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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.

 


From Mystery Novels... to Interactive Mysteries

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Books, games... they're all on devices now anyway!

I recently renewed my membership in the venerable organization Mystery Writers of America, and for the first time, I qualified for active-status membership. MWA is "the premier organization for mystery writers, professionals allied to the crime writing field, aspiring crime writers, and those who are devoted to the genre." To qualify for active status as a fiction writer, you have to be a professional author, and the criteria for that is listed here, but essentially that means you need to have earned more than the threshold in one calendar year on "mystery works."

Note that the MWA motto is 'crime doesn't pay... enough,' and that's for a reason. The threshold is not what would constitute a full-time livable wage. This might be surprising to anyone who thinks that authors these days earn gobs of money the minute they put their works out into the world. But, heh, heh, no. See this post for more on that. But anyway, back to the active status. What pushed me over the hump in 2017 was my writing for games, not books.

Last year, I wrote and designed four game titles that involved a mystery of some kind. Two were squarely in the mystery camp, and narrative driven, so I based my active status application on those.

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Images courtesy Pixelberry Studios

The first is my latest release, a choice-based narrative for Pixelberry Studios, just out in June. Pixelberry is a market-leader in this space, and it was an honor to get to work with the creative, smart team, especially my editor, Andrew Shvarts, who also writes both books and games. In Veil of Secrets, what should be a lovely wedding in charming Birchport, Massachussetts, goes horribly awry when the bride, your bestie from college, turns up missing. As a journalist, you're naturally hot on the trail and uncover a strange mystery--not to mention dead bodies. The choice is yours in this interactive romantic suspense story. Which of Birchport's hotties gets your attention is up to you, as well as who lives or dies.

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This title is what you might call a 'visual novel,' as the text is accompanied by character and environmental art, sort of like a comic book. One of the design aspects I enjoy about this work is the chance to weigh in on those art decisions.

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Images courtesy Daily Magic Productions

The second mystery title qualifying me for active status in MWA is the text adventure Sender Unknown: The Woods, published by Daily Magic Productions and released in fall 2017. I've written about this project previously on the blog (here, here, and here). It was featured in the App Store on release and was nominated for an International Mobile Gaming Award. GameZebo called it "the next leap forward in mobile."

Here's the description: Through a text message, fate connects you with a total stranger. Now you are Morgan's only hope to survive. Will you serve as a lifeline, or return to your own life and let a stranger's fate go unknown?

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I think the reason it's received so much attention is that it represents an innovation in the 'chat fiction' genre. The studio owner and I took the text-adventure model exemplified by leading games in the genre and added an element that she and I know well from our work together through Big Fish: hidden-object scenes and puzzles. So while the bulk of the game looks like text messages, the fictional app you and your 'sender unknown' are using also has the capability of sharing images, which allows you to help this stranger solve some odd traps.

Working on games like Veil of Secrets and Sender Unknown holds enormous appeal for me because of the mashup of left- and right-brain activity. My techie side gets to play with my imaginative side, and the two sort of roll around in the paint together. Yeah, and sometimes that gets sexy. ;)

If you're a budding writer out there who thinks writing your novel as a game is your ticket out of a day job, you might want to do some more thinking on this. First, you really have to have a passion for the game. Full disclosure: I was a total nerd as a kid, and that was back in the 80s, when you got beat up for it. I secretly played games like Stellar Lifeline on my dad's "trash 80" Radio Shack computer, and that's also when I encountered my first text adventure, Haunted House. I also read every one of these I could get my hands on.

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Image source NeoGAF

It's not that you have to have played games as a kid to do this work, but thinking you can take your novel and publish it as a game is a sure sign that you're doing this for the wrong reasons--and that it won't work. Both of the games above were conceived of as games--not novels first. After more than a decade as a game writer and designer, I can tell you this is a medium of its own, with its own history, best practices, and techniques. Too much for this post, but feel free to join me July 29 at Pixelpop, when I lead a workshop on this very topic! 

If you're a regular reader of mystery books but have never given games a chance, I recommend diving in. Try one of the above, and let me know what you think. And stay tuned for more coming out in the next year!

For those of you who've played these games or other story-rich games, what do you love about them? What do you think we could do better? Tell us in the comments below.