DISCOVERY: A Point-and-Click Interactive Narrative

Posted on November 2, 2011

I’ve added a new project to the site: DISCOVERY! This was a team project for my Interaction Design class. Our goal was to build an interactive narrative that facilitated the use of multiple characters/perspectives to drive a story. What we ended up with is, according to our testing, an enjoyable mashup between an interactive narrative and a point-and-click puzzle game. A recent development in interactive narratives is the use of hyperlinks to drive the story. The obvious contrast is to games such as Zork and Colossal Cave Adventure which allow the player to type commands as they please. The advantage to using hyperlinks is that the interaction is directly joined to the text: rather than navigating a space, as in Zork, the player is navigating a story.

The engine we chose to use is called Twine. By default, Twine makes two story formats available and a small selection of links between “passages” (blocks of the story) with varying behaviors. One of the first things we noticed in our testing is that having hyperlinks immediately apparent in the text detracts from the reading experience. Rather than being focused on what is happening in the text the player is concerned about what will happen when they follow that link. We chose to counteract this by removing any decoration or differentiation from the links themselves until moused over or clicked on. What resulted is an experience that ends up looking very much like a story laid out on screen but is, in fact, driven by the player.

My contributions to the project were primarily technical. One of the features we wanted to add to the engine are contextual menus that allow for multiple interactions with each passage. I wrote a macro for the engine that allows for multiple choices and disables links to other story threads upon activation. I’ve added a link to that macro (as a text file) to the project page in case anyone is interested in using it elsewhere.

This isn’t my first interactive narrative project but it is the one I’m most proud of. In a class I took a year ago we built a narrative in Inform7, an engine that produces Zork-style experiences. Literally, I was pleased with that project. Technically, it didn’t do anything interesting. It was refreshing to be able to step back and look at the interactive experience holistically in order to build tools that suited it rather than writing a story to suit an existing system.

Deleting Games

Posted on August 5, 2011

A while back I found a wonderful little Geometry Wars clone for my Android phone. It was fun, the controls were great, there was progression to attain, and it was perfectly suited to short but engaging play sessions. So why did I delete it last week?

First, a little bit more about it. The most enjoyable thing about Tilt Arena is the controls. Few mobile games take advantage of their platform the way this lovely little shooter does: simply tilt the phone to move your character. Firing your weapon happens automatically (as it should with that many enemies). Tapping the screen pauses the game and re-calibrates the controls.

The progression is, unfortunately, about as deep as the gameplay. There are a half-dozen extra weapons to be attained by meeting milestones in your cumulative score. Some, like bombs and bouncy bullets, are very fun and add a lot to the 5-minute play sessions. Others, like missiles, cripple the player. The game first stagnates and later rots as good weapons stop coming and the player is cheated by bad weapons.

The controls are good enough to overcome the weapon woes. Why, then, did I delete the game? I began to play it exactly as I played Brick Breaker in the dark ages of the Blackberry. No goals in mind, no expectations at all. Just a weak desire to kill some time and, maybe, get a higher score than ever before. High scores are a fine mechanic but they aren’t everything. I refuse to simply waste time. There are many great games I can spend my time playing that both entertain and edify me.

I highly recommend Tilt Arena, it’s a brilliant little game. Play it for the enjoyable control scheme. When it becomes a way to waste time, delete it and move on.

Vacation! Time to write!

Posted on May 8, 2011

Here I am, sitting on my family’s couch watching the Braves and being generally unproductive. That’s fine, really; it’s ok to not be making something happen at every waking moment. Strangely, it’s not doing it for me right now. I have nothing keeping me from working on the personal projects I’ve been poking a stick at for the past few months. There is no schoolwork waiting on me, I have the week off from work, dear Lori is in Chicago, and I’m not even in my own home to tidy up. Why is it that it’s most difficult to be productive in times like these? Likely because I’m stunningly lazy. At any rate, writing seemed like something I could apply myself to and my blog has absolutely been neglected in the past weeks. I’m not sure if this is going to be straightforward or more of a brain dump. Uncertainty! Adventure!

Sync

One of my classes this semester, LCC4725 Game Design as a Cultural Practice, entailed developing a Flash game with a team of classmates. The outcome for me and my team was Sync, a game centered on the notion of mimicry. We wanted to create a two-player game that called upon one player to identify and mimic patterns behavioral patterns of on-screen units; the second player is tasked with identifying the first. I’m not going to say much more than that because I really should do a proper postmortem. That’s not to say the project is dead, there is interest amongst my teammates to continue development. You can give it a play in its current form on Kongregate.

Summer Conference

Reformed University Fellowship’s summer conference begins tomorrow! I’ll be leaving home with my brother and a mutual friend from high school in tow. It’ll be a long drive that will likely involve some wonderful Atlanta traffic. Panama City Beach is a worthy reward! There will be a swarm of Yellow Jackets there this year and it’s sure to be a raucous and encouraging week. I’m excited about the seminars I’m signed up to participate in and getting to spend more time with friends from Tech.

Lori is in Chicago

Hey, look! Another marriage-tagged post! As I’ll be away at summer conference, Lori is taking this week to visit her good friend and maid-of-honor Margo in Lincoln Park, Chicago. This is the greatest time and distance to separate us since, well, since we met. It was difficult to say goodbye at the airport (she also flew alone for the first time) but I’m thankful for the opportunity for her. I’m praying that she will return refreshed and renewed: theirs is the sort of friendship that seems to rejuvenate them both.

I’ve also posted another paper/blog post from the LCC4725 blog below. This time it’s a design reflection on our semester project (Sync, as you know). My role in development was as a programmer and I took the chance to note how design and programming meshed over the course of the semester, perhaps you’ll find it interesting. As always, thanks for reading and God bless.

Nathan

Programming Sync

Posted on

Throughout Game Design as a Cultural Practice I have been confronted by new ideas and ways of thinking about games that have subsequently manifested themselves in my semester project: Sync. As a programmer I found that many initial design decisions fell on me while building the first prototypes and, later, while adding features and tools. In the following paragraphs I will discuss how programming and design intertwined during my hours working on Sync throughout the class’s iterative design process.

Early game prototyping is extremely fun. During the Sync team’s first meeting Ben introduced us to a game concept centered on a mimicry mechanic. It met the requirements for the class project, we were all excited about it, and Joe and I immediately set to work building prototypes to demonstrate potential movement paradigms. These first prototypes were set before our team members and, based on their feedback, I jumped into Flixel (our engine of choice) and continued constructing the prototype. At this stage I made several design decisions (fully expecting them to be overwritten later) encompassing colors, screen layout, level design, and player controls. The aesthetic qualities that resulted can appropriately be called “programmer art.” Fortunately, as Eric Zimmerman notes, “initial prototypes are usually quite ugly… they emphasize the game rules.” (Zimmerman) Indeed, early Sync prototypes opened right up to the game screen and presented the tester with a set of yellow squares moving in a circle: that is all that it took to model our core mechanic and springboard the game through an iterative design process.

“Aesthetics,” as I have perhaps improperly referred to them, do play a significant role in the design of a game. It was very obvious that there were no perceived affordances in these first prototypes: interacting with the game relied first on cultural conventions (the correspondence of arrow keys with two-dimensional movement in a flash game, their conventional but not inherent usage) and my instruction. (Norman) Furthermore, the unit art did not lend itself to the primary game mechanics of mimicry and discernment: the impostor was unable to take particular control over one of the units (“Which one am I?”) and the judge was unable to follow through on perceived irregularities in unit movement. The need for distinguishable units was established in these early prototypes and followed several iterations as development continued: yellow squares became colored, colored squares were re-colored to be more easily distinguishable, and finally the squares were replaced with Cameron’s art assets. The result is a much better solution to a requirement established very early on in the process but which also lent itself to other developments along the way. As in Zimmerman’s LOOP, the early implementation of our core mechanic inspired many questions that led to later developments. (Zimmerman)

One of the most significant additions to the game as a result of our play testing was a space for the impostor player to practice moving a unit in the pattern presented and with the appropriate physics. Our basic mechanic was technically sound but the game play was broken: impostors would give themselves away almost immediately, almost every time. In this case, in addition to the need for a practice arena, we did not provide enough affordances to indicate to the impostor that they were taking control of a unit at a certain point in time. As Norman points out, a computer mouse “affords pointing, touching, looking, and clicking on every pixel of the display screen.” Similarly, we chose to utilize the arrow keys’ inherent affordance of being pressed in both responsive and unresponsive ways: making the player aware of when the keys became responsive was critical. Our design allows for the player to “get into sync” with their chosen unit by pressing the buttons as if they are controlling the unit when they are not. This enables a rhythm of sorts to be established before the first player is exposed to the judgment of the second.

To this point I have said little about programming except that my placeholder art was very poor. To switch gears I would like to return to Norman’s perceived affordances and cultural conventions. Although the game has always been about a player mimicking a trivial artificial intelligence, the cultural norms behind the standard controls for a two dimensional Flash game are strongly reflected in Sync’s architecture. The units’ motion is based on four Boolean (true / false) parameters that, for the player, are controlled by the arrow keys. For the AI, these parameters are controlled by rules that, originally, were hard-coded into the game. The iterative design process introduced different ideas for behaviors that we wanted to implement and the notion of a “level” (yet another cultural convention) persisted. The game’s architecture was modified to allow levels to be built with rules in an XML file that ultimately describe which button presses the AI units are simulating. The game’s description implies to the player that he or she should be able to reproduce the movement of the AI units on screen: the actual movement of the units in two dimensional space suggests to the player the button presses required to mimic their behavior. In this sense, the programming behind the artificially controlled units creates a perceived affordance of interactivity to the player.

I really enjoyed programming Sync and I learned a lot from Celia’s lectures, the readings, and especially the chance to design, build, play test, and release this game. I believe our final design and architecture are conceptually solid and I look forward to refining the details of Sync to create an experience that brings people together and leads to even more new ideas of what a video game can be.

Norman, D.A. (2004). “Affordances and design.” http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/affordances_and.html

Zimmerman, E. (2003). “Play as research: The iterative design process.” http://www.ericzimmerman.com/texts/Iterative_Design.htm

 

The Secret Garden of Aquaria

Posted on March 15, 2011

This was originally posted on a class blog. I am happy enough with it to want to share it and preserve it here. Indie games are amazing. That is all.

In these ancient ruins laid the untold histories of Aquaria. With exploration and perseverance, I would rediscover long lost knowledge.

Aquaria is a beautiful action-adventure game developed and published by the independent game company Bit Blot (a name that is, appropriately, meant to indicate a synthesis of technology and art). (Gamasutra) The world of Aquaria demonstrates what Fullerton et al describe as a “regendered,” perhaps even a “degendered” space in the tradition of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. This is not, however, because Aquaria lacks combat mechanics. Rather, Aquaria’s world (its “space”) is one dominated by a spirit of mystery, intrigue, and discovery.

The first hour of Aquaria’s gameplay tends to turn away a large number of “gamers” attuned to gendered spaces as described in A Game of One’s Own. Naija, the game’s protagonist, is distinctly female and resembles a mermaid. Her primary ability is the composition of song through eight notes made readily available to the player. With these notes she sings to plants to encourage them to release ingredients for Aquaria’s cooking mini-game (more on that later) and perform other skills, the first of which can create a protective shield around her. Aquaria’s “Narrative Environment” is facilitated by the game’s early emphasis on exploration and introspection. (Fullerton et al) The exploration motif is driven by a beautifully illustrated, largely benign world (at the beginning) whose mechanics are generally unknown to the player: enjoying the world and discovering which parts of the landscape can be interacted with are important pieces of the Secret Garden concept. Introspection comes in the form of a voice-over of the character and in-game “visions” of the future. The voice-overs are written from an authoritative, first-person point of view and often hint at future events in the storyline while drawing the player into the character very intimately.

A race, known as the Krotites, had built this temple to worship this fallen god. They’d honored raw power over anything else. Unlike the spirit I’d encountered in the crystal, these people had no interest in creation. They reveled in destruction.Their lust for power led not only to the downfall of their civilization, but also the destruction of another. Now, this destructive power simmered within me.

Although Aquaria maintains these motifs of exploration and introspection throughout, its nature changes dramatically after an hour or two of playtime. Naija ventures into a temple where she discovers a new song that transforms her into a being of power (referred to as her “energy form”) capable of destroying pieces of the world she previously related to only peacefully. This is where “attuned” gamers begin to enjoy the game more and where Aquaria’s nature comes into question. However, this form neither turns Naija into a killer nor makes the game a shooter. She recognizes the sadness of the power she has gained and, although its usage is up to the player, does not revel in it. Regardless of the powers and skills that Naija finds, the world of Aquaria is not a battlefield: it is very deeply “imbued with story and mystery to be discovered and uncovered.” (Fullerton et al)

I was enveloped by a warm light, as familiarity overwhelmed me… I had come home.

Aquaria contains notably domestic motifs for an action-adventure game. A large amount of space and relatively little utility is given for Naija’s home. This space’s sentimental value is very aptly developed for the player: the unique art assets combined with Naija’s comments encourage the player to form an attachment to the “home waters.” Naija’s little section of the world features, among other things, a bedroom and a kitchen. An important component of the Secret Garden formula is secrecy, a motif that comes across in Naija’s home. The space is open, somewhat mysterious in places, is shared with benign sea creatures and plants, and cut off from the (slightly more hostile) outside world. The wispy curtains in Naija’s bedroom are visually and emotionally fantastic: this is a retreat from the cares and stresses of the unknown world outside.

There were many strange ingredients to be found in the waters of Aquaria. By cooking them together with the verse, I could create new foods.

The game features a semi-optional cooking minigame that both encourages the player to pay close attention to the world of Aquaria and strengthens their attachment to it. Ingredients are littered about the world and often require a sharp eye and a song for retrieval. Many advanced recipes can only be “cooked” in Naija’s kitchen. The weighty backdrop of domesticity in Aquaria reflects the successes of The Sims and other “degendered” games without coming across as heavy handed or loaded.

In summary, Aquaria is all about discovery, exploration, and introspection and features overtly domestic motifs that lend themselves to comparison with The Secret Garden and the games that exhibit similar motifs. It is a roller coaster of a game: tranquil at times and frantic at others. Throughout, it is charming and engaging for both the “attuned” gamer and the new gamer alike, regardless of gender.

Fullerton, T., Morie, J. & Pearce, C. (aka Ludica) (2007). “A Game Of Ones Own: Towards a New Gendered Poetics of Game Space.” In Proceedings, Digital Arts & Culture 2007, Perth, Australia, September 2007.

Holowka, Alec; Yu, Derek. Interview by Alistair Wallis. Road To The IGF: Bit Blot’s Aquaria. Gamasutra, 2006. March 14th, 2011. http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=11362.