Archive for the 'Game Studies' Category

The Language of Games – Player Types

In the post ARGs Uncovered I described several different types of “player role” that could be taken on in an alternate reality game.

What different roles were described? What role do you (think you would) fall into, and why?

Another way of categorising player types comes from Richard Bartle, who you might remember was responsible for maintaining MUD, the original online Multi-User Dungeon (Text Adventures – The Evolution of an Idea).

The “Bartle Types”, or roles that players of adventure games are claimed to fall into, are described in Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs, by Richard Bartle. Read at least the first two sections of the paper (“A Simple taxonomy” and “Interest Graph”), note down the four different player types and the characteristics that define them. How do they compare (if at all!) to the different roles players might fall into in an Alternate Reality Game? Do the “ARG Roles” map onto the “Bartle Interest Graph” in an obvious way? To what extent do you think the Bartle Types might apply to participants in any multi-user virtual world, not just multi-user adventure games? Note down your thoughts in a comment to this post, or in a blog post of your own which you should link back here.

Based on your reading of “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades”, what “Bartle Type” do you think best describes the way you (might) interact in an online multi-user adventure game? Now try out this online Bartle Test – does it categorise you in the way you expected?

Text Adventures – The Evolution of an Idea

For many years, one of the most popular game genres has been that of fantasy adventure games. One of the first computer adventure games – Will Crowther and Don Woods’ “Colossal Cave Adventure”, first released in 1976, and written in the FORTRAN porgramming language – was presented in a textual form, essentially as a form of interactive fiction. Players were presented with a written description of the location around them, and a prompt where the player could enter a simple command about what to do next, using phrases such as “go north”, “enter building” or “kill monster”.

If you’ve ever read (or should that be: ‘played’?) a “Choose Your Own Adventure” or “Fighting Fantasy” gamebook, you’ll be familiar with the form, although in the case of these text adventure books, rather than a prompt you are offered a series of options about what to do next:

You are stood in a large cavern. There are exits to the north and west. In front of you is an old chest. Do you:
- go north (turn to page 23);
- go west (turn to page 17);
- open the chest (turn to page 41).

As you might suspect, this type of structure is easily replicated in a computer programme (and even more easily in a hypertext environment such as the world wide web!).

If you would like to try out an interactive fiction game along the lines of Adventure, there is a good selection of classic games that can be played, for free, online at: ifiction.org). An online version of Colossal Cave can be found at: The Annotated “Colossal Cave” Adventure.

To what extent would you say “interactive fiction” counts as a game? What sort of narrative structure might you expect to find in such a “game”, and what sort of structure would be inappropriate?

Towards Multiplayer online adventure games

With the rise of computer networks, the adventure game genre soon moved online, and 1979 saw the release of the first MUD – or multi-user dungeon – created by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle of Essex University (you can read about the origins of the game in authentic form here: Early MUD History, with a timeline here: Incarnations of MUD).

In contrast to Colossal Cave, a game that was run on a “mainframe” computer and then played via a terminal by individuals with an account on that computer, MUD was an online game that could be accessed by many people at the same time via an early incarnation of the internet (this was a time years before the advent of the world wide web…).

What do you think are the major differences in terms of gameplay and technology requirements between a single person adventure game such as Colossal Cave, and a multi-player adventure game such as MUD?

The Interface Moves On

Although notable in that it did come with illustrations to support the text based descriptions, (and in doing so opened up the possibility of using visual puzzles to enrich the game), “The Hobbit”, a game based on JRR Tolkien’s book of the same name, and first released for some of the most popular home computers of the time in 1982 took the next step in text gaming with a parser that could cope with far more complicated grammatical expressions than most of the games of the time.

[A parser is a particular sort of computer programme that can "parse" - or understand - a sentence in terms of certain grammatical structures. That is, give a simple sentence, it might be able to identify the subject and object of that sentence, what the verb is, whether there is an adjective, and so on. Parsers lay at the heart of simple "chatbots" - for several examples, see Chatterbox Challenge, or have a go at scripting your own chatbot.]

From Text Games to 3D Worlds – Is There a Link?
Although many of today’s contemporary online role playing games such as World of Warcraft are based in fantasy worlds that may be reminiscent of the worlds conjured up in the earliest text adventure games, it is arguable that their gameplay owes little to those earlier games. However, as we shall see in a future post, many of the social roles that individual players can fall into when playing a multi-user adventure game from 20 years ago are the same roles that exist in today’s multimedia, immersive 3D fantasy worlds.

Although today’s fantasy role playing games are very different in style to the early text based adventure games, some commentators have tried to see them as a developing genre. The following video shows just how far massively multiplayer online roleplaying games have come in a visual sense, from the original MUD text adventure, to the 3D persistent virtual worlds of today.

To find out more about the latest massively mutliplayer online role-playing games, check out the MMORPG Center – Massively Multiplayer Online Games Portal or this MMORPG Online 100 Chart.

Further Reading
If you are interested in reading more about the evolution of computer based role playing games, you might find the following series of articles on Gamasutra interesting:
The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part 1: The Early Years (1980-1983)
The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part 2: The Golden Age (1985-1993)
The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part III: The Platinum and Modern Ages (1994-2004)

ARGs, Serious Games and the Magic Circle

In “Alternate Reality Games: What Makes or Breaks Them?“, a blog post reviewing the rise of alternate reality games (ARGs) (see ARGs Uncovered for an into), Muhammad Saleem suggests several characteristics that a successful ARG should embrace:

- Storytelling or narrative
- Discovery/deciphering and documentation elements
- Cross-medium interactivity
- Blurring the lines between reality and fiction

To what extent do you agree with this view? If you are familiar with an ARG, write down how the game conforms to Saleem’s list. If you aren’t particularly familiar with an ARG, see if you can identify features of the ARG Perplex City that correspond to the categories listed above. To what extent do you think these “essential characterstics” apply to any digital game, ARG or otherwise?

The post also describes some ‘features’ that the ARG should avoid if it is to be successful:

- Lack of interactivity, too linear
- Lack of a reward
- No instant gratification
- Too difficult
- Same old game, different name
- Too scripted, too commercial

To what extent are these ‘negative features’ likely to detract from the success of any digital game, ARG or otherwise?

One popular refrain of the actors/characters in an ARG is that “this is not a game”. This reflects the fact that the game is being played out like a piece of invisibe theatre in the real world. At the same time, the actors act out the game narrative in a way that encourages audience participation, providing interaction with the game as far as the audience member is concerned, even if the actual direction of the game is largely scripted and tightly plotted ‘on-the-inside’.

How do you think the ‘this is not a game’ view relates to the idea of the Magic Circle, described by Salen and Zimmerman as “the boundary that defines the game in time and space” (see Getting Philosophical About Games)?

In the section “Community Formation and the Magic Circle” from the Game Studies article The Playful and the Serious: An approximation to Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, Hector Rodriguez comments thus:

Game designers aiming to highlight trust and suspicion sometimes take the radical step of rendering the boundaries of the magic circle deliberately ambiguous. Phone calls or text messages received in the middle of the night may be real calls for help from a friend or part of the game’s conspiracy. Well-known examples include the Electronic Arts game Majestic and the plot of David Fincher’s 1997 film The Game. This uncertainty can generate experiences that resemble philosophical scepticism about reality. The designer becomes the equivalent of a Cartesian evil genius capable of controlling, and potentially deceiving, our sense of the distinction between reality and make-believe. From the designer’s standpoint, the players become toys to be played with; the game designer is the only player who for sure knows where the boundaries of the magic circle are.

A footnote in the same article elaborates further:

[6] The fuzziness of the magic circle is not restricted to children’s play. Recent scholarship on “expanded” or “pervasive” games has highlighted three techniques that subvert the magic circle (Montola, 2005). First of all, the location of the game can be ambiguous, uncertain or unlimited, so that participants may not be sure about the place where the game is played. Secondly, the temporal boundaries of play need not always be sharply demarcated from the rest of daily life. A game may, for instance, lack a clear-cut beginning or end; or its duration may extend until it coincides with a player’s entire life, even span several generations, so that its temporal boundaries become effectively irrelevant. Thirdly, games can blur the boundary between players and non-players by bringing “outsiders” into its sphere.

Serious Games and the Magic Circle

Just as ARGs make use of the ‘real world’ to roll out the game, we have also seen how real world situations can be ‘folded back’ into digital space, opening up the possibility of playing ‘real world’ games in virtual worlds (for example, The World of Serious Games).
To what extent do serious games require the player to adopt the view that whilst they are playing a game (and so insulating themselves from the real world by entering the magic circle) they are also not playing a game, in the sense that their performance in the game world could actually be replayed ‘for real’ in the real world, maybe as part of their job?

Story Arcs, and the Three Act Structure

Just to round off the current series of posts on the story structure (or narrative structure) of a game, I think it’s worth mentioning a few more terms that you’re likely to see if you explore this topic in further depth.

First up is the idea of a story arc – this is the principle storyline/narrative thread in a game, (although it may also be refer to one of several coherent storylines in a game, as for example in a game with a threaded structure). Using television or radio soaps as an example, (or equally, serialised comic book stories, or game and film franchises/sequels) a story arc is an extended storyline that may weave several consecutive episodes together in narrative terms, whilst still allowing each individual episode to explore its own, ‘local’ storyline.

To contrive an example, a series of inevitable points in a foldback story structure can be used to construct the story arc that plays out through a game as a whole.

Use of the word ‘arc’ evokes the visual idea of a curve, and with it the sense that the story arc takes the player on an emotional journey through the story – an emotional rollercoaster, maybe…

In many storytelling traditions, certain tried and trusted story arcs – or character arcs (that is, the emotional rollercoaster that the lead character lives through) – can be seen again and again in many different stories, and across many different storytelling forms (traditional (oral/spoken) storytelling, theatrical plays, short stories, novels, film screenplays, and so on).

The Three Act Structure

One of the most widely used patterns is the three act structure, which will be familiar to any budding film critic. Trivially ordering the story into three acts – the beginning, the middle, and the end – the three act structure


[Ref: http://www.cod.edu/people/faculty/pruter/film/threeact.htm]

In a series of articles describing the ‘design’ of a novel, the following summary of the three act structure is provided (Conflict and Character within Story Structure: The Basic Three Act Structure):

In the Beginning you introduce the reader to the setting, the characters and the situation (conflict) they find themselves in and their goal. Plot Point 1 is a situation that drives the main character from their “normal” life toward some different conflicting situation that the story is about.

(Great stories often begin at Plot Point 1, thrusting the main character right into the thick of things, but they never really leave out Act 1, instead filling it in with back story along the way.)

In the Middle the story develops through a series of complications and obstacles, each leading to a mini crisis. Though each of these crises are temporarily resolved, the story leads inevitably to an ultimate crisis—the Climax. As the story progresses, there is a rising and falling of tension with each crisis, but an overall rising tension as we approach the Climax. The resolution of the Climax is Plot Point 2.

In the End, the Climax and the loose ends of the story are resolved during the Denouement. Tension rapidly dissipates because it’s nearly impossible to sustain a reader’s interest very long after the climax. Finish your story and get out.

The three act structure harkens back to Aristotle, and Greek tragedy, and often employs one of two well known dramatic devices. As the OpenLearn unit Approaching Literature puts it in a section on Play structure:

Before the denouement can take place, there are two key features identified by Aristotle that are still important in any drama: anagnorisis, which can be translated as recognition or discovery, and peripeteia, or a change from one state of affairs to its opposite, a reversal of fortune. The famous example used by Aristotle to illustrate his theory is that of Oedipus Rex. Once Oedipus, king of Corinth, has recognized that it was he himself who, unknowingly, killed his father and thus condemned the city to relentless plague, he puts out his own eyes and goes into voluntary exile, thus reversing his fortunes.

These dramatic events, or crisis points, can be used to manipulate the emotions of the audience, and the level of tension they feel through engagement with the characters as they ‘live out’ the story:

//tinyurl.com/2p49z5
[Ref: http://www.musik-therapie.at/PederHill/Structure&Plot.htm]

The Hero’s Journey

Another popular character arc is the Hero’s Journey, articulated by Joseph Campbell’s monomyth pattern. The monomyth describes the structure of many classical myths, and also provides a structural starting point for many science fiction narratives today.

Read the hero’s journey : summary of the steps and summarise the key steps in the journey. Write down your ideas (linking back here) for two or three different, interactive ways with which you might represent the hero’s journey. For example, here is an interactive hero’s journey wheel – hover your mouse over each part of the journey, and a brief description will appear.

PS I have added a monomyth checklist template to the Digital Worlds wiki. Feel free to add a page to the wiki using that template analysing a myth, film, or game according to the monomyth pattern…

Emergent Stories

Comparing the story structures described in An Unfortunate Sequence of Events with Adrian Hon’s six story types – story as reward, story as experience, branching narrative, pseudo AI, sandbox games, dungeon master games – we see that Hon is actually more interested ways of negotiating the role of stories in games in terms of how the players act, react and engage in the development of the story, and the way the games develop at a narrative level, rather than mapping them out in an abstract structural sense.

Designing a story that suits a linear narrative structure is relatively straightforward. Everything about the story, and the pathway through it, is known at the outset.

Designing a branching tree story is time consuming and unlikely to be very rewarding: the number of possible branching pathways means that it is likely that many of them will not be explored (so why go to the trouble of plotting, designing and developing those elements at all?)

Foldback narratives often a reasonable balance in terms of ease of construction and a fictive world that provides opportunities to surprise the player even on repeated plays of the game.

However, wouldn’t it be even more rewarding if the story could be created as it is played, providing opportunities for the layer to surprise the designer with the story the game tells as it is played out, as well as the player, whilst still remaining coherent? That is, can interactivity extend as far as allow the player to interact with the creation of the storyline of the game, as well as interacting in some way within a particular story line created by the designer of the game?

A distinction that has proved fruitful in considering this possibility identifies two sorts of narrative within a game since it was first introduced by Marc Leblanc in a presentation at the 1999 Game Developers’ conference (Formal Design Tools: Feedback Systems and the Dramatic Structure of Competition): embedded narrative vs. emergent narrative.

In his 2007 lecture course on Foundations of Interactive Game Design, Professor Jim Whitehead of the University of California, Santa Cruz, (following Salen and Zimmerman in “Rules of Play“), clarifies the distinction in a lecture on “Narrative elements of games” (listen here: (Winamp or iTunes) Narrative elements of games (audio/ipod audiobook format)):

Embedded narrative
‣ Pre-generated narrative content that exists prior to a player’s interaction with the game
‣ Cut scenes, back story
‣ Are often used to provide the fictional background for the game, motivation for actions in the game, and development of story arc
Emergent narrative
‣ Arises from the player’s interaction with the gameworld, designed levels, rule structure
‣ Moment-by-moment play in the game creates this emergent narrative
‣ Varies from play session to play session, depending on user’s actions
• Game design involves employing and balancing the use of these two elements

That is to say, in an embedded narrative, the story exists to a certain extent even without the interaction of the player. In the case of games designed according to a foldback structure, with cut scenes advancing the story at each inevitable point in the game, the cut scenes could almost be placed back to back to reveal the plotline of the whole game.

In an emergent narrative the players interaction with the game is such that a storyline unknown to even the game designer may be the result. Taking a game such as The Sims as a prime example, the player manages and develops various goals and desires amongst some of the Sims characters, and a story of everyday life in the suburbs emerges as a consequence of player choices and random events and interactions programmed into the game.

(For a further, short article on the differences between embedded and emergent narrative, see Emergent Narrative: What is the specific quality of interactive stories?.)

Whilst at first it might seem as if this suggests that emergent narrative creation would correspond to a ludologists’ view of how stories are told by games, and embedded narratives correspond naturally to a narratological view, I think the relationship is a more subtle one. If pushed, I would probably suggest that they can both be accommodated by the ludologist and narratologist positions. For example, in the case of an emergent narrative, the player may interact with the rules to create the story (ludologist position) or interact with the story to create the story (narratologist position).

PS I recently came across a wonderful set of visualisations about the different pathways through several “Create your own adventure” style books: One Book, Many Readings.

An Unfortunate Sequence of Events…

Inn the chapter on “Storytelling and Narrative” in Fundamentals of Game Design (pages 194-204), Adams & Rollings categorise stories as linear, or non-linear. Non-linear stories further subdivided as branching or foldback stories.

These story structures (or “narrative structures”) can actually be imagined, or visualised, using a mathematical technique known as “graph theory”; thinking of stories in terms of these ‘graph structures’ can often help clarify how to plan out, or construct these stories, as a narrative designer, so that they remain consistent and the storyline does not get confused.

Here is the structure of a linear story, shown as a graph:

One event (a, b, c, d etc. ) follows the previous one in a strict sequence.

Here is a branching story in which each decision leads to a new, unique point in the story:

story - branching tree

This sort of structure happen to be know as a tree. Every event leads to another unique event. In an interactive fiction story (“do you: a) go north (turn to page 10); b) go south (turn to page 17)”) this structure corresponds to a story in which each page can only be reached from one particular preceding page. Constructing this sort of story can be very time consuming, and is hugely inefficient, as no events can be ‘reused’ in different sequences.

A more useful branching story structure should allow the same even to appear in different pathways:

branching story

However, you will notice that ensuring each possibly storyline (that is, each path through the events graph) makes sense is likely to become increasingly difficult to manage as more events need to be plotted.

The foldback story structure is build around a series of key, inevitable events through which a story must progress. In many games, user interactivity allows the player a certain amount of freedom in how they make their way between inevitable events, before folding back to the inevitable events. Foldback stories support a degree of “replayability”: that is, they are capable of keeping the player engaged if they play the game more than once, by allowing them to find a different way through it, even if they know the ending. Where a potentially unknown outcome is essential for maintaining player engagement, the final inevitable event may provide a staging point for several different endings.

In many games, a filmed live action or narrated “cutscene’ will progress the narrative at certain points of the game. Though disliked by many commentators and game players, cutscenes make a common appearance in this most common of game structures (that is, the “foldback” story).

A similar approach to characterising story structures is taken in Foundations of Interactive Storytelling (which I referred to in Mapping plotlines…and coping with interactivity… with a challenge for the reader to identify the different types of narrative structure described in that article). In particular, five story structures are identified in that article:

  1. linear stories: as above;
  2. branching stories: as in the tree structure described above;
  3. parallel paths: in a parallel path story, “[b]ranches recombine at the key story points, creating a structure which is a balance between linear and branching structure”; this is essentially a foldback structure model;
  4. threaded stories: “the course of the plot does not follow a single path in this form of structure. Rather, the story is comprised of a number of different threads that develop largely independently (at least until the closing stages of the story).”
  5. dynamic object oriented narrative: “Each episode consists of a number of Scenes which can use any structure – linear, branching, parallel path etc. … Episodes are broadly chronological, but Episodes that refer to events that occur concurrently (i.e. that are at the same height in the case of this diagram) can occur in any sequence.”

Think back to any computer games you are familiar with – can you identify what sort of narrative structure it had?

Reviewing the story structures described above by Adams & Rollings, what problems can you foresee in trying to plot a game story in each case? How replayable is a game constructed according to each of the structure types likely to be?

PS See also the various structures that emerge in “Create your own adventure” books: One Book, Many Stories.

Do Game Players Tell, or Create, Stories?

Part and parcel of any course on game studies – and by extension something that I guess should be mentioned in an uncourse on the same subject – is the argument between narratologists and ludologists on the role of story in games. (Some authors include a third critical position, that of commentators who view games as a form of interactive fiction; for example, “Definition of Videogames”, Grant Tavinor, 2008).

As I understand it, the narratologists were claimed to take the view that video, or computer, games can be described in much the same way that films can be described – as cultural artefacts that are constructed by their designers/producers to tell a particular story. Under this view, it is hard, though not impossible, for the casual observer to interpret the story that puzzle games such as Tetris or Bejewelled, for example, are supposed to tell…

On the other hand, the ludologists’ were seen as approaching games from the point of view of critical analysis, taking a view in which players immerse themselves within the game world that exists within the magic circle of the game. The players’ interactions with the rules of the game and the other players drive the evolution of the game (rather than any narrative the designer may have tried to impose on the game, for example).

(The interactive fiction camp seems to me to distinguish itself further by taking the view that the player engages in some sort of fictional world and plays out their own story within that world at a ‘higher’ level than just engaging with the rules. That is, they play out a story in the game world, conforming to socially accepted norms of behaviour, for example, or plausible, self-styled narrative scenarios, rather than consciously playing the game out against its predefined rules.)

One widely quoted article on the debate was penned by ludologist Jesper Juul in 1998, and is well worth a read: “ A Clash between Game and Narrative

However, in more recent years, the narratologist vs. ludologist debate is perhaps seen as wearing a bit thin, and maybe even a non-story – “Ludologists love stories, too: notes from a debate that never took place“.

Even Juul felt obliged to write on the matter in 2005:

Especially a few years ago there was a real need to take on the automatic narrativism that was floating around. I think we have wasted perhaps 25% of our research and made impossible perhaps 50% of the student projects the last 5 years due to an unhealthy obsession with narratives. If we had just talked about “player experiences” rather than trying to square the circle, we would have been much better off. [N&L: I Can’t Take it Anymore!]

This refrain is repeated in Adams and Rollings “Game Design and Development”Fundamentals of Game Design“:

In the 1990s, the academic community began to consider the issue [of what 'interactive storytelling' actually means] and drew their own battle lines. The narratologists conducted fierce and often impenetrable arguments with the ludologists in the learned pages of scholarly journals. …
These interesting and sometimes important arguments may eventually change the industry, but in the meantime you need to build a game. We suggest that you be guided by … player-centric design. Don’t worry about the theoretical arguments, Build a story into your game if you believe it will help entertain the player, and don’t build one in if it won’t.

This approach may seem a little cynical, but Adams and Rollings book - subtitled Fundamentals of Game Design - is very much intended as providing a sound set of principles for designers and developers of games, rather than critical theorists. That said, the critical approach may at times uncover certain principles that are useful to game designers.

A more detailed critique of the debate can be found in the online Game Studies journal article Narrative, Games, and Theory by Jan Simons.

Read the first two sections of Simons’ article, bearing in mind the following questions as you do so: what distinction is made between “external observers” and “involved players”, and how do their perspectives of how a story may be told, or revealed, by a game differ? What does Simons mean by agency and how is this perceived differently by the players and observers of a game?

Picking up on Juul’s “N&L: I Can’t Take it Anymore!” post, games researcher Lars Konzack comments in a post on the Ludologica blog with the practical point that:

What we need to understand is that neither the narratologist nor the ludologist perspective is actually focusing on fiction. They are in fact discussing which structure comnputer games essentially are based upon, arguing whether or not it is a narrative structure or a ludic structure.

… Games are based on a ludic structure, but may couple this with a narrative structure as we see in quest-based interactive narratives like adventure games or action-adventure games.

We ought to first analyse the structure of any game as a ludic structure and if there is narrative, we ought to analyse the narrative structure as well. These two kinds of structures or not opposites and any attempt at trying to think of them as an essential dichotomy is a failiure.

So that’s the ludologist and narratologist views accommodated. But how about the interactive fiction camp? Konzack writes further: “… [N]arrative is not the same as fiction. Fiction is often based upon a narrative structure. But fiction might likewise be based on a ludic structure as we find in many strategy games and lots of war games.”

Find somewhere to jot down down two or three points each to characterise the ludologist, narratologist and interactive fiction stances towards the storytelling structure of an interactive computer game. To what extent do you agree with Konzack’s conclusion that “[a]ny game has a ludic structure and some game has a narrative structure as well. Fiction may be based upon a narrative and/or ludic structure.”

Phew… that’s enough academic debate for now, real or imagined… but not the end of the story about stories in games. In future posts, we’ll consider how stories can be told, and what the role of the game writer is in designing games that tell stories howsoever they do…

[If you're someone who does Game Studies "for real", please feel free to pick up on, take issue with and correct any of the above... :-)]

Mapping plotlines…and coping with interactivity…

In Games as Stories? Are Games a Form of Interactive Fiction?, I posed a few questions around the first half the article Foundations of Interactive Storytelling that were intended to help you explore the notion of interactivity in the context of storytelling.

In this post, I suggest that you finish reading the article (Foundations of Interactive Storytelling) and bear the following questions in mind as you do so (if you take notes and maybe blog about your thinking, make sure you link back here…;-):

  • Interactive Plots & Non-linearity five sorts of plotline are described – what are they, and can you think of any games that exemplify them? How might these five sorts of plotline be related to the six ways to tell a story that Adrian Hon described? (That is, can you find a way of relating the five plotlines to the six ways of telling a story? Can each of the six ways of telling a story make use of all the plotlines, or only some of them?)
  • Interactive Characters how can characters be designed at a high level technical level so that they can take on an interactive role with the game?
  • Making Interactive Stories Manageable when managing the development of a product that incorporates an interactive storyline, what common pitfalls might the unwary encounter, and how can they best be avoided? To what extent do you think this sort of project can be managed like any other project? (That is, are there any issues that are likely to be particularly problematic and/or peculiar to this sort of project?)

Having spent some time thinking about these things, we have seen how the introduction of interactivity into a game complicates the extent to which we can view a game as the telling of a story in the way that a film, or a traditional novel tells a story.

Armed as we now are with an appreciation of some of the issues that are at stake, it also brings us to a point where we can start to consider the “narratologists vs. ludologists” debate…

…but that’s for another post…

Games as Stories? Are Games a Form of Interactive Fiction?

Writing in the Technology Guardian supplement (mirrored on the Guardian games blog), Keith Stuart writes: “Is the neverending story of gameplay v narrative over?“. The debate is this:

There is an ongoing battle between two videogame factions: the ludologists, who believe that game mechanics are everything [that is, playing the game creates the story], and the narratologists, who argue for the importance of story [to provide a context for the game]. Narrative games usually drive the plot forward through non-interactive animated sequences [known as cut-scenes]. The ludologists see this technique as anathematic to the gameplay experience; narratologists say it adds depth and direction.

The article goes on to discuss a Third Way (“dynamically assembled narrative”), but… we’re not ready to go there yet… and we’re probably not quite ready to look too closely at the narratologist vs. ludologist argument either… (maybe over the weekend…?;-)

Instead, let’s continue the theme of getting to grips with some of the bases of “Game Studies” by exploring the notion of story in computer games (and perhaps by extension, the use of metaphor in many interactive media applications).

Following the launch of the We Tell Stories interactive fiction site that I plugged in the second (?!) of last week’s Friday Fun posts (Friday Fun #4 Digital Storytelling)), I picked up on the following embedded, interactive presentation (“Stories and Games“) by Adrian Hon, from another Guardian gamesblog post (“Games and stories (six ways to tell a story via games)“), though this time from Aleks Krotoski (who I hope will do a guest post or two for Digital Worlds in the near future :-):

What are the six ways of telling a story in a game that Adrian Hon identifies? To pick up on his last slide, “what do you think?”. In particular, do you have any ideas for other story types that don’t fit the six point classification?

A slightly more detailed take on “interactive storytelling”, and in particular, on the structure of interactive stories, is described in an article on the igda (International Game Developers Association Game Writers’ SIG (Special Interest Group) website: Foundations of Interactive Storytelling.

Read through the first few sections of the article, trying to answer these questions as you do so:

  • Defining Interactivity how is interactivity defined? What are good examples of “reactive” and “interactive” media, and how do they differ?
  • Interactive Stories what three aspects of a story (narrative) does the author claim can be made interactive? How do these aspects correspond to any of the ways we have attempted to classify games so far?
  • The Value of Interactive Storytelling why bother? No, really – why bother? ;-)

When you have read the first part of the article, and maybe posted your own thoughts about the claims it made on you own blog, or in a comment here, think back to the games we started to build using Game Maker, or any other games that you are familiar with: to what extent, if any, could those games be described as interactive stories? Is there anything that could be done to make them work as interactive stories? How would they or the player (reader?!) benefit from any such modifications?

In the next post, I’ll pop up a couple more questions to help guide your reading of the remainder of the Foundations of Interactive Storytelling article…

Classifying Games

In The Language of Games – Game Genres I briefly reviewed how many games are classified according to genre, although I did also suggest that “higher dimensional” classification schemes (based on “Genre, Mode, and Milieu” for example) could help refine how we might talk about the defining characteristics of a game in a little more detail.

Criteria used to classify games under “official” video game age rating schemes provide another way of talking about game content: a news story today (“Review ‘to change games ratings‘”) picks up on a report that makes several recommendations about how video games should be rated by “the censor”.

The increasing budgets allocated to game development means that not receiving certification can be costly, and companies have shown that they are willing to go to the courts to appeal against rulings that go against them. In turn, the “censor”, that is, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) in the UK, is also increasingly willing to fight its corner.

So how are games certified today, and indeed, why are they certified?

Why are some computer games classified?

Under the Video Recordings Act, most video games are exempt from BBFC classification. However, they may lose this exemption – and therefore require a formal BBFC classification – if they depict, to any significant extent, gross violence against humans or animals, human sexual activity, human urinary or excretory functions or genital organs, or techniques likely to be useful in the commission of offences. In the early days of video games, the quality of graphics was so low that, even when ‘human’ or ‘animal’ characters were depicted, they were unlikely to be realistic enough to be covered by the Act. However, the increasing sophistication of computer graphics means that nowadays a number of games require classification, usually because they contain violence against realistic human figures. In some cases, games may also need to be submitted to the BBFC because they contain non-interactive video elements (eg trailers or film clips) that do not enjoy the same exemption as interactive games.

Games that retain their exemption – for example because they do not feature violence or sex involving realistic human figures – are classified under the PEGI system, a voluntary pan-European rating system. In the UK, the system is administered by the Video Standards Council, who also advise publishers on whether or not their game requires a formal BBFC classification.

Ref: British Board of Film Classification FAQ [accessed 27/3/08]

Just how the BBFC examiners go about making their decisions is described in part in this article: Gamespot Q&A: BBFC examiner Jim Cliff explains UK games ratings.

If you would like to know whether games are treated differently from films because of their interactivity, read the Gamespot interview with Jim Cliff

Also mentioned in the interview is a question regarding the extent to which parents understand games ratings.

As well as the state run BBFC, (which has “official legal powers” ;-), the voluntary “Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) age rating system was established in 2003 to help European parents make informed decisions on buying interactive games”. PEGI is a voluntary code adopted by the gaming industry (why do you think they took this move?) and is used to label computer games published by ‘reputable’ game publishers. (You can read more about its origins and philosophy here: About rating: Ratings Explained.) PEGI is promoted in the UK by the Video Standards Council.

If you have bought a computer game over the last 5 years, you will probably be familiar with some of the PEGI ratings icons – can you identify what each of the PEGI rating icons relates to?

PEGI Bad language icon PEGI discrimination iconPEGI drugs iconPEGI Fear iconPEGI Gambling iconPEGI sex iconPEGI violence icon

To what extent do you think certification – or the PEGI ratings systems – provide a useful way of classifying computer games? Post a comment back identifying two or three different scenarios in which PEGI ratings might influence a purchaser’s decision as to whether to buy a particular game or not, and let’s see if we all agree…

To see how a wide range of different games have been rated, the Mobygames browser – http://www.mobygames.com/browse/games – allows you to browse game titles by theme, genre, platform, year, rating and so on. The browser works by filtering games based on the categories you select, in a similar way to the Amazon category browser, which you may already be familiar with?

In contrast to the hierarchical classification scheme used by Amazon, the Mobygames browser lets you select the order in which you want to browse the categories:

Visit the Mobygames website and see if you can find any games certificated by the BBFC, released in 2008 under an age 15 certificate. Using the browser, how might you informally explore whether there are any genres that are highly likely to be classified in a particular way? For example, are there any genres that appear likely to attract a ‘violence’ or ‘gambling’ PEGI rating? Are any genres apparently more likely to attract a BBFC 18 rating? Why do you think this might be the case?

[If you would like to read the recent UK government report on "Safer Children in a Digital World", that includes a consideration of games ratings, you can find it here: Byron Review; I also intend to return to it in a week or two...]


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