Sunday, 28 December 2008

showing the diamonds

The book Creating Emotion in Games by the multi-talented David Freeman is one of my favourite books on game design. Aside from mentioning a number of techniques around the building of emotions into games, characters and settings he also provides some handy points of reference for those creating the same.

The concept of a diamond (or any four-sided shape) where an attribute is placed at each corner to help focus on what the entity needs to show is an elegant visualisation of ye olde list. You can have fewer corners (e.g. minor characters may only need a triangle or three attributes) or more for central characters (up to a hexagon is the limit I've gone for a major character).

Characteristics can be contradictory or distinctive; personality facets (blustering, obsessively neat) aptitudes (a love of puzzles) or character traits (uses two guns like Chow Yun Fat). Traits can be shared by related characters as common ground and this can extend to distinctive groups who need a triangle - individual characters may merit another corner if they're significant.

How these facets co-exist may suggest actions and appearance - for our blustering gunsel, his first appearance on a train may be in an immaculate grey morning suit with a chessboard-checked shirt and polished shoes, darkly muttering over a crossword puzzle in his newspaper. They may even suggest possible responses depending on how you solve the missing clue...

Also consider how these interact. Allies may have common traits (e.g. the gunsel hires thugs who dress perfectly, show skill with a pistol and who pass one of his puzzles) or complimentary or even conflicting attributes to spice things up (e.g. a locksmith friend who enjoys a good game of checkers but his slovenly appearance drives the gunslinger to bluster and distraction.

This can also be extended to locations - Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series is a private school (with all that implies) as well as a castle (stone walls, towers, fortified doors) with bewildering architecture (doors hidden behind portraits, rotating stairwells, secret passages) and even worlds as well (the example used in Visual Emotioneering on David's site shows this well).

The hoary mantra of "Show, don't tell" is to be exercised with these methods. Every attribute may need one or more markers to reveal it's presence. Following the premise that an audience may need three clues to indicate a clue, three traits per attribute can be considered sufficient to define a character's initial impression - be it possessions, environment or even behaviour.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

my kinsman, major molineux

Set just before the American War of Independence during the unrest in Massachusetts, the arrival of Robin, a travelling youth seeking his fortune in the town where his relative Major Molineux dwells is met with considerable suspicion from the town locals who appear to be in on a joke he isn't. Robin is your typical questing boy out to seek his fortune and visiting a rich relative to get a good start.

Along the way there are hints of people searching for Robin. Robin is cryptically told that the Major has been seen, is nearly dragged into a house until the watch passes by. Finally a local (whose guise seems infernal) advises him that Major Molineux will pass by presently. He rests at an abandoned church and is then taken in by a local gentleman who wishes to see his re-union.

The re-union takes place, for Major Molineux has been tarred-and-feathered and is being paraded around town by a mob including those who had previously kept Robin at arms-length. Everyone is laughing at the rustic who has now become the butt of a cruel joke. Molineux and Robin see each other before the parade moves on. Horrified, Robin asks to leave for the ferry but his gentleman companion bids him stay a few days first.

Hawthorne captures the isolation of the rustic traveller in a city, the longing for home and childhood and the way that city dwellers treat newcomers. Though his description borders on the fanciful, this is suited to his style and period and helps to foster the air of mystery that permeates the story. The city is hostile, promising much though the price always seems a little too high...

The story can be found here...

Saturday, 20 December 2008

game design, ARGs, social capital and social footprints

The concept of social footprint (as defined in Story Games) is the amount of time and effort you put into something to achieve enjoyment. While the discussion goes into the time spent around set up times, the appeal of games and whether what you get out of them is worth what you put in, whether that's fun, emotional validation and catharsis or gaining a greater insight into the people you play with.

There is of course an alternative definition, that of how much input is needed to make a sustainable or socially-responsible action take place. Social capital lets individuals and groups take effective action via social networks and shared knowledge. They can be contributions to other programs or institutions that provide resources and services available to individuals or groups. So if you click on a link it contributes to a charity.

The Literacy Site

Another example would be a shared wiki, where people who have access can add their own knowledge which may benefit participants in turn.

"All well and good but what has this to do with stories, games or even alternate reality games?"

A fair question - look at how alternate reality games discuss issues like conflicts around oil (like Exeo Inc for THQ's Frontlines: Fuel of War) and future designs like Superstruct, where ideas are sought from participants on the design of the future. Are the ideas generated being acted on in some manner or being examined outside of the context of the games in question? It may sound fantastic, inspiration can come from some very strange sources and player demographics reveal a surprisingly varied range of disciplines and professions.

Would it be cool to combine the game definition with the social responsibility and benefits definition? Apart from giving a percentage of profits to charity, also providing a shared pool of knowledge and benefits as well as the social capital of positive experiences and additional 'insider' benefits. Over time, these benefits may feed out to the public domain so that the game or story attracts audience by virtue of the information that's held within the public domain or even within the shared area.

Building this kind of thing into design precepts may not be the easiest experience though it would certainly be rewarding. And if you're going to offer an in-game experience, it is good to make the experience a positive one. Questions of legality, intellectual property rights, morality and ethics may raise their head depending on what kind of game or story you're trying to tell as participants may seek to leverage things to their advantage.

This is a big challenge. Who's up for it?

Saturday, 6 December 2008

roads less travelled

An idea has been bugging me of late...

The setting is late 1970 - early 1980s America, the kind popularised by Glen A. Larson etc. and with a soundtrack out of any number of drive-through service stations or AOR rock/punk/pop stations. The protagonists are road tripping vigilantes in pursuit of a carnival of horrors who moves from town to town on a mockery of a pilgrimage; in their wake people vanish, make extraordinary lifestyle choices or die under unusual circumstances. The vibe I'm looking at is one part Supernatural, one part Carnivale, one part Twin Peaks with a dash of Phantasm and Nightbreed to taste. The law doesn't think a travelling fair is responsible for all this mayhem - the carnival attracts some trouble of course but this craziness is outside the usual 'They made me do it...'

My question is this... would you want to be the protagonists? And why?

There are any number of reasons to pursue this band of performers - chasing an errant relative, looking for a missing love or seeking revenge on that fairground worker who stole all your luck. You might even be a fan of the show or a reporter. I'm envisaging a series of episodes based on a trail across or along America with the main focus of conflict being around the denizens of the carnival but with the occasional problem town or isolated community for relief.
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