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Mark William Nations

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  1. Mark William Nations

    Rhetorical Game Narrative

    Introduction While games today have heavily invested in the field of narrative in comparison to games from previous decades, it is still in an early stage of its lifetime. Only recently have studios like Bioware, TelltaleGames, and Quantic Dream appeared, dedicated to crafting experiences filled with emotion and strong characters. Art is about communicating with an audience, and these types of games are no different. When we begin to throw religion and faith into the mix, however, we all of a sudden run into a relative lack of narrative exploration. Mark Filipowich's article on faith in games presents the problem quite nicely... "Games don't have anything to say about the purpose of existence or where humans fit in the universe. The existential questions and answers posed by religion and belief rarely make their way into games. Gods and churches are just obstacles or assets." - Mark Filipowich, Machine Gods: Religion in Games Philosophical and ethical considerations are a necessary point of discussion in games if the medium is to evolve, but such an evolution requires a firm understanding of how best to make use of games' core quality: interactivity. Assuming one wishes to craft an interactive experience of a rhetorical nature (that is, one which attempts to affect the players' beliefs), then an analysis of how best to deliver such an experience is in order. Note: The following types of games are beyond the scope of this article: Games with no rhetorical narrative: The narrative elements are more of a utilitarian nature and simply supply the context for the gameplay. Asteroids, Super Meat Boy Games with narrative of a primarily cinematic nature: These games have no intention of relying on interactive content to deliver the narrative. This article therefore has no bearing on assisting their development. Final Fantasy XIII The Fundamental Principle: It's not just "Show, don't tell." It's also sometimes "Do, don't show." Everything that follows is more or less a manifestation of the following two-fold motivation: Allow the player the freedom to invest themselves in exploring an interactive world, and... Craft your world in such a way that the player's interactions sculpt their perception of that world, instilling themes and philosophy by experiencing them in your virtual reality. Don't: Subvert the player's sense of control. Do: Deliver limited cinematic perspective. Cinematics are about creators presenting something to the player. Games are about players discovering what the creators want to show them. Cinematics seize interactive control, delivering a dramatic, yet passive experience. Games grant interactive freedom, delivering a dramatic and active experience. Cinematics most definitely have their place in games, but due to their interruption of gameplay, are best used as pacing tools and gameplay transitions. Occasionally The Last of Us actually uses an innovative technique that hybridizes the intent here: they allow the players to hold down or tap a button to toggle or trigger a cinematic camera view or action whenever something of interest is happening in the scene. Things you can do with this... Interesting event? Hold down Y for a zoomed in, closer look. Could be adapted to even trigger nearby characters to comment on the scene. Nearby NPC invoking some plot-significant dialogue? Tap Y to toggle the camera to always keep the character in focus / the center of attention. Player is still free to walk around, inspect the area, or even deactivate the camera focus should they want to. An item of note in the scene of just gameplay significance? Have a character comment on it, and allow the player to optionally have the camera hone in on its location to help them find it. Check out this masterwork of a scene from The Last Of Us (seriously, take notes). In particular, track the following... suspenseful buildup. NPC-assisted player direction. the player directly triggering the progression of the narrative. the story camera transitions that connect gameplay and cutscene. Like The Last of Us, Mass Effect 3 also makes clever use of cinematic snippets that lean in from the player perspective and lean back out which, if brief enough, are an elegant means of delivering cinematic effects without losing player engagement. Here's an example: Another terrific example where the camera view actually tracks the player's avatar throughout the narrative sequence: As narrative designers, we need to find these kinds of creative solutions to deliver cinematic elements without compromising player immersion. Don't: Believe player dialogue is everything. Do: Rely on your environment to tell the story. Part of a game's strong point is the fact that players interact with a crafted environment: the level designer and/or narrative designer will explicitly arrange the details of the environment to be optimal in some regard. This optimal design is frequently reserved for gameplay functionality, but is sometimes used to enhance the narrative through world-building elements instead. Narrative enhancements improve the sense of presence and immersion games depend on to evoke emotions in players. As such, they are of critical importance to our pathos arguments. Consider the impressive narrative feats accomplished by games that have no interactive dialogue whatsoever. Journey, Gone Home, & Everybody's Gone to Rapture each are highly praised for their narrative exploits, but the bulk of the story is accumulated by exploring an environment, witnessing events in the world, and interacting with elements that merely inform the player's understanding of past events. Virtually any aspect of the game world can be leveraged to deliver narrative. The best case scenario is when you can devise world-interactions that not only teach the player about the world or evoke an emotion, but also teach them about a critical gameplay mechanic. Chris Winters illustrates a great example in his discussion of Portal: "[Valve] successfully managed to tie player emotions to an inanimate object: the Weighted Companion Cube. Gamers had to carry the Cube from room to room only to be told later on to incinerate it, which in turn spawned a slew of fan-made Weighted Companion Cube tributes and, later on, Valve's very own plush toy...And the Weighted Companion Cube was there for a very important reason, fan obsession notwithstanding. With its demise, it taught the player a new gameplay mechanic that was instrumental in the final boss battle with GLaDOS." Mind you, this is just a random block the player interacts with that has a heart on it. It's not a character or a fancy gameplay object. There are plenty of functionally identical blocks the player encounters. And yet, it holds a significant influence over the narrative of the game. Portal just wouldn't have been the same without the companion cube. Don't: Attempt to tell the player what to think. Do: Ask the player questions. People predominantly play games to be entertained (edutainment not-withstanding). To craft a game meant for a traditional audience that argues for particular ideals, the key is to expand the player's mind. When people are playing for fun, they don't want to be lectured to. They don't play to hear someone argue a given perspective. Interactions are a games strong suit. Therefore, the game should rely on interactions to persuade people. Interactions involve us presenting a situation, and having the player respond. Emphasizing interactions means our goal is to craft a world that begs for a response from the player. We need to ask the player questions. What questions should we ask? Clearly they should be questions that make them think twice about significant issues. Keep in mind, the priority should never be to outright force the player to believe in our goal: merely to 1) break down their biases and resistances and 2) subsequently be open-minded when exposed to our ideas. What sorts of questions are useful? Why, quite a large variety in fact: Questions regarding the subject of our rhetorical goal. We can manipulate the narrative result of these decisions to suggest the results of player actions. Be careful not to make these "narrative results" correspond to the success of the game. If a given choice is better for the player's gameplay by default, the player will feel as if the game is trying to "make them" agree with it (read my article on Narrative-Gameplay Dissonance if interested in this topic). Questions regarding related subjects that ease the player into the main topic in the first place. Gotta start somewhere. Questions that provide the player with doubt concerning the validity of common preconceptions or misconceptions they may believe in. This is where breaking down resistances is key. Questions that explore multiple perspectives concerning the main topic. Different politics / cultures / religions / layers of society may examine the topic on different terms, in different contexts. Questions that explore multiple facets of the theme itself. What are the consequences or implications of our proposed idea? What does it mean if we are right? Wrong? Also understand that these are absolutely not necessarily questions in dialogue. We are equating questions with interactions as the player's input is a response to a question we have posed. Therefore, gameplay tasks we give the player are, taken in narrative context, a form of questioning the player. Don't: Make your point just through story. Do: Evoke player emotion via gameplay dynamics and relatable characters. An average narrative design includes a story alongside the gameplay to promote a given theme. An exquisite narrative design builds the story and gameplay within one another from the beginning, integrating the two as a cohesive, reciprocating harmony. An average narrative design includes characters that inform the player of a crucial problem they must solve and what they must do gameplay-wise to fix that problem. An exquisite narrative design includes characters with their own goals, motivations, histories, and relations to others, and who become equally as aware of problems as the player; these characters in turn have their own evaluations of whether "it" is a problem, how "it" should be handled, and how "it" will affect themselves and others. Players then "answer" these gameplay questions by evaluating character relationships and the narrative consequences of the options before them. Pathological arguments are our primary goal. Logic is useful, sure, usually delivered via character conversations. Ethos is also useful, delivered via our reputation/credibility (or our game characters? Untested, but an intriguing idea...). However, the strongest weapon of a game's arsenal lies in its ability to deliver enhanced pathos through a strong sense of presence. Let's do an example. We want to convince people that animals should be perceived on equal terms with humans. We wanna use games because we think we can make a strong appeal with that medium. Here's a terrible elevator pitch: "It's a RPG where you solve puzzles and fight animal thieves to protect local wildlife who are under your care." We've got some gameplay (puzzles and combat), and we've got a narrative (caring for animals). That's pretty much it. It sounds like crap, and nobody would ever invest in the title (let alone play it). Instead, let's rely on a mechanic that delivers engaging dynamics intertwined with character relationships: "In an adventure game leveraging deep relationships akin to Mass Effect 2, a shy girl without any friends finds herself connecting to others in mysterious ways when she suddenly understands the speech of the neighborhood wildlife." Right off the bat, we know the player has an interesting narrative mechanic: they will need to interact with animals in order to develop relationships with the people in the story. This guarantees that the player will in turn develop relationships with the animals as well, something they may not have initially cared narrative-wise, but are interested in gameplay-wise. Regardless of whether they care about animals, many people will care about two things: 1) trying to make friends in an uncomfortable environment is something many can relate to, and 2) the novelty of the puzzle-solving interactions. Together, these may pull together an audience. The second step is to make clear that the player's interactions with the wildlife will be personal. Not "I can ask a cat to spy on a hidden conversation for me", but rather, "I can ask Mr. Tibbles to spy on a hidden conversation for me. He's quite interested in playing the role of a spy, so I'll play along with his fantasy." The deeper narrative context has several opportunities associated with it. The interaction may initially just be utilitarian: the player could just be using the character. But the result is that the player knows Mr. Tibbles trusts her to share in his fantasy. Mr. Tibbles now has expectations of the player. He is now "real" in that the player must consider his perspective. The next time the player has the option of supporting Mr. Tibbles' fantasy, there are several types of responses available, several "answers" to our question for the player. Will they appeal to those expectations and continue to build his fantasy? Or will they squander the expectations and tell the cat that he's just a cat? There are plenty more as well. A question such as this may have little to do with whether the player is directly comparing the animal to a human, but we are at the very least having them treat the cat similarly in an elevated context (making progress towards our goal): considering a deep philosophical question in regards to Mr. Tibbles, the cat. Subsequent interactions lead to the player forming a bond with Mr. Tibbles (this relies on having interesting and relatable characters). The player cares about Mr. Tibbles' relationship to them. The player's original goal was to connect with people and develop friends. Assuming the player has worked with Mr. Tibbles to help a classmate named Jenna from afar, we can later present the player with our primary question: Without the ability to do both, the player can choose to maintain their relationship with Mr. Tibbles or start a new relationship with Jenna in line with the original player goal. Our design wouldn't punish the player for the choice they make, but would simply acknowledge their choice and highlight the effect it has on the characters involved. It wouldn't be your job to make the player choose whom to favor. Instead, your job would be to make this a difficult and heart-wrenching decision: for them to consider Mr. Tibbles on equivalent terms as the human character, to recognize them equally as valuable relationships and members of the community. By nature of your gameplay dynamics and emotional, relatable characters, you can manipulate your quests and narrative interactions to achieve your rhetorical goal effectively. Summary Games have the potential to host powerful conversations within society, and they are most influential when they leverage their interactive nature. We must therefore learn to focus our efforts on highly immersive interactions with narrative systems if we are to hone the art of narrative design. Some methods for doing so include relying on... cinematic effects that don't compromise player immersion our virtual environment to enhance the player's sense of presence in the world. our gameplay options to pose narrative questions to the player, allowing them to consider the philosophical or ethical implications of their decisions. narrative-inspired, engaging gameplay interactions to draw in players relatable characters to evoke player emotion and incorporate a pathos argument for our cause. Hope you all enjoyed the article. Feedback of all kinds is much appreciated! I welcome future conversations on the topic.
  2. Mark William Nations

    Narrative-Gameplay Dissonance

    de nature, would you mind explaining what all of these links are?
  3. Mark William Nations

    Unreal Engine 4 C++ Quest Framework

      Thank you for the feedback. I am glad that this article has proven useful. As I am currently working on a project the work on the nested quest framework is moving along a little slower than I would like. However, the biggest reason for this is that I am trying to feel out if people would find a Data Driven implementation helpful as well. I at least plan on having something in the next few months.   Awesome. Yeah, whenever you get around to it, I'm sure I would enjoy reading it. Appreciate your efforts. Looking forward to it. :-)
  4. Mark William Nations

    Unreal Engine 4 C++ Quest Framework

    I would love to see an article about a nested quest framework whenever you get around to having the time to do it. Your article was very informative. I had messed around slightly with the quest scripting in a Fallout 3 modding setup, and I had been trying to figure out the best way of doing it all in Unreal, but this was a very handy starting point. I also hadn't even heard of the AInfo class which already removes a lot of the headaches I had trying to get a replication-capable data-only custom class.
  5. Mark William Nations

    Narrative-Gameplay Dissonance

    1. I definitely agree that we need to be conscientious of the diversity of the industry's player base. It's part of the reason I included the "exceptions" section of the article. 2. I feel that this article scratches the surface of a particular "universal" principle, as you refer to it, that can be applied to all manner of games' narrative design. In each of these cases, I believe that there is a way to re-implement the design that will maintain the objective of the technique (multiple deep and involved characters, branching storylines, & limited control over dialogue scenarios), without somehow burdening the player with unnecessary stress or pressure. Admittedly, I am opinionated about them being "quality-compromising" practices, but I believe I'm not alone in my evaluation of the current trends in their usage. 3. I would have to disagree with the concept that "trends don't define games - games define trends." Might there be a two-way street here? As a game developer, I draw from previous games, and trends in the industry, to develop the source material that is the collective set of ideas for a game. Then I attempt to innovate on those ideas in some manner (so that it's not just a straight up copy of a preceding product), producing "new" content. If I'm lucky, it is successful, and other games in turn derive their content from it, then their use of the game would, in turn, convert my game design INTO a trend. I could become proud to see my work as a trend-setter. So I both draw from others and possibly have others draw from me, i.e. trends defining games / games defining trends. 4. If by "The trend has emerged as a result of the success rather than its preceding factor," you mean that people have been using the designs I've mentioned because they have been successful, and not simply because they are the way things have been done previously, I would agree with you. In every case, there is something admirable in the goals of the narrative design and mechanics. But also in every case, there are design problems permeating nearly every iteration of it in the industry. This would imply a need for us as game designers to re-evaluate them and decide - NOT whether the narrative design is successful or valuable - but whether there is a capacity for an evolution of the design into something greater.
  6. Mark William Nations

    Narrative-Gameplay Dissonance

    The Problem Many gamers have experienced the scenario where they must sacrifice their desire to roleplay in order to optimize their gameplay ability. Maybe you betray a friend with a previously benevolent character or miss out on checking out the scenery in a particular area, all just to get that new ability or character that you know you would like to have for future gameplay. The key problem here is one of Narrative-Gameplay Dissonance. The immersion of the game is destroyed so that you will confront the realities that... the game has difficulties. it is in your best interest to optimize your character for those difficulties. it may be better for you the player, not you the character, to choose one gameplay option over another despite the fact that it comes with narrative baggage. What To Do... One of the most important elements of any role-playing game is the sense of immersion players have. An experience can be poisoned if the game doesn't have believability, consistency, and intrigue. As such, when a player plays a game that is advertised as having a strong narrative, there is an implied relationship between the narrative designer and the player. The player agrees to invest their time and emotions in the characters and world. In return designers craft an experience that promises to keep them immersed in that world, one worth living in. In the ideal case, the player never loses the sense that they are the character until something external jolts them out of flow. To deal with the problem we are presented with, we must answer a fundamental question: Do you want narrative and gameplay choices intertwined such that decisions in one domain preclude a player's options in the other? If you would prefer that players make narrative decisions for narrative reasons and gameplay decisions for gameplay reasons, then a new array of design constraints must be established. Narrative decisions should not... impact the types of gameplay mechanics the player encounters. impact the degree of difficulty. impact the player's access to equipment and/or abilities.Gameplay decisions should not... impact the player's access to characters/environments/equipment/abilities. impact the direction of plot points, both minor and major. Examples of these principles in action include The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings and Shadowrun: Dragonfall. In the Witcher 2, I can go down two entirely distinct narrative paths, and while the environments/quests I encounter may be different, I will still encounter... the same diversity/frequency of combat encounters and equipment drops. the same level of difficulty in the level(s) challenges. the same quality of equipment. In Shadowrun, players can outline a particular knowledge base for their character (Gang, Street, Academic, etc.) that is independent of their role or abilities. You can be a spirit-summoning Shaman that knows about both street life and high society. The narrative decisions presented to players are then localized to a narrative decision made at the start rather than on the gameplay decision that affects what skills/abilities they can get. Exceptions To be fair, there a few caveats to these constraints; it can be perfectly reasonable for a roleplay decision to affect the game mechanics. One example would be if you wanted to pull a Dark Souls and implement a natural game difficulty assignment based on the mechanics your character exploits. In Dark Souls, you can experience an "easy mode" in the form of playing as a mage. Investing in range-based skills that have auto-refilling ammo fundamentally makes the game easier to beat compared to short-range skills that involve more risk. It is important to note, however, that the game itself is still very difficult to beat, even with a mage-focus, so the premise of the series' gameplay ("Prepare to Die") remains in effect despite the handicap. Another caveat scenario is when the player makes a decision at the very beginning of the game that impacts what portions of the game they can access or which equipment/abilities they can use. Star Wars: The Old Republic has drastically different content and skills available based on your initial class decision. In this case, you are essentially playing a different game, but with similar mechanics. In addition, those mechanics are independent regardless. It is not as if choosing to be a Jedi in one playthrough somehow affects your options as a Smuggler the next go around. There are two dangers inherent in this scenario though. Players may become frustrated if they can reasonably see two roles having access to the same content, but are limited by these initial role decisions. If different "paths" converge into a central path, then players may also dislike facing a narrative decision that clearly favors one class over another in a practical sense, resulting in a decision becoming a mere calculation. Suggestions Should you wish to avoid the following scenarios, here are some suggestions for particular cases that might help ensure that your gameplay and narrative decisions remain independent from each other. Case 1: Multiple Allied or Playable Characters Conduct your narrative design such that the skills associated with a character are not directly tied to their nature, but instead to some independent element that can be switched between characters. The goal here is to ensure that a player is able to maintain both a preferred narrative state and a preferred gameplay state when selecting skills or abilities for characters and/or selecting team members for their party. Example: The skills associated with a character are based on weapon packs that can be swapped at will. The skills for a given character are completely determined by the equipment they carry. Because any character can then fill any combat role, story decisions are kept independent from gameplay decisions. Regardless of how I want to design my character or team, the narrative interaction remains firmly in the player's control. Case 2: Branching Storyline Design your quests such that... gameplay-related artefacts (either awarded by quests or available within a particular branching path) can be found in all paths/questlines so that no quest/path is followed solely for the sake of acquiring the artefact. Or at the very least, allow the player to acquire similarly useful artefacts so that the difference does not affect the player's success rate of overcoming obstacles. level design is kept unique between branches, but those paths have comparable degrees of difficulty / gameplay diversity / etc. narrative differences are the primary distinctions you emphasize. Example: I've been promised a reward by the mayor if I can solve the town's troubles. A farmer and a merchant are both in need of assistance. I can choose which person to help first. With the farmer, I must protect his farm from bandits. With the merchant, I must identify who stole his merchandise. Who I help first will have ramifications later on. No matter what I do, I will encounter equally entertaining gameplay, the same amount of experience, and the same prize from the mayor. Even if I only had to help one of them, I should still be able to meet these conditions. I also have the future narrative impacted by my decision, implying a shift in story and/or level design later on. Case 3: Exclusive Skill-Based Narrative Manipulation These would be cases where your character can exclusively invest in a stat or ability that gives them access to unique dialogue choices. In particular, if you can develop your character along particular "paths" of a tree (or some equivalent exclusive choice) and if the player must ultimately devote themselves to a given sub-tree of dialogue abilities, then there is the possibility that the player may lose the exact combination they long for. Simply ensure that the decision of which super-dialogue-ability can be used is separated from the overall abilities of the character. Therefore, the player doesn't have to compromise their desire to explore a particular path of the narrative simply because they wish to also use particular combat abilities associated with the same sub-set of skills. I would also suggest providing methods for each sub-tree of skills to grant abilities which eventually bring about the same or equivalently valuable conclusions to dialogue decisions. Example: I can lie, intimidate, or mind control people based on my stats. If I wish to fight with melee stuff, then I really need to have high Strength. In other games, that might assume an inefficiency in mind control and an efficiency with intimidation (but I really wanna roleplay as a mind-hacking warrior). Also, there are certain parts of the game I want to experience that can only be done when selecting mind-control-associated dialogue options. Thankfully, I actually do have this option. And even if I had the option of using intimidation or lying where mind control is also available, regardless of my decisions, my quest will be completed and I will receive the same type of rewards (albeit with possibly different narrative consequences due to my method). Conclusion If you are like me and you get annoyed when narrative and gameplay start backing each other into corners, then I hope you'll be able to take advantage of these ideas. Throw in more ideas in the comments below if you have your own. Comments, criticisms, suggestions, all welcome in further discussion. Let me know what you think. Happy designing!
  7. Mark William Nations

    Barebones of Quests

  8. Mark William Nations

    5 Core Elements of Interactive Storytelling

    Thanks for linking the 4-Layer Narrative Design article Carsten (and thank you Thomas for writing it). That was more what I was looking for in terms of "examples". It really helped make the concept more clear. @ Gaming Point: if you read Thomas' document TheSelfPresenceStorytelling,pdf, he specifically talks about how his goal is to get people "playing" a story rather than just "observing" it. Having players interact with the setting, characters, etc. to bring them into the fiction of the world in a more immersive manner. There would of course be an "observing" sense to any instance of watching other characters have dialogue or having cutscenes explicitly, but it's engaging the player's thought process about what is going on in the game world and letting them decipher how it is they intend to progress that adds to their involvement in the existing story.
  9. Mark William Nations

    5 Core Elements of Interactive Storytelling

    Really inspiring article Thomas. I specifically have encountered exceedingly few games where I felt that the game itself was designed towards the development of an interactive story as opposed to gameplay. Like you said, Journey comes to mind (the only one I'm really familiar with out of those you mentioned).   However, I'd like to ask for some kind of concrete examples you can think of (even if only hypothetical) in which a game could go without some gameplay elements and still be a spectacular interactive story. If we are to make a game that focuses on storyline, how should it be differentiated from a gameplay oriented video game? It has to have gameplay elements of some sort to be interactive, so how best to integrate these? I see you've mentioned The Last of Us which I think did this at times (notes, in-game dialogue, etc.), but how would you extrapolate a set of guidelines for effective gameplay techniques that accomplish the goals you are searching for? This will help to focus our attention on the key things we want, both conceptually and in design mechanics.
  10. Mark William Nations

    Character Development in Video Games

  11. Mark William Nations

    Character Development in Video Games

    Great article. I have played a little of the persona games (never owned a playstation product until recently - looking forward to trying the series on PS4 eventually), and loved them, so I can understand pretty well where you are coming from.   Though I know this isn't what you were intending, you may want to re-phrase that final statement because it appears to indicate (at least to me), that "narrative" is something that is unique to gaming rather than "mechanics". Furthermore, it isn't technically correct to use "mechanics" here. There are assuredly different types of "mechanics" in the structure of literature or video/film. Perhaps you mean "interactive mechanics" or "interactive development" - because interactivity is the core element that exemplifies video games' uniqueness as a medium (imo). I believe you are specifically saying that it is especially important that developers have the ability to, in an efficient and intelligent manner, broaden the interactive capabilities of the player such that the process is simultaneously congruent with the development of the narrative.
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