player what to do and where to go, you've removed the puzzle entirely. Let them think for themselves occasionally. Be especially vigilant when designing any cumbersome door opening apparatus. Remember, your players will only believe so much!

This got old in 1997.

Not all stories have to be about the protagonist's personal demons. Don't blame everything on evil mega-corporations. You don't need a crazy Special Forces unit with an awkward acronym name. Do not include a sequence in which a child must crawl through a small opening to unlock a door for an adult. No more helicopters escaping from mushroom-cloud explosions. Eschew underdeveloped sub-plots about drugs.

Avoid zombies. But if you must use zombies, for the love of all that is holy, do not rely on a virus to explain them. Zombie dogs: no.

Not all vengeful ghosts need to be women. And curses do not all need to spread like a virus. And the virus doesn't have to kill its victims after exactly seven days. Also, ghosts don't always have to be innocent people who died horrible deaths.

It's not very believable that a high-security military research complex would have passwords written down on scraps of paper. If your plot twist involves the surprise reveal of a secret, sinister cult, you should probably stop.

Try to think of ways to put your characters in vulnerable situations that are not limited to making all of your characters petite school girls. Men can be vulnerable too. Plus, I know some school girls that could wipe the floor with your sorry designer ass.

Levels and Characters
There are other ways to block a passage off than having the roof collapse. Make a distinction between locked doors that will eventually open and doors that can never be opened; if you have any of the former, the latter must be barred, or broken, or otherwise obviously forever inaccessible. Be warned, however, that "it's jammed" gets old mighty quick.

No arbitrarily non-interactive objects; either you can interact with all doors or none of them. Ensure that you have more doors that can be opened than cannot. Do not block the player with short fences or other obstacles that should be trivial to bypass.

If a location is supposed to carry emotional weight, do not litter it with ammo boxes and collectibles. Do you want the player to contemplate the horrible living conditions of a young child or rummage through their things looking for loot?

Just say "No!" to items that are of great use to the player's problems but cannot be picked up. No obstacles that could be easily dispatched using the protagonist's arsenal but instead require some puzzle sequence to overcome. Do not provide a stock of limited supplies unless you make the remaining amount clear. Do not put hidden collectables in horror games with large levels, or in games that do not allow you to backtrack. Maybe just skip the whole hidden collectable thing completely.

We don't need any more tentacle monsters in horror games. Especially not tentacle monsters with bright, bulbous weak spots. Avoid close-quarter combat with ghosts that can pass through walls. Never throw the player against a source of infinite damage unless you also provide a source of infinite health and ammo (e.g. infinite enemy spawner).

Little known fact: not all monsters have an irresistible urge to bare their teeth and scream at the player. Nor do they all hunch over with long, bent arms. Crazy, huh!?

Excepting certain types of zombie, it is almost never exciting to see a monster charge the protagonist. Perhaps you can modify your AI to stalk the player and approach him slowly to appear more menacing? Caveat: circling the player and occasionally revealing a weak spot is not a good alternative.

Ask yourself: "how many times have I been to the gym this year?" You're a game designer, so the answer is probably "none." Do you think your game's cultists have it any better? They're too busy summoning an obscure deity to think about their diety. So why did you make them look like they're all bodybuilders and/or silicon implant models?

And while we're on the topic of appearances, does your monster really need that awkward underwear? I mean, you just had him rip a dude's head off in the last scene; I don't think your audience is going to be phased by a little monster nudity. Or heck, just come up with something else. Tiny bits of torn fabric around the midsection of an otherwise naked beast is a cop-out.

Took forever to find pants in my size. And now they're torn.

Technical Stuff 
When you have a body lying on the floor that is significantly more detailed than all of the other bodies on the floor, we all know that it'll come to life and attack us sooner or later. Also, a surprise attack isn't very surprising if the game suddenly starts loading like crazy moments before.

Do not put scary encounters in cutscenes. I know, I know, you want to control the camera and the timing and the sound so everything is "just right." But listen, games don't work that way. Take a gamble. Let the player discover the monster through gameplay.

Navigating save slots, confirming file overwrites, and waiting for flashy menu animations is pretty much the worst possible thing you can subject a player to. Your sense of presence must extend to the game as a whole, even your UI.

If you have item descriptions, why not make them interesting or useful? Everybody already knew it was a trashcan before they examined it.

It may sound a bit unintuitive, but horror games work surprisingly well without rocket launchers. And you'd be surprised how fun mystery games can be when they don't have RPG mechanics shoved into them.

Fail in every other category if you must, but do not fail in this: map and menu screens must not require a loading pause to display. It is bad enough that you have to bring these up in the first place. Oh, and checking the map every two steps is not fun.

10 seconds of loading to tell us that flashlights are useful in the dark. 

Follow these tips and you'll be well on your way to making a horror game that is fresh and original! After which you can make endless sequels!

Monday, 19 August 2013

5 Core Elements Of Interactive Storytelling

Over the past few years I have had a growing feeling that videogame storytelling is not what it could be. And the core issue is not in the writing, themes, characters or anything like that; instead, the main problem is with the overall delivery. There is always something that hinders me from truly feeling like I am playing a story. After pondering this on and off for quite some time I have come up with a list of five elements that I think are crucial to get the best kind of interactive narrative.

The following is my personal view on the subject, and is much more of a manifesto than an attempt at a rigorous scientific theory. That said, I do not think these are just some flimsy rules or the summary of a niche aesthetic. I truly believe that this is the best foundational framework to progress videogame storytelling and a summary of what most people would like out of an interactive narrative.

Also, it's important to note that all of the elements below are needed. Drop one and the narrative experience will suffer.

With that out of the way, here goes:

1) Focus on Storytelling
This is a really simple point: the game must be, from the ground up, designed to tell a story. It must not be a game about puzzles, stacking gems or shooting moving targets. The game can contain all of these features, but they cannot be the core focus of the experience. The reason for the game to exist must be the wish to immerse the player inside a narrative; no other feature must take precedence over this.

The reason for this is pretty self-evident. A game that intends to deliver the best possible storytelling must of course focus on this. Several of the problems outlined below directly stem from this element not being taken seriously enough.

A key aspect to this element is that the story must be somewhat tangible. It must contain characters and settings that can be identified with and there must be some sort of drama. The game's narrative cannot be extremely abstract, too simplistic or lack any interesting, story-related, happenings.

2) Most of the time is spent playing
Videogames are an interactive medium and therefore the bulk of the experience must involve some form of interaction. The core of the game should not be about reading or watching cutscenes, it should be about playing. This does not mean that there needs to be continual interaction; there is still room for downtime and it might even be crucial to not be playing constantly.

The above sounds pretty basic, almost a fundamental part of game design, but it is not that obvious. A common "wisdom" in game design is that choice is king, which Sid Meier's quote "a game is a series of interesting choices" neatly encapsulate. However, I do not think this holds true at all for interactive storytelling. If choices were all that mattered, choose your own adventure books should be the ultimate interaction fiction - they are not. Most celebrated and narrative-focused videogames does not even have any story-related choices at all (The Last of Us is a recent example). Given this, is interaction really that important?

It sure is, but not for making choices. My view is that the main point of interaction in storytelling is to create a sense of presence, the feeling of being inside the game's world. In order to achieve this, there needs to be a steady flow of  active play. If the player remains inactive for longer periods, they will distance themselves from the experience. This is especially true during sections when players feel they ought to be in control. The game must always strive to maintain and strengthen experience of "being there".

3) Interactions must make narrative sense
In order to claim that the player is immersed in a narrative, their actions must be somehow connected to the important happenings. The gameplay must not be of irrelevant, or even marginal, value to the story. There are two major reasons for this.

First, players must feel as though they are an active part of the story and not just an observer. If none of the important story moments include agency from the player, they become passive participants. If the gameplay is all about matching gems then it does not matter if players spends 99% of their time interacting; they are not part of any important happenings and their actions are thus irrelevant. Gameplay must be foundational to the narrative, not just a side activity while waiting for the next cutscene.

Second, players must be able to understand their role from their actions. If the player is supposed to be a detective, then this must be evident from the gameplay. A game that requires cutscenes or similar to explain the player's part has failed to tell its story properly.

4) No repetitive actions
The core engagement from many games come from mastering a system. The longer time players spend with the game, the better they become at it. In order for this process to work, the player's actions must be repeated over and over. But repetition is not something we want in a well formed story. Instead we want activities to only last as long as the pacing requires. The players are not playing to become good at some mechanics, they are playing to be part of an engrossing story. When an activity has played out its role, a game that wants to do proper storytelling must move on.

Another problem with repetition is that it breaks down the player's imagination. Other media rely on the audience's mind to fill out the blanks for a lot of the story's occurrences. Movies and novels are vague enough to support these kinds of personal interpretations. But if the same actions are repeated over and over, the room for imagination becomes a lot slimmer. Players lose much of the ability to fill gaps and instead get a mechanical view of the narrative.

This does not mean that the core mechanics must constantly change, it just means that there must be variation on how they are used. Both Limbo and Braid are great examples of this. The basic gameplay can be learned in a minute, but the games still provide constant variation throughout the experience.

5) No major progression blocks
In order to keep players inside a narrative, their focus must constantly be on the story happenings. This does not rule out challenges, but it needs to be made sure that an obstacle never consumes all focus. It must be remembered that the players are playing in order to experience a story. If they get stuck at some point, focus fade away from the story, and is instead put on simply progressing. In turn, this leads to the unraveling of the game's underlying mechanics and for players to try and optimize systems. Both of these are problems that can seriously degrade the narrative experience.

There are three common culprits for this: complex or obscure puzzles, mastery-demanding sections and maze-like environments. All of these are common in games and make it really easy for players to get stuck. Either by not being sure what to do next, or by not having the skills required to continue. Puzzles, mazes and skill-based challenges are not banned, but it is imperative to make sure that they do not hamper the experience. If some section is pulling players away from the story, it needs to go.

Games that do this
These five elements all sound pretty obvious. When writing the above I often felt I was pointing out things that were already widespread knowledge. But despite this, very few games incorporate all of the above. This is quite astonishing when you think about it. The elements by themselves are quite common, but the combination of all is incredibly rare.

The best case for games of pure storytelling seems to be visual novels. But these all fail at element 2; they simply are not very interactive in nature and the player is mostly just a reader. They often also fails at element 3 as they do not give the player much actions related to the story (most are simply played out in a passive manner).

Action games like Last of Us and Bioshock infinite all fail on elements 4 and 5 (repetition and progression blocks). For larger portions of the game they often do not meet the requirements of element 3 (story related actions) either. It is also frequently the case that much of the story content is delivered in long cutscenes, which means that some do not even manage to fulfill element 2 (that most of the game is played). RPG:s do not fare much better as they often contain very repetitive elements. They often also have way too much downtime because of lengthy cutscenes and dialogue.

Games like Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead comes close to feeling like an interactive narrative, but fall flat at element 2. These games are basically just films with interactions slapped on to them. While interaction plays an integral part in the experience it cannot be said to be a driving force. Also, apart from a few instances the gameplay is all about reacting, it does have have the sort of deliberate planning that other games do. This removes  a lot of the engagement that otherwise come naturally from videogames.

So what games do fulfill all of these elements? As the requirements of each element are not super specific, fulfillment depends on how one choose to evaluate. The one that I find comes closest is Thirty Flights of Loving, but it is slightly problematic because the narrative is so strange and fragmentary. Still, it is by far the game that comes closest to incorporating all elements. Another close one is To The Moon, but it relies way too much on dialog and cutscenes to meet the requirements. Gone Home is also pretty close to fulfilling the elements. However, your actions have little relevance to the core narrative and much of the game is spent reading rather than playing.

Whether one choose to see these games are fulfilling the requirements or not, I think they show the path forward. If we want to improve interactive storytelling, these are the sort of places to draw inspiration from. Also, I think it is quite telling that all of these games have gotten both critical and (as far as I know) commercial success. There is clearly a demand and appreciation for these sort of experiences.

Final Thoughts
It should be obvious, but I might as well say it: these elements say nothing of the quality of a game. One that meets none of the requirements can still be excellent, but it cannot claim to have fully playable, interactive storytelling as its main concern. Likewise, a game that fulfills all can still be crap. These elements just outline the foundation of a certain kind of experience. An experience that I think is almost non-existent in videogames today.

I hope that these five simple rules will be helpful for people to evaluate and structure their projects. The sort of videogames that can come out of this thinking is an open question as there is very little done so far. But the games that are close to having all these elements hint at a very wide range of experiences indeed. I have no doubts that this path will be very fruitful to explore.


  • Another important aspects of interaction that I left out is the ability to plan. I mention it a bit when discussing Walking Dead and Heavy Rain, but it is a worth digging into a little bit deeper. What we want from good gameplay interaction is not just that the player presses a lot of buttons. We want these actions to have some meaning for the future state of the game. When making an input players should be simulating in their minds how they see it turning out. Even if it just happens on a very short time span (eg "need to turn now to get a shot at the incoming asteroid") it makes all the difference as now the player has adapted the input in way that never happens in a purely reactionary game.
  • The question of what is deemed repetitive is quite interesting to discuss. For instance, a game like Dear Esther only has the player walking or looking, which does not offer much variety. But since the scenery is constantly changing, few would call the game repetitive. Some games can also offer really complex and varied range of actions, but if the player is tasked to perform these constantly in similar situations, they quickly gets repetitive. I think is fair to say that repetition is mostly an asset problem. Making a non-repetitive game using limited asset counts is probably not possible. This also means that a proper storytelling game is bound to be asset heavy.
  • Here are some other games that I feel are close to fulfilling all elements: The Path, Journey, Everyday the Same Dream, Dinner Date, Imortall and Kentucky Route Zero. Whether they succeed or not is a bit up to interpretation, as all are a bit borderline. Still all of these are well worth one's attention. This also concludes the list of all games I can think of that have, or at least are closing to having,  all five of these elements.

Here is some more information on how repetition and challenge destroy the imaginative parts of games and make them seem more mechanical.
This is a nice overview on how many storytelling games give the player no meaningful choices at all.
The Last of Us is the big storytelling game of 2013. Here is a collection of thoughts on what can be learned from it.
Visual Novels are not to be confused with Interactive Fiction, which is another name for text adventure games.

Thirty Flights of Loving
This game is played from start to finish and has a very interesting usages of scenes and cuts.

To The Moon
This is basically an rpg but with all of the fighting taken out. It is interesting how much emotion that can be gotten from simple pixel graphics.

Gone Home
This game is actually a bit similar to To The Moon in that it takes an established genre and cuts away anything not to do with telling a story. A narrative emerge by simply exploring an environment.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Thoughts on The Last of Us

I have now finished playing The Last of Us and feel it has quite a few things worth discussing. Overall it is a great game and there is a lot that can be learnt from it. Especially noteworthy are the nerve wrecking encounters. When at its best they top even the ones in Resident Evil 4 (2005), which I think features some of the best action gameplay ever. It also manages to use just about every trick in the book to tell its story. It is a very solid package and masterfully crafted. At the same time, while wrapped in an emotional plot, it is really just a game about combat and part of, what I think is, a worrying trend in video game storytelling.

Before The Last of Us can be properly analyzed, we need to go back to the early days of the game industry. At the beginning of videogame history, games were just about doing a few simple actions over and over. These games did not have a recognizable story as such, but simply provided a rough context for the action.

In Asteroids (1979) the visuals consisted of simplistic line drawings, but in the mind of the players they controlled a spaceship blasting incoming chunks of rock. While this thin veneer of story was not really important for the game as such, it greatly enhanced the experience. This was clearly shown in early advertisements where the screenshots are small and concept art showing off this fantasy takes up most of the space.

For the remainder of this article I will refer to this extra high-level concept as the story layer. This essentially refers to any part that does not directly support the core gameplay but is there only there to add an extra sense of purpose and narrative. Important to note is that the gameplay can still incorporate parts of the game's story; all of the narrative experience does not reside in the story layer.

While these high level concepts were (and often still are) very simplistic, it is pretty clear that they are essential. There are very few games that do not share this quality and just go 100% abstract. Even a weird game like pacman has some form of story layer to it.

This slowly gave rise to storytelling in action games. Rudimentary plots were added, for instance a summary of the background story at the start, and this eventually expanded to cutscenes in between the levels. The extra story content was not connected to the gameplay as such but simply provided context and rewards. But while it did not directly influence the gameplay in any meaningful way, cutscenes and an explicit plot could still improve the feel of the game.

The biggest evolution in storytelling came from Another World (1991) where the story layer and gameplay fit almost flawlessly into one another. No longer were the narrative elements superficial, but instead carefully ingrained with the gameplay. Actions that were made in gameplay smoothly transitioned into a cutscene and vice versa. The interactive scenarios were also carefully designed in order to make sense in the games story. Despite this tight coupling, it is important to point out that the focus of all gameplay segments was still about challenge and "fun". The game contained a number of mechanics and each section tested the player's skill in one or more of these. While the non-interactive plot elements improved the experience, they were still not crucial. Were the story layer to be taken way, the gameplay sections would still work fine in their own right .

Another World was a ahead of its time and it took a lot of years before the rest of the industry got up to speed. But when it did, the idea to close the gap between the gameplay and the story layer really caught on. Earlier, the story layer had mostly been seen as an extra, but ultimately superfluous, feature. But it rose in prominence, and was seen as increasingly crucial. Along the way, a host of new ways to add a story layer emerged. The audio logs from System Shock (1994), in-game cutscene from Half Life (1998) and the omnipresent narrator from Portal (2007) are probably the most important ones. All of these provided tools to merge the two conflicting elements. Along the way, the complexity and maturity of the story layers increased as well.

Even though modern action games now come with a wide variety of stories, the basic format is still the same as in the early days. The player is given a narrow set of mechanics that needs to be skillfully used in order overcome the challenges provided. On top of this is an extra narrative wrapping, the story layer, that helps shape the experience into something more meaningful. This is a recipe that most recent high profile games use, including Dead Space (2008), Uncharted (2007), Tomb Raider (2013), Halo 4 (2012), Portal 2 (2011), Bioshock (2007), and many more.

Here is where The Last of Us comes in; it is the latest step in this evolution. It is probably also the game that, so far, managed marry the gameplay and the story layer most elegantly. This makes it into an emotional journey, but it is crucial to remember its pedigree. It is still an action game with an additional story layer.

Just like a number of recent games with narrative ambitions, e.g. Spec Ops (2012) and Hotline Miami (2012), it takes the gameplay as a starting point for the story. This is different from a game like Uncharted where the high concept came first. In Uncharted's case it was to replicate an Indiana Jones-like adventure movie. Because of this, the gameplay's need for constant bloodshed has a hard time fitting the happenings in the story layer. This caused a very noticeable discrepancy in the game's narrative, the so called "ludonarrative dissonance". The game's protagonist would slaughter hundreds of people and afterwards crack a joke and worry about his relationships. But in a game like Last Of Us, the violent gameplay is taken as a given and the whole world shaped accordingly. The game is set in a story where butchering hundreds of people makes sense, giving the holistic experience a strong feeling of consistency.

There are still a few problems between of the story layer and the gameplay, but on the whole the played narrative is quite coherent. It has been rightly celebrated for doing this, but few voices have been raised by the troubling development it is part of. If we agree that The Last of Us represent a high note of videogame storytelling, an example to follow, then our boundaries for telling stories are very narrow indeed.

The game has a lot in common with the recent Spec Ops: The Line. Both feature a dog-eat-dog world, takes place in the destroyed remains of a city, and have you play as violent and deranged characters with no qualms about butchering countless people. Both of these games have also been praised for their mature and intelligent storytelling. And sure, they both feature deep and nicely portrayed characters, but what it all really boils down to are neat ways to justify a lot of violence. If this represent the future of videogame storytelling, then we are doomed to play as broken, murderous protagonists living in worlds populated by antagonists.

When faced with the problem of reconciling a character like Uncharted's Nathan Drake with the massive violence, the proposed solution is simply to make the character better fit with the killing. I find this close to giving up on the problem altogether. In a way games like Uncharted are, despite their gameplay and story layer discrepancy, much more interesting as they try to be about something other than raw survival. Embracing that videogames is all about violence feels very cynical and uninspiring to me.

It is also crucial to keep in mind that the core gameplay has not changed much over the years. These games are still about doing a few actions over and over. When these actions do connect to the story, like they do in both Spec Ops and The Last of Us, it is not so much because they are proper narrative devices, but that the story has been shaped to fit with them. The repetitive action is still king, the need to have a massive body count is still a must. This is not bad as such, I thought Last of Us was a great action game. But, I have problems with it being seen as good interactive storytelling, it is really just good usage of the story layer. This might seem like play of words, but there is an important aspect to have in mind: Like games of the past, The Last of Us would have worked very well with its story layer removed.

When taking a closer look at The Last of Us, its action heritage is quite evident. It is very clear that at the core lies a straightforward game about looting, sneaking and killing enemies. Here are a couple of examples:
  • The goal of the player is always to go forward to a place highlighted early on. Once there, a cutscene takes over and reminds you of your next goal. It is basically a modern incarnation of the the ancient "walk left to right"-mechanic.
  • Every non-combat challenge of the game is a combination of a few simple elements: ladders, planks, pushable dumpsters, floating pallets and generators, all used in predictable and streamlined ways. This is typical of what you see in old actions games; there are a few well tested puzzle devices that gets reused throughout the game.
  • During gameplay, NPCs turn into combat objects and are streamlined to support the action above everything else. This is evident in how they do not affect your ability to sneak, can stand a lot more damage than the protagonist, have infinite ammo supplies, etc.
  • The game features plenty of looting and crafting which is just a revamp of what we have seen in Dead Space, Resident Evil 4, and many more. It is there to give the player something to do when going through the world and is used as a way to provide more variety to the combat. 
  • Environments where combat encounters occur are almost always crafted in such a way that it is possibly to know that a fight will ensue long before it actually happens. Strategically scattered bottles, carefully placed cover spots and early depots of ammo are among the things that hint that the game is now all about making sure the core mechanics of an encounter work.
There is more that can be pointed out here, but I think this is enough. The takeaway is that this is the core of the game; all of these elements are what sum up the game's underpinnings and what provides the central experience. I think it is an incredibly important point. Before we speak of the game as some highpoint in storytelling we must realize where it comes from - it is an old fashioned action game. And if we do not realize this, we will be stuck in a dead end, because there is not much in terms of storytelling that can be done with this. The Last of Us probably represent as far as you can go with stories that are based on this foundation.

This is when things get interesting. We can now see that the emotional narrative is not part of core gameplay, but comes from a totally different direction. Here The Last of Us has a lot that can be learned from and be inspired by.

First of all, the game uses just about every trick in the book to get the story across outside of the cutscenes. And not only that, pretty much every one of these elements has an excellent implementation:
  • Notes. The game feature scattered diaries, audio logs, manifests, letters and more, almost all of which have believable content and placement. They also have great length so they feel very fluent to pick up and read through. 
  • Overheard conversation. This can either come from hostiles in combat situations or from the characters in one of the few non-violent section with other people. They are effectively used both to convey the state of the world and to give more information about the characters.
  • In-game cutscenes. In a few areas, events takes place as you walk past them. For instance, at one location the military can be seen rounding up infected people. And if you go in for a closer look, the armed personnel act accordingly and push you away. This makes the scene feel alive instead of becoming some kind of carnival ride (as was the case Bioshock: Infinite (2013),  for instance). What I also think makes them work is that the game use these events sparingly and make sure they happen in appropriate places. For instance, in the above military scene it makes perfect sense why the player cannot get close to the civilians.
  • Artifacts. Various artifacts can be picked up that tell something about the world. These are things like maps, dog tags, photos, etc. All help to build up setting and are lot easier to fit in than notes (which easily feel contrived).
  • Protagonist and partner banter. As you walk through the environment there are conversations back and forth between the protagonist and his partner (for most of the game a teenage girl). This is also one of the few places where some of the responsibility is placed on the player. Once a conversation starts, the protagonist can be made to go off in whichever way; it is up to the player to act in a way that makes sense. Because of this a lot more and varied content can be put in these dialogs.
  • Graffiti and billboards. Here and there, texts are placed on the walls that help explain what has happened to a place or to just give some more texture to the environment. Survivors scratch words of warning, a settlement have lists rules and so forth.
  • Environments. The environments themselves is a great source of the storytelling. Abandoned homes, fortified warehouses, etc, all help to build up the world the game takes place in and tell the story of what has occurred.
None of these are new or revolutionary tricks, but they are put together really well and are never overused. It is so easy to just use one trick for everything, but Last of Us show restraint and use its devices where appropriate. Much of the time these devices work in tandem and that is when they really shine. A common example is walking around in a derelict building while the characters comment on the surroundings and notes found; this really increase the sense of presence and feeling of being inside a narrative. 

One has to have in mind that the world of Last of Us fits perfectly for the above devices, but there is no inherent problem with using them in just about any sort of story. Also noteworthy is that, apart from the overheard conversations, the narrative devices have very little connection to the core gameplay; they are all part of the story layer. It is incredible how many elements that make up this layer now. What began as a simple intro text or just a painted image is now a large collection of systems. While the story layer was once a fragile structure, merely having a supportive role, it is now so complex that is can pretty much stand on its own. In fact, that is just what it does a few times in The Last of Us. And it is now that we enter the really intriguing territory. We have now come to a point in the evolution of videogames where a once upon nonessential element has gotten enough substance to branch off and become something in its own right.

The best example of this is The Last of Us' opening. Here the player takes on the role as a young girl who finds herself home alone while it becomes increasingly apparent that something terrible is happening in the outside world. Just about all interactions here has something to do with the story and minor details like the girl's animations help set the scene. It features just about all the narrative devices mentioned above and uses them to tell the player a story through play. 

The opening is also a good showcase for how and when to use cutscenes. I normally see the goal with interactive storytelling is to let the player play from start to finish. However, in order to play certain parts properly you need to be in the right mood and have certain background information. The opening cutscene helps establish just that, and makes the gameplay so much more effective. While I still feel that cutscenes should be used sparingly, I am thinking more and more that it is wrong to dismiss them entirely. Many interactive scenes are not just possible to jump right in to, but require some kind of setup. Many times this setup is just not possible to play through, and needs to be carefully directed. In these cases a cutscene is required and lets the player play through a scenario that would not be possible otherwise. I think the main rule is just to make sure that the interactive part is where the engaging actions occur. The cutscene should not be the main attraction, it's role is merely to be there as support. It is also worth mentioning that the opening cutscene works so well because it happens at the start of the game; the player has not become used to being in charge yet and is much more willing to be passive.

The next great story layer sequence is the deer hunting scene. Here you are hunting a deer in order to get food. The first arrows are not enough to bring it down, so you need to find it again and take additional shots. As you are doing this, you will eventually figure out that the best way to find it again is to follow its tracks. Having hit it once the deer will also leave a trail of blood, making tracking easier. While following the wounded animal you will eventually find yourself right outside a previously unseen building, the deer lying dead nearby. By letting you track the deer, the game has managed to lead you into finding a new location all on your own. This transition is really awesome and great way to progress the story simply by playing.

One could argue that this scene use the combat system and therefore part of the core gameplay, but I argue that is not really correct. It does use some combat mechanics, but the scene itself contain none of the dynamics of an enemy encounter. Therefore I think it is okay to say that this is scene is almost purely part of the story layer.

The final sequence I want to discuss is the giraffe scene. Like the previous scene, it is quite simplistic but extremely effective. It starts with the protagonist's companion, the teenage girl Ellie, getting excited over something she has seen and then running off. This starts sets up a mystery, and gets the player curious over what it is she has spotted. She continues to run ahead of you, seeing the mystery object more times and getting increasingly excited. You run after her, but are never able to get a peek of what it is she is seeing. Finally you come to an opening and see that what she spotted is a herd of giraffes. It all ends with a serene scene as the couple watch the herd walk among a city block overtaken by trees. The build-up and final comes together very nicely.

Worth mentioning is that part of the power comes from all the hazards you have had to face earlier, but I do not see that as evidence that the core gameplay played an important part. These hazards could just as well have been made using other techniques.

The scenes I have described takes up a tiny part of the The Last of Us. Most of the game is about combat, looting and solving repetitive puzzles, elements that you are expected to find in a classical action game. But these sequences and a few others shows that there is much more to this medium than repeating a core gameplay mechanic. The truly poignant and yet fully playable moments of this game is a testament to this.

So when talking about how well The Last of Us does storytelling, it is not productive to discuss how consistently it manages to merge its gameplay and story layer. I hope to have shown that this is a dead end. What is important are the other things, the elements that used to be fluff but has now become a force to be reckoned with on its own. There is a lot to learn from The Last of Us, but it is important that we look in the right places. It might be an classical action game at heart, but also contain elements that show the way forward.

In case you are in need of more info on the game, wikipedia is a good place to start.
To get some more insight into the workings of Spec Ops: The Line, I recommend this Errant Signal Episode. It is an excellent overview of how the game uses its violence to send a message.
In case you enjoyed this critique of The Last of Us, you will probably also like my thoughts on Bioshock Infinite. There are a lot of similar topics discussed.

  • My history of videogames is a very quick and dirty overview. For instance some early games like Project Firestarter have some of the story integration seen in Another World, but I skipped those in order to make it a bit more clear. Also, many of these early games never really caught on and did not have nearly as much influence as the games I mention. I would have liked to do a more in depth article on the history of violence and storytelling in games, but not sure I will have the time in the near future, so this will have to do for now.
  • Once the story layer got more prominent the discussion about "story" versus gameplay started to grow. Many people thought that the extra story segment was really distracting and that games should only focus on the core gameplay instead. I cannot recall this discussion ever being about the incoherence between the two, but simply that the extra story elements were not very engaging. It took a lot longer for the idea to pop up that there was a sort of friction between the story layer and the gameplay.
    It was not until the story layer had grown quite a bit until the idea of "ludonarrative dissonance" was brought up. First coined by the Far Cry 2 (2008)  lead designer Cliff Hocking, the core issue that it address is that the storytelling layer and gameplay disagree with one another. This of course has always been the case, but in a game design equivalent of the uncanny valley, it did not become apparent until the gap was small enough. So while the problem is true, the whole idea is kind of a truism. The gameplay and story layer has always been separate elements, and are conflicting in their very nature. I am not really a big fan of the term, as I think it is a bit backwards way of thinking. If the goal is to do interactive storytelling, all is already lost once you start dividing gameplay and narrative into different categories.
  • As I played The Last of Us, it also hit me that sometimes cutscenes work best when you there is no need for interaction. First of all, it makes the project so much easier to manage. Scenes with extensive dialog often require quite a lot of preparation and if they are to be highly interactive, then there is a constant need for tweaking. If the interaction is very simple (like button mashing), or not present at all, then you can evaluate these bits of the game at a much earlier stage and save a lot of headache.
    It may also be good for the narrative if the player does not have anything to do during certain sections. In most cases a real life dialog is not a very active experience as many utterances come almost automatically. So not having much for the player to do might actually feel more natural. Also, if the player is forced to perform actions then it might detract their attention from what is being said. So instead of trying to make the dialogs highly interactive, it might be better to just make sure they are short and keep them free from gameplay.
    This is actually an approach that we are taking with our new Super Secret Project. We scrapped many of the more wild initial approaches because they were too hard to do and often made dialogs less engaging.