Thursday 25 March 2010

The judgement predicament of audio and graphics.

The answer to this blog is probably going to be that the game industry dug this hole all by themselves and that we now have to live with it.

Since we released the first teaser of Penumbra: Overture in 2006 we have always received the expected comments "the graphics suck", "looks dated", "hmm, is this running on the Wii?" and so on and on. This has also echoed back in reviews, only with a bit more elegant phrasing.

Now four years later, the same pattern (slightly less to be fair) repeats for the teasers that we have released of our upcoming game, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. We have upped our graphics game, not only in technical fidelity, but also tremendous efforts has been made with the design and creation of the graphics, far above any of the Penumbra games. Sure, the game industry has taken the graphical technology and fidelity even further during this period, so our efforts are minimized by this. But even so, we have at least tried.

During the same period we have also enjoyed comments such as "the voices are great", "best music evah!", "the ambient noises scared me shi*beep*less"... again, repeated in reviews only with more elegance. For the Amnesia teasers so far this continues, with an almost 100% successful comment ratio for the audio. This is great! But it also puts a core problem out in the bright light, how different the audio is judged compared to the graphics.

I am not going to try and come up with any ideas as to why. That would be going beyond the introduction I make in this blog post. However, as the person in charge of the audio for our games, I feel compelled to give some details about the creation and technology behind it all. How the audio is made, who makes it, what resources we have to spend and what sort of technology that is used. As an independent developer, the resources are very limited, for graphics and even more so for audio.

For Amnesia I do most of the sounds, Mikko Tarmia creates the music and a new friend of ours, Tapio Liukkonen, makes the sounds that requires more time and skill. We also work with AudioGodz to get the voice acting done for the game. The money that we spend on audio is the bare minimum that we can afford to hire these people for as a short timespan as possible.

During a whole project I spend less than 20% of my time creating sounds, this is very little when thinking about the importance of the sounds in our games. I have to cut down on how carefully I create these sounds, I have a library of sound effects that I use to mix and I also record my own raw sounds. If any professional sound engineers were to see how I worked, they would laugh and take pity on me. At times I record things in the room where I have my computer, sometimes directly in front of it, from a noise ratio perspective this is a big NO. But with little time at my disposal, that is what I do.

With this in mind, I would say that the creation of the sounds can be quite sloppy, but in my own defense, having done sounds for games since my first attempt (menu music) in 1997, I think I have some experience and tricks in my pocket to rely on for an improved result.

The main computer that I use when I work with creating levels for Amnesia, including implementing the sounds into the game, is quite old. The sound card is a Soundblaster Live! from 1998, making it similar to what a Geforce 1 is for graphics cards. It has some capabilities that could be comparable to those of graphics cards, such as hardware support for effects like EAX (echo for example) and it can do 5.1 Surround sound. Other than that it is well, pretty old.

The sound technology is rudimentary in our games - play, stop, fade, pan, output 32 or so channels and apply some basic effects (the echo, all tough this is not implemented in Amnesia yet). That is basically it. Try to sum up the graphical features of a game engine this swiftly if you can!*

I could probably go on, but I think that the picture is getting quite clear, that from a resource, effort and technology perspective we are really limited in the audio department. But despite this, the ideas, design and how we implement the audio in the game has so far been very well received. I would argue that we are doing the exact same thing (ideas, design and implementation as key) for the graphics, only with more care and resources, but to an extent in vain.

For a first person type of game it seems that the audio is judged almost purely by the effect, mood and purpose, while the graphics are as far as I can tell, almost solely judged on a basis of technology and production value. There is also a side of it where the audio in comparison to other games does not matter as much for the overall "judgement". While for graphics, the key comparison is how it compares to other games, regardless of development budget.

Why is this? Is it like this? Does it matter? Any comments except good job on slamming the audio of your own game?

*In all ego-fairness we DO have a lot of sound effects in our engine, for example a pretty advanced system for physics sounds. But these features do nothing special to the sounds other than changing volume and pitch. It is pretty much like having cool water effects in 2D pixel graphics. Yet, since it does the job, nobody seems to bother.

Monday 15 March 2010

Storytelling through fragments and situations

Stories are something that is very important to us humans and also a crucial part of many video games. In some games the player is the author of the story, for example in Civilization where you are given some basic start resources and are then free to decide how your story will play out. In other games the designer has the most control of the story and the game mechanics do their best to guide the payer through the narrative (which may dynamic or linear).
While the player-as-author stories are interesting, what I will discuss here is the type of stories that have been designed. Some people have argued that games are inferior at telling these kind of stories, something I do not agree with. While the games out today certainly do not compete with stories found in books and movies, I believe that the problem is that the medium is simply not been used correctly.

Plot-based Stories
Most games that are story heavy tells a narrative using a linear plot; in other words a string of events tied together by sections of gameplay. Most games that have been celebrated for their story such as Half-life 2 and God of War use this design. The concept is basically to force the player into doing certain actions by limiting the amount of interactivity.

Because this type of storytelling is based around forcing the player, it often comes with a very high amount of cut-scenes. Whenever a plot event requires an environment or situation where the player has too many choices, it is no longer possible to keep it within gameplay; all (or most) player control is taken away and a cut-scene is used. Some games (like Resident Evil 4) try and keep interactivity by using quick time events, but this has always felt like a cop-out and unneeded trial-and-error to me . In other games, like Half-life, these moments are handled by blocking the player in some way until the scene is over. In all cases, the normal gameplay is restricted and players cannot progress until the game lets them.

I believe that plot-based story telling has reached its limit*. A fusion of gameplay and story-telling the story can never occur unless it is some type of action scene or in other ways tightly connected to the gameplay. Whenever some emotional and story intense scenario is needed it is showed as a cut-scene. Interactive scenes only consists of very strict and standardized gameplay.

Plot-based story telling is not without its merits though. It fits very well with how it is done in movies and books and one can very easily use practices from these. This makes it possible to plot the different parts of the story early on and have things like characters arcs and tempo quite easily. It is probably because of this that plot-based storytelling is so widely used.

However, I personally find this way of doing it very problematic as it clashes directly with the unpredictability of games. For example, when we did the "meeting of Dr Swanson" event in Penumbra Black Plague, it was very hard to make it all playable and had to have doors mysteriously closing and the like (click here to see, spoilers ahead!!). When making Penumbra we had several other similar problems all due to events that had to happen at specific occasions in a very specific way. Every time we had to sacrifice some part of the gameplay in order to solve it story-wise.

This is troubling! When the most emotional and story-wise important scenes need to rely on taking away interactivity something is very wrong. I think the problem is simply that this type of storytelling is not the best way of doing story in games.

Fragmented Stories

This type of storytelling is evident in games like Bioshock, System Shock and to some extent in many RPGs and normal adventure games. It is about having a certain background story (or similar) spread out over the world. The player must then find these fragments and piece them together. These fragments usually come as notes or character dialogs, each giving a piece of the "puzzle". It is this kind of storytelling that we have mostly used for Penumbra and are using for our upcoming game Amnesia. It is also where I think the future of interactive story telling lie.

Fragmented storytelling allows for much more freedom as it is possible for the player to pick up fragments in different order and even to miss certain fragments without ruining the story. Some kind of order is usually wanted to though, and normally it is solved by not having all fragments available from starts, each level/section of the game containing certain fragments. It is also possible to solve by procedural generation of fragments. This can simply mean that the order of the fragments are independent of the actual interactions (e.g. first note picked is always a specific fragment), something we are using in Amnesia. It can also mean more advanced ways such as generating documents to fit the player, for example censuring certain information in case the player has not found out about other things first. This kind of procedural generation seem very exciting to me, yet it is very unusual in games and I know of no other games that are using it

Fragments does not only need to be text-heavy information such as dialog or notes. It can be graphics in the environment, sounds, character banter, interactions, etc. In Amnesia we try to use as many different types as possible and do our best to create a game where playing and exploring brings forward the story without ever removing control. The great thing about the fragmented design is that it is never in the way of the game and helps the player immerse, instead of the opposite (which cut-scenes might do). When designing Amnesia we have also made sure that pretty much everything is optional and instead of forcing the player to take part of certain story elements (fragments) we have made sure to make the most important things are really obvious (and hard to miss) and the less important more hidden.

While the fragmented story design is used quite a bit (especially as notes and dialog), I think that its potential is severely underused. There is a lot more stuff that can be done in this way. For instance, by interacting with the world the player can find out things, not just about the environment, but about the character too. How will the protagonist react when you try to eat meat (vegetarian?), why does she gets scared when in confined spaces, etc. It can also be about the environment itself, for example how different things work (machines in a sci-fi story) or how the ecology behave. It does not need to be related directly to the background story either, but can be a way of showing character motivations, increase understanding of the game world or just simply to set a certain mood or convey a theme. In books and movies this usually take up large part, almost always using plot-based story telling, and I think that a large problem lies in designer trying to copy this design (something I have discussed before) instead of using techniques more suitable for games.

Plot-based story telling does not need to be thrown out though and can still be used effectivly. The problem with fragmented story telling is that it only is only about the past and never about the present. Here plot-based design can help to spice up the story telling. For example, Bioshock, an otherwise pretty free-roaming game using fragmented story-telling, has an important cut scene (check here, spoilers of course) that even use the lack of interactivity as part of the story. The same is true in Penumbra where the infection-with-voice, Clarence, sometimes take control over the protagonist in cut-scene-like sequences.

Situations instead of events
As stated above, the problem with fragmented storytelling is that it is just covers things that HAVE happening and not what IS happening. This does not mean that one has to resort to the plot-based design though and instead of forcing on certain events, one can create situations instead. Creating a situations is large part of our story telling design since Penumbra and way of thinking we have found very effective. It might seem a really fine line between an event and a situation, but I think it is a really important one and will explain why.

In an event (as in a plot-event) one wants something very specific to happen, often including a protagonist action. For example, if a monster enters a room the protagonist hides in a closet. In a situation, one creates a some sort of outside pressure and then it is up to the player on how the protagonist should act, never stopping the normal mode of gameplay. The line between the two can get pretty vague, since a situation can be about getting the player to hide in a closet when monster enters a room, although in a situation this is never forced. A situation is not just a cut-scene + the interaction though and it is more about exposing the player to something and letting them deal with it. Also, situations are more complex to setup as one does not want to lock down the player and let the normal gameplay remain intact.

If there is a certain section of the game where the player should be exposed to a new enemy, but never come too close, this will be done differently using events or situations. In an event, it can be that the player notices something in the shadows and then a cut-scene shows how the player hides. Using situation design, this creature can be roaming certain parts of the map, making sounds and always staying a certain distance. This means that the player may sometimes spot the creature but never face it directly, achieving the same goal. The map can also be set up in such a way, that when spotting the creature, there is always a room nearby where the player can hide, trying to indirectly "force" the player into behaving in a certain manner.

By using situations instead of events, control does not need to be taken away and it is possible to add story elements that happen in the present (and not just in the past). When designing Amnesia, adding interesting situation that connect with the story has been a large design goal. Usually entire maps have been used as the place for the situations and designed around it. We have only started scraping the surface of what is possible though. By focusing on situations instead of plot-events we have come up with many things that have a lot more freedom than events we did in Penumbra, but still communicate the same feelings and story content. We will continue to use this kind of design in the future as it has been extremely helpful so far and we feel that there is a lot more to explore.

Using situations is a bit of a gamble though and one can never be sure that all players will get the intended experience. That is just something one has to live with though. When it comes to interactivity, risk are always involved as it is impossible to plan for every possible outcome. One should of course make sure that the player cannot get stuck, but I think it is well worth sacrificing some security for greater interactivity and possibility of a deeper experience.

End Notes
The more game designers start going away from creating stories that emulate books and movies, the more the medium can evolve. It is only by focusing on the strengths of the medium that we can make make stories only games can tell!

What is you thought on stories using the fragments design? And how are your feelings regarding situations vs events?

*It is probably worth mentioning that Heavy Rain is making some kind of progress in the plot-based design. However this is done at the expense of player interactivity.

Thursday 4 March 2010

Horror Tip: The Statement of Randolph Carter

Name: The Statement of Randolph Carter
Type: Short Story
Link: Complete Text
This is one of my favorite stories from HP Lovecraft and it should also serve as an excellent introduction. It is very short and a perfect example of fear of the unknown. This story really got to under my skin and has served as an important influence when coming up with good scares for our horror games.

It is also interesting to note that the story started out as dream that Lovecraft had and the story is extremely close to actual dream*. This makes the story a sort insight into the disturbing mind of the master himself!

Hope you enjoy it and for those of you that have not read anything by Lovecraft, I hope this makes you eager to read more!

*Read it here. Thanks to Sebastian for the tip!