Skip to main content

Narrative games

I've just received the February 2003 issue of Game Developer magazine. The soapbox article is called "Narrative Games: Finding Another Side to the Story", and it's written by Heather Kelley, who works on Thief 3 at Ion Storm Austin. It argues that narrative games are important (compared to non-narrative games), and lists a number of things we need to do in order to improve our current dismal record in realizing the potential of narrative in interactive entertainment: * Introduce more variety in the subject matter of our games. * Pay more attention to characters. * Develop interfaces fitting to interpersonal interactions. * Make the players care. * Give the players more freedom to express themselves. * Change our development processes to make innovation in narrative games possible. These are good points and Kelley makes them well. However, it's a pity that she needs to do so. Many of these points should be painfully obvious and have been said before, yet progress is painfully slow.

Shooting fish in a barrel with a +15 shotgun

How to Survive in Any RPG, on, cruelly tears into role-playing game clich├ęs, occasionally employing naughty words.

"Upon beginning your quest, you'll likely find yourself in a quaint town full of people who love it when you casually saunter into their bedroom and start looking through their shelves for items you can steal. Sure they may have been saving up that healing potion to cure their dying son of the dreaded disease AIDSarion, but by all means, if somebody else like you might want it to heal himself after battling a winged elf fairy frog king (weaknesses: lightning, upholstery), it's all yours!"

"The enemies obviously know who's a threat and who isn't. Why would they bother attacking the defenseless idiots in the nearby village which has a bank containing infinite money and armory packed with infinite items when they can attack you, the guy with the glowing orange pitchfork and earrings that somehow make you more intelligent?"

It's funny cause it's true.

(Thanks to Wolfgang.)

"Based on actual torture!"

This article describes how modern art, such as surrealism and cubism, was used to torture prisoners during the Spanish civil war.

My immediate reactions to this article fell into two categories:

1. Humor. Horrible as it is, at some level I find this very funny. I certainly think a lot of contemporary art could be used for similar purposes, although I do not condone any experiments along these lines.

2. Level design. Here is a good example of the use of space to invoke emotions, even if they are very negative ones. Isn't that a crucial element of level design?

Using these techniques raises some ethical questions, although I wouldn't be surprised if Acclaim found a way to turn this into a unique selling point.


Although I find the conclusions a bit too optimistic, this article about Lynn Robson has some interesting information on Frognation, a company that is unlike the typical developer or publisher: virtual, distributed, multi-cultural, working in multiple entertainment media.

Groundhog instant

Remember IF? Interactive fiction? The whole scene of people who are still making and playing text adventures? I've been meaning to dive in there for a long time, but as always it's hard to find the time.

But recently I came across Aisle, an experimental piece of IF by Sam Barlow. It won a XYZZY award in 1999 for Best Use of Medium.

Here's an extract from a good review of Aisle:

"The premise is simple: the game has one move, and it "ends" after that move and automatically sends you back to your original position. By interacting with what's around you -- and by incorporating knowledge gained thereby into future moves -- you learn about your own character and make sense of his various neuroses, fears, and hangups (to some degree, anyway). In the process, you get a sense -- at least, I did -- that your character, in this one move, is at a crossroads of sorts (or, at least, that the moment can mark a turning point, a change, if treated that way), and you take a look at where various paths might lead."

Sounds intriguing, doesn't it? I've played it, and it's quite well done. Aisle is a highly condensed short story: it contains just a key moment in the main character's life, repeated over and over again. (As far as I know there is no resolution, so this post's title is just me being cute.)

Although Aisle will not revolutionize interactive entertainment - arguably, it's not even interactive - I really, really love the fact that there are people out there doing games like this.

(Download the Inform interpreter here - I could neither play the game online, nor download the interpreter from the Aisle webpage.)

Links: A good page linking to various resources on IF.

Background information

I have always been very interested in new input and output devices, especially ones that break through the barrier of computers / consumer electronics and furniture. The technology is there: all that's left now is a clever marketing concept / protocol in order to exploit the network effect. In other words: make something cheap that everyone wants to have, then do cool things when lots of people have that something.

Two of my favorite examples of output devices that are integrated into the background are at Xerox PARC: they have a fountain connected to the Internet which changes its height depending on Xerox's stock price, and a piece of string hanging from the ceiling that twirls slower or faster depending on the congested level of the network. I think I read about this in Wired: sadly, I can't find any good links about these things.

"But Jurie," you cry, "I do not see how this is related to games! Are you wasting my time, like when you talked about Jorge Luis Borges?"

Of course not.

Ambient output devices are not going to change the way we make games today or even tomorrow, but the potential is there. This site of a company making ambient devices contains the following explanation:

"Some information requires constant awareness. For some it's the status of their portfolio, or the health of an aging parent. Others want to know if their friends are online, the upcoming weather, the score of a game, if the fish are biting, or if there's heavy traffic on their drive home. These are examples of information that is neither worthy of interrupt (push), nor worthy of investing time (pull). This type of information should be glanceable, like a clock or barometer. We call this ambient information, and we've created the technology to deliver it."

With the number of always-on games growing (think Animal Crossing, Tamagotchi, Majestic, MMO games), the potential to use these devices for entertainment is growing.

Broad audience

As you may know (or will, after reading this, this and this), Japanese comics or manga address a broader audience than US superhero comics.

This description of a console RPG called Princess Crown gives me the impression that this applies to video games as well as comics:

"In Princess Crown, you control the actions of Queen Gradriel, a 13-year-old woman determined to crush the demonic forces threatening her land, using the might of her sword and the magic of the gems. By undertaking this quest, she hopes to prove herself a legendary queen, much as her ancestors were (Valendia Land is traditionally matriarchal)."

(Again from Alan Kwan's site.)

Out there

This site by Alan Kwan contains a lot of reviews of weird and wonderful Japanese games you don't ordinarily see in Europe or the US.

How about Kitty On Your Lap, "the dream game for players who like 2D anime-style cat-eared girls"?

Or Cotton 2: Magical Night Dreams, a shoot-em-up? "In Cotton 2, the player controls Cotton, a cute little girl and witch on a flying broom. (She has a mental age of 5, and thinks about nothing but food all day.) She is accompanied by Silk, a cute, scantily clothed fairy."

Or Chaos Seed? This is a game that involves cave excavation and attacks by villagers, and features Chinese mythology and even a functional Feng Shui game mechanism. It reminds me of Bullfrog's Dungeon Keeper, except the protagonist is not evil.


Simple as it is, I liked the game design challenge mentioned below so much that it completely overwhelmed the post. So I cut it up.

The random or pseudo-random juxtaposition of elements is an excellent way of stimulating creativity and discovery. An exercise I once did with some friends in France over lunch involved taking a game genre and a fictional universe (in our particular case, one of the universes developed by our company) and trying to design a game incorporating both. I have repeated this at other times; it's interesting to see the different ideas people come up with when they're inventing a racing game set in the Nightmare Creatures universe.

The cut-up technique, made famous by William Burroughs, can be used in a similar way, even though Burroughs allegedly used it to subvert the insects from another planet that were possibly controlling his mind. (You may want to omit this information when trying to convince others to apply this technique.)

Links: An interview with William Burroughs mentioning the cut-up technique (but not the mind-controlling insects). A web page about Burroughs and cut-up.