Thursday, March 27, 2014

Learning AGS and Narrative (discussion of play, prose, and focalization)

Oh dear god this is hard.

The first thing I learned of design.. was that something simple is complex. Just because something plays really simply and is a simple design, doesn't mean it didn't take much to create. Trying to recreate a really simple game in a manner that's better, is like trying to reinvent the wheel. Try remaking something like tick-tack-toe, ya know, something that will fit the same market and could replace tick-tack-toe in the mind of it's loyal audience... you can't.

That's because every beautifully simple design, is ingeniously complex. It's complex in the manner that it is simple but still works so strongly. It is precisely the right amount of everything to convey what it needed to, not too much where it became confusing, and not too little where it became forgettable. Think of rock-paper-scissors, as much as people try they can't really add something to the game and have the game work smoothly. They might reskin it, have three other things besides the classics; but that's just aesthetics, that's not changing the design of the game. There are three options to each player, each option lead can only lead to one of 2 outcomes.
1. fail-state, which would automatically result in the opponent's win-state (and vice-versa)
2. stalemate, which leads to a replay.

These outcomes lead to split second strategic decisions with instant reward, the timed element builds tension, the player aspect makes every game feel new despite the fact that every outcome has already been experienced. The nature of it leaves the players on an even level. Regardless of what age you are you can still loose or win with the same likelihood as you always could.

My point here is that early designers incorrectly correlate the number of inputs and quantity of interactions onscreen to the quality of the game's play. This is a fallacy that's typically learned after the first or second project. While tangentially related as far as design goes; input, interaction, and play are completely different aspects of game. Input is strictly analog. Interaction is strictly digital response to input. And play is the neurological response (within the player) to the perceived association of analog input and interaction. I distinguish it as a perceived association because of the play we frequently witness with young players, or even just children in play. We constantly see players lean controllers one way or the other even though that has nothing to do with the interaction onscreen. You can place a unplugged controller in your nephew's hand and they'll watch you play, clicking buttons, thinking they're involved. (I'm not the best babysitter)

Of course during early development the nuances of analog controls (just like the nuances of analog motor skills) are lost on youngsters, along with the nuances of small game interactions onscreen. With this we assume the input->interaction->play is lost on youngsters, and they perceive it to be a solely passive (McLuhan Hot) medium like film, but this isn't necessarily true. The nuances of it are lost but the cognitive response is still there, the interactions we see simply highlight the importance of agency in the input->interaction relation. In a small experiment (I'm a terrible uncle) while babysitting I brought up my Atari simulator, turned on Combat2, and handed my nephew (1 1/2 year old) the second controller. Not expecting much and knowing the little one's love of pressing buttons, changing the channels, and seeing the change onscreen I placed everything within his reach (small television/console/both controllers) on a short coffee table, to see what would happen. I instantly regretted the game choice because the foliage covers a good part of the interactions onscreen, new players might not even notice what's happening for the first few shots.

Not to diminish the whippersnapper incidentally beating his distracted uncle a few times, the game did not last long as the small nuanced interactions onscreen were not enough to hold the youngster's attention. After exploring all the controller seemed to offer him, my nephew quickly began to experiment with the console. Which had the desired effects of turning on and off, then cycling through the games installed within it's memory. This illustrates a rudimentary rule of design; agency is established through clear control. The response of play is only as strong as the perceived association between the input and interaction. The interaction must be noticeable and a clear and direct response from the input. Imagine watching a game being played where you have no grasp of the rules, until you can make the link between what players are doing and the repercussions of their actions, then all you're seeing in-front of you is gibberish actions that have no correlation. To you it can't be played, you can't voyeuristically play that game because you have no understanding of that system (input->interaction). This is at root the inherent difference between games and film, games are constructed to convey the input->interaction system to a player (design is comparable to prose) where film doesn't have this interactive(cool, McLuhan) prose. This is why Let's Plays or Walk Throughs on youtube are popular with the gaming culture as interactive material related, instead of the film culture as cinematic material related despite sharing similar a visual language. While a mostly invisible aspect that's "under the hood" the prose of games and cinema are internally different, and draw the participant into a different neurological experience.

And just like if you don't recognize the system of input->interaction, if the interaction is inconsistent the game ceases to be. When kids run around the playground and point fingers going "BAM, you're Dead!", they have simultaneously designated input and interaction. If the second child laughs falling down, pretending to be dead, they have designated the output, the system is established. Even if they dodge, or run shouting "No you didn't!" they have established a system. Then it's a game, they've created play. If the second child doesn't react, then the first child is privy to either give up on his game, or to adapt it. Imagine the child that sneaks around in a public place pretending they're James Bond and imagines shooting down robots in the supermarket, or the kid in the back seat that pretends they're launching rockets out of their window, blowing up other cars. They have designated the game to be private and within their imagination, if a stranger sees them and pretends to fall down dead in the supermarket, smiling.. well typically at that point they just ruined it. That wasn't the game child was playing first, second they didn't invite this weirdo to play. It might have similarities and be a game, but it wasn't the game being played. It's not that the player doesn't understand the system of the slightly different game of "shoot, and shoot down bad guys" but that interaction and output had a fundamentally different prose then "shoot, and imagine shooting down bad guys". The prose of the first was controlled internally and allowed a deep exploration of player imagination and narrative, where the prose of the second became a cooperative effort and drew more attention to the game itself and out of the narrative being experienced, this is why some kids suddenly get embarrassed when you jump in on their game.

-Jump next to sandcastle-
"So what-cha doing?"
-shyly sticks plastic figure in sand-
"Just.. playing.."

You're sudden attention draws their own attention to the nature and prose of their game, drawing them out of their play experience. At this point we've all learned the best thing is to draw the child back into their narrative, be a participant and not draw attention to their system by learning the rules, and responding as they decree is appropriate to the system. Let them DM. 

"I wanna play, what do I do?"
"OK, and you can be the dragon! You're over here, and you're like -"RAHH"- when the knights go inside the cave. Alright! But I'm the Green knight, you can burn my head, but I just don't die."

I'm Getting There! Jeez!

As I've mentioned games have an inherent prose of their own through the design and nature of the game. The elements of the games design, the input, the interactions, and the subsequent play are the prose of games. Game prose is the form of interactive language and game flow/feel, and same as linguistic prose is the form of grammar and flow. In a manner of speaking prose is the cellular structure of narrative. There is a rudimentary prose in narrative(storytelling) that is not directly specific to any medium (movie,comic,tv series, novel, painting, ext.)

This rudimentary aspect of prose, this universal aspect of story stems from the existence of the story itself. I am of the personal belief that every creative medium has the potential to convey a story, and might so inherently through the participation of humanity (but that's for another time)

What I'm referring to is what French Narrative theorist Gerard Genette, refers to as Focalization. The eye and voice with which the story is being told. Narrative is the recounting of a story, the fact that the story cannot be recounted without a manner of voice, or eye, or ear, or some other sense mandates that there must be -in a sense- a narrator as an individual that recounts the story. We borrow their eyes, ears, thoughts and actions; but not always directly, often a storyteller will distance themselves from the protagonist so they can establish elements like foreshadowing by allowing the viewer information the character isn't privy too. Or build drama by allowing the viewer more then one character's perspective so the viewer can be engaged on a larger scale. A young writers first struggle is commonly changing tenses when trying to change perspectives, which is understandable as timespace in any form of storytelling is a pretty weird,weird thing.

(I'd encourage anyone interested in storytelling mediums (especially visual) to look into Scott McCloud's, Understanding Comics, which has a brilliant section on this.)

I've always found it helpful when organizing, character events, time, locations, pacing, basically everything to think of the focalization (the eyes and mouth of the story) to be a character on their own. Even if the character is just a spirit that floats around the other individuals I've found it to be extremely helpful understanding and writing for the reader when I have a established character that's sort of a in-between for the reader to the fiction. Think of the narrator of the window into the story, now think of that window having some degree of character.

With this it's easier to focus the story, like an engineer removing useless or redundant parts, if it's imagined within the span of a single beings mind. Especially as the entire story has to fit into one person's mind. The narrator doesn't need to refer to themselves as a character in the story to have relevance in the story. Imagine the narrator as the person whose siting by your bedside telling a story to you. Someone who knows the story so well they could read it too you without any reference, and they chose to do it a certain way because of that. When the narrative isn't delivered in chronological order, it's sort of like someone telling you pieces that somehow fit together into a larger story, part of reading it and the experience is in figuring out why the narrator does that. Everything the narrator tells you matters, or sometimes with postmodernist-lit it matters that it doesn't matter. The same way in a novel the author won't write what happens to the character every moment of every waking day the narrator wouldn't turn around and tell you that, because it's irrelevant to the story the narrator is trying to tell you. A story with a strong voice is when the narrator has cut the fat and will only tell the reader what really matters about what happened, (or what the author decides what matters).

I am of the opinion that everyone is to some degree a natural storyteller, maybe not a concise or very good storyteller, but one non-the-less. I think it's something we learn through years of communication and through a kind of osmosis, or at least we gain the ability to subconsciously appreciate it. When we're educated to recognize storytelling, it's mechanics, and specific language we better understand why we appreciate the pieces we did. Hopefully we might even be inspired to make our own.

So I believe that to a sense people have a natural sense of thematic devices, plot, pacing, and the like. Stephen King did a interview on writing where he talked about one of his current projects based on a news story he heard years ago about some lady driving threw a store window to drive over someone. To paraphrase, King said that he always felt time was kind of like a sieve, you can't really get ride of the big important stuff. The "chaff" just falls aside leaving the "rocks" the things that just stick in your head and you have trouble forgetting. People have a sense of what is big and important, in hindsight it's always a little clearer what was actually the "big stuff" but it isn't like it goes away, but the point is people still have that kind of thing with them. I think everyone has a great sense of the moments that are big and important, and that as you gain experience storytelling and work on your craft you're learning the reason those things are big, and you learn to position those things in the light and shape the edges to get the best effect you can out of them.

At this point we've dug into a number of topics.
1. Simple systems aren't easy projects
2. The input->interaction system that produces play hinges itself strongly on a sense of agency in the player, without a sense of agency the essence of play is diminished and the interactive aspect of the medium takes a more passive tense.
3. Agency is established through clear control. The response of play is only as strong as the perceived association between the input and interaction.
4. This play dynamic is the prose of video games and ludonarrative. Similar to prose in literature being the narrative flow, the play dynamic in games are the ludonarrative flow/ the game feel.  (Pieces expanding on Ludonarrative A. B.
5. A story's Focalizatin is the aspect in which the narrative is being delivered. In a story the manipulation and treatment of the elements in that story's medium becomes an element of story itself. In film the angle and position of the camera are just as important to conveying the story as the dialog delivered. In comics the specific layout of panels and manner moments are conveyed mean just as much as the moments themselves. In literature the use of transitions, the inclusions or exclusions of segments, all focus the material presented. In games the use of camera angle, the interfaces, the analog input, audio or text segments, the general gameplay all create the aspects of narrative delivery. With any great story its specific focalization is necessary for the story to maintain its individual nature.
6. Humans are natural storytellers, in our understanding and mastery of elements of storytelling is where we learn to understand the natural strengths in a story and the best manner in which to convey that.

This was all about Ags  
The main reason I am always so emphatic that people who want to get into game design start small is not just so they feel the accomplishment of finishing a game and don't loose there passion to a overbearing project, but so that they hone their abilities to create good games and convey experience to the player. Games that use simple systems like basic platformers, basic rpgs, shoot'm ups, brawlers, point and click adventure, are all time proven systems with very limited focalization. The camera is set, the player can only do so much, the designer is presented with limitations. One of the first impulses of a new game designer is to take a game system and expand it's focalization; take a top down shooter and give it rts elements, make it rouge-like, multiple endings, character relations. This ends in a game that is jack of all, master of none, which results in a mehh product. Some indie game that tried to do too much without focusing on doing any one thing well. But when you have someone tackle something small for a while; whether it be your platformer, rpg, top down shoot'm up, card game, board game, Doom clone shooter, or your point and click adventure game.. well then you see someone produce clever and well crafted pieces. The reason for this is that a practiced veteran of a genre has the experience not just to reproduce the focalization (gameplay) of that genre, but has the experience to perfect(or better) their prose within the genre. They've come to understand the inner workings that make the nuanced decisions when designing interactions that result in a better end product.

I'm at a point where I've only been tangentially aware of the Adventure Game genre and it's elements, I've begun working through the Sam an Max series(one I've always wanted to tryout) and reading up as much as I can on design theory, puzzles, and story that I've found. As before the ags forum community has been very helpful and directed me to a number of resource blogs/aritcles/podcasts to check out.(listed below) My first attempt at a project had me realizing the cinematic sequential nature of ags games with their backgrounds and transitions so I invested in some books about comics... I don't know how much it was just an excuse, but so far the books have benefited me tremendously. 

I have a better understanding of angles and positioning with my backgrounds, my character design, and animations are stronger. I had heard it mentioned before but this work definitely is a must have for game designers. Even it most of it just reiterates something you've learned with experience, if you're into storytelling, there is a wealth of knowledge in here you do not want to miss. 

Of course I'll continue referring you guys to blogs that have been helpful, and better reading then mine (look to the right side of this blog). I'm going to continue writing, dusting off and resharpening my art skills, and start working out puzzles. With time, with experimentation and study, I'll start to figure out the specific strengths of the Adventure Game narrative. I'll discover the elements of pacing and storytelling within this specific genre. When I learn or find something that's helpful while I go along I'll be sure to put something up here for it. Until next time, thanks for reading, and good luck everyone :)

Welcome to the Program
-here is a great introductory series of videos to the program and all the basic coding you'll need to make your first game -

-here is more information on the Ags program scripting -

Focus on Design/Prose
-here is a backlog of the Blue Cup Tools podcast where Ags developers Grundislav and ThreeOhFour discuss game design and production with a heavy focus on Adventure games (shock) with a tasteful amount of divergence to other genres -

-while at the time of writing this I haven't had the opportunity to read these, I've heard numerous reference to these articles on adventure game by genre enthusiast Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw. 

-more by Yahtzee

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