Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Aji Again

I use a concept called "aji" when thinking about game narrative design. Here's a good explanation: Unlimited Hyperbole. That's ten minutes long, but the explanation is about seven minutes in.

I'm going to describe my version, but you can listen to his version if I bungle it. I think they're the same basic concept.

"Aji" is a term from the board game "go" (or wei'qi, baduk, etc). Very roughly, it translates to "potential". The idea is that you put down a few stones in a loose configuration. The idea isn't to finalize the capture of the area. You don't build a solid wall. You just put a few stones down in a good configuration. Then, when the enemy approaches, you can use those stones to support your response. That may end up being a solid wall, or a tentacle monster than destroys the region for everyone, or even an inversion, where you force them to waste turns taking those initial stones while you play lightly and aggressively elsewhere.

To me, plot in games is the same.

You put down a few elements in a configuration. You want the configuration to have good aji - good potential. As the players act, you want the initial elements to flex and bend but support the new elements that arise.

It is similar to go because the play style is similar. The player makes a move, the game makes a move. If the game makes too many moves, then the player feels either lost or stifled, depending on the situation. If the player makes too many moves, they feel like they are boxing air rather than fighting against an evil mastermind.

Now, Pinchbeck is probably focusing more on the idea of vagueness, of leaving things open to interpretation. I tend to focus more on the idea of pacing and player agency. But the two are, in my opinion, very tightly linked.

Establishing too much, too fast is a great way to lock the player into a boring, trite plot they feel nothing about. On the other hand, establishing just enough to make the player go "and then?" will keep the players interested and invested.

In games with a GM (tabletop RPGs), the lack of detail is a huge asset because it allows you to flex and turn when you need to. If the players aren't sure whether Darth Vader is a good guy or a bad guy, you can establish him as one or the other when play demands.

In theory you could do something similar in a computer game, but it would probably require a lot of scripting. But the vagueness and openness still pays off, because the player spends a lot of time thinking about the various possibilities.

That's my philosophy on narrative design in games. Put down pieces. Places, people, concepts - just a few. Allow them to be established as the player moves through your world, rather than trying to force them on the player. You only rarely need to spell things out - that's usually too slow, boring, and laborious.

It's really not that hard: it's mostly just a matter of self-restraint. I know you want to show off all the details of the cool bad-ass you invented. But don't. Or do it later. Let the player breath.


Sam Crisp said...

The fifth episode of Unlimited Hyperbole on Doom made me think of this same thing. The interviewee points out how strange it is that games have plots that keep telling you why you need to keep doing things, as if we've accepted it's necessary. I'd never really thought of it in that light before. He says that Doom had a premise, not a plot; something which explained why you were at the start of the first level, and that was all it needed.

The idea of whether a character is a good guy or a bad guy existing in some quantum state is an interesting one. I can only think of Westwood's Blade Runner as an example of this in a video game, where several narrative facts, including whether or not the player was a replicant, were decided either by random or by choices made by the player at some point in the middle of the game, not at the outset. Although, I haven't played it and I don't think it really did this for the reasons you describe.

Craig Perko said...

The Blade Runner adventure game was a really interesting title that tried a few things. It ended up being difficult to play, but fundamentally it was trying for the same vagueness as the movie, the same "is or isn't he" feel.

Many things can exist in an "undefined" state. Are they good people doing bad things, or bad people doing bad things? Are they loyalists or anarchists? Are they planning things ahead or just getting lucky?

Leaving ambiguity in your narrative is fantastic. It takes less time and also makes your narrative more interesting and involving.