Tuesday, September 11, 2007

AGC: Matt Costello

Costello took the route of "cover less, but go deeper" in his presentation, which was part of the Writers track. I didn't have nearly as many notes from his talk as from others, but he made his points well and artfully.

His session also got me wondering about some things. In fact, this post will be probably be mostly commentary.

"Something has to be at stake all the time." That really stuck with me, because it hasn't been realized very well in many games yet. In most games, the stakes are limited to time. If the player fails, then he's returned to an earlier checkpoint/spawnpoint or regrets only wasted time.

One thing players could lose is a depthful companion. Companion NPCs don't have to be particularly useful to the player to be missed. Nor do they need to be particularly important to the story, or well-rounded characters. The character might simply affect the game's tone by being amusing.

If the companion NPC is always making some witty remark and the player appreciates the humor, the player will notice the NPC's absence as he continues through the game without those jokes to lighten the atmosphere.

Utility, narrative pull and a rounded personality can all but work, but the point is that there are many ways to make NPCs true companions and not merely tools. Companions are characters we share experiences with; tools are valued only for their usefulness.

Community membership, abilities, area access, reputation, safe travel, NPC welfare... many things can be placed in jeopardy by player actions to build dramatic tension without frustrating the player beyond enjoyment.

Shortly into the presentation, the magic tricks began.

Rather than waste time describing them (magic tricks should be seen, not read about), I'll just skip to the meaning. The difference between the two magic tricks, Costello explained, is that the audience member involved in the second one believed that he was participating. In actuality, the participant had no effect on the trick's outcome. Regardless of who was the participant, the trick would have worked the same way.

Costello's point was that players don't really have to affect a story's outcome to experience the thrill of agency (being an agent of change). If someone tells me to "push the big red button" and my compliance is rewarded with a huge explosion nearby, I'll experience a thrill from thinking I caused the explosion... regardless of whether or not I actually did cause it.

Though he didn't say, I believe what Costello was driving at was that letting the player truly affect the direction of the game's story generally leads to severe complications and a lot of extra expense. It's cheaper to just trick the player into believing he's changing things when he really isn't.

He's right, but illusion can probably only go so far. And when an illusion breaks, it's hard to fix. Also, true impact and dynamics are easier to design for MMOs than for single-player games, since the gameplay is much more open-ended and not so dependent on a single plot.

If I remember right, this was more something Costello mentioned in passing than spoke about at length. It's really surprising, in retrospect, that irony plays such a small role in game narratives, because it has always been popular in fiction and happens to be a cornerstone of American literature.

I spoke later with Erik Hyrkas about the possibility of dramatic irony in games. Dramatic/tragic irony is when the audience knows something that the character doesn't know. This can create enormous tension, because the audience wants to help but is unable to; instead, we must simply watch/read on and hope for the best. Erik reminded me of the obvious (that's necessary sometimes with me): in games, it's impossible for the player to know something his or her avatar doesn't know, unless you use a cutscene/cinematic (which I had already told Erik I'm not a big fan of).

He's right, of course. But the player can experience dramatic irony with peripheral characters. In fact, Middle Earth Online already does this with scripted events, and those impressed me more than any other element of the game.

Imagine running toward a bridge and the bridge collapses just before you reach it... but not before your companion has crossed. Now he must face danger alone, and all you can do is watch him fall in battle or flee with the enemies chasing him. Aside from the immediate tension they create, such events can also be used to set up later events. You might run into that companion late in the game and get to hear of his miraculous escape as he journeys by your side once again.

Dramatic irony isn't the only type of irony. All types deserve more frequent use in games.

Costello used a further magic trick to demonstrate the enjoyable tension that's born of being ignorant and then realizing your ignorance. We thought he was about to dump a cup of water on an audience member's head, but it turned out the cup was empty.

My creative writing professor used to say that clues in a story are great because "We [the audience] like to feel smart." We also enjoy some failures, particularly when we have someone to share them with. "Oh! I was so close! It was at the tip of my tongue!" How often have you heard someone say that with a smile? If you surprise readers without providing enough hints at the conclusion, the audience will often feel cheated. But if the reader fails to guess the conclusion despite there being sufficient clues, then the conclusion is still enjoyable.

More importantly though, more games could work at keeping the player on the edge of his seat, wondering where the story will go next. Resident Evil did a good job, but it's not only horror stories that should accomplish this sort of tension. But maybe I'm stating the obvious, so I'll stop here.

At some point, Costello also mentioned the tension of time pressure.

It got me thinking that games rarely employ time pressure without threatening complete failure at the end of the countdown. If you don't complete the task in a given amount of time, then you must restart the level or quest. Developers should consider other penalties.

Another possible avenue is to give the player only so much time to figure something out before the situation changes and the player must reevaluate the situation. For example, an enemy might not adjust his tactics to counter yours immediately; but if you let the battle continue too long, he will. Or the player might have only so long to reach a shortcut before that opportunity is closed and he must take a longer, more dangerous route to the same goal.

I really enjoyed Matt Costello's session, though I do wish he had spent more time talking specifically about how his ideas might be applied to games. It was more enjoyable than a lot of other sessions, but there wasn't as much content.

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