Montag, 25. November 2013

Epic Story

Again, I sadly have to confess that this is no epic story. But if you've read the title and wanted to know more, that's perfectly why I'm writing this rant. Do you buy games with epic titles and epic gfx and epic whatsoever?

Check this one: A Dark Room
http://adarkroom.doublespeakgames.com/

Not so epic, is it? And still striking. The reason are self-explaining game mechanics supporting the simplemost way to immerse a player into an interactive world. You don't even need a tutorial. You do not need to know a prologue to play. But the story makes things better. Wait until the stranger stumbles in and ... you will want to know what's up with her. Feed the fire so that she doesn't freeze to death!
In an epic RPG, she would have uttered something like "save me, keep the fire burning". Of course you would have done so, this smells of experience points. But in A Dark Room, you simply do, without even a question for help of the stranger. It's all between the lines: the questions who she is, where she's from, what brought her here and why she's in her desolate state. Even the world builds around the dark room and your little fire with everything that happens - and everything depends on you taking action! The NPC only offers her skills and thus more options for you, but should you stop to feed the fire, everything will fade away. It is amazing how, without any reward offered directly or task given, immersion draws a player into this game.

Now check your random epic game instead: the story has an intro. People pop up like in a movie, get introduced, the story takes its first steps, often without you or your point of view character even being around. NPCs will likely tell you what to do in the beginning, cram information in your head and, worst of all, seldom leave you alone with the situation to think about.

I already ranted about the Choose your quest issue, so back to topic: the big difference is that the random RPG puts the player into an existing story, while the story of A Dark Room unfolds only due to the player. You don't solve tasks set on you by other people, but because it is necessary and because you can. Of course AAA games also employ the base mechanics "Choose And Do It Yourself", but there's always the usual fetch-and-bring quest or simply action around a linear story.

All of that is fine as long as linear story still includes doing things by yourself, not only when an NPC tells you when and how to act. The only point is that your random marketing guy will likely ask for an even more epic save-the-world story than all the other games had, and forget about these base mechanics, if he is so much as aware of them. Players will, too, 'cause players read "World Of Epic Awesomeness" in one ad, and "A Dark Room" in another.

If you find yourself comparing these two games with each other in earnest, stop reading, play for ten minutes, and read this rant from start again. Comparison is not what I'm talking about - that's why I left all the other issues needed for comparison out of the talk - but base mechanics, the skeleton beneath the World Of Epic Awesomeness. Please keep in mind that really good games old and modern do have a solid background and do involve the player directly. Anyways, sometimes the most epic story ends up in the ditch. Why?
I would play A Dark Room with shiny 3D graphics; but I would not play many big titles without them. A game gets best when all it's bones are in place, and none are fixed with glue and a stick just to put something even more epic on top. Of course there are bazillions of possibilites between the two extremes, depending on the type of game and the individual impact of its components on the player. In the end, this is simply a hint to poke at your project in order to find out where you hit solid structure and where you punch holes in the façade.

Players (including me) are quite conditioned to like the shinies and care not so much for the structures below as long as they work and make us happy with a monster to whack for loot. Yet the best, and the only lasting reward is not loot, nor experience points, but the knowledge and feel that you accomplished something only due to your own actions, decisions and wits: the real experience that cannot be valued by numbers. Thus a hollow shell may turn out to be not epic, but rather an epic fail.

Donnerstag, 21. November 2013

Yay, shortlist!

No rant this time. Getting into the shortlist of the best German book cover reader's choice really doesn't cry for a rant. :)

Here we go with "Buchland" by author Markus Walther:
http://www.lovelybooks.de/leserpreis/2013/bestes-cover/#liste

He also did the awesome title writing. It's based on a font, but done by hand. Kalligraphy is really beyond my skills. I can only gasp at the perfect handwriting, put it on the cover and make it red and stuff.

So now I have to run in circles and chew my fingernails, though I don't expect to get the prize in the end. There are some pretty neat covers in that list who totally earned it, and I'm curious which one will win.

Mittwoch, 2. Oktober 2013

Filthy coward!

So that plot popped up from nowhere and spoiled my work. I got more than enough stuff in the pipeline, and this plot wails for attention. Evil, evil plot.
Yet it is one that I like for a special reason: the protagonist is a coward. He's driven by fear. Oh, he actually decides what to do and he does his job, but he almost wets his breeches when certain things happen. Like, being condemned to die as a king's killer. Ask your favorite 'Pedia what happened to William Wallace or Robert François Damiens on how kingkillers end up; I mean, I understand totally why this character wets his breeches. And for once, I'm almost happy with a driven protagonist, for this one will be driven towards all of those nice evil writer's tools that will make you chew your fingernails while reading. (Should I ever find time to write, that is.)

Coward protagonists are awesome, 'cause there's at least a hint of coward in all of us. This is an interesting and relatively new twist to the usual way of creating immersion: make ambivalent people your heroes. Heroes who do hero stuff, but still have a great deficit somewhere. Among the usual tools to create immersion, there are some which are seldom used, and one of them is fear. A classical hero may choose to die in valor rather than let fear take over, but of course there's always a plot device that makes the story go on, no matter how stupid the decision of the hero is. A living person would likely give in at some point ... or, lacking a plot device, really die, so the story would be over too soon.

Please note that a coward is most likely not a whining sissy by the means of my earlier rant here. A protagonist who is driven by weaknesses needs, more than any other, to act at their limit. Otherwise it's whining sissy for them.

Ambivalent heroes are more akin to living people than their classical forefathers. They feature a good and a bad affect on immersion: the bad one is that the audience, by mainstream tradition, likes their point of view characters easy to grab, which means positive in every aspect that serves sympathy. Surely they have their darker twists, fears and wants and whatever, but these will obviously never be so strong that the character will succumb to them. They are an idealized version of the audience.

Ambivalent guys may succumb to their fears. This is the good effect, for it makes them more real, similar to the audience with all their strengths and - add drumroll here - weaknesses. Of course nobody wants to be reminded of their own weaknesses when getting immersed in a great story, but mirror neurons will work just as well, or even better than with idealized characters. We all know fear, anger, desperation, and we know what they may lead us to: pull the blanket over your face (forget it), kick the table (ouch), scream mindless and throw things around until your neighbor calls the police (no, I did neither). Or they lead to things worth a good story, which is what will happen to fictional characters.

As long as cravens don't become real sissies and gutless chickens, their audience will understand them. I say 'their' audience, for their darker features are usually what drives the villain, and I bet that a good deal of people will prefer to stick with the classical hero.
I could be evil now and call them sissies (err, now I did), as they don't want to be confronted with their own fears, with the question 'what if I were in that situation?' and most of all with the lingering possibility to a bad ending, as a happy end is less likely in such a story. Fortunately, this means one hell of suspense.

Please don't take the sissy part personally. We all have a tiny coward in our brains who needs to hide beneath a cushion and watch a classical-hero-movie from time to time. Yet this is why craven characters allow storytellers a different approach on immersion: reach this coward who hides in the depths of our brains, and make it the reason why we enjoy a great story from a new, exciting angle.

If you're no coward at all and absolutely sure about it, check if you're a robot.

Sonntag, 8. September 2013

Choose your quest!

Among the countless differences between medieval chivalric novels and today's blockbusters there's one detail that makes me like the medieval stuff better, despite its romance and descriptions and blah blah all over. I confess that I like medieval stuff anyways, but still, this was strange to me until I noticed what I don't like in many modern movie protagonists: they are lazy, whining sissies who don't dare to breath until life forces them to do so. When they are given a challenge, they will run off to mommy aka their mentor character and tell them that they don't want to be challenged. Oooo, their life could change. They could be forced to eat fruit loops instead of corn flakes. It is usually their hesitation which, in the end, causes the mentor to die, so that sissy needs to become the hero and save the world. I am quite sure most mentors throw themselves into a hopeless battle so they do not need to pamper a mewling Wangst (please look this up at tvtropes.com, the description there is unrivaled).

There are quite few modern stories that take up the old concept of a hero picking his task for himself. Please note that I am not referring to hard-boiled genres. Oh, well, influence from external forces is fine, but even without this influence the protagonists which I mean decide to do something, to act. They see the problems and move against them. They strive to reach their goal. Curiously, the classical heros from the age-old hero's journey also mainly start on their quest 'cause they want to, or feel that they do the right thing. There is not even always a problem pushing them on, 'cause the quest might simply be a rite of passage.
So how to avoid a whining sissy? The story starts with a strong, active protagonist. Don't take me wrong: even a protagonist who is depressive and cries all day may be a strong character, and even the guy with the biggest gun and the darkest stare may be a sissy.

Strong characters are absolutely not boring, and they usually cannot save the world by themselves. They usually still have a mentor. They may even embark on a hero's journey, just with a little different start. They will not be angsty about themselves, or only for a second, and they will overcome that problem without someone patting their head and telling them what to do. They thrive when you throw nasty things at them, 'cause they can proof themselves and need to overcome their weaknesses. Most of all, personal fears will never keep them from doing obviously important things.

The hard part is that an author needs to put damned heavy stones in their way. I tried that, and it proved to be a challenge. It also proved to be an exciting, interesting and motivating way of storytelling. For once, I needed to stop my protagonists from reaching their goal too easily. I had to burden them with huge flaws and confront them with obstacles and antagonists that would kill a sissy instantly. I did not leave them time for being angsty. Evil Overlords who are worthy their name, assassins, plagues, comets, and the End Of The World will not wait for a sissy to gather themselves in a two-hour pseudophilosophical whining session when the situation forces everyone to act.

This does not mean that storytelling is easier with an angsty protagonist. There are awesome stories with characters who have got a good reason to whine and hide in a corner. Any kind of story can be challenging and interesting, and it takes great effort to tell it the right way. I've got shelves full of novels with strong main characters, and in games - actually in interactive media of all kind where immersion is crucial - there is absolutely no place for a whining sissy. But then, why is modern storytelling still teeming with protagonists who face an adventure which they're not up to in the least?
There's simple psychology behind a character who doesn't want to leave his everyday's life even when the world breaks apart around him. It is easier to go on with the everyday life instead of struggling for survival, gaining a new view of the world and even a new role in it. Everybody dreams of being a hero, but only fictional characters would deliberately jump head-first into the wolf pit, into danger, fear, humiliation, pain and the splatter effects to become this hero.
The audience knows their archetypes. They like an everyday's guy to become a real hero, driven to be one by fate, then return home, build a house and make some children. Without fate - or the writer - being nasty, these everyday's guys wouldn't have gotten their backside off the couch, but likely still built a house and made children, as people do.
A headstrong character with a personal challenge that is not induced from outside might still do the same ... but usually not as their main goal. Not only do they need to solve the one big problem, but they want to.

The big difference for an author is that a whining sissy needs to be kicked to get up. Strong characters tend to move on no matter what happens. They come up with goals, solutions and they usually savvy things going on around them, and thus not easy to surprise. It is hard to find a real challenge for a resilient, determined bastard, and even harder to give their personal sub-plot a distinct twist.
Maybe I'm a determined bastard of a writer who wants this challenge. Or maybe I'm just too lazy to kick the sissies each time they sit down in a corner and whine.

Donnerstag, 5. September 2013

Visual Input Bot

I'm a writer. As writers do, I use to work a lot with these small signs from which you can create words. I would add a link to show them, but I failed to find an example. There are just videos. Blogs, tutorials, rants. OK, it's fine for rants, as there's tonality and facial expression, and probably someone throws stuff at the camera, but I do so hate video tutorials that have no need for being a video. Those videos that are only recordings with a single picture visible all the time are even worse.

Don't take me wrong, an additional video is fine, and I like to watch how a skilled artist draws a picture. What I hate is that I can't leaf or scroll through pages, chapters, topics, or even search the damned file for 'jabberwocky' or 'coffee' or stuff. At best, someone used music without thinking about copyright to mock up their video, so the file gets blocked; or streaming is so slow that I fall asleep on the keyboard.

It is said that information which is given in many ways - written, visual, audible - will be memorized more likely. But that does not mean to put written information in a video where someone talks only. That's against all reason. So why? It is 'just because' it is possible to make a video, videos are cool, and people are more likely to view a long video than read a short text? That's a sorry world.

A fun fact is that letters, written in a file format like html, txt or at best on paper, will likely be readable in decades or even a hundred years (I confess that chiseling in marble is not very practical). A video codec may be outdated within the year. In five years, many people will be unable to watch a certain file. In a hundred years, people will ask "what video?" and consult their holo deck wiki, which most likely will be 90% letters, 9% pictures, and some sound files of a bugling jabberwocky besides. Maybe they'll leaf through a parchment wiki compendium after a zombie apocalypse. In either case, they will get an error when they try to watch the video example, and kick their device.

I want letters. I am able to read. I don't need to spend my time looking a video for half an hour when I can read the same information in ten minutes. Ten minutes that lock it down in my brain instead of half an hour of which I will forget way too much, most of all if it's sound only. I'm a thinking being (human? not sure about that), no robot with only an optical / sound port.
Now was that "how to remain polite" issue at 8:42 or at 25:58?

Sonntag, 1. September 2013

Sunlight

The Unique Rant

This rant is unique. Really. It is as unique as many of the game worlds, characters, and whatever concepts out there, which means: not unique at all.

There may be cool new concepts, and there are worlds which are totally standard and still awesome, but there's seldom something completely new.
I can easily say that 'cause my writing background world refers to the real world too. So what does make a concept unique? Flying ships? Floating islands? Shiny colorful bits on futuristic skyscrapers? Making your elves yellow? Making your medieval fantasy world a democracy?
That's crap. Flying ships and floating islands roam the sky these days. I can't see them any more, especially when they copy the usual standards from below the clouds into a setting above the clouds. Green lands, mountains, jungle, deserts, ice. Yawn. Chinese, Arabian, Egyptian, European, Indian, or elvish, dwarvish, mage-ish architecture. Someone wake me up, please.

So where's the difference between copying the real world and referring to it?
First: There is no border. It's a transition; some need to take a few steps and feel uncomfortable in the copy&paste area, some need to take many steps until they they think 'where the hell am I?'. The best thing that can happen is when a reader, player or whoever feels completely right in the fictional world. This will happen when a world is more than a jigsaw that forces bits of real life into a fantasy setting at sword's tip, or casts fantasy colors over a perfectly normal world.

Give your setting a premise. What should it be like? Which parts refer to the real world, which do not? If the environments are totally different, ask yourself if ethics, culture etc will be similar to something real, or if they are just in the wrong place. If you want to keep to human behavior, put the differences elsewhere, in a way that believeably influences human behaviour just like you want.

Never put anything in your setting just because it's cool. Does it fit reasonably as well as psychologically, or is it just ripped out of its context and whacked into its new place with a sledgehammer? Nothing is new and interesting if it is just like that.
Also, think about the everyday stuff and if it works in your world nicely, or if you need to change it. A typical NoGo are weddings. Almost all of them have a monotheistic feel about them, even in a polytheistic world. At best the clergy is male only (no matter that there are female fighters and mages), too.
A typical forgotten detail, taken into the fantasy world without a second thought, are gravestones and crosses, or burials at all. Does a certain culture even bury their dead? The real world provides us with many interesting ways of getting rid of corpses, which probably fit better with your fictional culture.
Another one is the headsman with the dark hood in a roughly medieval world (fun fact: the hood wasn't usual in most of the medieval and early modern times), or the punishment for thieves: off with the hand! I stumbled into this trap myself and had two rewrite several chapters to make things fit again when I realized that I did not want this stereotype in my story. (One more fun fact: chopping off the hand of a thief derives from the Middle East. In Europe, thieves were whipped, branded and banished and only hanged on the 3rd time caught stealing, or earlier when they robbed really expensive things.)
Let some new stuff happen instead of everyday's stereotype. In most cases, explanations are not necessary. Nobody will ask why your fictional people leave their dead on a mountain peak. Of course you have to know. The best idea to change the usual into the new is to ask: why should people do something in a certain way? And should they end up painting the dead body with blue stripes, you should even add a little note on the origins of this custom in the text, 'cause this is really unusual for your audience.

For all those who now cry that this makes everything too rational and boring: this kind of premise sets no borders to creativity. Just do it. Or go buy some fantasy color and paint your living room into a space ship bridge with a TV in it.

The Tale of the Shiny NPC

Once upon a time, I played a great mod of a great game. I found some typical modding mistakes - which I know 'cause I made them myself aeons ago, and later learned to do things right - but I was happy with the nice gameplay modifications and the stunning level design.
Then that NPC showed up. He was important for the story, and I was happy to free him finally, thinking I'd get some cool reward now, which means more power in both experience points and influence in the game world. But no, Mr. NPC had to show me how able he is and that he almost wouldn't need me. Darn it. Till this point, I had played the hero of a campaign, but now that guy took over my role and made me Igor-the-Minion. Really, I was pissed.

Later on I recalled some older games (from the 1990's up to 2001) and found that there are far too many game stories with such a problem, though mostly the impact of an overpowered NPC on the player character is not as deep as in game mods. Still, it is easy to see why none of these games was very successful. They break with the one-and-only rule for every game: don't punish your players when they did nothing wrong.

True, there are games that seem to contain punishment for having success in something, like chaining the character up in prison. As long as this is a reasonable part of the story, that's all fine. What the Mod did wrong was to break the storyline of my character: I was the hero, and I found this NPC who was, in terms of storytelling, the nice helpful thingie to solve the next part of the main quest. I could as well have found some shiny magic crystal or sword or whatever, and went on with my task. But a crystal or sword or an NPC who would have fulfilled their true role would not have filched the hero task from me.

No matter how shiny and well-developed and cool an NPC is, cut him down on what's necessary for the game and story, and keep him low so that the hero - and the player - feel really needed. Never ever ignore, or even violate, the player's feel of self-efficiacy. It is them who save the world, not the shiny NPC.
Heroes are usually a picky sort of people. They live from meat, mead, experience points, and from doing everything themselves. Make them team players if need be, but don't make them Igor-the-Minion.
______________
By the way, I'll name neither the mod nor the games. This is about narrative theory, not about bashing other people's work.

A monolog about dialog

This weekend I played a RPG, got some quests, killed some monsters and went back to town to get my reward. The NPC paid me, then asked if I could do another favor, and of course I bid him to explain the task. He spoke, and I died. Cruelly. The town guard had to fetch an ogre to lift the text block from my body.

This was only one dialog of one NPC in one game. I experienced this many times; sometimes I stopped playing a game due to text overload, or I got annoyed in games which get by with quite few text until it comes to turning points of the story ... the most important points that should be immersive and playable, not a text overkill.
Generally I'm a book worm and read lots and lots of stuff, and I made it easily through Planescape: Torment, which is likely the game with the biggest amount of text ever. But then, those words make sense. They are just right. Killing some monsters in between is fun, but the texts are gold. I love this game.

Other old RPGs, like Icewind Dale or Baldur's Gate, are excused for being made back then when they were new and shiny and graphics were, well, pixels. But by now, game designers have gained a lot experience, and gamers have become more impatient when it comes to text. Since I was making Casual Games, I try to stuff the meaning of a text in as few words as possible. ... Yeah. Truly. I'm aware that this looks different.
Core Games suffer the same effect. I do not wonder, and I don't blame the players. They want to experience the story, not to get their task explained. It's always best when the quest unfolds almost without words, so spare them for the really important NPCs. If the player is supposed to break out of somewhere, put them in a cell and give them a spoon and a loose stone in the wall, but do not tell them what to do. If the player is supposed to kill that monster over at the cave, give them a reason to pass by and be attacked, or witness the random wanderer being gobbled up by a thing with claws and teeth. Or use an NPCs blood to paint unsettling patterns on the road. Whatever.
The goal is not to avoid text at any cost, but to keep it short and to the point.

If it is not possible to explain stuff in one-liners, pick your weapon of choice and chop the text block to pieces. Spread them over the quest, or let the player ask for each scrap in a smart, challenging dialog. (I'll rant another time about How To Make A Dialog Interesting And Challenging.) Let them search for further information. The more effort it takes to get the map, the more rewarding it is to get your hands on the treasure. Keep players busy, make them want to know more ... instead of let them stand by and empty a coke while the NPC talks the wits out of their character.
In the end, not every town guard has a spare ogre for lifting text blocks.

Kick the 'tell' from storytelling

Thankfully, one of my fancies provides me with something to rant about: Among fantasy roleplayers, it is said that players spend more time talking about their characters than they are actually playing them.
Sometimes I experienced that's true (Yes, I'm guilty). And it's sad. It breaks with one of the most important principles of storytelling: Show! I deliberately leave away the '... don't tell', as it is easy to misunderstand the 'show, don't tell' principle in many ways, and I'm not going to explain it again. I also won't go into the psychological reasons for these actions; there are reasons anyways. Forget about them, and about writing rules, and watch a talky roleplayer spreading his character's former life in front of his group.

Correy the fieldhand found an old sword and went practising. He fell in love to the beautiful copper-haired daughter of the manor lord, but of course she doesn't even look at him. So he went off to become a hero, get a shiny armor and money and stuff.
Another player thinks she could as well make him listen to her character story. Tinniel the elf bard is copper-haired, beautiful, and thinks all men are only there for her amusement. She always got what she wanted from her rich family or just by being beautiful, so she can't live with rejection.
Now, it is obvious what's going to happen: Tinniel's player knows that her bard will be rejected, so she'll maybe just ignore Correy as a possible target for her character's flirt ambitions. Most likely even, for who's going to head directly into a fight they'll clearly lose?
There could have been a great story, driven simply by character interaction and development resulting from actions and decisions. Correy rejects the bard, she's pissed and lets him feel that or even pokes at him whenever there's a possibility for revenge. Conflict will happen, whatever path it'll take. Maybe they'll become friends, maybe fall in love, maybe they'll hate each other and just work together 'cause they need to.

That's what I love about roleplay: Not knowing what is going to be. Roleplay is more than roaming the dungeon, picking at traps and slaying the occassional arch demon and undead army. It is the real, character-inflicted story beneath. Squabbling companions carry loads of suspense with them. They argue, even turn on each other, and who knows if all of them will be there and stand together with the others when it comes to the final confrontation with the Evil Overlord or whatever awaits them. There are more problems to be solved than only saving the maiden, the town, the world etc. And the game master, who doesn't know everything about the outcome of such squabbles, will have more fun too.

Further, there are characters with something interesting about them. There comes a guy who bears a scar all over his face and a red mark like from a rope around his neck. When you meet him on the road, wouldn't you think there might be an interesting story behind? Maybe he'll tell it at the campfire. But then, maybe, he just told you lies. What might be the real story behind? Does he have a dangerous enemy who will also be a danger to the group? Or did he run from justice, and now you're also in trouble for helping him?

Think about that before you give away everything about your other self in the game world. Don't save Correy the fieldhand from trouble. He's there to get into the fray, and out of it again, and to make the game being fun.

Why another stupid writer's blog?

Cause I can. And due to the fact that I'm mainly a writer, but still all my text stuff drowns beneath the art in the Dracoliche's Den. So here's a place where you'll get bothered with text. Mainly.