Friday, 28 April 2017

Mental Models

The reality that we sense in front of us is a fiction created by our brains. A host of modules process information in various ways and the end result is a mental model of the outside world. Knowing how this works is crucial to game development as the shape of these mental simulations has a huge effect on how a game feels and plays.

Look around the room or the place you are currently in. It certainly feels like what you are seeing is really there, right? However, that's not really the case. Reality is in fact made up by subatomic particles that constantly exchange various smaller particles amongst each other [1]. What you think of as a chair is really just a collection of particles that happen to form a temporarily semi-stable configuration. The reason why you see it as a chair only has to do with how your brain chooses to process the various data that it collects through its senses.

In the previous post on presence I mentioned how the brain is made up of modules, each of them having their own specific purpose. The results from these various modules are then used to form a collective image of your surroundings. For instance, there is a particular module that recognizes faces and, if damaged, it can no longer recognize people - the person affected will only see an object made up of some hair, a nose, two eyes and so forth. Recognizing individual people will only be possible if they have a particularly stand-out feature, like a large beard. Apart from that, all faces will look alike to this person. The normal flow of information is broken and something that most of us take for granted, an intrinsic part of our reality, is no longer present.

This is an extremely important point and it's essential to fully grasp it. It's not as if people who lose the ability to see faces still really see faces but don't "recognize" them. This is the good old "homunculus in the head" fallacy. When you look at the world around you, you are not really seeing details. You are being fed a stream of information and that stream contains things like "that is a chair", "the chair is made of wood", "that is the face of your mother", and so on. If the brain module that does the processing needed for a particular piece of information is damaged, it's not like your "mental view" remains the same - information is what your mental view is made up from. To get a better idea of this, look at this image:


When first looking at it, most people see this image as simply a collection of dots. But if you look carefully for a bit you will see the form of a dog appearing. Once you have managed to spot this dog, it becomes impossible to unsee. Your brain has gone from interpreting the image as a collection of dots to seeing it as a dog. If you were to lose a brain module this process would be reversed. What was once an image of a dog would turn into a collection of dots. The dog would not still "be there" - it would be erased from your perception of reality.

Your view of reality is not what reality is like, it is a mental simulation based on interpretations of data collected by your senses. You are really living your life in a sort of virtual world that the brain constructs for you [2].

This doesn't mean that your view of reality is a complete lie, though. It is still based on things that do exist and is a crucial tool for getting around and being able to make decisions. Even though a chair is a made up concept with no basis in reality, it still is very useful. It tells you something about what to expect and what your options are. For instance, if you are presented with either sitting down on a chair or on a pile of broken glass, your mental simulations are invaluable and can quickly give you pretty accurate estimates of what sitting down on each of the alternatives would mean. Note that these mental simulations are not confined to a single aspect of an object. There are things like shape, materials, current light conditions, the physical dimensions, emotional attachment, ownership and many other things that are all connected to an object. When you focus your gaze on an object, that is what you "see" - not some crystal clear pixel-by-pixel representation.

This array of properties is not always correct, though. For instance, if you try and pick up a carton of milk that your brain has modeled as filled (=heavy) and it turns out to be empty (=light), you will lift it with way too much force. But most of the time, because of the practice you've had at experiencing reality, your brain is pretty good at providing a good simulation.

Contra (1987)

Let's move on to games. When you are playing a game, you are not playing the game that is presented on the screen. You are playing the game that you are currently modelling in your mind. The brain turns clusters of pixels into abstract icons (eg "a power-up") and then attaches all sort of concepts to them. Just in the same way as it does when you encounter a chair in real-life. The modules in your brain use pre-existing knowledge and experience from interacting with the game and build up a mental model of how it is all connected.

The best example I know of this is from Brian Upton's book "The Aesthetics of Play". In the book he presents the example of navigating an environment in a game. What doesn't happen is that the player bumps into every wall and object, trying to figure out the bounds of the simulation. Instead the player analyses the scene in front of them and then mentally figures out a path to follow. This means that there is a lot of gameplay that takes place inside the player's head. In fact, unless the player is actively trying to test the systemic bounds of the game, almost all gameplay happens within the player's mental simulation of the game.

What all of this means is that is that we should be less concerned about the data (images, sounds, etc) that we send to our players and focus more on the sorts of mental simulations it gives rise to. This is an extremely important aspect of game making, and it has far-reaching consequences. No matter how much more realistically you render an object, it doesn't matter if the player's mental model chooses to represent it as something else.

The mental model is closely linked to our ability to anticipate. This is something that happens in all kinds of media [3]. For instance when watching a film and a character steps on a banana peel, we predict that they will slip and fall. As we see the foot approaching the banana our brain is already simulating possible outcomes and various filmic tricks, such as editing, are based around this happening in our minds. All mediums rely on this, but creating anticipation in games is extra tricky because of interaction.

In order for us to work with this we need to learn how these mental models are formed. There are three basic ways in which this happens: by using built-in knowledge, extrapolating from past experiences or learning through experimentation. These three modes complement one another, but it is useful to start by looking at them one at a time.

Built-in Knowledge
This is what our brains come equipped to deal with when we are born. They're essential to a human and you can pretty much assume that anyone playing the game will have them. Basic things like shape, lighting, perspective and so forth are all part of this category. It also includes behaviors like how pouring the content of a large glass into a smaller one will cause it to overflow, rotation of 3D shapes and how objects ought to act if you drop them. Social things like facial expressions are also part of this sort of knowledge. The facial expression connected to disgust is universal, hardwired, and does not depend on mimicking.



The one thing you need to realize about any built-in knowledge is that it's extremely hard to break. It takes a lot of effort to convince a person that dropping a ball will make it fall upwards. It is basically impossible to make a person intuitively see a mad face as a positive response. This is all hardwired knowledge that comes with equally interesting pros and cons.

If you can tie some basic functionality of your game directly to some built-in knowledge then it will instantly come off as intuitive to any player. For instance, if you want the player to feel disgusted by an enemy it's good to know that disgust is a disease-avoiding behavior. This knowledge allows you to trigger built in responses and also suggest what sort of events and interactions will strengthen a mental model that gives rise to feelings of disgust.

On the contrary, if your gameplay relies on something that goes against built-in knowledge, you either need to be prepared to spend a lot of time building the proper mental model or to ditch the concept altogether. Sometimes it is of course OK to break the rules, but remember that conforming to built-in knowledge is what makes a world seem believable. And if you want to focus on evoking basic human emotions, this basic believability is crucial. Without that you also lose a bunch of connections which are foundational to our emotional world.


Past Experiences
This is a huge area and it includes everything the player has learned throughout life. It is also something that can vary culturally. What I will focus on right now are two parts of this: past experiences with games versus past experiences with real life.

When you are first presented with a scene in the game there is a ton of stuff for you to process. If you see a red barrel and you have played games in the past, there is a big chance that you will think the barrel will explode when being shot upon. This interpretation relies on more than simply having encountered this specific object before. It relies heavily on what sort of game you are playing (point and click behaves differently from a quake-like shooter), what actions you think are possible (can you shoot it?), and so forth. So players come in with a lot of expectations and preconceptions on how things ought to behave. All of these will not just change how the player feel about the game, they will directly affect how the player think the game actually is like.



A monster can either be a horrible threat that you wanna keep away from, or it can be the source of what makes the game fun in the first place. The view the player takes directly affects how they behave and also has a long reaching effect on the experience of playing the game. For instance, in our game Penumbra the player has the ability to use weapons but they are very weak and inefficient. For players that interpreted the game as one where you'd best avoid any monsters, this worked great and they used the weapons as a last desperate effort to escape - as we had intended. Their mental model was one where the weapons and monsters were just like in real life. For other players the game was interpreted as a one where you could fight back. For these players it didn't work at all. The weapons felt frustrating to use and the monster was an annoyance. Their mental model was based on how videogames usually work. Despite interacting with the same system, seeing the same visuals and hearing the same sound, these two types of players experienced radically different games.[4]

To combat this in Amnesia: The Dark Descent we started the game with a quick notice on how the game was supposed to be played. This, together with other design changes of course, made a huge difference in how players approach the game. Unlike built-in knowledge, things learned from past events are quite malleable and it is possible to adapt them according to new situations. Which leads us to the final foundational way in which mental models are formed.

Experimentation
From the moment we are born (and possibly even earlier) our brains are hardwired to analyze, generalize and make assumptions. Whenever we encounter a new object we try it out in a variety of ways (squeezing, chewing, throwing, etc) in order to figure out what it is like. We then store that information and pull it out whenever we encounter a similar object. Everyone who has been near a small child knows about this process, and so does everyone who has played an unfamiliar game.



As noted before, the moment we see a scene from a new game, we make a whole load of assumptions of what everything is like and how it functions. But it is not until we get to interact with the scene that our assumptions get confirmation and are cemented. Unless the game is similar to another game we've already played, we know that we have new lessons to learn. These first impressions are crucial to how the rest of our experience is shaped [5]. This is why the opening of a game is so important. If a player gets the wrong idea about something it can be really hard to get rid of that faulty mental model.

Once the player interacts with something it will tell them about some aspect of the object. For instance, if they can pick it up or not. The player will then try to generalize this knowledge, often by using pre-existing information. So if a glass bottle can be picked up, they will assume that it's possible to pick up plastic bottles as well. Furthermore, if you throw a glass bottle and it breaks, it means the player will assume that everything made of glass is breakable. And so the experimentation continues as the game is played. Every new aspect is connected to other things the player already knows and an increasingly detailed mental simulation is built. The next time the player finds a bottle lying around,  a lot of attributes will be assumed the moment it comes into view.

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The basic gist of the above shouldn't be too surprising, as it's pretty basic stuff. But the key thing to remember here is that these are not just things that form opinions. They form actual reality for the player.

To be able to look at an object and assume a bunch of attributes is what makes the world feel alive. It allows the player to use their hardwired brain faculties to explore, interact and make plans. The world might be rendered using toon shaders and feature talking rabbits, but if it allows for a rich mental model it will feel "real". Remember, it isn't about the objective facts of what you see (eg a teapot using highly realistic PBR-based shading), but what processing it gives rise to.

In order to make this happen, you can't just put objects and interactions into a world at random. The player must be able to explore the elements of the world, and in doing so they must be met by a consistent set of rules. The brain doesn't have an infinite amount of resources, and will therefore optimize when possible.

So if an object looks like something found in the real world, but you are unable to interact with it, it will not be given any further attributes. As it isn't of any importance, it will simply become part of the background. In a similar vein, the simplest explanation will also be used when possible. If there are ten keys lying on a table, but only the one that unlocks the door can be picked up, then players will stop modeling these objects as any sort of real keys. They will instead be seen as quest items, possible to pick up when it is convenient for the designer. When there's no consistency of any sort, the player's brain will just skip trying to do any modeling and rely on direct experimentation when needed (trial and error, basically). In these cases, players will have a very fuzzy mental model of an object and the object won't feel very "real".

An important aspect of this is that it's not always a bad thing that the brain optimizes away things. For instance, if you are making a simple shooter you don't really need to take any wall ornaments into account. You should just focus on the overall layout and the positions of the monsters. Everything else is a distraction.

It is, however, crucial to keep all of this in mind. There may be many cases where you don't want the player to optimize away certain objects. If you want the player to feel like the environment is a real place, you really need to make sure that as many details as possible can have intricate attributes in the player's mental simulation. It becomes even more important for characters where you want the player to model internal emotions, needs and goals. If your goal is to make the player feel like they are encountering real people, you want those people to be part of their mental model. This is what it means to make something feel real and alive.

All of this doesn't mean that one's goal should be to model everything in as detailed a way as possible. In fact, in many cases this may be counterproductive. Details could mean the player makes more assumptions, leading to the structure being more fragile and more likely to crumble. Keep in mind that all we want to worry about is the end result - how the player perceives the experience. The actual content - images, sounds and so on - that we send to the player is just a means to an end.

It's at this point where narrative-focused games become very different from classical ones. In a classical videogame, it's almost always a good thing for the player to learn the systems exactly as they are. The better the player understands how all the underlying mechanics work together, the more competently they can play the game and the more fun they will have. Narrative-focused games are different. Here we often want to suggest a lot more than what is in the systems that we have at our direct disposal. Pulling this off requires a collection of tricks where the common thread is to try and make the player do the hard work. I will go over these tricks in future blog posts.

Next week there will be a discussion on how systems and story come together to form a mental model and more discussions on the most common pitfalls and opportunities when designing for mental simulations that feel alive.


Foot notes:
[1] It is actually much more complicated than this as your current reality is a sort of vertical slice of a much later Hilbert space where everything is modeled as waveforms.

[2] And even the idea of a "you" is a mental construct. Check the previous blog on presence for some discussion on this.

[3] Brian Upton goes very in-depth into this area in his book.

[4] The game was not this evenly divided into groups, but the general gist was this kind of behavior.

[5] There are a lot of psychological reasons for this such as the ultimate attribution error and anchoring.


Friday, 21 April 2017

Creations inspired by Frictional Games

Last week we announced a competition on Facebook and Twitter, asking our community to share their creations inspired by our games. We knew that there was a whole load of art, mods and just plain crazy stuff out there, and we're really happy to have seen many of them which we might otherwise have missed.

Today we're announcing the four winners, who will each receive a Tobii Eye Tracker 4C, courtesy of Tobii Gaming. They've helped us make SOMA even more immersive on PC by enabling eye tracking - see how it works here. Each winner will also get a copy of SOMA on Steam. We wish you the best of luck as you experience your descent into the depths in a completely new way!


So, drum roll time... here are the four lucky winners!

Best Music
SOMAGE - a 10-track album by exandroid, inspired by SOMA! Just wow. This blows us away, and will be used as a soundtrack when working on our new projects!

Listen and be amazed.


Best Fan Art

hoshiSAM posted this piece on Twitter, showing how much baggage Simon needs to carry...




Best Mod
Mods make us extra happy! But they're really hard to choose between. Two mods ended up with the same number of votes from our staff, but luckily they were both sent in by Draugemalf




Best Random Thing
The final winner is someone who did something both irresponsible and amazing - and shed some blood for us! Jonathan showed off this incredible tattoo, which makes him worthy of the final prize.



Congratulations to all winners, and thanks so much to everyone who took part! We'd love to see more of what you're doing!


Thursday, 20 April 2017

Evoking Presence

Playing a videogame can put you in a state where the borders between your self and the character gets blurry. This is one of the major differences that sets games apart from other mediums such as films and literature. When creating games, evoking this feeling of presence is worth trying to achieve. 

Before starting on the concept of presence, I need to discuss why it's so important to dig deeper into these aspects of games. This is not really needed in order to explain presence, but I think it is vital to know why it is so crucial to gain this deeper understanding.

I have talked about the concept of an "idea space" and how developing a game is basically about navigating this space. The most important concept that I want to get across is that developing a game is like going on a journey. You have a starting point and an idea of where you want to end up. When making a narrative game, having a clear focus on the goal is extremely important as there'll be many occasions when you need to go against what has the greatest gameplay benefit in the short term in order to reach a better end result. But given that you can't choose your next step based on what gives the largest boost to "fun", what do you base your decision on? How can you achieve a high degree of certainty that you've made the right choice?

You do this by having rules and principles that you follow. A simple example of such a principle is to ensure that gameplay makes sense within the story. It might be more "fun" from a short-term perspective to give the player a flying unicorn, but if that seems silly within the story then this is a bad decision. However, it's not always that clear-cut, and since you can't simply "follow the fun" you need other things to guide you.

Evoking the feeling of presence is such a principle.

So what exactly is presence? Well, it isn't the most well-defined term, but for our needs we can define it as something like "How much the player feels like they are present inside the game's virtual world". One way to measure this is to test the player's unconscious reflexes and see if these react to events in the game. For instance, does the player flinch if an object comes flying towards the screen? It's simple, but not the only way to measure presence. A more important aspect, in my opinion, is to evaluate to what degree the player feels they are their on-screen character. If the player views an in-game threat as something that is bad for them personally, then it means the sense of presence is high.

Silent Hill 2 (2001)

I remember playing Silent Hill 2 with my wife 6 years or so ago. As the intro sequence was over and she headed into the woods, she started to feel quite shaken. She went on for a minute or so and then eventually exclaimed that she couldn't play it any longer. The game was just too scary. So I took over the controller and suddenly she didn't feel as scared any more. I now decided to conduct an experiment and handed her back the controller. The moment she started controlling the main character she got scared, and again refused to play for more than a minute or so. This is quite interesting. Her feelings towards the game were quite different depending on whether or not she was holding the controller.

This is a great example of presence. When my wife held the controller she was no longer just a spectator of a scary narrative, she was the protagonist in a horror world. This sense of presence changed her view of the game drastically, and I believe this is what makes it a core component of creating good interactive storytelling [1]. So, understanding this phenomena is paramount in becoming better at making this sort of games.

To understand what it is that happens here, let us take a look at an experiment.

In order to conduct this experiment you will need a screen, a rubber hand and a hammer. You let your subject place their hand on a table and then place the rubber hand next to it. The screen is placed between the two so that the subject can only see the rubber hand.



You now start to stroke the rubber hand and the subject's real hand in the same place at the same time. Once you have done this for a while the subject will start to feel as if the rubber hand is their own. You can now test this sensation by quickly grabbing the hammer and slamming it on the rubber hand. The subject will now, as an unconscious reflex, pull their real hand out of the way. You can see a video of it all in action here:



This is quite astounding. By just using some very simple manipulation you are able to change a person's mind in such a way that they think of a rubber hand as their own. You don't even have to use a hammer to test it. You can even threaten the rubber hand with a knife and see that the galvanic skin response (palm sweat basically) is the same as if it was the real hand that was threatened. There has really been a change in how a person perceives their body.



A bunch of similar experiments have been made by Henrik Ehrsson, above, who has managed to get people to have out of body experiences, by putting them in the bodies of mannequins and using very similar techniques to the ones explained earlier.

So why does this happen? In order to understand this you first have to understand a bit of how the brain works.

It is common to intuitively think that inside our heads sits a little man, a homunculus, who receives all of the input picked up by our eyes, ears and other sensory organs. When you start pondering this idea, it's obvious it's not the case - it just begs the question of how the little man is able to see, and you end up in an infinite regression. What actually happens is that there are a bunch of different modules in your brain that collect and process various data. This data is then sent onward for more processing or used as a means for decision making. There is no one thing that controls the brain. It's all controlled by a bunch of different computational systems, each receiving different input and being able to give certain output. Marvin Minsky's "society of mind" is a very good description of how it all works.



So what happens in the rubber hand illusion is that the input you get from your eyes overrides the kinesthetic sense. There is a sort of feedback loop going on between the constant sensation of being stroked, combined with the visual confirmation of seeing it being stroked. This provides a slight conflict with the kinesthetic sense, but the brain has to make a decision and decides to treat the hand as actually being the rubber hand.

Your sense of self is not set in stone. It's something that is highly malleable and is under constant evaluation. At any moment, the brain relies on the information that it has available in order to form the concept of your self. The entity that you refer to as "yourself" is really just a mental construct that's useful in making sense of the world, navigating it, and taking decisions. Most of the time it's fairly accurate and gives the right picture, but as we've seen, it's not always the case. It can be hacked.

This is where games enter the stage - because this sort of self-hacking is exactly what games do. When your current mental model of your self incorporates your in-game character, an approaching monster will make you feel afraid. This is extremely powerful and something that makes games very special. When you press down the button or stick that makes the player move forward, you instantly get confirmation that you are making a character move. Volition turned into action becomes a feedback loop and this causes your brain to change its view of your self.

In books and movies there is no such feedback loop. Information is only presented to you. In these media you are a spectator that watches as events unfold. But in a game you are an active participant who causes events and where things happen to you personally.

This is what presence is all about! And for me this is the core reason why interactive storytelling is so exciting. You are no longer just a passive audience but an active and present participant in the narrative. Being able to achieve a strong presence is a fundamental building block in an interactive narrative.



So does this mean that Virtual Reality is the ultimate device for doing interactive storytelling? Well, it is true that VR has a lot of potential to create presence. For one, it adds two senses, balance and peripheral vision, to the mix, It also allows a natural feedback loop to occur by looking and seeing the view move about. There is no denying that VR does things that games on your standard TV or monitor cannot. However, what is crucial with presence in games is what sort of activities it allows you to be present in. VR can increase the sense of presence when it comes to just standing and looking around. But I am not as convinced that VR will be as suitable for more complex narrative actions. For instance, a drawback of VR is that the game can't really seize control of the camera - something that allows many games to provide contextual animations. This and other tricks are things that are effective in making the player feel present in story events. We used this a lot in SOMA in order to give philosophically complex events, such as the body swap, a more visceral feel.

Obviously if you use the VR medium to its advantage you can elicit responses that wouldn't be possible otherwise. But what it all comes down to is that different mediums can do different things well, and that it's not a case for VR always being better at conveying presence.

I am not bringing this up to be dismissive of Virtual Reality - I think it's a very exciting field. I go over this in order to make it clear that a sense of presence is not just about recreating our normal way of being as accurately as possible. Ways to convey presence can take many forms, but what they all have in common is that they hack our brain into believing it's partaking in something it's not.

This also answers the common question whether or not a first person mode is better at generating presence: sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't. Sure, we normally see our lives from where our eyes are situated. But this is really just a helpful mental model. Remember, there is no small man in your head that is witnessing everything. It is all just modules that process information in various ways. If it wanted to, your brain could construct your sense of reality from a third person perspective. This is in fact what happens during out of body experiences. The reason we don't use this version during everyday life is because it is not the most optimal one. We cannot see everything that happens around us, and therefore it makes more sense to just let vision be modelled as if seen through the front of our face.



So really, the output from a game is just a stream of data that gets injected into our brains. The brain will then process the data and model the world accordingly. A third person viewpoint is just another way to be presented with that data. Sometimes it can be advantageous compared to a first person one - for instance when showing damage to the protagonist. This is something we normally get as a signal of pain, but as that is not possible [2] in a game, you can trick the brain by having the onscreen character limp and show big disgusting wounds on their legs. So again, it all comes down to different approaches being suited for different things.

So the sense of presence is a brain hack, and it can be done in different ways. Then what exactly are these different ways?

I will now go over a few basic principles that will help you maximize your sense of presence. There is a lot more to be said about these, but right now I'll just summarize the most important aspects. I'll go over each of these in more detail in another blog post later on.


Intuitive controls
The most important principle is to make sure that the controls can't be overly complicated. What we want to achieve is a feedback loop where the player thinks of something and then sees it happening. We want to make a connection between the onscreen character and the player by connecting volition with action. This won't happen if the player is too focused on pressing specific buttons.

In order to achieve a strong sense of presence, the controls need to be established as early as possible and be used for all future actions. Every time the player has to learn new ways to control their character, or has to look down on the controller to make sure they are doing an input correctly, the feedback loop is broken and presence is weakened.

A good example of a game doing this correctly is Limbo (and the more recent Inside). The player is taught the controls during the very first minutes of gameplay, and from then no new controls are needed. Instead the existing control scheme is used in intuitive ways to provide many different sorts of actions. This makes the player-protagonist connection very strong and I think it is one of the game's big success factors.


Constant Feedback
Once you have the player-protagonist feedback loop up and running it is important to keep it up. If the player just sits with the controller in their lap watching as things happen, the feedback loop will be broken and their self will no longer be extended. So it is important to keep the player busy. It is especially good if you also make sure the input has a good correlation with the movements that you are doing. For instance, moving the mouse to look around creates a nice feedback loop, but if you just press a button in order to accomplish a complex manoeuvre you will not feel as present.

Experiments show this clearly. As soon as you stop stroking that rubber hand the illusion start fading away.

This is one of the reasons why we have the physical interaction in Amnesia. Not only does it allow for some interesting analog actions (such as peeking out from a closet), it also makes sure that the players are feeling a sense of presence as they open the door, pulling a lever and so forth.


Consistency
In order to hack our brains there needs to be a good pattern to follow. The key feedback loop has to do with desiring something and then seeing it happen. But in order for this to actually work, the thing that you want to happen must actually happen. If you press the jump button and the character doesn't jump then there is not a connection any more. In fact, this becomes a negative stream of data to the brain which brings about the conviction that you are in fact not controlling the on screen character. The same rule also applies to interactions. The player will base their actions upon what they are currently seeing and what they know about the world. And if that set of beliefs is not accurate, then the player's volition will fail.

This doesn't just apply to actions that you input, but also to those where you don't. It is really annoying if the character does some movement without you having provided any input for it. A game that does this the right way is Assasin's Creed. Here the player's character jumps without the player providing input, but it feels good because you press down on a button as it happens (hence willing the action) and jumping is sensible and handled in a consistent manner. Presence is maintained. However, the game also fails miserably at times and the characters can start jumping when you really just wanna walk close to a wall. In these cases the sense of presence is severely weakened.


Realism
Finally, it also very important that things feel real. By this I don't mean that things should be photorealistic. But it is good if things happen according to how they are anticipated to happen, and that forms take a shape that make sense to us. In that way, the brain can more easily process the data using existing methods. For instance, presence works better when your character is walking like a normal human and not running around like some freak (as is the case in games like good ol' Doom). In the same way it's positive if as many of the actions as possible feel close to the ones we experience in everyday life.

Experiments can clearly express this by showing that it is much harder to make the subject feel as if the table belongs to them, than it is with the rubber hand. However, a super detailed hand doesn't matter as much. The most important aspect is that it looks pretty close to a real hand.

Exactly what sort of level of realism required is hard to say. A good thumb of rule is that you should try and have enough room for the brain to fill out the details. If you go with overly photorealistic there will be too much focus on that, and you'll end up with a problem similar to the uncanny valley [3].

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Back to where I started. Now we have four new principles that we can follow in order to navigate the space of ideas. So instead of just trying to go with ideas that give us the most fun gameplay, we can instead try and get as much presence as possible. What is good about having principles like these is that we don't have to be able to directly playtest the amount of presence added, we can instead just rely on making sure the game fulfils the requirements for creating lots of presence.

Obviously you'll need to test at some point. A principle is not an absolute truth. But it allows you to plan further ahead and gives you more confidence to tread into uncharted territory. If you can see that a certain path through idea space means that the underlying goals of evoking presence is met, then that's a good indicator you're moving in the right direction. Of course, presence is not the only thing you need to work on, but it's a fundamental part of creating an engaging narrative experience. If your game is going in a direction where the principles are not met, then you might be undermining any other features intended to accomplish interactive storytelling

That's it for now on presence. There are more details to be explored, but those will be brought up in later blog posts. Next week, I will be going over something called the Mental Model. This will go deeper into how we as humans create a virtual representation of both our selves and the world, and how this can be exploited for making better narrative games.


Footnotes:
[1] This is how I see it and where I personally want to take games. There are other ways to approach digital storytelling. For instance, you can see the player's role as someone who controls how the plot and pacing flows, and so forth. There is really no best way of doing it. But in order to get somewhere I need to take a stance, and games that puts the player in the shoes of another character are the ones that I find most interesting. Therefore, this is the direction that I want to explore. People who feel otherwise are welcome and encouraged to follow other paths.

[2] At least not without special equipment and not being afraid of a painful gaming experience.

[3] This is a huge subject and very interesting, but will have to cover it in a future blog post.


Thursday, 13 April 2017

Navigating the Space of Game Design

Designing a game spawns an endless set of ideas - ideas that need to be sorted. In order to do this, you need a method of evaluating them. The following discusses five different gameplay models - ways of thinking about game design - that can be helpful in choosing between ideas, and how they affect the final game.

I've previously talked about how games are, when it comes to narrative evolution, "too much fun for their own good". I've also given a specific example of this by comparing Resident Evil 4 and 7 and shown how development focus can make a huge difference to the final game. But one place where I think I've been a bit vague is that I've been talking about a position taken during development. "Games are too much fun for their own good" is not a value judgement about games in general. It's all about the effect this has when creating a game. This is an incredibly important distinction to make. While you can debate forever over fuzzy subjects like "is this a game?" and "what is the purpose of games?" it's a fact that your intentions during design will have a huge impact on the final result.

When designing a game, or doing anything creative for that matter, you are basically navigating a space of ideas. At any point there are a bunch of decisions that you could be making and you need to base these decisions on some sort of plan. How you come up with this plan will be highly dependent on your values, processes, restrictions and so forth. What all this boils down to is a need to constantly evaluate the project's current state and adjust its trajectory.

For a long time, the general advice in game development has been to "follow the fun". But this is far from the only way to evaluate a project. In this post I'll present a few different ways to go about it. Take note that it is very uncommon for any project to rely purely on a single method. Different aspects of a project usually require a slightly different mindset.  It is however very common to base the majority of design decisions on one type of evaluation.

Super Mario Bros. (1985)
Classical Gameplay
Let's start with the most common way of working in game design: to follow the fun. When working in this way you normally try to find a good "core loop" that provides the basic engagement factor for the game. The rest of the development is then spent enhancing this core loop in order to make it as engaging as possible. This could mean that new mechanics are added on top (e.g. crafting or levelling) or that the core design is tweaked until it generates the most fun possible.

When creating a game like this, you can usually start by figuring out what works and what doesn't early on. It's also possible to hand it over to playtesters early, and to have continuous testing throughout development. The art and story are often also heavily based on how the gameplay works.


FarmVille 2 (2012)
Metric-Based
This is the sort of design that you see a lot of in free-to-play games and it's incredibly common in mobile games. Here the goal is not to make the game as engaging as possible, but to set particular goal metrics, and then tweak the game to adjust player behaviour so that the metrics measured reach those desired goals. Sure, you are often looking for a certain amount of fun in the game, but when it comes down to it, no matter how much fun a certain decision creates, if it doesn't produce the right change in metrics, it is a bad choice.

When making a game like this, testing on users is paramount. You often want to release the game as early as possible and then start tracking things like retention rate, daily active users, and churn rate. The better numbers you get, the better the game matches your goals.


Braid (2008)
Deep Mechanics
While both of the above methods put some focus on constantly asking the question: "Is my user having fun?", this type of design takes a different route. It's quite unusual for this to be a major evaluation method, but games like The Witness (2016) and the upcoming Miegakure do just that. In their talk "Designing to Reveal the Nature of the Universe Jonathan Blow and Marc Ten Bosch (creators of the two previously mentioned games) lay out this way of thinking about the design. Quickly summarized it's all about taking your game's mechanics as far as possible. This makes it different in that it is no longer about creating maximum engagement. Instead, it's all about maximizing the depth of the gameplay. When following this design you really want the game to squeeze every possibility out of your core mechanics.

Just like with classical gameplay, you want to start with the core loop, and you also want people to test early and regularly. When it comes to art and story, they are only there in order to enhance the gameplay. The main goal is not to aesthetically please your viewer, but to have the art and the story that are best at conveying the mechanics to your user.


Beyond: Two Souls (2013)
Classical Plot
Another way to go about designing a game is to just view it as a standard story. Your utmost concern is to make sure that the end experience works in terms of classical ways of structuring film, books and other traditional storytelling media. When creating a game like this, you generally start out with a script and then develop the gameplay in order to support what that document says.

The interactive movie genre is something that very strongly uses this model. It is also very common in RPG games, which can be said to interlace this with sections of more classical gameplay. There are also many adventure games that mainly adhere to this approach when evaluating progress.


SOMA (2015)
Narrative Driven
This is the approach that we at Frictional Games are following to the greatest extent right now. It is also the approach that this blog mostly refer to as a way of crafting better narrative in games. In this type of design the goal is to make the activity of playing the game produce a certain type of experience. The goal is to maximize the efficiency in which the intended experience is delivered. For example, in a horror game, the goal might be to make the player as scared as possible.

In this case you normally start with some sort of emotional or intellectual experience that you want to convey. After that you add features, both gameplay, story and art-wise, in order to make this experience come across as clearly as possible. What stands out when compared to other approaches is that there is no core feature, such as gameplay or plot, to fall back on. Instead you have a fuzzy goal that you are trying to reach, and many different parts of the game are needed before you can evaluate whether it works or not. Because this often requires a lot of high quality content, playtesting is made relatively infrequent compared to other approaches.

It is this approach that I believe is the future of interactive storytelling. We can only get so far by focusing on classical gameplay or storytelling techniques.

It's worth noting that these types of games by no means need to be story-heavy. A great example of this is the game Duskers (2016), as explained in the creator's GDC talk. While the game started with a classical gameplay approach, it later put a ton of focus on delivering a couple of core pillars such as feelings of isolation and realism. Because of this I think it is a good example of using a narrative-driven approach for development. The game is by no means a pure example of this approach, but it is an excellent example of how different it can make a game.

---

That sums up the approaches I wanted to cover today. I am sure there are other approaches, but these were the ones that felt most interesting to discuss.

As I said earlier, it's very rare that a project will rely solely on one of these methods of evaluating progress. For instance, no matter how much fun it would be for Super Mario to have a shotgun to blast goompas with, it would never feel fitting to add it. But if you put aside stuff like that, a game like Super Mario bases pretty much all of its decisions on the Classical Gameplay approach. It therefore feels fair to say that it is a game developed using that approach.

I also want to make it clear that there is no best way to develop a game. All of these approaches have their pros and cons, and what it all really comes down to is what sort of game you want to create.

Hopefully these examples should make it more understandable what I mean by "narrative-wise, games are too much fun for their own good" and development being a navigation of an idea space. Consider how different the paths taken during development will be depending on the approach chosen. Some paths will be filled with constant confirmation that you are going in the right direction. These are often the ones you are most tempted to use. Other paths require long treks through uncharted territory and are filled with uncertainty. These are often less tempting, but can also lead to very interesting and unique results.

Now for some examples on how the evaluation process can have a huge effect on how a game turns out.

The first example is the sanity meter in Amnesia. At first the sanity meter was thought of as an important gameplay detail and it was evaluated through a Classical Gameplay lens. However, it started to become clear that the approach was clashing with our wish to have an immersive and very scary game. The lowering of sanity would often become annoying and it was very hard to balance it in way that meshed with our other goals.

Up until then we had focused on making the sanity as much "fun" as possible, and we could have continued down that route. However, due to our discussions, we chose to take a different approach: we asked ourselves what would benefit the intended experience best. This made us consider the whole sanity as an "atmospheric device" instead and we dropped a bunch of related features. The game took on a very different shape because of this and we continued to use the same narrative-driven approach for other things, like monster encounters.

The second example is from SOMA, where we from the beginning were very focused on the narrative-driven approach. This took a lot of different shapes throughout development, but one of the most prominent ones was that, once the prologue was over, the game must be a continuous first person experience without any camera pull-outs or cuts. The reason for this was that we wanted a narrative experience where the player could get a sense of what it was like to "switch" consciousness. This caused all sorts of issues during development, most likely making a few passages, gameplay-wise, less fun. But it was vital to get the right experience across and without this, and many other similar decisions, the game wouldn't have been the same.

This should hopefully have given a sense of the many ways you can search between in the space of game design ideas. I also hope it's given some more depth to my two previous entries on connected topics. (Check them out here and here).

It should also have given an idea on just how uncertain the narrative-driven approach is when compared to other ways of evaluating. Because of this, I think the need to understand how our medium works is much greater than it has been before. Next week I'll try and help with this by talking about presence, one of the key aspects when crafting a narrative-driven game.


Notes:

I am not 100% sold on the name "Narrative-Driven", but I'm unsure what works better. I thought about "Experience-Driven", but that felt too broad. For me narrative is (as explained here) all about the emotional journey the player takes when playing through the game. It is a very holistic concept and not reliant on plot details or how much "fun" gameplay is. This feels like it fits well with the point I want to get across. However, the name could be very misleading to people and I suspect I'll get at least one comment where someone is upset with the article because of it. That said, I don't expect to use the term a lot and the categorization here is really just to better get the idea of "games are too much fun for their own good" across, so it should be fine.


Thursday, 6 April 2017

Resident Evil and the power of narrative context

By putting the player in a situation where's there not enough space to move or to aim at the enemy, gameplay can quickly grow boring. But when combining gameplay with narrative and context, you can turn this into an even more immersive experience 

Resident Evil 7 came out a couple of months ago and was generally perceived as being "back to form", even called one of the best games in the series. What really stood out to me was that it felt like Resident Evil had returned to its roots in telling a compelling narrative, and using that to power the experience. In order to unpack what I mean by this, let's first consider the first Resident Evil game (1996).

As I guess most of you know, the first Resident Evil was heavily inspired by Alone in the Dark (1992), and the whole setup is basically ripped from there. Now the problem with Alone in the Dark is that it is extremely clunky. The controls are slow and not very responsive and the fixed camera angles makes it hard to get a good idea of your surroundings. Resident Evil improved a bit on this, but most of the basic problems still remained. Compared to a game like Doom (1993), the game's combat is a lot less engaging.

Resident Evil attacks this problem by wrapping the game's events in story. Consider the first encounter you have with a zombie:



 
You enter a room, see someone sitting on the floor. It turns around and reveals itself. Argh! It is a zombie eating on a corpse. You pull out your gun, shoot the zombie a couple of times, and manage to kill it.

The combat in this scenario is not very interesting in itself. The room is small so you cannot move around much and the clunky controls don't help. You can't really decide where to aim, either. You basically just have to turn your character in the right direction and press the attack button until the zombie eventually dies (or possibly you could just run out of the room). From a pure gameplay perspective this is quite dull. But when it's wrapped in a narrative context it suddenly gets very exciting. In fact, the clunky controls and limited camera angles work to the game's advantage here. They make the players feel like they're not in control, which gets directly projected on the situation at hand - the approaching zombie. A tense and scary situation arises.

This is the power of narrative context. By wrapping gameplay actions in storytelling the experience that emerges exceeds the sum of its parts. Taken solely on their own merit, the gameplay mechanics don't feel very engaging. But when used in the right environment they work far better at providing the intended experience than using the more streamlined controls of Doom.

This isn't the only thing that keeps Resident Evil working as a game. Another big aspect of it is the resource management, which is a great help in making the game engaging over longer periods of time. But again, it works so well because of the world it is placed in. Making sure that you have ammo and healing herbs is not just a numbers game. By playing it in the world of a zombie-infested mansion it turns into a survival scenario which makes it a lot more exciting [1].

Over the years, Resident Evil has distanced itself from the narrative context, and focused more on improving the gameplay mechanics. Resident Evil 4 (2005) is the biggest step in this evolution.

Resident Evil 7 picks up where the first one left of and puts, once again, lots of focus on the narrative context. First of all let us consider the combat of Resident Evil 7. Here is a typical combat scene:


and here is one from another contemporary action game:

Titanfall 2 (2016)

As you can see there is a lot less fun for the player to have in Resident Evil 7. The aiming is imprecise and the space doesn't allow for a lot of movement. But all of this works in the favor of the game. Once again, we can't just analyze the gameplay on its own. We have to take into account the context in which it happens. Here is where Resident Evil 7 has plenty. For instance, the first enemy that you encounter is your girlfriend turned mutant, who is now attacking you with a chainsaw. Sure, the combat is quite awkward, but that only fuels the desperation of the situation. This scene wouldn't be nearly as good if the player was able to circle strafe, and had explicitly defined mechanics for avoiding incoming attacks.

The first half of the game continues like this, with many of the hostiles not being run-of-the-mill monsters, but characters with personalities. You're not just taking part in generic combat encounters - you're taking part in narrative moments. This is a huge improvement compared to basically any of the previous Resident Evils and, in these moments, the game honestly has one of the best implementations of horror combat in any game released. And all of this is due to not simply focusing on making the combat as fun as possible. Instead the focus is on combining context and mechanics in a way that gives rise to the desired experience.

How well this works becomes apparent when you start encountering the "mold monsters". These pop up without much introduction and serve as the generic enemies throughout the game. Almost none of these encounters (the path to a girl's bedroom is a great counter example) have any sort of narrative setup, and the monsters are mostly there in order to assure that the player keeps occupied.



The final third of the game makes this even clearer. Now the player mostly just encounters these generic monsters, and the game starts focusing on the gameplay instead by giving you more weapons and other offensive gadgets. Viewed from the lense of a survival horror experience, the game greatly suffers from this shift in focus. An important thing to note here is that the game doesn't drop its storytelling ambitions. The last half of the game has a lot of story-stuff that it shares with the player. The problem is that the player is not put in any interesting narrative situations. Instead you have your documents to read, or cut scenes between the combat, but you're never part of the storytelling like you were in the first two-thirds of the game.

It's also worth bringing up that it's not only combat that Resident Evil 7 wraps in a narrative, it also does this with its puzzles. For instance, there are a few instances when puzzles are put there by another mad inhabitant of the house. And while these puzzles themselves are nothing out of the ordinary, the context makes them a lot more exciting. You are not just solving abstract riddles - you are trying to outsmart one of the game's antagonists.

So why don't we see more games that has this kind of focus on narrative context? I think the biggest reason boils down to the fact that, at their core, games are simply too much fun. I wrote about this in a blog post last week. The gist of the argument is: when you can choose between making gameplay more fun, and improving the intended experience, focusing on fun gameplay provides a more straightforward path.

When you have a fun core loop you can test out your game using abstract shapes and temporary assets. The same is not as true for games that rely heavily on narrative context. You can imagine how the game will play out if all the proper assets were there, but you can never be sure. It isn't possible to hand out a half-finished game to testers and expect to get proper feedback. On top of that, the aspects of the game that make or break the experience are often very costly. A big uncertain investment is needed and it takes a long time before it can be evaluated. The temptation to fall back on the good old reliable "classic gameplay" is very strong indeed.

Building these games works very different from games where the focus is on a fun core loop.  But the benefits can be huge. I don't think anybody will argue against the claim that Resident Evil 4 and 7 are very different experiences. One focuses on following the fun, and the other on creating a certain experience.

Resident Evil 7 is by no means the perfect horror experience, but it contains some truly exceptional stuff. The things that all stand out are heavily reliant on the idea of narrative context. To me it seems like the game has just dipped its toes into this though. As I explained in my post on games being too much fun, to go further down this route is not an easy mission. But if we are to evolve the videogames medium and provide stronger storytelling experiences it is the only way to go. The many signs pointing in this direction, some of them apparent in Resident Evil 7, makes me even more confident in this.

But we can't just stumble blindly along this path, hoping to bump into greatness. We must scout the territory and see which route seems like the most promising. Finding how to do this is what this blog will continue to explore.


Footnotes:
[1] The case of the resource management is not as clear cut as the combat one as it has a much better gameplay core going on here. In fact there are games like Desktop Dungeons that use a similar mechanic and bases its entire gameplay around it. So while the narrative context is an important factor here, it is not nearly as important as it is for combat.


Thursday, 30 March 2017

Videogames - too much fun for their own good?

As a medium videogames have been kidnapped by their easily-achieved engagement. Simple gameplay is so much fun on its own that storytelling has never been needed in order to draw an audience. Compared to films, the element of storytelling is seldom elevated in videogames. Is it time for a walk down that lesser-known path, leading to better narratives in videogames?

When the first films appeared 120 years ago, they were shown under amusement-park-like conditions. By peeping into a Kinetoscope, the audience (one by one) were able to get a short experience of moving pictures. For instance, as in Fred Ott's Sneeze, by W. K. L. Dickson (1894), anyone willing to pay could watch an engineer sneezing.



As you can imagine, these clips felt pretty boring quite quickly, which led to an immense pressure to make moving pictures more interesting. The first step was to find something more fascinating to film than a sneezing engineer. In the late 19th century, a steam engine arriving at the train station fell into this category, as the Lumière brothers proved in L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895).


But there's a limit to how many moving objects people are interested in seeing on film, as well as in ways to top previous experiences. There was a need for something that caught the attention of the audience, something that would make them come back for more. Enter - narration!

The first attempts to tell the audience a story built upon simply filming theatre plays. At the same time, film developed into its own medium, and filmmakers started creating new tricks suitable for film, which increased the audience engagement in the story. This is when a lot of interesting things started happening. For instance, filmmakers realized that not every part of the plot had to be filmed. By simply implying actions and events, the audience would still keep up with the story. Film editing became a crucial part in tinkering with the narrative, and storytelling in film evolved greatly.

Let's compare this to how games work. This is what one of the very first video games (Pong, 1972) looked like:


Contrary to the first attempts at film, this game is still quite fun to play. In fact, there are still new games being made based on Pong's gameplay.

Flag N Frag, by EDEVOX

Obviously this version has a lot of new features and graphical decoration, but it still relies on the same concept as the original game. This differs widely from the evolution of films. No one would consider making a film based on the same concept as Fred Ott's Sneeze. There is just something inherently fun about interaction that makes an old game like Pong still worth playing. This is not just true of the very first games and films; if you compare works like Pac-Man (1980) and The Birth of a Nation (1915), the former stacks up far better.

Dealing with video games it was pretty clear from day one what the interesting thing was - playing is simply fun! The medium itself presented new ways of making gaming even more fun, which were being used in all possible ways. Compare this to a scenario where a similar evolution took place in film production. The film equivalent would be movies still being all about watching small clips [1] and most of the effort during the last 120 years would had been on extending this aspect. In the games industry, this is the progress that basically took place.

Before I continue this post I need to clear up a term. When I talk about "the fun of interaction" I mean a very specific case of gameplay where you have a core mechanic that you base the whole experience around. Examples of this are: shooting spaceships, jumping over chasms, avoiding incoming hazards, leveling your RPG character and so forth. This is the type of gameplay where the aim is to make it feel as "fun" as possible. Even if the graphics are just made up of simplistic shapes, this sort of gameplay remains very engaging. I will henceforth refer to this as "classical gameplay" in order to differentiate it from other forms of gameplay (e.g. exploration, anticipation of monsters, dialog, etc). I also need to make it very clear that I think the future of the videogame medium lies in interaction and play, and we should not strive to remove this - quite the contrary. With that said, let's continue.

From a pure classical gameplay perspective there is nothing wrong with focusing on the fun part of gaming. Most of what we currently see in the videogame world is there thanks to this focus. However, it has held back videogames as a storytelling medium. In movies, it's crucial to get the storytelling aspect right as you really don't have anything else to fall back on. Sure, there're always blockbuster movies that can make the audience overlook so-so storytelling by offering a visual spectacle. However, these are the rare cases. The vast majority of films relies foremost upon having good storytelling, and it's needed even in order to make spectacle work. The narrative, however corny, still has to be front and center. Not so for video games; as long as you get the core gameplay working, the audience will be happy.

Storytelling which is just added as a sort of extra spice has long been the standard in videogames. In fact, most attempts of storytelling often feel like they get in the way of the classical gameplay. Not only is storytelling something that isn't really needed; it can even worsen the experience by acting as an impediment to classical gameplay. From this perspective, it's no wonder storytelling has had a tough time to progress in videogames. For a long time, it hasn't really felt needed and has been seen more as a hindrance than an opportunity.

This sort of thinking still permeates game development. "Make sure your core [classical] gameplay gets done first" is one of the most basic pieces of advice given to any aspiring game developer. And once you get that basic classical gameplay working, only then should you try and make your story fit into it - if you need a story at all, that is. It's important to note that classical gameplay-wise this makes a lot of sense and is a fundamentally good thing. If you're aiming to make your games as much fun as possible to play, getting your gameplay loop working first is a wise move. It also makes sense from a commercial perspective, since classical gameplay is the easiest way to get the audience's attention. Narrative-wise though, this is far from an optimal strategy.

Historically there have been two game genres of note that have resisted this trend: adventure games and horror games.

Adventure games share the same issue as movies: the core gameplay isn't that much fun. The players basically (through text or using a mouse-based interface) give commands that a character might carry out for them. And unless there's some sort of greater context involved, this gets boring quite quickly. One way of fixing this is to put more effort into the storytelling. When the character you are indirectly controlling is part of an engaging narrative, it becomes a lot more fun to control them.

Despite this, storytelling-wise, adventure games stopped evolving quite quickly [2]. There are a bunch of reasons for this, some of which I outlined here. Another especially important reason is that almost all adventure games revolve around puzzle solving. They haven't really given up on their game legacy. The player can always go into "I am just doing this for the puzzles"-mode, and thereby avoid much of the game's attempts to tell a good story. So we're back to the initial problem - classical gameplay standing in the way of progress in narrative.

Horror games take on this issue from a different angle. This is one of the few (possibly only) bigger genres where classical gameplay turns into a nuisance. The most basic example of this is: if monsters are too much fun to encounter, they stop being scary. So horror games have been forced to tone down on one of the core engagements that has been a cornerstone of many other types of videogame. By giving up on the most fun part of the medium, the genre had to turn to something else in order to keep up the engagement level - storytelling. Many horror games - Silent Hill is a great example - feature clunky combat, and much of the time it is more stressful than fun to encounter enemies. But by offering a story that ties into the player's actions, you can take something that is not so much fun on it's own and turn it into an very engaging experience.

To convey horror by purely system-based means is hard, and therefore a narrative is crucial in order to provide the right experience. However, crafting these sorts of experiences is also hard, especially if the storytelling is supposed to carry the heaviest burden. As a way of making up for this, instead of putting more focus on the narrative aspects, horror games have always added all sorts of other systems to provide a basic engagement loop. In the end, this is what made the golden age of the PS2-era horror games come to an end. When the genre started to stagnate, Resident Evil 4 came about, putting all focus on gameplay and becoming a huge success.

Resident Evil 4 is an amazing game on its own, but it really did a disservice to the horror genre as a whole. Just like we have seen in the past with classical gameplay being the cornerstone to fall back on, the horror genre ended up doing the same. And with it much of its narrative-based ambitions never got a chance to properly evolve.

What this all leads me to is the following: When it comes to storytelling, games are inherently just too much fun for their own good. I think the problem comes down to being stuck at a local maximum.


What I mean with this is that as you are developing a game, you will come across a bunch of ideas that you can choose to follow. There will always be a lot of tension between getting the game's gameplay and storytelling to work. Scouting the territory of the possible design choices, the ones where the gameplay wins are the ones that will almost always come out victorious. Following the path of narrative-focus will almost always decrease the perceived engagement. Think of these gameplay-focused solutions as going upwards towards a peak, and the story-focused ones as going downhill into a valley.


But that doesn't mean that focusing on gameplay is optimal in the long run. It just means that given the solutions at hand, most of the time, the best one will seem to be the ones with gameplay-focus. There could be another, much higher, peak further away, but the only way to reach it is through tough terrain and deep valleys. By this I mean that a method will not show its value until you let it evolve to a certain amount. But in video games the classic gameplay is so interesting on its own, that it's is unlikely anyone would want to make this journey.

I think that a lot of features of modern film have been sitting on a distant peak, but because the simple joy of the medium wore out so quickly, people have been forced to take this treacherous path. Video games have never been forced to do this, and this is likely why we, narrative-wise, haven't been able to evolve to the extent I think this medium is capable of.

Traveling down this path is not easy, and just walking it blindly will not generate anything useful. You will just end up lost but not found.

Heavy Rain (2010)
One way of approaching this problem is to take another medium as a springboard and to use all of its core engagement as a foundation to build upon. The best example of this is in interactive movies, which use film as their base and then build a game on top of that. This works fine at first, but you will run into similar problems as with normal games; you get stuck with a local maximum. These games rely on the language of films to provide the core engagement, and this is bound to break once you step too far away from those foundational aspects. And just as in games, every nearby path in solution space will give you a worse result.

Dear Esther (2012)

I think a much more fruitful approach is to break down games into their basic elements, and then start building from there - now with the core goal of achieving better storytelling. Games like Dear Esther have been great pioneers in this regard, and have shown how building engaging experiences without a lot of features, thought to be crucial, is possible. Sure, these sort of experiences are far from perfect and not everybody's cup of tea. But to dismiss them would be very foolish indeed. We are now starting to gather knowledge about what makes games tick in a way never seen before. Now it's time to figure out where to go next.

It is my belief that in order to make more progress, we need to start analyzing what makes games special and, instead of just applying these findings in classical ways, figure out new ways by which they can increase our sense of interactive storytelling. The path ahead will be harsh, unfamiliar, and filled with challenges, but at the end we shall reach a peak greater than what we have ever seen before.

Footnotes:
[1]: I guess one could argue that we are back to the good old days of Fred Ott's Sneeze with Youtube and gifs, but I don't think that is true. When people watched Fred Ott's Sneeze, they watched it for the "cinematic" experience that it provided, for seeing things recreated on a screen. But when we watch a clip of something silly happening, we are watching it for the sake of the event itself. People played the original Pong because it was fun to interact, and the same reason is still valid.

[2]: I am sure that people will disagree with me on this, but to me adventure games reached a peak, storytelling-wise, with games like Full Throttle and Broken Sword and it has not really improved much since.