Assassin’s Creed: women in games are not a technology problem

Assassin’s Creed: Unity is not going to have playable female characters in multiplayer, because it’s too much work. As per Polygon:

“It’s double the animations, it’s double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets,” Amancio said. “Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work.”

Here is an incomplete list of things that Ubisoft decided, as a company, were less work than playable female avatars in multiplayer:

  • Two special missions, only available as pre-order bonuses.
  • The ability to render AI crowds of 5,000 people.
  • Customisable assassins, but only male ones.
  • A 1:1 replica of Notre Dame cathedral.
  • A crouch button.

This is a tongue-in-cheek list, of course, because the allocation of resources doesn’t work like this, and if it was the multiplayer team’s job to make multiplayer on a budget then it’s their budget from which multiplayer assets must come. The idea behind the four-player co-op mode seems to be that everyone sees themselves as the main character from the single-player game – Arno, who is male, obviously, because it’s not like playing a female assassin in the French Revolution would be an excellent and historically-relevant choice – and their three friends are his male buddies.

Which leaves open the question of why, exactly, two of those friends couldn’t be female, if the team had decided that was a priority? Or why all of them couldn’t be female? Why not cut Arno from multiplayer, or design a multiplayer system that works without him? Why not, if you have to, take the FemShep approach and make masculine women, acknowledge the problems with their animations, and say that you thought it was more important that the game had playable women than that the jiggle physics was perfect? And, most importantly, why wasn’t making it possible to play as a woman in the game a core goal for the multiplayer team, instead of a nice-to-have extra that got dropped?

To be fair, we don’t know yet whether any modern-day assassin elements are going to star a woman. But the fact that Ubisoft has cheerfully announce beard-filled multiplayer without mentioning the possibility suggests either the modern-day office-wandering secretarial bit isn’t finished yet – in which case there might be a sudden reverse ferret and a female avatar might suddenly appear, rendering all excuses about the difficulties of rendering women completely null and void – or that it’s not going to hold many surprises on that score. Or that they’re dripfeeding PR to provoke, of course, which I guess we can’t rule out, because that’s one of the more unpleasant ways the games PR machine works.

Meanwhile, apparently Far Cry 4 came “within inches” of a playable female character. Which is not good enough; the dev says they “did their best” but that older assets, studio culture, planning and technology got in the way. Goddamn technological women, with our complicated hips and our weird walks and the way we’re just so difficult to model that a 1987 NES game has better gender representation than this next-gen console one can apparently manage.

Look, technology is not the problem here. Thinking of male characters as “default” and female characters as “extra” is the problem, as is a history of poor representation in games meaning there are fewer existing assets that can be reused. You fix that by recognising that it’s not a tech issue. You fix it with planning, with remedial work so that you have as many stock female assets as stock male ones, with processes that don’t place the ability to fiddle with a character’s weapon loadout ahead of their gender. You can’t fix that with polygons. You fix that with people.

Play requires consent

For any game to be a game, to work as play, it requires consent. Everyone has to agree to play, as individuals, and then collectively (or individually) agree the rules by which you’ll play, and the boundaries on the experience – the things that aren’t in the game, as well as the things that are.

You learn this, running live games or even tabletop ones. Playing with other people requires consent from all the participants, in the same way that sex does, and if it’s withdrawn then play with that person has to end. At live events we even set up safe words, ways to stop the fantasy and reassert the real world – we’ve always used “STOP THE GAME” shouted as loud as you can, for the avoidance of doubt – and that’s not just a safety call for injuries. It’s also a “get me out of here”, an “I’m not OK with this”, a withdrawal of consent.

In tabletop games, or at least ones with a good group that might touch on dark themes, it’s pretty common to have a quick discussion of hard limits up front. Some people are fine with body horror in their tabletop play, other people just don’t want to go there during pretendy fun time. Some people are terrified of spiders. Some people don’t want in-character relationships. It’s all fine, as long as you negotiate your boundaries up front and don’t make assumptions. (Sometimes you only find out where your boundaries are in the middle of a game, and that’s OK too. That’s when you step out.)

A fair few videogames forget that consent can be withdrawn, or assume that the act of picking up a controller is consent to anything that happens while playing. They forget to set out their boundaries in advance; they don’t signal strongly enough that this or that theme will come up in play and if that’s a problem you might not want to play on. I’ve yet to see a non-text-based videogame that acknowledges scenes players might not want to participate in, warns them ahead of time and lets them skip those scenes specifically without having to just stop playing altogether.

There’s interesting variations on the rule-setting elements of consent in things like permadeath playthroughs, speed runs, cheats and exploits. Some are players adding extra levels of rules for themselves, defining the experience more tightly than the game does; others are players implicitly trying to break the game’s own defined experience – effectively trying to do things the game itself doesn’t consent to. (Except that by virtue of not being sentient, games can’t consent.)

And there are interesting game spaces springing up in which consent is a serious issue. DayZ and Rust are games in which you can not just die but be taken prisoner, have your avatar’s actions dictated by players, and be put in situations to which you have not consented. The tale of a player imprisoned in Rust is funny, sure, but it’s also something they haven’t consented to. It’s only fun as long as you’re happy to go along with it, within the experience you want to have. It stops being fun, it stops being play, the minute you as a human being want out.

A few videogames that are played in group settings or party spaces sometimes run into problems; I’ve been witness to sessions of Johann Sebastian Joust, for example, in which people not playing were used as obstacles, or otherwise drawn into the game. That leads to issues, sometimes. The boundaries between player and not-player aren’t always as clear as who’s holding the controller, and one player assuming consent to play from a not-player who doesn’t want to can get tricky. It’s irritating at best.

But the worst culprits for failing to understand that play requires consent are not really game creators at all. Gamification in the workplace, which is still around and still annoying me, takes the idea of playful activity and participation and makes it compulsory. By removing the ability to refuse your consent you remove a player’s ability to play. Meta-game mechanics (note: none of these are actual game mechanics) like points, scoreboards, achievements and so on rely on a playable game to function in the game world. Without play, an achievement is not anything like a game, in the same way that an exam certificate is not anything like a game. It’s all just work, which you must now do while you’re smiling.

Make shit art

There were too many good moments of Freeplay for me to list them all. The whole weekend was a little like a bomb going off in my brain, in an excellent way, and it’s left me with a lot to think about.

I felt, for maybe the second time ever at a games event, unequivocally welcomed and valued. I felt acknowledged for my work and appreciated for my insight, even though I’m not a programmer and I work in liminal places. I didn’t once have to justify live games or LARP or Twine games or text as being worthy of inclusion. The fact that I’m not a full-time game designer, that I’m employed outside the industry, didn’t single me out as an outsider or render my input less valid. I wasn’t a token woman or a token live game person or a token anything.

In the broader world, games like the Gobstopper Job and The Trial and the Twine projects I’ve got running in the background are strange hybrid things that have to fight first to be accepted before they can be loved. But at Freeplay on stage for the first time I used the word “art” to describe Detritus, and it wasn’t inaccurate.

The second day’s keynote was given by Steve Swink, who talked (among other things) about the need to keep creating, to keep getting ideas down. The 10,000 hours theory. He shared an anecdote about a talk in which a designer waded through page after page of comments about how awful his games were until finally reaching a slide that said: yeah, that one was OK.

I am scared of making bad things, things that aren’t legitimate, that aren’t the best thing they could be. I have been in enough conversations where people deride the sorts of things I make as “too niche” or “not interesting” or “shallow marketing ideas” or “not really games” or redefine them as “concept pieces” (as opposed to “solid games”, like that’s a meaningful distinction) and I have internalised some of that, even while being aware that it’s total crap. I have a depth of feeling here that I wasn’t aware of, until now. Becoming aware of it has meant becoming aware that it’s been blocking me from doing some things I’ve wanted to do for a while. Little games. Silly things. Learning new tools. Making shit art, as Steve Swink would have it.

Since we got home I’ve written some other words about Freeplay for the Guardian. That piece focuses on How To Destroy Everything, a talk which is going to reverberate for a while and take time to percolate through the culture, the way all explosions do. Grant’s written about the impact it had on him, which was markedly different to what I experienced, but no less explosive.

And I’ve made a start on some other things. ibis, fly! had stalled badly; now it’s moving again, albeit slowly, because the structure needs some work. I’m going to be writing more regularly about Twine games here – if you have favourites, please send them my way. And the Boobjam project I didn’t think I knew enough to make – I think it might work in Unity. If I can work out how to make Unity work, if I can learn enough about those tools to encode what I know about game design and systems and play in a new medium. Which means making shit art, and not caring if it starts out shit, and not caring if other people don’t think it’s art.

Every player is an author

This was written in part as a response to the current Blogs of the Round Table topic, “What’s the story?” If you want to read the other responses, please go there and use the dropdown list, because I still can’t get it to work here without breaking my blog. :(

Stories in games are a battleground, especially in digital & video games. I’ve had a couple of tangles in the past with folks who think games can’t tell stories, that good stories and good games just don’t mix, and that games built around stories don’t sell; others say that all games have a story of some sort, even if only an experiential one, and that narrative’s essentially built in to all games.

Reality, as ever, is somewhere in the middle, and a bit more nuanced than that. Zombies, Run, Gunpoint and Gone Home, to name three at random, are excellent examples of narrative built in to digital games from the ground up; Tetris, Super Hexagon and Peggle are excellent examples of games that don’t need narrative at all. Most games do try to tell a story, but the most successful ones let the player do the telling themselves, and give them agency over the narrative – or at least acknowledge the primacy of their play over authored and scripted elements.

Gone Home, Day Z and Minecraft, despite their many differences, are all about creating a world and letting players explore it. Each lays out the bare bones of their worlds and invites exploration, asking players to make their marks on the experience, by creating their own niche within the world or by uncovering the mysteries and reaching conclusions the game’s creators left behind. The difference is in scripted vs unscripted narrative, the difference between imposing an authorial vision on the player vs instructing and equipping them to make their own.

Cut scenes in gaming are, to be blunt, godawful ways of telling a story. So are journal pages left scattered around a landscape – pointless objects supposedly created and discarded with not even the most cursory nod to believability or the internal credibility of the game world. Players are asked too often to suspend their disbelief, not in a “this giant underwater city is (a) real and (b) full of drug-crazed libertarians” way to buy into a grand narrative, but in a “my character’s arch-enemy would definitely communicate privately with themselves through tapes strewn randomly around corridors and cafes” way that denies the internal consistency of the characters within a world. Players are asked to tolerate having control taken completely away from them by an invisible hand, for the sake of a plot point or two. They’re asked to carry out all the action most of the time, but remove themselves and watch passively when it matters most.

Sacrificing believability for delivery undermines a story, and taking player agency away mucks about with consent and identification in ways that most games don’t bother to consider (the first Bioshock game is the obvious exception here). Game stories that use the medium well are incomplete without a player – they require play as an intrinsic element of their enaction, not as a way of filling in the gaps between cut scenes, and they don’t subvert played choices with authored ones (see also: LA Noire, Nico and the prostitute in GTA4).

For instance, The Last Of Us succeeds as a story not because it is a revolutionary approach to narrative, but because it is decently written and because its play elements accord with its authored ones. It makes the player complicit in a combined act of authorship as the game is played: it doesn’t force conflict between the experienced and the authored story.

So much of the perceived conflict between game stories and game mechanics comes from an arbitrary approach of pushing story out on its own – whether it’s seen as more or less important than mechanics in a game, it’s the fact it’s seen as separate that causes problems. Sometimes it’s a decision by studios to keep story creation separate from gameplay. Sometimes it’s a broader production approach that considers them as two separate elements, when – at their most successful – they’re inextricably intertwined. Too many games fail to integrate story into the game at the mechanical level, breaking both the story and the game in the process.Story doesn’t work if it’s limited to spaces where the player no longer has agency, or where their agency is strictly limited by things like dialogue trees or morality systems with the subtlety of a bludgeon.

One of Douglas Adams’s lesser-known games, Starship Titanic, relies on both adventure-game point-and-click mechanics and on freestyle text inputs that let you converse with the robots that inhabit the ship. It was released in 1998, and has more than 10,000 potential responses coded into its conversation engine. Making the characters robots is a smart choice that lets the game get away with repeated scripted responses, and making it possible to talk to them – to say anything at all – is still revolutionary. At one point you have to persuade a bomb (played by John Cleese) to stop counting down. There’s no list of standard responses, no ‘persuade’ options, no raw skill numbers to test against. There’s you, typing, and frankly it’s some of the best games dialogue ever written.

What’s the story? The story’s a collaboration. The author’s not dead, but she’s a shifting entity made up of many others: the designers, the writers, the game’s creators, and its players too. Game makers have to give players the tools they need to do their part of the job without going against anything that’s come before. Video gaming is at heart a performative medium with at least one actor, often more akin to theatre than to cinema. Storytelling in a game is not a broadcast act with a teller and a receiver. It’s an act of authorship that’s incomplete until it’s played.

Video game poetics

Via @brkeoghCraft and Form by Andrew Vanden Bossche is well worth reading.

Talking about character and plot without form rapidly becomes ungrounded and airy, because I’m hearing about people that aren’t real and things that didn’t happen without any grounding in the countless craft and form choices that made all of that junk matter. If plot and character was all that mattered, Wikipedia would be a sufficient replacement for literature. Any description of the effect a game has on the author should come with your explanation of how that happened. What exactly was it about the heartbreaking indie puzzle platformer that made you feel nostalgic? What did Jane Austin do to make you like that dour Mr. Darcy so much? These are not strange or unusual or “academic” questions, they are questions of very basic specificity and clarity in any sort of writing. It’s incomplete to talk about the emotional reaction the game effected in you without describing the cause. This matters for “game mechanics” but it applies equally to writing, art, and music, and the mechanics and form and craft that drive those as well

Where I part ways with him is that I don’t think it’s critics’ backgrounds in literature or English that are an issue here, so much as it’s the particular critical skills that are being brought to bear on games. At present a great deal of games writing is concerned with hermeneutic questions – issues of interpretation. What does it mean? What is it trying to say, or saying without trying? Is it aesthetically pleasing? What’s the cultural or generic context? But much less common, as Andrew notes, are questions of poetics: questions that tackle the mechanics of how a game functions, how its elements fit together and act upon the player – or how the player acts upon them – to cause an effect.

Robert Louis Stevenson speaks to game designers about realism as a tool, as well as to writers. Rise of the Videogame Zinesters has kinship with the Personism Manifesto in its approach to accessibility, personality, realities of experience. It’s only a matter of time before we get a video game version of Projective Verse, most likely delivered at a conference or in free ebook form disguised as a design approach to the Oculus Rift. I can see Aristotle getting along nicely with video game formalism.

This leads me to suspect that – concerned as they are with the mechanics of language, the careful structuring of words to build worlds with minimal tools, with rhythm, pace, meter, tone, pattern, breath, the physiology of the reader, the interweaving of meaning with mechanic – theories of video games are going to end up having a surprising amount in common with theories of poetry. I know that my own thinking about game mechanics – in terms of their effects and their overall aims – draws on poetics as a framework along with other disciplines. But they’re often excruciatingly inaccessible, and perhaps lifting the curtain is less engaging for audiences who want to be entertained, rather than to examine the nuts and bolts. As Stevenson says:

There is nothing more disenchanting to man than to be shown the springs and mechanism of any art.  All our arts and occupations lie wholly on the surface; it is on the surface that we perceive their beauty, fitness, and significance; and to pry below is to be appalled by their emptiness and shocked by the coarseness of the strings and pulleys.  …  We shall never learn the affinities of beauty, for they lie too deep in nature and too far back in the mysterious history of man. The amateur, in consequence, will always grudgingly receive details of method, which can be stated but never can wholly be explained…

Where is the Roger Ebert’s commissioning editor of games?

warren spectorWarren Spector’s latest GI column asks: where is the Roger Ebert of gaming? He bemoans the lack of accessible, consistent writing about games in mainstream media, aimed at broad rather than specialist audiences. The key passages are a call to action:

I’m not saying reaching an audience that doesn’t know enough to take games seriously will be easy. I’m for sure not finding fault with people currently trying to accomplish this difficult goal. I’m just saying we need to continue working and harder to bring more writers and thinkers into the area between Reviewers and Academia. We can’t be complacent and say, “Aw, what we got is good enough.”

Let’s inundate the bookshelves, magazine sections and the web with work that isn’t above (or below) the heads of readers. Only in that way will we achieve the level of respect I believe we deserve. Only in that way will we create an audience more demanding of the medium, which will inevitably lead to different and, I’d argue, better games.

This kind of treatment – as exemplified by the Times articles mentioned above – would do games a world of good. Establishing games in the public mind as something good and worthy and serious, and not just “fun for kids, but not for me” seems important to me. It’s important to developers, publishers, players and maybe even to – for want of a better word – enemies who might come to a more nuanced understanding of our medium.

Frankly, if games are not up to this sort of critical analysis then maybe they are just a way to provide some thrills and chills or some time away from real world problems, as our critics (in still another sense of the word) contend.

I agree, broadly, with the sentiment of the piece – that there is not enough mainstream game criticism of explanation, rather than of evaluation – but the issue is not that we do not have one or many Roger Eberts. It’s that we don’t have Roger Ebert’s editors. In the English speaking world, we don’t have a mainstream press that commissions these pieces consistently from the many talented critics who are already doing this work. We have a mainstream press, for the most part, that commissions very short reviews with evaluative ratings on only the very biggest, most blockbusting titles, or that syndicates specialist content written for gamer audiences rather than for the general public. We have a mainstream media that doesn’t want to – or can’t – pay excellent writers properly to produce excellent work, or promote it appropriately when it does. (That’s a sweeping generalisation, of course. There are many exceptions and many outlets where this is changing. But there aren’t enough.)

Outside the specialist press, the enthusiast press and the academic press, accessible games criticism is not reaching the audience it deserves because it’s not being widely commissioned or published in mainstream publications. It’s not that there’s no demand from audiences – the proliferation of intelligent and accessible work on Tumblr, on personal blogs, and elsewhere is testament to the voracity of that demand. It’s not that there are no writers capable of such accessibility, insight and excellence; there are dozens.

It is, however, about the business and budgetary crises in mainstream media. It’s about the gradual shift away from gamer-as-identity to gaming-as-mainstream-pastime, as more people play games and fewer think of game-playing as a fundamental element of their personality. It’s about the youth of video games and video game writing alike as creative media, and their dual resistance to external critique. And it’s about the shift in thinking involved in situating video games as culture and entertainment when historically mainstream media has covered them as technology. These are all issues that time will solve, one way or the other.

This month’s Blogs of the Round Table topic over on Critical Distance asks what the future of video game blogging is, and this can serve as my response: the future of video game blogging is mainstream. At the moment – like it or not – the best, most accessible, most interesting games writers are freelancers, working for niche outlets and writing for themselves. The future for video games blogging is a mass audience. And hopefully better pay along with it.

[I can’t make the iframe link list to the other BoRT blogs work here – but you should go here and read the others too.]

Games journalism and games PR

A game journalist’s job, stripped down and simplified, is to write entertainingly & informatively about products in as unbiased a way as possible. A game PR’s job, likewise truncated and simplified, is to introduce as much bias as possible into the media in favour of their clients.

They might be friends across the divide. They might share loves of certain games, journalists might fundamentally adore all the work a certain company puts out, they might really like getting free stuff, and if you’re a PR you might justifiably believe what you do is about getting your games or platforms the publicity they deserve. But none of that changes the nature of the relationship.

You don’t have to receive cash, as a journalist, to be bought and sold by PRs; as a PR, you don’t need to intend to cause someone a conflict of interest in order to do it. There’s a sliding scale, of course, between a review copy and a mini figure and a special limited edition set and a trip to Turkey where you get vomit in your ears. Journalists need games to do their jobs. Sometimes they can’t get access without going on a press trip. But if expensive trips with buckets of free food and booze had to be paid for out of pocket, journalists and their employers wouldn’t pay. If they didn’t work in favour of PR goals – to bias and increase coverage – PRs and game publishers wouldn’t pay either. They don’t always work on everyone who goes, but if they didn’t work at all it’s a fair bet they wouldn’t happen. And those trips are just as much about relationship building and making friends across the divide as they are about anything else. They’re about breaking down the professional line and making it harder to publish something negative, as much as they’re about making it easier to publish something positive. After all, who wants to disappoint their friends?

Journos might not think they’re biased, and might not like it if people think they look that way. They might not love that their business model is mostly driven by advertising, and that they have to cover the same games that advertise next to their words. PRs – especially those with journalism backgrounds – might not like that their job is essentially to persuade journos to do stuff they otherwise wouldn’t. But that’s how it works. That is literally what they are being paid to do. At the very least, that should be a conscious thought in the minds of both parties.

If you’re a journalist with access and PRs want to woo you, it’s because they think they can influence you. Or perhaps, these days, just because that’s how things work – people, until last week, had all but stopped questioning it. There is big money riding on everyone keeping up the facade of normality over what is, when you break it down, not a normal process or set of relationships. That’s even leaving aside the potential job in PR that waits for many journalists, when they finally get sick of the uncertainty and the poor pay – and the possibility of upsetting a potential employer is another biasing factor.

There’s no easy way to “fix” this on a wide level; every media organisation has to set its own standards, and enforce them. But if you’re a journalist or a PR, some advice that you can take or leave as you please: work out where your line is, and reject stuff that crosses it. Don’t be surprised when other people draw their lines in different places. And if you’re called on to defend how your behaviour appears, make sure you can do it honestly.

A note on context: this is in response to the uproar last week over games journalists, PR, perceived corruption and libel threats, which culminated in Robert Florence standing down from his Eurogamer column after this article was amended. There’s a good timeline/roundup in this RPS post.

A note on me: I am a journalist, working in digital production for the Guardian, who writes occasionally about video (and other sorts of) games. I’m married to a freelance games journalist. We also design live games, which don’t really have much of a PR budget. I’m writing this from that personal perspective, which is relatively distant from the games journalism industry, in that I don’t do it full-time, don’t really get paid for it, and don’t tend to get invited to big PR events. Keith Stuart’s take on this for the Guardian is here.

Full disclosure: A game PR bought me a bottle of Savannah dry cider once, but I don’t remember who it was. Grant informs me it was someone working for Namco Bandai.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giant Nerds

Notes and slides from my presentation at Develop 2012, on what video games should be stealing/learning from other, geekier sorts of game.

Who am I and what on earth do I do:

I’m Mary, and I’m a massive nerd. Mostly I design live games, mostly involving NERF guns. The biggest game I run is called, imaginatively, Zombie LARP, and it involves live action role playing and zombies.

Zombie was born when Grant, who’s drawn these slides, and Chris, who appears in them pretty frequently, started shooting each other with NERF guns in halls at uni. They invited a couple of us round to their house, and gave us NERF guns, and pretended to be zombies. My first Zombie LARP death happened in their kitchen, as I fumbled to reload a Nitefinder. It was awesome.

The games society at uni kindly let us run it at the 24-hour roleplay. Every year they take over a building at university for 24 hours and play games. Board, card, video, live, war, tabletop – all sorts. That’s where we got our start – playing at 3am with about 15 exhausted geeks hyper on Tesco’s own brand energy drinks. Now, six years later, we run huge games for 150-odd people in abandoned buildings.

But I also play and write about – and sometimes for – video games. And I see a lot of the development processes that we go through with live games and tabletop systems mirrored in what video games are trying to do. So what I want to do today is talk a little about the lessons I’ve learned from wiser geeks than me, playing older, more traditional, and frankly much more nerdy games. Starting with the geekiest of all: Dungeons and Dragons.

What Dungeons and Dragons can teach us about story in games:

The standard game of D&D is a really good model for looking at different sorts of narrative in games. There are four types. Not every game has all of them, but they all have at least one.

First up: the Told story. This is the one the Dungeon Master is actually trying to tell. She might have a whole host of carefully planned and pre-written events that culminate in a fantastic climax. Or, like a friend of mine, she might just have written “BLAM! IS ADVENTURE” on a piece of paper and be totally making it up. But she’s in control of the story, she’s giving out information and framing scenes to create something that adds up. She controls NPCs, she’s the ultimate arbiter of conflicts, she creates the narrative arc and leads the players through it.

Obviously a fair few video games aren’t really interested in this sort of story, or only in very simple versions of it. Things like “Angry Birds invade pig houses” or “Hungry monster wants hard-to-reach candy”. But for others, the story is a big part of the game – the designers want to convey a narrative through the game experience. That’s Told story.

Secondly, the Experienced story. This is essentially the narrative of the time you spend playing, not the game per se. It includes the infrastructure – the stuff around the edges of the game like phoning for pizza or people being late. Interruptions are part of this, and so are stupid out of character jokes, and those times when the conversation wanders off a long way from where the action is. As Michael Brunton-Spall pointed out on Twitter, it also includes things like critical hits and fumbles, where an unusually lucky or unlucky result on the dice leads to a different story being created. Generally this isn’t a story that ever gets told, as such – it gets experienced, and then your brain chops it up into representative chunks for you to remember.

In video games, as well as taking in interruptions and stuff going on outside the game at the same time, the experienced story includes loading screens, and glitches, and crashes, and dying. My experienced story in Mirror’s Edge, for instance, was about a girl called Faith who kept running off buildings and falling unceremoniously to her death. Assassin’s Creed is a series that copes very well with this stuff, by keeping the player in the story world even during loading and dying and other nominally out-of-game states. Rogue-likes make a virtue of the repetition.

And then, there’s the Interpreted story.

Interpreted can’t exist without Told stories. But the theory goes like this:

  • a story doesn’t exist until it’s experienced. That goes for games, films, and books, too. Otherwise it’s just an object.
  • the story is always filtered through the individual understanding of the player involved. Because they’re human, they’ll have different ideas and associations and resonances, a different understanding of what the various bits of the story might mean.
  • so the interpreted story is different for everyone. It changes in different contexts.

In D&D, that turns up most obviously as players getting the wrong end of the stick about something. Not realising the monster is actually being controlled by the supposedly friendly NPC, or deciding that *this* insignificant detail is actually the thing they should go chasing after for the next three hours. But it also covers players finding new levels of complexity in a GM’s narrative, interpreting coincidences as deeply meaningful – or things that are meant to be meaningful as coincidences.

Authors can’t control audience interpretations of their stories – intent isn’t magic – and there will always be a difference between what a creator wants to say with a story, and what people take from it. Even if only because historical and individual context changes. But it’s true for video games that meaning is collaboratively created, it arises from the joining of a storyteller and a story player, and that sometimes the interpreted story can work against the intention of the creator in unexpected ways – or can reinforce it.

Look at the reams of interpretation that’s been done on Silent Hill, or the readings of Resident Evil’s racial politics. There are elements placed there by the designers that have been drawn out by players to reveal a wider, deeper, perhaps more problematic – perhaps unintended – story. Those readings aren’t invalid just because they might not be intended.

Finally, there’s emergent story. Emergent story is my favourite kind. It’s not quite the same thing as emergent gameplay, which in D&D terms would be doing something like making a Grease wizard who only casts Grease and Fireball spells, and is very good at bringing down monsters with low Dex scores like T-Rexes.

Emergent story is what happens when players get to futz around directly with the mechanics of a game, within a framework. It’s the little, unexpected moments that aren’t directly intended by the creator, but that can be the most memorable bits of the game: roleplaying conflicts among the party, for instance. The decision by one player to take the skill Crafts: tailoring, and then go on a quest to acquire the finest suit in all the land. A group of players deciding to jack in the monster hunting business and go be pirates. Or the moment when the characters react to the death of one of their number.

Video games are not great at this. Live games are brilliant at it, and tabletop is not far behind. At Zombie, this is the sort of stuff we thrive on. We deliberately designed the system to encourage emergent stories – to be flexible enough and simple enough for spontaneous moments of awesome, which is what we originally called it. But the flip side of doing that is that for some players, those moments never happen – and if you fail to balance that right, it can make for boring play.

The games that are doing emergent story well right now are MMOs – Eve online, in a huge way, but also WoW and others. Minecraft & the Sims manages a much more individual emergence – the action of a single player in a procedurally generated world – and perhaps the current pinnacle of emergent story in gaming is Day Z. But this is such a young area in video games. There’s so much more to do.

What Dogs in the Vineyard can teach us about ludonarrative dissonance:

Ludonarrative dissonance is a gloriously useful term that describes conflict between game system & game story. Dogs in the Vineyard is a game where you play, basically, deeply religious teenage Mormon virgin gun-toting priests in the wild West. The whole system is built around the setting, and the types of stories you can tell with it. It provides a way for storytellers to building towns that have heresies within them, and giving your players the tricky job of resolving them. It’s a game about hard moral choices, and not having the right answer, and not being sure, and risking things – gambling your reputation and the happiness, security, and lives of others on being right, when there is no “right” to be.

The system you use for conflict resolution is based around stakes, and bidding. It feels a little like poker. You might start out arguing, verbally, and you roll a pool of dice that runs off your verbal skills, and then you have an argument – you bid dice from your pool against dice from your opponent’s pool, till one of you can’t beat the other. Then your choices are to back down, or to escalate. You could move up to physical violence, or even gunfighting, which gives you a new pool of dice – but your opponent can escalate too, and then you’re risking a lot more damage when everything shakes down.

The way that plays out in practice is thematically consistent with the game story – because the game story is running off quite a limited set of themes and ideas. The stories all work off trade-offs, being unsure, raising the stakes because the option of doing nothing isn’t an option at all. There’s no dissonance – the game’s smooth, the experience is unified – because the system, the setting and the story have been developed together, organically. The textures mesh. The experience feels continuous. It’s a deeply fulfilling, immersive, gratifying game to play if you have a half-decent games master, because all the pieces work together.

There are some video games that do this beautifully – Manhunt, for instance. Project Zero. Spec Ops: the Line, interestingly. And then there are games like GTA4, LA Noir, Uncharted – games where the character you control can do things that the cut-scene character just wouldn’t consider. The character that you’re creating and inhabiting as a player is different to the one in the cut-scenes – which breaks immersion, badly, but also breaks the player’s creative, narrative play by disregarding the choices they’ve made. That stops the play experience hanging together, and can make the player feel less invested in the world – after all, if their actions mean nothing once the cinematic starts, then the imaginitive “work” they’re putting into the game isn’t being respected.

What Mage: the Ascension Mind’s Eye Theatre LARP can teach us about ownership:

Mage, as you might imagine, is a game about wizards. Mage the Ascension was about secret wizards in modern-day cities, each with their own understanding of how the world works – their own subjective interpretation of the universal system mechanics. Mage the Apocalypse was a live-action version, where the setting was in a post-apocalyptic world where mages could band together and kill a fairly ludicrous range of monsters of the week – including aliens shaped like flying hats, and vampires and so on.

So. Some people had been playing that game for more than three years by the time I joined – going four times a year or so to events, planning characters, creating costumes, writing backgrounds and events between games, scheming, plotting.

Then, in a forum post between games, the storytellers announced that we’d missed the signs of the impending Cthulhu apocalypse proper, and the unpleasant things crawling out of the sea were actually Dagon-based beasts, and we were all dead.

One very newly recruited storyteller had to deal with what happened next. A group of very invested players who loved that game and felt personally, deeply wronged by what had just happened to their characters got very angry. The problem wasn’t that the game had ended – it was the way it was done. The Etch-a-Sketch end of the world – the perceived unfairness of us having “missed” the signs, and the lack of satisfying resolution for the players and characters. We ended up persuading Jim to retcon the ending and having a massive battle with squid-beasts followed by a barbecue in my back garden, which worked out much happier for all involved – because the players got to have valiant last stands. They got to help, to save some things, to tie up loose endings. They got to make meaningful, characterful choices.

Jim could have told Bioware exactly how the ending of Mass Effect would play with the community of Shepards who experienced it, and exactly how to fix it. Gamers aren’t averse to endings – but if you build a game good enough to have players projecting themselves into your world, and then you destroy it in a narratively unsatisfying way that doesn’t respect their time, their energy and their choices – then the backlash is inevitable. In video games as well as LARP, players feel they’ve contributed to the game world – they feel entitled to a fulfilling story with fulfilling resolution. As creators it’s important to respect that.

It’s easy to forget, behind the buffers of code, PR, marketing, expos, cons and the anonymous internet, that game creators are still sitting down and telling stories round a campfire with their players.

What Fear Itself can teach us about consent in play:

Fear Itself is a tabletop game. It is, when it’s played well, Horrid. There’s a splat book with monsters and other gribbly things for you to include in your games. The book’s called The Book of Unremitting Horror, and it’s got stuff in like a golem made from the remains of people killed in snuff films, and The Motherlode, a horrendous walking vagina thing that births other monsters. And a wolf that comes out of a lake and rapes things. So it’s not a pleasant game. It’s definitely horror. And playing it with a real group is – tricky, because of consent.

In live games, consent can be really quite clear-cut. In LARP, you are your avatar – whatever’s happening to your character, physically, is also happening to you. So certain things are totally off-limits – you’ll essentially agree to fade to black for certain scenes, and agree the details out of character.

In tabletop, it’s trickier. Although your body isn’t the avatar, there’s still a very strong psychological projection of yourself into your character. When they’re directing action or recalling events, People don’t say “my rogue stabbed the dragon”. They use the word “I”, and they confuse other players with characters by using the word “you” interchangeably.

So as a game master, deciding to have a horrendous storyline that puts characters at risk of sexual abuse, for instance, is something you have to talk about beforehand. Gaming groups playing horror games will often have discussions about what they’re comfortable tackling at the table; at any point, someone can say they’re uncomfortable with what’s happening and the game can be steered away or the player can remove themselves without the experience ending. The key point there is “at any time” – you can stop the game, say you’re not comfortable, and work on a compromise that everyone can enjoy.

Just as in video games, tabletop role players have two main control modes for character. On one hand there’s the doll mode, where they’re simply directing action, positioning, controlling the avatar. On the other there’s a mode in which people are acting as their characters, emoting, conversing and projecting as them. Inhabiting them. It’s this ability to become a character that makes consent so vital for games – that makes the consideration of difficult material a much deeper one – because a violation or unwanted event happening to an avatar we inhabit is crucially, psychologically different to one happening to a character we watch or read about.

But big, story-led video games at the moment are not so good at acknowledging that they’re not films, and that they have a different psychological link with their players, where consent to experience is just as important as consent to view. Rating systems for viewing aren’t quite enough to let players make informed consent about what they’re doing, and we don’t yet have a good way to warn for or cope with binary stories that force you-as-player to experience certain things vicariously via you-as-character.

This is part of the problem with the way the Tomb Raider reboot has played out so far. Players who do feel they inhabit Lara may not want to consent to experience a sexualised assault; they may feel like they’re being pushed outside of her, like they can’t inhabit her any more. Like that’s no longer a safe power fantasy – no longer fun. That’s not to say that rape can’t happen in games – in fact, tackling it well will be a sign of serious maturity for video games, when it happens. But the issue of player consent and character consent are horrendously intertwined, and doing it well is horrendously hard.

What Zombie LARP can teach us about game experience and memory:

The main thing that makes Zombie LARP different from other LARP games is our focus on immersion and simple, procedural mechanics. But what makes us different from other live events is our story focus.

The win condition in Zombie isn’t surviving. It’s my job, as the closest thing we have to an AI designer, to make sure that the procedural rules we put in place generate a game where about 2% of the player characters manage to survive the game. So most people can’t “win”. But we still want people to feel like they won.

So we very deliberately decided that winning was about getting an awesome story to tell at the end of the game. Being able to go home and tell your mates you’d shot six of them before they finally swarmed you, or that you went down singing the national anthem and saluting, or that you slit your best mate’s throat and threw him to the super-zombies as a distraction.

What we found was that there are two players in every person. There’s the experiencing player and the remembering player. This taps into work done by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman about the way people work – he says we all have an experiencing self, that’s actually experiencing what’s happening, and a remembering self that constructs narratives about it afterwards.

Zombie’s taught us that great games satisfy both. They have to be an engaging, fantastic experience while they’re happening, and the experience has to be reconstructed in memory as an enjoyable, memorable one.

In board games like Risk or tabletop games like D&D, people elide the memory of the dice rolls and the complex maths from their experiences and talk like it all happened without the rules. This is another reason why dissonance between the play and the story matters – if a system gets in the way of the story too much, remembering players will have a much harder time constructing their internal narrative. It’s also got implications for playtesting and feedback – are you getting feedback on both the experience and the memory?

At Zombie, we run the most immersive game we can manage. We aim to scare the pants off people – or to get them stressed, at least, to get them running and excited and completely involved in play. We cut down abstractions. But we also have something called froth. Froth is a LARP term, but it’s applicable across most types of games. It’s what happens after the game, where people get together and talk through what happened. Sometimes it’s about showing people your Pokemon. Sometimes it’s about telling people at length about the politics of your Maelstrom character. And sometimes it’s about how you died.

So we started running a debrief – a frothing session at the end of the game, where we invite people to tell us their stories. This grew from people just talking as they came out of games – desperate to tell us how they died, who they saved, who went down where and how. People start constructing their narratives through conversations – they tell their stories collaboratively, excitedly, afterwards – and we’ve built a process for making that better into the game system.

In my experience, it doesn’t seem to matter whether the experiencing player has fun, so long as they’re not bored or disengaged enough – immersion is crucial – and so long as the remembering one likes the narrative you’ve constructed about it afterwards. So people who are genuinely upset and frightened during a game talk about it afterwards with genuine joy and pleasure. They get their kicks from the memory of the game – it’s an endurance sport.

The experiencing self gets far more pleasure out of busywork and casual gaming than the remembering self does. Pocket Planes and Farmville are brilliant experiences for a lot of people, soothing and calming, quietly rewarding; so’s grinding, if you’re the sort of person who can sink into a reverie and simply enjoy the experience. But those are generally pretty lousy memories – trying to explain to yourself why you just lost the best part of an hour to a game about planes can be really hard to do. By contrast, there are games that don’t feel as enjoyable while they’re happening but that make much better memories. Skyrim, for me, typifies that perfectly – I have more fun talking about the play afterwards than I normally do actually playing. It’s a balance of system and story, mechanic and narrative – and done right, it makes some of the best games in the world.

Develop title slideStanding on the shoulders of giant nerds:

Video games right now are still in their infancy as a medium. The technology’s changing so fast that it obscures the way that other things are barely changing at all, especially at the top end of the market. Tabletop gaming’s got some very similar problems – where the big titles from decades ago still dominate the market today, while the internet makes it easy for small creators and designers to write stuff and sling it out into the world to sink or swim on its own merits. The big creators are struggling to innovate.

Video games need to get better at stealing things from other genres. It’s easy, when you’re making a game that’s exciting or difficult technically, to be lazy about other stuff – world building, character creation, the smoothness of immersion, the psychological and narrative frameworks of the game. Film is still the default metaphor for big titles – the extreme end of which is Final Fantasy 13, which is essentially a DVD with really complicated menu options, and barely a game at all.

But a lot of the work that video games find so hard has already been done, by LARP companies like Profound Decisions or like the Nordic work on immersive game environments. Procedural generation, emergent play, character-led story worlds – even elements as simple as how to make relationships work in gameplay. Games are starting to draw from all sorts of other disciplines – economics (see Valve), literary theory, anthropology. It would be a shame if they weren’t also drawing on other game forms too.

Game stories and meaningful play

A couple of weeks ago Naomi Alderman, who should quite clearly blog more because she is brilliant, left some extremely insightful comments on my post about stupidity in video games and its link to poor storytelling. I wanted to pull them out and talk about them more, because some of what she says is key to how I think about games and stories. I also need to write about Saturday’s GameCamp, because the big theme of my day was (surprise) stories and games again, but this bears on those thoughts so I’m doing it in this order. Yes! Anyway. Insight!

I can’t tell you how depressing it is to be called into a meeting about a game and told that my job is to “wrap a story around” pre-existing gameplay. The only way to do this well is to involve writers/storytellers right from the start, to give story a place at the table and to keep thinking about what you’re trying to produce until it works for *both* gamplay/level design *and* story.

[…]

I’m going to keep saying this till the cows come home: games motivate action, stories give *meaning* to that action. There’s no intrinsic problem with meaningless action: Tetris gets on fine with no meaning. But if you want people to feel genuinely emotionally invested you need to be involving a storymaker from the moment you start *thinking* about your game. Otherwise the things you’re being asked to do and the meaning of the things you’re being asked to do will always feel at odds with each other (“so I’m supposed to be this by-the-book cop, but I don’t have any problem ramming my car into lampposts, passers-by, other cars?” *cough* LA Noire *cough*).

This backs up the impressions I get when I play a lot of video games – big & small, indie & industry – as well as the impressions I get when I play bad tabletop systems. Tabletop systems are a great way to examine the interplay between rulesets and stories – because (with a few exceptions) any story you’re telling with them is going to be mediated through a GM’s imagination and through contact with the players, the rules have to work with the themes and feeling and general ambience of the rest of the game. Story is integral – you’re building a storytelling tool, after all.

Video games are also storytelling tools, quite literally. There’s different types of story in video games: the story that the player tells themselves in order to make sense of their experiences of play, and the story the game imparts. The story the game tells isn’t just told by the cutscenes or the narration or whatever – it’s also told through the gameplay and the interaction between player and game.

This is what I mean when I talk about story mediating & being mediated by gameplay. The player’s experience of the game mechanics is filtered through and affected by their interpretation of the story it tells; the player’s experience of the story is filtered through and affected by their interaction with the game mechanics.

In later comments, Naomi goes on to talk about character, values and causation as all being important elements of meaning within game stories – important elements to do well in order to create meaningful experiences for players. Choices that feel important, relationships that feel genuine, a story that evokes emotional investment – all elements I recognise as being present in most of the games I keep going back to replay, and mostly absent in the games I set aside. But these are basic storyteller’s tools, drawn from the same workbox as not just other sorts of games but also literature, film, television, radio, theatre. In many ways, when gamers call for these elements, we’re just calling for good writing; there’s no need to reinvent that particular wheel.

I’m thinking a lot at the moment about how Barthes’s Death of the Author applies to video games. It’s long been a staple of literary criticism that there’s no such thing as one interpretation of a story; cultural & critical readings of all sorts abound. In art there’s a running debate about whether meaning resides in the object of art itself, in the web of allusions, connections and contextual & biographical threads that allow the art object to be produced, or in the viewer’s mind, or in the web of similar threads within which the viewer exists. Authorial intent is pretty unimportant when it comes to creating meaning; the text is what matters, not the thinking behind it. So if a video game creator means to make Nathan Drake a loveable charmer but the “text” of the game makes him a genocidal fuckhead, then… the game wins. Canonically, he’s a mass murderer. And the story breaks.

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.