Archive for the 'Console Games' Category

Stories, Moral Choice, and Resource Management

In a game there are choices.

A player playing a game of Chess can choose to sacrifice a pawn to take a queen, or lose a bishop to protect a rook.

All good games are like this: Whether it’s Monopoly or Tag or Baseball (do I take this pitch or not? Do I run, or not?)

A well-designed video game has choices as well. If I’m playing a First Person Shooter, and I see a health back under a machine gun nest that might save my character during a gun battle, I could choose to go to get it despite the bullets, or I can stick it out and keep shooting, hoping I take out the bad guys before I do. It’s a resource management choice, because those are the sorts of choices that matter for a game.

Now, stories have choices, too. The characters make moral and emotional choices. Take a look at the first minute of this YouTube video. Tony Soprano answers his daughter Meadow when she asks him if he’s in the mob. (After the first minute it becomes a YouTube Soprano’s Highlight Mashup!)

Clearly he’s embarassed by the question. And just as clearly he’s trying to protect her from the very thing that pays for their home and is going to let her go to college. (They’re driving to a college campus for an interview for Meadow.)

King Oedipus has to choose whether to pursue the truth even if it will cost him his comfortable life, Hamlet must decide to pursue murder at the word of a supernatural spirit, Ripley in Aliens must decide if she will risk her life for a little girl she only recently met, and so on.

By the way, I’m not saying all audience members are paying attention to this in an intellectual manner. I am saying that people respond to stories where characters make emotionally and morally engaging choices. The audience doesn’t have to be thinking about this stuff — but they do respond.

Here’s the thing: a game can be designed so that it is only about resource management. But it can also be designed to be about moral choices.

The kind of game where this is most explicit is in MMOs… because there is no “story” the players must follow. Thus, the choices are live choices. What a player does is open-ended and will affect other, actual human beings.

Let’s say that a game is set up where you can choose to have your character be very loyal to the state. You get certain bonuses for serving the state of one kind or another. (And let us say you could have your character be an enemy of the state — and get bonuses in turn for being a rebel. But that’s not how you chose to build your character.)

And let us assume further your character is very loyal to his family. This is a world with extended families, and there are mechanical and practical bonuses to having strong ties to your family.

And let us say finally that the game world shifts and your character’s father is declared a traitor by the state. Suddenly your character has a choice: to defend his father, or side with state against him. That’s an engaging choice because it taps all sorts of moral and emotional buttons in all of us.

An MMO could be rigged with a large matrix set of options about where to put one’s alliances and loyalties. And over time alliances between players and between players and NPCs could shift back and forth. As the player made choice for his or her character, more and more dramatic moments would arise — moments that would be strongly remembered by the player.

Now, one would have to make sure you didn’t derail the MMO with too many options. But it seems to me that this kind of design would allow players to plug directly into the stuff of dramatic action and epic tales. Certainly it seems possible to take the stuff of dramatic narrative and plug it into mechanics of resource management to offer up more color, drama and meaning.

“Pen & Paper” RPGs, MMOs and Distribution of Narrative Authority

I’ve spent time writing, designing and playing “pen & paper” role-playing games. I learned a lot working on them, both about story and games. (This is where I began focusing on how some things that work in one medium might not work in another medium! A play is not a novel is not an RPG is not a movie!)

Delving deep into MMOs, I’ve discovered they’ve shed a lot of the assumptions that many paper RPG publishers and players had, and break free of some of the “culture” of RPGs:

For such a fun, innovative way of building a narrative through group effort, the players usually don’t have much input.

In traditional games the Players make the “characters” and the GM makes the “story”. The trick is this: the whole point of a character in a story is to make decisions. That’s what drives a story and that’s how real character is revealed — what does a person choose to do.

Now, often in role-playing circles (and other circles as well), people confuse characteristics with character. Character is the choices a person (or character) makes. That’s what we used to mean by the word “character” when talking about people, and it’s still a standard wrench in a writer’s tool-kit.

But most RPGs didn’t know what to do with that because the GM had already built the “story.” (Scare quote on purpose, but with apologies… For reasons to be revealed.)

If the GM already knows that a series of events might lead a character to one specific end, the Players really have little control over the choices their character can make.

If we’re playing a Space Opera and my PC is a farm-boy from a backwater world battling a horrible Villain, and the GM whips out the reveal at the table that the Villain is actually my characters’ father — it’s a thrilling moment, because WHO KNOWS WHICH WAY MY CHARACCTER IS GOING TO JUMP?

But if the GM has already decided that my character and the badguy will be fighting side by side against the rest of the Player Characters there CAN’T be a choice. More importantly, the GM will sort of shoehorn me with subtle signals (often involving unspoken rewards or punishments) to have my guy side with the Villain — because that’s the cool scene he had in his head. But it might not be what I consider a cool scene.

So, what do we consider “role playing” in such a game? Basically, people play the CHARACTERISTICS of the PC. The GM says, “Here’s such and such a situation, and basically I know how it’s going to lead into the next scene, but what you’re going to do is play out the behaviors of your characters,” (not real, meaningful choices that can drive the narrative in unexpected directions, but simply the behaviors.)

This is where we get the focus on “talking in character,” the funny voices, only knowing what you know in character — because it limits the Player’s input into what actually change the shape of the tale.

But, again, if the Players are playing the characters they’re being robbed of one of the most important elements of creating a character — “What does the character do when the hammer comes down? When the tough choices have to be made, does Sheriff Brody cave to the will of the townspeople in Jaws, or does he take action to go public? Does Ripley flee when the space marines are getting chewed up, or does she put herself in harm’s way to save them?” And so on.

Note that the GM’s attitude often is, “Of course the player will put her character in harm’s way to save the space marines” when “plotting” and RPG adventure.

But what about when the character doesn’t want to? We all seen it happen a gazillion times. The responses vary — but they contain:

  • The GM’s brain shutting down for five minutes as he tries to re-jigger the plot;
  • the GM politely asking the Player to play along;
  • the GM sort of bullies the Player with back-handed logic (“Well, your character would go save them, you know”)
  • the GM has the aliens attack the PC anyway, no matter what ridiculous lengths the Player has the PC go through to get away;
  • anger sometimes erupts at the table;
  • sometimes there’s hours of post-game angst over the phone and emails.


[Please do check out Shamus Young’s fabulous DM of the Rings.]

Note that the key issue her is all about the Player simply not being allowed to make a vital choice for the character for fear it will ruin the game or the story. After all, we know what a character “should” do — right?

Well, no. Again, what a character chooses to do is what reveals the character. Should Michael Carleone have become a crime lord in his father’s footsteps? Should Ripley have stopped Dallas from bringing an infected Kane onto the Nostromo? And so on.

Characters make decisions, flip flop. There are consequences to their actions and then, in light of those consequences, they make new choices..

In this way, a role-playing game session would be more of a lively game of “what the hell is going to happen next?” The Players make choices for the PCs. The GM tosses out the next set of hard decisions on the fly. And when it’s all over we have a story we could not have guessed at.

Of course this blows “The Party” model of play right out of the water. But why should the party have to stay together. Only one person at the table can ever speak at one time anyway! Whether their fictional characters are in the same imagined space or not doesn’t change that. You still have to rotate around the table.

In fact, a whole bunch of assumptions have to get shattered — the key one being: “This wouldn’t work.”

The questions show up fast, “How can there be a story if the GM doesn’t have a story?” “What if one of the Players has her PC run off to China?” “You could do this, but you would need ‘advanced’ Players.”

The truth is, No.

It works just fine. It works fine for beginners. The games are a blast. Here’s a list of some small games that have been thought through packed with rules and techniques to do exactly what we’re talking about:

Dogs in the Vineyard
The Mountain Witch
The Burning Wheel

The Riddle of Steel

There are more.

There’s no way to summarize all these games, of course. So I’ll just say this:

The players in these games write down what is important to THEM. The GM still creates the world and backstory and the PCs with secrets. But the GM is also responsible for utilizing the narrative elements the Players create during character creation. For example, in Sorcerer, there’s a thing called a Kicker. If I’m creating a Player Character I might say, “My character kicked my son out of the house 20 years ago when he suspect my character murdered my wife (which, in fact, he did). On the day the story starts, my son comes home asking forgiveness.”

The first question to be asked is, “Does my guy let the son into the house?”

But after that there are more questions: Does the son have an agenda? Is he really he for forgiveness or vengeance? Is my wife’s ghost going to start talking to my son if he comes in the house? Given the genre and the other back story information created by the players and the GM, the GM gets to make up LOTS of stuff. He just isn’t making up the plot.

He’s simply making up material to let the Players make tough choices with emotional and thematic impact. You know, like a story.

But, of course, this means a new distribution of power among the players. The GM isn’t building a channel to dive the characters through toward a certain kind of ending. For all we know, in the Space Opera, Luke does end up fighting his friends because of his desperate love for his father. (In this kind of game play these kinds of choices are valued. It’s not a betrayal of the party. It’s a love of the story.)

The GM can’t give little clues about what is supposed to happen, because he has NO IDEA of where the story will be in three hours.

There’s a tradition of RPGs that says you simply don’t play that way. And that’s great for folks who want it. But other people are very excited about pushing more power amongst the players and having a great time doing it.


Now, back to MMOs…

In a game like World of Warcraft, the game’s designers have established “quests” for your character, but a lot of how you go about doing it is your business. You can try it alone, you can gather a party, you can be loyal all the way through the quest, you can abandon your fellow adventurers along the way. You can retreat when you want, turn down a quest if you want. You can set your own goals if you want.

This is a lot more freedom than a lot of players got when they sat down the a GM to “play a story.” In fact, a lot of RPG sessions play pretty much like the story in a First Person Shooter or Survival Game and many RPG games: the player is led from one cut scene to the next, needing to defeat a bunch of bad guys, and then watching the next cut-scene. In this way, the players are being told a story, but they’re not really participating in it since they have no impact on it.

Not so in an MMO, where the players pick their actions and goals without needing to please anyone but themselves. They don’t have to stay in a group, they don’t have to follow “the story.” They don’t have to do anything, really. But… because they are interacting with other, real people, their choices carry consequences. Doing a good deed might be rewarded later. Being an ass-hat might mean trouble later.


Eve Online carries this even further. Set in a future world of space travel, commerce, mercenaries and exploration, the players are let loose without any preplanned agendas at all. There is an environment (computer controlled characters, asteroids to mine, planet-sized economies to run or ruin) and there are the other players. What a player decides to in Eve is his or her own business.

Unlike World of Warcraft, there are no pre-planned quests for the characters to pursue. Players are absolutely left to their own devices to figure out what to accomplish and how to go about doing it. This can take a toll on new players, who are left without any guidance. But it also means almost unparalleled freedom when it comes to the player choosing what actions his character will take, and so what kind of story the player will “tell” with the character.

Creative Due Dilligence

True Story:

A few years ago I was hired to work on a video game project. Although I had game design experience from “pen and paper” games, I had never worked on a console game before. But I really wanted to! And some of the guys at the company recommended me, and I was brought on to help with “the story.”

My first day there I’m handed a three ring binder with an inch and a half thick document inside it. I’m told, “Read this,” because this is the design document.

So, excitedly I sit down and read the design document.

What I find is this: a description of the major characters in the game’s setting, a very, very elaborate backstory of why the game’s science-fiction-fantasy setting is taking place, lots of details about the city the game takes place in, a list of monsters, a list of weapons, the plot the player’s character will walk through, basic scene descriptions of the cut-scenes…

And… well. That was it.

I finished the design document and realized that nowhere on the pages was, you know, a game. It was an intellectual property waiting to be turned into a movie… But we weren’t about to make a movie. We were about to make a game.

No thought had been given to why what buttons might be assigned to what game-actions. No thought had been given to any unique qualities of game play that might make this game anything more than a half-baked Half-Life 2 re-tread. The basic assumption was that if you let the player move, shoot and shoot in an environment with an elaborate backstory you’d have a compelling game.

But, of course, this is nonsense. A person playing a game wants, first and foremost, something to do while playing the game. They want, in short, a game. The narrative context in a First Person Shooter console game is great icing. I think people LOVE having narrative context. (The designers at Blizzard called this, “Killing for a reason,” when working on World of Warcraft. The activities the players are sent out to do are all in the context of helping your tribe, or getting known to your elders, or saving the day or whatever. It’s still the same hacking at monsters, but that narrative context does wonders to make it feel special!)

So I went back to the lead designers and the producers and said, “Um, I’m not sure what the game is.”

The answer came back, “Don’t worry about that. Start designing levels.”

I answered, “How can I start designing levels if I don’t know what the game is?”

I pulled aside the other designers and, using all the background elements already in the design doc, we hammered out a game with a bunch of cool resource management issues, tactics that would vary depending on how aggressive or stealthy you wanted to be and so on. We designed a game.

Now, a few things. This was a real company, with major titles and sales under their belt.

Moreover, I wish I hadn’t experienced this again and again since that job, but the truth is, I have signed on to several projects — always late in the game — where the core design work has been slighted.

Basic questions like, “What make this a movie?” or “What makes this a game?” or “What makes this fun?” are questions that always have to be asked. And they have to be asked hard. Because simply rushing forward with a half-baked outline is a sure recipe for disaster. Yes, it might work. But most likely that will be a function of chance more than anything else.

A lot of ideas is not enough for what I call “Creative Due Diligence.” You are obliged to sort through the form of the media you are working in and figure out what works well for that form, what doesn’t work well in that form, and really press yourself to find what works best in this form that hasn’t been done yet. Some ideas might be great for a video game, but not for a TV show — and the ability to see that is what’s going to help make both a TV show and a video game better.

Creative Due Diligence is the Due Diligence you would expect of any company in financial matters — but in this case testing the basic premise of a creative project to make sure it is sound. It might not be sound from the get-go, but you work it and work it until you know you have something worth writing/making/sending out into the world.

Here’s an excellent example of Creative Due Diligence at work: Cliff Bleszinski, lead designer of Gears of War talking at the 2007 Game Developers Conference about how they kept building the game, taking the game apart, and building it again.

And here’s the terrific trailer they built for the game. Yes, it has scenes of First Person Shooter action. But it also touches on the game’s visual themes of a once beautiful culture that’s been torn apart by war. The spot was also shot completely in-game, which means that the whole ad is actually showing off the game. It’s all of a unified piece of design:

All of these design elements fit together: how will the medium match the core conceit of the idea match the music match the formal issues of shooting or writing it and so on.

Look at this clip from F/X’s The Shield.

For someone used to only watching network television, the camera-work might be too jerky, almost amateurish. The film stock is grainy, almost cheap. And yet… The look of the show is perfect for the content of the show. It’s about rogue cops in a rough-and-tumble section of L.A. Life is cheap there. Money is always a concern for the characters. It is not a glossy take on life, and so the look of the show is perfectly not glossy.

And just as importantly, it’s cheaper to produce than a glossy network show. The look of the show is built off of two hand-held cameras running at the same time, covering the actors at they do their damned best to find the simple and often rough truths of the moment. They shoot fast on The Shield, and it shows. But it produces a look that is a part of the show’s entire aesthetic and design.

Money and resources are vital part of Creative Due Diligence as well. You have to design to what you have, but you build the best version of what you can — adjusting and readjusting — to shape the material and the form and the production elements so you build a successful whole that looks all of a piece.