Sunday, October 28, 2012

How to Write the Protagonist or Protagonists of a Narrative Focused Video Game

Does the player interact with an narrative heavy game by controlling the protagonist? Games in the past have had many different approaches to the idea of protagonist. In some, the player directly controls one character.  In others, such as RTS games, the player commands larger groups of characters to accomplish different tasks. Role-Playing Games will often task the player with managing a small party of heroes. And in some games, the player doesn't control characters at all; tycoon games usually have a player manipulating a corporation that then interfaces with AI people. For a game with a focus on narrative and character, which method proves itself to be best?

The question goes even deeper than simply asking who the protagonist is; it makes the designer have to decide how much control is handed over to the player and of what kind. Does the player simply write the story, controlling the decisions and actions of all the characters, or do they only act as one causal agent? And if the player has reign over the main protagonist, how much room does that provide the designer to define the character at all? Does the designer create a doll house or a novel? Would creating a sandbox for role-playing truly create the best experience?

I have my doubts.

 Frankly put, outside of total simulation I do not find the idea of handing over the entire character to the player appealing for narrative purposes. The best example of this happening in video games can be seen in western role-playing games. For instance, at the beginning of an Elder Scrolls game the player creates an entire character from scratch which is then dropped into the role of hero. While it works (even though most people went through Skyrim guiding one of the most contradictory characters one could possibly imagine, it was not so much an issue that it detracted from the overall experience), I would say that it fails to create the proper amount of drama and narrative magic to really be seen as a reasonable approach unless the player is of the minority who sticks to a strict regime of role-playing consistency. The writer will always be better than the player when it comes to creating characters that fit appropriately in the fiction.

So, if the writer holds the power to creating the protagonist, is the player left to having no agency and being filtered through a linear plot that takes little advantage of the properties games have to offer? Of course not!

This is a problem I want to solve. Does the player determine the decisions of the protagonist, or does the personality of the protagonist determine those decisions? Which answer conveys more character? A player given the goal of obtaining victory and optimizing their path towards such will not make dramatic decisions in these situations, especially since they are so disconnected from the emotion of the fictional situation. A character's personality will lead to that character making particular decisions that in turn affect the game. 

Essentially, my answer is that the player does not enjoy themselves playing the the part of the character, but rather the character and the game are two separate entities, both dynamic and prone to change, and in constant influential relation to each other. Some titles have already started to explore this idea, but it needs to be developed further and stripped of the violence of current games.

Monday, October 22, 2012

And Now Back to More Important Things: Why I Have Chosen the Web Browser As My Next Platform

I am not particularly fond of browser games. Granted, I spent a lot of time playing them in my youth, but as I grew older the less seriously I took them. There was just something about downloading an executable file; a game located directly on the hard-drive seemed to offer so many more possibilities than a web game. They looked better, they were less bug prone, and they allowed for modification. Today, though, it seems as if many of these shortcomings have largely been overcome in the browser game space.

The ways in which browser games are developed are many and varied. Flash, Unity, Java, HTML5, Javascript, and other tools all provide their own advantages and contribute to the variety of web games. For all of my previous projects I have used Game Maker as my primary development environment, a program that creates stand-alone executable files that must be downloaded. While it has served me well, I feel as if it limits the potential audience I could reach. Finding a link to a download, waiting for megabits to travel across a pipe, placing the .zip file somewhere on the hard-drive, and then extracting the game files presents quite a barrier. Anyone can open a web browser and direct themselves to a website, and with the Internet becoming increasingly faster, this process delivers no pain.

Though I am not completely acquainted with the bounds of the technology yet, I also suspect that browser games are far easier to create as cross-platform. In the two times I competed in Ludum Dare, I often found players vehemently upset that they could not play my games on a non-Windows computer. Surely this is a valid complaint, and one that, when addressed, would benefit all parties involved.

Not only does using the web as my platform allow me to access a far larger audience, but it also pushes me out of my developer comfort zone. I cannot create games using Game Maker forever, and browser application development seems like a reasonable path to pursue.

There are other interesting possibilities in regards to making a browser game, but I will need to give them more thought before fleshing them out in text.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

That Day Has Come: The Pac-Man Has Been Released!

I decided over the weekend to pull this behemoth out of limbo and share it with the public. My consciousness can now rest.

All this and more awaits. The Pac-Man indulges itself as a tribute to both the original game and the variations of it made throughout the years. With 70+ unique stages across ten different worlds, The Pac-Man provides a challenging arcade-adventure experience filled with contrived and uncontrived surprises around every corner. With a new system for how ghost AI operates and a large amount of interesting game elements, this is Pac-Man unlike ever before: it is The Pac-Man.

Download the game now at the IndieDB page: The Pac-Man On IndieDB

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Interesting Parallels Between Characters and Environments

I have been taking rather extensive notes on my current thoughts regarding the project I have embarked on completing, but there is one idea that seems to stick out in poignancy that would like to write about here. That idea is the comparison between characters and environments.

Most video games today are extremely environment-centric. The game's content is broken up into spaces called "levels," or the game takes place in one large, cohesive space which is called an "open world." Game development teams have level designers and environmental artists; the level designer plays a major role in determining how the player interacts with the game while the environmental artist plays a major role in how the game reveals itself to the player. For pretty much any game of any genre (platformers, RPGs, point-and-click adventure, racing, first person shooter, real time strategy) the most essential mechanism of control and interaction intends to move the player through 2D or 3D spaces. This mechanism is so universal that controllers are built around it; analog sticks, d-pads, and arrow keys are all abstracted controls that are designed specifically to maneuver an object in geometric space. Players explore and interact with the environment.

I decided early on to not focus on a player interacting with a plot; it felt to aimless and if it were made to not be so the results would be odd and definitely not what I am currently looking for (though perhaps interesting to use in a game or two that justifies the idea). Rather, my attempts at subversion focus on characters; as Chris Crawford talked about games simply being about things, and if they wanted to evolve further emotional and narrative depth they would have to be about people. But what is to be done with characters? They are simplifications of people; all the meat and none of the fat. Looking at how games have handled characters in the past, chess plays the role archetype. In chess, there exist several unique types of pieces each with their own attributes. Each could be labeled by letter, number, color, or symbol and the player would have just as fine a time enjoying the possibilities to be found in the rule set. But instead, the traditions labels each piece with a character. The piece which takes the smallest steps, is most abundant, and whose loss is not to be cried over is given the character of the pawn. The most important piece on the board, that which if killed ends the game, and yet is not very powerful in its own right, is given the character of the king. And that most powerful and influential piece, second in importance to the king, is given the character of the queen. And so on. Good usage of characters in games shows a connection between characteristics and function.

But is this going far enough? Compelling, rounded characters are not static entities. They change and they grow. If a game connects character and function, and yet character changes, must not function change as well in proportional fashion? Maybe I am getting at something; maybe I am not.

If a game is to focus specifically on characters, what would it look like? Well, there are many games that seem to focus specifically on environments and I have already explained what that looks like. Players explore and interact with the environment as their primary action; I shudder to think how much time I have wasted in my lifetime commanding my avatar to walk forward and to watch them march on and on as the artificial hours of game time pass away.  What if a player were to explore and interact with the characters as their primary action? What would that game look like? Would not that be a true "social" game?

How do humans explore environments? They use their limbs, in cooperation with physic laws, to maneuver through it. Is this the same way environments are explored in games? Of course not; homes are not filled with VR gerbil balls and full-body touch sensation suits or neuro-communicative computers; they are filled with game-pads, keyboards, and mice. The technology to build the simulation is either unreasonable for the average man to own or completely non-existent. Instead, technology allows for the creation of not simulation, but rather abstraction. When controlling a character in a video game, one experiences an abstraction of exploring a space. Developers have become extremely good at creating these abstractions and making them interesting to interact with.

The majority of work done in an attempt at improving the connection between game and narrative via interaction falls under its own weight; it has all favored simulation over abstraction. Of course though, simulation is far closer to actual human experience and thus is far easier to visualize. What about a game that allowed the player to explore and interact with characters through some sort of abstract mechanics?

To bring this idea into fruition; that is my goal.

(And dialogue wheels/trees are not the form of abstraction I am looking for).

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

It Is Time To Get Serious And Embark

Despite that I feel as if I am twelve years old still, I am an adult. At least, the law says so. In my youth I meandered about the immaterial possibilities of the future and now that I have arrived with the freedom, knowledge, and opportunities I had hoped for, it is time to start the process of manifesting those immaterial possibilities in the realm of physicality. This process starts tonight as I write this first post chronicling what will only be a very long trip. By the end I do not know what I will find, but that excites me.

There are too many unknowns to provide a comprehensive image of what I am talking about, but let me lay out the basics; I am going to make a game. Yes, this whole entire blog exists for me to write about my experiences in game development, so this might not seem to warrant such unique treatment. Here I will deliver an explanation. There are two forces that are driving the creation of what I am going to make. The first force is of the professional nature and roots itself in my desire to find a stable place in my career. It is quite clear to me already that attending college will not be enough on its own to truly provide me with the edge I am looking for, though it is certainly a great resource. I need experience and more importantly I need to prove that I am courageous and competent enough to do something of significance out of my own agency. This leads into the second force, which is of a personal nature. I am bored out of my mind and I have a great interest in seeing what I am capable of after spending my entire life watching mankind accomplish the incredible. Am I among them? Of course to some degree I am, but to what degree? The task I am about to go about completing will also bring a ton of improvement to me as an intellectual. The quality of the writing on this blog is a fine testament to how far I have to go. The final aspect of this personal driving force is, as if this blog post was not already under the pretension of angst already, existential. Why do I desire to be a game developer and is dedicating my life to the creation of mere games virtuous? I cannot explain my passion to others and they cannot understand it. I have already eliminated the guilt associated with being able to spend my time and energies creating games by simply dismissing it as fate, with which I feel I must fully appreciate out of humility.

I have developed four whole games, two of which are complete garbage, one of which is fun but brief, and an unreleased one which is the best thing I have worked on despite its usage of properties and ideas that are clearly not my own. Add onto this two dozen game modifications, a dozen stages created for a commercial indie game, and hundreds of scraped projects and ideas. This work comprises my current legacy, spanning the twelve years of my youth during which I taught myself the basics of game development. Well, I have arrived; I now know the basics. Congratulations to me, it is time to stop creating derivative genre games and to start work on a significant work. Cutting-edge work that has never been attempted before. I am only one man, but the craft is fresh and its frontier still primary uncharted.

The hour is late and my mind contains a soup of underdeveloped and unorganized conceptions in regards to this new project that I will need to have my dreams sort out, so I am going to reveal some of the other more solidified aspects of this, whatever it is. First, I expect this game to take at least four years to develop, but it will probably take more to maintain. Second, I am uncertain of how or if I am going to make a profit off of it. Third, I am going to make major usage of the influences from reading material on game development theory. Fourth, this game will be digital but of a new genre, one that is currently nonexistent as far as I am aware and has only loose similarities to what is already out there. Fifth, it will be family-friendly, comedic, and equally appealing to both sexes in content. Regardless of this, the intentions are not to water down the depth; this game will be as "casual" and as "hardcore" as a typical Nintendo game, by which I mean that it will find a balance between the two temperaments. Sixth, the Internet will be its platform. I personally have a distaste for browser-based game content, but I feel that if executed correctly it could really be brilliant. Also, this will greatly increase the potential audience size and allow for more accessible means for them to play. With so many games being created now by indies and hobbyist developers, no one has the time to download a .zip file or an .exe installer to get into a game. And finally, I am taking cues from the literature on interactive storytelling; I am not going to go as far as some others with the idea, but that might in fact be what works.

Hopefully that provides an idea of what this project is, for my horribly structured paragraphs have probably left behind a confused populace. I am recording the development of this project intimately; for its own sake and for the sake of it potentially turning into as a thesis topic. Of course posting everyday is unreasonable, so I will try to stick to a loose schedule of posting every five to seven days.

What is to come? I would sure like to know myself...