GameCamp 5: belated thoughts

I meant to write up GameCamp 5 the week after we went, but what with work and writing and venue hunting for Zombie one thing drives out another, as Barliman Butterbur would tell you.

It was different this time. For one thing, last time we felt fairly out of place as live game designers rather than video game designers; it wasn’t unpleasant, but there was a definite sense that we were in the minority. This time round lots of people were talking live experiences, and mixed sessions didn’t carry the same assumptions about the group. That’s a little fascinating – does it reflect a wider uptake in live gaming generally? Certainly seems so to me – there are lots of folks starting to do pervasive games and interesting live experiences, a burgeoning scene that seems to be moving towards LARP from other disciplines and landing somewhere in the middle. Critical vocabulary is missing here; lots of people (like us) are drawing on all sorts of theory and work in other fields and applying it to making games in the real world. That’s exciting.

The other big change was in the way people at GameCamp talked about stories in games. Last time around, Grant and I ran a session about emergent story, discussing the concept of procedurally and structurally generated narratives that emerge through player interaction with the game, but aren’t “told” by the game. This time I think every story-related session I went to invoked the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic stories, usually with an understanding of emergence. Again vocabulary is missing here; I heard the same (or similar) dichotomy expressed as extrinsic/intrinsic, imparted/created, creator/player, and even cutscene/gameplay. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the greater proportion of live gamers there – the split is much clearer when you’re playing with stories in that space, and it becomes impossible to ignore that the story you’re telling is not the same as the one players are experiencing. But I’m hopeful that it reflects a shift in thinking by video game creators too. Not every writer needs to engage with debates like the location of meaning and the nature of narrative – but if none do, the medium will stay shallow. GameCamp made my literary brain happy and my game brain excited.

Oh, and we made some games, too. Hostage was the most fun. I’ll try to write up the rules soon, assuming one thing doesn’t drive out another, again.

Story in games: lean forward, lean back, meet in the middle

100 Cupcakes GameMost stories in video games are pretty rubbish. Yes, there are exceptions, but that’s why I said most. I mean, most of everything is rubbish, but stories in games tend to be particularly bad. Even Kingdoms of Amalur, which has Proper Named Writers on the cover and everything, has pretty bad stories, in part because the stories aren’t well woven into the game. (Also because the poetry is doggerel and the accents sound like everyone’s been punched in the throat, but I digress.) They’re poorly conveyed in conversation segments that break the flow of the game and are Not Fun. Much like Assassin’s Creed cut scenes and Final Fantasy cut scenes and all the other cut scenes pretty much ever – a story that isn’t embedded in the game itself feels like a pretty bad story, even if it’d be a pretty awesome story in a film or TV series or book.

There’s an inherent conflict in videogames between lean-back and lean-forward interaction. Generally the game itself is lean-forward. We’re doing something interesting with our hands (or whole bodies) that’s affecting what’s on the screen. We’re physically invested in making a thing happen. But story is more of a lean-back affair – it’s something we want to absorb and be entertained by. Modern video games spend a lot of time trying to integrate the two. Bioshock had partial success with this – make story something you come across as part of the scenery – and some failures too (scattered diary pages are not a good storytelling technique, even if the pages are audio recordings for some reason). Not many video games have much success, and most have a lot of fail.

Cut scenes are the best example of this – they literally make you stop playing in order to absorb the story. Some cut scenes are so lean-back that they make you leave the room to make a cup of tea while the game gets on with talking to itself, so you can come back and do the fun bits. It’s a jarring, completely bizarre experience to go from a big boss battle where you’re really engaged in pushing buttons and seeing Stuff Happen as a direct result, to a scene where you’re expected to just sit there and absorb as control is taken away from you completely.

But story matters. Without a story of some kind, events are just events. Luckily, humans are hard-wired to make stories out of pretty much everything we experience. Pong is fun not just because of its mechanics but also because you can make up a story about playing tennis on your computer. Pacman is fun in part because of the story you tell in your head about getting the power pill and eating the ghosts. But neither of those things are stories told by the game; they’re stories that emerge from the game as you play it – from the intersection of player with technology/rule systems. Emergent stories are my favourite kind of story, because they’re the ones that games sustain really well. (Not just video games either. Live, card, tabletop and more. Board games have been doing emergent story well since Go was invented.)

Emergent stories can be far more engaging than the stories designers try to put into games. Beating your mates at Soul Calibur is a better story than the Soul Calibur story mode (not hard, I know). But emergent stories don’t actually have storytellers while they’re happening. Game designers can’t actually design the emergent stories they want players to have, because those are born from context and from the physical places and ways people are playing and stuff designers just can’t control. You can build a really good framework for generating stories, but you can’t force the stories to happen. Often emergent stories don’t actually get told, in any real sense, until after the events of the game; they’re reconstructed from divergent events in retrospect, not in real time. That’d make the player the storyteller.

What I think I’m getting at here is that story, like all meaning, is not contained within the cultural artefact itself but instead is created anew at every reading at the nexus between the artefact, the viewer and the contextual forces that surround both. The problem with a lot of video game stories is that story is fundamentally separated from gameplay, and often gameplay actively works against story or makes story unbelievable (LA Noire, Uncharted, GTAIV, to name a few). In tabletop gaming one of the marks of a bad session is that the players feel railroaded into taking certain pathways or choices because of the GM’s conception of how things should go. But that’s exactly what most video games do – even those with pretty branching endings and multiple pathways and meaningful choices that affect the game world.

I’m not a ludologist. I like my games chock-full of story, but I want story that’s meaningful in the context of gameplay and delivered in a way that isn’t head-snappingly oblique to the rest of the play experience. I just don’t know if that’s actually something video games can do.

This post is part of an ongoing conversation with Si Lumb and Mark Sorrell, and is written at some speed, because my thinking is slippery and if I stop to think about it for too long I’ll start disagreeing with myself.

A simple point and click interface: zombies at London IA

Demons at ZombieYesterday I gave a short talk at London IA, about one of my side projects: zombies, LARP, morris dancers, demons, creativity, delight, verbs, NERF guns and (ostensibly at least) user experience design. Slides – expertly drawn by @gshowitt – are here, and my notes are below the fold.

Continue reading

Playing Gamecamp

Yesterday was Gamecamp 4, the first one I’ve been to, and I had a properly fantastic time. Some excellent sessions, some fascinating conversations, and some surprisingly forgiving zombies made it a great day.

Here’s what I took from the day.

  • We like stories in our games, and we like games in our stories, but not all games (or stories) need both.
  • Boss fights interrupt flow, but can be used to build interesting characters. They can be frustrating (Metal Gear Solid), but when they’re done well and foreshadowed properly, they can also be hugely satisfying (Limbo).
  • Free play without structure isn’t a game.
  • Digital games suck at relationships.
  • A lot of digital games writing sucks, full stop.
  • Romance and sex in games are two very different things with different problems to be solved.
  • Some problems being tackled by digital game folks have already been solved by live game folks, and vice versa.
  • When under attack, people seem to instinctively try to get to high ground. When high ground is not available, they use tables.
  • Lemon jousting is harder than it looks.
  • Mechanically, World of Warcraft and Farmville are (depressingly?) similar.
  • We like our extrinsic motivators without coercive social marketing practices.
  • Gamification isn’t particularly interesting to people who already make games.
  • My working definition of emergent stories – stories created by players interacting with game mechanics without a designer getting in the way – is flawed, hugely flawed, but works OK for demonstration purposes.
  • Emergent stories need space to emerge. People make up stories to fill gaps.
  • Story can be constructed after experience, collaboratively.
  • Someone has already run an art heist game in a museum. I really hope they do it again. Soon.
  • Museums, like news organisations, need help making good games with few resources.
  • The Keyworth building at London South Bank Uni would be an excellent venue for a full-scale game of Zombie.
  • The unconference format just works. No bit of my day was boring or slow or non-interactive. I went to half a dozen really interesting talks, and missed about a dozen more, and that’s fine.
  • Always put zombies in the lifts.

It’s Alive! Fostering emergent stories in Zombie

For those who don’t know, on Saturday I and a team of others ran the seventh Zombie LARP game. We’re hoping the next major event will be a big leap up in size, in ambition and in attendance. But before that happens I want to note down a few of our important principles – and important problems we need to solve.

What on earth is Zombie?

First, though, an explanation. Zombie is a live-action simulation game where people take it in turns to try to survive in an industrial complex overrun by the living dead. We run several scenarios over the course of the game, with a different group of people “surviving” in each one. When players aren’t trying to get out alive, they’re pretending to be zombies so that someone else can have a turn.

The game is a sort-of bastard child of traditional live-action roleplay (LARP) systems, fast-paced video games like Left for Dead, and the kinds of cowboys and Indians/summer water pistol games you played when you were a kid. The combat resolution system is based on Nerf guns (players shoot zombies) and a low-contact mechanic (zombies touch players on upper arms to represent biting, mauling etc.)

If you’ve read this and you still have no idea what we do, please leave a comment to tell me. I’m trying to improve my ability to explain the game to people who have never played a LARP or a video game before, so the experience would be useful.

How are we telling stories in Zombie?

Video games almost always have plot. Sometimes that plot is stretched over 50 or more insanely complex hours; sometimes it’s over in minutes so you can get on with killing things. Sometimes the storytelling is so deeply entrenched in the game that it’s inseperable from it; sometimes it’s abstracted from it so that the gameplay and the overarcing story are essentially separate entities. And sometimes the plot is about football.

Almost all LARPs are plot oriented. Some big games have top-down storytelling systems where world-changing events are affected by the big players in the game, while others have grass-roots player-oriented plot systems that allow even the most minor player characters to affect the universe.

In Zombie, plot takes a back seat to gameplay. Players might have twenty minutes at most to survive, and most of them won’t. That time seems a lot longer than it really is thanks to the game pacing and the adrenalin (much like the experience of riding a rollercoaster) but long-term character development is not an option, and neither is sticking around to watch the game world evolve. Zombie does have a wider plot system and the players can and do affect what happens, but when you’re running screaming down a corridor pursued by the undead trying to eat you, it’s impossible to take that in.

As refs and storytellers, we do several things to try and work with the game elements to make the game story rewarding. Most of these were worked out through trial and error and getting it badly wrong before we worked out how to get it right.

  1. Broad brushstrokes.We talk in bold black-and-white hyperbole. Every run is all-or-nothing, do-or-die. Players are given missions that affect the fate of the wider game world, so their actions carry weight and the game retains a sense of urgency.
  2. Metaplot and wider world. Zombie has an overarching plot framework that makes it possible to slot game events into place. There are several organisations in the game’s world – a shady scientific corporation, an armed resistance unit – and the real-time games take place within a framework created by the actions of those organisations.
  3. Sandboxing. Runs in Zombie are set up to be sandboxes where the players can take many different routes to the goal. We have set pieces for players to encounter – a room full of injured survivors, or a super-powerful zombie intent on taking them down – but those are never static events that play out in a pre-defined way. They are elements of the game world that add authenticity to the run without scripting players’ actions or requiring them to act in accordance with anything.
  4. Emergent stories.This is a common concept in video game design but in my experience is used much less outside specialist gaming environments. It refers to narratives that are uncovered or revealed during gameplay, and which require input from players to understand and piece together. For Zombie, I commonly use the term to describe stories about moments in the game that are unpredictable and unpredicted, that form unique and structured narratives, and that are the result of player interaction with their environment.

    And this is the important one. We try and make sure that after the chaos of the run, players have their own, personal stories to tell. We give them space beforehand to construct back story for themselves – encouraging team action – and we give them briefing time and attention afterwards to help them construct individual and group narratives about what happened. We try to give them tools and communities in which to tell those stories, we respond to them and retell them and incorporate them into the structure of the game.

Some stories filter out and fall. Others become local legends – the tale of the player who leapt six feet over a group of zombies only to later be mauled to death in a dead end, or the player who hid from the zombies successfully for twenty minutes before his mobile phone went off, alerting them to his presence (he died shouting “Now is not a good time!”). Last night one player managed to obliterate about 40 zombies with a heroic show of power – that story too will be permanently recorded in the mythology and mythos of the game. We give people awards for creating brilliant stories – often those awards are nothing but a shout out, a retelling of their story and a biscuit or a sticker, but they carry value and people strive to obtain them.

What’s so good about emergent stories?

Zombie is an activity that, at heart, is very difficult to share. It’s designed and conceived as a completely immersive experience while you’re playing, making it very hard to film video or take pictures. Backchannel chat, feedback and social sharing in real time are impossible. Very few images or films survive from our early events (though a couple of Youtube videos do get a steady stream of views and bring in occasional new interest three years later).

But even in the first game, our players found a way to share their experiences. They told stories to each other and to their friends, passing on their favourite experiences orally. Almost everything we’ve done with our storytelling framework since then has focussed on creating the brilliant moments that make those stories, and encouraging people to tell them.

In planning meetings we make lists of “moments of awesome” that will be memorable if they work right, things that will stick in the mind. We put single zombies in weird situations just in case a player stumbles across them. We make tableaux, design interesting characters for players to meet and memorable situations for them to meander into.

We try not to dictate the stories. More often than not they happen organically. We can’t make the player team split up and get lost; we can’t force someone to go to incredible lengths to avoid in-character death; we can’t ever guarantee that what we do will be the focus of player attention. More often than not our efforts simply go to create a better atmosphere for these experiences to occur. We make it easier, but it’s the players who make it work.

And we can’t dictate how the players ought to tell stories. We try to give them as many routes as possible online, both by creating our own community area and by using Facebook (and Twitter to a lesser extent) to curate and collect and encourage. Stories like this are ephemeral, and while we want people to tell them and we want a long-lasting record, we know we can’t rely on ever having one.

Many non-gaming events rely on video and images for a record. Increasingly, conventions and similar (relatively passive) events are relying on backchannel chat and the wider analysis of that conversation to provide useful data and a lasting record of what occurred. For us, the record lies in memory and in oral channels that are hard to replicate online – because of the immersive nature of the experience along with various technical issues, it’s impossible to get an idea of “what it’s like to be at Zombie” from any one medium. But when our players tell their emergent stories, that has immense value for us. It’s the best marketing possible because it comes with a direct endorsement and genuine enthusiasm. It’s an elusive currency but it’s vital to our survival and it’s been integral to our growth.

There are four main areas of uncertainty for me that arise from our approach, with questions that I don’t yet know how to answer. They are:

  1. How do we continue to foster personal, individual experiences and therefore stories while scaling our game upwards? If there are 180 players instead of 60, how does that affect our model?
  2. How can we encourage people to create and share content online that resonates with their emergent stories without sacrificing our immersive in-game experience? We already have teams going in with cameramen to film them, but the footage is necessarily low-quality and shaky and never reflects the full experience. How can we depict the game in ways that encourage emotional response and act as anchors for emergent stories in the same way that text can?
  3. How can this model apply to other events? How does it fit with (un)conferences and industry events? Networking events? Rallies? Fetes and carnivals? Riots and demonstrations? Is this another way of looking at and describing oral history? Or does this work to foster, encourage, document and curate emergent stories have journalistic potential?

If you have any suggestions for answers, or any more questions, please share them in the comments.

Emergent thoughts on emergent stories

Alexander de grote, in de Hermitage tijdens Museumnacht in Amsterdam After an interesting conversation with @harryharrold and @MrRickWaghorn yesterday, I’ve been mulling a few thoughts on emergent stories and how the social side of the web could make it possible to curate and (to some extent) formalise them.

As @harryharrold pointed out, one of the big problems LARP events haven’t solved yet is how to deal with emergent stories after the fact. Unless you’re physically present at an event it’s next-to-impossible to get a coherent narrative of what actually happened, particularly if it’s a big fest event.

In my experience narratives split into two general categories after LARP events – the big picture and the little details. For some players/characters and events, the big picture is what’s important; they have enough of an impact on the overarching plot  plot and the overarching plot is reachable enough for them to be satisfied with a global grand plot update.

But for most events and most players, what’s important and relevant is the nitty-gritty of their immediate social circle. Who said and did what to whom; the “little” stories of betrayal and intrigue and death and love. And that’s incredibly hard to track.

A big part of what we do at Zombie is making sure that individual players get their stories straight before they forget anything. We have “debrief” sessions so that both the refs and the players can get a handle on the emergent stories that have happened on each run, and we do our best to encourage storytelling online after the game. But that only works because every run is self-contained; with a larger plot edifice and continuing characters such a simple system is simply impossible.

But LARP isn’t the only area to have this problem. Festivals, conferences and conventions do too; in fact any large event where multiple trajectories are possible and no individual experience is large enough to express the story of what happened.

Here’s an idea I was contemplating pitching for Greenbelt this year or next. Hand out 10 relatively smart phones to 10 people, picked as a good spread of the demographics at the event. Kit them out with Twitter feeds if they don’t already have them, photoblogging, moblogging and microblogging kit, basic video, audio and still image hardware, and make it as easy as possible for them to upload anything and everything, wherever they are. Track everything they do, geotagged and timestamped, and from that collate and curate a livecast of the event.

I’d love to see if it’s possible to combine @harryharrold’s ideas on curating LARP stories and map them onto other events too. Emergent stories are popping up all over the place and the social web is making it possible to collaborate and build interactive, explorable maps of events that previously have had linear narratives. The stable social experience is exploding and we all want to choose our own adventure. Perhaps we can apply this to more than just LARP.