Friday, January 29, 2016

What does screenwriting have to do with game design?

[I wrote this more than a year ago when I was still in college, and never published it. I am publishing it now for shits and giggles. It's probably not even finished.]

Decisions, decisions. They're all that matter in storytelling. If characters never made decisions, there would be no story. If characters never had to make difficult decisions, there wouldn't be an interesting story.

Shortly after I first met him, my friend Shay Pierce told me that games are about interesting decisions. If all of game design could be distilled into one sentence, that would be it. Good games are built on interesting decisions.

In my TV Pilots class, we're learning that TV series rely on interesting decisions too. William Rabkin, author of "Writing the Pilot," talks about Flash Forward, a show about some people who receive a vision of the future. One of the characters, a recovering alcoholic, sees a vision of himself drinking in the future. Rabkin argues that this is a terrible way to start a series because this vision of the future doesn't force the character into a decision. He's either going to drink, or he's going to continue to decide not to drink.

A good scene moves the plot forward and reveals character. It reveals character through that character's choices. Let me outline a good scene and why the choices the character made was so interesting. Spoilers for Breaking Bad follow:

Walter White, high school chemistry teacher turned meth cook, needs to reign in his partner Jesse, who is getting into heroine with his new girlfriend. I don't remember why, but Walt sneaks into Jesse&Girlfriend's place at night, just in time to see Jesse's girl choking on vomit from doing too much heroine. She's going to die. The catch is that both Jesse and his girlfriend are passed out and unable to help themselves. Only Walt, who shouldn't be there, can save her.

This is a crucial decision: either turn her head, allowing her to vomit freely, or let her choke to death on her own spew. However, this is not yet an interesting choice. This is an obvious choice - let her live.

For a character, an interesting choice is one for which both options seem equally important. The drama in the choice lies in the fact that these two choices are mutually exclusive, irreconcilable.

Walt's decision is interesting because this girl has proven a kink in his drug-selling plans. She has lead Jesse astray, into the land of heroin. The meth operation has suffered as a result. And if you know Walter White's character, you know that he loves his meth business. A lot. A lot a lot. But does he love it so much that he would let a wayward young woman die?

And there's the interesting choice. There's the reason people tune into Breaking Bad. 

Now here's where it has to do with games: those interesting choices, even on TV, are interactive. Audiences watch these scenarios and make choices in their head. So many of us just wanted Walter White to turn her head a bit to save her, but we all watched him bite his nails over his fading humanity instead. That's good television. When a character makes a decision like that, we weigh it against what we would have done, and weigh the consequences of their action against how we thought it would play out. Therein lies the joy of television.

In games, players (presumably) make those interesting decisions. We're put into situations where each choice seems equally important, but we only get to make one. Instead of watching somebody else's story, we have to take an active role in telling our own. This is actually far more stressful (and immersive) because we have to deal with the consequences of our actions directly, instead of in the detached manner we watch television.

The important thing about interesting choices in TV shows is that the choice is ultimately determined by the character. Writers put a LOT of thought into character, down to specifics such as favorite candy bar, hobbies, their opinion on #GamerGate, etc. The choices the characters make reveal this background information and make it relevant to the story. When a character is faced with an interesting choice, the writer often already knows what the character is going to do - making the choice interesting may be the harder part.

However, for interesting choices within games, the character is YOU. And the writer doesn't know anything about you, other than what you're in for and maybe some marketing data. In television the characters grow organically into each other and are based in a common context. In video games, you can have a whole cast of characters from Georgia and a player from Norway - on its face, that's a recipe for a hilarious fish-out-of-water comedy a la Lilyhammer. Of course, the game devs may not be aiming for that particular experience.

This idea, of "letting the player write the player character," brings me to my favorite parts of The Walking Dead games and Skyrim, as well as the biggest flaw I see in Dishonored (which is an otherwise perfect game).

In both Skyrim and the Walking Dead, you get to choose who your character is. The player is thrust into a world and the conditions of it, and gets to define themselves by their relationships to other characters. Players in Skyrim can choose to join an Imperial or Stormcloak character in a hasty exit from a castle besieged by a dragon. The Walking Dead posits a series of questions to the player right away that informs the opinions of other characters, setting the tone for future interactions. These bits of interaction early on are crucial, because they allow the player a bit of agency in determining how other characters look at them. In this way the player actually has a hand in writing their character and its place in the world.

The choice of which faction to join in Skyrim can be made again by the player after the opening, but that doesn't take away its importance. In my play-through, I first became a hero of the city of Whiterun by slaying a nearby Dragon. They rewarded me by granting me the title of "Thane" and giving me a companion to join me in battle. These rewards are great design decisions because they tie the player to the world. I felt responsible not only for my actions, but for the people of Whiterun. That connection made it all the more devastating when I had to siege the city as part of my decision to join the Stormcloaks.

Seriously: when Ulfric Stormcloak asked me to siege the city I had sworn to protect, I was devastated. It inspired an emotional conflict in me. And after the fact, when the Jarl of Whiterun expressed his disappointment with me, I felt shame. That's genius game design.

Most games give only superficial character customization options at the start, preferring to lead the player down a straight, uniform tube before dumping them into the game world. Too often a game will later present the player with a weighty choice, only to be met with the equivalent of "...what's my motivation?" Such is the problem with Dishonored.

Now, I love Dishonored. I love the choices you can make in the game and how they affect the progression of the story. However, my single biggest problem with the game is that whenever I was presented with such a choice, my first reaction was "why?" I couldn't connect with Corvo Attano enough to want events in the game to play either way.

For example: in one mission, a friendly character named Callista asks you to save her uncle, Captain Curnow. During the mission you can choose to switch his poisoned glass of wine for a non-poisoned glass. And I had to ask myself: "why?" Why should I choose to save Captain Curnow? Sure, it's a nice thing to save people's lives, but I mean why should I as Corvo Attano save Captain Curnow? Sure, I might be trying a "low-chaos" playthrough, or I might think the challenge is interesting, or I might want the achievement, but from a story perspective why should Corvo Attano, Mr. Dishonored, save Captain Curnow? More importantly, why shouldn't he?

Because Callista asked you a favor? "Please don't let my uncle die?"

The choice isn't interesting because it's an obvious one. We have no relationship to Callista, other than what has been prescribed to us - she's part of the same conspiracy you're a part of. But you don't get to talk to her, and she doesn't get to have an opinion about you - until after you let her uncle live or die. That decision informs her opinion of you, sure, but you don't get to change it much after that. There's no chance to "prove her wrong." so the relationship has no risk and is fairly meaningless.

What if, WHAT IF: What if you were walking through the Hound Pits Pub, and Callista was picking up some broken glass, and you had the option to either walk past her or stop to help her out? Then she could have a first impression of you, and when she asks you to help save her uncle you have an actual relationship with the character that pre-disposes you to a certain action. Sure, it's not the most exciting example but it gets my point across: letting the player "write" their character through relationship choices makes later decisions more meaningful and interesting.

Job Simulator - Owlchemy Labs



I got to play with the HTC Vive yesterday for the first time. The difference between sitting down with a VR headset and moving around with it on combined with motion tracking is astounding. This particular demo gave me an incredible sense of actually being there in the virtual world.

The last time I got to play with VR was early this month, when Juegos Rancheros had Superhypercube on display for people. THAT was a lot of fun too. Unfortunately there don't seem to be any videos up yet that do justice to that experience.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Transience and Death

"Some things are rushing into existence, others out of it. Some of what now exists is already gone. Change and flux constantly remake the world, just as the incessant progression of time remakes eternity. We find ourselves in a river. Which of the things around us should we value when none of them can offer a firm foothold?"
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6-15
The truth of transience is, ironically, one of the pillars of my always-emerging worldview. The above quote is from Roman emperor and Platonic stoic philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius. The following are from the Buddha:
"So I say to you - this is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:
Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.

So is all conditioned existence to be seen."
-Diamond Sutra, ch. 32
 "People forget that their lives will end soon. For those who remember, quarrels come to an end."
-Dhammapada, ch. 1
The Green Belt, Austin

Perhaps Buddha would answer Marcus Aurelius's question ("which of these things around us should we value?") by saying that to be attached to any of these transient things would incur suffering, as attachment is the root of all suffering.

Yet, a Roman emperor has different priorities than a sage and spiritual aspirant. Firstly, there's an empire to run. You can't retreat to the hills or sit under trees all day when the people of the known world rely on you for safety and stability.

Stoicism is a philosophy that is geared towards action in the world. While Epicureanism and asceticism may be seen as escapist, stoicism is a brief respite before returning to life's struggles. Aurelius reminds himself of the transience of all things not to detach himself from them, but to put them in perspective.

When viewed in respect to death, the transient things of the world become somewhat insignificant. Everything dies. Nothing is permanent, or in the scheme of things even long-lasting. Yet these things are precious. Everything that exists only exists once, fleetingly. All experiences, all objects, all relationships, are born and die.
"The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff."
- Carl Sagan, Cosmos
"Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
-The Book of Common Prayer
When viewed in respect of the transient, death becomes a great unifier, the mother of all things, the womb returned to. Our component parts emerge from and enter into a great cycle of many cycles of birth and death, of form and dissolution.



We can think of things in terms of life because we do live. We can think of things in terms of death because we do die. This is part of the dual nature of living as a transient being.

Existential philosophy might wonder if there's a reason to exist. Knowing that one will die, and understanding that life inevitably entails suffering, one must elect life, choose life for one's self. The existential philosopher tortures themselves with why. "Why must I live, why must I live like this? Why must I live, whatever I am?"

The Stoic philosopher would understand the reason for their existence. The logos is the reasoning force behind everything, the rational underpinning of the universe, without which things would neither be born or die. Things exist because it is in their nature to exist, and their nature is part of a larger nature of the universe.

Buddhism talks about the idea of dependent origination - everything that arises, arises from something else. One's current experience of life is part of a karmic web, "karmic" here meaning "consequential."

So which things should we value, when all things dissipate? When the truth of transience brings all quarrels to an end, knowing as we do that nothing is permanent or self-existing, what should we worry about at all?



The fact is that we do value things, and we do worry about things. The "should" is a moral judgement, an afterthought, a reflection of the truth of transience. Bound as we are to these transient bodies, driven by pain and pleasure by the instincts that preserve our form while they can, we can do nothing else but prioritize the things that matter to us. Given not the inevitability of death, but the inevitability of life, we cannot help but attach value to the things in the world around us, and it is from the things we value that we derive meaning.

The human condition contains both the confusion and transcendence of being able to create new meanings for our lives. That we can imagine new things and bring them into existence seems to separate us from nature in important ways. Does a cat ever worry about ethics? Does a bird try to "find themselves?" Does a tree spend its latter years in regret about never reaching its full potential? Does the tree have goals at all?

No, probably not. So it seems foolish to turn to them for guidance.

This is the problem philosophy seeks to solve: how to live.

Some say there are no solutions in philosophy, only questions. However, to live, one must move forward with answers. Knowing as we do that all things are transient, all subject to birth and death, how does one move forward?

Balance seems to me the only wise option. One must hold in their minds both the importance and the insignificance of life. Important because it's fleeting, unique, beautiful - but insignificant in its powerlessness against death. One's impact on the world, on the continual churning of the logos, is ultimately very tiny and insignificant in the wider sense of time and space, but at the same time is vitally important to one's own experience.

What a privilege it is to be a thing that exists! How could one doubt their own importance when one is all one can be? If I were a universe I might think no more of myself than a speck of dust - but I'm a human being, and I'm bound by the joys and sufferings of this flesh.



The transcendent truth is that both views - the view of the universe and the view of the person - can only exist together. Identifying with only one or the other will inevitably lead to suffering. Much philosophy attempts to escape this life while remaining inside it, as even suicide prevents escape by destroying the one attempting to do so. But truly, there is no escape. Even in the deepest meditation, in the stillest mind and body, the logos unfolds ceaselessly.

To be or not to be - a useless question. To be and not to be - the only way to truly live.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Meditation in The Witcher 2


The Witcher 2 can be a frustrating game to get into, with its long intro sequence, unconventional combat, sophomoric sexuality, and lack of clear instructions. One of the features I initially shied away from is protagonist Geralt's ability to meditate.

Meditation in The Witcher 2 is a glorified inventory and stats menu, but the way combat is structured in the game (which I'm beginning to think is genius) demands you use it a certain way.

You get four options for meditation: alchemy, drink potions, meditate, character. In "alchemy" you make potions out of ingredients and in "drink potions" you do exactly that. "Character" is the skill level up menu, while simple "meditation" allows your character to wait until a certain period of the day.


Because The Witcher doesn't allow drinking potions or accessing these menus during combat, the player is forced to sit and prepare for battle in the wilderness beforehand, considering possible enemy types and combat strategies as they upgrade their skills then mix and drink potions. These potions can help protect Geralt in battle, as well as grant him certain strengths. They tend to last around 10 minutes (but I'm not very far in yet, this probably varies).

The difference between running into battle and sitting down beforehand to prepare and upgrade has a huge practical effect - Geralt can take more hits and do more damage. I also think there's a psychological effect on the player. By forcing them to sit before combat to organize resources, the game encourages the player to form a strategy. Thinking in game terms going forward in time, the player becomes immersed in the experience.


I've found meditation important in my life for a lot of reasons, but this game reflects one of them well - the need to have a moment of silence and consideration before acting on a task. I meditate every morning, focusing on my breath, letting thoughts rise and subside until I reach a point of relative stillness. I do this for about half an hour every day because it lets me shake off mental "residue" from the previous day and the night's dreams. It provides me a blank mental slate that allows me to give full consideration to the tasks and people of the day. Then when I go out and do those things, I can give them my full attention, feeling confident, prepared, but most importantly present.

That's why this meditation mechanic works well in The Witcher as a tool for immersion. It forces the player to be present in the game. Through alchemy it trains them to internalize the root mechanics of the game as they weigh them against the challenges ahead. These considerations fill the player's consciousness, drawing them further into the world. Then when they do engage in combat, it's so intense that they can't possibly focus on anything else without dying.

As I play The Witcher 2, I'm getting used to its quirks and mechanics and finding them rich in detail and it excites me.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Does Austin Suck?

Whiskey-infused bacon. Why is that cool? What may once have been a delicacy made on a hot-plate next to some piss jugs in a dorm room is, in Austin, an artisanal treat. Things like whiskey infused bacon, or fried PB&J sandwiches, or the ability to buy breakfast tacos anywhere, or the lineup at any given venue on any given night: these may vary in quality, and may not even justify their existences, but the ability to experience these things says something about Austin.
It’s a sweltering, congested sub-metropolis full of slack-asses and yuppies who simultaneously take themselves too seriously and not seriously enough. It's a place where spending $11 on a sandwich is considered a societal good. - friend and fellow former KVRX DJ Luke Winkie, in an article for Vice.
What's not said in that quote is that $3 of those dollars may have gone in the tip jar of the food stand he bought it from. There are tip jars EVERYWHERE in Austin. It won't be long until people start wearing them as accessories. But that's part of the point that I'm getting at:

Austin is full of believers. Yes, it's full of slackers too, and yes, there is a sort of "inertia":
Living in a city where things are actually expected of you is hard. It’s much easier to blame your professional and personal failings on the lack of inertia in Austin. It’s just so much nicer to hunker down in an inclusive local scene than trying to reach your potential as a human. Austin is like the safety school of life.
But what's better than an inclusive local scene? Really? Inclusive local scenes are great! Fantastic! We have five to eight farmers' markets a week, food trucks all over the city, tech startups everywhere, small and growing businesses of all kinds, meetups and places to perform... because people believe in the dream.
You don’t give a shit about whiskey-infused bacon. You’re pretending to, because that’s what keeps the whole city from feeling like a big lie.
Whiskey-infused bacon isn't important. It's what whiskey-infused bacon represents on a macro scale that's important. It's the thing that's keeping people in this city employed. It's what's bringing millions of dollars into town. People believe in each other. They're giving each other the benefit of the doubt. If you have a stupid idea, just go ahead and do it - somebody will pay for it (gourmet donuts the size of your head? Duh!).  And if not, just wait until night when everybody's drunk. In this town, that's a winning formula.
Nobody has a clue what his or her job is... When you build a city on the promise of employing every vague Comm-degree'd asshole in America, ye will reap what ye sow... When you settle down here you separate yourself from any childhood aspirations and settle with a job you're not sure actually exists.
Luke is talking about himself here, but that doesn't mean he's wrong. The way young people in this city get paid is different than the typical model in America. Yes, like everywhere else, work = pay. But in Austin the question of "work" and "jobs" is an existential one. People, at least people in their 20s (like myself), don't tend to hold down stable 9-to-5 jobs. A lot of young people hold down some kind of part-time job, then do other things for money to make up the gap. "Freelancing" is the word here. I know journalists, game developers, graphic designers, sound engineers, directors and people who wear a few kinds of figurative hats. I don't tend to agree with the Robert Heinlein quote about how a person should "...be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion," etc, but in Austin it certainly helps.

The logic is this: It's hard to find a job here... so why not go into business for yourself?

There lies the place on the venn-diagram where the "big lie" overlaps with the "big dream." No, Austin is not some jobs metropolis where they're handing out financial security to everybody with a degree and an idea. It's nothing like that. It's a place where enough people believe in the dream that they're willing to give everybody a chance, because then people will give them a chance. You can call it lowering your standards, or "taking yourself seriously and not seriously enough," or being a "slack-ass", or "a series of personal and financial failings", but that would be looking at it with a rule set designed for a different kind of game.

Austin is a place where you, as a young person developing your artistic and professional voice, can hustle your bullshit and people will give you a shot. And they'll give everybody else a shot, and you'll give 'em all a shot as well because that's what's keeping everything afloat.

And really... the only safety net in this city is the one you brought in with you. I've seen people from out of town move in, try the dream, fail, and move right back out of town. Some people don't have the financial security, the immense privilege, the know-how, or the skills (or degree) to do well here. But I've also seen plenty of people work hard and flourish. Luke Winkie is one of them.

When I moved here, a friend was talking to me about the hipster situation here (hipsters were more of a going concern back then). We were talking about how hipsters are defined by cascading irony, and how that's different in Austin. "Hipster" doesn't quite describe the Austinite. Neither does "hip," really. As ridiculous as they can be sometimes, people here mean it when they do and consume things.

Sometimes I can't shake the feeling that I'm living in Monty Python's camelot: "...it is a silly place." This is not what I was told adult life looks like. Maybe one day I'll graduate to that realm.

Until then I'm going to try to get a non-job and make enough money to start my own business.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Play and The Cosmic Calendar

I love the concept of the Cosmic Calendar as presented in Cosmos. It does a good job of making comprehendible something that's impossible to comprehend - the billions and billions of years it took to get where we are today. The Cosmic Calendar is a visual metaphor that divides up the history of the universe into the 365 days of the gregorian calendar. All of human civilization takes place on the last day, December 31st. Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed all did their thing within the last five SECONDS of this calendar.


It's mind-boggling.

On the first episode of the new Cosmos, Neil Degrasse Tyson mentioned that sex - referring to the biological process of cellular reproduction, minus the bulk of its cultural meaning to us - is as old as early November. That's about 2 billion years ago. And all of humanity, starting with apes? About 5 million years, or starting in the morning on December 31st.

So I wondered, with all that time between the beginning of sex and the beginnings of humanity, when did Play come along? Huizinga's Homo Ludens begins thusly: "Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequaty defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing. We can safely assert, even, that human civilization has added no essential feature to the general idea of play. Animals play just like men."


Despite this compelling introduction, Huizinga's book is a historical account of play in solely the timeline of human civilization and culture. He accounts for play in the last few thousand years, but before that? When did the animals learn to play? Is play as old as multicellular organisms?

What if it's older than sex?

Maybe it's only as old as consciousness itself. For Huizinga says, "in play, there's always something at play." Perhaps the object of play, whether a concept or a ball, requires a field of consciousness to exist in. Or perhaps play gave rise to consciousness. I'm shooting in the dark here.

Still, it's an interesting question. How old is play? To answer this question would shed light on the nature of play itself.