Showing posts with label gaming. Show all posts
Showing posts with label gaming. Show all posts

Friday, May 22

Video Games & Storytelling

Video Games & Storytelling

After The Accident I needed to get my mind off my (extremely minor) physical maladies so I re-subscribed to World of Warcraft (WoW) after an absence of about a year and a half.

BIG mistake. Games can be addictive.

Like stories.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m reading a suspenseful book I honestly can’t put it down. Yes, it’s a figure of speech in that no one has a cocked gun to my temple saying, “Read if you know what’s good for you. Read.” I keep saying to myself, “Just one more page” or “I’ll just finish this chapter.”

Uh huh. I read till the story is complete and fall asleep as the sun peeks over the horizon.

Games—certain games—are every bit as compelling as a suspenseful tale. Baldur’s Gate repeatedly kept me up way past anything resembling a normal bedtime and, lately, World of Warcraft has done the same.

But this isn’t a post about gaming addiction. No. It’s a post about how certain games—the games that have the ability to captivate me—have a similar structure to certain kinds of stories. And thus, perhaps, their appeal.

Gaming Structure vs Story Structure

Just as in a story we have the Initial Problem, in a video game (or video game segment) we have the Initial Plight. 

The Initial Plight

A stranger (and future hero) wanders into an isolated farming community that has a problem. 

This problem could be anything from cattle rustling to zombies, but lets say that the town is overrun with gigantic ladybugs. They’ve eaten all the farmers crops and now brazenly wander the aisles of the supermarket.

The Mayor fears that after finishing off all the Pringles (you can’t eat just one) that the gargantuan ladybugs will begin chowing down on the townspeople. The town expects him to fix things, and if he doesn’t he’s never going to be reelected—the town will be gone!

The Story Goal

The Mayor gives the stranger some weapons, asks him to please take care of things, and the hero walks into the supermarket to kick some Coccinellidae butt.

I’ve found that the first few quests of a game are pretty easy. This is similar to a story. In the beginning, despite what the hero might think, things are not so bad for him or her. They have it relatively easy—at least, compared to what’s in store for them! 

This is where we set up the world—in a game we’re also letting the user get familiar with how to move around in it. In both a story and a game the hero wanders around doing minor tasks, making both friends and enemies.

This is the beginning, the ‘getting to know the world’ phase. Pretty soon, though, we come across ...

The Real Problem

Our hero rids the supermarket of ladybugs but the next day they’re back. And now it’s not just ladybugs, now worms the size of a Buick wiggle down the street pursued by and a chicken so big it could feed a family for a year.

The mayor calls the hero over. “This is no good!” the mayor says, gesticulating wildly. “We keep killing the monsters but they just come back! We need to get to the bottom of things, see what’s causing this. And by ‘we’ I mean ‘you’!”

At this point the hero will talk to various townspeople, gather clues, be ambushed a couple of times, get into innumerable fights, until he/she  develops ...

The Plan

The hero decides they know what’s going on and devise a plan to end things. Often, the plan goes horribly wrong. The reasons for this vary. It could be that someone the hero trusts has sold her out. It could be just that she guessed wrong. Whatever it is, the hero is led into one last, final, battle with the odds stacked against her.

In a game this is going to be the toughest fight, one that a gamer (at least, if they’re me!) will have to re-load and take several runs at. (In an online game like WoW this would mean failing the quest, abandoning it and picking it up again from the quest-giver.) 

For instance, lets say that our hero discovers that the real danger to the ladybug infested town is Division X, a super secret branch of the government whose mission is to develop a cure for a particularly insidious disease. As a result, though, Dr. Iam Squicky stumbles onto the secret of everlasting life.

Unfortunately, there were a few accidents at the lab. The lab’s containment was breeched and, somehow, a unsuccessful batch of the formula had been released into the towns water supply. The ladybugs (worms, etc) were the first effected because of their size. Eventually, unless something is done, the same thing will happen to the human population!

When the hero informs the mayor of the fate that awaits every eligible voter in the town the small man nearly has a meltdown. “You have to do something!” he yells. “Name your price. Whatever it takes.” And then the hero goes off and handles things, defeating the Big Bad. At the end, the townspeople apologize for initially misjudging the hero and decide the town needs a new mayor. The End.

Of course that’s oversimplified. Normally the hero would have at least two allies, one of whom would be a bit shady. And there would be at least one enemy other than the Big Bad. And all these secondary characters would have their own, overlapping, story arcs.

So ...

- Initial problem.
- Initial problem is solved. 
- Hero rewarded.
- Deeper problem revealed, hero asked to help out again. Perhaps the hero needs persuasion this time.
- Hero investigates, talks to people, makes friends and enemies.
- Hero takes an initial run at the problem but only makes things worse.
- Dark night  of the soul. The townspeople blame him for their troubles, etc.
- Hero solves the problem, figures things out. He knows how to set things right, he just needs a couple of gadgets/spells/etc. 
- Final fight/showdown.
- Aftermath/cashing out the stakes.

Or something like that. :-)

If you’re a gamer and would like to share your impressions of your favorite game, what made it addictive for you, please do!

Till next time, happy writing (and gaming). 

Tuesday, February 12

Roleplaying Games, Writing, And The Creation Of Magical Systems

Roleplaying Games And The Creation Of Magical Systems

A few weeks ago I invested in my first Kickstarter project.

I did it because, even though I've never had the good fortune to be part of a weekly gaming group, when I was a teen I wanted that very much (even more than I want it to be March 5th!). But none of my friends gamed and the local gaming store was always filled with guys who knew a lot more about gaming than I did.

Anyway, for many of my teenage years it was this thing I wanted to experience, but I never could figure out quite how to make it happen. I think that was probably the reason, initially at least, I was drawn to MMORGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games).

Recently I've noticed that a lot of my favorite science fiction and fantasy authors also game.

When I saw Jim Butcher's announcement that Evil Hat Productions was having a Kickstarter campain I thought it was the perfect opportunity to indulge the kid in me and learn something about gaming and perhaps figure out why so many awesome authors (especially fantasy, urban fantasy and horror authors) game.

Today I received my first batch of .pdf files from Evil Hat Productions and one in particular caught my eye: the Magic Systems Toolkit. (Yes, when I read that title I actually grinned and rubbed my hands together.)

A few months ago I wrote the first draft of a novel about magical creatures who are often mistaken for Fae, but who have a magic all their own. That meant I would have to create a magical system for their world but I had no idea how, so I put the project aside. Now, after skimming through the Magic Systems Toolkit file all I can say is thank goodness I invested in that Kickstarter!

I'm beginning to understand why fantasy writers love gaming, or why they grow from gaming. It's probably a chicken and egg thing: does gaming produce fantasy writers or are fantasy writers attracted to gaming because it helps them create and populate their magical worlds?

What Is Magic And How Does It Work?

While it's true that magic is a convenience of authors, those who use it willy-nilly produce typed, mushy, fantasy. Giving magic rules is not just good gaming, it's good fiction. If you can find the spot where those two priorities overlap, then you've got the workings of a great magic system. - Magic System Toolkit
It may sound odd, but when I wrote about magic in the past I hadn't asked the question, "What is Magic and how does it work?" I'd never considered what rules might govern magic in my created world. So, lets!

What is magic?

Before I read the Magic System Kit I had no idea how many different sorts of magic systems were possible. For instance, you could have what for lack of a better term I'll call scientific magic.

Scientific Magic

Arthur C. Clark thought that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. On this view magical forces are, fundamentally, physical forces that we don't know much about at the moment. However because they are physical forces they could be expected to behave something like the physical forces we know about.

Mathematical Magic

Or we could think of magic more like a "system of prices, risks and rewards". For instance, magic could be like an algebraic equation where, because both sides have to balance, if (on the one side) you use magic you have to take something from the other. Energy, a sacrifice, dead plants, whatever.

The nature and existence of magic

Where does magic itself come from? Are there fundamentally different sorts/kinds/types of magic? Is some magic light and some dark? Does the flavor of magic depend on who is using it or what the source is?

The Magic System Kit breaks magic down into 5 aspects:

1. Tone
2. Cost
3. Limits
4. Availability
5. Source

I won't have time to cover all these today so let's just talk about Tone.

Magic Tone: Neutral, Flavored or Opinionated

Neutral Magic

Is magic a mindless, unthinking, force like the electromagnetic force? If it is, then its action will solely be determined by a thing's physical properties. In this case, casting--using magic--could be like a recipe. Get the right physical ingredients together, do the right things, say the proper words (preferably in Latin), and presto! Magic will happen.

If inert, neutral, magic lies on one end of the spectrum what lies on the other? According to the FATE system, two things: flavored magic and opinionated magic.

Flavored Magic

Flavored magic can come in varieties, such as dark and light, and may operate differently depending upon which end of the spectrum the magic user draws from. On this view the spells themselves--the magic used in the working on them--would be dark or light, though this could be a matter of degrees.

Flavored magic isn't intelligent, but it does have tendencies. Just as fire tends to burn and earth tends to be stable, flavored magic tends toward certain things but what sorts of things those are is up to you.

For instance one way magic could be flavored is by being either light, dark or some combination of the two. What's great about the FATE system, though, is that it doesn't have to be flavored light or dark, you can let your imagination go wild. Perhaps instead of being tied to our conceptions of good and bad it could be tied to emotions, or passion, or times of the year. The possibilities are endless!

Opinionated Magic

Opinionated magic comes from someone. It requires an agent, someone with both intelligence and the will to wield it. Often the magic users I write about are like this. They are born with magical ability, they just need to learn how to access and control it.

On this view the agent/being might use neutral magic or flavored magic. Also, the magic itself could be shaped by the casters thoughts, personality or will.

Magic Tone And The Fiction Writer: Examples

I think examples make everything clearer. (cross fingers!)
A group of tipsy teenagers invade their crotchety neighbors house--the ancient one that looks haunted--on a dare and steal an odd looking book which turns out to be (surprise!) a book of spells.
Neutral magic: On this view anyone can work magic if he or she has the right ingredients and follows the spell. Therefore, in our little example story, any one of the teenagers could use the book of spells to work magic. The spells wouldn't be good or bad, it would all depend on what the magic user(s) did with them.

Flavored magic: To write a story about flavored magic we need to, first, specify what the flavor is. I'm going to use the concepts/ideas of light and dark to flavor my magic. So, what does this mean for our example story? Let's see ...

A group of tipsy teenagers invade their crotchety neighbors house and steal an ancient book bound in leather. The writing is faded and the ink used seems ... peculiar. 
In this version of the story the teenagers would find out the book was bound with the skin of torture victims and that the spells were written in their blood. This sets the stage for the use of dark magic. (I think of dark magic as powering spells that do ethically dubious things like raising the dead.)

On the other hand, imagine that a being of light drifted down from the heavens on Sunday morning as the same group of teens were nursing their hangovers, promising never to drink again. Imagine the angel hands the group a glowing book. I would expect those spells to be milder and not as ethically questionable, depending on the inventiveness of the magical practitioner. (I think any spell is an invitation to misbehave.)

Opinionated magic:  The teenagers break into the creepy house and meet its even creepier owner, a crotchety old man. The old man turns out to be a powerful wizard and turns all of them, except for one, into purple chickens.

The one he spared, let's call him Kevin, he did so because he recognized the boy had the potential to become a powerful wizard. The old wizard makes Kevin kill and cook all the chickens for his evening meals but spares one, the one that was Kevin's girlfriend. The wizard promises Kevin that the day he is able to transform his girlfriend back the way she was that he'll be free to leave.

In this version of the story there's no spellbook. The old man doesn't need one, the magic lives within him. That's convenient but the downside is he hasn't been able to find a worthy apprentice because working magic takes more than intelligence and determination; raw skill is required. That's what Kevin has.

However learning magic, having it come alive inside one, changes a person and the old man knows that by the time Kevin has the ability to make his girlfriend as she was he will not be the same person. Will he still want his girlfriend back or would he rather have a nice, light, snack?

Well, that's it! At least, that's it for magic tone, tomorrow we'll go over cost, limits, availability and source.

Have you done any old school (something requiring a pencil and paper) role playing? If so, tell us about it!

Other articles you might like:

- Analyzing Story Structure
- The Trouble With Adverbs
- 8 Tips For Finding The Motivation To Write

Photo credit: Still of Cate Blanchett as Galadriel in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Copyright © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. (US, Canada & New Line Foreign Territories). Rationale for the fair use of this image: - The image is being used in an informative way and should not detract from the film -  The image does not limit one's ability to sell or show the film.

Wednesday, December 29

Stranger Than Fiction

Life really is stranger than fiction. That was my response when I read Matt Hickey's article on Nissan's new electric car, the Leaf, entitled, "Nissan's Leaf featuring automatic gaming system". Let me explain.

Many massively multiplayer on-line games -- World of Warcraft for instance -- include achievement systems. For example, if a person completes 500 quests he would earn an Achievement and a certain number of Achievement Points. Achievement Points can be earned for things like reaching the level cap (e.g., level 85) or fully exploring a certain area. You can then compare your achievement points with other the achievement points of others and give yourself a congratulatory chuckle if yours are higher.

Now, back to the Leaf.

The Leaf displays information about things like how much less CO2 the car is producing when compared to other cars AND it displays Achievements
... averaging a driver's usage with others, assigning rankings, both regionally and globally. There's a notion that electric car drivers tend to be smug, and this allows them to measure that smugness. It's a fun idea, and contributes to the gamification trend, something that we expect to see show up everywhere in the next year.
I just had to smile.

Here's my picture of the day:

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