How I Design: The Moment (Part 3)

I’ve talked about Worldbuilding and the Chapter, and we’re drilling down into the fine details. I mentioned that my process operates from both ends, and this is the central point. I wanted to drill down from top to bottom first, before I explain how all the pieces become my process.

Experiences are made up of moments. A moment is a flash, a single fragment of an event. It’s a witty bit of repartee, a dramatic line, or a masterful bass drop. It’s the thirty seconds or so it takes to walk up and pick up the Master Sword at the end of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.

Movie trailers are made up of moments. If you feel like you’ve seen an entire movie after having watched the trailer, it’s likely because the moments selected to show off in the trailer give you all the context you need.

Sometimes a moment is external to the production, but still part of the experience. While the statue of limitations is up on Bioshock, I’m still going to be oblique. If you’ve played the game, you know what I’m talking about here. For everyone else, this paragraph should be spoiler-free. There’s no particular *moment* in Bioshock, if you actually look at events that unfold, but nearly everyone who’s played it remembers a moment, that moment where all of the context they’ve been presented at that point crystallizes into something that makes sense. It’s powerful, and part of the expert craftsmanship of that game is that the moment can occur at different times for different people, and the game allows it. For some, Bioshock’s moment is revealed a few moments prior to the confrontation, and the confrontation is merely confirmation. Either way, the moment is equally powerful.

The key to a successful Moment is context. I differentiate the capital M this way: an experience is made up of moments, but a Moment is the one you remember. The battles against orcs in the Mines of Moria are moments, but Gandalf falling to the Balrog is a Moment.

Let me go back to the Master Sword example, in A Link to the Past. Here’s a video (main part starts at about 45 seconds):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0C6SVPVvVsk

You’ve spent some time collecting amulets from dungeons, then you’ve worked your way through a haunted forest in order to reach the Master Sword, which you need in order to break a magic barrier preventing you from reaching Princess Zelda, after you took up your uncle’s sword to stop an evil wizard. Drawing the Master Sword is a key moment of the story, and it’s what you’ve probably spent hours working up to. The game shows you the barrier straightaway, and it will zap you if you get too close. The amulets all have dungeons, with bosses, and the events leading you to collect them all involve their own Moments, whether those are the boss fights, the brief transition into the Dark World, or discovering new, exciting items. The Master Sword has been set up as a key item in the game, and collecting it is, appropriately, a Moment.

You’ve made your way through the Lost Woods, the haunted forest full of baddies, dealing with the maze and some annoying and dangerous enemies. Note the swooping raven-bird that attacks the player partway through the video. It takes a hit, but keeps on coming. We’ll get back to that later.

When Link enters the last section of forest, with the Master Sword, it’s a haunted section of forest, but unlike the rest, it’s full of forest creatures that run around as you approach, unlike anything else in the game thus far. It’s different, and marks that this section is special, somehow. When Link approaches the Master Sword, it’s on a fantastic pedestal, with an inscription that can be read if the player so desires. When Link steps up to take the sword, it’s not a simple “open chest, get item” moment, the amulets float around him, then grant him the power to draw it as the music rises. With a flash, the sword is drawn, it glows with power, and the Lost Woods goes from being haunted and misty to bright and green, which lasts for the rest of the game. While simple, it’s a powerful Moment that sticks with you.

The Master Sword scene is a giant payoff for the entire first section of the game. It’s a Moment an and of itself, but the game continues to emphasize the Master Sword as important for quite some time. First, extremely notably, Link gets the ability to shoot spinning blade beams from it while at full health, and the sword hits harder– those birds that were so annoying in the previous forest section now only take one hit. The payoff is immediate and lasting, and more than simply a neat scene that doesn’t alter gameplay.

I’ll talk more later about building a Moment, and talk about the kinds of things I’d look at building for the setting and chapter I spoke about previously, but this has gone on a bit long. More next time!

Player Fantasy, Again (or, why I’m level 20 on my Ninja in FFXIV in just a few hours)

Taking a break from the “How I Design” series to talk a bit about today’s FFXIV patch, which introduced the Rogue/Ninja.

I’ve talked about how important player fantasy is before. It’s neat seeing it have an effect on me in action.

Today, the Rogue/Ninja class dropped in FFXIV. I got up about four hours early so I could spend as much of the day as possible (that wasn’t already booked with work) playing it. It’s exciting for me, and it’s been a blast.

In the meantime, my pugilist is stalled out and my lancer is barely level 5. You’d think, looking at my class list, that I just don’t like physical DPS classes. What’s the difference? Let’s rule out some stuff, first.

There’s an argument to be made for the “new” factor, which plays a role, but honestly stuff like the lancer and pugilist are new to me also and I haven’t delved into them.

The ninja’s abilities are pretty standard fare. I have a 1-2 combo, which will presumably become 1-2-3 at some point, much like the paladin I already have and both the lancer and pugilist. This is the bread and butter of my class thus far, and it lacks the buff-stacking dance that I find interesting about the pugilist. I’ve got an additional DoT, just like the monk, and a toggle “poison” stance, that gives me a (relatively boring) 5% damage increase. I’ve got an execute ability, for targets low on health, and a ranged knife throw. As far as bread and butter goes, nothing terribly fancy or even different from what I’ve played already (or could have been playing for months).

The ninja’s secondary, “utility” abilities are slightly different. I have a “dodge next incoming physical attack” button, on a fairly long cooldown, that’s mildly interesting. I have Mug, which is probably the most interesting skill thus far, that causes a mob to yield additional loot if I score a killing blow with it. Interesting, but the health-regen version that lancers get is more useful and gives me the same skill-reward feeling. Stealth makes for some neat quests, but I honestly never cast it outside of the required quest situations; there are no stealth-specific abilities that I’ve seen thus far.

So, why have I spent the entire time playing it, putting it well ahead of extremely similar classes that I could have been playing since launch?

Animations. I love them. Finesse weapons, not a great big spear or blocky fist weapons. The whole roguey aesthetic, from the stances to the ability concepts to the questline. The stuff that the ninja gets to do later, with elemental attacks, I get my mage-assassin!

It’s totally fluff, but it makes a huge difference. A bit of an aside, but it’s striking to me how much of a difference player fantasy makes in giving me something I want to play.

How I Design: The Chapter (Part 2)

I talked a bit last week about worldbuilding, and how I start building a setting from scratch. All of that is the background, it becomes my notebook of details and concepts that inform the actual experience but is (usually) never exposed to the audience. It’s a very important part of things, but it’s important not to dwell on it– spending too much time fleshing out the background leaves little room for maneuvering when you get to the actual experience. As an example of what I mean by “maneuvering”: Wynne left a comment in my last post that I’m going to use in here– an idea that didn’t initially enter into things but is really interesting can and should be able to be incorporated, if it fits with the concept. Today I’d like to talk about what I call the “Chapter”. The Chapter is a single arc, a series of events for the audience to experience that, while not necessarily discrete, make a fairly complete chunk. I use the term “chapter” for my own personal use, when a whole studio is proving out the kind of concept I’m talking about, it’s often called the Vertical Slice, and elsewhere it’s called storyboarding. It’s different from medium to medium, but the concept is similar. A Chapter isn’t necessarily a single quest, or mission, or level, or scene. It’s far more often a collection of these that all come together in a particular way. It’s a focused experience that has a number of moving parts, all working to a particular set of goals. The Chapter is the story arc, the questline, the portion of the story. In a game like Dragon Age, I’d consider each of the separate locations Chapters. In a traditional three-act structure, each Act is akin to a Chapter, the way I think. Building a Chapter is the first thing I try to do once I have a good handle on worldbuilding. Note that I didn’t say “finished worldbuilding” here, because all of that is likely to change. Here’s an example of my process, using my setting example from yesterday: the near-future supernatural world with mage-gangs, territorial graffiti, and ubiquitious magic-suppression technology. One question I didn’t answer is how long magic has been around, other than “a while”, which may come up here. For the Chapter, I start with a few questions:

  1. What are the goals of the Chapter? Am I showing off the setting for my audience? Am I revealing how the setting is beginning to change? Am I making an irreparable change? A reparable one?
  2. Who are the major players at the start of this Chapter? Is the audience (or the main character, in a non-interactive medium) an important player in the events that are unfolding, or not?
  3. Who are the major players at the end of this Chapter? Does it change? Is there a shift in power, or the filling of a void?

These questions are absolutely vital, and the pacing of the experience is hugely dependent on how and when I answer them. An experience that starts in media res may skimp on the details of the setting early on and bring them in later, once the audience is hooked. A very unique, very strange setting may need some setup early on to explain motivations and the setting itself before the actions of any of the players make sense. Similarly, characters are important here, and how much agency they have at what points in the story is important. A character who starts off with very little agency in the events of the setting and ends with a lot of agency, or noticably more than they started with, creates an opportunity for character growth. This goes both ways, of course, and a character losing agency can be a central focus of a Chapter. Enough abstraction, here’s a Chapter using the worldbuilding from before, and assuming a video game as our medium:

Chapter 3: Finding the Rogue Mage This chapter focuses on locating and contacting a rogue wizard who’s gone to ground among the mage-gangs in Atlanta. The player is a low-ranking member of an “established” mage organization that’s dealing with some kind of internal difficulty that the sought rogue wizard is somehow related to.

The player will need to track the rogue wizard through the gangs. One of the goals of this Chapter is scene-setting, showing the world off to the audience. Finding the way into and around the gangs is important here, as it puts the player at “street level”, to see the everyday world and the ways in which it’s similar and different from what they might expect. The player is relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but is competent and recognized enough to be given a nontrivial role, likely due to having proven themselves earlier. There’s not a major power shift going on here, because we haven’t established the status quo enough for major shifts to matter. We want the player to feel a bit constrained; they’re working for powers greater than they are and we want to establish a reference point for their rise in power. Major players will likely include one or two authority figures (who directly command the player), at least one of which is recurring, as we want the player to develop a relationship for later. Other major players will be the rogue wizard (who the player will get to know over the course of finding them) and the player themselves.

A central focus of the Chapter is the sense of investigation, and seeking– the mage-graffiti will play a central role in that. We can express that visually in gameplay, and conceptually the player is seeking out gangs based on power, working under the assumption that a trained wizard gone rogue and her cabal will be more powerful than a ragtag band of untrained mages.

This is a good start for our Chapter. It gives a broad arc, a sense of where it fits into the bigger picture, and a vague sense of direction. That last part is where we’ll focus next. Once we have a broad arc, we can focus on individual segments: “quests” or “missions”.

The Chapter will be broken down into a series of missions:

  1. Getting situated in Atlanta. This will focus on finding local contacts, standard resources (whatever those might be in the game), and introducing any local NPC authority. This will likely take the form of meeting a contact or going out into the city to find an information drop, possibly both.

  2. Investigating the gang presence. Should be hinted at in the previous section, with some mage-graffiti made evident and possibly witness to some minor gang activity (loitering, posters, etc). This is mostly going to involve more moving-about and exploring, this time looking in out-of-the-way places for mage-graffiti and potentially gaining the attention of gang members. I really like the idea of the gangs all having uniquely enchanted graffiti, that someone with magical senses can focus on to get an idea of the power and focus of the mage that left it. This can be reflected in color and glow intensity, which also gives us a good way of finding it and allows us to establish “mage-sense” as a game mechanic, if we’re using something like that. This should segue neatly into…

  3. Establishing the gangs’ personalities, as friendly, neutral, hostile, or some combination of the above. Their motivations and how they fit into the world is important here too, and we can start hinting at how the rogue wizard is making waves. This is the point where I’d normally start to introduce a bit of unexpectedness– two very powerful gangs, for example, that are the major players in the area, either one of which could house the rogue mage. This will involve getting in with one gang or another and getting embroiled in local conflicts.

  4. Introduce the rogue wizard. The player’s done investigation and gotten their hands dirty a bit, and is a powerful and effective enough agent in events for the rogue wizard to make an appearance. She can be hostile, if the player has sided with the wrong gang, or she can be friendly, seeking the player’s help. Either way, the player will wind up working with her to drive out the other major gang. Her importance to the larger narrative arc is less important here than establishing her character. Here we’ll focus on her ties to Atlanta, why she (initially) doesn’t want to leave. This portion of the Chapter likely involves a bit of legwork before the final face-to-face, giving some time for the player to find audio logs, journal entries, other gang members, etc. I particularly like the idea of staging a raid on a location, uncovering this information, and then directly facing the rogue wizard (who may be furious at the raid).

  5. The rogue wizard’s task. Whatever the wizard needs the player to do to convince her to help the player out. This should be something that either wouldn’t be possible without the player’s help or would have taken an extremely long time, and the player allows a more direct route. I prefer the latter, as it throttles back on the player as the only agent of change in the status quo. The rogue wizard would have won eventually, but with the player’s help she can win tonight. Our final encounter cripples the opposing gang and the player and the rogue wizard evade reprisal effectively.

  6. Denouement, lead in to next portion of the narrative. We don’t want an abrupt stop to our story, we want to see the aftermath, we want to see how things changed, etc. I like to have this mirror the first segment, debriefing with any local authority content and moving through Atlanta back to the airport or train station, wherever the player entered from and likely hasn’t been back to. We can see both subtle and overt changes here, like a change in the brightness and ubiquity of mage-graffiti, and the overall sense of danger vs safety in the area.

This is a pretty good breakdown of a Chapter. It’s fairly basic, but gives you an idea of flow. There are a number of things missing here, such as specific details or the kinds of spaces the player is moving in. Details will come a bit later, in the next section. They’re important for what I call Moments. Spaces are vague partly due to space (this is already really long) but also because  you may need to be extremely flexible with the spaces you’re working in, and if something has to change, you need to be able to change the space it happens in without it being a disaster.

These are long, hopefully they’re still interesting to read. The next entry will be about Moments, the little details in a Chapter and the parts you’re most likely to remember. They’re the little sparks that ignite the imagination, and they’re (to me) one of the most fun parts.

How I Design: Worldbuilding (Part 1)

Thought this might be an interesting series. I’ll cover a few different things that I’ve had come up, share my thought processes.

Worldbuilding is, broadly, the first step of design. I don’t mean the art term, though that’s crucially important, I mean the process of coming up with a setting from scratch. I tend to have a meet-in-the-middle approach to this, where I take both really big picture concepts and really fine details as opposite ends of the spectrum and build towards the center.

Here’s an example of the process. I’m coming up with this from whole cloth as I type, so it’s going to be half-baked. I just want to give a sense of the process.

First: what genre? For this example, I’m going to go with near-future modern supernatural. Magic in a modern setting. New York warlocks and Texan sorcerers. Gritty spy themes– the Bourne Identity with wizards. I like to define the concept in three or four different ways in my head in order to get a more three-dimensional high concept and not get stuck on a single thought.

Next, holding the genre in my head, I want fine details. I envision trailers when I think of this, what are the little unique details that will pique people’s interest? Magic as zero-sum energy manipulation, requiring a power source to function. Fonts of power all over the world, waiting to be tapped by world travelers. Mage-gangs in cities, leaving territory markings disguised as graffiti. Magic is commonplace enough to be recognizable. Ethereal dampeners scattered through major population centers, built into ubiquitous fixtures like lampposts, power lines, and roads, to suppress magic and keep people safe. Supernatural Crimes Divisions in major police departments. I come up with tons of these, little flashes of concept, the kind of thing you could flash in a trailer or make a quick sketch of.

When I’ve got the two extreme ends of the spectrum created, I start figuring out how the audience is interacting with the world. This is really a question of medium more than anything. Is this a short story? A movie? A tabletop RPG? A video game? I save this for a little later, because occasionally I’ll come up with setting ideas that don’t have a specific medium, and I can set them aside until I have a use for them. Once I know how I want to use the setting, I can pare down the genre and the details to better fit the medium I’m working in. I used to think of the medium first, since I figured that was the most important piece, and I’ve wound up feeling like I tend to give the genre and the details short shrift when I’m already thinking ahead to how my audience is going to react. I narrowly focus my concepts too much, and I think the end result is weaker for it. Going into the process expecting everything to change is important, but making changes before anything can crystallize is like stirring the cake batter while the cake is in the oven.

As an example: In the above idea, if I started the process by thinking “I’m making a video game”, I would immediately start thinking of spaces to move around in and flashy spell effects, and interactive details like gameplay. I would tend to skip over some of the scene-setting stuff; certainly having a bunch of gangs putting up territorial graffiti wouldn’t really surface, or would be quickly dismissed as “too complicated” or “not enough gameplay”.

On the other hand, fixing on that concept, I can now imagine a stealth game, where the player plays an undercover wizard who is either a member of a gang or is investigating the gangs, and who has a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle magic to find contacts and manipulate the environment. Overt magic use (where the public can see) is verboten, but subtle magic can be used. A mix of mundane and supernatural elements on the player’s side, along with some environmental concepts. The magic suppressors make for both interesting obstacles and traps for enemies, letting the player fight more powerful, less inhibited enemies in public spaces on more even footing.

In a similar vein, if I’ve come up with this concept and it’s being used for a tabletop game, I’m looking at paring back the details in a different way. The graffiti is a way of collecting information for my players, though the suppressors allow the same tug-of-war between obstacle and opportunity, and vary the encounters significantly. Subtlety in magic use would play a much more significant role with farther-reaching consequences, whereas in a video game the consequences will likely be more localized, more immediate, and more directly remedied.

I’ve now answered the three main questions:

  1. What’s the high concept?
  2. What are some sticky details?
  3. How does the audience experience the world?

With this, I can start working towards the middle. The mage-gangs need to have started somewhere. If they’re gangs, we’re talking about magic being broad and poorly-controlled, not necessarily a mark of privilege. Enough magic users slip through the cracks for territory to be claimed. Is there a “legitimate” mage organization? How do magic users learn? Perhaps mage-gangs are more numerous, but “legitimate” mages are better trained and more powerful, but largely uninterested in the workings of the gangs? How do these two classes interact, if at all?

The suppressors came from somewhere. Magic researchers coming up with technology to suppress magic, with the influence to have their designs installed ubiquitously? How ubiquitously? Is there a secretive, far-reaching cabal, like Vampire: the Masquerade, or is magic known to the populace and the suppressors a tool to even the scales so there isn’t a panic? This neatly fits the Supernatural Crimes Divisions into the concept, as a governmental agency.

How long has magic been around? With cultural and technological emplacements like police forces, gangs, and installed magic suppressors, we’re talking about decades at least. What kind of history do we have here? This is the point where I start drilling down from the high concept to the ground, using the details as anchor points. Each detail has to fit into the world and have a history, or it’s going to feel tacked-on. These histories are what will shape my characters. If I’ve had a character concept spring up, the histories help shape that character and flesh them out.

It’s from here that I work out the day-to-day existence of the world.

I have a new set of questions, now:

  1. What is the status quo?
  2. How long has the status quo been in effect?
  3. What happened before the status quo?
  4. What kinds of people exist in the setting?
  5. What does daily life look like for the different kinds of people? Specifically, how does it differ from my everyday?
  6. Does the status quo need changing?
  7. Am I going to change it?

These all help shape the setting, and start looking forward to the narrative. I also want to know, at this point, what the setting will do if the audience never interacts with it. Events will play out and either continue as-is or change significantly, which gives me a starting point to determine what sorts of goals the audience should have. Is the audience rooting for the status quo, or are they advocates of change? How resistant is the world to being changed?

All of these help build the world, and give me a foundation for a narrative. The fewer of these questions I’ve answered and fleshed out, the more plot holes I’m going to find later and have to patch. From here, I can start working on the next step: the Chapter.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (Or: The Power of Marketing)

I played a whole ton of Borderlands 2. More than I have multiple MMOs. The writing was fantastic, it made me laugh, and while the gameplay started frustrating me, I loved the game enough that I didn’t care.

All that said, I was lukewarm on Borderlands: the Pre-Sequel, and I have a hard time putting my finger on why. By rights, I should have been ecstatic and incredibly excited for it. After all, I put more hours than I care to admit into the previous game, and it meets my perfect checkbox for a game: fun, well-written, co=op, my friends are interested.

Except… we weren’t. I’ve been trying to put my finger on why, and the only thing I can come up with (in conversations with Ash) was that the trailers were awful, and it seemed indicative of the fact that the Pre-Sequel was the B-team’s project. At some level, the poor trailers managed to make us lukewarm about a game that would absolutely have been an auto-purchase in the absence of any marketing at all.

I’m fairly sure that myself, Ash, and Kodra would have bought the game, day 1, if there had been no trailers at all. Rae even told us she was preparing to buy the fancy edition but heard that we weren’t that interested and didn’t bother. Somehow, “made by the secondary team” quickly morphed into “not going to buy the next in a beloved series” due to about six minutes of internet video.

And we’re supposedly resistant to that kind of advertising. We like to claim it doesn’t affect us.

It obviously does.

I can’t help but wonder if it works the other way– bad trailers nearly lost my purchase of a game whose predecessor I adored, but I have a hard time thinking of games that I would never have purchased had I not seen a trailer. They certainly exist, I just can’t think of them. Even browsing my Steam library, I can’t immediately bring one to mind.

At any rate, the Pre-Sequel is fun in the first 20 minutes we played of it, and while it very aggressively finishes what Borderlands 2 started in terms of telling me outright that snipers aren’t welcome, I think I’ll still have fun with it.

A Parable

Someone was killed at a dinner party, one of the hosts, the body left draped over the dining room table.

As one might expect, the guests at the party erupted in chaos. Everyone had different thoughts. Other hosts worried that they might be next, and worried amongst themselves that there was a danger at the dinner party, but there was a mess to clean up and they set to it. Many of the guests had seen this sort of thing before, and set to blaming each other. This quickly became arguments with acrimonious accusations, and the guests took sides, locking themselves in different rooms. Some of the hosts, and some of the assistants tried to make sense of what was happening. One group of guests expressed their worry that one of them would be the next on the table, and the other eyed everyone else suspiciously– perhaps that other group of guests staged the body! Perhaps it’s not really a body! Look at how the assistants carry their serving trays, there’s something suspicious there! The hosts and their assistants have been planning this!

The arguments ran through the night, and in the night, knives were found embedded in the doors and walls. Someone put them there, and each side was convinced it was the other. The suspicious group of guests, already suspecting foul play, ignored their knives. The worried guests took it as a threat.

The neighbors heard the commotion and looked inside, seeing the situation through windows. A suspicious group of guests behind locked doors, a worried group of guests eventually unlocking their door and working with the hosts and the assistants to make sense of the mess. These neighbors took pictures of what they saw, the knives in the walls, all the noise and anger, trying to make sense of the chaos. Eventually the neighbors knocked on the door to sort things out.

They asked everyone what had happened:

Some hosts spoke up, though many were still worried that they could be next, and everyone was working to clean up the mess.

Some assistants spoke up, wondering aloud whether the dinner parties were such a good idea after all.

Many of the worried guests spoke up in their own defense; others, fearful for their safety, stayed silent.

Many of the suspicious guests shouted through their locked door at the rest, accusing the assistants of trying to ruin the fun of dinner parties, accusing the worried guests of being too concerned, accusing the hosts of being tacitly involved in everything.

The neighbors, hearing all of this, wondered if the suspicious guests were responsible somehow, and their doubts drove the suspicious guests into a frenzy, accusing even the neighbors of being in on the plot.

I’m not sure how this one ends. The suspicious guests are still locked in their room, shouting at those outside who are still trying to make sense of the mess. Very few people’s hands are clean, and they’re mostly the ones who weren’t paying attention.

Meanwhile, two houses down, no one has any idea that any of this is happening, except that they heard THEIR neighbors talking about something wrong. A street over, it’s business as usual, no one the wiser until a thrown knife shatters a random window, surprising everyone inside, who comes to see what happened and sees a house in chaos.

If you find out how it ends, let me know.

Disaffection, the Fashion

I miss when it was cool to like things.

For the last decade or so, probably a little bit more, what’s cool has been talking about how disaffected you are. This thing you’ve got is okay, you guess, but it’s not as cool as this other, older thing.  Games have become worse and worse as time goes on, entertainment is “dumbed down” for the masses, and nothing is any good anymore.

It bugs me. We delivered the Internet into a world where disaffection, detachment, and disinterest are in vogue, and it dominates the dialogue. Someone reading this is thinking “he must think he’s sooo clever with that alliteration in the last sentence”. Finding joy is vulnerability, it’s a place where They, the vague, ill-defined, but omnipresent They, can hit you.

Don’t believe me? Try this:

Pick a forum, any forum. Let’s go with games. Pick a game you love, and talk about how much you love it. Within the first page of comments, I’d bet the first ten or so, you get a response that’s “[your game] sucks”. Pick something you love: a game, a story, a movie, any topic. Post in a forum on the internet about why you like it and you’ll be told within a few responses why you’re wrong, and probably also why you’re stupid.

No one is surprised by this. “It’s the Internet”, is the common response, as if that were reason enough. The Internet is made up of people, and it’s a reflection of our culture. Have we really forgotten how to like things? How much fun it is to share the joy with other people?

Initially, I figured this was a sign of me growing old and crotchety, something that a few of my readers will probably chuckle at. So, I looked for some data. Here are some commercials from the 90s. Some Super Bowl ones for about 20 years, too. Here’s some 1995 Super Bowl ads. Why Super Bowl ads? Because they’re some of the most relevant (and expensive) ads on TV at any given time in the US. They’re a really big deal, and in order to be relevant they need to be on top of the cultural pulse– usually Super Bowl ads dictate the next year’s advertising trends in one way or another. Why ads? They’re meant to appeal to people, they’re painstakingly crafted to strike a chord with their audience, and there’s money in accomplishing that, so you know they’re trying.

Note the 1995 one, at about 3:00. The Chili’s ad is one of the first I saw watching several years of ads that’s directly mocking. Especially look at the Snickers ads. Now here’s one from the very next year. Much meaner than the enthusiastic older ones, and the first time we see the still relevant “not going anywhere for a while?” slogan. Interesting, that clever meanness lasts so long.

We picked up our trend for disaffection in the grungy 90s, and it’s lasted for 20 years now. We’ve got our Super Bowl cultural breakout commercial in 1995, the start of our spate of meanness. We’ve got our Super Bowl commercials pushing the envelope, trying to wiggle into a new cultural niche and do things people don’t expect. Shock value.

So, here’s 2014. Here’s some more context. Outside of that one ‘breakout’ heartfelt commercial, that interestingly wouldn’t have been at all out of place in 1990, we’ve got a bunch of dark, serious adventuresome car ads and some mocking “funny” ads. Lest you think that it’s not possible to be funny without mockery, note the wacky ads in the 80’s and even the early 90s. As an aside, I think it’s interesting that car ads tend not to change much over the whole 40-year spread I looked at, with a very small number of exceptions.

Super Bowl ads are a microcosm of the overall advertising sphere, but I’d venture a guess that most ads fit the same broad categories– mock something for a cheap laugh, sell product. It’s what we’ve been tuned to respond to for the last 20 years. Don’t talk about what’s good, talk about why other things are bad, and suggest that you’re better.

I look forward to the next cultural revolution, when it’s cool to like things again. We’re starting to get there, I think, as people get tired of the disaffectation and disinterest. I worry that we’ll have a lot of people who have forgotten how to legitimately enjoy themselves, or are incapable of adequately expressing it when they are. I sometimes worry that we’re already there, that people are doing things that they dislike because they don’t know how to do things they like anymore, and have latched onto the things they think they’re supposed to like, or once liked.

I hope I get to see people legitimately enjoying themselves, and not getting cheap kicks from putting others down. We’re emerging from a culture of disaffectation and disinterest to a culture that values passion and genuine interest, but we haven’t realigned our focus from putting down the things we dislike or disagree with back to the things we love and cherish. We focus on the negative, show our passion by vehemently disagreeing and fighting back against the things we disagree with, as if someone liking something we don’t is a crisis that we must rectify. I feel like it’s that culture that escalates to death threats and harassment, when it gets out of hand.

I’d love to see what happens when that turns into creative energy, or something positive. Maybe that’s a naive hope.

Rambly today, apologies.

Stories and Systems

I’ve been playing a ton of Fallen London lately, and I’m going to take a little bit of time to gush about it.

Fallen London is a browser-based resource-collection adventure game. There are a bunch of little mini-stories (they call them “storylets”) that generate and consume various resources you collect as you progress through them and discover mysteries, explore, socialize, etc. The whole thing is set on the backdrop of London, having been swallowed by the earth and existing in a dark, supernatural underground. It’s very dark steampunk Victoriana, and is absolutely jam-packed with flavorful little bits throughout.

It reminds me of Crusader Kings 2, a game I spent a bunch of time in. Broadly, Crusader Kings 2 is a pseudo-historical game like Civ, where you’re the ruler of some nation and you manage that nation as it spreads, as your dynasty evolves, and so on. It’s an absolutely overwhelming game at first, and the tutorials only really serve to expose the dizzying depths of the game’s systems, which interact in extremely complicated, somewhat unpredictable ways. It’s fascinating in that the death of your ruler is not the end of the game– provided you have an heir, you’ll continue your game as your heir, though progressing through a lineage can have its own pitfalls.

What I love about both games is that your interactions with them are fairly simple and relatively straightforward; gameplay is about choosing what to do next, generally from a list. The ramifications of doing so, however, drop inputs into these complicated systems whose outputs alter your experience. Essentially, they’re storytelling engines, all of the interlocking systems working together to generate (often surprising) outcomes that make for good stories.

In Crusader Kings 2, I had a well-loved and powerful king in a patrilineal kingdom. In the previous generation, my king had had a conniving and clever older brother who was ultimately unfit to rule– my king had taken power with the backing of most of the nobility and the love of the commoners over the elder brother, something that left the elder brother seething.

To appease the brother and prevent him from fomenting rebellion, I wound up making him my spymaster, because I lacked a suitable candidate and the scheming brother was an excellent fit for the role… provided he could be kept happy. Maintaining this happiness (particularly as a war broke out on my kingdom’s borders) meant allowing my brother to be the tutor for my king’s eldest daughter and only child, who learned extremely well from her uncle and became a highly skilled spy (and ultimately assassin). She was in line to inherit the throne and had both her uncle’s skill at spycraft and her father’s gift for oratory, making her both supremely capable and well-loved.

I’d thought I’d made the best of a tricky situation… until my king and queen bore a son, who (due to the patrilineal lineage) immediately became next in line for the throne. Conniving brother and suddenly-spurned daughter immediately began plotting against my king, in the midst of an invasion from the south. In trying to repair the rapidly deteriorating situation, the king’s daughter was married off to a (faraway) kingdom, the seventh in line for rulership and, while politically good for the daughter, also neatly got her out of the kingdom. In the meantime, my king was pulled into the war and, while able to deliver a crushing blow and put the enemy in retreat, wound up dying in battle… leaving a two-year-old heir.

My play transferred to the two-year-old, and the game’s systems started using my two-year-old’s stats to work out what I knew and could find out… which was very little. For fifteen years, my child-king recieved updates like “you are no longer being mentored by your mother, but your uncle instead, but you’re not sure why” and “you hear arguments but don’t understand what they’re about”. As my child-king came of age, his uncle had slowly poisoned the nation against him and wound up taking over the kingdom, doing such a poor job that the older sister wound up intervening, assassinating her younger brother and taking her claim to the throne… after she had carefully engineered herself as the queen of the faraway kingdom by carefully arranging “accidents” for everyone in line ahead of her.

This is a small slice of the story, but it all played out through these complex systems, and the story is a result of me playing through these systems and seeing the various outcomes, and then (this is important) being able to attach my own narrative to them.

It’s kind of like the stories people come up with in the Sims, and I’m a big fan of the sort of thing people come up with when faced with a complicated but narratively shallow experience– an evocative-enough setup allows some great emergent storytelling.

I need to return to my spy-queen in Crusader Kings, and my “captivating and insightful” gentleman in Fallen London, and see what new stories unfold.

Make Me Laugh

I’m currently replaying Dragon Age: Origins, in preparation for Inquisition later on. As with many Bioware games, it has the “standard” male secondary lead in Alistair, ex-Templar Grey Warden who accompanies you.

Alistair, on the surface, is Carth Onasi (from KOTOR), or Atton Rand (from KOTOR 2), or Kaiden Alenko (Mass Effect), or Jacob Taylor (ME2). The loyal, male ‘best friend’ character who tends to live by a code of some kind, tends to provide skills that clearly and easily support your party (often either tanky or straightforward support-style characters), you know the drill. Normally, I find these characters somewhat hit-or-miss, as they’re often vanilla enough to be boring and lack strong story hooks to keep me interested, usually far overshadowed by other characters.

Alistair is different. Alistair is funny. He has a ton of really excellent lines and while his character development is interesting (though not that outstanding, with a notable exception I won’t spoil here– anyone who’s played the game knows what I’m talking about), the real draw is his one-liners. He’s constantly irreverent and amusing, and the writing in Dragon Age is excellent in that it allows you to either shoot him down or play along, usually leading to a string of more and more ridiculous jokes from him.

It makes me think of a scene in Saints’ Row 3, where (relatively early on) you and another NPC character wind up idly chatting on a drive in between locations, which devolves fairly rapidly into singing along (badly) with the radio– I actually had the pause the game I was laughing so hard.

My favorite characters in games are the funny ones. HK-47 is a ruthless, evil machine, but his commentary is (often unintentionally) hilarious– but, importantly, for the player, not the player’s character. Alistair is different in that he’s entirely aware he’s being funny and cracking jokes; his jokes don’t break the fourth wall (like HK-47’s do), he’s genuinely trying to lighten the mood and make you laugh.

It’s one of the reasons I love Dragon Age. Funny moments are funny in-world, not just from my couch. I’m not laughing at the ridiculously over-the-top violence suggested by an inhuman robot (which, were I in my character’s shoes, wouldn’t be terribly funny and would be in rather poor taste), I’m laughing alongside my avatar in the world.

Make me laugh, but better, make me believe my character would laugh, and I’ll love a character very quickly, often despite a panoply of other flaws. Fourth-wall humor can be fun, and I often enjoy it, but I much prefer when the jokes fit into the world. It’s much more difficult to write, but the payoff is excellent.

Player Fantasy

I’ve talked a bit about player fantasy before, and as I load up Dragon Age: Origins to play through it again in preparation for Inquisition, and as I keep playing Fallen London, I’ve been thinking about player fantasy again, and how important a concept it is.

I’m going to be indulgent and talk about my own player fantasy a bit here; if you’d rather not hear about it, scroll down a bit, there’s another article that’s mostly about other people below here. I won’t blame you, those other people are pretty great.

People tend to think of me in one of a couple of ways, usually based on whatever class I was playing when they met me. Almost always, the characterization I get is “rogue”. It amuses me, because by the numbers I’ve played a little bit more than twice as many wizards as I have rogues, and my rogue playstyle tends not to be the usual poisoning, backstabbing, dirty tricks type. I greatly prefer the intelligent, charismatic, mastermind sort of characters.

It’s why I like wizards as well. I really like to play characters that are worldly, intelligent, efficient, and skilled. I don’t tend to like brute force, and I like a precision lightning bolt over an indiscriminate fireball. I also tend to like a bit of nobility in my characters– not in an aristocratic sense, but in an honorable sense. It’s why I don’t like poisons, and why I prefer the duelist-swordsman kind of rogue over the cloak-and-dagger backstabbing rogue.

Whenever I’m looking at a character for a game, I like a blend of natural gifts (cleverness, magic, etc) and noble skills (swordsmanship, persuasiveness). It’s really hard to find these in a lot of games, so I tend to split the difference and go with either rogue or mage depending on the situation.

It’s one of the reason I like Jedi as a concept– not because they’re the powergamers of the Star Wars universe, but because there’s a mix of nobility, magic, and finesse, versus raw power.

I don’t tend to like warlock/necromancer sorts of classes, because they tend to lack the nobility I’m looking for.

Back to Dragon Age, it’s very difficult for me to pick a class that I like. The noble background appeals to me, but the play of the mage satisfies my desire for cleverness and efficiency. Mages tend to be pariahs in the setting, which bugs me.

We’ll see if I can find a way to enjoy the rogue in Dragon Age this time around. I suspect I’ll be coming back to mage relatively quickly.