Rising from the Shadows

The Beautiful Dreamers are missing.  There isn’t any complete information on them in the first two books, but they’re what the whole setting is based on! The reality is, there is a lot of background story, mechanics and drama fleshed out on the Dreamers and it’s good enough to share and enjoy. But it’s not in book form yet and there’s so much work ahead of me that I’ve been putting it aside since forever. Maybe it’s time to shake some of the monsters loose and let them out? They want you to know there’s something in the dark between stars. They want you to be afraid; that’s how they feed. That’s how IT feeds.

I want to get back into producing this content for you and making sure it’s as good as possible. What does it mean in practice? It means literally rebuilding the two books into a new edition. One huge problem with this is that I used an old version of InDesign to publish those books, and the software doesn’t work anymore; it simply freezes after loading the files, and I can’t afford to upgrade to a new version.  So I have to find ways to export the files to Scribus or LibreOffice and redesign them in there. If I have to go through all that work, might as well use some modern tools to be as efficient and creative as possible. Also, some good art wouldn’t hurt.

If anyone wants me to go into the details of the redesigns and changes I could make a few posts about the process but here’s the current road map: I want to improve are the generational limits on characters (so you can’t turn into a god  overnight; you have to make difficult choices) and a more explicit explanation of what the Tiger People and Dreamer’s powers really are (not magic!) and how integral they are to the background. One of the biggest flaws of the first edition is how the player characters really should feel like there’s something wrong beyond living in a benevolent – if tyrannical -Galactic Empire, but nowhere are they actually forced to learn about the nightmares. The drama is missing, and it makes SE just another variant sci-fi RPG. I want to make sure there is more synergy between the character creation choices and the sacrifices they make so that each newly spawned PC already has had a run-in with a nightmare. It will be interesting to come up with a dramatic device to get players involved and intrigued and to finally get the Dreamers source book out, including their allied/servant races, their leaders like Phobos/Fear and how things came to be this way.

Overall the game needs more play-testing and those horrible cards removed. They could easily be replaced by an Android app; that opens up the door for new and interesting game possibilities, especially since art & rules can be updated frequently.  I also feel like the use of different languages might be detracting from what’s important in the game.  Is an exotic name like Strategos or Machitis really better than a Tactician or Fighter? Maybe I was just trying to hide boring designs behind a facade of pretentiousness.  The star ships really need illustrations and play tokens. The planetary data really isn’t very good especially now that there’s a lot of computer games out there that can generate 3D interactive atlases in real-time.  I’ll have to see if some HTML5 magic can add more fun to the game.   The Trading/Economics section needs to be improved, some people really like trading and logistics even in role-playing and I believe my knowledge in that area has improved a lot since getting into Bitcoins.

I feel that the Rasp Station setting is a good first draft but it really needs to be rebuilt with more details, historical epoch, NPCs and supporting tools. The pie in the sky plan is to create a virtual, interactive novel based on that setting. Why not? The point of the game is crazy dreams.

The whole mini-novels at the start of each chapters really have to be shaped into a more cohesive and easy to follow narrative; separately they aren’t good enough for anyone to grok the setting and even if you get interested in one of them, they stop and never lead anywhere. It must be pretty frustrating for readers!

Eventually I’d like to go deeper into the alien races, make them more common and at the same time unique, but without an interesting backdrop, that’s just going to be a waste of time for now. But a stand-alone encyclopedia of variant human and alien civilizations that you can read for hours or days could be very fun stuff!

Finally, cutting up the whole line according to Epochs – from early expansion to Dreamfall – is going to take years to do, so you have ample time to cheer me on or tell me to stop!  Catch you on the Dark side!

EJC11 – Récits et Jeux Numériques — Narrative and Dramatic Spaces

At the beginning of the month I attended a talk on “Stories and Digital Games” at Les Conférences Jacques-Cartier. These conferences are interesting in that they are academic panels but open to the public. The organization and panelists took special pains to make sure that the conversations were accessible to all and simultaneously in both French and English.

I wanted to get a feel of how well the worlds of storytelling and computer games are getting along, as well as see if some product ideas I had in mind were worth pursuing. Also it was a chance to see bloggers such as Professor Monfort from MIT. (He’s exactly as I expected.)

I felt a bit of a stranger there, as one of the few white beards in a room full of young, eager students of game design. It seemed like attending the conference was a class assignment. But I found it fun to hear how seriously they take all aspects of game design. I don’t think I would have taken a sentence like “Could it be a method for analyzing the semiotics of inactivity?” seriously in any other context. (That’s not quoted verbatim, but close enough.)

The theme was ‘new methods of Interactive Storytelling’.  I only attended half the conference, but I feel the theme was not realized as I conclude that they did not so much find new methods of storytelling as validated old ones.

There always are presentations of little or no interest, like using academic obfuscation (the word ‘circulation’) to try to redefine Assassin’s Creed 3 as something else than a pure platformer (Isn’t being in a specific place at a specific time the very definition of a platformer?). What was more impressive was the panel on copying the chapter headings of any RPG rulebook and passing it off as an academic framework to analyze games, or getting paid to play through Mass Effect 2 five times at university-level salaries…

But most of the panels outlined how what you can’t do in the game defines the narrative. You can only tell a story if the game mechanics support it, and you play only as long as there is drama created by how you can resolve a situation. The fun, the narrative of a game emerges not from technical limits, but narrative limits; the crises and drama the creator of the game wants you to explore.  The artistry of a video game and its narrative relate exactly like a statue relates to its original marble block. You must remove potentialities to reveal the true shape of the creation beneath.

How to select a good narrative is outside the topic.  The only mention of this was the comment that when someone tells you “You shouldn’t do that!” then you should probably try it. For example, how many games are about self-sacrifice? It’s contrary to the typical ‘survival’ credo of most games but in Lemmings you had to purposefully sacrifice some of your critters to win.  And it was a success!

Several people asked during the day if game designers wish games had enough AI to be open-ended. They don’t. That would put writers out of a job.  Nobody really plays ‘god games’ for very long, because being omnipotent and omniscient removes all drama. But limits, either physical (Being in a wheelchair, not seeing in the dark, etc) or mental (Being in love, not knowing the enemy strategy, being a pacifist) are the underpinnings of drama and narrative.

Finally, and this is the most difficult part for the design team, the game mechanics must support the narrative limits. This means literally taking away control from the player.  For instance, the fun of Donkey Kong is in jumping over barrels to reach the top of a building. If you could fly in Donkey Kong, there would be no game. This chiseling away of ‘powers’ and capabilities is how you support the narrative.  You have to watch out for emergent behaviours and side effects.  For some people, this is the fun part. For others, it’s called debugging.

So are there new ways to inject narratives into video games?  It doesn’t seem so; but more and more the narrative is there because of limits set by the writers, not the software engineers.  And this means games have a hope of becoming serious works of the same calibre as classics of literature or cinema.