Interactive Narrative:

Or, wow is this harder to learn than I thought

Adorable chibi version of Alistair, my game husband from Dragon Age: Origins, by Evolvana on DeviantArt. Click the picture for the link. Isn't he so adorable you just want to pinch his little cheeks and feed him cheese?

Adorable chibi version of Alistair, my game husband from Dragon Age: Origins, by Evolvana on DeviantArt.  Link. Isn’t he so adorable you just want to pinch his little cheeks and feed him cheese?

When done well (and in a genre I like, with characters I like and very much preferably with a customizable female-allowed main character,) I love video games. In fact video games that meet all of my insane standards and done well are probably my favorite thing ever. I know, I love books, too. But there’s just something about being able to put *yourself* into a brilliant story and make choices and connections with the characters that feels more engaging and real than anything you can find in other kinds of media. It’s the interactive part of gaming that I love.

When I first started becoming a voracious reader, I faced a similar problem that I now constantly face with video games. There just wasn’t that many things written in the genre that I really wanted to read. Fantasy (YA especially) with strong, likable female protagonists.  I think I about cried with joy that Tamora Pierce and her books even existed when I discovered her. (To this day, Tamora Pierce remains one of two people I’ve ever sent a piece of fan-mail to. The other was, strangely enough, Melissa Joan Hart for her work in Sabrina the Teenage Witch. What can I say, I was a super escapist child.)

Because I’m so humble and unassuming, my reaction to frustration was eventually, Gah! This is one giant piece of moldy stinky cheese! There aren’t enough books I love, so I’m going to write one. And write a YA fantasy I did. A book which to this day, remains my mother’s favorite piece of work, even though its by far by far the worst written.

When you are writing a novel, there’s two important ways to learn. One read a lot. (Not a problem in my household. We own more books than probably anything else.) Two keep writing. It’s both way easier and way harder than it sounds. (Well, getting critiques and edits and impartial input on your work is important also, but that doesn’t match today’s theme so lets skip over it.) But at the very least by reading a good book, you at least get an idea of what it takes to write one.

With video games…. Ha! It’s so not that simple. I’ve played my share of video games, but did that prepare me to attempt to write one? HAHAHAHAahahaHAAhaha… no.

Here’s a quote from the mind behind some of my favorite game characters and games, David Gaider of Bioware, lead writer of Dragon Age, who has written both well received games and novels, comparing the two types of writing.

“Let’s take the novel… really it’s writing in its purest form. There’s a direct link between the writer and the audience— whatever the writer wills is put into words and directly into the audience’s imagination. You have access to narrative, both internal as well as omniscient, and you can easily change the point of view character. The audience is not required to have agency… they’re a passive voyeur, but not a participant…Compare that to a videogame, in particular an RPG like the ones BioWare makes. Imagine writing a story where you have no clear picture of the protagonist. You might know a few things about them, and indeed the more things you identify the more you can supply story hooks for them, but often the protagonist is almost a complete blank…No matter what you do, you have no idea how your protagonist feels about the story, and if you supply choices you’ll never know their true motivation for making those choices.” — David Gaider on novel writing versus game writing (from here)

When you are writing the sort of game I like, the kind with interactive narratives and  dialogue with choices, it’s incredibly complicated. You can’t assume that the players are going to want to say/do what you would. You have to provide for a variety of types of main characters, but at the same time have your world and your characters react in character to the choices/speech of the main character. A conversation that will take the player seconds, can take a ridiculous amount of time to plan out and write. That’s because of branching dialogue. Where different choices give you different responses. Another quote from the wise one:

“You’d be surprised how hard it is for people to wrap their head around the notion of branching dialogue. Often what happens is that the writer has a very particular path in mind and fails to account for different player “voices”: the player who’s trying to do the right thing, the player who wants to be a bastard, the player who is the suspicious and reluctant hero, etc. You won’t be able to accommodate every voice all the time, but it is a mistake to accommodate none of them.” — David Gaider on game writing (from here)

An example of branching (node based) dialogue from the Dragon Age: Origins Toolset. (Taken from the tutorial)

An example of branching (node based) dialogue from the Dragon Age: Origins Toolset. (Taken from the tutorial)

 

I think I get even more frustrated these days about lack of games I like than I do about lack of books. This is partially because my tastes have expanded a lot since I was younger and partially because the market of the genres and female characters I respond to have increased a lot since I was in elementary/junior high. But this is also partially because the perceived target market for video games is still a teenage boy. And according to some video game companies and marketers, teenage boys aren’t even the least bit interested in being able to play a non-overly sexualized female main character, in just about anything. Where I really get lucky is in the well done games with customizable main characters that allow for both genders. Basically, Bioware is my Boo (and pretty much my only boo.)

Now, I’m not arguing that teenage boys (or any men or whoever) shouldn’t be able to play, I don’t know Man With Big Muscles and BIGGER GUNS!!!! SHOOTS THINGS FOR JUSTICE AND BOOB PHYSICS  AND SLEEPS WITH EVERY GIRL ON THE PLANET!  If that’s something that they want to do and other people want to make for them, fine. It doesn’t hurt me any that it’s out there. (If we discount parts of games that feed in directly to rape culture etc. which is for a different discussion that I may not ever feel up to having on the scurry internets)

I just get frustrated when there’s this idea that video games are this zero sum game. Games for you means no games for me, etc. That and the idea that there is no market for girl-friendly games (despite a thriving genre in Japan and Asia called ‘Otome’ that are entirely games made for a female audience) means that finding a game I like is like…a twice a year event resulted in exultant celebration and the ritual sacrifice of cookies to the gaming gods in thanks.

Often this frustration of having nothing to play takes me directly to the same place that started me writing in the first place. Fine, you stinky head universe! I will make my own! (With the caveat that, unlike with books, making games is really hard to do as a one person endeavor  Especially when everything I do starts off sort of complicated and ends up so complicated in hurts my brain to think about. Especially as I have no skill in art and very limited ability to program. I wouldn’t have thought I could program at all, but I’ve been able to teach myself a little.) 

So I’ve started and stopped a bunch of projects, the current one (although no less complicated) on a system that is entirely text based, so I plan to actually finish. In doing so I’ve learned a lot about how branching stories and branching dialogue is a heck of a lot harder than it looks.

 
An example of branching dialogue/choices from my current game work in progress Seven Kingdoms: The Princess Problem, from a conversation with the Pirate 'Prince' Hamin.

An example of branching dialogue/choices from my current game work in progress Seven Kingdoms: The Princess Problem, from a conversation with the Pirate ‘Prince’ Hamin.

 

 So now I feel even more respect for the writers who are able to do such a good job with it than ever before. If you really want to give yourself a writing challenge, branching dialogue with different possible personalities for a player character is a really good one.

I feel like when I started writing this, I had a point. But I’ve lost it now.  Invisible Bob probably stole it and hid it where he hides all the single socks and utensils that disappear.  And I’ve gone on too long, too long! Maybe I’ll continue this another day. For now:

In game shot from my favorite NPC (non-player character) from any game ever. Yes, its my game-husband (literally, I marry him in every playthrough) Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins.

In game shot from my favorite NPC (non-player character) from any game ever. Yes, its my game-husband (literally, I marry him in every playthrough) Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins.

As a final present, here’s some of the dialogue from Alistair’s (above) romance  in Dragon Age: Origins.  Presumably this scene was written by David Gaider (as he wrote Alistair) You can see a youtube video (with amazing voice work by Steve Valentine) of this scene here. 

 “Here, look at this. Do you know what this is?”

 (Choice)

-That’s a rose.

-Is this a trick question?

-Your new weapon of choice? (*Chosen)

 *”Yes, that’s right. Watch as I trash our enemies with the might power of floral arrangements! Feel my thorns, darkspawn! I will overpower you with my rosy scent!” 

“Or, you know. It could just be a rose. I know that’s pretty dull in comparison.” 

(Choice)-

You’ve been thumbing that flower for a while, now.

-Is there a point to this?

-Sentiment can be a pretty potent weapon. *(Chosen) *

“Is it that easy to see right through me? I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”

 “I picked it in Lothering. I remember thinking, ‘How could something so beautiful exist in a place with so much despair and ugliness?” 

“I probably should have left it alone, but I couldn’t. The darkspawn would come and their taint would just destroy it. So I’ve had it ever since.” 

(Choice)

-Why are you telling me this?

-And what do you intend to do with it?

-That’s a nice sentiment *(chosen)

 *”I thought that I might… give it to you, actually. In a lot of ways, I think the same thing when I look at you.” (swoon) 

(Choice)

-I… don’t know what to say.

-And what am I supposed to do with it?

-You think of me as a gentle flower?

-Feeling a bit thorny are we?

-Thank you, Alistair, that’s a lovely thought. 

There’s more to the scene (one of my favs) but I’ll stop here lest this get too long. (Too late you say? Oh well, intentions of brevity never work out anyway.)

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