As a systems designer, I’m very focused on ensuring that not only is there a core mechanic in a game that the player becomes intimate with but also being cognizant of tertiary mechanics and that they strengthen the message that’s being conveyed in the game. Mechanic is the message, as some would say. If there is no game mechanic, then there is no game. That’s something that I used to believe in. However, that’s all starting to unravel as more ‘games’ are demonstrating that meaning can also be conveyed with things that are just game-like. Should these things even be called Games, with the capital ‘G’? Or just interactive experiences? I don’t think it really matters so long as we recognize that these types of experiences share a common toolbox of things to play around with—this language of games that we’re still deciphering.
In games, there are actually a limited number of tools you can use to engage with the audience. A short list includes:
Perspective (camera, what’s seen and from where)
Mechanics and expression of mechanics (challenge)
And of course, how all these things come together creates:
This is definitely not a complete or absolute list, but an example of the limited ways game designers can interact with a player—this language of games. You can argue that it’s still a lot more than a book or movie, but there are still challenges with constraint. Like how a traditional game with a stellar core mechanic can become encumbered by too many weak or tertiary related elements, enabling the game-like to carry significant meaning requires that all the above elements don’t just create a coherent sentence but the best damn sentence you’ve ever read in your life. If this is the language, the words and grammar, that is being used to express then it needs to be used well. A lot of games are just barely legible.
I just read this fascinating interview on VICE. It’s a very dated piece, back from 2010, but what’s talked about is still very relevant to games and the way in which we make them—mainly because games still haven’t figured out what a good story is. This man managed to create a city with a population of 6 million in SimCity 3000, the maximum possible. I remember playing the game as a kid and not knowing what the heck was going on. Regardless, it was still fun poking at the system. However, what happened in this densely packed city, Magnasanti, is out of this world. It’s much more than just poking around and is instead an intense conversation, or even debate, between player and designer. I keep saying it but I’ll say it again: this is what the best game stories are, it’s these conversations that speak in the language of systems interaction.
Since I’m doing this anyway, I’ll report any responses I make on PBS Game/Show episodes. Here’s my latest on their video on game reviews:
Great stuff, Jamin. I really did like your passionate yelling, though. It kind of became the feel for the show. I’d yell because I’m passionate about this stuff too. If you ever get back to yelling, you have my support!
I think you’re right on many levels with reviews, that its methodology is broken, but also that they are still important on a few levels. Here are some ways I think can improve the process:
1) Since games are experiences, why not have multiple reviewers take a stab at reviewing the game? Journalists become a trusted voice, a personality with their own likes and dislikes. Bob, Jane, and John all review the same game and share their thoughts. Bob likes RPGs, Jane hates RTS, and John loves casual. How will each person react to the game they were just assigned to review. In a sense, it is sort of like user reviews… but this time you build a relationship with each journalist and understand their thought process. I like to review restaurants on Yelp a lot (and get Elite perks) but I always start off with what I tend to look for and the expectations I have before writing. E.g. I will always bash NYC restaurants for trying to cram way too many tables in a way too small of a space. A restaurant that has ample room to walk around and no butts in my face immediately gets more stars.
2) While games are experiences, those experiences are created from a static system. Reviews could go the academic route and try to examine the systems themselves. As a game designer, I do this on my own blog and try to reverse engineer the experiences I have and see what caused them. This kind of writing seems to be much more objective. The system is then compared to the current trends and historic systems. It’s a much harder review to write since you’ll need to be extremely knowledgeable in many game development related fields from programming, design, to art.
On a closing note, I really need to call out MetaCritic for being terrible. Their review system is completely opaque (the non-user side). Some sites are arbitrarily weighted higher than others. They even accept reviews during beta. And as you said Jamin, at what stage of the game should a review be done? However, MetaCritic’s user reviews seems pretty honest. Although the x/100 rating is fairly arbitrary still. Like/Dislike ratio seems to make a lot more sense.
So Irrational Games is essentially shutting down. It’s finally time to say goodbye to the Bioshock franchise. The franchise heralded a new way to design first person shooters and taught us how to take advantage of next gen hardware like no other series. With the creative mind of Ken Levine behind the helm, the series accomplished a fair amount. Levine is now moving forward and leaving Irrational behind him. He and about 15 employees will continue on in a new adventure (still backed by Take Two) that he claims will be more entrepreneurial. What does this mean?
Even a few months ago, Levine stated that he wanted to work on narrative games that were highly replayable and that’s exactly what he’s doing with his significantly smaller team. We all know that mainstream games these days, especially narrative ones, have highly limited replay value. Sure, you can try romancing different characters in Mass Effect or join the opposite faction in Skyrim but I’d a argue that at these points replay is for the completionist—the systems that these narrative games have are ultimately predictable and don’t provide significantly new experiences for players. While the system is too big for you to have explore it all in one go, you kind of get an idea what would happen if you were to go down other branches even if you didn’t decide to pick up the controller again. Things are oftentimes too black and white, which is the reality of making these kinds of branching games since the labor involved is always so great. I think true replay only exists in the, mostly online, competitive space, or with a pure mechanic focused games (rogues may fall into this area). When you play another round of Counter Strike or League of Legends, it’s not about discovering uncharted areas of the system but instead about mastering the system. A system that has built a good kind of mastery is being able to express yourself in infinite ways through its mechanics. Playing Dragon Age: Origins multiple times to romance different characters, to me, is not replay—although choosing different classes and origins did a good job at shuffling the order of the story arcs, so that kind of thing is a good start. The good kind of mastery from DA:O might be its combat mechanics. Again, infinitely expressing yourself. Minecraft rings a similar bell.
One of the biggest gripes for Levine is that he’d spend several years crafting this perfect experience for a player and after 12 hours the player would be done with that experience. That’s pretty soul crushing. Thing is, almost every other medium suffers the same exact problem. You watch the film, you read the book, you do it once and you can’t do it again for a long time otherwise it feels stale—no mastery, no infinite expression. Sometimes revisiting the same story when you’re older allows you to understand it differently, but these kinds of narrative games are so young and the technology so outdated that it’s hard for us to reach. Games are the first medium to make narratives infinitely consumable and this is just the beginning. Wait, let me rephrase. Games are the first medium to allow its audience to express themselves. Now it’s a matter of finding out how we can allow them to do it continually with a narrative context. We’re still grasping to see how to produce these kinds of things. AAA has always known what their strengths were and it’s in the labor. Just the amount of people to make something look great, to even create a Bioshock experience, is unfathomable. Teams of hundreds of people. Millions of dollars. But it seems like they’ve been throwing their cash to fight an uphill battle now that the indies have begun take chunks of the industry as their own.
Levine is moving towards this indie model with a dramatically smaller team. Entrepreneurial, he says. Come on! Be straight with us, Ken. You meant to say ‘indie’. Thing is, he’s probably still got the cash since Irrational is still going to be backed by Take Two. Major plus. But with smaller team means being able to move quickly and spend more time refining and iterating on systems. It’s the kind of systems like in Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, where enemies remember what you do to them and therefore react differently, that get me excited. I said in a previous post that that kind of system was possible due to AAA labor and cash, so what will this kind of game look like on an indie scale? It could very well be the same kind of game with simpler graphics and tightened gameplay experience.
In fact, I’d argue that Levine’s new Irrational will succeed in this because it’s the tight and fast gameplay experiences of these competitive games that makes them so attractive to play over and over again. Again, the faster and more varied the feedback loops can be the greater degree and more opportunities for the user to express him or herself. If you win, you play again to win by a slightly different strategy—a different expression. If you lose, you’ll play again so you can successfully express yourself. So in a narrative game you’d play to learn something different? Play to tell a different story? This is sounding like playing Wiki-roulette or a good ol’ fashioned game of Dungeons & Dragons (or Jason Rohrer’s Sleep is Death). Those are exceedingly complex systems. This is good, though. Someone who gained their wings in the trenches of AAA, with the suits throwing cash at you, doing something insane like this is the best thing for the games industry. Any designer that’s on their 3rd sequel needs to quit their jobs and start an indie studio with their core team to do something new and tackle questions like these. God, I hate sequels so much.
Let’s talk about those people who won’t be a part of Irrational’s second chapter. It’s terrible that they lost their jobs and it’ll hurt the Boston games scene for a little bit but there’s a silver lining here. Another studio in Boston opened their doors to those laid off and provided free office space to allow fellow developers get back on their feet while finding other jobs or starting their own indie studios. Not only do we get Levine freed from his seawater rusted shackles but now we potentially get a swath of other small ventures sprouting too. Think about the the kind of innovation that can happen with that. In the next few years, Boston might explode with incredible indie talent.
So, what is the cost of innovation? It can cost a lot. It can cost you a lot of broken hearts, broken dreams, sweat, tears, and wads of AAA cash shoved down your pockets but it’s AAA’s belief that these risks are worthy of pursuing to allow Irrational to do what it did that’s exciting. The cost of innovation is great, but it’s very much worth it.
I am truly excited to hear more about what Levine is doing. If it’s anyone, it’s probably him that will be able to take us into the next era of narrative experiences.
Another one of Jason Rohrer’s mind-blasting games, Castle Doctrine, was recently released. I love what Rohrer does. Oftentimes, he’s credited with being the person who took games and put them in the limelight as far as “games as art” goes with his most famous title, Passage. All of his games are very meta. Everything about them subverts our normal understanding of what a video game is. Save the princess? Nope, she just dies. Experience a story? No, tell one yourself. Exposing the nefarious trade of blood diamonds on the Nintendo DS? Yes, please. Make a game that’ll be playable in thousands of years… to aliens! Yup, he did that too. Jason Rohrer is a nutjob in all the good ways.
There’s a saying that no one will recognize you as an artist, your talents, or know who the hell you are until you’re dead. This clearly isn’t true because plenty of people know who Jason Rohrer is. There’s another saying where artists will always be poor. Now this is the biggest question as far as creating something that is marketable to the mainstream while still trying to support yourself. Of course, this can be done. Heck, Rohrer has a family to support (albeit they live in some crazy self-sustaining tall grass growing hippy property, it’s nuts).
I was checking out Castle Doctrine on Steam when I came across a really hilarious review that prompted the idea for this post. But first, let me explain to you what this game is about.
I always like to keep in touch with the new releases and one of the properties I always have a pulse on is the Lord of the Rings related stuff. For the most part, those hack ‘n slash games were decent! I enjoyed the early ones that came out around the time of the original movie trilogy. Not really sure what’s happening now with The Hobbit nonsense but I’m glad I caught Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. I rail on AAA a ton in my blog posts but here’s one thing that I really appreciate about what they do. Because of their ridiculous budgets, huge teams, and oftentimes familiar properties to work within, they have a safe space to do some crazy things.
In SoM, you play as a ranger named Talion who has a badass wraith helping him out. The combat looks cool in that it follows the Batman Arkham series of timed attacked and counters against many enemies at once. Sure, you get some really cool wraith abilities to scare the shit and influence your enemies or spy on them. None of this is as interesting as what they’re doing with enemy encounters… completely dynamic enemy personalities that tie into the story.
Patents and trademarks can be a very good thing because they can protect innovation. We can’t patent game designs just yet (although I’m told you can definitely patent processes) so developers are always potentially going to fight off clones like poor Vlambeer. On the other hand, I’m glad you can’t patent game mechanics otherwise you’ll get stupid shit like King.com’s troll crusade on Banner Saga for the usage of the word ‘saga’. All I have to say to King.com is just a diarrhea spew of expletives. The same thing happened when Bethesda’s parent company, Zenimax, sued Mojang for his new game ‘Scrolls’ because you know Elder Scrolls.
These are all trademark issues and protecting a brand. I guess ridiculous stuff happens here all the time. OMG you’re using the word ‘zombie’! SUE YOUR ASS. Okay, I’ll concede that if I use the word ‘coke’ in my product’s name I”ll get in deep trouble, but ultimately that’s just the wrong thing to do. I’m being stupid by thinking I can use ‘coke’ and that’s okay. But just innocuous words like ‘saga’ and ‘scrolls’? WTF.
I call this quick post “Never Lose Touch” because I ultimately think that most people will find all these lawsuits stupid. I bet most the people at Bethesda thought suing Mojang would be the wrong thing to do. As an indie developer, the dream is to get larger and have multiple teams working on multiple projects. As the company gets larger, lots of things can go unnoticed. You’ll suddenly have a marketing arm and a law leg. Who knows what the leg is doing! This is why you can’t ever lose touch with what’s going on in every aspect of your company, especially if you started small. This is just one of the advantages indie developers have over larger studios. Everything gets noticed.
Don’t lose sight of what’s right. Don’t let the wrong slip out.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons has been on my list of games to play for quite some time. When I heard about it I was really excited because of its potentially rewarding control scheme but quickly leapt off a building because it was only going to be released on the XBox 360. I quickly forgot about it. I tried to ignore all the rave reviews. I was doing a pretty good job at it, too.
Then I exploded when I saw that it was going to get a Steam release.
I finally finished it recently and all I can say is that I wish more games were like this. The team at Starbreeze Studios and Josef Fares took all the right risks but constrained themselves in several ways to create a very streamlined, polished, and emotionally powerful video game. You really don’t get to see this type of work in the mainstream and it’s frustratingly unfortunate. Why is that?
The short answer is because us game makers are too scared to admit that we don’t know what we’re doing in game land and just trying to do what people seemed to like (sold well).
We’ve instinctively put stories on top of these systems to make the cold sterility of rules more palpable, even diagetic.
The long answer is more complicated… a lot of it has to do with business and another big chunk of it is that games are still very young. Being young is fine and it’s not to say that we don’t have our fair share of hotshots and pros but we’re all still groping within our own little worlds. We’re still trying to explore what it is to be an interactive experience, what it is to be a game. However, there are elements that have been infused into games because games end up being transmedia experiences. We’re also focusing on the wrong things. In other words, next-gen tech is never going to save us. Ultimately, a game is just a set of rules that the player abides by, a safe space where the player can explore a given system, so we can all forget pushing graphics any further. We’ve instinctively put stories on top of these systems to make the cold sterility of rules more palpable, even diagetic. Chess is a simple game but its pieces take on the meaning, and even shape, of real world things like kings, queens, and knights. These things can look like random bits and pieces but the game would still be fun. So do we really need dynamic sub-surface scattering to be fun or impactful? These technologies can surely add to an experience but the power of the mind—suspension of disbelief—is still the ultimate tool. It’s funny to think that the Queen has complete movement and is a very powerful unity while the King can hardly move and is the most important. What were the designers trying to say?
We add additional meaning to games because sterile rules are like hard edges and we want that sleekness of Apple products. Too much focus on graphic fidelity is just a marketing and money earning machine. They don’t want you to know that good games don’t need next-gen. In fact, your dad’s-gen is fine. Caveman is fine. Chess is fine. We add story and meaning so the thing is easily consumed and experienced. Thing is, we’re terrible at doing this. The state of games is that there are many extremes. The mainstream is focused on pleasing the little sociopaths that resides in each of our soul’s with mind-numbing first person shooters (yes, I’m totally guilty here too) with so much realism that it’ll blow your eyeballs out but it’s these games that really help the bottom line. On the other side, we have a lot of ‘casual’ games that appeal to a wide variety of audiences but at the same time to don’t offer the depth or gravity that some hardcore games have been known for. The fact is that being casual has also helped the bottom line tremendously because they’ve taken advantage of people who aren’t accustomed to gaming tricks and snatch their coins like a slot machine in a Vegas airport. In between the two polar opposites is a weird space where there’s a lot of noise. You can get a lot of nonsensical stuff as people try to experiment or attempt to become appstore superstars but every now and then, probably as people get tired of the monotony from their jobs at the poles and backup to the middle-ground, you get really interesting things.
In this gray space, you get people who do weird things. Essentially, you get people who take risks. In many cases, these people come at games from the outside and bring with them a fresh perspective. A famous European director, Josef Fares, decided to make a game and somehow managed to find someone to fund his team. From the very start, Fares brings some very interesting things to the game development table:
A unique upbringing (from war torn Lebanon)
A master of his original craft, film and storytelling
Willingness to take risks: unusual control scheme that was probably there from the beginning
Most importantly, though, Fares came with an open mind because he was new to game development and probably didn’t have a good grasp of what language—the verbs we have in game design, the tropes that exist in most games—he had at his disposal. Instead, he was familiar in a different language and adapted from there. That translation was magnificent. There are things that are done in well known mediums that still aren’t being done in games because us game developers don’t spend enough time talking to outside people and trying to convince them to help us (God, help us, please!) or we alienate those outside (because we all know that popular games teach kids to kill each other).
Some may say that the strategies involved to create some of the most riveting moments in games this year were set-ups or even disingenuous. The two links in the previous sentence are both to the same article but what’s really interesting are the comments in both. Many agree that the tactic of putting you through panic (like a roller coaster or rickety bridge) in order to heighten your arousal (not just sexual, mind you!) and manage your perception about a person or situation isn’t good. Wait. Why does this mean a game is overrated or lying to you? Truth of the matter is that stories have been doing this for so long. It is a set-up! But it’s not trying to lie, trick, or steal your money. These kinds of strategies are there to provoke a particular emotional reaction. This is the art of storytelling. It’s about the pacing, empathizing with characters, pulling the rug from underneath you. What can cheapen it is how heavy handed the direction is. Subtlety is the trait of a master and on many occasions Brothers was a masterpiece. It becomes more relevant in the games because it is an interactive—active and not passive experience that may make this feel like we’re being cheated but that’s okay! Reading a book or watching a movie is a suspension of disbelief and so is games. Hell, we even made up a new name for that called the magic circle. Suspend your disbelief, step into the circle, do whatever you need to do to relax and know that you are on a journey. Yes, a game allows you control but you are interacting within the designer’s system the same way you are reading the author’s words and looking at the director’s uhh… moving pictures. In all these mediums we are going through a curated experience, a story is being told to us whether.
The player is telling the story with their own hands and not waiting for the story to be told to them as reward.
What’s really amazing is that the masterful storytelling, the subtlety and the use of delicate strokes, was evident in the game mechanics as Brothers progressed. Each consecutive challenge that the two brothers encountered built upon their relationship as well as exhibited growth in each character. This is not the do X to get cutscene reward. That kind of division between game and narrative is the antithesis of collaboration. There are some cutscenes in Brothers to set the story up but it’s interesting to note that there is no understandable dialogue in the game. The people in Fares’s world speak a different language. Much of our understanding is based on our basic knowledge of human interaction, gesticulation, and intonation in the voice acting. It’s incredibly refreshing to see and even more impressive to see how language barrier really doesn’t matter. It wouldn’t really work in a film and obviously not in a book. Because we rely on the characters’ physical movements and guttural sounds to derive meaning, the unique interaction that games afford bridges that communication barrier in a profound way. Each brother can perform some kind of physical action based on context and each time they must interact with each other in a cooperative manner. The older brother helps the younger by hoisting him up to high places, the younger helps in return by dropping a rope down. Holding down the trigger button to perform these actions and the dual thumb stick navigation becomes the words between the two brothers. The player is telling the story with their own hands and not waiting for the story to be told to them as reward.
As mentioned, another strength of the game was that it didn’t try to tell too much in its story. It’s simple and can be universally understood. It’s so simple that I believe it crosses all cultural barriers, too. Fares was brought up in wartime Lebanon and left for Sweden the moment his family was able to in order to escape the violence. It’s these personal experiences that can truly make a work connect with a large audience because it speaks to the essence of humanity. But it’s also the auteurship and the willingness to take risks (of telling such a personal story or using a new way to tell them) that enables a work to transcend its peers. This is why Telltale’s The Walking Dead does so well. Season One focused on the player’s paternal/maternal instincts in taking care of a child who becomes the symbol of survival, hope, and innocence despite the protagonist’s own sullied and violent past—a representation of the present and the past. Yes, the game took advantage of heightening your emotions creating tense moments and seemingly difficult decisions but Telltale did with great success. Brothers and TWD both look towards the future by constantly creeping out of despair and tragedy by honing in on very basic human concepts. The focus in both these games is like a small nugget of gold hidden in a sieve full of dirt and muck, but as you progress through the game that nugget is polished by the stream’s cold running water and the dirt and chunks of sand are washed away. By the end, you’re rich. Rich with meaning and catharsis.
A lot of games have too much muck sticking around.
More often than not, we game makers are insulated from the outside world and even when we do ask outsiders to join us the outsiders, too, begin to lose touch with what’s beyond the bubble. I suffer from this a lot myself. Coming from a creative writing background then learning how to make games from an artist’s perspective to be bogged down by the realities of game development and being a business disheartens me at times. It’s hard. Experts from the outside and even specialized experts (like a game writer) on the inside must try their best to keep their minds open. A willingness to collaborate is key but so is the drive to convince others to take risks. Who cares if you bring in your novelist friend when neither party says that a novel’s format is no good for a game. It’s no good when you take that novel form and do something crazy and interesting with it but back down when the higher ups say ‘no’.
To learn, in the most general sense, is always to keep an open mind. In our case as master game developers, master film directors, master writers, master whatevers, we are learning and must learn from each other. As a developer, when I invite a writer on board I have listen to what they have to say bu at the same time they must be listening to me too! A true collaboration doesn’t happen when one side dominates the other. Everyone needs to be taking a risk to make something new. Like a good marriage, good collaboration is about learning to give and take—compromise. As developers, we’ve only just begun to open the dialogue to outside experts to come help us. However, there is still a lot that can be done to make it more welcoming and to have these masters want to come work with us. The only way is to start reaching out to them not by business card but by allowing the work speak for itself. Popular media already has a certain perception about our industry and our wares but the tides are slowly beginning to change with the Brothers, Walking Deads, Kentucky Route Zeroes, Gone Homes, and Journeys coming out. If we don’t strive to keep the momentum up by creating these interesting games (or almost games), the tide will die and we’ll never reach shore to save ourselves from being forever locked up and forgotten in Rapture.
In a previous post, I mused about how cultural differences could influence narrative and game mechanics. I mean, they obviously can and do influence a lot of different things. Another example popped up with the upcoming release of Bravely Default‘s North American release.
The above image depicts the costumes in the original Japanese release on the right and the NA counterparts on the left. The most gratuitous is the top-left—I think that costume change is pretty reasonable. Seriously, who the hell goes out and fights in their underwear? Come on, guys. The BDSM outfit, borderline for me although I do like the covered up one more… it’s doesn’t bash me over the head as much.
And so brings the New Year… my thoughts on one of the most highlighted games of the new ‘exploration’ genre, Kent Hudson’s The Novelist.
I was very excited for this game when I first heard about it because as I mentioned in my quickfire post about completing the first section (month) of the game, I had listened to one of Kent’s talks at GDC some years ago. What Hudson said he wanted to do and the kinds of things that I was discovering on my own research path were almost the same. While my thesis project was never able to dive deep enough into these concepts with a polished build, the research and the iterations of work that was done thus far was still, I think, valuable. There were many hurdles that my team came up against when trying to explore the intersection of traditional game mechanics telling and interpreting complex stories. At the end, we realized it’s a lot harder than we thought. Unfortunately, The Novelist hit the same problems we did and did not break through the many barriers.
Mechanic is the Message?
I skimmed early reviews of the game and some said that the pacing of the game was much better without having to play with the traditional stealth mechanic. I’d have to agree. There are a few possibilities for this:
Narrative will always just be the reward of executing a game’s mechanic successfully.
The stealth mechanic in The Novelist was not fully fleshed out and was therefore an unneeded distraction to the narrative focus of the game.
The stealth mechanic cannot convey any narrative element.
The first possibility is the harshest and while true for many games out there, is also false. I argue this because while a game’s mechanic may be simple, and perhaps alluding to the third possibility that a mechanic cannot carry any narrative meaning at all, the mechanic can be properly supported by tertiary elements of a game like its narrative. In a way, both the mechanic and narrative can prop each other up. Some games do this quite successfully with smart set up and subversion like Shadow of the Colossus.
This leads me to think that possibility #2 is the culprit here and that the stealth mechanic wasn’t well thought out, constructed, or supported by the tertiary elements of the game. With that out of the way, let’s talk about what I really enjoyed about the game.
The Groundwork Laid
The Novelist tries to focus on those dialogue interactions and builds an entire game around them. To make that interesting for several hours is no small task.
This is a game that tries to focus on the decision making process that is found in many RPGs where you build relationships with other NPCs. A traditional RPG, though, had many other mechanics and things to do around those dialogue trees. In fact, perusing dialogue trees is oftentimes a very small portion of these games. In a way, The Novelist tries to focus on those dialogue interactions and builds an entire game around them. To make that interesting for several hours is no small task.
The game is about the realistic struggles of a 3 person family: father, mother, and child. Each character’s wants and desires mixed in with how it affects each other family members’ goals becomes the narrative mechanic of the game: managing compromises of each person. This is real life. Life is a series of compromises and I think that Hudson was able to capture the spirit of the decision making process very accurately. It’s painstakingly hard to put off your kid to meet an important deadline. While I may be personally more disposed to thinking like like a parent (I have a dog), the game puts you into the shoes of what it is to be a parent raising a child. It’s at truly unique feeling that has begun to crop up in popular video games of late. Unlike such fictional settings as zombie-filled Walking Dead series from Telltale Games, Hudson reels us back into hard-boiled reality. No decision is easy to make in this game and it really feels like a time bomb waiting to go off at any second.
Everything on this front was done very well. I was immersed in this family’s story and the kinds of things that each family member was trying to gain out of their summer vacation. At the end, as a gamer, you want everyone to be happy. In fact, I’m totally guilty (I’m so sorry, Kent) of save scumming on multiple occasions (nothing can beat the force quit!!). The narrative was decently effective at grabbing my attention—we’ll get back to this.
While there was a lot of work put into developing the family, there was also work done to give backstory to the player avatar—a ghost, of sorts, pulling the strings and influencing how the family behaves. This was very interesting, but there was something jarring about all this when paired with a very traditional stealth game mechanic.
The Meaning of Stealth
I really enjoyed the artifacts left around the house during the night. I wanted to know what I was controlling, what the role of this ghost was. The meaning of its existence. This all made a lot of sense to me and I was quickly just as invested in looking for the ghost backstory tidbits as I was invested in making sure to find all the clues to unveil the family story. However, from the tone and content of these left-behind letters from the past it seems like the ghost never made its presence known. Hold onto that thought.
The way that the stealth mechanic worked in The Novelist was that if you were spotted by the family members, you would have no influence (could not pick their want/desire in the decision making process) over them. It’s like a magic trick or hypnosis, if you know what the trick is then it’s much harder to believe or suspend your disbelief. By revealing your presence to family members, you relinquished your power over them. Power is a very important theme in traditional stealth mechanics.
Oftentimes in stealth games, the player avatar is weak against enemies or is unable to complete an objective when approaching them head on or face-to-face. Instead, the player must rely on skulking in the shadows and take their prey by surprise. This surprise element flips the table and gives the player complete dominance over their enemy or objective. It’s a classic role reversal that serves to impart a sense of extreme power upon the user. In Metal Gear Solid, Snake can perform silent takedowns where he sneaks up behind enemies and chokes them out. The enemy is completely helpless. Batman in the Arkham Series is even more dangerous—a face-to-face encounter is a viable option meaning Batman is already powerful, using stealth only amplifies the dominance that Batman exerts. On the opposite side of this spectrum is that stealth is used to make the player feel helpless. The player uses the shadows to avoid an extremely powerful enemy. Horror games like Amnesia are great examples where the player is the victimized.
But where on the spectrum does the ghost of The Novelist lie? Are you a helpless soul at the mercy of this family about to exorcise you into nothingness? Or are you a powerful being with the ability to manipulate the family in ways untold? It’s clearly the latter.
The problem is that the mechanic’s metaphors don’t match correctly with the The Novelist’s NPC reactions to you. In traditional stealth games, when you come face-to-face with an enemy a fight will ensue and you will probably die. You lose. However, The Noveslist doesn’t present itself in the same fashion. Your avatar doesn’t really die, instead the family becomes resistant to your influence. Now, I haven’t played the game with the intention of breaking it and just being discovered all of the time but I really should. The thing is, the game offers you the option to play it without stealth.
Be the Butcher
Red flags. It means that the stealth mechanic and its metaphors aren’t really necessary, they don’t mean and don’t add anything to the game. It’s a big problem because stealth could be more than 70% of your actions during the game, just trying to avoid the gaze of the family while you hunt the house for clues. This is bad authorship. I live by “trimming the fat,” meaning that if anything does not add meaning to your message it must be cut. In older blog posts I talked about vector. Everything, at least, must have a vector that points in the same general direction as your underlying message. If a vector doesn’t move you towards your end goal, you have to consider cutting it. If the vector moves you in the opposite direction, well you should definitely cut it.
While there may be exceptions to the vector rules, I don’t think stealth brought anything to the table in The Novelist. The game should have shipped without stealth mode and just with story.
Funny thing is, Hudson worked on Deus Ex 2 so he should be really familiar with what stealth means. Mechanically, the stealth worked. While playing the game in stealth mode, I appreciated the tension (which was one of Hudson’s goal, instead of front loading exploring and back loading decision making) that the interaction with architecture and AI pathing interacted. In fact, I was extra impressed when in later parts of the game some of the lights weren’t possess-able—that really shook things up. However, these are just mechanical considerations. Outside of the actual performance of the stealth system, it brought no additional meaning to the game. In fact, I’d argue that they were a little confusing if you thought about them too much like I did.
The game should have shipped without stealth mode and just with story.
A System Too Transparent
The issues of cohesion don’t stop there. Another gripe was that I was that the system and its interactions were too simplistic and therefore too predictable. I touch upon this in some of my other blog posts about how knowing the results of your actions can actually create a worse narrative experience because your mind is trying to reconcile logical/analytical systems navigation with the emotional/surprising element of story. I can’t be too hard on the game because it’s an indie title with extremely limited budget but the rinse and repeat actions of the game was taxing. I hate to admit it but I really pushed myself to finish this game when I really didn’t care that much. The system bared its skin for all to see—it wasn’t just a skin slip here or there, there was no teasing, there was no foreplay. There was no mystery and that’s unfortunately boring. The system was exposed and there wasn’t anything palpable in the narrative itself that made me want to come back. Maybe it’s because the game is about difficult compromises and the reality of the excruciating process of decision making—maybe the game just nailed it square on the head and I didn’t want to experience it.
But other games made me make difficult decisions, too. The Walking Dead is a perfect example. I had to do a lot of things I regretted. People died at my hands. Part of it was because the outcomes of the choices I had were unclear. Part of it was because I had to make a snappy decision (artificial stress induced by a timer). An opaque result is usually bad in games but they work incredibly well in The Walking Dead and other games that rely on social dialogue tree navigation, especially if something is at stake.
The system bared its skin for all to see—it wasn’t just a skin slip here or there, there was no teasing, there was no foreplay. There was no mystery and that’s unfortunately boring.
What confuses me further is that games with even fewer decision points still manage to keep you wondering and engaged. Games like Gone Home have, in fact, no decision points! You don’t get to decide much of anything, the ending is always the same! In spite of this, I was hooked. I turned that house upside down to learn as much as possible about the people and try to figure out what happened. It was spooky at times and nostalgic at others (I’m a 90’s kid!). At the end of the game I shed a few tears because it was tragically beautiful. There was something intense at stake and I had no agency on how the situation resolved itself… I didn’t care and I still don’t care.
Building Investment through Roleplay
So stealth didn’t really do much for The Novelist and neither did its rinse and repeat mechanic of decision making. Obscuring some of that decision making process and investigation would have helped some but I think the one thing that this game lacked was the player was not in the game.
Games are inherently a selfish medium in that the player embeds him or herself in the story that is being told or the action that is happening on screen. You defeat Bowser, not Mario. You are Clementine’s caretaker and anything that happens to her is your fault. You are Sam, whose sister suddenly went missing in the middle of the night. Whether you play as yourself or put yourself in the body of a space marine, the player always invades the video game space. You don’t play anyone in The Novelist. You play a ghost that haunts this particular house, for better or for worse.
There is nothing at stake for the player. You’re just some ghost. An omniscient god-like entity that messes around with the house’s inhabitants. In fact, The Novelist is very much like a god game. You’re toying with people with no consequence to yourself.
Games are inherently a selfish medium in that the player embeds him or herself in the story that is being told or the action that is happening on screen.
This is fine but even a god must have a meaningful relationship with its subjects. If you don’t, what stops you from calling biblical storms and killing everyone? Where is the empathy? Where is the compassion. Because The Novelist is a game that depicts a real family going through real problems, assuming that the player has a shred of humanity it’s obvious that they want the family to “win’. Of course you want everyone to be happy. Of course you want to get the best ending possible. But there is absolutely no relationship between the player-ghost and the family besides this meta urge to have them ‘win’. There is absolutely no buildup.
Roleplay can help you establish this gap between player and subject material. It makes it easier for the player to empathize and draw real connections to other characters or situations on screen. A proper relationship is created that also must be cultivated. This bothers me a lot because these concepts are bread and butter to existing genres like movies and books. Why does it not happen in The Novelist? Sure, these are real people and I can relate to them but what makes me actually care about their situation.
Unlike games of its genre—the Dear Esthers or Gone Homes—The Novelist does something very important in that it maintains player agency. It is still a game unlike Dear Esther or Gone Home, you actually get to decide how the game will end instead of the end passively happening to you when you jump through the right hoops. I’ve picked on the stealth and the lack of urgency or personal stake in The Novelist, but Hudson takes a brave step in maintaining a game inside a very interesting genre that I hope grows.
I pick on this game a lot because it’s a lot like my own experimentations—all of the possibilities, all the challenges, and many of the failures… tying game and story together is very difficult. In the future, when trying to make games like these we can learn from The Novelist and others on how to improve. Here is a short list of things that I’ve touched on in this article.
The mechanic’s metaphors must tie into the story of the game. No stone must be left unturned when taking apart every action and reaction to the mechanic in relation to the greater setting of story and narrative. All fat must be trimmed.
The decision making system and gating mechanism can’t be too transparent otherwise the system will be abused and the game become solved. A story-driven story relies on decision-making so that system must be robust and present challenge and difficult just like any other game. More importantly, pace the decisions and what needs to be done to make them. Front/back loading is boring.
A player must feel that they are personally invested by either playing as themselves in the game world or inhabiting the shoes of someone who has something at stake in the game world.
While I pick on this because it’s similar to my own dead project, the fact is that Kent Hudson left the security of a full time job and took a stab at answering these questions by self-publishing what comes out to be a pretty good game. He took the risk and he succeeded in pushing this genre (seriously, we need a good name for this) forward more than I ever did. That’s balls.
Even with its flaws, everyone should buy this game and play it through to see what the possibilities are and how a restrained decision space focused on just story can still be very compelling. We don’t need to dress up story with a crap ton of shooting or make you solve a million puzzles just to get to decide who you’ll romance. It can all happen without that.