Apple-Obsessed Author Fella

Tag: games (page 1 of 2)

The Games I Play

Mass Effect: The Story Is The Game

You’ve been fooled.

See, you thought the game portion of the Mass Effect series is that part where you run around and shoot synthetics or warp Cerberus soldiers in their balls, or the part where you fly from planet to planet launching your penetrative active scans in search of… I dunno, weird alien Bibles and lost Turian fleets.

That’s the game you thought you were playing.

Like I said: you were fooled.

Further, you probably thought, “This game has a great story. And wrapped around that game is a fascinating science-fiction tale — or maybe the game is wrapped around the story? ToMAYto toMAHto!”

BZZT. Wrongo.

Like I said: fooled.

The story is the game.

For added emphasis: the story IS the game.

All that shooting? All the planet mining and ammo gathering?

They’re just wrapping for the real game. The real game is how you, the player — in some ways, a collaborative author — arrange the pieces of the story to suit the outcome you desire. You desire XYZ outcome (“I want to save the Galaxy, I want to destroy the Geth-Collectors-Reapers, I want to bang Liara and my ship’s yeoman in some kind of cosmic asteroid hot-spring”), and then you try to direct events through your proxy in the game world: Commander Shepard. You make Shepard say things. You make her punch some mouthy fuck or play diplomat. You command her to let this character — or this entire race of characters — live or die. And in this way you’re moving story pieces the same way you might move one of those sliding block puzzles. Except this time with 100% more lesbian Asari sex.

This is what I love about Mass Effect. You carry your saved character through all three games. Choices made really matter. Play the game and poke through various forums and posts on the subject. You’d be amazed at how often you see other people’s stories varying wildly — “Oh my god, that person’s still alive in the third game? You can have sex with that robot? Nobody else was able to turn the Citadel into a giant space-bong?”

It gives oxygen to its characters and lets them breathe and bloom. It makes you care. It forces you into hard choices. It’s actually quite elegant how it makes the audience into a collaborative author.

And then the third game ends.

And by “ends,” I mean, takes a poop in its own mouth, then barfs that poop in your eye.

From here on out, there be spoilers.

Let’s Talk About That Ending

Seriously, last chance:



I’ve been sitting on the game’s ending now for a couple days. At first I was like, “Ehh, well, okay, whatever, it’s just a game, I mean, so what if it only made a half-a-lick of sense and didn’t really answer anything and reminded me of the worst parts of The Matrix Reloaded and I’ll just go to bed now and–”

And I couldn’t sleep.

I just kept thinking about it. Hovering over it. Nesting on it like an angry bird whose eggs were stolen by heinous green pigs. It was like a piece of gristle between my molars. Gristle I couldn’t reach.

It’s been like that over the last few days. Taking up intellectual space in my head, refusing to budge. I’m hoping writing this post will do some of that — it’s not that I’m angry over the ending, really. I’m not one of the many legions of fans who want to build a giant robot just to use its tremendous pneumatic grenade testicles to tea-bag the Bioware offices — no matter what the ending was or is or becomes, I still think the Mass Effect games (and the two Dragon Age games) are works of storytelling mastery. To use a theme from Mass Effect, this effort is a true fusing of the synthetic mode of games with the organic life of stories.

But that ending.

Man. What a fucking bummer. What a goddamn titty-twister.

Okay, let me break it down for you in case you have not or will not play these games: for three games we have been taught that our choices as Commander Shepard matter. Our decisions big and small — who we save, who we kill, who we fuck, who we love — actually change the story in each game. Each decision builds upon the next, a great big storytelling snowball effect, so that by the time the third game rolls around you’re really amazed at how the game still recognizes shit you did 100+ hours and two games ago.

And then you reach the ending, which breaks down to you meeting the… I dunno, Reaper God-Mind, and there the Reaper God-Mind is like, “Hey, I’ve boxed you into these two choices — no, no, I know people on the Internet say there’s a third choice but you don’t get that choice, Commander Shitbird, because you didn’t realize your Galactic Dickhole Score was critical to have at 215%, and so now because you missed some Batarian Widget in the Far Rim I give you two choices. One of them is to control the Reapers, the other is to destroy the Reapers. Both will probably kill you. Each will cause a different colored explosion and the same cutscene. And then we’ll blow up all the Mass Relays for no good reason and Joker will run off to some lusty jungle planet to either have robot babies with EDI or he’ll screw your own love conquest, Yeoman Traynor. Then, something about an old man talking down to his stupid grandson and oh! Don’t forget that shameless plug for downloadable content, which will jerk your chain right out of the story. So. What’s it going to be, Shitbird?”

Guh. Guh? Guh? (And why so much Joker there at the end?)

What the fuck, Mass Effect? Why you gotta do me like that? Without even the courtesy of a reach-around? All this time you’ve been teaching me how important my free will is both as a character and a player. How significant my choices are — except now the two (not three) choices I receive are the same choices every asshole playing the game gets? And those choices reveal functionally identical endings? And none of those endings give me one greasy lick of information about Garrus or Liara or the entire Krogan race or what the Geth are up to or how my Yeoman love interest responds to me getting burned to a crispy cinder?

I don’t mind that it’s a bummer ending. It’s not actually that much of a bummer. Shit happens and it is, as expected, a Pyrrhic Victory. I never expected differently. When I first heard the complaints about the ending I thought that was the problem — that’s certainly how gaming media framed it. “Oh, a cabal of pissy-pants gamers are upset because they didn’t get a happy ending. Get the sand out yer vaginas!”

But that’s not it. Not for me. Not for most.

It’s that the ending betrays the intention of the story.

It’s that I spent 100+ hours on three games expecting the same I’d always received: hard choices and a glimpse at how my hard choices paid off in ways both good and bad.

It’s that the ending doesn’t even make that much sense. It feels like it was duct-taped on, flapping half-loose in the wind, its amateur-hour esoterica boldly displaying its crass non-logic (“Yeah, so, to prevent you guys from getting murdered by synthetic beings, we’re going to murder you first. And yes, we are synthetic beings. I know, this is awkward. It doesn’t have to make sense. Just lie back and think of London, Commander Shitbird. Now here, dream some more of Joker, for no good reason.”)

It’s that this ending isn’t the ending that fits. Not philosophically. Not logically.

And worst of all, not narratively.

There. Blister lanced. Feeling better.

Oh, though, I’ll add — I have heard the so-called Indoctrination Theory, which suggests that this ending is purposefully bogus, because Shepard is Indoctrinated by the Reapers. It explains away a number of the logical inconsistencies that happen in the ending sequence and suggests that Bioware will release the “real” ending via DLC. Nnnnyeaaaaah.

If that’s true, it’s both genius and sinister as all hell.

Genius because, hey, bravo. That’s some tricky shit you just pulled.

Sinister because it’s like selling me a book with the last ten pages ripped out and then making me pay extra to get those ten pages back. Even though I bought them dead to rights to begin with.

Presuming such a theory is not true — should Bioware change the ending? I’m torn. Not because Bioware is the “author” here — anybody who plays games and these games in particular should divest themselves of the notion of a single author. Games are collaborative. I’ve long said the players are both author and protagonist (at least in part) and so I’ve no illusion about Bioware being the sole artist responsible. So, why not change it? Because it’s already out there. This ending already exists. It’s the ending on record, the ending I played through to get (for good or bad), and though it left a bad taste on my tongue, it’s still the taste I get.

Changing it now would just feel weird.

Then again, I’d also love an ending that fits the game I played.

Time will tell.

Anyway. Them’s my long-winded thoughts. Do with them as you will.

Contribute your own, if you’ve played the game.

When Life Gives You Dragons, Make Dragonade: Scenes From Skyrim

It’s night.

A light snow falls.

I’m on a quest with — well, I forget his name. Farklas? Firkas? Whatever it is, we’ve just exited some skanky hoarfrost grotto after cleaning the place out of whatever assholes lurked within.

Then I hear it — thwip — the sound of an arrow narrowly missing my skull.

I see Farkleberry run off. Which means, of course, he’s running towards danger.

Next thing I know, we’re ascending some steps just as some bandits are descending and oh, it’s on, it’s on like Donkey Kong playing Ping Pong while eating Egg Foo Yong. I’m targeting shadows in the dark with my bow. Notch an arrow. Time slows. Pop. Bandit’s head snaps back with an arrow in the cheek. Eat a dick, bandit. Eat a big old arrow-shaped dick.

I’ve no idea where Tackleberry is.

But then I hear it — a shriek.

It’s familiar but I’ve little time to think about it. I’ve got some blue-glowing magic-slinging knob-gobbler all up in my grill, trying to chill my bones with his ice-doom magic.

Then: the shriek again.

The shriek is no longer distant — it is upon us.


The screen lights up with fire! What the fuck? I stagger backward out of the flame, see the wizardy knob-gobbler is being roasted right there on the spot by a whooshing plume of flame.

Flame coming from a dragon’s mouth. A dragon that landed, ohh, about ten feet away from me.

Oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit.

I backpedal. Screaming like a little girl that just got peed on by a tiger at the zoo (and yes, I’ve seen that, and it is indeed a story for another time). I let fly with arrows, many as I can sling into the dragon’s skull.

The dragon takes flight once more. My arrows find no purchase as he soars into the sky.

And suddenly all is quiet: the bandits are gone or dead. Fucklas is gone, too — I’ve no idea where he is.

But one thing I know: I’m not letting this dragon get away. Because if I kill this dragon, I can eat his soul like it’s a big bowl of dragon-flavored ice cream. And from it, I can gain power: the power to breathe fucking fire. I want that. I need that. So, I spy the dragon in the sky, and I give chase.

The dragon lands in the distance. The beast illuminated by his own fiery breath, breath that blasts against some lone warrior standing against the draconian wretch —

Oh, holy shit. It’s Scott Farkus.

I bolt toward him in time to see him fall.

The dragon spies me. Takes flight. Circles. Again evading my arrows. Thwip thwip thwip.

Then — boom.

Beast behind me. I’m burning. On fire. All parts of me, going crispy.

I run. I’m not ready for this. I’m almost out of health potions. My life dwindles. But the dragon, ohhh, he’s quite persistent, and this motherfucker is up again and soaring above my head, and here I am stumbling around in the dark, panting and out of breath, and suddenly the dragon lands directly in front of me —

And then I see two shapes. One to my right. One to my left.

Huge shambling shadows.

I’ve stumbled into the middle of two massive wooly mammoths.

As an aside, it appears mammoths care little for dragons. I don’t know why this is, precisely. Perhaps because mammoths received swirlies from said dragon in elementary school? Maybe the dragon ate all the mammoth’s candy, or stole his keys, or pooped in the mammoth’s chafing dish. Maybe it’s just because mammoths are flammable as fuck and see dragons as a natural enemy.

Whatever the reason, the two mammoths — both high-powered Snuffalupaguses each — decide to get in on the action. Much to the chagrin of the dragon. The two mammoths tear the dragon a new asshole as I sit comfortably ensconced between my two shaggy impromptu bodyguards, flinging arrows into the hell-lizard. And my final arrow pierces the dragon’s head. The beast falls. His body catches fire and his essence is vacuumed into my body.

That, to me, is the essence of Skyrim.

The game does what I like games to do in terms of storytelling: it lets me assemble the story of my own telling. I don’t mind a game that has its own story to tell, but the games to which I really respond are the ones that give me all the pieces and let me put them together according to my own style of play. It cedes some narrative authority to me.

It’s in this way that the Elder Scrolls games have a lot in common with Minecraft, actually — both say, “Hey. Here’s a giant world. The map you have is incomplete. Feel free to wander around. Do the things we suggest. Or don’t. We don’t care. This is your world — we just put it here. Build. Craft. Fight. Run. Oh, and watch out — the monsters come out at night.” Hell, both games have dragons, now. Minecraft obviously takes the Elder Scrolls freedom and amps it up, but is also removes all external narrative elements. Skyrim has a story to tell; it just doesn’t care if you participate. Minecraft is rudderless, an entirely unregulated narrative experience.

If Minecraft is Skyrim’s spiritual cousin, then in a sense, Dragon Age I & II is Skyrim’s opposite — not in a bad way, mind, but in a way that’s worth noting. Where Skyrim puts before you an open world whose every physical and geographical component is a story-building element, Dragon Age (and other Bioware RPGs) offers a closed world with limited pathways whose game is in how you piece together the pre-defined story elements. In Dragon Age, the story is the game. (Which is its own kind of awesome.)

Skyrim says, “We have this big story and all these little stories and you can weave in and out of them or avoid them all day long. The map is big. Your legs work. Go find adventure.”

Dragon Age says, “We have this big story and all these little stories and you cannot escape them but what you can do is fiddle with the pieces and put them together in the order and fashion you desire. The map is small and the path is limited but the story is rich, so wade in and we’ll give you adventure.”

Both approaches are brilliant.

But right now, I’m excited by the overall openness of Skyrim. As evidenced by my account above. The above example is by no means the only random thing that occurred. Every session, a new weird adventure I stumble into. Some guy runs up to me on the road and tells me he wants to give me something for safe-keeping, but then a bandit chief descends from a steep hill and cleaves the dude in the head with an axe, killing him in one blow. Or I’m trudging toward an icy mountain temple and there on the path is a howling, pissed off ice troll and he chases me down toward one of the mountain altars and there at the altar is a pilgrim praying and suddenly she’s up and chopping into the troll with an axe that crackles with electricity. (She dies, of course. And I pillage her zap-axe.)

So grows the wonder of an open world with seemingly endless corners of things to do, monsters to slay, stories to experience, and wooly mammoth gangstas who will help you fuck up a bad-ass dragon.

Twenty-Sided Troubadours: Why Writers Should Play Roleplaying Games

Time to speak out with my geek out.

Writer-types, here’s your homework: go forth and play a roleplaying game.

No, no, put down that Xbox controller.

Here. Take these.

*hands you a pile of glittery multi-colored polyhedral dice*

They’re not pills. Don’t swallow them. They’re dice. You’ll choke. Stop that. Take them out of your mouth. Here, you’re also going to need some other stuff, too: a pencil, a character sheet, maybe some index cards, a bag of Cheetos, a 64 oz “Thirst Aborter” full of Mountain Dew, a 6-pack of beer, a pizza coupon, a can of spray deodorant, and a big overflowing bucket of your caffeine-churned imagination.

Playing a pen-and-paper table-top RPG is not going to make you a better writer.

It goes deeper than that.

It’s going to make you a better storyteller. And here’s how.

The Essential Ingredient: Characters In Conflict

Given the geeky composition of my audience, I assume that you grok the core experience of the average tabletop roleplaying game: a game-master orchestrates adventures for a group of players, all of whom control imaginary characters whose skills and abilities are laid out on a character sheet. A player says, “I want my character to see if he can use his Wombat Magic to steal the pocketwatch heart of the Toymaker’s Daughter,” and then he rolls dice in accordance with the rules to see if his Wombat Magic is a spell that can survive its own casting. Simple enough, yeah?

That’s really not the truth of the story, though. That’s just the nature of the rules.

The truth of the story — its essential element, its elemental essence — is that of characters put in conflict. And you see laid bare the nature of all our stories, right there: character-driven conflict. Even more awesome is what happens when you let the players just fuck around at the game-table without even trying to steer them. Eventually, they’ll start creating conflict. Tavern fights, dead cops, stolen items. While this may not always be true to the character it is true to the story: conflict must fill the vacuum and that conflict must be driven by the characters present in the narrative.

What’s more interesting to the players at the table is when their characters are at the center of the conflict. Not conflict driven externally by the world, but characters who are knee-deep in the thick shit.

This is their world, and their problems matter.

The Labor Contractions Of Birthing Good Story

Pacing is a really hard trick for storytellers. It’s ultimately too simple to say that escalation is the only order of pacing, because it’s not — you can’t just drop a cinder block on the accelerator pedal and let the story take off like a rocket. Eventually the engine burns out. The audience grows weary. Constant action is naught but the electric cacophony of a single guitar chord blasted over and over again.

This becomes abundantly clear at the game table. You know you have to ease off the gas from time to time. Let the players breathe a little. Let the characters talk to one another. Even the tried-and-true “our characters walk into a tavern” schtick reveals this, to some degree: they don’t kick open the door and start throwing punches. A tavern fight starts simple. Drinks. Laughs. A goblin says some shit. A paladin encourages restraint. A warrior gets all up in the goblin’s business. Someone throws a bottle. And then — explode. Spells and swords and shotguns and goblin venom.

And then you have the come down. The denouement as the fight ends. Wounds licked.

Session to session you can see the pace change, too — one session might be heavy on action, another session heavy on politics. Or introspection. Or melodrama.

You not only start to see exactly how important it is to keep the pace staggered but also how important it is to let this narrative chameleon show all his colors. A story is not one thing and it does not take off like a horse with a rattlesnake shoved up his ass — sometimes that horse needs to stop, drink some water, slow down the pace unless that old nag fancies dropping dead in the dust.

Writer’s Block Does Not Live At The Game Table

You can’t get writer’s block at the game table. Not as a game master, not as a player. You can’t be all like, “Yeah, I’m just not feeling my character’s actions today, let’s try again tomorrow.” It’s shit or get off the pot time, Vampire Cleric from Minneapolis. You gotta do something. Anything. Stab! Throw a Molotov! Hide under a car! Manifest your Vampire Cleric batwings and take flight above the city!

Same thing goes for writing. Shit or get off the pot. Do something. Throw a narrative grenade. If anything will remind you of this, it’s the act of rolling the bones with a couple-few like-minded gamer-types.

The Audience Is Waiting And Their Knives Are Sharp

They’re listening. And watching. And waiting.

Them. They. The audience. The other players.

This is a group activity. This isn’t something you do in isolation. You don’t sit over there in the corner fiddling with your dice and surreptitiously rubbing the crotch of your khaki shorts. You’re in the thick of it. Your words — whether as a player or, more importantly, as the game master — are the central focus. You can tell when you’ve hooked them, and can tell when you’re losing them. You shuck and jive and duck and weave and do any kind of narrative chicanery to keep the momentum going, to ensure that the table doesn’t spiral off into restless side-conversations (“Do you think an Alchemical Exalted would be able to beat Jesus, if Jesus were wearing like, Mecha Armor given to him by the Three Wise Men?”). You’re on stage. They’re on the hook. It is, as David Mamet writes, fuck or walk.

Your story is the story of the moment, and it reminds you just how important it is to keep the audience in mind — not just your intent as storyteller but their interests, their needs, their attention.

It also reinforces the cardinal rule:

Never be boring.

Because if you’re boring, they’re going to start talking about Dr. Who.

Unintended Emotional Resonance (Or, “I Like To Move It, Move It”)

Every once in a while, you’ll have a moment during a game session where it’s like, “Oh, holy shit. These other people are actually worked up over this story. I’ve inadvertently affected them.”

They’ll get mad at a villain. Pissed at one another for botching a plan. Sad at the death of a character. They’ll hoot and gibber, victorious over the death of the Necro-Accountant who’s been making their lives hell session after session. Their emotions worn plainly upon their faces, the masks worn away.

And then it hits you: this is part of your arsenal of storytelling weapons. To make people give a shit. Enough so that their heads aren’t in this alone; their hearts hop in the car, too, riding shotgun until the story’s told.

You learn how to do it there so you can do it on the page.

At The Table As On The Page: Anything Is Possible

You sit down at the game table and you start to realize: whatever I say is made manifest. Okay, sure, sure, maybe your skill check doesn’t let you automatically drive the car up the ramp formed by the crushed school buses and straight into the Kraken’s unblinking eye — but by god, you have a shot. And as a game master, this is multiplied infinitely upon itself, this god-like power to create realities from words in whatever direction you choose.

No constraints. Speak the word, and let it be so.

That, my friends, is the power of fiction. It’s the power of books, comics, film, and — duh — games. But it’s not just the obvious non-revelation that what you say at the game table is made into a fictional reality. It’s also the notion that you can say whatever you want. You aren’t contained by comfortable boxes of genre. You aren’t stopped by expectations and tropes. In fact, you’re often rewarded by jumping right just when everybody thinks you’re going to jump left. You begin to realize that the enemy to good fiction is doing the same thing over and over again. The enemy is fear, where you’re afraid of sitting there in front of an audience and telling the story as it lives and breathes. You don’t have to worry about the story as it lays dying in a cage shacked by rules of genre, trope, template or format. You have it all right there in your hand — a few dice in your palm, maybe a pencil, nothing more — all the elements of creation laid bare.

It’s an awesome — in the truest definition of that word — feeling.

One that will serve you well when you bring it to the written page.

Writer-Gamer Hybrid Types, Chime In

I know a good number of you came here originally from some of my game work or are yourselves gamers still — moreover, I know that the Venn Diagram of GAMER and WRITER has some big crossover in this audience. So add your two cents. Why should writers and storytellers play tabletop games? I know you have reasons I haven’t even considered. Spit ’em out like broken teeth!

(Oh, and again I’ll mention: if you haven’t checked out SPEAK OUT WITH YOUR GEEK OUT, well, get on it, won’t you? Go forth. Speak your geek. Own your nerdery.)

Dinocalypse Now!

So by now, you may have heard the news:

I am writing a SPIRIT OF THE CENTURY novel for Evil Hat games.

If it works out, I might be writing three of them, actually.

The first begins with —


All I’m saying is:

Psychic dinosaurs.


Get your head around that.

And once you have your head around it, I’ve some questions to ask you.

First up: if you’re a fan of the old pulps — and a fan of crazy adventure and pulp heroes and weird science and all that good stuff — then I gotta ask, what would you hope to see in a new pulp novel?

Second, if you’re a fan of SPIRIT OF THE CENTURY, what defines that game to you? What are the essential ingredients to any SotC adventure — both the adventure that unfolds with dice at your game table and the adventure that might unfold in, say, a novel? I’ve got a synopsis of the novel written down, but thus far I’ve got a lot of uncharted spaces. Which is why I’m here, looking to you to distill down what you feel — as a fan of the game — best embodies the awesomeness that is SPIRIT OF THE CENUTURY.

I’ll hang up and wait for your answer.


Portal 2, And The Enduring Legacy Of Missing Story Components

Man, that sounds like the dullest Indiana Jones movie of all time. “Indiana Jones And The Pretentious Story Analysis! He fights a swarm of metaphors! He punches Nazis off the top of the story arc!”

So, the wife and I finished Portal 2.

Single-player, at least.

This post will contain no spoilers, so you can go ahead and read it (I can’t promise that the comments section will be the same, as anybody who wants to discuss the game and its story may need to get all spoiler-flavored). (Speaking of flavored, did you see that there’s cupcake-flavored vodka? It’s true.) (Indiana Jones chops hashashayyin assassins with deadly parentheses!) (Shut up.)

You wanna know one of the things I really love about both the first Portal game and its largely-superior — which is saying a lot – sequel? It’s that they leave a great deal to the imagination. In this day and age, with the epic leaps forward in special effects and graphics, it’s easy to put everything you want in the story and the in the storyworld right there on the screen for all to see. Books do this but by dint of a different principle: they’re so chockablock with all those pesky words and pages it becomes difficult not to throw every ingredient into the pot. It’s the Kitchen Sink method of storytelling.

But Portal 1 & 2, not so much.

Here’s what I mean: Portal is, at its core (pun not intended until now), the story of a girl being put through a series of tests by a deranged wing de-icer slash artificial intelligence. It is a battle of wits and survival using the mighty portal gun, which creates a pair of connected teleportation portals on flat surfaces. Big crazy hilarious sci-fi action-puzzle game. That’s it.

You could stop there and, hey, fuck it, a winning equation.

But Valve goes the extra distance and creates layers to that experience, layers that are not entirely grasped or seen (though one could argue that they are keenly felt), layers comprising the story of the mad AI, of the testing facility and all of Aperture Science, of the “Rat Man” in the walls and the life of little turrets and so on and so forth. The characters they’ve created in this space — GlaDOS, Cave Johnson, Wheatley, the Rat Man through his scrawlings — are again fully-felt but not necessarily fully-formed.

That sounds like a bad thing.

It is the furthest thing from it.

In fact, it’s pretty damn rad.

Because what happens is, you still get the core (there’s that pun again) experience and story, and you also get all this added voodoo. But because the voodoo has gaps — unanswered questions, vague links, hinted suggestions — you end up as the player/audience member stepping into the breach and solving those variables yourself with your own story-bridges. On various forums you’ll find endless speculation who Chell is, who her parents are, who the Rat Man is, how all this stuff connects, how it connects to Half-Life, to Gordon Freeman, how the ending plays out versus how it “really” plays out. People are finding all these great little Easter Eggs and finding ways to incorporate them into this pastiche of story (some such incorporations are brilliant, others entirely boggling).

But what it does is, it creates this legacy — it ensures that the game is (another incoming and originally unintentional pun in 3… 2… 1… ) still alive long after it’s been shelved. Hell, the song “Still Alive”…

…contains its own weird little story clues and gaps, right? You beat the game, you think you know what’s up, then the end comes and this song plays and you’re like, “Maybe there’s more going on than I originally figured.” You think about it. You talk about it. You laugh about it. This legacy of mystery — created by not answering all the questions and not building concrete connections — endures.

Really fucking cool.

But it’s hard to do. Hard to do in a way that leaves people satisfied and wanting more as opposed to unsatisfied and being fed up with your rampant jerkery. So, I ask: who did it right? Who did it poorly? Games, movies, books, comics, whatever. Think about those stories that never fully put it all together and demanded that you, the audience, do some legwork (while still maintaining the essential story and experience). Here’s a fascinating sidebar, though, and it maybe leads to a much bigger question —

Some (a lot?) of this stuff in Portal is by accident. As I understand it, Jonathan Coulton in crafting “Still Alive” had some leeway there and wasn’t forced to adhere to some canon-that-never-really-existed. Further, one of the big story twists in Portal 2 (which I won’t name in the post due to ANTI-SPOILER REDACTION SYSTEMS) was, again, a total accident due to a casting choice.

I’ve seen this happen in roleplaying games at the table — you craft a very brief throwaway character and pop them in for a session and suddenly the players either really like that character and/or they believe that throwaway character has far greater significance than intended. Audience desire and design changes the needs of the game. That’s harder to do in more linear narratives, but therein perhaps lies one of the genuine benefits of transmedia (a benefit all-too-rarely sought).

Noodle it.

And let’s chat this shiznit up.

P.S. We totally own a plush companion cube.

P.P. S. I would stab a dude in the gills for this plush Portal turret.

Once Upon A Playtime, Redux

Yesterday, producer Ted Hope (who is also the producer, along with Anne Carey, on our upcoming feature film, HiM), was gracious enough to let me come and stomp around his sandbox with a short post called, “Where Storytelling And Gaming Collide.” There, I said the following:

Traditional storytelling seeks to tell the story of the author, the director, the creator.

But storytelling in games is about empowering the player to experience and tell her own narrative.

I believe this more and more. I believe that games — from the smallest “casual” game to the hardest of the purportedly “hardcore” — are powerful and compelling to us as players because from the experience of playing games we gain narrative, and from that narrative we gain… well, all kinds of things, really. We gain perspective. We gain entertainment. We can be enlightened, amused, disturbed, challenged. And this is true of games even without a traditional narrative. It’s true of a game of checkers, or chess: the two opponents sitting over a board, learning about one another, traversing the peaks and valleys of competition, exploring strategy. You come out of a game of chess, you have a story — and often the way we see and retell it (in our own heads or to others) bears the elements of escalation, climax, and resolution.

(I play a killer round of Angry Birds or Words With Friends, I’ll tell my wife. It’s probably an awful story in terms of what I’m telling her, but in my head? It’s the shit.)

Anyway. Go read that post, if you please, but here, also, consider the question: how can you allow a game to tell a meaningful story? To me, the key word there is “allow.” Emergent gameplay is ultimately about emergent storytelling, and maybe that’s how we need to frame it: games do not need to tell a straightforward narrative as much as they need to leave room for emergent play and emergent narrative.

Emergent narrative.

I like that.

How’s it sit with you? Swish it around your mouth. Bulge your cheeks, get it in between your teeth. Is it minty fresh? Or is it sewery spew? If you dig on it, what can help a game offer greater opportunity for emergent narrative? I could make a case that Minecraft is hella good at this “emergent narrative” thing I just made up two minutes ago, and that I didn’t actually make up at all — turns out wiser minds than mine (which is to say, most) already conceived of it and use it for games like The Sims or Deus Ex, though I’d argue the idea suits games that go beyond the expected roster.

It also occurs to me that sometimes, when I talk about games, I don’t even know if I make any damn sense. But it’s fun, innit? I mean, sure, my extremities have gone numb, and my shirt is missing.

Ultimately, what I’m saying is —

Aren’t the stories born from gameplay just as important — if not more important — than the stories the games purport to tell in the first place? Isn’t that what playtime is all about?

How can game designers and game writers facilitate this?

(Remember, if you’re in NYC, to swing by DIY Days. There I’ll be talking about the collision of gameplay and storytelling with game designer Greg Trefry. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself, of course. More information can be found here: DIY Days.)