Search Results for: storytelling

XCOM's mastery of player complicity

Much as Fallout: New Vegas felt like an entire season or two of a solid TV series (as Matt Weise and I discussed in Play of the Light), XCOM: Enemy Unknown feels like an epic movie or miniseries. New Vegas begins with a single motivating frame, but delivers many episodic stories while the protagonist pursues it; XCOM has only one story, but it’s a war story told across a handful of discrete acts, driven forward by a course of high and low points. That alone might have been enough to have me play through the whole thing, but I find XCOM uniquely compelling in how it makes me feel like I’m playing a sizable role in creating the story, despite its necessarily pre-scripted underpinnings.

Solitaire video games have been using well-established filmic story techniques for some time now, of course; screenwriter Todd Alcott described how Half-Life adheres satisfyingly to a modern three-act story structure. But where games like Half-Life or Bioshock speak to you through a linear series of obstacle courses, XCOM gives you a wider structure of non-predetermined procedural events, with scripted plot points acting more as targets to aim for than paths to maneuver through. I haven’t quite seen this since Star Control 2, and I believe that XCOM’s design proves even more effective in providing a real sense of agency — and therefore complicity — to its player.

This happened to me yesterday:

My satellite network — hastily assembled and sparser than I’d like, due to early-game mismanagement, but still effective — tracked the landing of what the game described as a small scout UFO in a Chinese swamp. I had recently entered what I take to be the story’s Act II, shortly into which I had shot down and captured the most enormous UFO I’d encountered so far. A surprise raid on a scout ship sounded like an easy dessert mission.

I — that is, me, in my living room, not any in-game protagonist bound to scripted events — decided to treat this as an opportunity for a live-fire training exercise. This is not a choice I picked from a menu of ways to respond to the situation, nor was it anything suggested to me by in-game advisors. Through a few minutes’ worth of manual controller-fiddling, I had most of my usual team hang up their equipment and return to the barracks, and equipped and deployed less-experienced soldiers in their place. I also rolled in a robotic mobile weapons platform that my engineers had just researched and built, but which we hadn’t fielded yet.

When the strike team reached the landing site, I had an up-and-coming heavy-weapons specialist accompany the robot in approaching the little craft directly, while the other four soldiers flanked it. No sooner did the lead man see that the ship’s door was already open did it pour forth a host of alien horrors none of us had never seen before. As the rest of the team watched in shock and confusion, they took my poor sergeant like an offered hors d’oeuvre.

The battle ended moments later with no further casualties on my side, but the camera let itself linger on the higher-ranking soldier who had rushed to the spot where his comrade fell. I couldn’t tell quite what gestures he was making underneath all the after-action-report text on the screen, but I think he may have been sobbing.

While I saved my game before this (and I’m not a lunatic who activates the permadeath-ish “Ironman Mode” on my first play-through) I didn’t go back and try the mission over. Despite the loss, it felt like a gain, narratively speaking. This thrillingly worst-way education that my team has yet to see the full scope of the alien threat yet would fit perfectly into any filmed sci-fi epic, and so it did in the epic I increasingly feel like I’m co-authoring with XCOM’s creators.

I felt like I helped make it happen. And not in the sense of “Gosh, I really screwed up — I deserved that setback,” but in the sense that I played an actual participatory role in helping the game tell its story. The game encouraged me to feel overconfident, but it was my own choice to actually adopt that stance, going so far as to put green troops in harm’s way, and paying a dear price for what we all learned. This isn’t the first time this feeling arose during this play-through, but it is the most recent, and (with the shocking on-screen death of a secondary but still “speaking-role” character) maybe the most personally affecting so far.

Many other games would either fall back on a completely scripted cutscene to express this plot point, or would treat my sub-optimal performance as a complete failure, as if I had wandered off-script and spoiled the story, and would demand a do-over. XCOM, like magic, transforms gameplay failure into a narrative “low point”, tempering the protagonists’ power and complicating their goals, and it feels right. And the story continues from there.

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Interactive fairy tales

This is a wide-open question, and historically around here the wide-open questions fall flat and deflate with a faint sad whistling sound. But I'll try it anyway.

What are the archetypes of interactive folk tales and fairy tales? I mean, what are the natural shapes of the things?

We have fairy-tale notions -- and maybe they date back no farther than Grimm and Lang, I'm no researcher, but we have them anyhow -- that if there are three brothers, then the first one gets the title and the second one gets the wealth and the third one gets to be poor and honest and goes off to be a protagonist. Three sisters (or nine, or twelve) are rarely even that lucky. You give a coin to a beggar so that he will turn out to be a wizard or the king of this-or-that; misery follows innocence and leads to triumph; and you always fail after succeeding twice, or succeed after failing twice.

(That last point should probably be tied to the observation that second marriages always work out miserably. I don't know where that one leads.)

But all of this pre-supposes a certain... certainty. Inevitability. These stories come to us in books, and there is a way the story goes. (Even if the movie then re-stitches the whole thing into a hat or a pterodactyl.)

What does a story look like when interactive tools appear, and the constraint of print and performance is removed?

I know, this is the core question of the game-design era, and I'm not going to solve it. But the fairy-tale approach appeals to me, because fairy-tale archetypes give us a model of story ideas that are simple -- boiled-down, even -- and yet still resonant. Surely we can say something as simple as "there were three brothers..." while incorporating player choice.

There were three... brothers? Sisters? Siblings? If the player merely chooses the genders and then lets the story run, is that interactivity? (Yes, and probably interestingly. But this addresses the gender roles of traditional fairy tales, rather than their static-fiction form.) If you choose the character, with his or her particular motivation, and then let that run? (Perhaps.)

There were three siblings, and the first was... The second was... Does the story have to be about the third? Can each sibling have his or her own adventure? (Certainly. This is too simple, though, if you just write three stories and paste them together at the front. The point of three siblings is so that we can cheer the least and unluckiest one to victory. Now, if each protagonist thinks he or she is the least and unluckiest -- because they all value different things -- and then each one sees the others stumbling somehow to failure, and sets off to rescue them, while being rescued along the way in two different and (from the interior view) less crucial ways... I think there's some silver to be mined in that hill.)

A child became lost in a forest, and... what happened next? The child traps or defeats the monster and escapes. (Or is devoured, sure, but that forest path doesn't need my feet to be well-trodden.) But how does it happen? (A cut leaf, a flask of spring water, the words to make the roses grow. Is it unreasonable to offer any of those tasks as the story, and let the player choose which one to unfold? The ending is inevitable, but the middle can go various ways. Or you could flip back and learn what happened before the beginning, when the innocent childhood wasn't so simple. Or it might be the beggar's story, after all, who gave the child a flask in return for...)

We have, to be sure, a set of fairy-tale tropes much like IF puzzles: fetch quests, token-gathering, and riddles. So we have the whole array of IF devices that apply to puzzles. Multiple solutions, optional puzzles, free ordering of puzzles, rewards or story events ordered independently of puzzle order. This is 1990s IF technology, and easy to take for granted, but worth mentioning.

@peterb suggested digging into the layers of retelling -- grandmother may tumble out of the wolf's corpse smiling, or maybe eaten is eaten, if that's what you want of it. Underneath the fairy-tale forest is the Schwarzwald, and below that starving bandits, perhaps. I like that notion.

We might have three stories stitched together more delicately: a cause here, an effect there. The interactivity is in choosing which story to follow, on the coarse level; but really the player must recognize the connections and cohere the fourth, unspoken story.

I'm not coming anywhere close to an archetype here, I admit. I'm listing particular patterns, if not specific game ideas. It may be that whereas condensed story ideas are recognizable, condensed interaction ideas are toys -- not compelling without their details of gameplay. I can tell you that you will decide who to adopt as your wise old mentor, or in what order you will defeat the conspirators, or even what virtue you will discover on the way to the witch's oven. Are these notions intriguing? They've been tried, and successes do not come to mind. Archetypes grow out of the stories we actually perpetuate, I suppose.

Posted in Essays, Zarf on Games | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Kymaerica in Lincoln

Our current guest blogger here on the Gameshelf came to visit the Boston area several months ago to do some guest lecturing. On his plane ride over, he read in an in-flight magazine about Eames Demetrios and Kcymaerxthaere (or Kymaerica). Kymaerica is “a global work of three dimensional storytelling,” wherein plaques are placed throughout the world and give little bits of story related to a parallel universe.

It turns out that there is a plaque not far from Boston, and as our visitor also wanted to see some graves nearby, we decided to make a trip of it.

We had a nice little adventure trying to find the plaque. First, the description on the website was a bit off. After searching around for a bit, we decided to ask someone about it. We found a guy doing yard work. He knew what we were talking about (but didn’t know what it was for) and pointed us a bit farther up the road, saying it was just behind this minivan that we could see. So we went to the minivan, and sure enough there was a low stone wall there (the name of the plaque/site is “Nayumbo’s Wall”), so we thought we were on the right track. However, nowhere on that wall could we find a plaque.

We dug through leaves, we looked on the other side of the road, we went up and down the road, but we just couldn’t find it. We had thoughts about knocking on the door of the house with the minivan, but it looked pretty quiet, and it was relatively early on a weekend morning, so we didn’t want to disturb anyone. We were very close to giving up, when a small boy came out of the house and started running around the yard. I think I must have looked at him as he was running, because my eye was drawn to another part of the wall that was on their property, back from the road a good 30 feet, and I saw the plaque.

I called the rest of the party over, and by that time a man had emerged from the house. We chatted with him for a while, and it turns out that he was Eames’s roommate in college, which is why he had a plaque. During the winter, he puts the plaque away because it gets buried in snow piles that are generated when the road is plowed, and he doesn’t want to risk it getting damaged. He hadn’t yet put it back out for the season, but he did so then.

Have any Gameshelf readers seen any of the other plaques (there’s a map on the website)? Care to share your stories?

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