Sunday 26 July 2009

The Function of Narrative in Games: A Theory

Looking at the balance of narrative vs ludology in game design, I keep thinking about what it is that narrative does. I’m not especially interested in the ‘effects’ of narrative on the player so much as the ‘function’ of narrative. That is, what role does narrative have in the process of playing of a game?

The simplest and most compelling theory is narrative exists to help the player continue playing the game. Narrative does this by encouraging the player to have an emotional investment in the story, by tying together a series of potentially unconnected events and places (the ice level, the fire level), and giving perceived value to repetitive actions. This overarching function of narrative at any point in the game has two immediate goals: telling the player what actions they need to do next, and reminding the player what they have already done.

Telling the player what they need to do next can take the form of a quest diary or journal that a player can refer to at any point. It becomes increasingly important as the complexity of games has increased. Introducing the 3rd dimension immeasurably increases the difficulty of navigating the playing space, as does other ‘realistic’ effects: dust, clouds, smoke, and moving the colour space towards brown, wet and reflective increase the requirements of filling your levels with shouty men standing where you need to be, pointing at things you need to shoot (This is epitomised in the single player campaigns in the Call of Duty series of games). In this sense, to rephrase Clint Hocking, if the best we can achieve with narrative in games is to prevent the screen scrolling to the left, then we have failed to use it to its full capability.

Reminding the player what they have already done is in some sense less critical: it helps with the elimination process for figuring out where to go and what to do – but the necessity of repetition in games may confuse even this issue. But it ensures the player knows what they can do – what capabilities they have at any point in time. More importantly, this aspect of narrative is what carries the emotional investment of the game – because it reminds the player if nothing else of the time they have already spent playing.

But what the narrativist debate in games is actually about is less the function of narrative, and more that this narrative experience requires an externally agency for it to be effective - an author, who provides the narrative to the player through cut scenes, traditional story telling mechanics like dialog and literally dropping story text, in the form of diaries and recorded messages throughout the game space.

My experience with roguelikes suggests external agency is not a requirement. Narrative exists in roguelikes in two forms, in a similar ‘what I’ve already done’ and ‘what I have to do’ form (it would be disingenuous of me to omit the fact I’ve chosen a narrative theory that provides this correspondence). The ‘what I’ve already done’ consists of after adventure reports (AARs) and day in the lifes (DiTL) written by players of roguelikes and posted to the forums and shared with other players. The ‘what I have to do’ form consists of a check list of items that have been learned by repeated play as necessities for successful progression in the game.

Narrative in this sense is a user generated experience – but other narrative forms are equally user centric. Literature provides this by mimicking the internal voice through the process of reading; film, television and first person shooters by superpositioning the viewer over the camera location. Games do this by creating a space where a set of psychological needs can be replicated and fulfilled. The difference between traditional narrative and games is that with games the player is not only required to read the narrative, but must make decisions to propel it forward.

The simplest narrative is takes the ‘and then’ form – perhaps told by a child. ‘And then we went to the park. And then it was raining. And then there was a red ball. And then I fell down.’ We are remarkably adept at constructing a compelling internally consistent story from this sequence of statements. But if I was to ask you come up with the next statement in the sequence of events, you’d immediately pause. You’d need to consider the likely sequence of events (was this child’s care giver there, were they seriously injured, is there a hospital near by, does someone have a phone) and provide a statement that follows consistently. That in itself is not difficult. But where the current gap with games occurs, is that you must not only consider a whole set of information, the game designer must have anticipated all of this criteria as well, and provided for the set of decisions you are likely to make. The correct answer, of course, is ‘And then Zoe helped me up.’ – it’s a retelling of a game of Left4Dead.

It is the gap between the decision making capabilities of the player, and the game rules built by the game designer that makes narrative problematic. We overcome this game through repeated play, as I suggested, through learning the rules of the game and improving our skill in navigating the game space. But linear narrative fails to provide a supporting framework for repeated play: ‘And then we went to the park. And then we went to the park. And then we went to the park. And then we went to the park.’ is a far less interesting a story. We focus a lot more on the exceptional events than the everyday. But we need that everyday framework to ground this in – reread the first example with the insertion of ‘And then zombies attacked.’ as every second sentence to understand how this framing helps understand context.

I firmly believe that roguelikes have solved the narrative 'problem' through permadeath: which forces the player to experience this repeated play, while focusing the mind of the designer on how to provide sufficient variety with each play through to make the experience unique. The roguelike narrative of a single play through is united, I’ve argued elsewhere, by the meta-narrative of repeated interesting and hopefully unique failure which guides the player’s learning of the rules of the game. The player overcomes essentially the same challenge over and over, as the player improves in their ability to use the resources they have, over an ever changing, ever escalating topology of surmountable obstacles. It is no coincidence that this also describes Shadow of the Colossus, a game which has been widely lauded for its synergy of game play and narrative.

This meta-narrative theory, replaying the essentially the same game over and over but with harder to solve problems, can help explain the strength of genre in games – when you move from Doom to Half-Life to Far Cry 2 you are not so much playing new games as replaying the same game again with more complex variations. And it can help explain why some narrative devices from other media fail to survive the transition to gaming.

Imagine you are a designer of a first person shooter which has included a successful widely read writer from the beginning, lauded for the previous work he has done in this game genre. Not only has he developed the plot, character designs, history and many script elements to support the kind of exciting, perhaps revolutionary game experience you are looking to produce, but he’s included a plot twist about a third of the way into the game which introduces and provides a coherent explanation for an innovative game mechanic element which features for the remainder of the game. How do you market the game?

In the example I’m thinking of, you go out, and demonstrate at every possible opportunity how the new game mechanic works, giving the media footage and press material showing off the technology, and help them inform and educate the gaming public. Forget the fact that this completely destroys the plot twist for anyone who has the slightest interest in the game: in fact, you’re setting this up so that someone playing the game will spend the first third of it wondering exactly when this mechanic kicks in.

This is comparable to the Wachowski brothers before releasing The Matrix holding press conferences explaining how the machines jack people into their power plants and the BTU output you can expect from an average adult male. Instead, the brothers chose to run one of the most innovative, audio only campaigns creating heightened anticipation of a movie property which had not yet proved itself, to ensure that the first viewing of their film leaves an indelible mark on the audience. The gaming equivalent I’ve referred to: Clive Barker’s Jericho.

From a traditional narrative perspective, the marketing decision made by the makers’ of Clive Barker’s Jericho makes no sense. The twist, a movie staple, works because subverting the expectation of the audience doesn’t suddenly cause the movie projector to fail, or the surround sound system to break down. But subverting the expectation of someone playing a game can result in this complete mechanical failure. If the player doesn't know where to go next, or what they can do, the game can fail.

In this light, it makes perfect sense to spoil the twist in favour of explaining how the mechanic derived from this twist is used in game. While this is a matter of conjecture, I'm am sure early on in user testing, the need to introduce the character switching mechanic to the audience as early as possible was identified and the marketing approach derived rationally from this. Clive Barker is intelligent enough an author to have deliberately designed the narrative twist which introduces this mechanic. He merely made the mistake of breaking the unwritten rule that any narrative twist should never affect the game play (See Metroid, Metal Gear Solid 2, Bioshock, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare etc. for examples upholding this rule).

Similarly, the absence of a falling climax or denouement in most game narratives, much lamented by game critics, is easily explained when viewing the game meta-narrative as an escalating series of repeated actions.

The unreliable narrator is another narrative staple from more traditional media. GLADoS from Portal is the best example of developing an unreliable narrator in a gaming medium: in fact, you are explicitly set up early in the game play to be shown her unreliability by being told by her you cannot complete a puzzle, in direct contrast to the expectation that completing puzzles allow you to progress. But when presented with the twist and after having been trained throughout the game to use the available tools to avoid destruction, it is still incredible to see the number of people who fail to read the situation, and proceed calmly to their death when ordered to do so (I too am guilty of this mistake). Only the game over screen rescues you from this misinterpretation.

So if these traditional narrative techniques fail to translate readily to the gaming medium, what tools can we use successfully to empower game narrative? That's part of what is so exciting about the medium - we are still in the process of building tools and exploring their utility. I'm going to suggest two that are successful: ownership through naming and resonance. Undoubtedly there are many more.

Friday 24 July 2009

Holy holy invasion!

I don't know where to begin, but there are so many things I want to say about this game that I didn't realise I needed to play until I read this review. I'm torn between writing a clone or buying a PSP.

Let's just leave this at Spore done right.

Thursday 23 July 2009

Randomized levels in Diablo III

One of the contributors to the PCG wiki just highlighted a link to Blizzard discussing randomized level generation in Diablo III. Unfortunately, a little light on the detail. I was hoping for more.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Give me money

I believe I've discussed this before, but Gabe Newell is also now recommending that you give me money in order to fund me developing more games...

(By me, I of course mean all those amateur and indie developers whose games you enjoy. But also me.)

Saturday 18 July 2009

Bob Smith has died. Joe Smith is sad.

Half way through reading a #gamedesign tweet started by Soren Johnson, I came across this gem:

Harvey1966 @bbrathwaite: Another fave example: Sadness when a male X-com soldier died because another had the same last name. (Married?) #gamedesign
Thu Jul 16 22:35:00 +0000 2009
ClickNothing @Harvey1966 re X-Com soldiers... still reigning example of 'deeply moving dynmcly driven 'narr elements' - from >10yrs ago.. !!!
Does naming the procedurally generated content the player discover create more 'ownership' of that content?

(PS: Should I tweet? Could someone explain to me why this would be [insert positive adjective]?)

Monday 13 July 2009

Running hot

The answer to my Cold Start question I posed earlier:

I have seen this problem previously caused by the CPU starting on a low stepping and failing to step up due to temperature of the CPU. This was fixed by the vendor (not Dell) releasing a BIOS which started the CPU initially on a high stepping and then stepping it down following POST.
Care to suggest any alternatives?

Sunday 12 July 2009

Getting warmer

Those of you intrigued by the Cold Start story I told have made some interesting guesses, but I'll let you ponder this additional piece of information.

The problem started occurring after a BIOS upgrade.
Does that help or hinder you? I'll let you know if you're getting warmer...

Saturday 11 July 2009


There have been a number of intriguing articles written over the last few weeks about one of the key concepts, and most criticised features, of roguelikes: permanent death, often shortened to permadeath. This is the notion that should the game avatar die, the player should start from the beginning of the game. Permadeath is the reason why it can take years to beat certain roguelikes - in my case, I have never won a game of Angband or any variant of it in over ten years of playing - and why so many people initially turn away from the genre. But in a world of quick saves and regenerating health, permadeath is the one compelling design feature that you need to appreciate to understand the genre.

The challenge of playing Far Cry 2 with one life made by Ben Abraham of Sometimes Life Requires Consequence has been picked up and commented on by lead designer Clint Hocking, who goes on to explore the conflict between what Ben is attempting and the narrative losses that Clint designed into the game. (As an aside: the immediacy of playing the game and being responded to by the designer of that game plays to the strengths of the blogging medium, the dialog between auteur and audience. This was a triumph - I'm making a note here etc. - for the rise of the game critic/blogger.)

In Infinite Caves, Infinite Stories, Anthony Burch explores what makes Spelunky so compelling - a freeware mix of platformer and roguelike, one of the nascent roguelike-likes if you will - and identifies a mix of three elements: 'randomized [...] levels, emergent gameplay and permanent death'. Think of these as three legs of the roguelike game design triangle - each of which cannot stand unsupported without the others.

Randomized levels, built from procedural techniques or randomly chosen pre-assembled components, is what you immediately think of when talking about roguelikes. But randomized levels feature in the RTS genre without permadeath - but on reflection, the RTS genre does intra-level permadeath: it is possible to lose and restart on a single map while keeping progress between maps. It turns out many genres have permanent death and restart as a core component of the game - arcade fighters, horizontal and vertical scrolling shooters, strategy games - in fact, permanent death is only seen as a negative in narrative based games, especially those like RPGs that feature accumulation of resource over time, and it is roguelikes that are unique out of these types of games in continuing what started as an arcade tradition.

What almost all other genres featuring permanent death have in common is that there is a resource accumulated from game to game: player skill. Improved twitch resources required to dodge an ever increasing swarm of bullets or rote memorisation of the patterns of enemy waves, increased understanding or yomi of the opponent's mind - all of these attributes can be improved and reused in repeated play.

But with roguelikes, it's not obvious what skills are being developed. Certainly not reflexes, and with a single player game, no understanding of an opponent is required. Puzzle solving is closer to the process, but puzzle solving in an environment where the board is reset differently every time, and the pieces are sometimes unfairly tipped against you.

I'd argue that there are two important but distinct phases of skill development that in roguelikes: discovery of emergent game play and the trade off between exploitation of resources against evasion of risk.

Emergent Game Play

Emergent game play in most roguelikes rests on a foundation of the combinatorial explosion caused by designing verbs and objects to maximise the number of verbs which can interact with each object (and implicitly, through throwing, falling, collisions and other game 'physics', maximising the number of ways objects which can interact with each other). From Spelunky, it is possible to rescue a maiden by picking her up and carrying her to the exit, but also, by noticing carried objects can be thrown, a thrown maiden can be used to interact with targets in a number of different ways. Nethack and other roguelikes do this by expanding the number of verbs and ways those verbs can be used - which leads to that Nethack saying 'They thought of everything!'

The process of learning the emergent rules of a game with permadeath and randomized levels transforms the game play from a fixed author led narrative into a meta narrative about the experience of the player learning through repeated and hopefully interesting and unique failure. As the developer of Dwarf Fortress puts it 'failing is fun' - provided you don't have to repeat the same sequence of narrative events each time you do.

But why does this 'failing is fun' approach to learning not work in a game where the player's progress can be saved at any point?

The problem with save games is they capture the wrong sort of progress. The player may have made a critical error of judgement, and failed to acquire a necessary resource or game play skill, somewhere in playing the game prior to saving the game state - and neither the player nor the game designer has any way of knowing this. This is why so many games are designed with gated progression: discrete levels over which a player has to demonstrate supposed mastery of a particular skill. But if a skill is only significant for a subset of the total game, then why have that skill at all? Why not release a series of mini-games instead?

The only guaranteed point at which the player is open to all lessons is at a complete reset of the game state. This does not necessarily have to be a complete restart of the game: it is possible to save player progression provided that all players will end up in exactly the same game state at some point during play. This could be the start of a or new level in a puzzle game which resets all the pieces in play or a new map in an RTS which does not allow units to be kept from previous successes or failures.

Without randomized levels, it is possible for a player to progress simply through rote learning, without having improved the necessary skills. More importantly, repeating the same sequence of actions and narrative sequences is frustrating and ultimately unfulfilling. Think of each play through of a game as being set an exam with a pass or fail mark. If the levels are not randomized, it is possible to sit the same exam over and over, memorising the answers to fixed questions as a method of passing, but not an indication of underlying ability. The process of quick saving and reloading is akin to being able to guess every answer to each question and trying again if you get the wrong result.

Varying the rarity of objects, seen in genres such as MMOs and collectable card games as a callous way of manipulating players to endless grind, instead becomes a useful way of extending the player enjoyment of this learning process, ensuring that some learning situations occur less frequently than others and consequently remembered more vividly. The requirement to identify items through using them common to many roguelikes also helps extend learning, in that the player is not necessarily aware of what resources they hold at any time.

But - even despite my best efforts in Unangband - it is possible to discover all possible emergent properties in most games (not quite true in all cases: self-evolving systems like Galatic Arms Race will prevent this in the future, and the pimpest plays in Starcraft have continued to evolve over that game's lifespan) - and once learned, an emergent property is just another line in a FAQ.

Exploitation and Evasion

In an information complete game, where the player has complete knowledge of the rules, the processes of exploitation and evasion become primary. Take a typical game of Rogue. The player travels through a number of rooms spread across multiple dungeon levels, accumulating resources as they do so. But as the player descends in the dungeon, the level of threat from monsters increases, exponentially so, without a consequent increase in the rewards for defeating them, so that in the last few levels it is better for the player to evade encounters with monsters and conserve the resources he has accumulated earlier in the game, than attempt to stand his ground and fight.

This process can be modelled as follows, where the horizontal axis is the playing time, P indicates the overall accumulated power and R is the risk at any point:The exploitation phase of the game occurs when the player has more power than the risks they can encounter - the evasion phase of the game occurs when the opposite is true.

In reality, the both player power and risk change in step wise increments, and because resources can be lost as well as gained, it is not necessarily a consistently upwards progression. And most roguelikes have a combination of attacks by monsters which can only be avoided by the player having specific resources to resist these attacks. This complicates the picture, because at any point there is a multi-variable level of risk depending on the player's location, and known and unknown threats in the region the player is located.

The key player skill then becomes recognising when the player is in an exploitable situation and taking advantage of the opportunity to collect useful resources, versus an evasion situation, where the player should continue moving and avoid any imminent threats. This reaches a logical conclusion through the what is known in Angband as diving, where a player descends as quickly as possible through the dungeon, stopping only when exploits obviously present themselves - a technique very similar to speed running non-procedurally generated games. This works in Angband because the rewards deeper in the dungeon are progressively more valuable than earlier in the game and so it is always worthwhile going deeper even as the risks escalate. Similar behaviour occurs in Left4Dead, where quickly running through a level is almost always a more effective technique than going out of the way to find the limited additional resources hidden on the map.

On the face of it, exploiting is grinding like behaviour: techniques from Angband such as worm farming to quickly gain experience through killing a self-replicating monster strongly resemble grinding monsters for experience in MMORPGs. But what distinguishes exploiting from grinding is two-fold: limitation of exploitable resources and permadeath. Grinding in a game with permadeath still has an element of risk - that of dying through boredom or statistical happenstance. At any point in time, there should be a non-zero chance that the player will die, and lose all the effort accumulated through relatively safe resource accumulation. More importantly, any time spent grinding at an early phase of the game, is time wasted not playing at the maximum level of reward vs. risk later in the game.

This is a design balancing act: the player must be made aware that progression escalates reward as well as risk, as well as ensuring that the player is never able to accumulate all the necessary resources required to win the game through grinding. The balance in Angband is maintained by preventing the player from grinding unlimited resources for equipment, and ensuring that a player with maximum experience but no equipment will quickly die. (This is not quite true: the technique of stair scumming allows equipment grinding, but an honour system encourages the Angband community not to take advantage of this.) The use of explicit timers, such as food in Rogue, and the ghost in Spelunky, can also ensure that the player is pushed onwards instead of grinding any exploitable situation they find.

Permadeath adds another interesting facet of the exploitation vs. evasion and progression vs. grinding balance. Provided progression through the game brings greater rewards, and the player is able to evade threats at the current level of risk, there is no incentive not to progress to a higher risk area. The rewards are comparatively higher for same the time investment in the game, and the increased risk will either be successfully evaded or result in permadeath, which is the most time efficient way of highlighting the player has judged the level of risk incorrectly. So the design incentive appears to be to be to allow the player to progress through the game relatively easily, stopping off at points determined by the player to acquire the resources needed to survive at all in the next region of escalated risk. In Angband, this is summarised ironically as:

1. Visit general store
2. Buy Lantern
3. Kill Morgoth

because of the lack of fix requirements to complete the game.

Randomized levels require some form of grinding be present in order to guarantee the game is winnable. This is because the player may experience either a resource poor series of levels or a string of bad luck which depletes a high level of resource, through no fault of their own. The extent to which grinding allows the player to alleviate this bad luck is another design decision. It may be that some games are unwinnable is a viable choice here. At the same time, emergent game play through object interaction maximises the chance the player will have some resource available to counter any randomized situation that they find themselves in.

Primal Instincts

At any point in time, the player is faced with the decision of fight or run. This is answered by a careful weighing of the odds, what resources does the player currently have, what is known about those resources, and what threats are known and unknown. Information becomes a precious commodity in a game with randomized levels, and permadeath is used during the learning phase of the game to provide a final lesson in determining if the player understands all the variables of every situation they find themselves in. Once the player understands the game well enough to win it, permadeath is a final backstop to the ever tightening vice between progression and risk, one technique of ensuring that the player does not endlessly loop in a grind.

The question becomes, is this process of learning worthwhile? Is an intuitive understanding of multivariate analysis over a complex risk topology subsumed into a flight or fight instinct something worth playing? Whether this is true is beyond the scope of this article, but I would argue that this skill is something that makes us human.

Cold start

I bought myself my first desktop ever: a Dell Studio XPS, and had it delivered earlier in the week. It's reasonably well specced (Core I7, 6 GB RAM, Radeon 4850), but I'm just in the process of logging my first support call for it:

The computer fails to start when cold. Switching the power on results in the fans spinning up, the power button maintaining a yellow LED lite as opposed to white, and POST not launching. After waiting 30 seconds or so, and shutting the computer down by holding down the power key for 5 seconds, it is possible to power it up again and have it boot normally.
The amusing part from my point of view is I've seen this problem on another model of machine, in 1999. Care to hazard a guess as to the cause in that instance? (It's not year 2000 related)

Answer will be in a follow up post...

Saturday 4 July 2009

John Harris is now taking mental steroids

Two articles in as many days. I nearly fell off my chair.

An @Play article on Nethack variants. Including some other game which features Un in the title.

And a well-received Game Design Essentials column on role-playing games.

Thursday 2 July 2009

Unangband competition post-mortem

I'd like to start a thread here, and on the forums, for analysis of what worked and what didn't work in the Unangband competition. I'll start with the feedback from drchung, and let anyone else contribute their ideas. Feel free to use this as a wide ranging platform for game design discussion and how playing Angband and variants 'should' feel:

Post-mortem: This has been a really really fun variant. For me, the big draw was the quest-like zones. There was such a strong flavor from the lord of the rings arc that it really made it interesting to push from zone to zone.

It is really hard to judge the difficulty of the game. On the one hand, the player gets so many advantages, from an inherent speed boost from agility, truly immense hp, bags to hold all the buffs and potions that you can want, and runes to get the egos that you want eventually.

And yet, this warrior didn't dominate the late levels like I am used to in other variants. I think the AC damage reductions that the monsters get is a huge part of this-- I feel in most bands, warriors thrive when they can whack monsters really fast. That just doesn't really seem to happen in U. Even with the 5d9+45 firebrand axe, killing wyrms was a hard slog and things like minotaur lords, ents, the tougher golems, and many of the bigger undead were just not worth fighting.

In some ways, the warrior played a lot like priests in other variants, focused on fighting a war of attrition. That made the tight packed mobs in especially the tower boards quite difficult to face. That combined with much less consistent escape (I found the ?o<>creation to be the best method) can make things tricky.

Still, I feel it was tough but fair, and I think an experienced player of this variant can turn it to a not-so-hard experience. It is just different from the normal 'band experience-- diving is not the answer, and you have to get used to fighting uniques sooner than you expect in V. Still, you get those juicy hp, natural speed boost, and all the potions you can drink.
I'll post my own feedback on the thread, but feel free to drop in some comments here as well or instead.