Monday, July 28

The Quest for the Holy Grail - Part Four

I have still more to add regarding my criticisms and claims.

This time it's for action games, puzzle games and sports games.

I want action games to focus on what they're about and this is not storytelling. Shamus Young's Ping Pong example illustrates this quite neatly. This doesn't mean that these kinds of games can't be enhanced through the use of various aspects of storytelling. But I want developers to ask themselves whether it is necessary or even worthwhile to explore this part of the game.

Assuming that story is in an action game then there are some things I want to see.

I want the story to stay out of the way of the action. Nothing breaks mood and atmosphere more than interrupting it with an advertisement for the developers scripting skills - via a cut scene. Find some way to incorporate the script into actual play. Bioshock tried something along these lines with its recorders and with the 'radio' used by NPCs to communicate with your avatar. I don't believe that this was a 'win', but it was a move in the right direction.

Acknowledge the reality of the game. Again I defer to Shamus Young. The reality is that we're not all idiots and we don't need our hands held. If the game is Capture the Flag, then just deal with it. There is absolutely no need to try to conceal this, any attempt to do so just comes across as disingenuous. It's also a waste of resources.

Acknowledge the existence of the player, either directly or indirectly. The direct approach is to ignore any pretense of the artificial and to establish your game as a game played by a real person in their real home. After this is established I want developers to create real structures that allow personal stories to exist, real stories, about playing the game. This is done at present with things like leaderboards, achievements, gamer scores and the like. However, the mechanism for placing meaningful value on such things does not yet exist. Here's an example of how I would create such a mechanism. Let's assume I'm working on Playstation's Home service and I want there to be a meaning between the acquisition of trophies and the Home service. i could implement a trophy cabinet that proudly displays my trophies, a passive and somewhat bland approach, or I could implement a credit system for players who buy games and earn trophies to use in purchases at the Home shops. This encourages attach rates of games, it generates a visible, and artificially meaningful result for residents, and it allows for connection with materials in the stores that give personalisation, customisation, creation of a personal story in the medium of Home without having to break the bank through microtransactions.

Taking it a step further, perhaps, leaders in a variety of games (those at the top of the leaderboards) could be invited to give demonstrations of their skills, could have specific, unique equipment in Home that would identify them to others (much like the leader's yellow jersey in The Tour de France) or be invited to participate in games that might be charitable, educational and/or profitable for them. This probably carries with it a range of risks that cannot yet be measured because there is no precedent.

The indirect approach often involves breaking the fourth wall or referencing reality within the context of the game. Both approaches carry risk or alienating the player, they also offer a chance for player empowerment. In an educational setting, a game can be used as a simulation of dangerous or unpleasant circumstances. In Metal Gear Solid Hideo Kojima references the player's existence in a variety of ways. One involves the suggestion that the very video game s/he is playing is training him or her to be prepared for the coming 'war economy'. If this moment was integrated into play (rather than in a cut scene) then it would be a great example of an indirect reference of the player - an acknowledgment of their role in the game's story.

Keep it simple and keep it within context. Build mechanics that support the themes of the story, so that playing the game actually reinforces the meaningful result of experiencing the story. If you must have a story about a game of Ping Pong then make it about the game of Ping Pong, not some quest to save the universe from the Evil Blarg.

Old school shoot-em-ups are a great example of this kind of thing, there's a character that's going to stop the invasion / save the world by shooting stuff. There's some friends who yell encouraging words at you as you shoot stuff, and some enemies that mock you as you shoot stuff. Your friends might appear in the form of a power-up and your enemies might appear in the form of a boss battle. The story and gameplay are in synergy.

If I am to be completely honest I think that there's more than can be done with integrating story and action in a gaming context. I feel that my offerings here are paltry and weak. Do you have ideas of your own? Would you be willing to share them with me?

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