Friday, December 17, 2010

Story games

This post is about story games, in three ways.

First, it is an announcement to my readership that, due to the lamentable fact that I am apparently incapable of making any utterance less than five pages long, I will be switching to biweekly posts for the foreseeable future. I just can't keep up this level of writing - on this blog, anyway.

Second, I'm happy to say that due to the apparent lack of anybody wanting me to work for them (much) in January or February, I may actually be able to finish rewriting the book. I may blog even less during that time. So if I'm silent, you will know why.

Third, I thought I'd throw out a few tidbits on great games to play with your kids if you want to build and tell stories together, for fun and for narrative sensemaking. My son and I have had a wonderful time using games (online, for the Wii, on the computer) as part of our daily narrative sensemaking, so I thought I'd pass on some recommendations for other parents, and just anybody who likes to play with stories.

Open-ended physics games

Physics games are those where you manipulate objects in virtual space with realistic elements such as gravity, momentum, inertia, etc to reach goals. Some are very simple because the goals are obvious and the puzzles involve nothing but logic. Those bore me quickly because there is no way to tell a story in them. To tell a story you need uncertainty. You need to have something happen, and then not know what will happen next, and then find out what happens next. If what will happen next is always that you will solve the puzzle, or not, you can't do much with it story-wise. But some games offer scope for the imagination. In general, if there is either much latitude in how a problem is solved, or a level editor that exposes the game designers' engine to players, you can work out stories in the space.

Fantastic Contraption is a favorite. There you have things like wheels and planks, and you need to build things to get things from here to there under constraints. The fascinating thing about Fantastic Contraption is that site visitors submit their own solutions to the puzzles, and many of them are essentially stories. People have taken the basic engine and used it to create the most amazing events, some of them featuring emergent patterns that they found by exploring the limits of the system. The catapults in particular are worth watching over and over.

There are many more wonderful physics-engine games at that can be used in this way (Demolition City, Sprocket Rocket and Red Remover are favorites).

Open-ended games with characters

Playing with a simulation-style program (not necessarily physics-based) that has a good level editor and characters is a little like being a director, in that you can explore and work out issues (like negotiating rules, resolving disputes, avoiding vicious cycles, etc) by manipulating the actions of characters. It is also useful to be the characters (who must have  funny voices, of course) while making them do things onscreen.

Professor Fizzwizzle is a silly platform game where you help this little crazy professor get back to his laboratory from which his robots have evicted him (he accidentally turned the control dial from "friendly" to "rage"). The challenges are fun (luckily solutions are nearby for the lazy player - never mind how I know that) but the great part is the level editor. We have set up endless stories in which the professor and the rage-bots (over which he still has a limited degree of control via various funny devices) face off in hilarious ways. Here the story is not so much built with simple balls and planks interacting as it is characters who have useful behaviors and characteristics that stand in for things we want to think about.

Some others in the open-ended-with-characters group are MySims Kingdom, MySims Racing, the WeSki series, and the games based on the Cars movie. In all of these it's fairly easy to place characters into situations and pretend to be them while controlling them. One favorite thing is to play hide-and-seek, where one of us searches for the other who is hiding somewhere. Or we set up story scenarios, like one character is lost and needs help finding their way home, or two characters have an argument, or one character is bullying another, or two characters want to convince a third of something, and so on. This is all great narrative sensemaking material.

You might say The Sims is the standard for character simulation. But when I played The Sims (this was before the child) I found myself frustrated by the restricted worldview. I created an endless parade of hermits who would carefully parcel out their meagre savings in order to bury themselves in reading, writing and walking in the woods. But they ignored the woods I built (those trees cost money, you know!), and all they would do is whine that they wanted television and parties and jobs delivering pizzas. I hear the Sims people have done some work on those limitations, but I'll believe it when I see it. I did have some luck when I found out the infinite-riches cheat (something to do with monkeys), and I did have some fun creating people from literary situations (the Boxcar Children was one I remember). But I never could get the people to enjoy nature and reading and solitude, which sort of took all the fun out of it for me. If you can't tell stories about yourself, what is the point of telling stories?

Role-playing games

Role-playing games are, obviously, games where you play a role. I find that these games vary immensely in how much you can play with the roles you inhabit. You can't build stories if you can't play with characters, for the same reason you can't build stories if you can't find uncertainty. If you always know what a character will do (because they are orcs or something) you can't build a story. You can only experience one somebody else made (which is fine for what it is, but that's not what I'm talking about here). What you can do with a role-playing game is, if the narrative material provided is rich enough, it can provide fruit for stories that spin off outside the game itself.

For example, I have played and loved several titles in the Harvest Moon series. It's a favorite unwinding thing to do after work. Everything's free or next to it, everyone's nice, your spouse and kids do anything you ask, you can befriend people simply by handing them things they like (and you can look up what they like online). And work consists of hoeing in the garden for an hour or two a day. It's the ultimate fantasy game for middle-aged workaholics. But this series is particularly rich in materials for narrative sensemaking as well. In one of the Harvest Moon stories, when I was playing as a woman, I found two suitors (you marry and have kids) who perfectly captured two sides of my husband: Craig the irritable grouch, and Toby the soft-hearted and humble fisherman. Similarly, I found two female characters that described two sides of me: the proud, sharp-tongued Selena and the shy, kind Candace. My son and I spent many hours working out the ramifications of these abstract characters trying to live together and do things like, say, put food on the table and keep a house clean. My son himself favored the tough-guy characters who seemed to have great power - but cleverly, the game didn't leave them that simple and gave them interesting flaws to explore. All of this has been great grist for the mill that is childhood (and parenthood).

Other role-playing games that spur storytelling like this are Ico (the emotions it evokes are amazingly real) and the must-see Samarost. The Dungeons and Dragons world is another great role-playing system in which people work out who they are going to be. I spent many hours defining and redefining myself using that narrative system during adolescence (when I most needed it). Once in a while I'll drag out my yellowed character sheets (or whatever they were called) from back then and look at them, and it's like reading the story of my coming of age. As I understand it there are many such worlds now, and everyone can find something that works for them.


We have recently started playing create (by EA for the Wii), and I find I have to give it its own category. It is an excellent story vehicle, not necessarily the best ever, but still pretty darn good. It took me a while to figure out how it works, and I'm still amazed that anybody thought to put things together in this way. To begin with, you can explore fourteen distinct worlds, each with its own mythological/symbolic setting: theme park, transportopia, family home, outer space, the great outdoors, ancient history, future city, pirates, I can't remember them all. In each world you have three elements. At the back of the 3D space is a standard-issue 2D paint program, although it has some extra-fun elements like "stickers" you can "flick" to set in motion (airborne vehicles, clouds, birds, etc).

In front of the 2D backdrop is a 3D composition space where you can arrange items appropriate to the setting (or inappropriate, as you like). Conveniently, some of these items make great story characters. There are even real and fanciful animated creatures, though they don't do much but stand around and do a few stereotyped moves. They also don't interact, sadly, which would have made the system more Sims-like. It's not that fun to put the robots with the ancient sea monsters if they just stand there and gawk at each other, or at nothing really. My favorite of the worlds so far is the ancient history world, where I have Mayan and Greek and Egyptian statues holding little conferences on various topics all over the place, while monsters and rabbits wander among them. It's easy to set up stories of jokes, disasters, discoveries, conflicts and so on. (Interestingly, my son has decorated all of his worlds to look new and perfectly functional, while my built worlds all feature rust, decay and the taking over of human structure by natural growth. Hmm.)

Right smack in the middle of each 3D composition space is a ribbon on which a 2D physics-based simulation takes place. It looks like it is embedded in the world around it, but it really isn't (leading to much initial confusion). In each world you have ten "challenges" with pre-made goals, and of course achieving the goals wins you points and 3D objects to use in the scene composition and simulation (how irritating this pervading belief that nobody will play anything if they don't win anything, ooooh, winning). But the cool thing here is that the challenges themselves are not logic puzzles but great story-generating engines. Even with all the other stuff, if these challenges had been the boring sort - only one way to get this ball to that hoop - I would have put the game down.

The reason this simulation works for narrative play and sensemaking is that like many of the better physics games, it is a complex-and-complicated system. Because you are using virtual gravity, wind, and fickle machines (some of which have hilariously unexpected properties, like monster truck tires that pop like balloons), things rarely go as planned. Successfully having completed a puzzle once gains you next to nothing when you try to do it again. One misplaced whiff of forced air and the whole contraption goes off in a different way and you miss all the goals. One type of challenge in particular, called the "Score-tacular," is less like solving a problem than like orchestrating mayhem. This is a story event generator. There was one memorable moment the other day when we had to gain 30,000 points and couldn't see how, and then by accident the simulation got into this cycle where a spiky thing almost popped a balloon, but didn't quite, and we watched the spiky thing go around in circles for about fifteen minutes as the points added up 500 points at a time. We began to wonder if the cycle would ever end and talked about stopping the simulation, when at 37,000 points the balloon suddenly burst, and we burst out laughing. What a story! After we stopped laughing we talked about other times when things happened like that, when it seemed like something would never happen and then it suddenly did. Like anger, and making friends, and wars, and stuff like that.

Outside of the challenges, you can use the open-ended simulation to build events into stories. One we did last night was, we took teleporters and put them in a circle so that whatever we dropped into one teleporter would go round and round forever. We then placed a magnet somewhere just to give the system a nudge, and watched as the lawn tractors chased themselves around the loop faster and faster and faster, until they started popping out and shooting like rockets across the sky. We also had a blast placing characters from the past (an Inca god who shot arrows out of his mouth in indignant fury and rode around on a seige tower) into positive and negative interactions with contemporary vehicles like tanks and blimps and farm tractors. This propelled a discussion about technology through the centuries and how our lives are different in some ways while the same in others. And about conflict and the various ways we leap to conclusions about each other. The tanks in particular have enabled much exploration of power used to aid and obstruct: sometimes a missile blast can be a helping hand. And so on and so on.

What makes create such a useful resource for narrative play? I think it is the combination of many settings (providing backstories, dilemmas, opportunities, genres), many characters (bears, robots, monster trucks, indignant statues), and many events (importantly, many of these happen by surprise). I always think of stories as looking like pencils, with setting as the eraser, characters as the shaft, events as things along the shaft (letters, icons, fingernail marks, teeth marks), and the point of the story as ... well, the point of the pencil. When a game substrate provides settings, characters, and events, you can build lots of stories with lots of points. And then you can draw things with them.

So that's my round-up of great story games (for the around-seven set and adults who like that sort of thing).

One thing I've noticed while writing this is that except for D&D, I only described computer games. I can hear somebody saying, "But what about good old board games?" The problem is, most board games aren't great story material. Too many of them are only about winning, or so much about winning that the story material is hard to make good use of. Monopoly is a pretty good story substrate - I spent years of my childhood exploring all the ways to cheat and steal in that game, and only found out years later that some of our "variations" weren't actually written in the instructions but local to our family. (Evidently there is no "rich game" where everybody gets loads of money! In that case why play?) In general the best games for narrative play are not games with rules you play by, but games with rules you play with. I've found a few games like that recently - Set is one, Blokus is another, and some of the ThinkFun games (Rush Hour is a pretty good story generator). Colorforms still exist, thank goodness. But it's mostly slim pickings. It seems like most board game designers are more interested in creating docile instruction followers than original thinkers. Or that's what they think parents will pay for anyway. If I see one more tangrams set with "helpful" patterns you must build, I'll scream. Quietly.

In the bath, as usual, I thought of another paragraph to add in here. It's the predictable response from the stick-and-rock people. You know, the people who say children can only grow when they have nothing but sticks and rocks to play with. We are mostly stick-and-rock people ourselves, in the summer, and the Wii sits abandoned for months. Certain LEGO lovers around here become offended by my admonitions to stop "shuffling bits of plastic around" and go out in the real world. And we do (and you do too). Just two weeks ago we built a pirate/anti-pirate ship (it kept switching sides) out of bits of old wood and string, with a tomato support for a mast, a garbage bag for a sail, a log for an anchor, and an old frisbee for a wheel. (This being a futuristic pirate/anti-pirate ship, it also needed many inexplicable dials and levers.) However, the ship soon stuck fast to the ground and had to be yanked up and frog marched to the garage for storage, lest it trip us up when it's invisible under the snow. This time of year it's always either cold and dark or cold and going to be dark soon, and the Wii begins to beam benevolence in contrast. (And our friend the snow is not yet here. When the snow comes we gain another medium of narrative substrate that, unlike the frozen mud and sand, can be molded into roads, buildings, people, cities.) But yes, I agree that when physical conditions permit, nothing can beat sticks, rocks, mud and snow as the best narrative substrates of all.

Are there any games - of any kind - that you find particularly useful as material for narrative play and sensemaking?


Indy said...

It's a bit different to some listed here, but the various computer games of the Civilization series certainly helped me think about sense-making and historical narratives... (Not sure how old your son is...)

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Indy, thanks for reading and commenting! Your comment got me thinking so much that I've had to split my comment into two. This is the first part.

I would put Civilization with The Sims (and, come to think of it, D&D) in the category of fixed-assumption games, where you can build stories, but the fundamental assumptions of the story world are fixed and not available for play. You can build stories IN these games, but you can't build stories WITH them. They come packaged with core beliefs like might makes right, all games are zero-sum, money matters, scarcity rules, soldiers obey, and so on. The assumptions are why my Sims hermits wanted pizza delivery jobs and why the soldiers in Civilization don't suddenly turn poet and go off into the mountains to think. They are also why I fell off playing D&D eventually (as I think everyone does) because the assumptions of "more money makes you happier" and "kill everything that looks different" began to limit the stories I could create so much that it wasn't fun anymore.

So as I see it fixed-assumption games are useful, because they give you settings and characters and events to build stories with, but limited, because (unless you are supernaturally self-aware and clever, which I am not) you are almost certain to carry the fixed assumptions of the game world into any stories you create, inside or outside the game proper. That in itself can be a revelation once you realize you have been doing it, but it can take a long time to get there, if you ever do.

That's why for maximally free story building I like games that are more like sticker books, just stuff you can rearrange without any underlying assumptions (or, more realistically, weak ones). Actually I shouldn't say that about sticker books. Some are nothing but task jail: put this sticker RIGHT here or else. I like the "Sticker Stories" series - they give you stickers and empty backdrops on which to arrange them. There are SOME assumptions in the backgrounds, but they are weak, and there is no right location for any sticker. You can even let stickers travel between books and send the aliens into construction sites or have the sharks and rays run a fire station.


Cynthia Kurtz said...

(second part)

On the other hand, freedom isn't the only thing worth having. A great story-based game can tell you stories that penetrate your life. There was this great series called King's Quest back in the 90s. In one game I met a super nasty bad guy, with horns and hoofs and minions and brick red skin. He grabbed me up in his giant taloned hand and snarled that if I could show him something that made him cry, he would not eat me. I looked into my inventory backpack thing and instantly knew the answer and the message. It was a perfect moment of communication between game designer and player. What did I show him? A mirror. What a story!

There was another great moment in one of the Myst games, called Exile, where you were trapped in a world with a man who had been there alone for a decade and had slowly gone insane. At the end of the game you finally find your way to a portal, but the madman bars your way and tries to kill you. As my husband and I were playing it, we managed to defeat him and get to the portal, and the game was over and the credits rolled. But it didn't feel right. So I said, let's do that again. My husband was like, why? The game is over. I said, I want to try something. So I went back and played the last scene over and over. Finally I found a way to get to the portal, avoid killing the man, avoid him killing me, and allow him to use the portal as well. It took a lot of careful timing and ladder climbing. I didn't know if the game would even allow it, but when I at last managed it, my assailant dissolved into tears and thanked me over and over for helping him get home to his wife and child. It was another perfect message. I don't know how many people played that game and never knew you could save the madman, but somebody put that there for us to find. What a story!

I love that sort of story, but it's not one you build, it's one you take part in. And it's a rare find. Only a handful of games have ever pulled it off, as far as I know. So the best thing is to find a balance between building stories and taking part in stories others have built. When you can do both, probably the best sensemaking takes place somewhere between them.

Ooops that was long - you got me thinking! Thanks again.


Anonymous said...

I played Civilization on the computer before but I did like it as much as Age of Empire. Maybe because Age of Empire can be played in a quicker pace. But that just me.