Little Blog Adventure

A gaming "sketchblog"

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.


Post a Comment

<< Home