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Archive for the category “Computer games”

My family is playing GTA V

... and then, there is the sexism. Hard to ignore, but not what this post is about.

… and then, there is the sexism. Hard to ignore, but not what this post is about.

I spend quite a lot of my evenings not playing GTA V at the moment. (There is something with the controls for Rockstar games that I have never quite overcome – I get sufficiently frustrated to give up on their games.) Since the rest of the family play I get to watch a lot of the game, though.

GTA V seems to be a really good game. The gameplay is both strategic and tactic and possible to adapt to your skill level. The world design is exquisite with a lot of detail. The storyline is what I like the best as a spectator: It is ironic and often rather funny, and the main characters are strangely likeable despite their machismo. There is some British humour at play in the TV ads and the imaginary companies (if Facebook was called Lifeinvader for real, I would apply for a job there). There is rampant sexism throughout the game that is difficult to forgive, but that is not what I want to rant about.

My problem is the description of GTA V as a sandbox game. Granted, there is a large mapped area to explore, with a lot of exquisite detail. There are random event quests (57 total according to the GTA V Wiki) outside the main event storyline and if you play the game long enough there are some neat tricks to uncover. But there basically no permanent effects you can create in the world. You travel around to explore the landscape in all its exquisite detail; knock over lamp posts that will be back next time you run by them and kill people who will be there again the next time you pass. And while the map is large, it is patchy: most houses are back drops, impossible to enter. A sandbox is a box full of building material. It is an opportunity for creation and destruction. Gary’s mod and Minecraft are sandbox games, GTA V is very far from one.  Wikipedia describes the GTA series as ‘open world’ games, which is more accurate.

I have a hunch that sandbox games support storymaking better than games that are just open-world. While it is easy to find plenty of imaginative  stories diaries about Minecraft and the Sims, the stories you experience in GTA are primarily the one programmed into the game through the quests. And given that I don’t particularly like the gameplay and the stories are linear with few alternatives, I might just as well continue to just watch.

Why I don’t believe in emergent narratives

(This post is about videogames only. There will be a follow-up post about larp.)

Every late autumn, I teach a course in game analysis at Stockholm University. We cover Salen and Zimmerman ’Rules of Play’ cover to cover with some sideboard readings, and the homework assignments include playing games and analyzing them from various perspectives. One of the homework assignments includes this question:

”To what extent does the game create any emergent narrative? Explain your answer.”

Students have huge problems answering this question for just about any videogame they analyse, and I  understand why. To summarize, emergent narratives are not created by games, but by players.

Morrowind aimed for a rich story world, and used a combination of scripted stories and procedural content (such as the reputation system) to create it.

The concept of ’emergent narrative’ is most commonly seen as part of a more general design ideal of a ’360 illusion’, a complete and consistent fictional universe that is there for the player to explore. The idea is that such worlds also could function as story spaces, in which numerous stories could emerge depending on what the player chooses to do and what to explore. (The 360 illusion is a very old design ideal that predates computer games, and for video games it has been advocated by e.g. Jane Murray in ‘Hamlet on the Holodeck’.) Games that have aimed to achieve this ideal include many single-player RPGs such as Morrowind. It is not an ideal that appeals to everybody: many players value challenges more highly than exploration, or favour a good story above a complete simulation.

The problem is that a rich and complex world is just a world. Worlds are not in themselves stories or challenges, but they can function as a canvas or a backdrop for both. (I believe it poses issues for both, but here I focus on stories.) As a storytelling canvas, the 360 illusion poses several limitations. The most obvious one is related to time: unless you tweak the representation, the player can only experience any plot in the order it is played out, as a story world ‘now’. For this reason, most 360 illusion games include a back story that is both represented in the world (through architecture and relics, clothes and cultures, posters, books lying around etcetera) and in dialogues with NPCs in the world. The back-story lends itself to free exploration but is static – in this sense little has changed since MYST. Already the separation of the back-story from the story in-game sets games apart from traditional narrative media, but more seriously, the stories that play out within the 360 illusion will always be told in the order that events happen in the world. This is true even when stories are triggered or generated as an effect of the player moving freely in the world and selecting her own interactions. More interesting and complex narrative structures can be created as players re-load earlier saves or replays the entire game to explore various options – but these are narratives generated by players and only occasionally foreseen by designers.

A second limitation is that it is the player who will play the protagonist in a 360 illusion game. In literature, it is possible to present stories from a first-person perspective or a third person perspective, and in film, the perspective is typically a third person perspective; all forms offer plenty of ways to present the thoughts and emotions of the protagonist to the viewer or reader. But when the player enters a 360 illusion world through an avatar, it is to play the role of the protagonist. If the game prescripts what the avatar can say or do, or how it should react, it will limit the expressivity and freedom for the player. But if it does not, it will be up to the player to create all those reactions and emotions – and there is no guarantee that he or she will. I believe that when Tom Cross’ argues for creating meaningful games by populating them with NPCs with their own goals and purposes can be seen as a way of overcoming this problem: using his model, the player becomes an in-game spectator and less of a protagonist.

The third limitation I want to bring up is both a limitation and a potential: the randomness of a world open for free exploration. There is a level of randomness already in letting players explore a world at will, and another layer in that the events they trigger can affect each other. But narratives are not perceived as random but as intentional structures: Tom Cross puts this as ”narratives speak of an intelligent, exterior design to readers”. When we are looking for narratives, we are looking for the intent to tell a story.  Random occurrences will still seem random unless they have been carefully designed (and yes, it is possible to design for coincidence, as discussed by Reid for location-based games). Hence, most computer RPG games include pre-scripted story content where the intent to tell a story is clearly in place, that serve as a context in which random occurrences become meaningful. Cross argues for procedural narrative: stories that have been designed into the game but that are generated rather than pre-scripted.

Hence,  in order to create coherent stories out of random coincidences (with or without linking to pre-scripted story content), the player must be active in making the connections. The player becomes not just the protagonist but part author of his or her own story. Steve Gaynor talks about this as ‘storymaking’:

“One should not ask a game designer to tell them a great story; rather, the game designed should be judged on the player’s ability to make his own stories within its mechanical framework.”

If we are given nothing but random coincidences from the 360 illusion, this is a very hard task. Such stories do not just ’happen’ or ’emerge’ out of a rich world to explore – they are actively and consciously created by players. It is not necessarily something that every player is good at or even wants to do, and furthermore, the 360 illusion is not necessarily the best way to support storymaking. Calling this form of narrative ’emergent’ just obscuring what is really going on.

Stay tuned, because there are some that got this right – the table-top and larp communities.


Cross, T. Analysis: Story and the trouble with ’emergent’ narratives. Gamasutra, July 10th 2009.

Elder Scrolls III: MORROWIND. Bethesda game studios 2002.

Gaynor, S. Storymaking. Blog post, Jan 31st 2009.

Murray, J. Hamlet on the Holodeck. MIT Press 1998

MYST Brøderbund, Robyn and Rand Miller, 1993

Reid, J. Design for coincidence: incorporating real world artifacts in location based games. Proceedings of the 3rd international conference on Digital Interactive Media in Entertainment and Arts, Pages 18-25. ACM.

Waern, A, Montola, M., and Stenros, J. The three-sixty illusion: designing for immersion in pervasive games. Proc. CHI’2009.

Flying and falling – on the emotions of motion

Screenshot from "The Journey"

I got two story-based single-player games for my birthday, The Journey  and Catherine. The games make an interesting comparison, so I will write about them both at the same time, although I am far from finishing Catherine.

The Journey is the rare example of an arts game that becomes an immediate bestseller. It is abstracted to the extreme: just as Shadow of the Colossus, The Journey takes a few interaction elements from the singleplayer genre, slims them down and refines them to the extreme, and integrates them into a hauntingly beautiful graphical and audial setting. There is very little you can do in The Journey. There are very few enemies and the ones that exist you cannot fight, only free from. The puzzles are few and simple. There are no dialogue trees to choose within as there is no dialogue at all, even though there is a cryptic backstory that gets revealed through graphical cutscenes throughout the game.

Action-related emotions in The Journey, the full game.

Instead, the gameplay experience in The Journey is completely based on how it feels to move in the game. You are travelling through a barren desert landscape, initially just walking. Almost immediately, you find out that it is easier to walk in some directions where you can slide with the sand; in other directions the sand and wind will instead work against you. Soon, you also learn to jump and to fly, creating an enormous feeling of empowerment and freedom. But when the problems start to mount, you lose your abilities and must struggle forward against wind, sand, and snow.

The ability to jump and to fly is very often used in games to make players feel powerful; just think about the double-jump from the platformers. The feeling is particularly liberating when it comes after being earth-bound. I remember Black and White in which you were cast as a god over the villagers on a small island. But for being a god, you were rather crippled: your avatar was a huge hand, and you moved through the landscape as a clumsy five-fingered crab. If you got enough worshippers, they could give you the ability to fly, at least momentarily. After hours of earthbound struggling, the feeling was exhilarating.

The Journey casts the player as a hero throughout the game. Although it is a bit unclear what you are expected to accomplish, it is clear that you are not guilty for the problems depicted in the back story, but that you can help. From this perspective, it is interesting to note that The Journey can be played together with other players. If you play online, you get paired with another player to complete the game together. You cannot talk to each other, but you can help each other and you can play simple music together. This wordless interaction creates the strongest sense of togetherness that I have ever experienced in a game. It reminds me slightly of the very rare occasions in World of Warcraft when I collaborated with a player of the opposite faction, and the communication was almost as restricted. In line with the rest of the game, the collaboration is slimmed down and refined to its purest essence in The Journey, creating a much stronger emotion than in WoW.

Activity-related emotions in Catherine, the initial part.

Catherine can be seen as the very opposite of The Journey. The best way to describe its genre is as a survival horror platformer. The player is cast in the role of Vincent, who is having strange nightmares and a strong fear of women, and finds himself cheating on his long-term girlfriend. (I have mixed feelings about the misogynic theme of the game, but it is still a great game.) From the very start of the game, the story generates a feeling of guilt, as Vincent feels a bit guilty for his reluctance to commit himself to his long-term girlfriend. The feeling of guilt is reinforced throughout the first part of the game, as Vincent gets more and more entangled in a web of lies and threats.

Catherine consitst of a mix of quite extensive cut-scenes, some scenes in which you can walk around and interact with characters in the game, and a puzzle-solving platform game mechanic. The latter occur primarily in dream scenes, and consist of a timed puzzle in which you must find a way to climb upwards on a wall, where the lowest part keeps falling off and you sometimes are hunted by a monster.  Catherine is not about flying but about falling, or rather, the fear of falling. If you fall you die, even if it is in a dream. Just as in The Journey, Catherine offers no enemies that you can fight – all you can do is to flee from them to survive. But there is no game element that creates a sense of power and freedom in Catherine – at least not as far as I have played.

A nice touch in Catherine is that your character doesn’t level. You never get any lasting powers, although you can find or buy temporary power-ups. Even so, you do get a feeling that you are getting slightly more empowered, if only through the fact that you are learning how to solve the puzzle.

Finally, just as The Journey, Catherine offers an online element. In line with its horror theme, it is one that breaks the fourth wall, directing itself directly towards the player. Throughout the game, the player gets to answer questions related to his or her ethics, and the results are compared to what other players have answered. (At the point where I am now, these questions seem to have nothing to do with the game at all, but this might change later in the game.) Ultimately, Catherine is a game about ethics and morals, and interpret this element as an attempt to create a bleed effect.

(I need to finish off this sequence of blog posts on single-player games soon, to get to more juicy stuff on role-play. But there is at least one more post to go.)

Mass Effect 3 and the Quest for Multiple Endings

(This text contains minor spoilers about Mass Effect 3, and the texts I link to contain major spoilers. If you hate spoilers, come back when you’ve finished the game.) Read more…

Action-related emotions in single-player stories

Action-related emotions in storybased games (primarily singleplayer games)

The difference between games and traditional narrative media is that players act in games. In storybased games, this typically means that  player actions have an impact on the state of a fictional universe. A typical single-player storybased game casts the player as a protagonist: there is a problem that needs to be solved, and the player is cast in the role of the single person who, for some more or less obscure reasons, can solve it. The job of the fiction is to make the player care about the problem and feel responsible for what happens.

These games tend to play on a very specific set of emotions, related to how players feel about their actions. Firstly, players can feel more or less empowered to act. Secondly, when players feel responsible for what happens in the fictional universe, these emotions can range from guilt to pride. (Although this emotional palette occurs in multiplayer games too, the situation tends to be a bit more complex for them.)

I use this two-axis diagram to depict the action-related emotional palette. If the player feels both empowered and proud, we get the purely positive feeling of being a hero – it’s depicted in the upper right corner of the diagram. To the upper left, we find the feeling of playing a villain – the person who has all the power but uses it for personal gain or pure evil. Many RPGs offer players a choice between playing ‘good’ or ‘evil’ (Knights of the old republic is a good example), and this means that they play on emotions in the upper half of the palette. Frustration, on the other hand, is typically connected to the feeling of knowing what you must accomplish but being unable to make it happen. I place it on the positive side on the accomplishment scale (as you would feel proud if you succeeded), but it ends up in the lower righthand corner as you feel powerless. Feelings of powerless guilt (the lower lefthand corner) are more unusual in games, but can be very effective. A good example is the opening scene of Farenheit, where the player character murders a complete stranger. When you gain control over the character, the crime has already been committed and you can’t do anything about it – and the first thing you need to do is to escape the police!

Most games create some kind of trajectory towards a greater sense of empowerment and achievement. For example, horror games tend to stay on the lower half of the graph. The sense of being powerless is a huge factor in fear, and it is not uncommon for horror games to also make players feel guilty (as in Manhunt, that I discussed in a previous post). Action-adventure games on the other hand typically start somewhere close to the middle of the diagram, and move towards the ‘Hero’ corner of the graph with very few detours into any other quadrant.

The emotional trajectory in "Zelda: Skyward sword"

We can take legend of Zelda – Skyward sword as an archetypical example. When the game starts, the hero-to-be is a nobody and a dreamer, immediately incapacitated by losing his bird (you fly a lot on birds in this game). This opening scene is designed to make the player feel a bit incapacitated and pretty much without any sense of accomplishment (although not much guilt either). But once you get the bird back, the accomplishments start to pour in. And one of the things you get to know is that although you are not the legendary hero yet, you are destined to be. This way, the game pushes you towards the ‘hero’ corner quite quickly and without much variation.

It seems like many players have come to expect this curve – which might be part of the explanation behind such phenomena as the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy. Personally, I prefer games that play in several of the sectors at once – in particular, when a singular act makes you feel at the same time proud and guilty. (Mass effect excels in this – but this is for another post.)

Dys4ia: Computer games as a media for autobiographical storytelling

This blog post is devoted to dys4ia, a gem of a game that I found through Ian Bogost’s blog. It is created by Anna Anthropy and is an autobiographical story of her hormone replacement medication.

Dys4ia is a storytelling game. It presents almost no game challenge at all. The minor game challenge I found was in the form of an interaction puzzle: in each scene you must figure out what to do to progress in the story. But this, you figure out almost instantly, by clicking around a bit and using the arrow keys on the keyboard. Neither is it very strong at interactive fiction in the classical ‘360 illusion’ sense – it does create a ‘story world’. The world created is implicit, through crude sketches representing abstract scenes that depict key events in her life.

So, Dys4ia tells a linear story (no branching, no options) with some opportunity for interaction. But the point is that these interactions  are vital. As player, you are tasked with acting out the  humiliating, scary, and stigmatizing events the game designer went through. There is a wonderful mix of symbolical events (e.g. one representing the feeling of being an awkwardly shaped puzzle piece) and concrete acts such as repeatedly ensuring ‘yes, I am a woman’ and swallowing the pills that may or may not be good for you. The game offers an opportunity for players to get involved and by that — feel responsible for what happens.

There are two possible ways to classify Dys4ia. One is that computer games is a media, and that it is a media that can be used to develop interactive stories that are not games. The other is that the interactivity of the game offers a very, very simple opportunity for role-play. By the few actions offered, the game succeeds to invite you as a player to walk in somebody else’s shoes. I think the strength of the game lies precisely in this invitation.

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