On November 26th, 2011, I finished a prototypical game as a portion of my fulfillment of one of my graduate classes this semester. The game, For the Love of Salt: A Prelude, was an attempt to address the notion that story is reserved for easier modes in gameplay. Here I will give a brief background on how the project started, and then explain what I think worked and what I think didn’t work. I will end with what I think needs to be done going forward to form this into fortified theory.
This project actually started in the middle of the summer. Or, I suppose you could say it started back in 2008, but let’s not try to desconstruct the project too far. I’ve been interested in stories and games for my entire life, after all. This summer I was starting work on an entry for the Interactive Fiction Competition (IFC). No, really, this game (a simple platformer) really does begin here. For the IFC, I wanted to make a text adventure that had a story in which the player could elect to follow it as much as he or she wanted. I won’t go into the details of the game’s design because, after all, it never happened. I got caught up in a number of things, including moving and a series of problems with the air conditioner and getting ready for my foray into graduate school.
This set me up for the project that spawned For the Love of Salt: A Prelude. Early in the semester, my roommate bought Deus Ex: Human Revolution (DX:HR), and it was there that this project was seeded. See, in DX:HR, there are three difficulty modes: “Tell me a story”, “Give me a challenge”, and “Give me Deus Ex”. The problem I have with these difficulty options is that the narrative of the game doesn’t actually change depending on which option you choose. The only thing that changes is the enemy difficulty. Further, it seems to suggest that the story of the game is a consolation prize. It says, “You don’t want to play a hard game, so here, watch a movie instead.” This is also misleading, because you still have to play a game (big surprise!).
So, I got to thinking, what could I make that combines the difficulty and the narrative of a game? I thought about my summer project and realized it wasn’t quite right. Sure, the game offered a complex story if you wanted it, but that wasn’t tied to the gameplay elements directly. I needed something a bit more closely tied than that.
And then I remembered a game from the SNES: Soul Blazer. Soul Blazer is a well-done action-RPG that revolves around rescuing the souls of people in towns. The souls are turned into monsters and are released by killing the monsters. I decided to make a game that uses a similar concept, in homage to the wonderful game.
But the problem was in story. So, in Soul Blazer, you are sent from the Master to save humanity from the Deathtroll. You kill monsters and there’s one way through it. The story isn’t ever going to be different. I needed a story that could change. So instead of making it a black-and-white story, I set out to make something that is gray. The great evil might not be so evil after all. Perhaps it is instead a great good. It all depends on how you look at it.
I crafted my story around that and decided to tie the story to a resource. In this case, the resource was simple: souls. By returning a soul to the rightful owner, the player is presented with a bit of insight. First it is subtle, and then it grows more blatant. Now that I had a resource, I could work with on the other side of things, that is, difficulty.
Since my goal at this point was to ensure that the harder the game was, the more complex the story appeared. So, if the player wanted to just run through and beat the boss monster, he or she didn’t need to be bogged down with a bunch of extra story. Since souls were used to give story I decided that if you didn’t care about the story, then you wouldn’t use the souls for anything. So I decided to make the souls also be usable as a powerful weapon. In this way, the use of the souls as a weapon can make the game easier. In this way, the souls become meaningful for both players.
This was a way to make the game easier, and alone it would have sufficed, but I wanted to create a way for the game to become harder. Part of this was so that the player could access the more complex story (the graying of the narrative). To do this, I decided to separate the narrative in two towns, one that was fairly oblivious, and another that knew a bit more about what was going on. Then, I explicitly told the player that by going to the second town, the game would become overall more difficult.
Originally, I had wanted to make the game an action RPG, but I decided to take it easy on myself and go with a strict platformer game. Because of this, I chose to add “A Prelude” to the end of the title, and to not worry so much on the graphics. It was a prototype, and I wanted it to be a distillation of the narrative as difficulty concept.
Additionally, when I was first thinking about the ending of the game, I had originally wanted to make multiple endings. If the player used up the souls there would be a different ending, and if the player saved everyone there would be a different ending. In truth, six endings were planned. I decided eventually to put an end to this. Part of the goal became how to implement a game where the narrative could become more complex or simpler but without getting into the “making a thousand endings” problem that comes from branching game design. As such, I decided that I would craft just one ending that could be interpreted differently, depending on how the player perceived the overall story.
Overall, the game took about six hours of time for each of about six weeks, so not much time at all. The dialogue had to be rewritten once. I also had to work around GameMaker’s various quirks. Some of the math got me bogged down. You try figuring out how to make something orbit a moving point. In playtesting, I had to rebalance the game by just giving the player a whole bunch of health. It was way too hard otherwise.
What Went Right
Perhaps the best thing that happened for me was that I finished a game. I may have started making some hyperbolic number of games in my lifetime, but this is only the second one I have completed to what I would say is an acceptable ending (unless you count the three games I made in Action! 5.0 presentation software when I was 10). I feel more capable in making games (go me!).
All the mechanics worked. Players could use souls as a weapon or to get more story. Players could go seek out a more complex narrative. The ending accentuated whatever narrative the player had created in his or her head. The game was difficult at its base, and gets significantly more difficult if the player goes for it. The game can also get significantly easier if players chose to use the souls as a weapon. The game worked.
Something else that worked in the game was that people seemed to enjoy it, and chose to take different approaches to the game. Other than this, though, I’m not sure what really went right. The mechanic was there. The enemies were as envisioned. The dialogue was enough. It worked the way I had designed it. I’m just not entirely sure that the way I designed it was quite right. Perhaps this is a limitation of having little to compare it to, no predefines theory as to what I was doing. I just made it up (although it was qualified in thought and planning).
What Went Wrong
Perhaps what went wrong is what I will dub the “Elder Scrolls Effect”. You see in The Elder Scrolls games (Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim, notably), there is a main quest with a whole bunch of story around it and a big sign pointing towards that story. What happens? People ignore it. While the world is in grave peril, players go off the path and do things like catch butterflies, solve marital troubles and various other things that should be less compelling than the impending doom of the land. The problem is that they aren’t less compelling. The reason: players just don’t care enough about the main storyline. I think that may have happened in For the Love of Salt: A Prelude.
There isn’t anything that tells the player that they have to pay attention to the story. This is by design, of course. I wasn’t going to shove the story down players’ throats unless they wanted it there. But what did that mean? The story was, at its barest bones, go kill the witch, the witch dies, everyone rejoices. This may be the only story that anyone actually sees. Although the players are told that they could come back to the main town to revive their neighbors, nothing else is interesting in the town. There’s nothing else to be gained by it. Too many times I heard people say that they didn’t want to bother with the story. Even in the second town, where the player can collect all the souls before getting there, there’s not much compelling him or her to use the souls for story, other than the potential of story. Story alone may not be compelling. True, the player gets story and difficulty, but that doesn’t mean that the player is going to go out and seek a harder game.
A second flaw is platform. The game is only accessible to those on Windows PCs. This is GameMaker’s fault. While there is a Mac port of GameMaker, it is limited and not as well supported. This has often been a flaw in my design, as I have never had access to anything but a Windows PC.
Another flaw might be in the difficulty curve. The game ramps up difficulty rather exceptionally. This was a flaw in my ability to make artificial intelligence (AI). This was my first attempt at enemy AI. In a previous game, I made a schedule based AI, which is easy to do with the right tools. In this game I made very dumb AI. Dumb AI is AI that does something without much caring about what’s going on around it. It only cares about itself and perhaps the player. In contrast, smart AI adapts to the world around it, works in groups and does other wonderful things. Because I used dumb AI, I had to mostly give hard values for my enemies (in the form of damage, health and notably speed). Enemy difficulty was based on the enemy’s speed. If the enemy was faster, then it was harder. A more sophisticated AI might have been in order, but I don’t know that I would be capable at this point.
I was also concerned about the controls. Many people had trouble grasping the controls. I had wanted to introduce the controls slowly by creating a prologue to the game where the player is just walking about town, talking to the other townsfolk, and getting used to the controls. I didn’t quite feel confident enough to do this, though, so I scrapped the idea and instead made a help menu on the front part of the game. No one looked at it. While it might be to my credit that people were able to learn most of the controls without being told, the player shouldn’t have to figure it out alone. Further, the controls were a bit clunky and slow. You could get stuck on blocks sometimes. People would jump and then move in the air (the control schema was designed mostly for jumping while already moving). Part of the problem might have been because of the way I implemented movement. If I had really thought about it to begin with, I probably would have done the implementation differently. For a number of enemies I had to completely subvert the movement system.
Where to Go From Here
I think that For the Love of Salt was flawed by the way that I designed the study. That is, relying just on my own ideas and not really referencing existing literature curtailed any grounding in scholarship. True, there is little being said about my specific topic, but people are starting to talk about it. Recently, Edward Castronova mentioned in a blog post how much he wants to see people working on this subject. Chris Bateman also made a recent blog post through his company’s blog International Hobo talking about the nature of games, art and stories. It gets at narrative in the interesting perspective that I am looking for. In his blog he points at a book he authored called Imaginary Games, which I have picked up for further research.
So, from here I would like to go and do a more rigorous look at stories in games. I have always been interested in stories in games, specifically looking at how story and play work together in a game. This has been a hot topic of late, surfacing on game studies and game design blogs. Less is being written about this academically. My next step will to review the literature that is out there about narrative in game, paying specific attention to texts that treat the story procedurally or mechanically, as well as texts that consider narrative in games changing with certain elements in the game itself. By doing this, I can develop my concept of narrative difficulty in games and offer them to the design community, while giving the field of game studies a new way to examine narrative in games.
After, I would like to make For the Love of Salt into a more fully-fleshed game. Address a number of issues I had. Change it into the action RPG I wanted. Add the details in my head that I couldn’t fit in this time. I would strip off the prelude from the title and let it stand on its own. First though, generate a theory to put into practice, one based in the scholarship and literature that is out there.
For the Love of Salt: A Prelude is still available for download and play. You can get it here.