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Column: Homer In Silicon

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Communicating Character

October 11, 2009 12:00 PM |

Fable.png['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at Lionhead Studios' Fable 2.]

Fable 2 attempts a hard bit of interactive storytelling: it combines a fairly predetermined plot arc, your character's quest for justice against the world's chief villain, with more emergent narrative, in which you are allowed to form friendships and connections — and even marry and bear children with — the people you meet along the way.

At the end, the game tries to draw the two forms of player involvement together, having the villain threaten something or someone that you've grown close to in sandbox play. The idea, clearly, is to let the player define for the game what he/she will care about, and then use that as emotional leverage.

This is an ingenious design approach, but it works better in concept than in practice — at least for me. Two moments in particular stand out where this design let me down:

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Challenge and Storytelling

September 25, 2009 12:00 PM |

['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at challenge as a story-telling device in general, and some specific issues raised by Jonathan Blow in his presentation on conflicts in game design.]

Jonathan Blow's November presentation on conflicts in game design raises a fundamental problem:

"For a story to occur, it has to keep proceeding... challenge is about preventing you from continuing in the game... Story and challenge work against each other. No matter how hard you work on a game, if you've got a story in the traditional way, and you've got challenge elements like we traditionally use them, they work against each other. -- Jonathan Blow"

Accepting the main theses of Blow's presentation -- that challenge is essential to the nature of games, and that challenge does not work with story -- might be enough to make me give up this column. And, unfortunately for me, there's a lot of what Blow says that I agree with, about the difficulty of designing dynamic stories, providing solid pacing, and giving a sense of importance to a constructed non-linear tale.

So here's the question: Can the challenge be part of the story instead? Can it lend value to the storytelling? How and where?

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Achilles on the Couch

September 17, 2009 12:00 PM |

TlaS.jpg['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at Mind Gamz' "Think Like a Shrink" for iPhone.]

Achilles' reaction to being told his dearest friend Patroclus is dead:

"Oh man, I gotta go."

At least, that's the take found in Think like a Shrink, a new iPhone app from Mind Gamz.

"Think Like a Shrink" invites the player to learn the techniques of a therapist, and then apply them to Achilles, hero of the Trojan War.

I find this fascinating in three directions: as a new idea in conversation-based gaming, as a reception of a piece of classical literature, and as a blend of narrative and procedural play in general.

Conversation

As conversation-based gaming, I saw some things to like and some not to like. Mind Gamz has invented a new mechanic of interaction: you can "focus" Achilles on feelings you want him to explore more, or "challenge" him about what he's saying. If you choose to challenge, you have to identify the dodge you think he's currently using and which you want to get out of the way (anger, displacement, avoidance, etc.).

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': The Romance Problem

September 2, 2009 12:00 AM |

plhe.jpeg['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she considers the problem of romance in gameplay.]

A recent NowGamer article quoted Peter Molyneux, talking about how videogames could grow stronger in the romance department:

"For a truly emergent (and yet well-written) romance simulation to be possible, there needs to be a way to not only generate “romantic content” based on player input – and how this would actually mix with pre-recorded dialogue is unknown – but the characters involved also need to be able to build on organically derived behaviours and motivations. The midpoint between The Sims and Baldur’s Gate, in other words."

I agree that's one way it could happen, and definitely the way that Peter Molyneux would be most likely to endorse, all things considered.

What I worry about is that, if one frames the problem simply as a problem of building a "romance simulation", the result will be a slightly slicker but even less narrative variation on the dating sim, with statistics reflecting how much time you've devoted to each of your possible mates, but no connection between that simulation and the other kinds of gameplay available in the game, and no solid structural ties between the sim events and the rest of the story.

Fable 2 already goes a bit in that direction, rewarding the protagonist with romantic relationships when s/he's spent enough time making flirtatious faces at the lover of his or her choice.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Grub Burgers

August 14, 2009 4:00 PM |

['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at Playfirst's DinerTown Tycoon.]

The Diner Dash series has established itself as a source of steady income for PlayFirst, but one with predictably cloned gameplay and minimal storylines. So I was curious to see what would become of DinerTown Tycoon: DinerTown Tycoonbills itself as a casual tycoon game, which puts it in company with some of my favorite casual works, the Chocolatier and Tradewinds series.

Unfortunately, the gameplay of DinerTown Tycoon is still fairly unadventurous; it is merely borrowing from a different genre than Diner Dash. There is little in the play of DinerTown Tycoon that one can't find in the deeply bland and profoundly unexceptional Cinema Tycoon, Cinema Tycoon 2, Cinema Tycoon Gold, and for all I know Cinema Tycoon Platinum Studded with Diamonds XXVII.

That is to say, instead of clicking on endless chains of customers and foodstuffs as in the traditional time management game, the player controls the restaurant business at a higher level: choosing menus for several different stores, maintaining inventory, researching customer preferences, investing in ad campaigns, and upgrading the physical premises. More is always better and you always want to wind up with all the possible upgrades sooner or later, so it's just a question of picking which items on a non-diverging upgrade path you want to buy first.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': The Coming Apocalypse

July 24, 2009 8:00 AM |

['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at Super Energy Apocalypse Recycled.]

Super Energy Apocalypse Recycled is part persuasive game, part resource management toy, part tower defense sequence, and part zombie survival horror story. By day, you can build farms, factories, power plants, recycling centers -- and gun emplacements; by night, waves of zombies sweep the land. Your defenses work only as long as you have sufficient energy to power them. To make matters worse, zombies feed and gain power from eating trash and breathing smog.

Lars Doucet wrote Super Energy Apocalypse for a Jay Is Games contest, and then -- with the support and assistance of the Houston Advanced Research Center -- revised it to incorporate the best available real-world figures about the environmental concerns represented in the game. It is thus in the unusual position of having been optimized once from the perspective of player entertainment and once from the perspective of education about energy issues.

The result is mixed but curiously compelling. If you are anything like me, when you encounter a game with both campaign and sandbox modes, you start with the campaign -- which seems to be the intention and the right choice here. The story is present in part to explain the otherwise rather odd background of the simulation. The narrative structure is constrained and straightforward but well-written, with a few chilling reversals of fortune and some sinister dialogue that reminded me of GlaDOS. (This was probably intentional, and is only reinforced by the Portal-esque song at the end of the game.)

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Cavanagh on Challenge and Complicity

July 15, 2009 4:00 PM |

dlb2.jpg['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at "Don't Look Back" (Terry Cavanagh) and "Judith" (Terry Cavanagh and Stephen Lavelle).]

If only this column were called Ovid in Silicon, or Vergil in Silicon, I'd have the best topic ever: Terry Cavanagh has written a game, "Don't Look Back," recapitulating the journey of Orpheus to the underworld to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice.

You know how it goes, I hope. Orpheus is the greatest musician in the world, but his gift does not protect him from misfortune. His beautiful young bride steps on a viper shortly after their wedding. (According to Ovid this is clumsiness; Vergil has her fleeing a would-be rapist.)

Distraught, Orpheus makes the journey to the underworld, lulling the guard dog Cerberus to sleep, entrancing all the ghosts, until he finds Hades and his wife Persephone. Orpheus sings a song about how terribly he misses Eurydice, the gist of which according to Ovid goes a little like this:

"I'm asking, please --
renegotiate the terms for Eurydice.
Everything in life is mortgaged to you.
Whether we put you off for fifteen years
or thirty, you always foreclose in the end,
humanity's only permanent bank.
This girl you can repossess as well,
as soon as she's aged into a pensioner.
We're asking only to borrow her
on a short-term loan with favorable rates."

(I have exaggerated Ovid's financial terminology less than you think.)

Persephone, moved, consents to send Eurydice back, on one condition: Orpheus must not look back at her until they reach the world above. So he begins the terrible climb, and finally he comes to where he can see the upper world -- green land and sunlight over the lip of the cliff -- and the anticipation of arrival and the bottled apprehension is so great that he cannot help himself. He turns. And in that moment Eurydice dissolves into shadow and is lost for good.

This is the story that Terry Cavanagh tells as a spare, difficult platformer. Orpheus doesn't sing in this version. He shoots a gun, and jumps over snakes, and dodges hell's falling stalactites. Spare music accompanies his journey. When he reaches Hades, he gets a follower, and he must not turn back toward her, a problem that complicates the journey. And then -- well, I won't give away the end.

What makes Cavanagh's rendition is that it is hard.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': The Accretive Player Character

June 24, 2009 8:00 AM |

varicell.jpeg['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at the idea of the accretive player character in two works of interactive fiction: Adam Cadre's classic "Varicella" and Jon Ingold's recent "Make It Good".]

"Accretive player character" is a term of art in interactive fiction. It refers to a protagonist who has motives and abilities that the player doesn't understand or share the first time he plays through a game, but that he gradually learns over the course of many replayings.

Perhaps the classic example is Adam Cadre's "Varicella", a scheming palace minister in some alternate-reality Italian principality that combines the technology of the modern day with the ethics of Machiavelli and the methodology of the Borgias.

The title character hopes to outmaneuver everyone else and end up with the regency. Varicella is a fastidious man with a protocol fetish -- not the strongest nor the most charismatic nor the most openly ambitious member of the court. But he does happen to know all the weaknesses of all his opponents and he's poised to take advantage of them all.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Wandering In The Willows

June 11, 2009 8:00 AM |

WWcutscene1.jpg['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at PlayFirst's non-combat casual RPG Wandering Willows.]

My childhood fantasies always began with being orphaned. Nothing against my parents, you understand -- the details of their untimely demise were always airbrushed out of the story as too upsetting to contemplate. But no really good adventures could happen to me while they were around.

I imagined that once free of parental protection I would spend my time foraging, picking nuts and berries, building a primitive shelter, digging firepits and catching fish. It was a scenario that drew heavily from Island of the Blue Dolphins, Little House in the Big Woods, and Julie of the Wolves, but minus the gritty realism. My imaginary wooded island had plenty of every food; its weather was temperate; its stones were automatically the right shape for building walls without mortar.

This universe seems to have escaped my imagination and is now the setting for Wandering Willows, a casual PC RPG from Playfirst. The protagonist lands in a damaged balloon on a mysterious island. It is a land where every kind of metal can be found ready-pressed into ingots just beneath the surface of the soil; where blackberries and raspberries grow at the tops of trees; where animals carry worked precious stones, but are happy to share.

Cotton, wheat, sugar cane, and vanilla can be planted and grown in a matter of minutes. The abundance becomes more and more surreal as the protagonist discovers a need for sulfur, petroleum, hot lava, dinosaur teeth... all of which may be dug out of the yielding earth and transported in her capacious backpack.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Narrative Lacunae

May 22, 2009 4:00 PM |

kate1.jpg['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist.]

"Kate's Fix-It-Up Adventure" is a PC casual time-management/tycoon game developed by Polish team World-Loom (here's a neat interview with them) in which the protagonist, Kate, is apparently a genius for car repair.

It's a balanced and entertaining piece of work in its genre, which is more strategic and less speed-based than pure time-management games like the "Diner Dash" series and closer to building/real-estate games such as "Build-a-Lot" and "Be Rich." And I'm on record here often enough complaining that these games could be narratively interesting but just, in general, aren't.

In the interstices between levels, "Fix-it-up" offers a story told in comic book style, another mainstay in the time-management genre. But this one was better than average: instead of following a perfectly upward trend line of career advancement and social success, Kate encounters some problems.

She has family members who help her, but some of them are not actually that nice and are really using her for their own benefit. She has to deal with egocentric jerks, and with friends who make poor choices. By the end, she is divided between the claims of her buddy/romantic interest Steve and the career-oriented claims of her Hollywood business partner.