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Of Knowing What Thing You Create, and the Parts Thereof

If there's a book you really want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.
~Toni Morrison

Let me here distinguish between story-driven games (story-game hybrids) and pure games. Pure games include checkers, chess, monopoly, poker, chess, solitaire, jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, tetris and its clones, many or most Atari 2600 games, many or most Commodore 64 games, and many or most of the arcade games of the early 1980s. Story-driven games include any pure game that has a story attached to it... which includes pretty much every video game. Mario Bros. did not have a real story, but Super Mario Bros. did. And while the story of games like Duck Hunt and Gyromite may seem simplistic, they still had background stories. Of course, there is no clear dividing line, and so one might think of games as being in a spectrum from pure gameplay to story-gameplay... for example, even chess has some story (two armies of opposing forces at war). But there still is something very different between Xenogears and checkers. And it's more than just the length, a 100 hour game of checkers still lacks something a 100 hour game of Xenogears has: a story. But does Xenogears merely 'have' a story, or 'is' it a story?

Also let me here distinguish between story-driven games and stories. A story contains no interactivity, no choices on the part of the player (or viewer), and no non-linearity (with the exception of choose-your-own-adventure books). I'll be lax in my definition of story, and say that stories include movies, manga, plays, paintings, folk tales, novels, tv news programs, newspapers, poems, legends, jokes, and  biographies and history books. Anything in which the medium where the reader's actions do not have any effect on what is objectively presented to the person's sense organs is a story. A conversation is not a story, because it has interactivity. However, a lecture is a story, because it does not contain that interactivity. If your actions have no effect on the thing being told to you, it is a story. If your actions do, it is a game. A conversation, by this logic, is a game; although not related very closely to checkers or The Legend of Zelda, it shares the same core idea of your decisions having an effect on the situation. A conversation is not a story-driven game, nor is it a pure game, but it is a game of some kind.

What makes story-driven games special, as games, is that they have elements of unchangability, elements of artistic expression, that a conversation or a pure game does not. Artistic expression always has that lecture aspect. Yet a story-driven game still maintains the non-illusory facade of choice, the feeling of control over outcomes, lacking pure stories. They allow you to present your view of the world while giving the player's view of the world room to move around. This leads, in the end, to a greater effect on the person, and a stronger and healthier interaction than pure story forms of art. Story-driven games are, I believe, the highest form of art, the newest form of art, and the final form of art.

A story-driven game is what we are concerned with in this article.

What is it, in more detail? It often contains music, uses it as a tool to set mood.  It almost always contains visual artistry, uses it as a tool to present the imaginary world, the characters and their actions, aspects of the gameplay, the dialogue (through the font), and yes, even the mood too. But, a story-driven game isn't just the story. It contains story. If it were only story it would -be- a story:  a novel, a short story, a tv show, or a movie. If it were only music it would be a music file. If it were only visual art it would be a painting, or a collection of them.

Sometimes, and unfortunately more and more frequently, a story-driven game will become a story with gameplay interludes. Most modern RPGs fall dangerously close to being a thing which alternates between story-time and game-time. Take Final Fantasy 6 as an instance. Most of the time it is, on the one side, either game-time: random monster battles, exploration, etc., or, on the other side story time: event scenes. There are, luckily, many exceptions to this... times when the story is told in an interactive way occur during boss battles, during town-wandering, and during such special events as the soldier hunting event in the Imperial Base, the dinner event with Geshtal, the moogle-army saves Terra event, or... the Celes opera event. What I hope you will realize now is the importance of integrating story and gameplay architecture, and the danger of a Front Mission 3 system of story, then gameplay, then story, then gameplay (repeat 60 times).

What a story-driven game is... is a combination of all four of these media. A game is a directed integration literature, the visual arts, music, and gameplay architecture, for the purposes of creating an interactive experience. And you must treat it as such.

Music can't actually be 'planned' in the way that literature, gameplay, and visual art can be. That is because music is different than the others in how it works. For all intents and purposes you can't plan music before you create it, as you can plan a story or a painting or a puzzle before you create it. There is no difference between planning a piece of music and creating a piece of music.

The quote beginning this section of this article, of course, not only applies to books, but to games as well. Often the first thing in One's mind when one sets out to make a game is how it is going to be different from other games... what has not been done yet that One wants to see done. This does not apply to clone-games, of course... the point of a clone-game is to make money, not to do something that interests the author.

Of Planning Gameplay Architecture

The closest parallel to video games is that of film, but with the added element of the need to engineer decision making. Good games can learn a lot from good films. A film is a story presented through video and audio, just as a game is. But you can't learn everything, because directing a movie tells you 100% of nothing about gameplay architecture. Gameplay architecture is a whole different monster.

A word on why I prefer the term 'Architecture' in reference to gameplay. Architecture, of course, is more than merely building a building (although that is what it literally is). Architecture is looking at a need for something, and building something to fulfill that need. It is a connected system, which exists not only for show but for use. Therefore, a lot of it is hidden from view. You don't see a building's foundation, nor the interior of a wall. You only see (and live in) the finished product. Gameplay architecture is similar to actual architecture of buildings  in that you don't see the nuts and bolts of it, you only see the use of it. There are a lot of rules that remain hidden, rules that can only be seen through their outcomes.

Also like architecture, 97% of it is derivative of other architecture.

Gameplay architecture is, at its core, chess, monopoly, tetris... What do these games share? Rules. And players who make decisions on how best to win. There are good chess players and good monopoly players and good tetris players. There are bad chess players, bad monopoly players, and bad tetris players. The simplest games have the simplest rules. Tic-tac-toe, for example. It is very easy to be a good Tic-tac-toe player.

The card game, 'war', is perhaps the simplest 'game' I've ever encountered. If you don't know what that game is, each player gets half the deck of cards, and they each place down a card from the top of their deck. The higher card wins. The reason it is a simple game is because... you don't decide on anything. You don't make plans. You just put down cards, all according to rules. The game can be fun at times, but if there is no decision making, is it really a game? You can't be 'good' at it. You also can't be 'bad' at it. There is no way to do something stupid, or to do something excellent. It's just rules.

There is no difference between a good 'war' player and a bad 'war' player.

Monopoly is similar, however, you do have some decisions to make. You can decide whether to buy a piece of land, and how many houses you want to put on it. You can decide to use your get out of jail free card, or not to use it. Yet those decisions are relatively rare. Most of the time, you roll dice (the outcome of which you have little to no control) and move. Sometimes there is a auction to liven it up, but most of the time it is almost the same as the card game described above.

There is some, but not very much, difference between good monopoly players and bad monopoly players.

Tetris gives you more control than Monopoly. There -is- still a degree of randomness: which piece will come up next, but for the most part there is a lot of decision making to do. Move the piece left? Right? Put it here? Or there? Try to build up a tetris? And unlike monopoly, these decisions have to be done in a finite amount of time. You can't spend a few minutes deciding where to put a piece, because they continously descend.

There is a good deal of difference between good tetris players and bad tetris players.

Chess gives you even more control than tetris, simply because there is no element of randomness. No random cards, no random dice, no random tetris pieces. You would think that this would make it less interesting, but I, and many others, feel that chess is one of the most fun and addicting games ever created. A Japanese version of chess, called Shogi, is similar, but is perhaps even more interesting, as the possible number of moves exceeds chess by several orders of magnitude.

There is an absolute difference between good chess/shogi players and bad chess/shogi players.

The pattern seems simple. The more fun and addicting a game is (and forgive me if you like monopoly more than chess, but I'm speaking overall) the greater the difference betwen good players and bad players, the less random it is, and the more flexible the rules (that is, the more choices that are possible).

I will in the future write more about gameplay architecture, when I will go into more detail on rule flexibility, randomness, and the like. I feel this is enough description of game architecture for purposes of this article.

But the question now is: how do we plan gameplay architecture? In general, what we should do before we start on a game is have a general idea of what the gameplay will be like. Will there be puzzles in dungeons? What kinds of puzzles? How will the battles play out? Will they be as simple as Dragon Warrior 1's or as complex as Final Fantasy 5's? Will the dungeons be as complex as Majora's Mask's or as simple as Final Fantasy 9's? Will prizes such as new swords and shields be given out for excellence in puzzle solving or exploration? Will there be a couple mini-games thrown in? Will those mini-games be connected to the rest of the gameplay architecture or be seperate?

One should also keep in mind how the gameplay relates to the story and theme. This is often ignored by most game designers, but when done it can be an excellent touch. For example, Revelations: Persona had a theme which was expressed in the gameplay architecture in that the entire spell system was built around different persona, each signifying a different personality aspect. As another example, Kartia had a subtle theme of being in charge of one's life, and so used 'phantoms', which were summoned automata used in battles, with no real will of their own, as a contrast to better illuminate the game's theme.

As for what theme -is-, I define theme as...well, let's just let this conversation between me and Harlock show what I mean by theme.

rinku: harlock! i just remembered! today i discovered what theme is!

harlock: tell

rinku: i had a vague idea of what it was before, but now i have a better idea
a theme of a game or a novel is: the changes in how you think
(after you are finished with the game or novel)
example: the fountainhead
after you finish it, you think more clearly about second hand lives vs. first hand lives

harlock: makes sense
what brought this on?

rinku: also, usually a theme can re-affirm the way you already think, but add something new to it.
nothing brought it on. i was just thinking about what theme means
also, you don't have to recognize the changes in thinking. usually most of it is unrecognized and unconsious.
sometimes reading a good book or watching a good anime just changes your thinking in a subtle manner, in a way that is not easy to name

harlock: hai

rinku: they can increase your sense of the heroic, for example
after watching a hero be heroic, it increases the desire to be heroic yourself, and increases your ability to appreciate heroes
it gives us a concrete example of what 'hero' means, so that when we wonder what to do, we imagine our collection of heroes, and imagine what they would do in the situation.
they also increase our sensitivity to other things besides heroism, of course. heroism is just an example.
most people think of theme as a 'message' or 'moral of the story'
what is the theme of jack and the beanstalk? of goldilocks and the three bears? of little red riding hood?
the fool would say something like "not sneaking into a stranger's house" or "not walking in the forest alone"

harlock: yes.

rinku: but they are more about: after you have heard them, you think differently about the world. you come to realize that the world is a lot more amazing than what you think it is, if you go and look for it.
one of the themes of goldilocks and the three bears is that things can be littlest, in between, and biggest. to a 3 year old, this is a new concept.
one of the themes of little red riding hood is that a wolves can pretend to be grandmothers

harlock: yes!


And that's about it. That's what I believe theme to be, how I define/model/imagine it if you will. A change (although, of course, not necessarily a u-turn) in thinking about the world. -Visual art- teaches us how to -see-, -music- teaches us how to -hear-, and both -stories- and -gameplay architecture- (in differing ways, whether together or seperately) teach us how to -think-.  If your game will change the way people think, or give them further expansion of how they already think, so as to reaffirm what they alrady know, it has a theme. If it does not do these things, if after you are done with it, the player forgets about it, and its way of viewing life, utterly, then it has no theme.

Also, there is a difference between the 'intended theme' and the 'actual theme'. A person can intend to create a game that will inspire people with an idea of the world as a kind place, but then fail, and create a game that depresses people. Thus the theme would be depression, while the intended theme was inspiration. George Orwell's book '1984' was inspiring to me, but was depressing to some other people. Usually, the theme you intend is not exactly the actual theme for each and every particular person, but the better of an artist you are, the closer you come to having every person (temporarily, while they play your game) feel and think the same way you do, for either applauding or denouncement. Note that you can feel that a game or book was well done, but still not agree with the theme. For example, I feel that Dostoevsky and Shakespeare are very fine artists, and yet I don't agree with the themes of their works in the least.

And so, every and all things in your game should be looked at in relation to their effect on how they teach the player to think. Here is a small example of what even trivial-seeming things can mean. If your battles focus too much on randomness, this will give the player a (subtle, but real) feeling that their lives are unpredictable and chaotic. If you have no randomness at all, you will give the player a feeling that they can control everything, yet there is never a feeling of newness, unpredictability, or, most importantly, no feeling of unforeseen crisis and opportunity to adapt to. Or you can compromise, and have degrees of randomness, but with the player knowing the rules of the randomness. For example, in Genghis Kahn II: Clan of the Grey Wolf (a SNES game), you never know when an abundant harvest or a typhoon will show up, but you do know how to react to those eventualities. The randomness of unscheduled and unplanned eventualities forces players to think in terms of contingency planning: the ability to form more than one plan (seen in evil geniuses as 'plan A', 'plan B', 'plan C', etc.). If there is no randomness, there is no need to make alternate plans for possible troubles. So, paradoxically, a certain degree of randomness is necessary for perfecting rational thought.

That is just theme as applied to one small, seemingly trite, part of gameplay architecture--the degree of randomness. It gets a good deal more complex than this. What does it show the player about your view of life if you force the player to follow the predisposed linearity of your game as closely as possible, without time for them to explore, try out mini-games, or go back to old areas for fun? (see: Legend of Dragoon, Second Disc of Xenogears) What does the player feel if most of the characters seem thrown about like candy, and they seem to have no motivation, goals, or personality... i.e., they feel pushed about like pawns in your game? (see: Final Fantasy Legend, Final Fantasy 1, Final Fantasy Tactics) What does the player learn if all of your characters are, gameplay-wise, undifferentiated? (see: Final Fantays 7 and 8).

 

Of Planning Characters, Imaginative World, & Plot

More on these aspect will be covered in future articles, and also later on in this article, when I show how I plan games (using Final Fantasy 4 as an example). By characters, imaginative world, and plot, I mean everything a novel or a short story has and is, which is what your game is when you take away the gameplay, the audio, and the video. [[I just used the term 'game' to mean something other than 'pure game'. I don't like the term 'video game', because aside from the fact that it ignores both audio and story, it is associated with childish churlishness, or at best, churlish childishness. 'Story-driven game', while better, ignores both video and audio, and so both pen and paper RPGs like D&D and console games like Super Mario Bros. are story-driven games, even though they don't share anything other than having a story and having a system of game rules. 'Story-driven audio-video game', while correct, is too long to type every time it is needed. And if I start throwing around creatures like 'SDAVG', I run the danger of creating my own language (hypocritical to my main complaint about most academic works). So when I say game assume, unless otherwise informed, that I mean story-driven audio-visual game. When I mean pure game I'll -say- pure game.]]

Planning the characters, the world they inhabit, the plot, and the theme are for me the most time consuming part of the planning process, although that depends on the author and the game. It is conceivable to me that an author that focuses primarily on visuals will spend a lot of time planning how monsters, characters, areas, and objects look, all in their mind, before starting to draw them. It is also conceivable to me that an author who focuses primarily on gameplay architecture (Sid Meier and Shigeru Miyamoto come to mind) will spend a lot of time planning the decisions, rules, and challenges in the game before actually coding them in, and may spend relatively little time planning how their game will look like, where the game will take place, how characters act and speak, or what the characters will do. In addition, often (quite often) one person doesn't plan the entire game, detail by detail, alone. Usually there is an art director, who plans the visual art aspect. Often there are several people working on different systems of the gameplay architecture, and sometimes (amazingly) more than one story writer. And while it is not important here whether diluting the game's planning is right or wrong (hint: it's wrong), it should be kept in your mind that designing characters/world/plot is a time thief to do well.

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Planning the imaginative world is best done on paper. It is the most meticulous and fact-intensive aspect. You need to draw maps, write the history of the world, name the towns, and all of that good stuff. You need to design the inhabitants of that world, whether human or not. You need to describe what the religion is, which groups have power and which don't, what the economy is based on, and whatever else makes the game's world seem real.

An important point about the imaginative world: the more fantastic it is, the more challenging it is to design. Designing the imaginative world of a game set in modern day earth, in the city where you live in, takes zero imaginative power. Designing Hyrule takes considerably more.

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Planning the characters is a topic partially covered in Pepsiranger's article in this issue. I'll have more to say about character design at a later date, but a character should never be without relevence to the overall game. Take Disney's Mulan animated movie. All of the characters have relevence, save the comic relief. Most Disney animated movies suffer from the same flaw. There is always one or two characters who were thrown into the soup for no reason other than their entertainment (profit) value.

Another thing about characters: know how they feel about eachother. Don't design one and then design another and then design another and then design another, as if you were writing seperate stories for each. Make sure each has some relation to most of the other characters. Don't design a bunch of characters who won't contrast. If you have a really honest character, also have a dishonest character, in order to best emphasize that honesty. If you have an independent character, put in some conformist characters too. If you have a rebel, make sure you have some dogmatists, too.

Characters, of course, do determine what kind of plot you will have, and so characters should be created or chosen or kept or discarded according to how well they junction with the rest of the game. Even if you have a character that you really like, but for some reason can't make fit into the story, the best idea would be to discard him or her, perhaps saving them for a future game (perhaps they can even be the main character in one). For example, I had designed a character for my game who was a former criminal, with one good eye, who was captured by the Teini government by a hero (one of the other characters), but then was pardoned with the condition that he aid the government in its time of great need. He was also the son of an organized criminal gang, noble in his own way, and not one to break a promise. He was also fluent in the language of the dragons, and was an expert tracker and hunter. Interesting enough, but he didn't fit into the plot-theme (I created him before I found my theme) in the least.. He had no pertinent conflicts, and none could be easily created for him. He didn't -mean- anything. So I deleted him. You must be ruthless in this way.

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Planning the plot can be very difficult. It is not a skill easily mastered. You have only to look at most commercial RPGs, even mainstream ones like Final Fantasy 7 and 8, and you'll see how often games fail at plot. To know how to write a plot, One should know what a plot is. Actually... the definition isn't all that important... [[although for sake of completion, my current defintion of plot is: sequential (emphasis on the word sequential) connected (emphasis on this word as well) mini-changes (also known variously as 'event's or 'actions') in which at least one character has a goal (wants something), goes after that goal, is opposed in reaching that goal by various things (other characters, a storm, One's economic situation, aspect of One's own self, etc.) and finally either reaches the goal, fails to reach the goal, gives up on reaching the goal, arrives at some stalemate, or realizes he has met the goal already. Plot is not real life. Plot is timed meaning (interpretations in concrete form). Real life is meaninged time (time/random events interpreted). If you are confused, worry not, for future articles will clear this up.]] ...what is important in game design is the ability to tell good plots from bad ones. This is often an underacknowledged and underexamined aspect. What is the difference between a good story and a bad story? Of course, a good story is liked by the person and a bad story bores the person... that is self-evident. But why are some stories liked so much, and why do some stories bore so much? Is there any way to tell in advance whether a story will bore people? 

The best answer I have found to this question is that if a story bores the author, it will probably bore most others. The target, then, is to aim at a story that excites you. This can be gone about in a trial and error fashion (one book on writing suggests imagining the plot over and over, in different ways, until you find a plot setup that interests you.) Try to find ways to make yourself, and consequentially the player, like the game more. Would the story be more exciting if this character was the parent of that character, or if this character was the sister of that character, or if this character was the former student of that character, and if you kept all this information away from the audience until the right time? (see: Star Wars). Would the story be more interesting if it was more concrete about what was at stake in the story, besides a simple abstract 'save the world'? (A good example of this is Legend of Legaia, which showed you an actual, and interesting, world in danger. A bad example of this is Breath of Fire 3, which didn't show you anything in danger at all). In summary, the idea is to shuffle plot elements, in hope that you'll know a good plot element when you see it. I suppose this doesn't help you very much, does it? So let me go on to specific differences between good stories and bad stories.

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One characteristic of good story-writers is that bad stories which pretend to be good stories anger (sometimes physically sicken) them. This can be explained in that a person works extremely hard to be a good story-writer, and yet is constantly confronted by terrible stories which are doing very well in the marketplace (personal example: Final Fantasy 7 and 8 and their clones). So from this it stands to reason that there is an actual difference (at least, to sensitive writers) between bad and good stories. One of the most sensitive story-writers I've found so far in my studies of 'how to write' books is the late novelist John Gardner. He gives, in his three books on writing, a simple, yet coherent and solid, model of the difference between good stories and bad stories (or, more generally, the difference between real and fake art). I, for my own use, have grouped them, and a few others which I have found in other books and (most rarely) discovered on my own, into primary and secondary categories.

The three (three being the best number of all) primary aspects of stories, in my mind, are theme, dream, and strangeness. The secondary aspects of stories are significance (emotional and intellectual), elegance/efficiency, design/performance, honesty, timelessness, nobility, genre, and originality of theme.

Understand that these are guides, not rules, if a story fails in one often it can be liked regardless. But the certainty is that horrible stories fail in all of these aspects. While a failure in one of the three primary aspects can cripple a story, but that doesn't mean that all crippled stories are not worth reading. It just means that they could have been better.

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Theme: For my opinion of theme, see the Harlock conversation above. In summary: theme is the intended and actual change in the way a person thinks, after they are finished hearing the story. The greater the change, the more effect the story has on the person, the longer the story stays with them... the stronger the theme. Remember only this: the theme is not a 'message', or a 'moral', it is a way of seeing the world. Your theme can be either weakly shown or strongly shown, and strongly shown is always preferable. You shouldn't beat their heads in with the theme and explicitly have the characters (and narrator) tell you the theme directly over and over (as if it were divine truth) like some dogmatist, but you also shouldn't choose characters, plot, and world elements arbitrarily, out of a hat, like some nihilist. Both nihilism and dogmatism are defenses against the (sometimes frightening) responsibility of thought.

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Dream: Good stories, and this is important, create a "vivid and continuous" (Gardner's words) dream in the mind of the auditor (let me define auditor as a meta-term for a  reader/viewer/appreciator/listener/player/user). The goal is to, at any cost whatsoever, not disturb that dream, for example, by distracting the auditor with music from Tales of Destiny (or some other game they know), or with too many spelling errors (or perhaps a single spelling error), or with a plotscript bug. Anything that makes the auditor think of -you-, or of -some other thing-, and not the -game-, is a breach in the dream you are creating, and a failure on the part of the author. If your characters act out of character, that is a breach in the dream. If you are contradictory (call a character 18 years old in one part of the game and then 17 years old later in the game), it is a breach in the dream. If you get something wrong, for example, if you say that helium is lighter than hydrogen, or make some other factual error, that is a breach in the dream. If the player doesn't know where to go next after hours of searching, or if the player gets stuck in a wall due to a badly linked door, that is also quite disrupting. A good game should not have anything that distracts the player from  the dream's vividness and continuousness.

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Strangeness: The unknown, the mysterious, the thing which is known in part consciously, in part unconsciously, and in part not at all. Actual, real dreams, the kind you have at night and wake up from, are strange. They are strange without theme, but they are still strange, and we like them for that strangeness, sometimes enough to tell others about them, and yet cannot say exactly what the dream was... some of it remains forever unremembered. The experience will never be repeated, it is lost forever. That is strangeness, and it is not only found in dreams, it can be found in stories as well. No one knows what it is, and that's the point. We do not want to know, or it will cease to be strangeness.  If the game of chess was 'solved' by computers (as the game of tic tac toe has been solved), it would lose its strangeness. Then, of course, we'd have to move on to Shogi.

Here is strangeness (to me). This is taken from myself describing one of my dreams.



 

okay. the dream: me and my college roommate had a paper due. it was thursday night and it was due the next morning (last day of school). we didn't have a computer so we had to go somewhere to find one to do the paper on.

it was night time. we were walking in the streets (for some reason, it was streets of my home city and not the streets in new brunswick where we go to college).

and people kept attacking us. but i use the terms 'people' and 'attack' loosely. they looked like people, but they didn't speak. they were just normal pedestrians who, when they saw us, started running into us.

as fast as they could. some were children.

as if they were a car trying to run us over.

so, i had some type of pole weapon (spear like) and was directing them away from us. when they ran into us, i would push them to the side. they didn't turn around, they just kept running, as if they could only go in that direction that they were facing.

eventually we, for some reason, stopped at a free hospital

all of these people were waiting on line for treatments of some kind

mostly the same people who were running into us, i would presume

the line was really long. it ran up and down several flights of stairs. there were crowds of people in all places. i looked at my watch, and estimated that we'd be there till midnight (it was about 9 pm at the time).

and it was long. so, i thought that since i knew a bit about medicine, i could go in and treat these people too, to speed up the line.

that's when i woke up.


[[No one try any Freudian dream interpretation. Freud's theories are moronic. Maslow = best psychologist ever.]]

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Significance: First, intellectual significance: A story with a silly theme, even if told absolutely perfectly, is still a silly story. A theme which is so well known as to be universally accepted by 95% of people (such as the theme of 'don't let the thirst for power, money, fame, and wealth overpower empathy and kindness toward other people') is so common sense as to be boring, even if told in an original way. A story based on this theme won't make your audience think, it will just make them groan and mumble something about wasting their precious time (and money, if your game is commercial). This theme was told best in Dicken's A Christmas Carol, and, while it is entertaining (in regards to ghosts), it isn't very intellectually significant to any sane person over the age of 8 (corrupt congressmen and CEOs nonwithstanding). There is no intellectual significance here, because you clearly know that selfish and uncaring greed is the wrong choice and that the spirit of christmas and good will towards men is the right choice. While the novel (and likewise its screen adaptions, including my favorite, the Disney adaption) is not intellectually significant, it is emotionally significant (at least the first time you read/see it). You care how Scrooge will decide. Not only are the lives of his employee's family at stake (Tiny Tim as the epitome of this), but his very soul is at stake (seen in his friend's chained ghost). So it matters which way he will choose. There is a conflict between his greed and the combined weight of his fear and sympathy (with some added extra input from his look at how he was in the past). Admittanatly this is not much of a conflict, and it is absolutely predictable that he will choose kindness over greed... but there is still a degree of emotional significance. To sum up, intellectual significance means that the decisions of the characters are important decisions (and, not easy decisions), and emotional significance means that you care about what will happen to them and to other characters in the story.

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Elegance/Efficiency: Covered briefly last article, and covered elsewhere in this one, a story that is elegant and efficeint is preferrable to a story that rambles on. A story that uses just as many scenes and words as it needs is better than one that uses as many as possible. Likewise a game should use only as many playable characters as it needs, have only as many maps as it needs, have only as many enemies/spells/weapons/items as the gameplay architecture works best with, etc. This is so self-evident that I don't need to write any more about it.

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Design/Performance: More about this is covered in the 'Planning Direction' section below. A good story isn't just good, it's told well. This is the difference between two people who tell the exact same good-night story to a child, but one knows how to tell it better, and the child prefers that person to tell it. This is why we want to read everything our favorite authors wrote, even though we may not be particularly interested in what they wrote about. Even in telling anecdotes and jokes, there is a clear difference between people who know how to tell them in an interesting way, and people who don't. It is a showmanship factor. [[A good example of this for the Ohrrpgce is the Arfenhouse series. They don't have amazing plots or gameplay or even a real imaginary world, but the games make up for it in presentation skill.]]

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Honesty: Good authors are honest. Honesty means liking your audience... not trying to trick them, not keeping secrets from them, not trying to trap them, telling everything about a character that is important to the story, not making it seem that you know what you are talking about when you don't, telling them what they expect to be told, tieing up all loose ends, and perhaps most importantly, not abandoning them before the story is finished, employing the excuse of "The best stories leave the ending unresolved!! So the player gets to imagine for himself what happened in the end!!" [[...Final Fantasy 7]]

Another part of honesty is seriousness. Art of any kind, game design no less than painting or novel writing, is serious, that is, it deserves respect. An honest author is one in which the auditor knows is being respectful to their game, and therefore respectful to both the auditor and to him or her self. Stephen King, in his book On Writing, to better illuminate the importance of taking art seriously, likened writing with telepathy, a meeting of the minds across time and space. Probably the best chapter in that book: while only about 4 pages long, it alone was more than worth the price of the book. [[Although the best single part of that book was where King aptly calls highschool a 'textbook loonybin'.]]

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Timelessness: A timeless story is one that applies to humanity in general, a time-specific story is one that applies only to the time and only about the subject at hand. For example, most 'westerns', and most war stories, are time specific. They were interesting when they are written, and they have historical interest, but they don't pertain to anything happening today. For example, Gone with the Wind, set in the American Civil War, time-specific, because it deals with the theme of the actual Civil War, something of interest only to people interested in the actual Civil War. But War and Peace, while it too is set in a war, is not time-specific, but timeless, as it's theme is not the actual war it was set in, i.e., it is not a story about the war, it is a story about human nature (Tolstoy's view of human nature, at least).

Timelessness, of course, is related to theme, but only in part,  it is also related to what you talk about. If you make 1000 references to popular culture (popular movies, popular video games, popular commercial products, living public figures, popular music, popular fads), your game will be -incomprehensible- a century from now, no matter how human its theme or how memorable its characters. An example of this is Lunar 1 and Lunar 2. I can just imagine someone 150 years from now playing that game and being baffled into confusion by its references.

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Nobility: Aristotle, many thousands of years ago in his book (essay? lesson?) 'Poetics', differentiated between Tragedy and Comedy. "Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type, -- not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the Ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain. ... Epic poetry agrees with Tragedy in so far as it is an imitation in verse of characters of a higher type." (The Poetics of Aristotle, section 5). [[As a quasi-pertinent aside, there is a lot more in Aristotles Poetics (which I believe to be the oldest known book on story construction) which is interesting to the story-driven game designer, in particular his ideas on plot and characters, reversal of a situation, recognition, unity of plot vs. unity of character, a plot as being single in issue (i.e., the idea of theme), and an idea which would, after Latin became the dominant language of culture, be known as deus ex machina.]] 

You don't have to inform me that nowadays we don't seperate everything into tragedy and comedy, and a lot of what was seen as comedy then wouldn't be comedy now, and a lot of what was seen as tragedy then wouldn't be tragedy now. I know this already. But the distinction between the portrayal of characters of higher and lower types remains important. By lower types, he meant characters who were not serious, noble, or (as I think of it) human. Characters that we would laugh at... such as the Three Stooges or The Simpsons. By higher types, he meant characters who were noble/serious/human. By nobility being an important part of a story, what I mean is that if a story does not have serious human characters, but instead has idiots and farces as characters, it is an inferior story (in most cases). Stories should show us what people can hope to be at their best, or, in Naturalistic fiction (also known as photographic fiction), how people actually are. The danger in showing us people who are ridiculous and ludicrous is that if this is shown too often, we may come to think that the clown-hero, someone whose actions have no effect on the world and who exists only to make others laugh at him, is the natural state of a person. This topic is taken up at greater length in Gardner's book On Moral Fiction, in which he asserts "...true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it," and in Ayn Rand's "The Romantic Manifesto".

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Genre: Why do different people like different types of stories? Why do some people like comedic stories, or horrific stories, or mysterious stories, or dramatic stories, or thrilling stories, or sci-fi stories, or fantasy stories, more than any other type? Is it a part of their character, does it tell you something about the way they think, who they are? That goes beyond our immediate purpose, but usually people like to keep their reading of books (and playing of games) to one or more specific genres. Rare is the person who enjoys sports games, shooting-reflex games, Doom clones, racing games, survival-horror games, RPGs, puzzle games, fighting games, dating sims, and Hey You, Pikachu! equally. Everyone knows that Sports games are the worst and that Adventure games are the best, right? So why make a game of a lesser genre (unless perhaps to prove that a good game in that genre can be made)?

Usually, one should write in the genres one likes best. If you don't enjoy reading detective stories, don't try to write one. If you don't enjoy playing puzzle games, don't try to make one.

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Originality of theme: Some people say that there are no new ideas under the sun, and that every possible theme has been written about already, and that all stories are basically alterations on a few basic story ideas. Those people are liars. And likely unoriginal liars, to boot. Humans have only been writing for several thousand years, which is not that long at all. The number of themes, while technically finite, exceeds the number of themes which have been written about by a large margin. People who tell you that your story isn't original are either correct (rarely) or jealous (rarely) or misguided by English teachers (frequently).

This doesn't mean that all themes, or even most themes, are new. A lot of new novels and games don't say anything original. But a lot of them do.

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One last word on theme and integration: Planning characters, world, and plot in relation to a theme is difficult. I can think of few games that have succeeded in this. One is Xenogears, which had a theme epitomized by the one winged angel in the Nisan Sanctuary. The theme of Xenogears was that it is the shared weaknesses and frailties are what make humans human, i.e., empathic for eachother. It showed this through the world, through the plot, and through the characters (examples: Krelian as seeking perfection alone, the frailties of each of the playable characters, etc.).  Another game is Revelations: Persona, which had a theme epitomized in its very magic system. The theme was that each person has more than one personality; each person has many different identities, each of which make themselves known at different times, and each of which, when combined, form a whole person. The characters, world, and plot were created with this theme in mind (examples: the different versions of Mary, the alternate versions of each character, etc.). This isn't easily done, and should not be underestimated in difficulty to achieve. A suggestion to make this a bit easier for you: Once you identify your game's theme (usually one does not begin with a theme and make a story around it, usually one has a story in mind, discovers their story's theme, and then perfects various aspects their story to fit its theme), it becomes easier to decide how the characters are going to act and develop, just as once you identify the plot's climax, it then becomes easier to plan the scenes leading up to that point. The sooner you identify the theme and the climax, the easier time you will have integrating the other aspects around these 'centers'. 


Note the varied appearances of the monsters and the characters, and the unique appearance of the crystal map tileset.

Of Planning Visual Artistry

This part is not my specialty, but I've learned some things about it. Visual planning is what game design companies do when they ask someone (for example, Amano) to do some 'conceptual sketches'. Conceptual sketches are basically the first prototype drawing of something, someone, or someplace that will, one day, be in the game (probably in a slightly different form). Monster appearance design and character appearance design happen best in conceptual sketches. Is visual planning absolutely necessary? Not exactly. Does it help? Tremendously. Interesting visual artistry concept sketches become absorbing characters, monsters, and areas, and an overall absorbing experience.

How do you go about it? Pick up a pencil (or crayons, or watercolor, or magic markers, or pastels, it matters not), get a piece of paper (or an empty space on your wall, etc.), and draw something. And then do it again, over and over and over, drawing the same thing again, or going on to draw a new thing. It really is that simple. Either that or I know so little of it that I don't have very much to write about it. I suspect the latter.

One thing in addition: design -believable- things. If you are designing a castle, make sure it works. A castle is not four walls, a throne, and a drawbridge. It frequently has outer walls, a courtyard, inner walls, towers, positions for archers, places for the quartering of soldiers, and so on. Don't make doors half the size of the characters, or treasure boxes five times their size. Above all, avoid designing monsters, people, places, and things that will make the player scream: "NO!"

Another thing: vary. Don't make all the characters,  monsters and castles look the same, or look similar to characters, monsters, and castles in other games. Don't strive for originality for originality's sake, but do strive for distinction.


Both of these scenes superbly reveal all of the characters involved.

Of Planning Direction

The hardest part of game design. It consists of fitting your visuals, your audio, your gameplay architecture, your imaginary world, your cast, and your plot all together, with respect to your theme. It also consists of discarding the useless, changing things around until they feel right, basically decision making in general. This is the most difficult part of game design. I said that already, but it is so important, I'm saying it twice.

Which music goes in which scene? When does this character speak, and what does she say? Do you fight these three enemy characters one at a time, or simultaneously? If one at a time, in which order? How is a character's personality revealed through their role in battle? Which music best expresses the personality of this character? Does this scene happen indoors our outdoors? Do the credits of the game appear in the beginning of the game or only at the end? When does the title screen come in? Should I use this special effect here or there? Should I detail this scene using cutscene backgrounds or plotscripting? Which enemies go in this dungeon? Do I put a save point here? Where is the hero's house located?

At core, direction is the presentation of your imaginative world, characters, plot, and gameplay. Not only will you have to plan those, you must also plan how you will effectively present them. The questions expressed above should mostly be answered in your plan. 

Don't begin a dungeon haphazardly, before you go into custom.exe, plan the dungeon: know exactly what will happen there, what the challenges of the dungeon will be, how many floors and rooms it will have, and what treasures will be found there. This can be done on graph paper if you wish. Each dungeon should be designed, not just allowed to be made tile by tile, room by room, as you go along. And the same goes for towns, overworld maps, castles, or whatever areas of exploration you need.

Openings (also, endings) are of particular importance. Every scene should be well done, but you might be able to slip a poorly done scene by the player in if it is in the middle of the game. But if your opening scene (in fact, your opening textbox) is poor, beware the player's "Goodbye!".

An analogy is that of the stage magician. A great stage magician knows how to direct the audience's attention to exactly what he wants their attention to be directed to. Game presentation is no different. You can have a great gameplay architecture, interesting characters, plot, monster design, etc., and still fail to show it correctly. You don't want to, for example, bring in all the characters in in the first scene. You don't want to give the player the entire story in the first half hour of gameplay. You don't want to begin the game with one of the hardest bosses, without time to learn the battle system. You don't want to bring the player's attention too strongly (or too weakly) to a minor character who dies in the second dungeon. In general, you don't want to confuse the player with too little or too much information at a time, or too many rules all at once. For near perfect examples of how to introduce gameplay to a player, see any Miyamoto game. Note how the first challenges give you an idea of how the game works without being too daunting, and how gradually they become more difficult and complex. Remember the stage magician, and that you are directing a performance -- albeit an interactive one, in which the player's actions determine which of the many variations of the performance he or she will see.

I don't really have any specific advice here except: you'll know when you failed by how disjoined and arbitrary everything in the plan feels, and you'll know when you succeeded by how connected and logical everything in the plan feels. I can't give very much advise on style. Style, as I see it, is how you present what you present, as opposed to what you present. Style isn't what people talk about, it is how they talk about it. It isn't what is drawn, but how well it is drawn. On this, little can be said by me, or anyone else.

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