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Photos from PixelPop 2018 and the Big SLU Flashback Event

As mentioned previously, I gave a presentation this weekend at PixelPop Festival. (If you missed it and wish you hadn't, never fear. I'll be reprising the talk for the St. Louis Game Developers Co-Op in a couple of weeks. There's also coverage on the blog in the form of a two-part series: 1) Why Does Story Matter in Games? and 2) What Makes a Game Story Work? because apparently I'm obsessed with questions-as-headlines.)

Organizers Carol Mertz and Mary McKenzie Kelly and their super-cool army of volunteers did a fantastic job of creating and running a high-quality, highly-inclusive game con. More than one person I met commented on the open, friendly, encouraging atmosphere and the extremely helpful takeaways.

Here are some pics!

The expo hall was overwhelmingly dominated by console games, but I stumbled upon this awesome mobile game by developer Bravendary, and since I was tasked with judging games for the Select Award, I gave it my vote. Super Bobbert and the Infinity Tree is a "risk/reward collection game." You play by dragging your finger on the screen or tilting your device to move a pair of telescoping hands up a tree, rescuing kites, balls, and yes, cats--and avoiding collision with tree branches. I gave them some feedback about making the game more accessible to casual players, but I think it's super cute and has great potential. I'm excited to see two developers of color bringing something new to the table.

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Developer Philip Hayes demo-ing Super Bobbert.

One of the most interesting talks I attended was the fireside chat between Leah "Gllty" Hayes, a Street Fighter e-sports champion and Jason Li, a longtime fan and competitor in fighting games. Hayes first learned to play in the arcades of her youth here in St. Louis and is from nearby St. Charles. I knew nothing about fighting game culture and found her insights into the differences between U.S. and Japanese subcultures fascinating. For example, in Japan, gamers might be somewhat hostile to those outside the homogenous Japanese culture, but they are very supportive of women learning to game.

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Here's a demo of a game in development called Stepsisters. It's based on the darker, Grimm's fairy tale version of Cinderella, so the object is to, um, get your toes cut off in order to fit your foot into the glass slipper, marry the prince, and win the game. I feel kind of conflicted about it, but I was schooled on feminist references to classic fairytales in the style of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. What do you think?

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Created by students from Bradley University. Pictured here: Warren Guiles, who's in St. Louis this summer interning with Graphite Labs, and Jake Velicer. 
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Creepy, or cool? You tell me.

In the category of "That talk you wish you hadn't been late for" is Kevin Snow's presentation on accessibility in games, but I made up for it with a one-on-one afterward, and I managed to snap a pic of this super-helpful collection of resource links.

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Next is a couple of guys down from Chicago, reps from a student-run studio at DePaul University. I was drawn to their table because they had a bunch of books on display, and book/game crossovers are something I would like to see much more of at game cons. They used fish for controllers, so even though I'm not into fighting games, I had to play this one.

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Josh Delson of JDE, for Junior Development Experience.
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The game is called Sashimi Slammers.

One of the cool things about attending a game con in your own town is running into former students--which happened a lot! It was great to see so many game design majors from Webster University representing. Here's Sarah Brill, showing off a game she helped create through her summer internship with local developer Graphite Labs.

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Sarah created art for Compost Conundrum, an educational game about the value of garden composting.

Another Webster face in the crowd was my friend and former colleague Rob Santos, there showing off a unique game interface. You communicate with a spirit through a Quija Board to uncover a mystery in the game Good Luck. The planchette lights up over letters on the board, allowing the spirit to relate the tale.

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The creativity on display here is why students rave about Rob as a teacher.

I think I might have been the oldest presenter at this youthful con, but it's OK. I just told everyone the reason my hair is this color is because I'm a Targaryen.

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I chose "she" as my pronoun sticker only because "She Who Must Be Obeyed" wasn't an option.

Now in the headline I promised you something about a Big Flashback Event, and here it is. Some of you know last summer I moved back to the Midwest after nearly 20 years away. This con was at my alma mater.

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My dorm from 1989-90. Back then it wasn't emblazoned with the school's name.
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I staffed this cashier booth when the garage first opened. It's now undergoing renovation, and maybe I am, too.

To conclude this pic-laden recap, I've presented at and/or attended big cons like GDC, Casual Connect, AWP, and PNWA. But this is one of my favorites for the inclusivity, friendliness, and hometown vibe.

 


What Makes a Game Story Work?

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Clementine, from The Walking Dead. Image source: screen cap.

Last week, we talked about why story matters in games, looking at how we experience games as well as what data and market performance has told us. Now I'd like to dive into how to make story work in games. In my own narrative design, it comes down to these three elements:

  1. Conflict
  2. Mystery
  3. Connection

You'd think conflict would be a given, the default first step for any game designer working on a narrative project. But at least in my experience, you'd be wrong. I can't tell you how many games I've been asked to triage, and the first thing I see is that while there might be a lot of WORDS in the game, there's actually no story. Because there's no conflict. And without conflict, you have no drama, no story "stuff."

To quote my buddy Evan Skolnick:

The fuel of fiction is conflict.

    - Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques

Let's take an example from a highly successful game that managed to suck me in despite its lack of story. (Because that happens. All the time. Just because I said last week that story can make games better, and that's been proved by data, doesn't mean stories without games are failures. Or that every game needs a story. These are not absolutes, people.) Anyway, the game is Farmville 2: Country Escape. I love, love, love this game. But there's no story in the game because there is no drama. What it does have are a lot of cute characters with little vignettes about them that you may or may not read because they are pleasant little scenarios, but no more. There's no conflict and therefore no drama, nothing for any of the characters to struggle against or triumph over. To return to the quote from Jonathan Gottschall, there's no "suction of story" for your mind to "yield helplessly to." Maybe that's OK, but it seems to me if you are going to go to the trouble of putting a lot of words in a game, you can use them to craft a conflict and get some more suction.

The first way to create conflict is to use the nature of the gameplay itself, but creating a STORY REASON for the gameplay. For example, in Matchington Mansion, players get to restore and redecorate a mansion. So it makes sense for the first bit of drama to be related to that, as in, uh-oh, this mansion I just inherited is falling apart!

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Image source: screen cap.

One of the most obvious ways to create conflict is to add an antagonist, as we did with the introduction of the character Rex Houston. He's the only surviving relative of the woman who left you her mansion, and he wants to take it from you--so he can raze it and build a casino on the site.

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Image source: Screen cap.

Now let's talk about mystery. Adding story can mean giving players something to investigate, but it's important to let them find the answer through gameplay, since this thing is a game first and a story second, most often. Then reward them with story reveals.

"Mystery" can apply to any genre, so it doesn't have to be a straight-up detective tale to give you that sense of something to discover or solve. In fact, I'm working on a game called Survivors: The Quest, and providing players with new mysteries to solve is getting me through hundreds of hours of new content in a game that I've been working on for more than a year.

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Image source: screen cap.

In Matchington, we gave players something to investigate in the environment itself, as part of the builder interactions.

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Image source: screen cap of in-development build.

Lastly is connection. While strict puzzlers like Tetris certainly have their appeal, players love game worlds filled with other people their player character can interact with. That's something that the aforementioned Farmville 2 has going for it, despite the lack of conflict. One of the best parts of that game is meeting a diverse crop of farmhands who help you find resources you can use in the game, like quartz from the mine, that you can turn into farm products, like a glass bottle for your wine.

Here we have your neighbor Edna Downing, a source of quirky amusement as she drops passive-aggressive comments like the one below or quotes from her downer poetry. But she also has a game reason for being there: She introduces players to the feature that allows them to visit other mansions.

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Image source: screen cap of in-development build.

It's good when creating story in your games to think about C-M-C: Conflict, Mystery, and Connection. Watch these moments from The Walking Dead and see if you can spot conflict, mystery, and connection in them.

I'll be speaking on this topic this weekend at PixelPop! Hope to see you there.

 


Why Does Story Matter in Games?

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Clementine, from the The Walking Dead. Image source: Wikipedia

It would be easy to say that everything is better when you add a story to it. You know, like bacon, story makes everything better. But unfortunately, that has not always been the assumption in the game industry, where writers sometimes find themselves fighting for story territory in the games they're working on, or brought in too late in a game's development, when they're expected to shoehorn a story into a game that doesn't have one--and desperately needs one.

I've also seen story handled badly in games, which only perpetuates the problem.

But since the primary reason players come to a game is TO PLAY A GAME, it begs the question: Why does story matter?

We can approach this by first brainstorming from our own observed experiences. What does story add to the games you've played? What would your experience of the games be like if there were no stories?

As a writer first, and a gamer second, I'm someone who comes to games LOOKING FOR THE STORY. But the reason I'm drawn to games at times instead of books is for the interactive experience. I want to co-create the narrative, and that can mean anything from making choices that shape my player character, as I did in Firewatch and The Walking Dead, to uncovering clues about my character's past in the Gardenscapes series of Match-3 builder games. 

I also want to play. I enjoy the hunt for clues, the Match-3 game, the strategizing, decision-making, and puzzle-solving. By the way, I don't like to kill in my games and kind of think it's weird that we associate video games primarily with killing, but I don't mind shooting at targets. I struggled with this aspect of The Walking Dead even though my victims were, um, already dead.

Next, to find evidence to support story's place in games, we might look at what experts have said. I like this quote from Jonathan Gottschall's book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human:

Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can't resist the gravity of alternate worlds.

"Suction" hits it for me. Just watch a person's eyes light up when you say, "Let me tell you a story..."

We can also look at this more scientifically, and more specifically about games, through data. The Entertainment Software Association surveys players annually, and they ask what drives their purchase decisions. Story is always a major factor.

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Image source: www.theesa.com

Lastly, I can share what experience has shown me to be true about games. I've worked in the industry for more than a decade, and about half that time I spent at Big Fish, a major publisher of a wide variety of games.

Big Fish published its first game in 2002, an online version of mahjongg. So, not much story there, but the game did very well.

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Image source: www.bigfishgames.com

Next, the design team at Big Fish hit an untapped nerve in the market with hidden-object games (HOGs). They were popular with the older, mostly female audience--a demographic albeit ignored by developers at the time. HOGs harkened back to traditional I-spy games found in newspapers and magazines.

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Image source: www.bigfishgames.com

The hidden-object game genre evolved quickly at Big Fish, and in a narrative direction that drew on a cultural legacy of text adventure games. The hidden-object puzzle adventure game (HOPA) was born. I've covered this in more detail over at the Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games magazine, but here's a trailer to give you an idea of how story-driven and cinematic the genre has become.

The reason for this move toward greater narrative content and development is simple: It helped sell the game. We knew from customer survey data and game performance that great stories made great games, and customers loved them.

So there you have it: Data, game performance, and playtesting feedback tell us stories make games better. But maybe you already knew intuitively that a good storyline sucks you in, no matter what the medium. What are your favorite game stories? Comment below!

Note: I'll be speaking on this topic July 29 at PixelPop in St. Louis. Next week on the blog, I'll continue with some guidelines for good narrative design.