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Develop:  Braid 's Blow On Why 'Games Need You'
Develop: Braid's Blow On Why 'Games Need You' Exclusive
July 31, 2008 | By Simon Parkin, Staff

July 31, 2008 | By Simon Parkin, Staff
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More: Console/PC, Exclusive



In an inspiring talk at the Develop Conference in Brighton, Braid creator Jonathan Blow has been discussing how developers can "produce great games that will change people's lives", given the fact that, in today's market, "mainstream games are conflicted works".

Blow, who is a former programming columnist for Game Developer magazine and a sought-after consultant in the game biz, as well as the creator of IGF prize-winning Xbox Live Arcade title Braid, addressed the conference on "...how to build games that are important - that address the human condition but are still good games."

The creator started by asking what the problems are that act as obstacles to this aim? He noted: "Mainstream games are conflicted works. People can sense this. Games don’t resonate if the work is disharmonious. How can we remove this conflict that’s built into our games, and what is it?"

The Rise Of The Art Game

Blow started by referencing 'art games' as a genre. Often created by one person, they cost very little or nothing to make - and he suggested that they're not just little independent games, but they have a purpose. Often they are trying to communicate a theme emotionally or intellectually – not via the plot or characters, but via the framework that makes up the game.

One notable example is The Marriage by current Sims Studio head Rod Humble. The abstract game has you manipulating shapes and colors and "understanding your play session as it unfolds in front of you", but essentially, you play as the force of attraction.

This title helped to inspired other abstract play experiences that can be projected onto - for example Gravitation by Jason Rohrer. According to Blow: "Changing the design elements changes the metaphorical meaning of any game experience. Adding and subtracting the rules, you can move from any game to any game."

But what's the difference between this and more mainstream titles? Blow suggested that when we sit down and try to design a mainstream game, we start with story, setting and characters. Then developers create a gameplay system that will be fun to lay the story and setting on to.

As he noted: "Gameplay elements have meanings outside of the visual and linear; the meaning of the gameplay rules is often in conflict within the visual meanings from the linear meanings, which results in a game becoming conflicted."

Resolving The Conflict In Mainstream Games

In fact, the Braid creator suggested, game elements (for example story and gameplay meaning) work against each other, resulting in a conflicted product: "We are a young medium because we’ve yet to come to understand this."

He then listed out some specific examples - noting that they are commercially successful products, so these issues are not inhibiting success for the games in question:

- BioShock: there's a 'Little Sister problem' in altruism versus balance. Blow noted that there's only a marginal difference in the rewards you receive, no matter whether you choose to rescue or kill the Little Sisters. The game mechanics are telling you that it doesn’t matter which way you choose. So effectively, the game says that the Little Sister doesn’t matter, while the plot says that it does matter." He suggested that "...this is disingenuous [and] robs the game of its emotional impact and potential."

- Grand Theft Auto IV: Blow commented that girlfriends (and boyfriends) all have ‘benefits’ for befriending them. However, one character does not - Kate. The game rules tell you that you have no future with Kate (as she gives you no gameplay benefit) but, in the plot, the writers make Kate a romantic interest - a person pivotal to the story. So the game designer is saying 'don’t care about this person', but the game scriptwriter is saying 'do care about this person.'

- Half-Life 2: You often end up in an sealed-off area with your in-game companion Alyx Vance, and when you kill enough enemies you can move on to the next arena. Alyx will open these doors when you’ve cleared the room. Finally, opening a locked door gives you in-game rewards. Blow notes: "In other words, doors are the obstacles keeping you from the good stuff." In the game, the writers want you to feel close to Alyx, so you have short cut-scenes, and story elements happen as the doors are being opened. In this case, the game designer has taught you to get through the doors quickly so you can get your hands on the goodies - while the scriptwriters want to use this opportunity for you to get to know Alyx. The gameplay is well designed, and so is the fiction, but "...they fit together disingenuously."

Possible Solutions For Dissonance

So how can these conflicts be solved? How about having no story? This isn't an option, because story-based titles are the games that everyone buys.

Blow asked: "Why aren’t we building $10 million versions of Pac-Man? Maybe it’s because of tradition – as our computational abilities have increased, our aspirations have raised to movies."

So perhaps the challenge for the future is to scale up the art games whose narrative is implicit, rather than explicit, he argued.

What's an ideal solution for existing AAA titles, then? Blow suggested that 'tight coupling', where "...we do our best to eliminate conflicts" between story and dynamical meanings, is the best way to deal with such issues. Of course, he agrees: "These conflicts will happen because of the way that games are constructed".

But in Blow's world, a game where the story and gameplay fits together much more closely would help mainstream games become much less conflicted - and the expansion of the art game concept may lead to whole new avenues of less conflicted creativity.


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Comments


Sande Chen
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This is precisely why the role of the narrative designer should have more importance -- to lessen these conflicts between design and story.

Jamie Roberts
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It's also why the narrative designer/story writer should have a solid grasp of game design and mechanics.

Anonymous
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And there's very few of those, and very few producers who know how to work with them.

John Elberson
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A man after my own heart!



My favorite analogy for this comes from a book not about games, but about comics. Chapter two of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, culminating in pages 48 and 49, has a lot to say about games too. He talks about art and writing in comics, and how they are often thought of as separate disciplines, each with their own goals imported from their respective mediums. As the writer works towards shakespearean prose and the artist towards museum quality works, for example, they create a dissonance that is not ideal for the comic as a whole.



To take full advantage of the comic medium, the artist and writer have to support each other, to come together in what McCloud calls a unified language of comics. The tenets of that language may be at odds with some of the traditional goals of writer and artist, but ultimately it leads to a harmony that best serves the comic as a whole.



Obviously, we have to add a game designer to the mix to make the analogy work, but I think the idea here is the same for games. Ideally, one needs constantly to be aware of the others, to avoid working in a vacuum or pinning things together after the fact and creating this dissonance.



So, to play devil's advocate, where do cutscenes fit in all this?

Anonymous
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Understanding Comics is such a great book.



"where do cutscenes fit in all this?"



They are part of the toolset, just like music or flashbacks or subjective shots are part of a movie director's toolset.

John Elberson
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"where do cutscenes fit in all this?"



"They are part of the toolset, just like music or flashbacks or subjective shots are part of a movie director's toolset."



Fair enough. However, in terms of the harmony between gameplay and narrative, cutscenes seem to be a little more complex than those particular tools would be to a movie director.



Are there names for the techniques in film where either the sound or video cuts out completely (post silent film era)? I imagine there are, but I'm not familiar enough with filmmaking to know them. At any rate, we don't witness those techniques very often, though they are often powerful when we do. Comics occasionally drop portions of their medium as well, with wordless panels and pages (or even entire comics, go larry hama!), or longwinded passages in place of imagery, but such things are very carefully employed.



It is interesting to me that most of the narrative-heavy works in our medium use such a jarring technique so readily, and that we haven't really moved against that trend. The Quick Time Event has even become something of a crutch of late, being not very far from the cutscene tree. At great risk of hyperbole, maybe gameplay is the moving picture in the present "silent era" of game narrative?

Sande Chen
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Agreed, Understanding Comics is a great book.



I would say that solid knowledge of game mechanics and design is a necessary skill for a narrative designer and that the narrative designer and story writer is not necessarily the same person.



John -



I have seen film in the post silent film era where sound and video is cut out. There's a very mathematical one based on an algorithm (it alternates white noise/silence/black/white) and there are other examples as well.



But bringing up the silent film era is an interesting comparison -- for in the silent film era, they would insert slides with the dialog. These helped in the understanding of the action, but the slides did break up the flow. When played with music, though, the music served to ensure that continuous experience.

Bobby Stein
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Designers can learn good writing techniques, and writers can learn good gameplay design. Why folks think this is impossible baffles me.

raigan burns
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Isn't a much simpler solution to dispense with the narrative/story elements altogether and just focus on the game mechanics? They can't be conflicting if one of them's not present.

John Elberson
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Sande -



I've seen a few examples in film myself, and I'm sure we could find some within really mainstream titles as well if we kept our eyes peeled. The interesting thing to me is that in most mixed mediums, such techniques are the exception rather than the rule that they are in games. It's just an example of the developing "language" of games differing from that of other media.



And that's exactly what I meant about the "silent era" - the text slides are a comparable technique (that has long since gone out of style in that medium).

Bobby Stein
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@ Raigan



That works fine for arcade games like N+, but not so much for titles of a larger scope. While it's true that many AAA titles suffer from bad writing, most would be worse off without any semblance of a narrative. Wouldn't you agree?

Sande Chen
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@ Bobby



Certainly, there can be talented individuals who do both and as free-lancers, Writers Cabal has done so.



But there isn't any mandate that it has to be the same person, especially on a large project. These are distinct roles. For example, even though these roles might be related, would you want your lead programmer to also be the systems designer?

Wayne Imlach
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Does personal choice need to be tied to intimately to game mechanics? Indeed, does doing so merely reduce the choice to an economic decision? To take the Bioshock example; if saving or killing the Little Sisters provides a tangable in-game advantage/disadvantage, then the choice (from a game mechanics perspective) is foregone - choose the course of action that gives the optimal play experience. By making neither choice advantageous to gameplay, the decision is a personal moral dilemma, which is far more interesting to the player than working out what the game designer has determined is the 'best' choice.



I think the thrust of the article is correct, but the examples (Bioshock in particular) do not necessarily illustrate true contradiction between narrative and gamplay.



Perhaps better examples might be made where the characters personality (as developed by the story) is at odds with the choice of action available to the player - e.g. the protagonist is portrayed as a 'good guy', yet the game mechanics allow the player to make the character do all sorts of 'bad' things.

Bobby Stein
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@ Sande Chen



A very good point, and I agree with you. I guess what I was trying to say (and did so poorly) is that writers can learn the essentials of good design, if only to communicate effectively with designers. One of the biggest challenges writers face in game development is understanding how their words are being used in context, especially when dialogue is triggered in a variety of ways (and not always in those you expect).



It's too much to expect a designer to be a strong writer, as it's unfair to demand that a writer is versed in game scripting and mechanics. That stated, it is very useful to document elements of design and writing well enough so that folks on different teams can grasp a basic understanding of what their peers are up to. I cannot tell you how much our development process has improved since we've made efforts to share details between groups.

Sande Chen
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@ Bobby Stein



I invite you then to check out my blog (in the link above) since its main focus is on tips for improving communication between writers and other groups.


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