不管是“1-1 MARIO START”还是最具动态性的过场动画都只是创造了游戏环境，即将角色放置在一个开放领域，将控制交给玩家，然后留下一些尚未解决的问题。即使情节并不受玩家输入内容的影响，但是当玩家在探索情境时，大多数叙述实体（包括图像，音乐，角色设计，从A点到B点所需要的努力，个人和数据的发展，角色的改变等）都会发生改变。
想一想Sid Meier是如何把故事元素添加到《Pirates!》中的，这款充满叙述可能性的游戏流行了好一阵子。Sid Meier没有创造一个固定情节和结尾的虚假传说，而是在游戏中填充许多传统海盗故事的片段和情节。根据玩家选择，他可以拯救了失散多年的姐妹、与邪恶的西班牙人一决胜负、成为反叛的海盗、发现埋藏的宝藏、从监狱里逃脱或与长官的女儿喜结连理。到最后，游戏回顾了海盗这一生中的光辉事迹，以及命运的起落。虽然游戏攻略般的情节与专业作品相比，多少是逊色的，但对于游戏的忠实受众，这些事件都有特殊的意义。
另一个例子是《原子僵尸粉碎机》。在这款迷你RTS游戏中，玩家要阻止僵尸破坏一个虚构的美国城市Nuevos Aires。这款游戏中充满可笑的小片段，显示市民如何应对僵尸袭击。游戏的结尾更是经典，出现了半机械人El Presidente和AK-47果树的场景，伴随着艾森豪威尔总统的著名的“军工业基地”演讲。
篇目1，The Situation with Video Game Stories
by Mark Filipowich
A former professor of mine once told me that for a story to be a story, it must consist of a character being changed by events. Stories may be layered and make use of a gamut of literary devices and tropes, but everything is built on the foundation of a character being changed by an event.
It is not enough to put an alcoholic in an ambulance with his dying mother or a rogue AI in a law firm run by God or an amnesiac engineer in a haunted sandwich shop. Those aren’t stories; they’re situations. They may be interesting situations with interesting people thinking and saying interesting things, but they’re just situations.
And a situation, this professor stooped to tell us, is not a story. Something has to happen, and someone has to change because of it. A story has transparent motion between a distinct individual and their specific circumstances.
Of course, like most rules of literature, the rule disintegrates upon closer inspection. Kafka’s entire body of work is about people not changing under the reader’s watch; even Hemingway was more interested in his unique brand of musing than in laying out what happened to whom and why it should be important.
But I imagine that this professor of mine was just trying to break down a complicated world into manageable chunks for a new batch of undergraduates. Even if the “character-changed-by-stuff” criteria for the written word is imperfect at least it’s somewhat useful in understanding how literature functions. Games, on the other hand, do not fit this criterion at all.
Game narratives aren’t built on stories. Even the most linear, plot-heavy games focus not on what happens, when, and to whom, but rather everything around the events that help to set them up. The circumstances that make the plot possible are far more interesting in games than the plot itself. If literature is a growth chamber where a character is altered when stimulus is applied, then games are a big open room covered in clues, often occupied by fascinating people and explored by a stranger.
It isn’t just that world-building is more important than creating a plot, as argued by Nick Dinicola on [PopMatters], nor is it that the player must feel responsible for creating movement in the plot—although both are still necessary for the narrative to carry any weight—it is that a game’s situation, not its plot, is at the foundation of video game narrative. By narrative, I mean the sum of plot, world, character, scenes, environments, sets, dialogue exchanges, and anything operating in the mechanical system that could be said to evoke a feeling or thought (including the mechanics themselves).
Not to discount any of the great writing or directing authored in games past, but everything is built on a core situation. A player is dropped into a starting environment and everything is experienced through their exploration, deduction, and play. Even when the player has no authority over the game’s events, at the core the narrative is built on each new bit of atmosphere that the game establishes. Whether it’s a change from the Brecilian Forest to the deep roads, hopping out of a warthog and into a banshee, or just lining up four lines to clean up a once log jammed Tetris board, every mood and atmosphere is framed by a situation.
Think of how most levels begin: there may be a cutscene or even just a brief dissolve that wipes to a new screen, but ultimately a level puts an avatar into a world and leaves the player to explore—even if it is just in one direction.
Even in adventure games, in which the player basically figures out how to move from one conversation or cutscene to the next, the narrative is built on the player moving their avatar or their screen or even just closely examining the elements of the world, until each puzzle is solved. Nothing happens until the player has explored the game enough to understand its context. In a novel, you don’t hear about how the character enters a room, approaching each piece of furniture in every new room just to see what they could do with it and what reasons that it could possibly be there (unless it’s a Henry James novel, amirite?).
Everything from “1-1 MARIO START” to the most dynamic cutscenes just establish context, put the avatar in an open space, hand the controls back to the player, and then leave things unresolved. Even if the resolution of a plot is unaffected by player input, most of the narrative substance (the artwork, music, character design, the effort required to move from A to B, the personal and statistical growth and changes in characters) all happen when the player is just exploring the situation.
It’s why games will never—and should never—reach absolute verisimilitude. Because even while it isn’t natural for a hero to take twenty minutes away from a main quest because they thought they might have seen a neat-looking shark from a coastline or for villagers to greet heroes that barge into their homes or for people to repeat the same speech at every prompt or for enemies to walk and attack in the same patterns or for death to be an annoying setback instead of an absolute state, they facilitate exploration of the enormous situation, which is at the core of video game storytelling.
The plot doesn’t matter as much in games because it doesn’t exist until the player moves it. However, the situation is always there, and in the best games, it’s always interesting. Even in games stripped almost entirely of story like in a Mario game or where it’s irrelevant such as in a World of Warcraft raid or a League of Legends multiplayer match, the situation dictates the thoughts and feelings that become the story.
Being clearly outclassed by an enemy leads to anxiety and desperation, resulting in carefully choosing the location of battle or baiting enemy aggression. Ultimately, exploring the game’s context leads to the story of a glorious come-from-behind victory or a humiliating defeat. The point is that the emotive and rational experience is dictated by what situations the game establishes.
The reason I believe why most players don’t finish games isn’t that games are too challenging or even that players get bored with their games. It’s that games lose their impact after too long a string of unpalatable, limited, or repeated situations. The problem is that as a game nears its conclusion fewer unexplored locations remain, fewer long-term goals need maintenance, and fewer characters are left with unresolved arcs. The more progress that the player makes, the more constrictive the overarching situation becomes.
Essentially, there are fewer big open “rooms” left to explore and flesh out. How many players quit a 40 hour campaign right before the final boss just because it’s the last possible thing that they can do? By the time that the final dungeon opens up and the side quests are all wrapped up, the only situation remaining doesn’t need to be explored to understand: “I will beat the boss, or I will reset until I beat him and get the ‘good’ ending.”
For literature and film, plot is everything. Without moving events that shape (or fail to shape) the characters, there is only setup with no direction. We engage with these stories to see what a person will do and how the things that happen will shape them. But games, at the core, are setup. They create a place to wander and figure out for one’s self. All the story that may happen afterward results from play in an open space, the boundaries and significance of which is understood through experience.
篇目2，Story: What is it really about?
Upon hearing the word story, most people probably think of a chain of connected events. For example: “A princess is kidnapped; a brave knight rides to save her; the knight faces a dragon, the knight slays dragon and saves the princess; finally the knight gets half the kingdom and marries the princess”. Most likely, one also thinks of even smaller details as integrated parts of the story; the way in which the princess is kidnapped, how the knight struggles against the dragon, and so on.
This is not the right way to think of stories. The chain of events is just the plot, and it is a device used in order to get the story across to an audience. What really lies at the core of the story are themes, locations, emotions, and so on. Pretty much all stories we have heard in our lives have been plot-based, but this is because this has been pretty much the only way of telling them. Now that we have videogames as a widespread medium this is no longer true. Still, the idea that story equals plot remain strong. It is a common belief that when a game becomes less linear, it is less about the story. I do not think this is true and if we want to advance the storytelling of the medium, this view needs to go.
By the Campfire
Humans have been telling stories for a long, long time, well before the dawn of civilization. These stories were not written down, but spread by being told over and over, never repeated exactly the same way. These kind of “camp fire stories” still remain, traveling from person to person, constantly evolving and changing. Yet, while the way the stories are told change, in a way they still remain the same. Anyone who has ever told a story like this knows that you often never know the exact words. Instead, you know of certain important things the story is supposed to “say”.
It is very common that you change a story like this depending on your audience. If the people listening do not seem impressed by the hero’s strength, you add more details, more events, descriptions and dialog. Your goal when telling the story is not be give an exact replication of how the story was told to you. What you are trying to do is to copy the impact the story had on you and any change you can do in order to accomplish this is a valid one.
The moment you do something like this, you have realized, although perhaps unconsciously, that the essence of the story its not the words that make it up. Instead, the story is about something on a higher level.
Peeling an Onion
When a section of a story is trying to convince the audience how strong a hero is, it is something that exists above the words that make it up. Still, this “strong hero” theme, might not be at the highest level either and simply be a vessel for a yet greater goal. Perhaps it sets up an overarching theme of how even the strong will eventually fall. The levels might not stop even there and eventually the essence of the story might be boiled down to a few essentials. These essentials is what the story is really about. Remove any of these and the structure collapse and the original story is no more.
It is also important to have in mind that some levels might be connected. Something that is at a higher level might not manage to stand on its own. A certain part of the story might be about the hero overcoming overwhelming odds and is meant to provoke sympathy. At the same time it is about the hero being subjected to torture and treated very badly by some people. If you remove the torture part, then what you have left is only two very fuzzy themes and not something that alone can build the story. Thus it is not always so that the important pieces of a story are all on the highest level, but they might spread out in a hierarchy. And while this might actually continue down to the very lowest level, it can only do so if removing the part destroys the story. It is not a way to justify that every single detail is essential.
I think most people already have these layers in their mind when thinking up a story, but then along the way give great weight to the details on the lowest level. This is especially harmful when making games, something I will address shortly. First I must go over what I mean by the essence of a story.
What is the Essence?
One might argue that a certain story is not possible to distill into a few high level concepts. It could be argued that a certain scene must be in a very specific way; that one cannot simply describe it as some flimsy themes. I think this happens if one thinks that the themes must be deep, thought provoking, artsy, or whatnot. This is not what I mean with the essence though and it can be any number of things.
For example take the “attack on the village”-scene in the movie Predator, something I am sure few people would call deep, thought-provoking or similar. What are the high level concepts here? Is it just be boiled down to “mindless violence”, “how the civilized world rapes nature” or anything similarly pretentious? Not so. Instead its essence is things like the environment, the oppressing jungle; to have a team of sweaty super-humans storm a village, showing off destruction and gunfighting. At a higher level it is also meant to be fun watching and must keep a certain distance to reality and stay away from certain things (like murdering of innocents) in order to keep the audience entertained.
What I want to show here is that a story does not need to be have some kind of moral lesson, ask an existential question, or whatever deep meaning, at its core. It can be shallow and just for fun. Even so, there is an essence and it is what really matters in the story.
Consider any good book/movie you have ever read/seen. Is it really the lowest level of events and details that made you like it? Was it not the locations it took you to? Was it not the interesting relationship between character? Or the way slowly uncovering a mystery made you feel? I argue that no story, no matter what sort, is not about the exact way in things happen, but about the essence of these events. This is something that is crucial to have in mind in video games, as simply nailing down a few details that satisfy the essence is not enough. A video game is a living, breathing world and the essence needs to be portrayed through the right use of the mechanics (such as gameplay, art, sound, etc).
Stories in Videogames
Actually videogames already use this kind of story telling! For example, first person shooters have not set the exact sequence how people get shot or houses blown up. The thing that matters is that people do get shot and houses do get blown up. Exactly how this happens is not important for the story, only that the essence of the action stays the same.
The same is true for portrayal of environments in most games. It does not matter how the protagonist traverse or interact with it, the designer simply constructs a world and the rest is up to the player. By setting up the mechanics of the game a certain way, the designer then pretty much guarantees that the player will have a specific kind of experience and that the essence is kept intact.
However, this how far it goes in most the games today. Once a videogame gets to trickier parts of the story, lower level details are given more and more importance. When it comes to concepts like love, betrayal and grief, pretty much all current games rely on a specific set of events, a plot, to convey them. No longer does it consider the essence of the story. Instead, it becomes focused on the low-level details. Take God of War as an example. There is no need to have cut-scenes showing how angry and prone to violence Kratos is – the gameplay does this for us. But when it is time to bring up other emotions, like showing the reasons behind his rage, the game resorts to plot-based cut scenes.
This does not have to be the case. I think that just about any essence can be expressed by a virtual world guiding the player using various mechanics. This can be conveyed just as good, or perhaps even better, than what a carefully planned plot is able to. I believe we are already seeing this with deeper themes such as a fear. As has been proved by games like Silent Hill*, over ten years ago, video games can be used to provoke fear in a way that is impossible to do in any other medium. While certain kinds of horror lends itself extremely well to the video game medium, I see no reason why other emotions and themes can not work just as well. There are of course also games like Fallout and Shadow of the Colossus that touch upon other themes without using a plot, giving a glimpse of what could be achieved. However, this is just the tip of an iceberg and videogames as a story telling medium is still far from where it could be.
Abandoning plot and a linear progression does not mean that one is creating a sandbox game. It simply means that one picks out the essence of the story and design a virtual world that delivers just that. I believe that sticking to old fashion cut-scenes is a dead end if we want video game story telling to progress. Instead we need to look at a higher level, figure out the essence of our stories and focus on that. When this way of creating a story reaches into areas previously reserved to films and books, storytelling in game will be a force to truly reckon with.
篇目3，Opinion: The perception of interactivity
The conclusion of the Mass Effect trilogy has spawned a great deal of chatter on forums and news sites alike, based initially on the online petition requesting extra endings and the growing responses from Bioware and others alike. Kyle’s post here covers one perspective, and with this post I aim to cover something slightly different one. It is not directly about Mass Effect, but instead about how content-driven games are made.
It seems to me, from the way the petition is worded, that despite investing hundreds of hours in the trilogy, many gamers don’t understand the logistics involved in creating a video game. It could be argued that they shouldn’t need to – we watch films without knowing all the intricacies involved in getting the image and sound to the screen, so why should gamers need to know about the blood, sweat and tears that go into making games?
While some films do spark huge reactions toward the director from fans, those fans often find other outlets for their reaction, with alternative endings turning up on Youtube or comic strips or even novels. There are rarely the tools made available for alternative endings to be made for video games, which in turn leads to fans putting pressure on developers. Funding issues aside, there’s a big reason why a game driven by content cannot have infinite endings: it’s simply not possible to create and test that much content.
To expand on that statement, the way the Mass Effect trilogy melds the experience to the player’s actions puts a phenomenal sense of power and creation into their hands, and this naturally gives the impression that the game is crafted specifically to them. Unfortunately, it’s not.
To give an example of how a content-driven game is designed, I’m going to have a quick look at Dragon’s Lair. If you haven’t played it, the premise is very simple: a beautiful animation plays out and, at a pre-defined point, something happens which the player needs to react to with a button press. This is a video of the full game being played all the way through.
The playthrough doesn’t show many of the player deaths because the player knows what they’re doing. But behind the smooth flowing animation is a system that’s waiting for a player input. If the player misses the window of opportunity, the game branches and the player dies. If they hit the window, they progress.
Different companies refer to these as different things – nodes, branches, gates. They’re effectively all the same and, for this post, I’ll stick with the latter. This example is the simplest gate required to create player choice. Each and every sequence has been hand crafted, and the game planned out in intimate detail.
To design Dragon’s Lair and sketch out the flow, it probably took a few weeks, though actually creating the content took seven months and 1 million dollars (source). That was in 1983, so in today’s money that’s a lot more. And all this for a game that can be completed in just over 10 minutes, as shown in the above video.
As well as creating the content and code, it all needs to be tested. Test plans come later down the development line, when the framework of the game and the main mechanics are close to being locked. Once that happens, it’s possible to create a list of tests and expected results. From here the test team can do regular checks to ensure the game is behaving as intended.
A test plan for the the diagram above might look something like this:
One sequence with a single gate therefore might lead to eight tests. Possibly even more. For now, though, that’s enough to highlight why testing is one of the most difficult parts of making games. It stands to reason therefore that in a game more complicated than Dragon’s Lair there’s going to be far more possible outcomes.
At any one point the player could have done one of a hundred things, let alone the thousands of small inputs they’ve made to get to where they are. If a bug surfaces, the developer then needs to find a way to recreate it so that they can understand what’s going wrong and then, hopefully, fix it.
I should note at this point that something like a shooting mechanic is very different from gated content, because that’s a system that has a set of defined rules. When the player does certain things (such as presses the fire button), the rules determine what happens, not the content. So the test plan doesn’t have to account for pressing the fire button at every possible position the player can get themselves into.
The sort of gates I’m describing here really only come into play at big story points, such as the ‘choose route’ type option presented to the player in Gears of War for instance.
Now we know the level of detail required for a single gate, we should now look at how we cope with multiple gates. In Mass Effect, each conversation often has a few possible outcomes, especially when they’re with key characters. The interaction required by the player is very different from the reaction-heavy animation window system employed by Dragon’s Lair, but the underlying system is very similar:
Suddenly we’re facing a bit of a crisis – one conversation with three possible outcomes, each with just two more attached to them has led to six unique paths. And the game design wants over a hundred conversations… There’s no real way that we can create that many unique gates. So, instead, we create paths that feed back into themselves further down the line:
You’ll notice that by using this system it’s entirely possible that the player won’t have to go through every gate to get to the end – in fact it’s desirably to do this to try and encourage replays.
You can keep even more control over the number of possible outcomes by creating larger, single, gates that the player has to go through to complete the game, but where they’re free to choose whatever route they desire in between:
The orange boxes in this case are choke points.
With a game like Mass Effect, there are multiple choke points, but the entire game is constructed of so many that the player doesn’t have to go through every one to get to the end of the game. In fact, there’s very purposefully a great deal of routes through the game. But every single route has been planned, designed and has had content created for it.
This type of design method isn’t just limited to stories, but can be used for level design or ability trees too. A good example of a game that uses this method for all of these systems is BioShock. Several levels give you objectives that you must complete to ultimately move forward, but you can do those objectives in whatever order you desire.
Equally the story feels to develop around you, the player. It’s up to you whether or not you delve deeper into the myth and seek out the audio diaries, and of course there’s the choice of how to deal with the little sisters. Layered on top of that are you abilities and upgrades, all at your choice.
It works really well, all the way up until the point where you meet Ryan. At that point, all players must go through a single choke point with only one outcome. Thus their choice is removed. My protest with BioShock was simply to stop playing – I still have no idea how it actually ends.
Mass Effect 3 has obviously created a similar reaction, though a much stronger one than my silent protest. Throughout the trilogy, players have been making what they believed were unique decisions, and the games responded accordingly.
The achievement by Bioware is staggering, and from an external perspective very inspirational. Logistically, though, there could never be enough endings to satisfy every possible outcome, and hopefully this post has gone some way to showing why not.
Disclaimer: I don’t work for EA or Bioware, and wasn’t involved in the creation of Mass Effect at any point.
篇目4，Should games have stories?
By Soren Johnson
Stories and games have always had an uneasy marriage. From the beginning, designers have written stories into their games, giving the player a fixed beginning, a narrative path to follow, and a preset ending. At the same time, many players flocked to games because of their lack of narrative structure; a game experience is a chance to create a story, not to submit oneself to a designer’s unpublished novel.
At the root of this problem is an almost theological dilemma – can a game designer tell a story if the player’s choices actually matter? If the most important element of a game is its interactivity, then every static plot point a designer crams into the experience takes away from the centrality of the player. Put another way, if a game has a spoiler, is it really still a game?
To be clear, with the exception of a few abstract game like Tetris, almost all games benefit from story elements – an interesting setting, a distinctive tone, memorable characters, engaging dialogue, dramatic conflict, and so on. The best games have characters and settings that rival those of any other media – consider GLaDOS from Portal or Rapture from BioShock.
However, the actual narrative of a game – meaning the series of events which determines the plot – is the hardest element to reconcile with the essential interactivity of games. For this reason, narrative cannot be handled as it is with books or movies, in which the story is the core element that everything else must support.
Consider how Sid Meier added story elements to Pirates!, a game set in a period dripping with narrative possibilities. Instead of creating a single swashbuckling tale, with fixed plot points and a preset ending, he filled the game with the bits and pieces of a traditional pirate story. Depending on his choices, the player can rescue a long-lost sister, duel an evil Spaniard, survive a treasonous mutiny, discover buried treasure, escape from prison, and woo the governor’s daughter. Upon retirement, the game displays the notable events of the pirate’s life, chronicling the ebbs and flows of fortune. While the plot of a single playthrough would suffer in comparison to that of an authored work, the events have a special meaning for its intimate audience of one.
However, not every game is well-suited to become a dynamic story generator; some themes and mechanics are best handled against a mostly fixed backdrop. A hero needs an evil wizard to slay; a soldier needs an enemy to fight; and a plumber needs a princess to rescue. The solution is to use a light touch, to suggest rather than to dictate, to let go of the very idea of plot. Let the player explore the world and then assemble the final story in her own head.
“The Rolling Stones confirmed that lyrics are most evocative when just short of indecipherable.” – Paul Evans, The Rolling Stone Album Guide
Indeed, the role of narrative in games is more akin to the role of lyrics in music. A song’s words give the piece its context, its mood, and its setting while still leaving a suggestive gap for the listener’s imagination. Indeed, recordings often have lyrics that are inaudible, leaving the meaning intentionally obtuse. Would a writer ever do the same with the text of a novel? Further, listeners often enjoy songs in a foreign language. How many readers pick up a book in a different tongue? The exact meaning of a lyric is not its primary role; great songs leave room – often, a great deal of room – for the listener. So too must a game’s narrative leave room for the player.
Consider LIMBO, the puzzle platformer noted for its atmosphere, with its monochromatic tone and minimalist audio. The game’s story revolves around a very primal quest – a boy’s search for his missing sister – and raises more questions than it answers. Why is the boy looking for her in a dark, mysterious forest? Why is he chased by a monstrous spider? Who are the kids trying to attack him? Although LIMBO is completely linear, the lack of a traditional narrative – with a plot and dialogue and answers – means the story must be written by the player.
Another example is Atom Zombie Smasher, the micro-RTS about a patchwork military trying to stop a zombie apocalypse in the fictional South American city of Nuevos Aires. The game is peppered with gonzo vignettes (“Esposito scores the winning goal. Minutes later, he’s eaten alive.”), showing how the citizens handle the onslaught. The epilogue is a masterpiece of bizarro narrative, with scenes of a cyborg El Presidente and AK-47 fruit trees backed by President Eisenhower’s famous “military-industrial complex” speech.
Most importantly, Atom Zombie Smasher creates an evocative world without a traditional, canned narrative; the vignettes, in fact, are delivered at random during the campaign, letting the player’s imagination fill in the gaps. Brendon Chung, the game’s designer, points out that “piecing information together is fun and knowing the work trusts and respects you is satisfying.” The effect is perhaps a bit too jarring for a mainstream audience, but the result is that Atom Zombie Smasher feels so much more open and alive than any pre-digested corridor shooter or bloated, dialogue-heavy RPG. A fixed plot is the enemy of player engagement.
“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” – Soren Kierkegaard
One of the most tantalizing aspects of mixing video games and narrative is the possibility of interactive fiction, in which the player gets to make the big decisions in an otherwise traditional story. So far, this potential is unrealized as the player’s choices are usually limited to selecting between a few preset branches. Although there may be more than one ending, as long as the outcomes are finite, interactivity only promises a difference in degree, not in kind.
As the cost of production rises, developers cannot risk creating sections of a game without guaranteeing that the player will experience them. Thus, regardless of player choice, the interactive storyline must synchronize at key points. The plot of Knights of the Old Republic exemplifies this problem. The player can pursue a good or evil path, but both paths lead to the same place; the villain Darth Malak must be defeated, either to stop him (the good path) or to usurp him (the evil path). Even with completely divergent ethical paths, no outcome is possible without Malak’s death.
These static plotlines lead to a jarring disconnect for many players, who might spend tens of hours playing an RPG but have no lasting memory of the story because it has nothing to do with the player’s own interests or choices. Ultimately, people write stories to share what it means to be human. What does that goal mean in the context of games? The core element of most stories is the choices made by the characters; the core of games is the choices made by the players. Thus, what makes games meaningful must be the choices made by the players themselves. Can a game ever tell a specific story and still preserve the importance of player choice?
The action RPG Bastion successfully tackles this dilemma. The game tells the story of a mysterious “Calamity” that shattered the world into pieces. As the player progresses, he learns of why the weapon which caused the disaster was created and what went wrong when it was triggered. At the game’s conclusion, the player must choose between either reversing time to possibly prevent the Calamity or to evacuate the survivors to a safer place and a new start.
What is most interesting about this decision is what happens next – which is that almost nothing happens. The game simply ends, with only a single image reflecting the player’s choice. The designers do not pretend that they are giving the player actual agency with this decision. Instead, the choice becomes almost meditative, a simple reflection of the player’s own nature. Would you undo your greatest mistake, or would you move forward as a new person?
In Bastion, the player learns about herself through the act of making a choice, not from seeing what some designer thinks should be the result. In The Walking Dead, the designers emphasize player choice by providing feedback on how one’s choices compare with those of other players. These results similarly illuminate the player’s own personality by showing which of his decisions go with or go against society at large.
Games that focus purely on the designer’s plot choices ignore that the most important part of a game is the player. Putting a story, regardless of its power or depth, inside a game is actually a crutch, an easy way out that stunts the advancement of our form. Games must leave room for the player, not just within the rules and the mechanics and the systems, but within the story as well.
篇目5，Thematic Storytelling Through Menu Design
by Declan Kolakowski
The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Menus. No! Not restaurant menus, menus in games, you know? Those things that most designers give about as much thought to as their dirty laundry during the design process (and if they work in a bigger studio, palm the design of off onto a poor UI artist)? Those things. Game menus have become the black sheep of the design process because we, as makers of games, have got their primary purpose and our primary criterion for their design completely wrong!
Most menus are designed with one major principle; practicality. Usually this translates into noninvasive, minimalist style affairs, a positive yawn-o-rama devoid of any personality or relationship with the actually game you are playing.
Dull, dull dull. Skyrim: one of the worst offenders. This beautifully streamlined interface doesn’t exactly communicate the medieval gothic that pervades the rest of the game.
Think back to the first interactable moment you have had with most games over the course of your life. Almost always this experience will start with a menu laid out as a centred (or if the designers were feeling really edgy, right-aligned) list comprising the words: NEW GAME, LOAD GAME/CONTINUE, OPTIONS. And some sort of background image or animation. If you’ve picked up a game in which the UI designer was a real thrill seeker then selecting different sub-menus might change the background image, or even animate it!
In the department of missed opportunities I believe the abandonment of games menus by most games designers is one of the worst. And the reason for this? Because most games designers don’t really approach the experience of interacting with a game holistically. Speaking to many of my peers they don’t consider the interaction with a menu before “gameplay” begins to be part of he essential game experience. Most believe that menus functions as a kind of neutral conduit through which users travel into their more traditional experiences and this is tragic because there is SO much you can do with a menu that re-inforces the design, theme and storytelling of your game.
Let’s look at a game that does this a bit better than our aforementioned Skyrim; Suda51′s bizarre epic, Killer7. This game is one of best examples of meaningful menu design. Although it’s not perfect and still has some standard “menuing” that many games suffer from, these standards are delivered in at least in an original style. When first loading it up the player will be treated to the run of the mill CAPCOM / GRASSHOPPER title cards, however each of these is underscored by the giggling laughs of KIller7′s main enemy – the Heaven Smiles – followed by a gun shot synced with a violent red color palette swap on each logo throwing them into dramatic noir-style lighting. Then a rather (formally) uninspired Press Start to begin screen followed is followed by the NEW GAME / CONTINUE / LOAD GAME shtick. However, these titles are compressed as to be almost unreadable – it’s arguable that much of KIller7′s fiction is about the absurdity of the game play experience and its execution, so the use of these compressed titles forcing the player to interrogate ( and actually read) them for once, signs which they should be so familiar with, is at least a somewhat interesting statement as it forces a new perception of what one is actually doing when they press new game. As different options are selected from this list the titles spring out across the screen become grossly stretched – the opposite extreme – and equally hard to read. A simple transformation of text can have some interesting implications then and reinvigorate a tired formula but things are about to get a lot more interesting.
Next the player is taken to a mission select screen presented in the style of 80′s documentary store archive cards, floating passively in space with an anonymous silhouette behind it – the target for your mission. In the mission card is a single check box into which a glowing blocky laser sight points from where the player is seated – as if in first-person shooter mode (another reference possibly to the point, shoot, select arcade games of the early 90′s).
When first starting the player’s only option is to accept and mission and proceed. However, later on this screen updates dynamically, placing the targets you have eliminated in cell-shaded color in the foreground, staring off, maimed and defeated. All of these elements immediately communicate the sense of the Killer7; contract assassins of the early 90′s – in deep with the end of the political machinations of the Reagan administration.
The player literally plays accepting the mission card from this menu. On pressing accept another visceral gun shot is heard – yes, the Killer7 are the type of people who accept a mission by firing at it – shifting the screen again violently to the same target silhouette this time with a glowing red laser that the player can control tracing the line of the target’s body, underscored by an abrasive ringing sound. You must then position the laser over a body part of the shadow and fire again. A final violent bang issues forth and the body disintegrates into a collection of red particles, the sound of a car or freight horn sampled and shifted to a deafening degree blares out, and the figure is replaced by a japanese kanji stating the theme for this level made from the same blood red spots that disintegrated them on your shot.
Here Killer7 offers a thoughtful look at how interactivity is important even in the basic procedure of selecting a mission. The player is forced to look, aim and fire. They are confronted at every moment by the fiction of the game world which they will, and arguably already have, stepped into. A world of paranoia, extremes of quiet and loud, compression and expansion, symbol and lie.
Killer7′s innovative pause screen menu.
Similarly Killer7′s “pause menu” has a very interesting and original aesthetic that reinforces the fiction and story of the game world. There are numerous examples in this image of the tailoring of menu for fiction – the blood bag styled blood counter, items displayed on silhouetted spikes, polaroids of targets yet to be found – but I will focus on one for the purposes of this post.
The eye in top right hand corner indicates the player’s health. The closer it is to being closed the less health the player has – conceptually consistent with Killer7′s fiction about the third eye, enlightenment and lines of sight, echoed again in the laser sights of the original opening screens discussed above. Compare that to how most games indicate health; a green or red bar that moves from right to left as health decreases and has absolutely nothing original to say. You can see why these sorts of customisations can be so powerful.
A final note about Killer7 is its save and load system which has a proper fictional context for it. All save and load files work through interaction with recorded surveillance tapes that appear on TV’s in specific rooms. A nod to the nightmarish surveillance state in the style of Fahrenheit 451, in which citizens are spied on through their televisions, a state that records every move one makes, so closely that the player’s very being can be reconstituted at the point they were last recorded. Save and load files are accessed through a tele-text style menu system that again fundamentally communicates the thematic ideas behind the game.
On a wider level the homogenisation of the menu also represents a kind of effacement of thought about games as whole and how all their interactable mechanics dictate the game world. The “standard” menu has become so accepted in the medium that we no longer think about the assumptions that spring from new game and load game. In terms of storytelling these two actions have become nothing more than a usability convenience. When many designers think about games they accept almost immediately that their game will have an unambiguous start button, and if its a game where the player makes character progress, there will be an easily accessed save/load option. All mediated through the meretricious neutrality of a standard menu list.
The act of loading a game is inherently bizarre when you consider the fictional context of most games and their implied experience. Even the act of starting is completely ridiculous when examined closely. Games seem to be fond of in medias res story telling but why do we “start” here, why is this a “new” game. What happened before now? What about the notion of “new”? Isn’t it fundamentally absurd that we can finish a game and somehow make a “new” version of it just by selecting from a list.
My point is not meant to be a surface level, clever-clogs critique of the absurdities of interaction, I realise that designers can’t somehow examine the nature of experiential interaction and the fourth wall in every game or play session. But the tacit acceptance of menu design as it is today is leading to a lack of thought about these aspects of design. These are really interesting questions about our medium, that could add so much to the story and execution of the video-game medium but no one wants to, or perhaps simply can’t, engage with because of assumptions about the form the medium should take.
Think of Assassin’s Creed. A series of games, the fiction of which is crying out for a fictionalised menu system. A game in which you explore memories through a computer. Why not make that computer terminal an operable component instead of a menu. Imagine loading up the game and the first thing you have to do is navigate through a computer terminal. Start up the memory module to plug your character into their matrix of remembered DNA. Immediately the player is engaged in a way that builds the fiction of a universe in a very interesting way. But because of designer’s acceptance of how game menus “should” be, they shy away from these possibilities.
A quick disclaimer; I am not an enemy of usability, every menu should not be labyrinthine affair intended to put the player off from the start. But the idea that a UI should itself be a challenge to a player? If that’s consistent with the fiction of the game world you are trying to communicate then surely it would be hugely beneficial to use that play time to your advantage as piece of story telling. So when I critique the primary tenent of menu design as being practicality (or usability) I am critiquing a particularly interpretation of this that has become widespread in the game’s industry; that translates these worlds in the boredom inducing, uninspired minimal aesthetic that many games’ menus use.
In games I’ve developed in the past I’ve tried to practice what I preach. I made a game about a year ago called Rosemary’s Artery in which I cloaked all the menu elements in claustrophobic cuttings of a heart. The user, before they could select any options or begin the game then had to rake away these crowding fragments of heart to find the menu. This made the player immediately get a sense of the game’s tone, the crushing atmosphere of being interned in another’s body, trying to escape a prison of flesh.
More recently when developing a game called Really Good Paths, I’m hoping to create a fully fledged mini-game out of the start menu, through a paired down side-scrolling version of the central experience in which you have to play and catch the UI element you want to choose.
In essence. Go wild. Question your medium. And make your menus as artistic, beautiful and thought provoking as the experiences that you want to craft. More designers need to treat the menu as an essential part of the game experience.