My interest in this game was driven primarily by the desire to see and explore its celebrated and vast open world. I’m a big believer in the benefits of discovery as an interactive design mechanic, and there is no easier or more effective way to integrate discovery and interactivity than allowing players to wander through a virtual environment at their own discretion. In a narrative context there are significant obstacles to pulling off such an environment in a compelling way, but I also knew that Elden Ring was billed — correctly — not as a traditional role-playing game, but as an Action RPG. Meaning the emphasis was decidedly on combat and boss fights, and not on story or character development. [ Read more ]
A long time ago in another life I spent a decade-plus working in interactive entertainment, more commonly referred to as the computer games biz. From the mid-1990’s until deep into the 2000’s I had a front row seat as the industry changed from a relatively small, creative-driven marketplace into a massive industry dominated by gaudy global corporations. Although Microsoft and Sony — with the Xbox and Playstation 2, respectively — did everything possible at the turn of the millennia to reduce computer gaming to a proprietary console monopoly, the fact that plucky Nintendo continued to shine, despite annual predictions of doom, was an important reminder that everything does not have to be reduced to cynical crap in order to be profitable.
Not only did I enjoy the work I performed in that new medium, including wrestling with complex theoretical issues underpinning the very concept of interactive entertainment, but I met a number of talented and genuinely decent people who were on that same journey. In an industry that has since become synonymous with bad behavior, if not a launch point for some of the worst ills in modern American society, it was both enjoyable and reassuring to find camaraderie in the pursuit of something new, and as a relative outsider to be welcomed into what was, early on, a close community. (In those early years the computer game community was also ahead of the cultural curve in its acceptance of transgender and LGBTQ individuals, at least until the corporate cowboys and graphics companies decided they could drive more business by focusing on realistic breast animations.)
In terms of my work experience, I can also honestly say that the only time I had a problem was with one of the multinational corporations referenced above, but that’s another story. In every other respect the producers I worked with were both professional and personable, and that includes John Podlasek, who I worked with over long hours in a recording studio on more than one occasion. (Recording studios are a lot like submarines. You learn who people are real fast because there is nowhere to hide.)
Not only does John’s background include music and the visual arts, but over decades in interactive entertainment he has worn every hat a producer can wear, yielding a formidable combination of experience and perspective. And yet at root he is a genuinely humble and often hilarious person, and if you have any interest in interactive entertainment I would suggest you make a point to listen to John’s ‘Game Dev Advice‘ podcast. You could talk to dozens of other industry veterans for days at a time and not get the kind of grounded and holistic insight that John passes along in a single episode.
— Mark Barrett
The other day I ran across mention of yet another Western-themed game, which prompted me to once again think back to the earliest days of the pencil-and-paper RPG, and a truly great Western-themed game that I played on numerous occasions. As was always the case, however, I couldn’t find any mention of it online, because it turns out I was misremembering the name.
The game that I thought was called Gunfighter was in fact called Boot Hill, and if you played it even once you’ll remember. Unlike any other pencil-and-paper game of its time, Boot Hill was about unrelenting action. You looked at a map of a small frontier town, the DM gave you an area to start from, you made your choice, the other players made theirs, and the clock started ticking.
An entire game might last a half-hour, or maybe an hour at most if players were extremely cautious, but in game-time each battle was often a matter of only seconds, maybe a few minutes at most. And it was riveting. Even today I still carry memories of the imagined places and battles in my mind, and they all took place forty years ago.
I don’t know if anyone has ever connected the dots, but I’m willing to bet that Boot Hill was one of the earliest — if not the earliest — deathmatch games, albeit in paper-and-pencil form. If you enjoy pencil-and-paper gaming and can find it, preferably in one of its earlier incarnations, you might enjoy it for its ease of access and relatively short duration. Or you can just keep playing over and over until the sun comes up.
— Mark Barrett
If you spend even a little time reading about tech you know there are always trendy buzzwords skulking around, looking to leech money out of naive or desperate pockets. Six months ago, after having my head in the sand for the better part of a year, I belatedly noticed a big push to extol the virtues of UX Design (aka User eXperience Design), which currently seems to be the focus of a number of companies that service the technology industry.
What is UX Design, or UXD, or UX, or Design? Well, that’s a good question. The broad answer is that it’s the art and quasi-science of how users interact with whatever you’ve got, though these days it’s primarily discussed in terms of software. If you have a product, and it can be used — or even just experienced — then by definition there are design elements intrinsic to that relationship whether you have paid much attention to them or not. If you make your living based on the effectiveness of that relationship, then UX Design is critical to your lifeblood. Or so the argument goes.
If that also sounds like a bunch of conceptual hooey I wouldn’t disagree, but don’t take it from me. Here’s the ISO explaining what the user experience encompasses.
According to the ISO definition, user experience includes all the users’ emotions, beliefs, preferences, perceptions, physical and psychological responses, behaviors and accomplishments that occur before, during and after use.
As you can see, UX Design can cover just about anything you want it to cover, meaning it’s a wonderfully pliable concept if you’re trying to terrorize people into hiring you to solve all those UX problems they didn’t know they had. In that sense UXD is the new SEO because it can be used to instill fear, particularly in the hearts of people who don’t understand it. (And just in time, too, given that SEO seems to have run its cash-cow course.) [ Read more ]
In the mid-nineties I became fascinated by the storytelling potential of interactive entertainment. My interest peaked in the early aughts, during what I now think of as the second great wave of interactive storytelling mania. While the potential of interactive storytelling seems obvious to everyone, the mechanisms — the actual techniques — by which interactive stories might be told are complex and at times counterintuitive.
After finding my way into the interactive industry and meeting with some professional success, I was asked in 2000 to write an article for SIGGRAPH’s Computer Graphics magazine about the future of interactive storytelling. While great effort was being put into replicating techniques from passive mediums, including, particularly, film, it seemed to me that such an imitative approach had everything exactly backwards.
Recently, while conducting periodic maintenance on my computer and sprucing up Ditchwalk, I ran across that article, which for some reason I had never gotten around to adding to the Docs page on this site. That omission now stands corrected.
The title of the article is Graphics — the Language of Interactive Storytelling. Coming from someone who primarily made a living with words that may seem odd, but it and the accompanying text goes to the heart of the interactive storytelling problem, and why so little progress has been made. In fact, the only thing that’s changed is that we no longer worry about having enough processing power to do what we want — yet today’s enviably high hardware ceiling is still rarely used to facilitate aspects of interaction that might truly drive emotional involvement.
Fifteen years on, during the fourth great wave of interactive storytelling mania now taking place in the industry, little has changed. Another generation of eager developers is grappling with the same questions, reaching the same inherently limiting conclusions, attempting to once again adapt non-interactive techniques from passive mediums, and confusing the revelation of pre-designed outcomes with choices that determine outcomes.
— Mark Barrett
I’ve been reading a lot of posts and articles lately about people trying to get into this business or that, and about people being marginalized while trying to get into this business or that, and it struck me that while discrimination is never acceptable, the premise of having a boss also needs to be considered. Where it used to be the case that jobs were offered by companies that had been in business a while, in industries where get-rick-quick schemes were not common, let alone the main product, when it comes to working in tech the opposite is often true. In fact, if you take a job in tech, including interactive entertainment, it’s quite possible that the human beings cutting your checks will be money junkies posing as entrepreneurs.
What is a money junkie? Well, as the name suggests, a money junkie is someone who will do anything they can to make money. Unlike a normal businessperson who wants to do business, and more importantly keep doing business, a money junkie is determined to burn through as many resources as possible in pursuit of money, including those human resources called employees.
If you’re a money junkie yourself there might be some benefit in working for a money junkie, because they really do know how to squeeze the last drop of productivity from a human being before casting the desiccated corpse aside. If you’re not, however — and particularly if other human beings rely on your paycheck — the last thing you want to do is sign on to work for a money junkie. Yet that’s probably not what you’ve been told.
What you’ve been told is that by allying yourself with a money junkie you can make heaping piles of money, and in some extremely rare instances that does happen. Not surprisingly, the people pushing that million-to-one-shot message are the money junkies, because they need all the eager, bushy-tailed employees they can get. It’s like that when you’re a money junkie, because the employees who were bushy-tailed six months ago will soon fail to demonstrate loyalty, initiative and drive by impertinently cracking apart at the seams.
You may be thinking you’re too smart to be exploited by a money junkie. You may be thinking you’ve got the right stuff to succeed no matter who you work for. You may believe you’ve got to take any job to get your foot in the door. No, no and no.
Your job, before you take a job, is to avoid working for people who are going to grind you down and have an unpaid intern sweep your shavings into the trash. Fortunately, particularly in the tech world, there’s a way to test the waters without naively exposing yourself to money junkie abuse. [ Read more ]
This post is part of a series exploring the idea that storytelling, gameplay or entertainment of any kind may precipitate acts of violence in the real world. First post here.
While children aren’t more hostile or violent than adults, and on the whole seem to do a lot less damage, on average they do seem a bit more cognitively pliable. This is partly explained by the fact that their brains have not fully developed, and partly because they haven’t had time to learn what’s right and wrong in many cultural contexts. If a child is angry it may seem, from the point of view of the child, like a perfectly reasonable response to pick up a toy and start bashing someone. If the child is fortunate, that decision then leads to a reasoned teaching moment about social norms from a nearby adult. Precisely because children need to learn what society expects and how to control their emotions, however, it does seem prudent to watch out for influences that could teach behaviors which are the opposite of what society desires.
In that context the first thing we can say about attempts to blame any medium of entertainment for acts of real-world violence committed by anyone of any age is that we are justified in making a distinction between groups that are and are not likely to be influenced. Our concern, as it was with the mentally ill, is that children may have a harder time distinguishing fantasy from reality, meaning the more a given medium replicates reality the more likely it might be that children could possibly become confused or led astray. For example, while we don’t believe that watching a violent movie over and over will make the average adult more likely to commit acts of violence, we do think — again, with some plausible justification — that doing so might affect a child, or perhaps even a group of young people if such experiences are communal. In response to such concerns, movies have long been given content ratings so busy adults do not have to preview each title in order to know if it’s appropriate for younger viewers.
As to which mediums of entertainment we should be most concerned about, that’s a more complicated question because blaming mediums of entertainment for acts of violence is not a rational pursuit. Not only can any medium of entertainment be used to demonstrate, depict or dramatize acts of violence, violence is routinely used in all mediums for the express purpose of entertaining an audience. When it comes to scapegoating or assigning blame to mediums for acts of carnage, however, there is almost always a perceptible bias toward some mediums and away from others. While usually self-serving, such scapegoating has appeal because it provides an apparently plausible rationale for tragic events that would otherwise remain uncertain as to cause. Even better, having done our civic duty and singled out one medium for blame, we can then go back to lustily enjoying bloodbaths and unspeakable acts of cruelty in the presumably innocent mediums of entertainment we prefer.
The idea that any medium of entertainment is incapable of triggering or contributing to a berserk act is of course nonsense, if only because — as we’ve maddeningly discovered — we can never know for certain what motivates such behavior. If a medium of entertainment can be experienced by human beings, and if we can never predict what will trigger someone to go berserk, then either all mediums of entertainment have the capacity to trigger berserk behavior or none of them do. Since we generally seem to agree — at least for children and the mentally ill, if not sane adults — that mediums of entertainment can influence behavior, then we have to allow for such influence across all mediums. [ Read more ]
This is the first in a series of posts exploring the idea that storytelling, gameplay or entertainment of any kind may precipitate acts of violence in the real world.
A few weeks back I ran across yet another article purporting to shed light on the decades-old question of whether video games beget real-world violence. Unfortunately, as is usually the case, the article was merely another grinding of the ever-glistening axe which both sides in that debate are all too eager to wield in service of their own disingenuous agendas.
Here is the opening paragraph from the article, which took journalism to task for suggesting that violent video games and real-world murder might somehow be related:
In the wake of the killing of the schoolteacher Ann Maguire last week, the question has again been raised of whether playing violent video games could lead someone to commit murder. It’s a common link that we see suggested in the media whenever tragedies of this sort occur, but the scientific evidence simply doesn’t support these claims.
As we’ll soon see, implying that a lack of scientific proof voids any possible causal complicity is a gambit exploited by every industry that has ever been accused of fomenting real-world violence. Such arguments are at best legal and at worst deceitful, and in no case scientific. The inability to prove cause and effect by scientific means does not mean there is no cause-and-effect relationship, merely that it can’t be proven — and the first people who would tell you that are actual scientists. As we’ll also see, the last people who will ever admit that’s the case are members of the press because they have a vested interest in leveling such charges whenever it profits them to do so.
In attempting to understand cause and effect we’re taught — rightly — to put our bedrock faith in facts. Because science is very good at unearthing facts it may seem that a lack of scientific evidence is somehow important to the question at hand, but it isn’t. We need know nothing about science in order to determine whether violent video games or video games in general or entertainment of any kind can cause an individual to act in a particular way at a particular time. Abandoning science may seem to leave us bewildered about how to prevent acts of violence in the future, but in fact the opposite is true. By stripping away improper appeals to science and eliminating false hopes arising from such appeals we end up in a very certain and logical place that allows us to keep as many people as possible from being murdered. Or would, if all parties were in agreement with that laudable objective, which unfortunately also turns out not to be the case. [ Read more ]
The result is distinctly literary, which is probably why there’s so many authors and fanfic writers playing. One of them is Stephen Blackmore, author of Dead Things, who’s creating a Storium setting called Redemption City: “This is collaborative storytelling that has some mechanics in place to help keep the story moving rather than to determine specific outcomes. If anything I think it might actually be more accessible to non-gamers than to gamers.“ He explains, “This is very much a writer’s game. The mechanics are so unobtrusive as to sometimes feel almost incidental. Storium lets you play with plot, theme, metaphor, character, voice. What other online game not only allows that but encourages it?”
If the mainstream commercial interactive industry has proven anything over the past two decades it’s that it knows nothing about storytelling, and I’m being charitable in that appraisal. However, as was learned even earlier in the pencil-and-paper world, going all the way back to Dungeons & Dragons, most players also lack the requisite skill to drive even a static narrative, let alone adapt one on the fly.
Storium seems an interesting compromise because it necessarily expects someone who’s qualified to initially take the narrative reigns, while still allowing for collaborative if not competitive storytelling. Definitely worth a look.
— Mark Barrett
No matter how you find your way to storytelling, your own individual authorial journey begins with the stories you have been exposed to over the course of your life. This exposure inevitably affects and informs your initial efforts as you necessarily substitute mimicry for what will later become mastery. As you grow and develop as an author, and as your skills and interests broaden, you will leave these initial anchors and points of reference behind in order to explore new narrative territory. As you become more comfortable with different aspects of craft you may even probe the complex dynamics inherent in the interplay of art, craft and commerce. You may also decide to branch out and work in different storytelling mediums such as poetry, short fiction, long fiction, screenplays, stage plays and even interactive fiction.
At some point, if you keep pushing against your limitations, you will realize that stories exist apart from the specific mediums that allow us to document and relate fiction to others. We don’t need mediums to conceive of stories, we need mediums to express and communicate stories. This means that choosing the right medium is, in the end, simply another aspect of craft — albeit one that has unparalleled importance. As you grow in mastery you may even notice that many if not most of your earlier conceptions presumed a medium, and that in some cases that medium was not the best choice. (Not only can choosing the wrong medium dull the potential of a story, leading to a less-than-satisfying result, it can lead to still-born tales that never quite work no matter how many drafts or versions you write.)
Understanding the strengths and limitations of every medium you work in is critical. As I detailed in the previous post, what the world witnessed during the first three weeks of NFL football this year was the complete collapse of an entire medium into a narrative black hole. This self-inflicted debacle was both a chilling and comical lesson in the dangers of authorial hubris, and a cautionary tale for authors who believe they have absolute power. [ Read more ]