Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Come on let's twist again!

Let's talk about twists. If you want to know what caused this essay, watch minute 22 of this video, but there are mild SOMA spoilers.

I have a lot of experience with twists. There are times when I've had to pull a twist on two dozen people working together, all spending more time with the world than I spent creating it.

So let me tell you: the quality of the twist is not what matters. What matters is where the twist is.

A lot of people try to outsmart their audience, put in a twist they'll never be able to figure out. Hell, maybe SOMA does that in the end. But that's the wrong approach, because it's in the wrong place. It's like saying you're going to build a bigger and better boat to sail across the Himalayas.

The point of a twist is to shatter ground the audience thinks is solid, not to shatter something that the audience already thinks is broken. If the audience is struggling to figure things out, a twist isn't going to have much impact, because it's not a twist. It's just another piece of the puzzle.

For example, if I write a story where the main character doesn't know who her father is, the audience will naturally consider each vaguely right-aged man in the story. If I drop hints about who her father is, they'll figure it out immediately. If I drop misleading clues, they'll feel annoyed that they were misled. No matter who the father ends up being, it's not really a very good twist because the audience is already on their toes searching for that mystery.

On the other hand, Star Wars has a very pedestrian "Luke, I am your father" twist. It's a bit too spoilered to still have the impact it had back then, but it had a fair amount of impact.

Nobody in the audience was thinking about Luke's father much. They thought they knew Luke and Vader's relationship. So the twist shattered that understanding and worked well.

You don't need a complex twist. You need a well-placed twist, to shatter things the audience thinks they understand.

This is especially important in science fiction stories, because magic science widgets are inherently unstable. Introducing a concept like warp drive or cloning automatically makes the audience grapple for a pattern and struggle to extrapolate. They are reaching out for everything they can find, and a twist won't even make them blink. They'll just be happy they found another piece of the puzzle.

That is, if you mention clones or androids in your story, the audience will automatically consider whether any given person might be a clone or android. If you mention psychic powers, the audience will search for things that might be psychic. If your twist is related to a sci fi concept, it's not a twist because the audience will never be on truly solid ground.

That's why worthwhile sci fi tends to fall into a few categories:

1) Extrapolations
Extrapolate faster than the audience, and you can leave them amazed at the wonders your story holds. In order to do this, you'll need a new concept or a new take on a concept, since if the audience has seen it before, they'll have extrapolated it before. A good example of this is the Foundation series.

2) The Human Twist
The most reliable way to put a twist into a sci fi story is to put the twist on the human side rather than the sci fi side. This is why nearly every sci fi story reveals that a person is something they don't appear to be. A robot, a time traveler, the inventor of space dust, a double agent, etc.

The audience will feel more comfortable with the human side of your story than the sci fi side, and they'll usually stop looking for human-side twists. Sci fi stories can get away with human-side twists more easily than other genres specifically because the audience will be focused on the razzle-dazzle magic science half of the story.

But be careful about revealing that someone is actually a robot, because that's been done. A lot.

3) The Thematic Twist
Another popular way to put a twist into a sci fi story is to set it up with a stinger that changes the audience's perspective. A very common, trashy way to do this is to reveal that your far-future space opera is actually in the past and now the heroes have just become Adam and Eve. It's a good example, I guess, but it's really overdone.

A razor-sharp twist at the end of the story can reframe the entire story and leave it lodged in your mind for a long, long time. However, this is extremely difficult to do. If the audience can guess the twist, it won't work, and if the audience thinks the twist is an ass-pull, it won't work. The only way to pull this off is to have a twist which fits into the theme of the world rather than the logic of the world.

A good example of this might be the Ghost in the Shell story where pleasure bots start going ballistic and the team has to figure out why. Rather than a terrorist, it turns out that the bots were being sabotaged by corporate slaves that desperately wanted a rescue. There's not much in the story to help you "predict" that, but it's not a murder mystery, so that's fine. The theme of GitS supports this kind of story, and therefore it doesn't feel like an ass-pull.

I do not recommend aiming for thematic twists unless your world has a very strong theme.

4) Muddy Themes
A lot of sci fi stories are built around a "moral". For example, during the sixties every sci fi movie had the moral "scientists shouldn't tamper in god's domain". However, sci fi with a moral is typically excruciatingly bad.

Instead, consider thematic mud. Not only is it easier to write, it's also easier to watch.

See, thematic mud doesn't have to be something that is foreshadowed or deeply rooted. All you need to do is cast light on different sides of the story, or on things outside the main story line that are affected by the main story. This casts mud into an otherwise straightforward experience.

For example, the original Alien movie wasn't simply "alien kills humans". The theme was muddied by a corporation trying to sacrifice the crew and an android betrayal. This became a staple of the Aliens universe, and is a big reason it remains so popular: the muddy themes give it a much wider story space than a universe where all the humans are always heroes and all the aliens are simply villains.

Obviously, this is pretty common. The original Frankenstein novel shows the monster in a sympathetic light. Vader's depth comes from knowing he is Luke's father. Nearly every hero is written flawed so we can feel this same muddy sense.

By spraying a bit of mud into the theme, you can engage the audience more and create a better environment for fanfiction.

5) Justifications
Create a world (typically a terrifying one). As the people within the world become more and more desperate, the audience will become more and more assured that they understand what is going on, although they may not understand why. Then you introduce a justification which gives the in-world characters some concrete direction and flips the audience's understanding upside-down.

For example, a more memorable Star Trek episode is the one where Crusher is watching the Enterprise slowly shrink. People are vanishing, and eventually it's just her in a race against a collapsing universe. There is no foreshadowing of the twist - the authors didn't go "oh, hey let's go into WARP hey there was a bit of a WARPY WARP WARP malfunction in the WARP BUBBLE which you know COLLAPSES SLOWLY after you WARPY WARP but everything is oooookay".

Instead, they just let the tension rise, let the audience get comfortable with the world, and then revealed that it was a warp jump malfunction. They didn't need to outsmart the audience, or leave bread crumbs so the audience could figure it out. It's not a murder mystery. They just waited patiently for the right time, then let Crusher discover the justification for her adventure.

This gave Crusher something to grab, and the episode launches into a pretty tense race against a disappearing universe. The audience, now understanding that this is a warp drive malfunction, immediately begins thinking in the same way as Crusher: "What do we do to get out of this? Can we restart the warp core? What is the solution!" And the pacing of the final race is such that Crusher discovers ideas at roughly the same speed as the audience, similar to an extrapolation sci fi story on fast-forward.

It doesn't matter that it's basically nonsense, or that the phenomena is never brought up again. The pacing is fast enough to keep the general audience from being able to think that deeply.

Justifications are extremely common. Nearly every sci fi horror story is a justification story. The trick to remember is that your reveal switches your story from whatever it was to a race to extrapolate faster than the audience.

For example, in the Thing, the justification is revealed pretty early. The extrapolation is incredibly dense, though, because of the nature of the challenge. Therefore, an hour can be spent on stretching that extrapolation out just like a murder mystery, and at the end you may still be left with questions!

Terminator is similar, except that instead of a murder mystery it's an action movie. The movie continually reveals new powers for the Terminator, but each power makes perfect sense: the movie extrapolates what a robot from the future would be able to do, just a little faster than the audience will probably manage. Yeah, future robot can see better than we can. Survive getting hit by a car. Has metal underneath his skin. Can remove and repair his eye. Can imitate a voice. Terminator 2 is exactly the same technique, but with a more advanced robot that can be extrapolated with more breadth.

SOMA was likely trying to fall into this category, but they attempted to foreshadow their "twist". The problem is: it's not a twist. It's a justification. They needed to reveal it when the player started to feel comfortable with the rules of their situation. Then they needed to launch into a series of extrapolations where they reveal more and more of the things the justification can do to the world.


That's my thinking on twists.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Making Game

By mid-October, I hope to be free of some of my more annoyingly time-hoggy hobbies so I can take up some additional creative stuff. With that in mind, it's time to talk about creating games and game-like things.

Creating worthwhile games is extremely difficult.

Of course, "worthwhile" is different for everyone. I've seen people who think that short Twine stories are worthwhile, and they're not wrong. But that's not what I want to work on when I think "game".

Games can do a lot of things, but very few of them are interesting to me. I'm not interested in making a horror game, or a shooty game, or a puzzle game, or a CYOA game. There's nothing wrong with them, but they have no meaning to me. Every time I think of something to "say" in a game like that, I realize it would be better as a comic or a short story.

The only thing games can do that I really want to explore is giving more power to the player. Calling it a "game" is restrictive, but it seems like a game would be the best form, since most people want to play games and few people want to play Maya or Photoshop.

The problem with giving players power is that is requires a tremendous amount of work. You can let the players doodle their own custom figure, but that's just decoration intended to trick the player into thinking they have power. In order to properly give the player power, you have to allow the player to fundamentally access the core systems of the game, which requires a complicated balancing act and a lot of custom tools. Moreover, in order to make it worthwhile, you have to insure their work is properly integrated and shared with all the other players.

This is what I'm interested in.

Basically, tools.

This is a really difficult thing to do, but there are some ways we can leverage stuff that already exists.

A) There's no need to create very many tools inside your game, at least not if you're working on my kind of budget. Instead, allow players to use existing tools - Blender, Photoshop, Unity. Offer access to the pipeline. Unity is free: distributing a version of the project that can be opened in Unity will allow players to use your editing add-ons and assets.

This is a prickly issue. First, you have to make sure you aren't distributing anything illegal - IE, assets or libraries you bought a license for can't be redistributed like that. Second, most players won't use those tools. They're great for power users, but 99% of players are going to stick strictly to in-game stuff.

B) We can use in-game mixes and substitutions to allow those basic users more power. When they create a character, we can let them use sliders, swap out clothes, customize their character in a variety of ways. We can let them customize houses or ships not by editing them in Unity scene view like an advanced user, but by clicking on hot-spots and swapping in whatever chair they want into the chair hotspot.

C) We can allow the players the freedom to imagine things by keeping irrelevant simulation out of the picture. Things like character personality don't usually matter: it's better to let the player choose an aesthetic that seems to suggest a personalty, but then let them dictate what the character does and imagine what the character's personality is. This is also a powerful tool to allow multiplayer jam sessions.

D) Recording and playback are underutilized. Allowing players to act out a scene and then embed that into the shared version of their world is incredibly powerful. If they build a spooooooky castle, let them act out snippets of what the evil vampire lord does, and let them wire those snippets up to metagame triggers (door events, sensors, etc).

E) Integrating creation into the flow of everyday play is a powerful tool nobody uses. For example, games like Animal Crossing or Rune Factory allow you to refurbish your house and grow a garden. If we gently expand on these ideas, it is possible to create meaningful context within your house or garden, and therefore make it interesting for other players to visit or build from. (This is a really interesting idea that could use a lot of expansion.)

F) We need to leverage the power of each player against each player. Not in a competitive sense, but in a cooperative one. Synchronous and asynchronous cooperation, passive and explicit cooperation, there are a lot of tools we can use. Most games do not use these tools.

You'll notice that none of these things are really "game" related. None of them are about gameplay or game feel or anything like that.

Anyway, those are the things I'm interested in. Now you can see why I create so few games.

Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

"Tough Moral Choices"

These days, every RPG pitch is exactly the same. A grim, dark world where death waits around every corner, every decision could be your last! Face tough moral choices in this epic fantasy adventure with four hundred hours of gameplay!

OK, all of those pitch elements are bad. Briefly:

We can tell how grimdark your setting is from your art samples, sell us on something unique.

We can tell how epicfantasy your setting is from your art samples, sell us on something unique.

Tell me what in your game supports hundreds of hours of play, because hundreds of hours of empty fetch quests is what I assume.

Death and deadly decisions mean nothing, because we can save and load pretty easily. Also, it's bad gameplay to kill the player off for choosing poorly: don't offer a choice if one of the options is just flat-out wrong.

But by far the most egregious of these claims is the idea of "tough moral choices".

This is an incredible combination of poor gameplay, poor writing, and avoiding responsibility for the content of the game you're making.

First: poor gameplay.

Choosing between a few canned options is extremely dull gameplay. This is especially true in modern games, where unique characters are expensive to make and full voice acting makes every line expensive.

In older games, you would usually be presented with "moral choices", but the game rarely judged what you did. For example, in Fallout 2 there was a string of events where you could sleep with a farmer's daughter, then be pressured into marrying her and taking her with you. The game doesn't really care what you choose to do, it simply gives you a variety of choices, many of which are based on the core game features (gunplay or stat/skill tests) rather than being strictly canned dialog.

It isn't expected that you'll have the farmer's daughter in your party. But she was very cheap to create: her graphics are (I think) identical to other NPCs, and her dialog is very limited. That was acceptable, because it was true of all the party members. If she is in your party, there's a lot of things you can do with/about her, all due to the in-world mechanics of how party members are handled.

But today, it'd be a huge deal - you've got to give her a 10,000 polygon face and 8 hours of voice acting and an interesting back story because she's a party member! You've got to make sure that every player gets her on their team or you're wasting that cash!

Basically, "tough moral choices" are poor gameplay because choices are poor gameplay. "Tough moral gameplay" is a better thought: players should be able to make their moral choices through core gameplay, or should have direct core gameplay intertwined with them. Not small loot rewards or people liking them more - that's not core gameplay.

Second: Poor writing.

When you start every scenario thinking "what's the good, neutral, and evil path?" you end up with an extremely dull, repetitive set of quests where the player always chooses the same path.

This sabotages your writing in a lot of ways. Firstly, it makes you create canned paths through every scenario. This sabotages the tension and uniqueness of the scenarios, and it's deeply wrongheaded. The biggest thing you need to understand is that the player chose to enter a scenario, and that is a big clue as to what they want to accomplish.

For example, there's a mugging. The player steps in. You immediately know you don't need the neutral or evil paths. Nobody neutral would step in, and nobody evil would step in just to make it worse. That's nonsense.

Do you hear me, Bioware: not even a Sith would step into a robbery just because they wanted to make the situation worse!

It's easy to write a situation such that you know what a player is trying to accomplish when they step into it. If the situation does have good and bad paths, rather than offering a popup choice, make the points of entry different: if the player talks to the nice people, he's obviously trying to help the nice people, and if he talks to the baddies, he's an asshole. You can even make the context command for starting the sidequest literally pop up your goal before you hit the button: "Press A: Try to intervene".

Once you have gotten the player to commit to a "want", you have a fulcrum. You know what the player wants, so you can simply offer him different ways to get it - many of which can be integrated into the core gameplay. Are you going to try to talk the robbers into leaving? Bribe them into leaving? Threaten them? Kill them? Hypnotize them? Bluff them? Grab the victim's hand and run? These are all much better role play options than "make the robbery worse because you're a really bored cartoon villain".

Of course, this thinking can also go awry. When you come up with canned paths based on gameplay, they can end up serving the same purpose and causing the same damage as your ethical choices. Every scenario must have a warrior, rogue, and wizard path? Just as bad.

And the same solution applies. If your player waltzes up to a wizardy challenge, they are choosing the wizard path before they even see a dialog box.

These things can even be automatically generated. Can you imagine how much more interesting algorithmic quests would be if you could enter them in several different ways, each of which represented a different moral or gameplay approach?

Third: Poor authorship

Perhaps the biggest problem I have with the "moral choices" thing is that it is a cheap copout that lets you avoid putting anything of value into your writing.

When you try to brainstorm for all the things a player might do in a situation, you are throwing away your authorial intent. You can't say anything if you need to say everything.

If you want the player to be able to do anything, give them gameplay options to do that. I wasn't faced with a "steal?" popup box in Oblivion or Skyrim. Instead, I was just permitted to steal. And, since it was integrated with the game world and other mechanics, I could come up with a lot of different schemes. Wait until night, or sneak behind them, or lure them out of the room then dash back in, or put a basket over their head - lots of options. And the game didn't judge me much, aside from small mechanical considerations like not being able to sell stolen goods (even in another town?!) and sometimes having the target hate me afterwards (even if they never saw me?!)

Although neither of those games has much authorial intent in it, the ethical options are nicely integrated into the play of the game rather than limited to popup boxes.

Games that offer both freedom and authorial intent are hard to come by. Planescape: Torment is a good example, as is Grand Theft Auto Anyofthem. These are games where the developers had something they wanted to say. Maybe it was worth hearing, maybe it wasn't, but they got it across by saturating the game in character. The world is full of interesting things that have some kind of impact, not generic doodads and setpieces. The characters all have personalities and act according to those personalities.

The interactions with the world echo with the authors' intents - in Planescape you can hear thoughts about the hollowness of the world and the struggle to live here anyway. In GTA you can hear thoughts about worthless bro culture vomit.

Anyway, the point is that these games let the authorial intent shine through most of the time, and the games are renowned because of it. The "moral options" within these games are largely couched inside the gameplay and progression, and the game doesn't judge you much when you delve into them.

So what do we do?

If you want moral play in your games, I recommend putting moral play in your games.

A good, easy example of this is the new Fallout Shelter mobile game. The game allows you to control the lives of a lot of people, and you have a lot of options as to what to do with them. A lot of players create outrageous vaults full of bizarre immoral stuff, but the game doesn't judge them much. Most players probably have relatively 'normal' vault cultures, but they still make a lot of moral choices about how things need to unfold. For example, who has to stand guard, who gets to train up, who gets to have kids, and so on.

Now, no game is a blank slate. The mechanics of Fallout Shelter radically tilt the kinds of cultures players are likely to express. For example, anyone can train up to max stats in about the same time, but children do not really inherit much of the stats of their parents. This means that there's no point in breeding for stats. But, contrarily, children do inherit their parent's appearances, so there's a lot of pressure to breed for appearances.

I don't know whether Fallout Shelter's devs thought of these pressures when they designed the game, but the result is very different that an alternative would be. Say, if only children could be trained to increase stats, and children inherited the adult stats of their parents. Then there would be a situation where every generation was better than the one before it, and bloodlines would be extremely important. Would it be better? Worse? It'd be different, for sure.

Diving straight into eugenics is a powerful example, and I kind of went for the jugular. Few things are as morally sensitive as "breeding humans", but it is exactly what Fallout Shelter is about. I think a more careful game could have been made to teach the dangers of that kind of thinking - without compromising the open play. Having mechanics that emerge from eugenic practices would not interfere with the player's freedom, but it would make them think twice about exercising too much control over people's personal lives.

And, of course, Fallout Shelter has a lot of moral constraints built into it. Children and pregnant women are invulnerable to hazards. Nobody ever gets sick, or angry, or dissatisfied with their life. Nobody needs to rest. Nobody ages. And nobody dies without your permission.

The point is this: your "moral choices" are better off as "moral gameplay". By allowing your player to affect NPCs in ways that cause emergent behavior, you can allow your players a lot of freedom without compromising your authorial intent or writing. You can express yourself more clearly, because you can embed your authorial intent in the rules of the game!

You may have to let go of some of your railroad, though. Linear main quests never survive an encounter with an experimental player.

But, uh... linear main quests suck, so that's fine by me!

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

What Makes Games Different

Recently I've been pretty sour about games. None of them seem even vaguely interesting to me, even games that everyone is raving about. Metal Gear 5 lets you kidnap soldiers! Mario Maker let's you create fascinating Marioish levels!


I'm burned out on "gameplay". Nothing with "gameplay" is even vaguely interesting. But if a game doesn't have gameplay, sign me up! I love games with no gameplay!

This has really got me thinking about what makes games different from, say, comics.

Obviously, one thing is gameplay. But since gameplay seems really uninteresting to me, what else have you got?

One thing I like is self-expression. Allowing a player to put a piece of themselves into the story is valuable, even if that piece is not very important. It also makes the world larger, at least in the player's head, if they think things could have gone differently.

Sometimes self-expression has no statistical, in-game meaning. For example, Saints Row lets you dress up however, and nobody ever treats you differently no matter what you wear. Even if you run around naked, the only comments you get are from nameless pedestrians. No actual gameplay effect.

Although that kind of "shallow" expression is valuable, there's also self-expression which has meaning in the game world. For example, an RPG lets you choose how to approach situations, who to be friends with, and how to spend your time. The final outcome in the very end is probably unchanged, but your choices affect your experience in getting there. They let you spend time differently, with different people or different challenges.

Sometimes this can be much more delicate. For example, in Space Engineers your self expression is mostly based around how your ships are shaped. This is not something most people think about - I mean, who cares how your ship is shaped? But when you play Space Engineers, it says a lot, because it's deeply linked to what your ship does, who it appeals to, and what sort of thing you are aesthetically trying to say. It also says a lot about your level of skill, since if you are a clumsy designer your designs will have noticeable aesthetics descending from that.

There's also self-expression as a shared endeavor. Group appreciation is a powerful tool, whether it's you getting to see what someone else has made, or someone else commenting on what you made. Fundamentally, this kind of shared experience is only available if your game allows for enough self-expression to make every player's experience quite different.

I think the core strength of games is pacing, in the same way that the core strength of movies is editing, and the core strength of comics is the panels.

Games are adept at both giving the player more control over pacing, and also forcing the player to spend specific amounts of time.

Forcing the player to spend time and effort is a valuable tool for making the rewards seem valuable. In most games, "spend time" is the actual gameplay: you move through Metal Gear doing Metal Gear things, and then sometimes you get a plot reward. But we've turned it on its head for this discussion: the plot reward is only valuable because the player has spent so much time in pursuit of it.

While some games allow you to directly pursue the plot, many games are not so linear. Open-world games and RPGs have a medium of exchange. You spend your time accruing a fungible resource - money, XP, power - and then you use it to achieve the next unlock. Whether that unlock is a plot element, a new costume, or a better sword almost doesn't matter. Your time has been turned into literal money, and spending that money makes whatever you spent it on seem that much more valuable.

I remember playing the oldschool games - Final Fantasy 1, for example. I still remember saving up for "sleep" so that I could blast through the nine-pirate fight near the beginning of the game. It all meshed together - the time spent getting the money, the perceived value of the spell I bought, the actual in-combat value of the spell, and the result of overcoming a difficult combat. This chain of value started with the game's pacing: I couldn't overcome the pirates until I spent some effort at it.

The other half of the affair is how much control the player has over the pacing of the game. This is complicated, because technically I chose what to do and how to do it as I saved up for that spell, but it was obviously the game's core pacing structure that forced me to make those choices.

Player-controlled pacing is important, because every player plays differently both from other players and from themselves at other times. Today I might want to grind for XP in a dungeon, but tomorrow I might want to explore a new town. I may want to switch rapidly from exploring a new dungeon to overworld grinding to town sidequests to chatting with my buddies at base camp.

Moreover, this gives the designer a lot of slack. Since I control my pacing, if I run into three difficult combats in a row, I can decide to head back early. If I run into a string of easy combats, I can choose to press on.

All of this has walls around it. If everything is too easy or hard, the player is just going to be annoyed. And sometimes the game might benefit from getting a bit pushy - the Zozo arc in FFVI was really aggressive, but it's one of the things I remember most clearly.

The New
I think I've come to dislike games with gameplay because the gameplay is never new to me. I've played literally thousands of games over my lifetime, and nobody is really coming up with new gameplay. However, people are coming up with new self-expression and pacing elements!

So those are what I'm interested in. Your rebalanced rehash of first-person-shooting or RPG dungeon crawls is painfully familiar to me. But... letting me trade RPG party members over the internet with other people? That's new! Giving me a home base where I can talk to my party? That's new! These are things which can grow into whole new genres!

So, yeah, hook me up with "walking simulators" and pointless construction games. They're new! That's new territory!

... for a little while longer, anyway.