Thursday, December 17, 2015

Coding "Choice"/Story Pt.2 Also Life Update

Quick life update
I'm happy to say that I now know my last semester went better then I felt it was going, not as well as I hoped but much better than it felt like at the time. Also I can officially announce that I have another job, soon as my two weeks goes through i'll be in a *fingers crossed* more manageable double employment position. So that's that.

Coding Divergent Stories Pt.2

So as we discussed last time the gameplay in itself is not only inseparable to the story but in it's range of possible actions effects the themeing beneath the games overall experience, I'd argue that every memorable game experience has an element of this modeled into it's design. Mario is played by avoiding and overcoming obstacles, the theme is overcoming adversity. The Stanley Parable's gameplay is interacting with and against the narrator, the theme is agency against predestination. First person games are played by a single point, a projected you, as interacting manipulating and surviving a projected other, and the themes in first person games are often man against the world or against the horrific unstoppable other. There's alot of interesting stuff that could be said about how the layout of interaction changes the tone of a game for the player, like the modes of interaction put the player in a different mind space, or encourage them to create a different narrative (look at me staying on topic). 

The apparent problem we were left with last time was how divergence allowed by interaction possibly undermines the narrative or theme of the game. And, at first I honestly didn't know how to answer this, but I think this wasn't so much an issue of the medium, but the manner that we think of story that lead us to the specific question. This is one of those problems every English major will encounter when writing essays. While themes and narrative are real things that do exist in stories, they are tangible to the reader and definite within a story, because after the piece of art is sent out in the world it's a finished work. But in another way it isn't, there is an intrinsic final part of art, that being the reception by the reader. Now, I'm not talking about the whole phenomena of a reader having to physical look at the words for the ideas those words mean to "re-create" the story before they can access it. No, what I mean is the themes are a thing that is received by a thinking feeling individual, and because of that what those themes end up meaning exactly is not set. Themes, while definitely inherent by the creators design. On purpose or not, they are in there. (I've written a paper about parental conventions of death and god as represented in Curious George episodes alone.)

What we're saying is that beneath the surface narrative texture, there are themes, ideas about stuff, which the audience will come and interact with to some degree. They might not know it but that episode about the Daleks and Oswin is an exploration of the themes of autonomy, of what constitutes human and self. Oswin figured she was sealed away from the nanobots that convert humans into the robot Dalek, a conversion that is a literal reconstitution of autonomy. The independent thinking human becomes a robot, a creature whose very name originates form slave, and is in it's nature one that follows it's programming, completely devoid of individual autonomy. Also there's a small element of Odysseus ship, the thought experiment of "How many parts do you have to replace on a thing before it becomes a new, different thing? Does it?"; Oswin made a small fantasy world inside her mind that she wasn't being converted into a Dalek by nanobots, but instead was sealed up in a crashed ship and was surviving and burning time before rescue, while her entire body was replaced there was supposedly this small element of will left that retained the part that made the mind of the converted Dalek still Oswin the human. And you can do this will all of media to better understand the anxieties behind the fictions and better understand the draw their audience has to them.

So What Does These Mean For Games?

Themes are not definite, notice the theme in the Odysseus's Ship story is a question, overarching narratives are not complete always complete thoughts. The best kind often aren't, because art that recognizes these big ideas and questions are not definite or answered yet, leave this element of ambiguity in the characters, this is where the story's human element is. Socrates famously said "Know Thyself", but he never meant that to directly mean "understand who you definitely are", he meant "know what you are not, in being definitely sure what you do not know, you can better seek knowledge". Really good stories, almost never explore their themes by directly answering questions, often they explore these questions by presenting what the situation is not. 

Are the Replicates who have differing "empathetic" responses then humans, not sentient? Well, they're not dumb, and what they feel can't be called insincere... Is that what sentience is?
Good questions raise further questions, and so the reader is unconsciously diving further and deeper into the fantasy.

I'd never say that stories always attempt to have an ambiguous ending, or even that only the good ones do, that'd be dumb. What I'm saying is that in every bit of fictions exploration of a theme, just that you can't spell it out for the reader without either being insulting or making the story sound contrived.

Contrived plots are the biggest problem for young writers. Contrived is when the story feels like a certain point is pushed onto the series of events, seemingly because the author wanted it. Why this is so noticeable, is because instead of the girl leaving the scum bag that sexually assaulted her in the dive in theater, instead of her not trusting him after he showed he doesn't understand the word no and manipulated her trust, instead of all that... after he wins the race she dresses up to get him all hot and bothered because that's what he wants and now she wants just what he wants. Because happy endings is how it should be. God I hate Grease. The arch of that film that had the most tension the moment most people remember and relate to as "thee" important part of Grease, is the race. Notice it's never a problem just that the hero wins at the end, it's a problem if this doesn't make any sense with the rest of the story, that's what contrived storytelling is.  

 Insulting is when what was clearly conveyed, or at least could be understood by watching the scene is spelled out, the cop dramas that have each clue and what it could indicate getting described before the scene cuts.. yes that boring part, imagine those shows without the drama of who is sleeping with who or who showed up drunk, or whose terrified of their wife having a child in this rotten city. ect. There is the real meat of the narrative. The lesson is to not go 100% with the story, you decide how much you want your viewer to work to understand your story, but you never go 100%. If you do your fiction becomes a lazy read, the reader is left without the need to think about the character actions or make their own reading of intentions or emotions, and is left utterly distinguished from the fiction. Whatever percentage you make them work to fill out the rest of the story, "Who was right? Rorschach or Ozymandias?" whatever percentage that is is what invests them in your work.Think about what the characters and events are asking of the player while you create, but also recognize that this end result you're giving space for, you don't need to have control of that, you don't even need to have a definite version for yourself.

This is not just about giving space for the reader to work and invest and, well read, into your narrative. But this is about letting go of the idea that you need to control or even know what they are going to add to that space. And knowing this, approaching creating divergent stories changes. It's not so much, "how do I let them explore a story they''ll create and let them feel like they're the ones that created it while still designing a satisfying ending?" and suddenly the question is more, "how do I create tools that let them explore questions to their satisfaction?" The latter, is much easier to discuss. But again, it's late and I have quite a busy work weekend head of me and I think this is enough for one post. Goodnight, and thank you for reading.  

Friday, December 4, 2015

Tackling Logic, and the Challenge of coding in "choice"

How does Story relate to Coding?

For pretext first we should discuss Ludonarrative, or simple the narrative elements inherent in the mechanics of a game. It's been discussed before on this blog, but refresher is always good. In the manner that all mechanical actions possible to the player are framed within a narrative act, the play is the story. Interacting with a game, in itself, adds to the game's narrative. This is most easily recognizable when there are different manners in which a player can interact within the world. This can be something so simple as changing which class your character is, or having player action lead to different outcomes for the endgame scenario; to the more vague and small moments of,  did Peach or Bowser win at the flower cup, or did Mastercheif favor the pistol or battle-rifle while saving the earth.
The point being that the mechanics of a game and the narrative of a game are inherently intertwined and cannot be accurately discussed separately, this implications of this as this article will explore, is that if the ludonarrative or playstory (story that's within the actions allowed to the player) has a poor narrative it leads to unsatisfying gameplay.
This isn't limited to the previous discussion of having each action lead to the broader arch as previously discussed; actions not for the hallow sake of themselves but for the overarching theme of the narrative. the previous point is what leads to the distinction of the "annoying mini game" vs side quests or moments of interaction that seem integral to the feel of the game. While Wind Waker is a story about a young islander fighting off monsters in island castles and dungeons, you can't imagine it without being able to sailing between islands. The sailing is an integral part as it's part of exploration.

There's the pretext, this discussion will be about instance to instance puzzles, and the problematic narrative of "choice" existing in what is ultimately a deterministic world. As always, the really hard problems turned out to be philosophy ones; and as always, philosophy has the answer... kinda. 

First we'll discuss a number of approaches to the problem and then discus the divergent instances that compound what appears to be the essence of the problem/solution. 

Que Sera Sera

Determinism is the belief that nothing that happens in the world could in any scenario, not happen. That whatever sequence of events is inescapable and unavoidable. This situation mirrors the reality of created worlds. In any movie or book, the events of the story will unfold exactly as they have before and always will. Similarly in coded worlds, they are integrally tied to the succinct and defined moment of the creator. While in philosophy this challenges most notions of freewill or purpose, in games it's more so an underlying challenge of purpose, but more on that later. In created or coded worlds the experience of the viewer or participant mirrors what the Stoics termed Eternal Reoccurrence. That everything that will happen, not only will happen and is inescapable, but has likely already happened before this instance, and will happen again in the exact same way in the future. Unlike most they did not believe that the inability to change the future would undermined freedom or freewill, because the event and the will linked to the event are separate things. According to the Stoics, if I'm destined to take a nap or not before I go to work, does not have any bearing on if I have the will to take a nap. This is known as soft Determinism. We see this in games in that no matter how many times you play the game the same events will be triggered as they are coded, and after no number of playthroughs can you avoid the hardwired series of events. Of course, this doesn't necessarily undermined hos satisfying the gameplay is, there are plenty of instances of games where there is no way to vary from the set path and yet the game still feels satisfying. Possibly the most famous and revolutionary exploration of this, is of course, The Stanley Parable.

Or, for a more 'on the nose' experience... 

If you haven't yet, play the game.

  The Stanley Parable as it's central gameplay gimmick, is the narrator dictating your movements throughout the game. This is first dictating your movements before they are enacted, playing with the notion of linear progression where the player is completely passive and has their will aligned with whatever appears to be the narrative, but then.. as the level design subtly tempts the player to walk off the directed path or investigate other corners, the narrator dictates the players rebellion. The resulting back and forth, which is really something that has to be experienced, is an exploration of the player's limitation within a determined medium and the very game's limitations within presenting choice. The game is a tongue in cheek in tongue in cheek in-.. spiral into oblivion. Yet while it directly plays with the ideas of player choice, and possibly undermining player choice, at no point in-playing does that choice feel cheapened. Let that sink in, in a self-aware determined 
environment, that makes it's determined nature blatantly clear, at no point does the player feel their actions are pointless.. in a game about showing you how your actions don't lead to anything "special".     


All games have in a sense been tackling this problem, where what feels like a lack of player agency is in fact not conveying a sense of meaning behind actions. No player wants to do something "just because" they want to do it because of what it means in the game they're playing. The designer makes choices in gameplay valuable by making them meaningful within the context the game provides. When the choice is meaningful in terms of gameplay (powerup new ability) but not in terms of the story ( person dying = no change on the part of the player's mo) then we have that infamous diagnoses of Ludonarrative Dissonance, or in layman terms, "this part or acting in the game feels cheep, contrived, and just doesn't make sense"

 Divergent options that viably allow the game to be played differently allow the player to control, have a sense of agency with, and give meaning to the emergent narrative their participation in the game creates. It can be something so small as jumping on top of a koopa instead of jumping past or as complicated as using a +8 great sword with knockback and larger area of effect instead of a +9 dagger with higher dps. Choices become memorable when they stop being the automatic no-thinking-required kind, when they become personal. This is what creates memorable gameplay, this is what makes experiences that stick with us. This element of participation in the emergent narrative of games is what makes video games such a uniquely compelling and personal media to its fans. It's why people end up relating so personally to video games, because their actions and will become a part of the experience-

Gahhh, yeah okay.

So, in the most clear instance of this, we have divergent stories. 

Divergent stories as I'm referring to them are the kind where a primary aspect of the gameplay and theme of the game is a value on specific player choices. This covers everything from the recent AAA's exploration of dialogue options that lead to multiple endings or multiple romance options, to open worlds where there is no specific order to complete mission before the end game, to the choose your own adventure novels of yesteryear. All of these explore the same effect of divergent path in play. The challenge and deciding factor of this effect is its logical presentation within the context. The presentation of the divergent options must be logical, they must follow from the situation of the world as a both sound and necessity to the story as an overarching experience.To break this down to it's simplest components, in a choose your own adventure book, imagine how the writer would create the stream of events. After you've gone the route of the wizard, how would it feel to have the character bludgeon a guard to death rather than petrify him or shoot lightning bolts? No, a thief must be allowed to try to steal, a barbarian to fight, and a wizard to spellcast. There's a necessity for all player actions for the game to present some sort of foreshadowing, something that builds the internal logic that leads up to each moment of player action overcoming the obstacle. When there has been little to no buildup, either because the internal logic is just assumed and taken for granted or because the developers simply couldn't be bothered, we have coined the term "game logic" or more specifically within the point and click community "Sierra logic". There are plenty of fantastical scenarios that occur in games without the blink of an eye, this isn't because we rationally assume we could do the fantastic in real life, but because the game has presented the fantastic in slow building manner that allowed our suspension of disbelieve to keep up with the internal logic of the scene. I do not believe it makes any sense to be able to control my momentum mid-air during a jump, but when I experience this in a game and then experience being able to jump off a wall, the realization of wall jumping is natural. And overcoming that puzzle feels satisfying. 

The same way that building any rich internal lore for stories takes a slow and complex build of internal logic, the emergent story the player creates through actions takes a similarly slow and nuanced build. Without this built suspension of belief at worst case we end up with sierra logic where the game is almost unplayable or at best where what happens on screen doesn't translate to the player as actions that are there own. As game critic and internet personality Arin Hanson "Egoraptor" put in his video essay comparing Zelda titles

"A puzzle is something you have all the information for, the only thing standing between you and the solution is your own ability to put the pieces together in the right way, the satisfaction you attain from solving a puzzle is from the A-HA moment. When the pieces fit and you only have yourself to blame for it. If you're missing a piece, how are you suppose to get to a conclusion a solution?
The satisfaction doesn't come from the door opening, it comes from the puzzle itself...

It's daunting, it's interesting, it engages you, and it's really easy to understand, and because of all this it's satisfying..."

Having all the information in this sense leads to the logistics problem of what amounts to the design equivalent of foreshadowing. Which, might sound impossible. How can a story in an emergent narrative seemingly foreshadow the end at the beginning when the end hasn't been "created" yet? Well, because it's already determined. Back a the example of the choose your own adventure, the key feature is that the story starts out extremely vague, which is perfect for establishing the first Blue Moon, the thing which is unbelievable but form which the player has their first step  into simultaneously believing, building, and being part of a fantastical world. the one crazy thing which all internal logic stems from. my personal favorite from fiction. 

In The Stanley Parable the game regularly plays with what is assumed to be a "reset" state, commenting on the last play through or braking the forth wall mentioning how everything will start over again and again until the player does as the narrator wants. It strings together what would otherwise appear to be alternate endings, separate stories, into a single cohesive narrative. What appears to be an impossible number of divergent paths all basically leading to the same "ending". How is this accomplished? This write up took much longer than I wished and I still have to get some sleep in before work. We'll take a closer look at different instances of gameplay that handle divergent paths next time. Until then; feel free to write about your favorite game that has alternate endings, romance, or dialogue options and why you like it or think it works in the comments.