Category Archives: game design

Why do we even have adventure games?

Illustration from Pride and PrejudiceNow that I’m among people who love and make games all the time, a question that has surrounded me for years keeps presenting itself in ever-varying ways: why do we even have adventure games? How did they ever get popular? Why are so many people trying to bring them back?

Surely, adventure games aren’t really games, are they? There’s usually one possible outcome. You follow a story that you don’t even get to influence, unlike role-playing games, where the players actually get to make the story in many ways. Sure, there are a few puzzles to solve, but really you might as well watch a movie or TV series and you can get pretty much the same thing and not have to click for hours to get it.

Actually, there is something to that last point: adventure games are in many ways closer to TV series than to many other games. And their purpose is much closer to television than to, say, a fighting game.

A few days ago, I was watching an episode of the TV series Once Upon a Time with my roommate. That episode ended with a revelation about how a character in the “A” plot matched a character in the “B” plot. This a very common technique in Once Upon a Time. About two-thirds through the episode, my roommate exclaimed, “I just figured out who he is!” There was an implicit tone of contest: I had not figured it out. I actually had not even figured out that there was a new connection made in this episode. After that point, I started thinking about it and I figured it out too. When the episode ended, our assumption was confirmed: we had gotten it right.

In many stories, though, the fun actually comes from getting it wrong and being surprised by that failure. In his game design class at Carnegie Mellon, Jess Schell refutes the claim that some entertainment, like television, is passive, and some, like games, is active. He claims — and makes a very good case for it — that all entertainment is active. The way my roommate and I put active effort into figure out that part of Once Upon a Time is a clear illustration of that.

Note that here was no explicit challenge presented to us. Nor was there an explicit mystery in the show, unlike, for example, in a murder mystery where the identity of the killer is presented as an explicit challenge. The implicit nature of the mystery did not make it in any way less compelling.

Now, one could argue that the challenge was, still mechanical and that it comes from one of the series main, for the lack of a better word, “mechanics.” But this sort of engagement is present throughout fiction. Let’s take Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as an example. Jane Austen was certainly not writing a television series nor a video game. In it, two characters make a claim directly related to each other’s moral and social status: Mr Darcy claims that Mr Wickham is an immoral man who should not be trusted and who, if one allows oneself to give him any credit, will use his influence to perform harmful actions. Mr Wickham, on the other hand, claims that Mr Darcy is cold ad unfeeling and that he takes pleasure in belittling others in order to increase his own sense of heightened self-esteem. The reader is asked to take sides, just as implicitly and just as actively as in Once Upon a Time. And the challenge is just as balanced as any video game is balanced. On the one hand, the central character, the though who we actually view the story, is very much inclined to side with Mr Wickham. She presents evidence against Mr Darcy that is reinforced by the fact that it is the point-of-view character that’s presenting it. On the other hand, we also know that Mr Darcy is one of the main characters and we know that the title of the work is “Pride and Prejudice, or First Impressions” which strongly indicates that false perception will be a important component of the story.

A fan painting of Guybrush ThreepwoodA more explicit way of seeing this is when a story is told in person. One should always make the most of their medium in all circumstances. I have another blog post precisely about that. When telling a story in person, it’s usually a good idea to tell it in such a way that the person (or people) you’re telling it to can interrupt. Actually, scripted stories in which a story is told very ofter use that technique. If someone who’s telling a story in person in a way that could allow interruptions outright rejections them, for example by saying something like, “Please, don’t interrupt me. I‘m telling the story”, they are simply neglecting their mediam.

Adventure games reverse the order in which that participation occurs in the story. Instead of leaving places where to say, “guess what happens now?”, they are constantly saying, “Guess what happens now?”

Unlike games like the Professor Leyton series, an excellent series of games, but not adventure games, in actual adventure games, the story is not present to frame the puzzles, but the puzzles are present to enhance interaction with the story. Tim Schafer’s Day of the Tentacle provide an excellent example of puzzles that work to enhance storytelling-focused gameplay. While action games give players the opportunity to direct fighting parts, or the navigating part of stories in an interactive format, adventure games let players play with the “Guess what’s next?” part. There’s more to it of course, but this is the main spirit that drives them.

So, in short, adventure games are a digital medium that is centered on the part of storytelling that makes us feel like saying, “Let me see if I can guess what happens next.”

Deciding on a study topic for Silicon Valley

Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 by Aaron Reed coverSo we have to create a blog for our Silicon Valley elective class. But I already have a blog! And I’ve even updated it. Sort of. Some times. I think.

No worries. I’ll try using a category for the elective-related posts. Let’s hope that will be acceptable.

I was hesitant about my topic for this class. I saw three possibilities. I knew I had to have samples of C++ code by the time this semester was over, but this didn’t seem to really match the purpose of this class. I don’t have much experience with C++, but I already know it fairly well. The point of the class it to learn things and teach them at he end of the semester. I can practice C++ and then teach it, but that does not feel right. And it wouldn’t really even be learning, it would really be practicing. If it’s code samples I’m after (and I am, I need them to get a job), I think I can manage that on my own.

Instead I’m going to do something with Inform 7. The previous article on this blog was about why I love Scala. This was written when I thought I’d be on a pitch project right now, coding in Scala, that why it had “part 1” in its name even though there never was a part 2. But it’s true I love Scala. I love Scala more than I can describe. But that’s nothing compared to how much I love Inform 7.

I’ve taught the very, very basics of Inform 7 when I was a teaching assistant (or T.A.) during the National High School Game Academy  But, to be fair, I’m a little lost about the details of Inform 7 myself. It’s big, powerful and detailed. It deserves my attention. One of our advisers said C++ was the one to go with because it gets jobs, but the other one said that Inform 7 would make me stand out. I’m much less sure I can write a decent piece of Inform 7 on my own time than a decent piece of C++. C++ you can crank out. Inform 7 must be slowly and lovingly carved out of a fine alloy of effort and imagination.

I’ll try to revive my old idea for an Inform 7 game, Go, Jill!, maybe with less focus on dialog and more on some of Inform 7’s specific features, like the persuasion system, which I think is very impressive. Scope will be an issue, but I’ll try to shrink and expand it as necessary. I’m pretty confident I can make it work.

You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.

Not anymore I’m not!

Indiecade review and highlights

That’s it, Indiecade is over. This is my second conference ever, the first one was GDC earlier this year. A comparison feels apropos.

First of all, the average quality of the speakers at Indiecade does not quite match the incredibly high standards of GDC. But the mood is a different thing entirely. The mood at Indiecade was all about fun. It’s a lot more relaxed. There are much, much fewer people and they seem to be here much more to be here and a lot less because their profession or obligations dictate that they should. Not to say that GDC wasn’t fun and interesting, but the overall “vibe” was more directed, focused. People came to accomplish something and did it. Indiecade was about trying, wandering, discovering, not knowing what to expect.

At GDC, I carefully planned where I wanted to go. At Indiecade, I let myself follow some sort of flow. Some things seemed utterly pointless while some were nothing short of astonishing. There were astonishing things at GDC as well, of course, but the difference was that at Indiecade, the astonishment came without warning, at any time, in any context. Be it about games, technology, general information or just who happened to be in the audience at the time.

Gorogoa, by Jason Roberts

The first wow moment of Indiecade for me was the incredible Gorogoa. It’s a graphical adventure with a mechanic like no other. The innovative nature of its gameplay leaves Loom in the dust. It’s beautiful, moving, fascinating, engaging, surprising and a lot of other good things. It’s, on the other hand, not close to finish and, at the time of writing, quite a bit buggy. The goal of Gorogoa is, apparently, to help a young boy defeat a monster that’s ravaging a city. In order to do this, the boy seems to want to collect color-coded MacGuffins. Nothing too original so far. What makes the game magical is that rather than control a character or his environment, the sets in the game are made of Photoshop or animation cell-like layers and the player gets to re-arrange them to reshape the world, changing the meaning of each shape as it shifts contexts and the meaning of the resulting image. The graphical style of the game is like a nineteenth century engraving, delicate, detailed, organic and understated. It’s a work that could only exist in its medium and that pushes the limits of what I, for one, would have considered within the realm of a single person’s imagination.

Still, I find Gorogoa somehow reminiscent of the experimental works of the French comic book artist, Marc-Antoine Matthieu. Particularly his Julius-Corentin Acquefacques, prisonnier des rêves series as well as his stand-along comic Le Dessin.

Renga, by Wallfour

On Saturday night, I saw a hundred people play Renga by Wallfour. Wallfour, with Renga, has solved what I believe to be a huge problem with many users sending input to a single screen in a way that’s easy to understand: they used laser pointers. A hundred people joined forces to interact with a single using nothing other than laser pointers. The whole experience was fun and riveting. They used a perfect mix of technology and, of all things, stage know-how and dramatic structure.

Super Hexagon, by Terry Cavanagh

Everyone at Indiecade seemed to be playing Super Hexagon, an extremely simple game that got me hooked even though I’m still not sure why. The gameplay is ridiculously simple but irresistibly engaging.

Prom Week screenshotProm Week and more

The final highlight I want to address here is a project that I believe has a huge future in entertainment in many ways: Prom Week. It was not, however, a surprise because I had tried it before. What was a hugh surprise was that I got to meet Aaron Reed, author of what is probably the most remarkable work of interactive fiction in existence so far, Blue Lacuna. There’s a saying: “don’t meet your heroes.” The meaning is supposed to be, “they’ll never live up to your expectations.” In this case it meant, “He will well beyond your wildest expectations and you’ll make a complete fool of yourself in front of him. Or feel like you did.”

Prom Week has a new interface, which is a huge improvement on the old release. I got to speak with Prom Week team member Ben Samuel whose enthusiasm was infectious. He told me a bit about the engine. I still have high hopes for their engine Comme Il Faut, even though, apparently, it is not available for independent distribution quite yet.

Sill, my main takeaway from Indiecade was to have actually met the author of Blue Lacuna, which, to my great shame, I haven’t finished yet. I should really get done with that.

Why not a Proust-themed transmedia work?

Why a Proust transmedia world

This semester, I am taking Jesse Schell’s Game Design class. He did a lecture on transmedia, which has recently become something of a buzzword. In his lecture, he mentioned several examples of transmedia worlds, like Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes or even Tolkien, that were created long before the concept of transmedia itself. Peter Pan is particularly notable, as it was first a short story, then a play and then a novel. It was transmedia in the nineteenth century. This is true of others works, but Peter Pan is very noticeable in this regard. As Jesse was explaining this, my mind went straight to Proust. Proust definitely created a world. It is deep, it if fictional, and it has another criterion that Jesse brought up: it makes some wishes come true. Most of all, it is huge. It may not seem like it at first, but it really is gigantic. A partial list of characters available on line just begins to show the depth and subletly of Proust’s world, how it is multilayered and how every small piece has meaning. Unlike the other worlds that Jesse showed, Proust’s world does not have supernatural elements, but, very much like Star Wars, or Tolkien, there is a deep, meaningful philosophy present throughout the whole narrative, the philosophy of the two “ways,” Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way, what they mean, how they relate, who fits in which and how they can be applied.

The number of pages that compose The Remembrance of Things Past varies from one edition to the next, of course, but the estimate that’s given most of the time is three thousand pages. That’s if you stick to one version. The last three volumes, composed of the “Albertine novels,” The Captive and The Fugitive, as well as the seventh and final volume, Time Regained, are posthumous and unfinished, that’s why they’re only about two hundred pages each. What makes it into the final book depends on the editor, and of all the current French editions, each picks a slightly different variation. I’m not sure where to show sources for this assertion, as I personally stuck to the Gallimard versions, but I heard this from a Proust expert, Pascal Fouché. The Pleiade edition, also from Gallimard, is supposed to have all known variations.

But the variety of versions for a single, huge, coherent world does fit within Jesse’s definition of a world suitable for transmedia. At note about the “coherent” part: Proust’s story is notoriously incoherent, particularly when it comes to time. Time is basically “bent” in Proust. In the first volume, the narrator remembers seeing a woman whom he refers to as “the lady in pink” when he was about ten years old and was visiting a philandering uncle of his. Spoiler alert: the lady in pink is, a few volumes later, revealed to be none other than Mrs. Swann. But, by that time, it is also made clear that Gilberte Swann is the same age as narrator, so when the narrator saw the lady in pink at the age of 10, Gilberte was also 10 years old and at that time Mrs Swann was married and no longer called on single gentlemen at all. So really the narrator, at the age of ten, was visiting the version of Mrs Swann from several years before he was born. This point is never made explicitly, but such inconsistencies do not stand out it Proust. The story of The Rememberance of Things Past is made to be as vague as possible and these details, more than anything, give it an organic texture, like something you’d remember but that is on the tip of your tongue. And three thousand pages long.

The idea of a transmedia world that has in inconsistent story is not that unusual. The canon of Star Wars varies from one medium to the next: there are in fact several “levels of canon” for Star Wars. And Doctor Who has an immensely incoherent story. One of the writers, either Russel T Davies or Stephen Moffat (I’ll admit I don’t remember which one) actually recently said that it doesn’t really matter if the story of Doctor Who is consistent: you can always explain that the timeline has changed because of some sort of time travel. What was important was for the world to be consistent. And in that measure, Star Wars, Doctor Who and Proust all pass.

At the time of writing, the slides for last lecture were not up, and I was relying on them to see how much Proust followed Jesse’s guidelines for a good transmedia world. But at the time, when i was looking at the list on the screen, I was thinking, “That’s pretty much it.” So what’s missing?

Simplicity and transcedance

I’d say that what’s missing is simplicity and transcendance. Proust has neither of those. There are no situations in Proust where the social interactions or personal goals are streamlined to something that can be stated in one sentence. Anything in Proust requires explanations of several pages made of extremely long sentences. Some paragraphs go on for several pages. Proust is, if anything, complex. As for transcendence, there really isn’t any either. I don’t know if transcendence in that context actually means a supernatural element. I don’t think so. But whatever transcendence means, Proust’s world doesn’t have it. The greatest thing his characters can aspire to is some sort of underappreciated artistic achievement and a tiny bit of social mobility. M. Bontemps is gently mocked in the narration at some point because he is a simple diplomat and doesn’t know much about the finer things of life. An occupation that most people at the time as well as nowadays would consider a tremendous accomplishment is still no big thing in Proust’s world.

From then on, the question poses itself: is it a shortcoming of transmedia worlds that they require simplicity and transcendence? Pokémon definitely has it in every form. It is not a world as deep as Proust by any means. Harry Potter is a complex metaphor, but it falls short by the way it fails to address many important issues. The one that always disturbs me every time I think about it is that the wizards definitely have the ability to cure cancer and many other illnesses, they also have the ability to fix many of our social and economic problems. If the world of Harry Potter were to be taken literally, wouldn’t the whole wizard community be guilty of possibly criminal negligence towards muggles? That’s one of the attributes of simplicity and transcendence, the complexities of the real world don’t “map” into it. They do map into Proust.

So are such works, the transmedia works, the works that do embody the principles of simplicity and transcendence, are they inferior to more finite ones? If they are, is it by nature or only the current instances? And if it’s only the current instances, are deeper, more complex worlds about to come when the time is right and the public and maybe authors and technology ready for them?

That, I don’t know. Would Proust be making games today? Would Shakespeare? Maybe. It’s fun to extrapolate but not really useful. Maybe Proust, had he grown up in the seventies or eighties would have been reprimanded for being lazy and pretentious and given up on literature altogether and gone into banking. Who knows? But the question about how deeply simplicity and transcendence it tied to interaction is a serious one. And I have absolutely no clue as to where to start looking to answer it.

Game Jam entry: Eternal Guardian

My group’s entry for the 2012 Game Jam was called Eternal Guardian. It can be found on the Game Jam’s website. It was made with PyGame, so it works on any platform that supports PyGame: Windows, Mac, Linux and most Unices.

The theme this year was the Ouroboros, the serpent that bites its tail. We made a game on the theme of sustainability and renewal. A Mayan city in peril is granted the help of the snake god from the incoming peril. But protecting the city is not as straightforward as it seems.

As this was made for the Global Game Jam, the whole game, art included, was made in less than 48 hours. Programming was done by Daniel Langdon, Andrew Sweet and me. Daniel was great at solving what turned out to be very tricky math problems. Andrew as our local PyGame expert. I took care of the sound. And all the art was done by Jame Threefoot.

When will all the classics come?

Last Friday, Extra Credits team members James Portnow and Daniel Floyd did a Q and A with some of their fans. I happened to catch the end of it. One of the points that James Portnow made was how the great classics of games had not been made yet. I am quoting from memory here as, at the time of writing, a recording on the talk has not been put on line yet. I think the question was where in the history of game we were. Everyone seems to agree that we’re at the very beginning of huge things to come. I cannot honestly deny that I share that impression. But Portnow went further and said (if I remember correctly) that the game equivalent (and he meant equivalent as in role in history, I think, not in content) of The Odyssey or of Hamlet or Dante’s work had not been made yet. I don’t remember clearly which tiles he quoted. At some point he mentioned a nineteenth century title and pointed out that there was a huge gap between The Odyssey and that title. This is, obviously, true.

Still, there is one aspect that he seemed to have ignored. Classics were not always classics. Joyce and Proust were never popular writers. Neither was Descartes for that matter. But many authors that we now consider classics and force reluctant children to read while they’d rather be watching TV, going to the movies or (how shameful!) be playing video games were precisely considered the popular entertainment of their time. Two names come to mind in this category: Shakespeare and Dickens. As a French person, I’d like include Corneille in the list, and maybe even Molière. Balzac certainly fits the description. Idle children in the nineteenth century, instead of doing something productive, used to read Dickens or Balzac, or some other pointless, easy and potentially immoral readings. Now these are assigned as schoolwork.

The Far Side: Hopeful ParentsI’m not sure we can be certain that games that were made as early as the eighties or maybe the seventies will not fit that description some day. But it would be unwise to categorically assume otherwise.

Treasure Your Medium: Agatha Christie and Game Design

Spoilers ahead. Sorry.

I love Agatha Christie. I mean I don’t just really like her work, I LOVE what she does and how she does it. I don’t love all of her works, but when she does it right, she’s among the best the world has ever know.

There are many reasons why Agatha Christie was so good at what she did. But, as far as I could tell, one of the main reasons is that she treasured her medium. She did not write play-like books, or movie-like plays or novel-like plays. When she was working with a medium she took the best she could out of it. Others do this as well, but the topic of Agatha Christie’s novels make her efforts more visible than many others’.

Let me illustrate with a few examples. First of all, Appointment With Death. This is a famous novel of hers, adapted into a wonderful film, very faithful to the book. At the end, Poirot reveals that the murderer is (shock!) the last person anyone suspected. In both the novel and in the film it’s based on, Poirot explains in detail his reasoning and how and why he gets to his inevitable solution.

The first play Agatha Christie worked on was Alibi, based on what is arguably her masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. She was not satisfied at all with that play and proceeded to write her own stage adaptations from then on. For Appointment With Death, she realized that Poirot’s monologues and complex deductions were fascinated to her fans in the novel, but would be tedious to wach on stage: it would then be little more than people standing still while one of them was talking. So not only did she change the solution to the mystery (hint: the only even less likely suspect in the play) but she removed Poirot altogether. In the play, some of the remaining characters, a pair of romantically entangled young people in particular, figure the solution out by talking to each other and comparing views on the events. This is a dynamic, dramatic, visually and psychologically compelling way of presenting the solution, a way that is perfectly suited to the stage. A way that embraces the medium.

Why then did the story of the novel work on film? Films are in many ways closer to novels than to stage plays. Not in every way, of course, but certainly in way that matter here: they can punctuate long speeches with flashbacks (murder mysteries often do that) or with reaction shots. They can emphasize how dramatic a specific part of the speech is with close-ups or camera movements. Plays don’t have these tools. They have other advantages, but none of them would have allowed Agatha Christie to make Poirot’s monolgues enjoyable on stage. So she accepted the limitations of her medium.

Another work by Agatha Christie that stars a young couple as the detective character is one of my all-time favorites: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?. In that novel, at the very beginning, our young hero, Bobby, finds in the middle of a golf course (brace yourself) a dead body! In a panic, he searches the body and pulls out of a pocket a photograph of a woman. He finds her rather plain. Later on, there is a police examination and Bobby’s co-hero, Frankie, also gets to see the photograph that was in the dead body’s pocket. But she finds the woman in it beautiful. When the two of them try to figure out what is going on in this complicated story, they actually go so far as to argue over that detail. Frankie goes so far as to accuse Bobby of being too choosy when it came to women, an acccusation that Bobby has to take seriously given the tangled nature of his relationship with Frankie. Much later, it turns out that there were two photographs in the pocket. Bobby saw one and that same one got removed from the body before the police got to it. Frankie saw the other. The nature of the narrative text allowed Agatha Christie to describe both photograph in the same language while sounding specific but in fact being vague enough that her reader did not suspect that she was describing two distinct items.

Returning to the stage, Agatha Christie’s stage masterpiece is certainly The Mousetrap, the longest-running play in the world. In it, the main murder takes place on stage in front of everyone. The audience is in front of the whole thing without any visual obstacle between them and the very crime they’re a witness to, but not only can’t they communicate any of it to the characters, the stage is set in such a way that what the audience does see is no real help at all as who did it. The trick is so simple that I won’t ruin it by revealing it here, but it would not work on film, radio or in a novel: The Mousetrap is made for the stage only and only works on the stage.

As for Agatha Christie’s overall masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which has been adapted in movies, TV series, plays and comic books, it too uses its medium to the fullest. Most adaptations try to work around how Ms. Christie takes advantage of the narrated word, but often only attempt to do so in vain. It may work, but it cannot feel as smooth as with simple narration.

Agatha Christie did not just accept her medium but she treasured it. When she set herself up to write a play, she did not try to make it “cinematic” or “like an epic novel,” she made a play that would give her audience an experience that only a play can give. And she was right to do so.

When it comes to games and interactive media, for me, the master of that skill was and still is Ron Gilbert. The way he uses dialog trees creates humor that could not exist in any other way. The two games I enjoyed the most in the recent months, Portal and Braid do similar things. Would Portal, even just its story, work nearly as well in another medium? One trick that works in Portal — whether it is intentional or not — is that, unlike in film, in games we are really usually guided by pre-recorded voices. In that way, the way we are introduced to GLaDOS is perfectly believable. This would not be the case in a film: we would expect a film to polish everything Aperture’s AI says. At the beginning of Portal, the game, we may know that the audio problems of the GLaDOS AI are placed there by Valve, but we are ready to believe that, even within the story, they are just events triggered by Chell’s actions because, well, that’s how games work. The sort of metastory or metastructure that comes out of finding out that GLaDOS scrambles her own messages with static comes as a surprise in the game in a way that would not make sense in the same way in any other medium. Furthermore, this revelation is meaningful in the game: it’s an essential part of how we progressively learn the true nature of GLaDOS, but also, in part, the true nature of what Portal itself is.

If Agatha Christie knew how to accept the limitations of her media and to embrace what made them special, there is no reason why we should not do the same. We may be filmmakers and writers and musicians but when we’re making games, we’re making games and that’s the essence of what we’re doing, just not a cast made after the fact, or an afterthought, but, I repeat, the essence of what we must do.