This game is aaaaaall about the narrative. Oxenfree’s story follows Alex, a teenage girl, struggling to cope with the recent death of her brother. At the same time she’s learning to accept her new stepbrother, Jonas.
The game starts with Alex, her stepbrother and her friends on a ferry to an abandoned island for a night of reminiscent fun. Soon after they arrive, Alex finds her hand-held radio is picking up strange signals and voices. After a brief interlude of teenage angst and conversation, Oxenfree dives into supernatural suspense.
Playing as Alex you explore the island and talk with friends, uncovering the secrets of Oxenfree’s characters and world as you do so.
Now for my thoughts on the game…
The game mechanics are quite simple but very cool. Your time is spent walking around a mostly 2D environment, usually with a friend or two. But the magic is in your radio that’s frequently used for clever interactions and lends itself well to the supernatural horror setting. You are also in constant conversation with a friend or two. Speech bubbles with multiple options to choose from appear over Alex’s head and you select the option or let them fade away if you choose to remain silent. You can offend other characters and change the course of the game by the selections you make.
Speaking of characters, all of the character backstories and dialogue is very realistic and interesting. You really want to get to know them, and quickly begin to translate their actions against their history.
So what didn’t I like about Oxenfree?
There was an hour or so in the middle of the game where I started to get bored of the constant chatter and seemingly useless choices to be made. Walking and talking, walking and talking and talking while walking. Also, the game map is a little tricky to use with various forks and alternative routes that can sometimes leave you frustrated (after walking for 30 minutes, only to find you went the wrong way and have to back track for screens and screens). Luckily, the story pulled me back in and I ended up finishing the game, quite content.
The only other brief annoyance was the intermittent “quizzes” towards the end of the game that depended on your knowledge of the island history. I tried my best to tune into island history points and listen read relevant plaques and signs but I think, since there are alternative routes to places, sometimes key areas are bypassed and then consequently I had no idea of correct answers. It’s not really important whether you “fail” the quiz or not, but it got on my nerves a bit.
Over all, the game made for an interesting and fun few hours. The interactive story and characters were the prize in this game. I definitely recommend everyone play it, no matter what your preference of game.
Time to get down to the nitty-gritty practical stuff. The topic for Day 4 was, Tools and Processes.
We started by comparing two games, side by side – Gone Home and Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture. This was to compare the game’s engines Unity vs. Unreal 4. We saw that the Unity game – Gone Home, allowed for a lot more in-depth object interaction but required a constrained environment (a house). The Unreal 4 game was set in an open world with amazing graphics but didn’t allow for much object interaction at all. So, this means that the very game engine chosen will dictate much of a game’s design and therefore the method of telling the story.
Next we dove into the assets produced in a game and the tools used to create and manage text assets. The narrative designer’s bible is the story bible (that really is the correct terminology). This document is everything narrative including the story outline, characters profiles, plot points, story intensions, emotional hits, location descriptions, game synopsis, timeline of events, even down to marketing material. Anthony uses Scrivener to build this essential document which is produced in the pre-production phase.
The class went on to discuss the obvious importance of version control when numerous assets must be maintained, tracked and changed together. For example, a change to the story bible could require a change to the game design document, manuscript and the game strings already embedded in the game engine. While we are on the subject, the game design document is different to the story bible in that it is more about the implementation of the game. For example, the GDD describes how the game looks in scenes from a game play perspective.
We talked about tools to help “get our story into the game” with Twine being the top-tool, since we are already using it for our own game projects. Inform and Inkle were also called out as useful tools that can generate game strings from story or dialogue. In many cases, studios may just collect game strings in an Excel spreadsheet.
Anthony suggested that we would provide more value as narrative designers if we understood terminology, challenges and limitations of specific game engines. The best way to do this is to practice some level design using designers such as Shadowrun Returns, Minecraft or Super Mario maker! We were also encouraged to look at GameMaker Studio, RPG Maker, Adventure Game studios for making our own games.
The class closed with the inspirational (that’s right Anthony) story of how Anthony Sweet made his way as a narrative and game designer. It took planning and eight years of execution to achieve but in Perth’s tiny market, it is certainly something to be proud of. We need to make our own plans and identify what we can offer to studios, as well as what we can improve on. A narrative designer needs to do a lot more than just write the game story, they should also be able to contribute to or write:
- Marketing material
- Coms (Internal and External)
- Style Guides – e.g. “this is the way you talk about your game” The language used. Buzz words.
- Social Media
- Character social media
- Profiles and lore excerpts
So now I will go away and think about what I can do for a studio as well as watch the Double Fine Adventure documentary to get a better idea of what really goes on during game production.
The third session focused on characters.
Initially we looked at the features and attributes of a Player Character – PC (as opposed to a Non Player Character –NPC) and discussed “Player Verbs” and game mechanics. Player verbs determine HOW a story can be told. For example if a player can walk and collect things, the story can be delivered by exploring a scene and examining objects. Player verbs are supported by the game mechanics e.g. Press and hold X to do [player verb].
I found this very interesting article on Gamasutra but here is a short exert on the subject:
The lower the number of player verbs, the easier it is to control the variables and rein in scope. However, a low number of verbs can result in more and more onus being put on out-of-game narrative mechanisms to convey a story. For example, if all the player verbs in a game have to do with combat and none have to do with traversal movement, then how will you bridge from one combat context and location to another? With no option to provide the player an interactive journey from Point A to Point B, you will likely lean upon noninteractive storytelling techniques to establish a change of location and a new reason and context for the next battle. This can range from the simple, five-second panning of images in between Angry Birds worlds all the way up to the sumptuously rendered, ten-minute cutscenes from the Metal Gear Solid series. As you make the hard decisions about player verbs, keep in mind that the more narrow your focus in this area, the more you might be overburdening the noninteractive narrative tools at your disposal.
Another point to consider with regard to player verbs is that people and fictional characters are, in many ways, defined by the choices they make and what they do. In a game, a playable character ends up doing only the things the designers allow. Thus, the gameplay verbs that are available to a player character define, in a very basic way, who that character is. It’s important to realize that player verbs and the player’s character are inextricably interwoven, and should be concepted and developed concurrently.
Further, if you are using a pre-existing character as a (or the main) playable in your game, be aware that the character may come with baggage that includes a bevy of implied verbs. Spider-Man, for example, has inherent wall-crawling and web-swinging abilities that can cause waking nightmares for your level designers and camera designers/engineers. Other characters may imply other abilities.
We then went on to look at NPCs and relationship systems. The example of a relationship system Anthony used was an in-game shop, where if a player spends more than X dollars, the shopkeeper provides a 10% discount for future purchases. A cool game that includes a complex relationship system is the teenage horror game, Until Dawn. Not only does the PC switch between NPCs but relationships are formed based on your interactions as the PC.
In this session, we took the classic writing rule of “show, don’t tell, and reshaped it to apply to interactive game narrative, so it became “interact, don’t show.” The idea is that you should allow/encourage a player to interact with an object or scene to build an understanding of their world or circumstance, instead of spelling everything out with visuals and/or text. An example of a game that does this extremely well (in my opinion) is Gone Home. The player returns to their empty family home with little or no context of who they or their family members are. The whole game is about exploring the house and interacting with objects, such as photos, notes, audio recordings, personal effects etc, to uncover the family history and the game’s underlying narrative.
The question was then raised – how do you deliver exposition to players? Our presenter then explained lots of interesting ways games are explaining the “detail of what is going on” in the form of character diaries, audio recordings, historic documents, news stories (overheard), emails etc. Very cool.
We then went on to talk about meaningful choice in games, using Tell Tale’s the walking dead as a case study. Tell Tale Games base their games on episodic events and strong narrative that require choices rather than exploration or action. In the Walking Dead, the player has to make many choices throughout the game, some being simple dialogue selection and some being meaningful choices (these have an impact on the player and sometimes AI). An example of a meaningful choice might be to save or to kill another character. This calls on the player to consider their own beliefs or attitudes in the game. We learned that meaningful choices are expensive and introduce risk during game development so a good narrative designers want to give players the illusion of meaningful choice.
Finally we discussed Generative narrative and authored vs systemic narrative. This prompted me to look up an old game called, Dwarf Fortress, which is touted as the most systematic immersive game ever created. Interesting stuff!
Thankfully I have some amazing friends, else I wouldn’t have known about the FTI Writing for Games course that started this week. I was delighted to get the heads-up from those who know me best, and promptly booked in to the six week course run by Anthony Sweet.
Anthony started his own company in Perth called, Hand Written Games (awesome name huh?) and works as the lead designer at Black Lab Games. The man has a wealth of information about the industry based on his experience in Perth. This is valuable for us local writers who want to understand how to compete in this small, niche industry.
I thought I’d write a short post after each session to capture my thoughts and learnings – so here goes:
The room was full of bright-eyed guys and gals from all different backgrounds. We introduced ourselves by saying our name and the last game we played (mine was Oxenfree) and consequently, I just downloaded episode 1-5 of the Life is Strange series on Steam.
Anthony explained the role of the
Games Writer Narrative Designer and where, typically, the role fits in to the Game Production Process. This was something I found particularly interesting because the Narrative Designer is often brought in quite late in the game’s development phases. Initially I thought the narrative would drive the game design rather than the other way around, but then I made some comparisons with my own profession – Software Engineering – and it made complete sense. Let me explain –
In an ideal world, user stories and requirements should drive the design of software but often the particular system or technology platform that we are building upon has plenty of constraints. This means we tend to prioritise requirements that better fit within these constraints and push back on those ‘pie in the sky’ ideas that would be really cool, but are going to be EXTREMELY hard to implement (Me with my project manager hat on is now underlining $$$$ on the whiteboard while client frowns and developers chew their nails nervously).
My projects are smoother, more agile and deliver better outcomes when 80% of the design is decided before the client turns up for the kick-off meeting. We give them their 20% to go wild with and usually this is enough to create a happy balance.
So it sounds like indie Game production follows the same sort of principles. The game engine, existing artefacts and artwork dictate approx. 80% of the design and so the Narrative Designer has 20% left to work with. If they can understand the constraints, massage the narrative to remove unnecessary complexity and patch the “gaps” (in the other 80%) with some fancy-fiction, then they will be a truly valuable resource to the team.
We looked at a few case studies in the class but the one that stood out was, Freedom Fall by our local StirFire Studios. There is no dialogue in the games and the narrative is delivered through sassy graffiti scrawled across the walls of the background. It really demonstrated how a small amount of text could provide so much insight into the game’s narrative and characters. This has now inspired me to learn the art of the Haiku – a little says a whole lot. So here is one I whipped up after reading the supplied blog post by David Gaider: http://www.polygon.com/2016/8/15/12455728/how-to-get-a-job-writing-games-maybe
writing for games is tricky.
but I still want in!
// Note: Haikus are hard! Everything I want to say has 4 – not 5 syllables!
Journey, produced by Thatgamecompany and published by Sony Computer Entertainment for PS3 on March 13 2012
This beautifully unique and magically presented game tells its story without words, leaving awestruck players to develop their own theories for the purpose, lesson and conclusion of the journey. Here are my own:
I’ll cut to the chase; Journey is about life – all of it, simplified into 2-3 hours of tranquil, curious play. The subject is very topical for me at the moment as I am a new mother of a 9-month-old baby girl. Watching her grow and learn about herself and the world around her is an entertaining joy and so is Journey because it invokes a similar wonder and pleasure.
Puer (the name I’ve given our cloaked protagonist) is reincarnated from the stars to find himself with very little knowledge about his world (a windy, undulating desert) and limited ability to communicate or move around – just like a baby. The landscape is awe-inspiring and vast and Puer seems so small and insignificant. As he moves through his journey, he slowly gains skills and understanding; now he can have a bigger impact on the world around him. He meets and takes guidance from others who help him along the way (cloth creatures and spirits). He slowly grows and ages, although this is not visible of his character, it is the made apparent by the environment around him. Suddenly there are more complex problems to solve, histories to understand and a visual richness bringing to light detail that makes the mind wonder and guess at the past.
Puer’s scarf seems to represent knowledge and his life force. As he discovers and interacts with his world it grows in length and gives him power to move more easily through his environment. At the same time, the history of his world is slowly revealed. A once thriving population lived within a great city but the introduction of technology and eventual war caused the fall of the civilization. This history lesson is an important part of Journey. As Puer uncovers the past, he has aspirations for his future – knowledge is power, actions have consequences, be better than those before you. You feel a sadness at the loss of something once great and it drives you to want to ‘fix’ the world, but that is not the purpose of your Journey.
By the time Puer reaches the snow-covered mountain (the mother), he has aged substantially. His scarf is covered in frost, hindering his power to float and fly. It also represents the cloudiness in his knowledge – it is still there but it can’t be easily accessed. Puer’s movements are slow, impeded by powerful icy winds. Friends hover far away, high in the sky and are no longer much help. Some die around him, reminding him of his own dwindling mortality. Foes are lurking around every corner. The world has become a scary, difficult place.
Thankfully as he nears the end, Puer has a chance to be free of the shackles of age once more. He accepts his fate and returns to the source of all life – the mountain peak. Now he lives in his mind and is free of the burden of his body. He remembers the good times, his relationships and how far he has come. He finds peace and at that moment he is ready to die. As his soul is released from his body, it is returned to where it all began…
A cloaked being awakes in the dunes, ready to begin a new journey.
The game story gets 5/5 symbol stars. The fact that much of it is up for interpretation is a tribute to its intricate and personal subject – life.
Some time ago I wrote a post about my gaming history. Video games have been a big part of my life and have brought me hours of enjoyment over many years. This week a few uncanny occurrences caused me to rethink what gaming means to me today. So what happened, you ask. Well…
Firstly, I came out of a post natal depression funk (the reasons I haven’t posed here for some months) and realised the thing I wanted to do most was play games. I’d been advised to ‘remember what I liked doing’ and ‘do it’ again. Depression has a way of sapping all your desire to do anything aside for feel tired and shitty, but somehow I scrapped together enough gusto to go out and buy a game I’d heard a lot about – Journey.
Secondly, I got a response back from a reputable game development company in Mexico (my most favourite place), after I’d offered my creative writing services. They were keen to have me collaborate on a game they were currently developing in Spanish with an aim to translate and localise for English speaking countries. Holy Guacamole!
Finally, a film producer friend contacted me and revealed he was making a documentary about women in games (players, developers, designers etc). After some discussion he suggested that I be the ‘backbone’ of the story – using my gaming history, career choice and recent dabbling in games writing as the core content. Exciting!
So, here I am again, reflecting on the role of gaming in my life. I thought I’d try and list the games I remember playing, despite knowing many have been lost to the foggy mire of my terrible memory. Anyway, here goes (in no particular order and not listing versions):
|Packman||Golden Axe||Snack Rattle n Roll|
|Tetris||Mortal Kombat||Yoshi’s Island|
|F-18 Interceptor||Tekken||Donkey Kong|
|Indiana Jones||Ghouls n Ghosts||Loaded / Reloaded|
|Bubble Bobble||Time Crisis||Need for Speed|
|Super Frog||Buck Hunter||Oddworld|
|Kings Quest||Duck Hunt||Crash Bandicoot|
|Quest for Glory||Galaga||Silent Hill|
|Space Quest||1943||Assassin’s Creed|
|Giana Sisters||Point Blank||Halo|
|Road Rash||Tekken||Star Wars|
|Kick Off||Street Fighter||Splinter Cell|
|Marble Madness||Space Invaders||Call of Cthulhu|
|Heimdall||Destroy All Humans|
|Lemmings||Call of Duty|
|Legend of Kyrandia||Red Dead Redemption|
|Elder Scrolls||The Matrix|
|Curse of Enchantica||God Of War|
|Prince of Persia||Heavy Rain|
|Altered Beast||Starsky and Hutch|
I know there are plenty more I have just forgotten about but still it was fun recalling those who have stuck with me. I highlighted some my favourites in each category. As you can see, my preferred platform is console but I’m planning on hitting the PC again since there is just so much awesomeness on Steam (I’m thinking Limbo next).
I hope this post has stirred up your gaming memories 🙂 Let me know if you think I’ve missed any epics.
Good news! You can always read your books through Amazon Cloud reader irrespective of whether the book is purchased on Amazon.com or Amazon.com.au (or any other domain). This may surprise you, as it seems increasingly harder to find Cloud reader within the Amazon sites without knowing the direct URL. When I last purchased an eBook on Amazon.com.au I was presented with a handy button: Read now in Kindle Cloud Reader. I clicked it and huzzah – I was reading my new purchase within seconds, without having to download a pesky Kindle reader app onto my mac or mobile device.
The problem was, when I returned to Amazon.com.au several days later I could not find a way to open the book on Cloud reader. I navigated to Manage my content and devices and saw the eBook listed but when I attempted to “deliver” the book to my only device (the Cloud reader), it said the book was incompatible! I knew this was untrue due to my previous experience, so I emailed Amazon and got a prompt reply:
“I would also like to inform you that you can always read your books through our Cloud Reader service directly on web browser, there is no need to install the App. I would be providing you the link below to directly start reading the book from Cloud Reader, there is no need go to Amazon.com.au website or Amazon.com
To access Kindle Cloud Reader, visit https://read.amazon.com (Please remember this link, you can also bookmark it on your web browser, so that you can directly go to our Cloud reader services without going to Amazon website)”
So there you have it. No need for a Kindle or a Kindle device, just read your purchases online.
(This post is a follow on from Part 2 where I discuss querying overseas agents)
Since deciding to seek representation for my work, I’ve done a lot of research about the right, and more importantly, the wrong way to approach the agent querying process. Like all paths to professional writing, taking a wrong direction can be harmful to your reputation and put you miles behind the vast competition. The old, gung-ho, anything is possible as long as you want it bad enough me would have begun firing off hopeful, passionate query letters to anyone who’d listed an address, but the new me has learned that in this fickle, over-populated industry, you must plan, tailor and target any communications to those in the biz, else your message will be discarded before it is even read.
Although I have only sent a single query, which returned the response: “We are not taking on anymore clients currently,” I’m still going to stand on my soapbox and advise you to do some research of your own before sending any query letters. I wrote a post: Seeking Representation – Indie authors and agents (Part 2) which briefly talks about how you might select agencies or an agent to query but there is a lot more that could be read on that topic. I’d recommend posts such as The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Query Letter and The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel: Advice from Literary Agents. Also read this free and fantastically informative eBook (written by agent, Noel Lukemen).
Soon I will be writing a summary of the key points in Noel’s book, relating to works of FICTION. To give you a sneak-peak into that post though, the first key point is going to be… Research! Research the agencies that will be most likely to read and represent your work. Research how to write a good solid query letter and research your closest competitors. More soon.