Environmental Storytelling and Emergence

One of the highlights of this year’s Game Developer’s Conference was Harvey Smith and Matthias Worch’s talk, “What Happened Here: Environmental Storytelling.” There’s not much point in my going into great detail about what they said, because they have posted extremely thorough slides and lecture notes. Suffice it to say, the talk is about the way that set-dressing choices provide a parallel narrative channel, which is powerful in the way that it invites acts of interpretation from the player, at his own pace.

First, as an aside, I seem to not be the only one interested in this topic, as Emily Short (I think it was) drew comparisons between this player experience and Interactive Fiction at the IF panel at PAX East. Many people don’t seem to even realize that games have storytelling methods available to the designer other than non-interactive cutscenes, so this is a topic I was very happy to see getting some attention.

The really thought-provoking part of the talk for me, though, was what the presenters called “Systemic Environmental Storytelling.” Continue reading Environmental Storytelling and Emergence

Upcoming Events

I have a couple of volunteer gigs coming up shortly. Next week, I’ll be reviewing paper prototypes with a group at the awesome Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. I’ll probably draw heavily on Stone Librande’s material on the topic from the Game Design Workshop at GDC.

Later in the month, I’ll be helping GAMBIT’s Sara Verrilli with a game design exercise she’s developing for the Boston Beyond IQ Conference on highly gifted children. I’ve been to this event several times before, and am glad to finally have the opportunity this year to pitch in.

Hello, I Must Be Going

The announcement just went out at work: the end of next week will be my last day at Vicarious Visions, after eight and a half years. I’m feeling excited, apprehensive, relieved, happy, sad, grateful, and adventuresome. I have some possible consulting clients I need to follow through with, some projects people have suggested, and very little pressing need of my own to do anything I don’t want to.

I’ll be keeping an eye open at PAX East this weekend, though. You never know when something interesting might turn up.

Welcome

Welcome! This post marks the birth of the blog you see before you. There may be some posts with prior dates to this one: they have been imported in order to make this post less lonely.

Capsule Review: Zooloretto

I recently played Michael Schacht’s Zooloretto box coverZooloretto for the first time. It’s the winner of the 2007 Spiel des Jahres, and rather a cunning little game.

Each player is a zookeeper, competing to assemble the best zoo. Fundamentally, it’s a convoluted draft. On your turn, you either draft the entire contents of a single “truck” into your zoo, or you blindly draw a tile and add it to the truck of your choice. So far, I’m also describing Schacht’s earlier game Coloretto. Because your decisions to draw rather than draft are made based on the likelihood that one of your opponents will draft before play gets around to you again, Coloretto strategy is largely screw-your-neighbor.

Zooloretto, however, adds decisions about how you allocate the things you draft, and allows you an action to change those allocations. All of this makes a huge difference. The allocation decisions add depth to the game, and greatly reduce the screw-your-neihbor factor by giving you opportunities to turn lemons into lemonade. You’re still trying to avoid any truck placements that hand things to your neighbor on a silver platter, of course, but the decisions involved aren’t so unsubtle.

So, it’s interesting to see how Schacht took this mechanism from a worthy but lightweight filler type of game, and fleshed it out into something much more substantial.

What Kind of Scroll, Now?

Now for my thoughts about Dungeon Scroll vs. Bookworm Adventures.

When Dungeon Scroll was first pointed out to me, it was with the assessment that Bookworm Adventures was “basically a polished version of Dungeon Scroll.” On the one hand, this is not an unfair summary. On the other, Bookworm Adventures really adds elements that I think are critical to delivering on the Dungeon Scroll concept, so it’s putting a heavy burden on the word “polish.”

See, the thing is, the whole concept is that you’re having a dungeon-delving adventure of some sort, where you defeat monsters by spelling words. Okay.

But Dungeon Scroll doesn’t feel like a dungeon/spelling game. It just feels like a spelling game. To an outside observer it probably looks like a dungeon/spelling game, but this is really lost on me as a player in a way that really isn’t the case at all in Bookworm Adventures. So, why is that?

The single most critical thing that Bookworm Adventures does to deliver on this concept is not, in fact, the superior animation, variety of monsters, addition of a narrative framework, inclusion of debilitating status ailments, or addition of magical treasure inventory. All of those Dungeons & Dragons tropes are important, to be sure. But that’s not the key thing.

The key thing is that Dungeon Scroll is “real time” (in the videogame parlance sense that means that the action happens continuously) and Bookworm Adventures is turn-based.

In Dungeon Scroll, you almost never even look at the little animated fantasy monster in the corner of your screen, because you’re too busy looking at the letters. If you’re not looking at the letters, you’re not spelling words, and if you’re not spelling words, you’re being punished. You are punished for paying attention to the very thing that’s supposed to be the game’s distinctive hook.

In Bookworm Adventures, conversely, when there’s something going on onscreen, you’re allowed to look at it. In fact, you can’t spell things during the monster’s turn, so you might as well sit back and enjoy the animation of it attacking you.

This isn’t a problem with a straight-up fantasy adventure game, because the action is happening in the same place as the fantasy is being presented. So those games can be “real-time” or turn-based, at the designer’s option. But the tile field in these dungeon/spelling games pulls your eye away from the fantasy adventure elements of the game, so in order to deliver on their concept they need to allow your eye the opportunity to pull back.

Ultimately, I don’t think the most important thing that Bookworm Adventures brings to the table is any of the production and gameplay embellishments that one normally thinks of as “polish.” It’s a change in the gameplay fundamentals, without which all the fantasy trappings you care to ladle on are terribly undermined.

So, I think that’s pretty interesting.

Curious Production Value Lapses

So, having had it pointed out to me that Bookworm Adventure is basically a polished version of IGF finalist Dungeon Scroll, I resolved to check out the latter.

Not going to get into my thoughts about the two games relative to each other, except to note that it’s curious, while playing a spelling game, to see it suffer from spelling errors. For example, “pickup” used as a verb, or “hampster” used as … well, anything, really, but one presumes that what was intended was “hamster.” You’d think there’d be a presumption that your audience cared about such things more than typically.

Game Designer's Journal