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Column: Homer In Silicon

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Sub-Fa├žade

May 12, 2009 8:00 AM |

facademini.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 conversation design in support of narratively compelling, well-paced scenes.]

Last year, Brent Ellison published a Gamasutra article on dialogue systems in games. A little while later, Jonathan Blow posted on his blog an open-ended query about designing conversation in games. Then, this February, Krystian Majewski posted about dialogue choices in Emerald City Confidential, speculating about the challenges of presenting decision-filled conversation to casual players.

These three posts -- all interesting -- and the followup comments suggested that there's relatively little public discussion of core methodologies for conversation design.

In particular, much of the existing analysis conflates user interface (how are dialogue options presented? when do they appear on the screen? is the player offered full text of the next sentence, or a truncated version of what his character will say?) with the underlying model (how does the game decide which options are available when? how are the player's options restricted or made open? what controls when and whether the NPC speaks on his own?).

User interface is the more visible and thus the better understood of the two. It's easy to play a game and see how the dialogue choices are being presented, but much harder to guess what code lies beneath.

Yet the underlying model does matter a great deal.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Complex Style

April 26, 2009 12:00 AM |

Jojos2_screen1.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 Jojo's Fashion Show 2, by Gamelab.]

I do love Gamelab.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Since Gamelab laid off employees and seems to have de-emphasized or even ceased its casual game production (its site just redirects to the Gamestar Mechanic website now), this article might be a bit of a stealth eulogy for them. Anyone know if they are still making casual games?]

Jojo's Fashion Show 2 starts off with an obvious handicap, viz. being a numbered sequel. Reviews focused on the repetition and lack of technical innovation from the first installment in the series, and I would have to agree that those are fair complaints.

Several things make it stand out, though. First, the writing is unusually perky for a casual game. I would have said "surprisingly", but in fact this does not surprise me, since several of the people working on this project also worked on Gamelab's Miss Management, a piece so successfully written that I still remember the major characters with amusement and rueful affection many months after playing. The characters in Jojo's Fashion Show 2 aren't quite such a bundle of neuroses, but they are unusually distinct and opinionated.

Jojo also affords a rather larger cast than the average frame-story cast in a casual game. The Diner Dash episodes usually get by with Flo, Quinn, and other cookie-cutter gal pals assembled from various Dash variations, with perhaps Flo's grandma thrown in for color; but I'd have a hard time naming any way in which Flo and Quinn differ in personality (for instance), and adding more members to their posse would just make it bigger, not more interesting.

Besides which, Flo has become such a franchise that we can be safely assured nothing remotely interesting will ever happen to her again. Jojo's Fashion Show 2 does borrow a few popular stereotypes in order to distinguish its characters -- the fashion magazine editor courtesy of The Devil Wears Prada being the most obvious. They've even given her Meryl Streep's hair, lest there be any question about the intended casting.

Nonetheless, there are more distinct personae, and they're more fun, than you'll see in any other game of the same ilk.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Be Richer

April 11, 2009 8:00 AM |

BuildALot.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 real-estate themed time management games.]

There is something utterly surreal about house development games such as Build-a-Lot and its sequels, or Be Rich.

There always was, I suppose. The game mechanic assumes that if one mansion is good, ten are better; that it will never be hard to find a millionaire to buy your latest 20-bedroom palace with built-in climbing wall; that there is no need for low-income housing balance in a neighborhood, and no prospect of trouble if you crowd it out.

It is an assumption built into the core of the game that real estate prices never fall, that housing credit is never difficult to obtain, and that continuous upgrades are always desirable. The only significant constraint is the amount of viable land.

At some points (I noticed this especially with Build-a-Lot 2: Town of the Year), there is even what one might call a bit of procedural satire.

You're given level goals to meet that require certain environmental outcomes, such as the presence of a recycling center, some number of empty lots. What you do on the way to achieving those goals, on the other hand, is completely unregulated, and may include all sorts of environmentally disruptive behavior, such as building and renting out a dozen McMansions in order to reach the revenue goals for the level... only to tear them all down again.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': To Kiss John, Turn To Page 73

April 4, 2009 8:00 AM |

Heileen.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 considers "Heileen", a visual novel of an adventurous trip to the new world.]

Heileen is a "visual novel" in Ren'Py, produced by Tycoon Games (whose collaboration on "Summer Session" I wrote about in an earlier column). Unlike "Summer Session", "Heileen" has no resource-management element or structured gameplay, only a sequence of dialogue and action choices for the main character, which (as in dating sims in general) determine how she winds up relating to the characters around her.

I've noticed that authors of choose-your-own-whatever-style works often seem to think that their job is simply to put in decision points now and then in some otherwise fairly standard (or, indeed, substandard) story, and the results will be entertaining and replayable.

This is not the case. Choice-based games need to do many of the same things that challenge-based games do: engage the player with a strong hook; provide a sense of agency; keep its implicit promises.

"Heileen" treads a middle line, with some successful design choices and some unsuccessful ones -- which makes it a useful case study. The analysis that follows is based on my own highly opinionated take on what makes a choice-centric design work, namely: convergent plot, non-arbitrary options, strong pacing, and effective writing.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Green and Sparkly

March 11, 2009 8:00 AM |

ECC.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 "Emerald City Confidential".]

Emerald City Confidential is a graphical adventure by Wadjet Eye Games, under the creative direction of Dave Gilbert. The protagonist, Petra, is a film-noir-esque detective led to explore deeper and deeper into the web of lies at work in the Emerald City of Oz, which is not really at all the way you may remember it from the books; she spends most of her time questioning people and solving some not-too-difficult puzzles.

Structurally, ECC is not doing anything especially new. It is a very linear game with carefully directed gameplay. The magic system's Enchanter-esque spells are strangely specific in their effects and conveniently work only when the designer wills that they should.

There are many fetch-quests, and the occasional lock-and-key or get-x-use-x puzzle. The game unabashedly repeats character dialogue verbatim if the player needs to hear some hint over again. Moreover, when it wants to represent characters who are "busy", it will sometimes put them into a loop of repeating dialogue while the player solves some puzzle.

In other respects, the gameplay is fun but sometimes too directed. The puzzles are fairer than graphical adventure puzzles of the past, but many of them are so blatantly hinted that the player is deprived of the pleasure of really solving them. I suppose that this is partly because a) this is an adventure game marketed to a casual game audience, so difficulty expectations are lower; b) this is an unusually narrative adventure game in which getting stuck for a long time would be a disruption of the intended pacing.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Almost, Almost, Almost

February 24, 2009 4:00 PM |

Wasabi2.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 considers the interaction between fiction and gameplay in the latest Chocolatier game for PC.]

The Chocolatier series of casual games is a favorite of mine, as I've written about elsewhere before. So I was excited to see PlayFirst announcing the launch of their latest, "Chocolatier: Decadence by Design".

The new version is fun in many of the same ways as the originals: you get to command a growing chocolate empire, buying ingredients and selling products, and playing small arcade games to establish the baseline productivity of your factories. The arcade elements this time around were a little less challenging than in "Chocolatier 2: Secret Ingredients", but in a way that made them less distracting from the overall game structure. They've also smoothed out a few other little game-design hiccups. It's no longer possible to strand yourself someplace without money and without chocolates to sell, because another character will offer you a loan. So there's good stuff here.

I was even more pleased to see that this version of Chocolatier was branching out to allow the player to design her own chocolates to sell. That idea was a logical extension of the gameplay in the second game, where the player has a chocolate tasting lab, but can only experiment to discover recipes previously intended by the designers. In "Decadence by Design", the player gets the opportunity to combine ingredients freely, then create an appearance for the new confection and provide it with a name and a description.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Blue

February 12, 2009 8:00 AM |

blue-lacuna-cover-art-300.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 Blue Lacuna, a novel-length work of interactive fiction that offers the player a great deal of control over narrative outcomes.]

Aaron Reed's Blue Lacuna is a mammoth new work of interactive fiction, and one of the most ambitious ever written in the degree to which it allows the player to shape the narrative and define character interactions.

The interactive fiction community has been interested for a long time in the development of stories that can be shaped significantly by the player, though what exactly that means varies, of course, from author to author.

Two particular approaches to this problem have received a good deal of attention. Victor Gijsbers' Fate and The Baron and Aaron's previous work Whom the Telling Changed all explore the possibilities inherent in giving the player significant (often morally-driven) choices that control the outcome of play: these are all highly variable stories with many possible paths, but risk pursuing their philosophical aims so rigorously, or so much to the exclusion of personal details, that they lose the ability to affect the player emotionally.

The IF genre of conversation games consists mostly of single-room, single-character interactions in which the player can reach a host of different relationships with the major non-player character. While these pieces tend as a rule to give more weight to the emotional development of the story, they sometimes risk other flaws -- shapelessness, a lack of clear player direction, or a lack of thematic consistency.

Blue Lacuna is set apart from these earlier works by its length and by the fact that it combines both forms of player-responsiveness. It describes itself, justly, as an interactive novel, and it will take many hours of play to complete. Unlike most of its gaming kin, it does not put off its significant branch points until the last quarter of the game.

There are choices to make from the very beginning, which means that early decisions will have later ramifications for the whole duration of play. Some of the choices are morally or philosophically freighted; some more reflect personal tastes. The length gives it a kind of cumulative gravity that is often absent from shorter games, even ones that explore important choices or emotional oppositions.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': An Improv Love Story

January 30, 2009 8:00 AM |

rl_phone_screen.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 "Ruben & Lullaby", a short emotion-centric piece for the iPhone.]

"Ruben & Lullaby" is a new kind of interactive story, developed specially for the iPhone. It calls itself an "opertoon", "a story you play like a musical instrument."

This is a fair description -- if you're a little loose about what you mean by story, and if your ambitions for musical instrument fall considerably short of the iPhone Ocarina.

This opertoon begins with its two main characters, Ruben and Lullaby, sitting on a park bench. They are lovers about to engage in their first fight. You get to conduct.

Tipping the phone left or right moves the story along, while leaving it flat can create long pauses; tapping the phone directs the characters to look towards or away from one another; stroking or shaking the phone makes the currently pictured character angrier or calmer.

As you play, the game improvises its own jazzy soundtrack. Sometimes this is melancholy, sometimes irritably discordant, sometimes angry.

This trick works pretty well, though on replay I found that there was less total musical content than I had initially expected. To a large extent that doesn't matter, though, because the soundtrack is accomplishing two things: communicating moment-to-moment mood, and encouraging the player to keep an overall pace.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Refining Simulation into Narrative

January 21, 2009 12:00 PM |

sumses1.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 Summer Session, a teen summer school PC casual simulation/story game by Hanako Games in collaboration with Tycoon Games.]

PC casual game title Summer Session is a dating simulation implemented in Ren'Py. That means that it belongs to a long tradition of Japanese dating sims, but is quite unlike anything in the U.S. casual or hardcore markets: it deals with the management of time and resources, certainly, but the chief goal is to connect with one or more of the girls you encounter.

Game-play in Summer Session consists of two kinds of interaction. One is pure resource-management: you set up your schedule, a week at a time, to determine what you'll do each afternoon. You're allowed one activity per day. Activities adjust your stats: studying makes you smarter but less cool, exercising makes you stronger, and so on.

In this respect, Summer Session is a lot like Kudos, only quicker to play through, and without the mini-games associated with some tasks. Also as in Kudos, you can go to the mall on weekends and stock up on objects that improve your stats or make your life easier somehow.

Unlike Kudos, though, Summer Session also allows you some direct conversation with your friends and potential girlfriends. These interactions can directly influence how people feel about you; the key is usually to demonstrate that you've been paying attention to the characterization by discussing topics that interest the person you're talking to.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Drill, Baby, Drill

December 24, 2008 4:00 PM |

Oil1.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 considers MolleIndustria's social message game Oiligarchy as an example of persuasive narrative -- as opposed to persuasive simulation.]

Oiligarchy might (at first glance) seem like an odd game to mine for narrative content. It is a game written for political persuasion by Molleindustria, whose previous works included a ruthless dark satire on McDonalds, and a disturbing game about concealing pederasty within the Catholic Church.

Oiligarchy sets up a scenario in which, as oil tycoon, you can only perpetuate your play by buying politicians, pushing for wars, and pillaging the planet to the point of apocalypse. The goals of the game are simply incompatible with a sane environmental policy or a legal relationship to elected officials.

Is this a fair piece of propaganda? Not really, and I say this as someone who strongly supports a more environmentally responsible agenda and a reduced dependence on non-renewable energy. There's no doubt that big oil has caused serious problems, but I don't hold oil corporations solely and uniquely to blame for our problems in the middle east, nor do I imagine that no one in the oil industry has a conscience.

But Oiligarchy doesn't have time for such caveats. It works, essentially, by saying -- as the McDonalds game did as well -- "Look, people in this position have every self-interested reason to behave like villains; thus we may conclude that, in fact, they do."

For added impact, Oiligarchy juices up your interactions with hilariously cruel pictures and sounds. When you build a new oil pump, it clangs and drums like an instrument from hell's orchestra. Put a new building in the wilderness, and you get to watch trees fall, caribou disperse, tiny birds scatter into the sky. In third world countries, the inhabitants peacefully enjoy life around a campfire, until you build over their village and hire their own government to oppress them.

There is even a happy whale swimming in Alaska's waters-- until you come along and set up your offshore rigs. It's basically the same message as the one implicit in the interface of Electrocity, only amped to be considerably more extreme: nature is good because it is pretty. Industrial development is bad because it is not pretty.

Never mind that nature sometimes produces things like forest fires and volcanoes and earthquakes and tsunamis, all on her own, that turn the landscape into a twisted smoking wreck. But Electrocity is responsible enough to offer some perspective on the gains and costs of different kinds of infrastructure. Oiligarchy doesn't bother with any balancing points.

Oiligarchy has a beautifully smooth, responsive design, too. Naming no names, I've played several persuasive games whose authors were banking so heavily on the value of their content that they didn't bother to make the gameplay smooth, fast, or comprehensible. The slickness of Molleindustria's work adds substantially to its appeal, and to my willingness to replay.

But all these trappings, on top of the already biased model, make Oiligarchy feel so extreme that even people who sympathize with some of its message are likely to find themselves muttering "oh really" from time to time.

So it's a little hard to take the game seriously as a piece of persuasion.