Neighbors: An Experiment in Interweaving Narrative and Ludic Environments
Here, I will explain how the project of “Neighbors” came into fruition and by what methods I interwove narrative and a ludic environment. I will explain the evolution of the project’s premise. Then, I will describe the difficulties of trying to knit together the story and play. But first some background information on the tools I used to create the project.
The project was coded in Adventure Game Studio (AGS), by Chris Jones and the members of the AGS community. I decided to use an engine for adventure games as I did not have the time to create a game from scratch. I chose ASG for a few reasons. When I first began to be involved with AGS, about four years ago, the system was still a bit resistant to innovation. It presented two ways to make an adventure game: Sierra-style or Lucas Arts-style. Sierra and Lucas Arts are probably the most notable proponents of early graphical adventure games, after interactive fiction had become less popular and people began to think that the adventure game was dead.
At the time when AGS was being developed almost solely by Chris Jones, it made sense to model games after the two distinct styles. As time went on, and as Chris Jones began to accept help from the AGS community, the system began changing to allow more options, more freedom for the game designer. As it is now, AGS is a very solid system with many options for designers enabling the designer to be experimental in his or her design. This, along with already being familiar with the scripting language, was the reason I chose AGS. Consequently, “Neighbors” still pays homage to the Sierra-style of adventure games, as do most new adventure titles.
For art, I used Adobe Photoshop CS2. This was an obvious choice, as I already had the program, and was familiar with its operation. The game is drawn using two-point perspective. I chose two point perspective because it makes drawing easier, particularly for objects with straight edges and sharp corners. An interesting note is that only a few chairs and pillows were drawn with curves in perspective. To make it easier on myself, I tried to ensure that most of my curves were on the facing side of objects. Another style choice I made, which is more as a personal style preference, is the absence of dark outlines. In art, I have always tried to retain that the edges of objects do not appear as lines, but that the brain perceives the change in color as a line.
When needed, I used ModPlug Tracker to manipulate sounds. I believe this was only used to create a wave file format sound of the ticking clock, which originally was in Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF) which AGS could not use. All music was pulled from The Mod Archive (http://www.modarchive.com), and was not modified in any way.
For planning, I used CMAP Tools. This allowed me to organize my ideas in an efficient way. As a result of its effective use on this project, I am considering using it again for many other projects.
With these tools I was able to create the project. The first thing I needed, though, was a working concept for the project, something that had both story and game elements. This went in two stages, from “Walking” to “Neighbors.”
Originally, it had been my idea to create a “literary” game. At that time, I did not have the terminology to really describe what I meant. As a result, I initially took many narratology approaches to the project. For example, one of the first things that I wanted to bolt down was a definition for the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction. Before I had gotten my hands on a copy of First Person, I still maintained that I could impose writing conventions upon games. The game aspect was still in mind, of course, but I struggled with game concepts rubbing against narrative structures.
The first idea I had was a game called “Walking.” It featured two playable characters. The characters were in a relationship, and the overall arc of the game was exploring how variations in events on the walk home affected that relationship and their lives. The two characters would part at a bus stop and walk their separate ways home. Along the way, they were going to run into three people that they could interact with, and by their interactions, when the character got home, the ending would change. In some endings, the character was going to commit suicide or end the relationship or do something to solidify the relationship.
The ludic element that most confronted me was the win-state. The game’s win-state was getting home. This was not difficult, and could be done in less than a minute if the player ignored all the other characters. Further, the game was designed so as to not place value on any one ending, suggesting that all endings are, essentially, valid endings and so, the player wasn’t necessarily working towards any kind of win or loss. The idea was more an experiment in statistics than a game or a story.
The main reason for transitioning from “Walking” into “Neighbors” was time. “Walking” required twelve animated characters. Each character animation could take from ten to thirty hours. With my other classes, this was not feasible. In addition, by this time I had begun to read First Person and had refocused how I thought about the project.
The idea for “Neighbors” evolved out of thinking how to reduce the number of characters. While working it out, I was reminded of a concept from one of my creative writing classes: some of the best first person novels are about a character who is not the narrator. The idea of having a neighbor be the focus of the project evolved quickly from here, and “Neighbors” was born. The original concept had been, again, for two playable characters. The character of Maria, who lives in one of the downstairs apartments, was intended to be a gamer character who becomes interested in the focus character, James’s, work as a game designer. I was forced to remove her from the game to meet with time constraints. In retrospect, I would have liked to have realized this before I spent time working on the art for the character’s apartment. Regardless, I included the art as an Easter egg available for anyone who plays through the project fully.
The characters of James and Francisco evolved in very different ways. James came about as the progression of his day. From when he arrives in the morning, to when he goes to bed was laid out in CMAP Tools. Every time there was something that I mentioned, but did not explain, I made a note of it. The way it worked out, James began to emulate the theme of my semester. He was a game designer, a writer and interested in game studies. This enabled me to create the impetus that James could be gone for a long period of time, arrive, and then leave the next day.
The character of Francisco was mostly created on the fly while creating descriptions for his apartment. Mostly by discovering what he was willing to do, and what his history was. I had already decided that he would be a musician during the art phase, by giving him a guitar, but in writing the descriptions I created the idea of the office romance that lost Francisco his job, as well as the story of his father’s treachery. Here I connected his past with James’s future, gave Francisco no reason to stay behind, and enough points for him to disseminate that James could consider him to be trusted.
The ludic element that gave me the most problems was the time system. Every action, even walking, needs to take time, in order to advance the day to the inevitable end. Further, as James does things independent of most of Francisco’s actions, the project needs to know where James is at any given time. The problem with implementing a time system in the game was that AGS did not have an easy way to do this. Instead, I had to create the time system and handle all interactions manually. Interactions, such as looking at something or talking, needed to be extended to have a mode that estimated the amount of time it would take to perform the interaction, which also complicated the scripting. The result was that, for every interaction, I had to write a minimum of five lines of code more than had I used the built in interactions. To remind the player that time was important to getting through the project, I used a number of cues: the ticking clock in the background, a number of time telling devices, even a rudimentary estimation of time on a popup bar at the top of the screen. In addition to providing feedback for the player, I used this reinforcement of time to suggest that time was running out, that some opportunity would be missed if action was not taken.
Another ludic element that I resisted was the use of points. As much as I like what Eric Zimmerman says when he talks about games, I do not agree that a game needs to have a quantifiable outcome. As a result, I did not want to display the point system to the player. I eventually did, though, and the reason why I did was for data collection. It was a compromise designed to help me understand survey responses based upon how deeply into the project they had progressed. Technically, the points in ‘Neighbors’ do not operate the way that points do in many other games. Typically, points are supposed to be awarded when an objective is achieved and never removed. Instead, I used points in “Neighbors” to measure a fluctuation in a level of trust. It acted as a way for the project to know if certain events had happened. There were other ways to do this, of course, but using AGS’s built in score functions was a quick (and dirty) solution. In addition, I had to include a secondary point system that the player never sees, in order to tell if Francisco had met James, had been invited to dinner and had come on time. This amount was not reported to the player as it was merely an internal state that, while it could be useful to help me know what the player had achieved, there made no sense in how to describe the point value to the player.
One of the last things I added into the gameplay was the ending sequence, which featured one “real” ending, and ten “other” endings that merely gave hints as to how to achieve a greater level of trust, which used the point amount to determine how far along the player had gotten. Some points were thresholds, such as 3 the amount of points required for James to invite the player to dinner, and 7, the number of points required before James would speak about his work (and in turn Francisco’s work, where one of the final points is contained).
Ideally, I wanted to create a finished story for each level of trust, to add a sense of closure and show how interacting with James (or not) changed Francisco’s life. This ranged from Francisco’s impending suicide, to picking himself back up, but continuing to run from his painful past, to being able to work through most of it on his own, to the ending as it is now, where Francisco returns to Chicago and faces the issues in his past. Adding the extra hint at the end of such a closing story strongly suggests replayability, which I feel is important to the project.
I left the space of “Neighbors” open enough that the player would be unable to “beat the game” on the first run-through, even for experienced gamers. In fact, the game was designed to challenge experienced gamers to stop thinking the “gamer” way and try to tackle the problems using logical and realistic problem solving.
One way to combat this was to disallow saving. This was a mistake, I think, as the game turned out to take much more time than initially expected, having misinterpreted the time dilating power of providing a space with little direction. A better solution, which I wanted to implement but did not have the time to do so, would have been to only allow saving when exiting the project. The goal of not having saving, or to only allow saving when exiting, is to ensure that gameplay is continuous, rather than brachiating. I know that, as a gamer, I make an inordinate amount of saved games and, when something doesn’t go the way I wanted, I reload and try again. This is unrealistic, and so I wanted to do away with this, but I feel that by removing saving altogether only punishes the player to sit and play straight through in one sitting, discouraging play, and particularly discouraging replaying.
This was how “Neighbors” came into being. Furiously coded for most of the four days leading up the November 13th, sprinkled with more cameos from my semester that I thought was possible and functioning, amazingly, on the first run-through without any hitches, it existed. “Neighbors” represents a number of things to me. It is an experiment, a project, work and something completed. That I completed something of this magnitude is important, as I have not completed a large project in a long time. While I don’t consider “Neighbors” to be “done,” I can say that it has become a finished draft, which encourages me to keep going and try other ambitious projects.