"These are clearly black market frankenproducts – made from a combination of surplus mobile phone components and car alarm key rings. I wonder how much they actually cost to manufacture. I wonder if the bits are stolen." Ben Bashford on the magic of Shanzai. And, of course, when a video camera is eight pounds, it's no longer precious, and you start doing weird things with it: Youtube is full of examples.
"Curveship is an interactive fiction system that provides a world model (of characters, objects, locations, and things that happen) while also modeling the narrative discourse, so that the narration and description of the simulated world can change. Curveship can tell events out of order, using flashback and other techniques, and can tell the story from the standpoint of particular characters and their perceptions and understandings." This looks both bonkers and brilliant.
"Data combined with narrative creates personality. It can be used to construct a larger and richer history around a subject.
The world is already divided in to two camps: People who are going to watch the Super Ball and those who aren't. This is an opportunity to delight the former and reach the latter, by providing a larger and more playful cast of characters to describe the events during the game." Nice!
23 January 2011
It was History Hack Day this weekend. My friend Ben Griffiths scraped the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s register to try to contextualise the death of his great-uncle in World War II.
Before you read on, please do read his story. It’s worth your time.
Ben’s hack is intelligent and, as ever, he explains it with precision and grace. But really, it wasn’t the hack I wanted to draw to your attention; it was the story he tells.
Like many hacks at such events, it begins with a data, scraped or ingested, and Ben’s plotted it over time, marking the categories his great-uncle is represented by.
But data over time isn’t a story; it’s just data over time. A graph; or, if you like, a plot. What makes it a story? A storyteller; someone to intervene, to show you what lies between the points, what hangs off that skeleton. Someone to write narrative – or, in Ben’s case, to relate history, both world and personal.
I’m left, after all this, thinking of just how young these bomber boys were. Looking at this data has been a much more moving exercise than I was expecting.
I found it very affecting, too, but not just because I was looking at the data: I was looking at it through the lens that Ben offered me in the story he told. When you consider it’s the story of one tragic loss amid 12,395 others, you pause, reflect, and try to perhaps comprehend that.
In the end, I couldn’t, entirely, but I tried – and because somebody told me just one story, about one individual, his plane, and his colleagues, I perhaps came closer to an understanding than I otherwise might have. And, because of that, I’m very grateful Ben shared that single story. I’d call that a very worthwhile hack.
"Too many times proponents of interactive fiction talk as if it’s a new thing, as if interactivity were never part of the reading experience. How many of us has written in the margin of a book, turned down a corner of a page or smoothed the book back at a particular passage, felt our attention wander as we gaze out the window? We each interpret a story in different ways; it’s how we can re-read a book without getting bored, or watch the same film twice." This is cracking stuff from Kat; I am glad she's written it down.
04 November 2010
There was a reason I wrote a piece of fanfiction based on a game that boils down to a spreadsheet.
Game Dev Story is interesting, for me, because, when you take it apart: there’s almost no Story within the game. It’s just a mechanical engine for simulating a games company (and not even that sophisticated an engine). People work; numbers go up; games either sell or don’t, with sales figures rarely correlating to review scores.
But where’s the story?
There’s a loose theme, sure, with a defined arc: start small, grow into a bigger company by selling more games. There’s almost no writing; what there is is weakly translated, rammed into a line or two of the lazy port. There’s a lot of Devving of Games, but, in the code that executes, there’s relatively little Story to speak of. Just numbers, going up, or down.
Every now and then, the game asks you to type something in: the name of your company, the name of a game. And that’s where the magic begins.
In that little flight of creativity, the game opens up: the player starts writing their own story. The player isn’t just typing names into boxes. They’re saying the words aloud in your head – and that conjures images of box-art, screengrabs, scathing magazine reviews; cardboard standees packed full of buggy, terrible, detective puzzle games, waiting to be flogged.
Sometimes, the companies we invent ring true. Gnarly Games, though named as a pastiche of Visceral, turned out to become a strange mix of From Software and Konami, through their constant return to dour mecha-games and campy vampire nonsense. Their greatest success was, essentially, a Castlevania MMO. Or rather: that’s what I saw in my head. A goofy name, combined with two drop-down fields defining the type of game, led to a moment of wishful, what-if? thinking.
Sometimes, we just give things rude names for the fun of it. But so often that’s a joke that keeps on giving. As the eager secretary tells you again of the wild sales figures for Buggy Shit!! 3, it’s hard not to raise a smile.
The stories you end up telling yourself are surprisingly complex, too. The rise and fall of little companies, kept down by absurd devkit costs and the inability to shift enough units on consoles with dwindling popularity; the companies that held on to founding staff as totems too long, rather than hiring the staff they need; the companies that failed to diversify out of the genre they first found success in. All that is in your head; all the game presents is numbers and loose encouragement.
Game Dev Story exemplifies a kind of mechanical storytelling: stories told not through text or voice-acting, but through coherent systems that cannot help but generate stories. I’m not waving my hands in my air here and making an excuse – “Oh, it has emergent narrative“; my point is that, in good mechanical storytelling, narrative cannot help but emerge. It’s designed into the system.
Such systems are shaped to tell tales of lower-tier football teams, or the survivors of a zombie apocalypse, or mercenaries in Africa, or little companies trying to make videogames. Experiences you play, and feel, and believe, because you’re as much a part of the telling as the machine throwing its myriad D20s.
And, for all its lazy porting, weak writing, and repetitive formula, that is something Game Dev Story does remarkably well. It turns out that it’s not a story in itself. It’s a tool to help players tell thousands of stories. Telling your own stories about running a games company – through the medium of tapping on icons, and waiting – is far more compelling than any description could make out.
It’s a tool to help you do something. That notion led to the thought that mechanically-realised stories – the kind that movies can’t really ever tell, and the kind that games are invariably best at – are a kind of narrative exoskeleton.
Exoskeletons can do two things. Firstly, they can enhance your own abilities: they make you better at something you can already do – faster at running, stronger at lifting. And secondly, they can give you superpowers: things you could never do yourself – such as flying, or breathing in a vacuum, or surviving intense heat.
The best narrative exoskeletons do a bit of both. Off the top of my head: Left 4 Dead; Far Cry 2; Championship Manager; MUD; Acquire; Illuminati!; Werewolf; almost any tabletop RPG. Stories are baked into systems, but told through the by – and through – the players operating within them. Sometimes, we bring our own stories and personalities to the table, and the system amplifies them – the individual relationships between each player in a Left 4 Dead game add as much to their realisation as the characterisation in the script. Sometimes, those systems allow us to do things we could never do: they kill off characters we were too fond of; they force us to move out of our comfort zones; they have a grace of language or performance that we might be unable to attain.
I’m fed up of talking about stories in games (and I say that as someone who has loved many narrative-heavy, densely-plotted titles). Games are much more effective – and interesting – as tools for delivering stories, and, given that players will find their own stories anyway, why not build interesting systems that will shape their tales in exciting and unexpected ways?
Why not build story-telling engines, and narrative exoskeletons?
And that’s why I like Game Dev Story so much: for a game with so little of what most games would call “story” in it, it turns out to live up to the promise of its name in so many ways.
"The point is that making one-click tools that force the entire web to play catchup, whilst putting people at risk, just isn’t a sensible way of talking about security. There’s a reason we (most of us, anyway) don’t secure our houses with turret guns and dogs, and that’s because most of the time, a lock and key is good enough. We want just enough security to feel safe at night, and not to cause us too much hassle. And that’s why this tool makes me sad. Because it’s a symbol of an arms race – a fight to the death over unimportant things, when really, I’d rather not have to remember to lock my windows at night." Yes.
"Today's video is 'Boys vs Girls', showing the relative points and badges etc. accumulated by boys vs. girls over the course of the day. It ends with a "get running, girls!" message, and I love that data visualization is being used as a way for a brand to tell a story, in something close to real time, in a specific way tailored to the events on the ground."
Jamie Fristrom on collaborative-storytelling-RPGs. Lots of good links and thoughts here – especially the line about White Wolf's "disenfranchising" of the player by calling the GM (of all people) a "storyteller".
You know, it's thing like this that make me really wish I had the time to devote to properly grokking Dwarf Fortress, because sod the pictures, it's just a brilliant _story_.
"It now seems morally important to me to do without minor characters in a story. Any character who appears, however briefly, deserves to have his or her life story fully respected and told."
"I thought this was a fascinating take on the need within companies for stories… Companies spend a lot of money looking for these stories. Traditional product companies had to ask people and users to tell their stories, normally through market research. Web companies are at a huge advantage: they have rivers of usage data flowing through their servers, and the problem inverses – how to make sense and tease out meaning and interest from such a torrent." This is very good; I'm looking forward to future installments.
"If Ferelden has room for priests, elves, mages and golems then why doesn’t it have room for sceptics and scientists too?" Lovely notion – roleplaying an aetheist in Dragon Age (as best possible within the game). In this case, the player character believes in magic, but not in the montheist religion that much of the world ascribes to; miracles are really just magic at work. Subsitute "magic" for "science" and you begin to see his point. It's a nicely thought-through piece.
"The closer has confounded hitters with mostly one pitch: his signature cutter." Lovely motion infographics – informative, and powerfully confirming the narration.
"The move during the past 10 years or so has been from cameras being precision mechanical devices to molded polycarbonate containers for electronic components. This has meant a lowering of overall physical quality. What one gets in terms of features, functions and image quality is higher than ever before, but the satisfaction of owning and using a high quality mechanical and optical device has for the most part evaporated. Only the top models within any brand produce a tactile satisfaction and please one's esthetic sense." The quotation is from Michael Reichmann; the discussion that follows is as thoughtful as usual from TOP's readers.
I could, charmlessly and redundantly, expand on that to say: when life surprises us, making the everyday strange and wonderful, our first impulse is to make stories. These are of course personal stories: the volcano itself is too remote, too vast, to fit into our little narratives. Like Vonnegut’s glaciers, they just exist: human lives happen around them.
"An inquisitive family have uncovered a bizarre church which has been hidden under their Victorian home in Shropshire for 100 years. The Farla family made the discovery while investigating what was under a metre-long rectangle metal grid in their hallway." Wow. Via BLDGBLOG
Lovely interview with Danny Trejo about many of his roles. If you like movies, totally worth a read. He's really quite a guy.
Mecha-choreography, filmed in Armored Core 4 Answer. Pretty, and I'm not really one for Machinima, but there's something about the jet-trails that just works.