Little Blog Adventure

A gaming "sketchblog"

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Narrative and Time in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Choose a game which you feel attempts to incorporate strong narrative elements.

To answer the above discussion question, I've chosen one of my favourite games in recent years- Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The game is an interesting one to look at because of its unusual (for a game, anyway) narrative technique and one of it's main gameplay features- the player's ability to manipulate time (albeit in a limited way).

Discuss the tension between agency and narrative structure within the game. Do you agree that narrative and interactivity can never co-exist? Why/why not?

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is an unusual videogame (at least in my experience) because the entire story is told as a flashback, narrated by the Prince himself, who you take control of in the game. This is interesting because it implies that everything that you're playing through in the game has already happened. If you die, the Prince will exclaim- "That's not how it happened!" and the game will allow you to restart from the last checkpoint. During non-interactive cutscenes (and during some gameplay sequences as well), the Prince will interject a few comments about your current (which of course is his past) situation.

What's interesting is that despite the storyline implying I had no global agency, I never actually felt that way. Two factors lead to this, I believe. One is that the actual gameplay, consisting of a series of what are effectively obstacle courses that must be traversed by skillful application of the Prince's acrobatic talents, was really compelling. The second is that the player, despite playing as the Prince in the game, is actually put in the position of the (invisible til the end of the game) audience to whom the Prince is speaking. At every point in the game, we don't know what's going to happen next- and so we're curious. The game, then, feels like a story that we have to play through to reach the end (kind of like an adventure game in a way).

Oddly enough, I think this partially resolves the conflict between narrative and interactivity inherent in all games of this nature. The player is no longer torn between the idea that he/she is making meaningful changes to the game world and the relentless, linear pull of the narrative. By explicitly taking away the concept of global agency from the player, it frees the player to concentrate on the local agency of each series of puzzles he/she traverses and enjoy the narrative as the linear, designed creation that it is.

So does this mean that narrative and interactivity can never co-exist? No, I don't think so. I do, however, believe that narrative-based games, in their current form, are incapable of doing this (mind you, I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with that). No matter how many branching paths a designer adds to a game's storyline, all those branching paths are still those that have been chosen by the designer and not the player himself/herself. The kind of game that can truly bridge the gap between narrative and interactivity will have to be one that lets a storyline emerge dynamically from the interactions between a player and a game-world. "Emergent gameplay," so to speak.

How is time represented in the game? Is there a separation of story and discourse time? How does the game’s use of time allow for interactivity?

In the process of answering the first question, I think I ended up answering the first 2 parts of this question as well. So I'll talk a bit about the player's ability to manipulate time in the game. Basically, after a certain point in the game, the player acquires, shall we say, a "device". This "device" contains a number of charges, each of which can be used to reverse time by about 10 or so seconds. Thus players can save themselves from a painful death (caused, more often than not, by a mistake made during traversal of the game's obstacle courses). Later in the game, you'll also be able to use said device to slow down time (which helps out in battles) and freeze time (ditto). These time manipulation abilities are restricted, though, and the player does not affect the flow of time within the storyline at all. So we could say that the game uses the manipulation of time as an interactive tool, while at the same time giving players no freedom to affect the flow of time within the story of the game.

Rumours of Gaming's Creative Demise= Very Much Exaggerated

The brilliant PS2 action-adventure game Shadow of the Colossus has debuted at the number 1 position (oh by the way, that's my regular non-school blog) on UK's weekly all-format games sales charts, taking out EA's NFS: Most Wanted in the process. Oh sweet irony! It's heartening to see that Sony pushed the game with a massive marketing campaign, especially given how little attention they gave to it's predecessor, the equally-brilliant ICO. This, I think, proves what I've always suspected- that gamers will play unconventional, artistic games of high quality if they're made aware of it. Oh and if you're reading this, scratching your head and wondering, "Shadow of the who?", then wander along to this meandering but frequently eloquent review of the game by the Hunter S. Thompson of gaming, Tim Rogers.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Playtesting Round 3- FIGHT!

PROTIP: If your game board is larger than the average restaurant table, don't go to Anchorpoint to test your game.

We ended up playing the game in an empty corner on the 3rd floor of Queensway. Not the best location, perhaps, but we made do.

As for the playtesting itself, we think we've got unit balancing down pat- we made a change to the Dean unit to make him more formidable, as befits his rank. He now attacks using a 4-sided die with a x4 multiplier. So he either hits for 4, 8, 12 or 16 damage. Quite a bit more satisfying than him attacking with a 20-sided die and repeatedly landing 1s and 2s, methinks. He also moves 2 squares per turn, to prevent a situation where he gets hemmed in by opponents and is unable to attack them (since he only attacks in diagonal directions). This is necessary since the death of the Dean (oh dear we need to revise our terminology!) spells defeat for a player. The Alex unit, who's L-shaped knight-like attack is delivered with the 20-sided die, is the most useful unit in the game but also the most vulnerable with his limited health. These changes make the game a bit more strategic and exciting- since your strongest units are also your weakest and most vulnerable.

We've also decided to cut down unit health points by 5 across the board to make gameplay more speedy- especially since we're going to place LTs on the board which will give health bonuses to units which land on them. Also, we've changed the rules which determine defeat: a player can only be defeated if his/her Dean is killed or his/her Dean's office captured- we took out the 3rd option of defeating all units other than the Dean since a Dean faced off against a weakened opponent, say with one Dean and a student, could conceivably still win the day

In addition to LTs, we'll also have squares which bestow upon a unit a damage bonus, card squares and a University Health Centre square which gives health bonuses to all of a players units (we may have to make this a one-time-use square to prevent abuse). We're implementing a rule for the health squares whereby a player who lands there must vacate the square within the next turn. This to prevent camping.

Speaking of camping, that's one of 2 main issues we were left to grapple with after the session. There's a risk that in a 3 or 4 player game, one player may choose to simply sit in his section of the board, watch all the other players annihilate each other and then destroy the survivor, who will no doubt be weakened beyond any possibility of gaining a victory. We discussed several possible solutions- including a penalty for staying in your own section for too long (we mooted this one) and having attacking players get a bonus whenever they defeat another player.

We rather liked this idea and Weiwei came up with this implementation: a player who defeats another player gets to revive a dead unit of his choice. This makes no difference to a player who's at full strength (presumably a player that good needs no extra help!) but is quite a big deal for one who's faculty strength is at it's ebb. It also encourages reckless use of the Alex unit if a player is in a position to sacrifice it to defeat another player. However, this still doesn't fully solve the camping problem!

An example to illustrate- a camper at full-strength versus a player who has a Dean, a Student and Alex (at full strength, just being revived). Unless the camper is very, very stupid, there's really no way the other player can win. We mulled over this problem for quite a while and finally decided on this solution: let the players solve it themselves. :P

OK that sounds like lazy design but there's a (hopefully) sound reason for this! See, we can't think of a reasonable penalty for being a camper. And really, being a camper should be a valid tactic. But with a few judicious hints (or if those don't work, a few OBVIOUS ones) players will soon realise the folly of letting another player camp. So we're going to add a rule to allow adhoc alliances. Players can choose to gang up on other players. A camper will soon find himself overwhelmed if 2 (or even 3!) other players decide to attack him/her simultaneously. The battle, then, gains a psychological element. What about the reverse case- players repeatedly ganging up on 1 lone player?

Well, bullying is certainly possible, but it's up to that player to try making other players a better deal than the one they have at the moment! After all, alliances can't win the game. Only individual players can. So any alliance is doomed to dissolution. No point being loyal to a player(s) game after game.

So that's that, we hope. I mentioned a 2nd main issue we have. We've got to redesign our cards. We need to do that anyway- there's not enough of them at the moment and not enough helpful cards to make taking the risk of landing on a card square worth the while of a player. But we also need to take into account the fact that we've added attack squares and more health squares, which make some of the cards irrelevant.

Here's my idea- there will be a few cards that produce rather drastic effects and a lot more which have movement effects (forcing the unit that landed there skip a turn for bad cases and making other players skip their turns for good cases). We'll have to test out our new game system again to work out further niggles, but I think we've got a fairly fun game on our hands here. :-)

2nd Playtesting Session Thoughts

2nd playtest was during Wednesday's tutorial. Supposed to let another group play the game to observe their play session, but sadly that didn't work out as the only other unpaired group in class hadn't quite finished their design yet (tho it did look like it'd make for quite a fun, competitive game once they do finish it). So we played it amongst ourselves again. As usual, Weiwei has put a very, very comprehensive review of the playtesting session. Complete with photos. And a diagram. Oh my.

Well, I'll just post some brief thoughts then:

The physical size of the game-board and pieces, oddly enough, affects how fun the game is. Our first board was small enough to be placed on a Starbucks table, with enough space left for drinks too. Our second board was so large we had to spread it out on the floor to play. We had a lot more fun on the 2nd session. Now why was that, then? I think it's because the first, overly-small, board just felt too cramped whereas the larger one FEELS good to play on. You don't feel constrained by it, and the large pieces feel satisfying to move around. I do believe that we could make the board a lot smaller than it currently is and still retain this feeling of spatial freedom- but I surmise that there's a lower limit as to how small we can make the board and still keep it fun.

This is interesting. I used to play chess with my friends on the bus home from secondary school (yes, we were geeks)- we'd use one of those tiny boards with magnetic playing pieces. That was really fun. So a small board size isn't overly constraining for some games. But clearly, our game isn't chess. We don't have as many pieces and we've got a Dungeons & Dragons-style (albeit simplified) combat system. Our pieces have more visual elements on them which don't scale well to small sizes- namely, the fact that units can face different directions. It's hard to put discernable arrows on tiny magnetic pieces. I wonder if there might be psychological factors involved, too? Hmmm...

Monday, February 06, 2006

Thoughts about Chris Crawford on Game Design

I read game design guru Chris Crawford's latest book on game design over the weekend. The book is eminently readable- the writing is fairly informal and the ideas well-communicated. And what ideas! The first 12 chapters of the book are fairly essential, I think. The 4th chapter on the topic of Challenge in games is particularly edifying. It describes the types of challenges that games can present to players and the final one it describes, social reasoning, is very interesting indeed. Chris Crawford criticizes game designers for being generally clueless about social reasoning. He reckons, and I think he's damn right on this point, that games which challenge social reasoning skills would be attractive to women. Heck, I'd go a step further and say that games which incorporate such challenges would be more appealing to a broader segment of men than those who play games today. This gives me an idea for a new game design, actually. Getting a bit late though so I'll put up something tomorrow.

Back to Crawford's book- Chapter 11, on Storytelling, was another good read. While I think the man gives less credit to the open-ended game design of Grand Theft Auto than it deserves. He, like many commentators, myopically focuses on the game's ultra-violent aspects while neglecting what really gives it such immense appeal to players, the degree of freedom given to players within the game's world and the flexibility this gives players in completing the tasks the game sets them. Hell, even Will Wright endorses GTA's design; and a recommendation from one of the greatest designers the games industry has ever seen is no small matter, I think. Anyway, I strongly believe a new kind of interactive narrative technique will eventually emerge out of this sort of gameplay, but it's still far too early and too little-understood, especially by rival game developers who take the external trappings of GTA and turn out inferior imitations. But anyway, Crawford does have some really good ideas about storytelling in games and how it could become more interactive. At the end of the chapter, he presents a major hurdle that needs to be jumped before truly interactive storytelling can become possible- verbs.

Interactive storytelling, he says, is about choice and verbs are what he calls "the vehicle of choice." Stories in novels and movies involve thousands of verbs covering a myriad of actions taken by characters. The average action game has 4 verbs: walk, run, jump, shoot. And sometimes talk. On consoles, this paucity of verbs can be traced to the relative lack of buttons on controllers. The PS2 controller features the most buttons- but it's still a paltry 8. Shinji Mikami's Resident Evil 4 gives players a greater variety of verbs within the limitations of a console control scheme by making one button context-sensitive- it does different things depending on where the player is and what he's doing. So that same button will cause the player to jump, dodge attacks, open doors or item boxes, talk to other characters or control vehicles. But that still doesn't extend the number of verbs past even a hundred. At any rate, the game's storyline is absolutely linear.

The kind of game Crawford is imagining would be highly complex and would be quite unlike any game we have on the market today. The closest thing I can think of to it is the experimental interactive story Facade- described by it's creators as a "one-act play" where you play as an old friend of a young couple who are going through marriage problems. Through a text parser, you interact with them by talking to them or making physical gestures. Your actions will either exacerbate their issues and lead to the dissolution of their marriage (though that outcome can happen without your intervention at all- the character AI is far beyond the the mindless automatons who await your replies in most games) or save it (or a variety of outcomes in between). I wouldn't exactly call the game fun in the traditional sense, but it's endlessly fascinating to play.

One thing I don't agree with Chris Crawford about is the possibility of creative design in licensed games. Basically, he disdains licensed games and thinks they're quite rubbish (he uses the example of the apparently painfully-bad E.T. game to illustrate his point). While it's true that most licensed games are rubbish, it doesn't mean they all are. The Nintendo 64 game Goldeneye, based on the James Bond movie of the same name, is cited as one of the best First-Person Shooter games ever created for a console. Last year's King Kong game was not only excellent, but also delivered the game's story in a novel way- using Half-Life's approach of keeping the player in the protagonist's shoes at all times. Star Wars games have traditionally been awesome, from classics like TIE Fighter and Jedi Knight to more recent games like the Knights of the Old Republic series- which actually played around with the idea of player decisions having story-consequences in an interesting way (true, there were only 2 story-paths to take, but it was still a nice touch).

Oh and the Spider-Man 2 game (the console versions, not the PC version which was a completely different game and rubbish to boot) was probably the only game which took the open-ended gameplay pioneered by GTA and did something interesting with it. Contrary to what Crawford thinks, it does seem like the movie industry is finally starting to respect game developers and give them space to make good games based on licenses. Let's face it, these games make money so they're never going to go away. Rather than bitching about it like Crawford does, it's a much better idea for developers who work on such titles to try and make the best games they can. Granted, we may never see serious innovation out of this quarter, but I think THAT'S a little much to expect.

Gosh this is a long piece and completely unrelated to any assignments too. Well, it IS a blog. That last bit sounds a bit harsh against Chris Crawford so don't get me wrong- I've got nothing but respect for the man. He's got some big brains on him and his book has really essential advice for wannabe game designers like me. Before I finish off, I've got to add that I really enjoyed reading the chapter where he describes making his 1985 game Balance of Power- one of the first political simulations ever made and still one of the best (which is both a testament to the solidness of Crawford's game design and how little progress has been made in the field of game design in 20 years!) It's abandonware now so you can get it here.

Abstract Design Concepts of Snake

OK I've been thinking and I've decided that I'm going to interpret Alex's question as asking us to use Doug Church's Formal Abstract Design Tools approach to try and extract out possible design concepts in the games we're looking at, rather than taking the 3 tools Doug Church mentioned (intention, perceived consequence and story) and looking at how they fit into the game (which I was previously thinking of doing and I've seen a few other NM3216 bloggers do).

So in that spirit, let's look at Snake. What possible formal abstract design tools can we get from this game? Let me run through the gameplay again. The game starts with the player's avatar- a short black line, at the centre of the screen. The line begins moving horizontally towards one of the 4 walls that bound the gamespace. There's a black dot somewhere that the player can consume. Once the player manoeuvres (I can never spell that word right!!) the snake towards the black dot and consumes it, the snake grows longer. A score kept at the top of the screen increases accordingly. This continues until either the player makes a mistake and the snake dies or the snake fills the entire screen and, well, dies.

So what's notable about this? I'd hoped to avoid using Doug Church's FADT's but perceived consequence is the first thing that came to my mind writing the above paragraph. The snake growing longer and the visibility of the increasing score act as very, very clear reactions to the actions of the player. Intention is similarly obvious and there ain't really a story here except the one that the player crafts for himself. "I almost beat my high score! I was just 5 points away, but I had to make that turn too slow and slam into the wall. F@$%!"

Another striking design concept about Snake is this- it's impossible to win. For lack of a better term, I'm going to call this a "no-win-game"- the idea that a game cannot be won so the objective is to play as long as possible to rack up a high score. Strange concept when you think about it, but nobody really cared while playing Pac-man or Space Invaders. I guess the technological constraints were partly behind the decision to design games that way but I can't help but think they might, unconsciously at least, indicate a sort of fatalistic outlook. I mean, these games were made in the 80's, when everyone believed that nuclear holocaust was more than a mere possibility. Or did they really? I don't think people in Singapore were that paranoid back then, anyway.

Ok, off-topic musings aside, "no-win-game"- I'll drop that term as soon as I can think of a better one- isn't a game design concept that's much-used today. Outside of casual puzzle games which crib ideas from old arcade games shamelessly, the last mainstream "no-win-game" I can think of is SEGA's arcade-driving game Crazy Taxi. In that game, players control a taxi and must pick up passengers and drive them to their destinations before a timer runs out. Everytime you drop off a passenger, the timer is refilled by a set amount so it's theoritically possible to play the game forever but the game design constrains players from doing so. Anyway, you don't die when the timer runs out in Crazy Taxi- it actually grades you based on how much you earned so if you get the highest grade, in a sense, you've won. So it's not exactly a "no-win-game," either. A related design concept, the "time-attack" mode, remains fairly popular especially in puzzle games like Tetsuya Mizuguchi's PSP hit Lumines. In a "time-attack" mode, a player has to accumulate as many points as possible within a set time limit.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Playtesting- Round 1

I'll refrain from describing my group's game design as Weiwei has very nicely done that here. Well, we held our first playtesting session yesterday morning at the Starbucks next to California Fitness Orchard and boy did we learn a lot from it! For one thing. we realised that our design was really unbalanced. We've got one unit- the NUS student (:P)- who's supposed to be the grunt or pawn-type unit, but is really overly-powerful in gameplay! The unit's health will have to be cut down by a bit, that's for sure. Another thing that... oh goodness I just realised that Weiwei's put up a very comprehensive report on our playtesting session on his blog.

Eh, I don't wanna repeat what he's put down there so I'll just make a few observations that go into things he didn't talk about. Firstly- the purpose of the game. Not the aim of the game for players, but the actual question of "why was this game made?" Basically, we want people in our class to play the game and enjoy themselves. But that doesn't say much. To be more specific, we've set the game in a parody-version of NUS because we want people to laugh while playing it. So in it's essence, this is meant to be a humorous game. That aspect of the game didn't show up very well in this iteration of the design. Partly because we hadn't implemented the card-based events that were meant to add some spice to the game and partly because the game itself (mostly due to the overly large size of the board) was just too slow and kinda boring.

So in our next iteration of the game, we're going to make a few alterations to the gameplay- the addition of events (which I think should be chosen from a stack of cards based on an "academic calendar"), a smaller map and tweaks to the units to make gameplay speedier. Along with that, we'll add some wacky backstory to the game too. I hope these changes will make the game somewhat more interesting!

Friday, February 03, 2006

Formal Elements of Snake

I considered a lot of different games while thinking about this topic before finally settling on the game of Snake, as popularized by it's inclusion on many Nokia handsets (the 3210 and 3310 in particular!). Snake's a bloody simple game- you control it with a mere 4 keys and there really isn't much strategy involved; it's a pure test of skill, really. And yet, it's supremely addictive and somehow oddly appealing to people who would otherwise never play electronic games of any sort. Me and my classmates used to play Snake (actually it was Snake 2) during lectures in JC (anything to avoid actually listening to the lecture, really) and the guy who would consistently score the highest was a macho-macho rugby player who would break you in half if you so much as insinuated that he was a gamer. So yeah, that's Snake for you. A game for people who hate games. The Tetris of the late 90's, in a way. Too bad Nokia took it out of their newer handsets. My 7260 came with a really crap game where you bounce a ball around levels. It actually might've interesting if not for it's general sluggishness.

So, the formal elements of Snake.

The game can either be played solo or as a 2-player game- but only if you connect two phones via infra-red. I tried this once, but it lost it's novelty pretty fast. As far as roles go, there's only 1- each player controls a snake. As a one-player game, the interaction-patterns clearly single-player versus game. The two-player version operates on two levels: firstly, both players are playing against the game (to keep from dying) but at the same time they're engaged in player versus player competition as they fight over in-game resources and attempt to trick the other player into killing him/herself.

Snake has 2 inter-related objectives: survival and scoring. You want to keep your snake alive for as long as possible in order to achieve a high score. In the 2-player version, there's a 3rd objective- outwitting your opponent.

The starting action consists of going through the handphone's (assuming, as I do, that you're playing the game on a handphone) menus to open up the game application and selecting the New Game option from the game's start menu. Alternately, if you're starting a multiplayer game, select the 2-player mode option, make sure both players phones' IR ports are aligned and wait for them to connect.

The progression of action? If your snake is moving horizontally, you can turn it up or down. If your snake is moving vertically, you can turn it left or right. That's about it, from start to end of the game. There aren't any special actions, and the only resolving action to end the game is to die. How do you die? That's defined by the...

The rules of the game serve to define the moveset of the player (as defined above) and also the conditions for losing- since there isn't a "win" condition, so to speak. You die if your snake's head a) touches part of it's own body, b) touches a wall or c) touches part of an opponent's body.
The other important rule defines how you progress in the game: when your snake's head touches the little dot that's randomly placed on the game screen, your snake grows longer and your score is incremented by x points (I can't remember exactly what it was!). I think that's about it. The rules are so simple a player should be able to pick them up if not by the first game, then at least by a 2nd or 3rd.

The little dots that you consume to grow bigger and increase your score.

The conflict in this game comes from obstacles and, in the 2 player game, opponents. The obstacles in the game are the walls that you need to avoid and also your own body, which grows larger and larger the higher your score gets. The sequel, Snake 2, would add a new element of conflict- the dilemma. That game included special animal-shaped icons to consume that would add more points to your score than the normal dots- but these ones would only stay on the screen for a short duration of time. So the dilemma would be whether or not to risk turning quickly (assuming you weren't heading directly for the animal-shaped icon) towards the icon to consume it, even if it results in your snake careening towards itself dangerously.

If you're doing something else on your phone (talking, sms-ing, whatever) you're not playing the game. You're only playin it once you open the game app and run it. Simple enough, I think. The conceptual boundaries for the 2-player game are well, that you agree to play, I guess!

You die. Like many old arcade games, there's no way to "win" the game. You just try and get as high a score as you can. In the original Snake (and in the sequel too, actually) there's a set limit as to how high a score you can get, determined by the maximum size of the snake's body. So maybe if you actually manage to fill the entire screen with your snake and THEN you die, you can be considered to have won. Cos there's no way to get a higher score than that.

So, does this description fully describe the requirements for playing the game? Not really. I had a friend in JC who couldn't play the game- not cos she didn't understand the rules- she just didn't have the reflexes to play the game (which I thought curious because she was an accomplished violinist- but that's off-topic :P). So yeah, additional requirement to play Snake- fast reflexes. And of course, the requisite hardware/software.

I'm gonna take a breather and look at the game from Doug Church's Formal Abstract Design Tools perspective in another entry.