An Unfinished Note about Making Games

I have been thinking a bit about what would make a good iPhone game, a big catalyst for this being the times I have been traveling recently, during which I would have liked to have a good iPhone game on which to pass the time. I think a key element would be some sort of persistent and semi-emergent (which is to say not all that scripted) setting or characters, in the mode of something between the Sims and SimCity. So Dwarf Fortress for iPhone, basically, but with an interface that leaves it legible. It would be nice if it also generated something interesting and relatively unique, so that the game also ended up being a kind of composition tool (Dwarf Fortress, Minecraft, and a lot of the Maxis games kind of do this already, and there is probably more to be said elsewhere about “the saved game as a document and the document as a saved game” or something like that).

There was a pretty great piece in Rock, Paper, Shotgun about the general badness of story in games, followed by a somewhat less convincing counterpoint (by the same author, who was using them to set up for a panel discussion he was going to have on the topic, although the discussion didn’t really adhere to the parameters he’d set out in the two pieces) that brought me back to some general questions about narrative in games and what games are good for.

I would claim that there are at least two big categories of narrative in games, which are the narrative laid out explicitly in a game’s fiction, to be followed as you would follow the plot in any of the traditional storytelling media, and then the narrative that gets generated in an individual player’s experience. Explicit narratives are almost always really cheesey and unhelpfully genre, although you will in the course of your life run into that dude who cried at the twist in whichever Final Fantasy it was. But they will still, executed properly, sometimes be pretty ok, and often serve as decent frameworks for hanging fun game elements on. Generated narratives are the part I find really rad, because they will so often feel more real and more funny (it is the difference between “we had been asked by the king to solve the problem of the ancient evil again” and “before the necromancer could finish his first menacing sentence we kicked him into the lava pit because Catbite the Monk had specialized in Necromancer Kicking”). There will often end up being a pretty funny disjunction between these two narrative categories.

The big newer games have kind of worked toward a place where explicit narrative is privileged, and seem to be aspiring, in many cases, to be more like bad action movies, with a lot of very deliberate spectacle that only ever plays out as specified by the scriptwriter (this is a tendency that is taken apart really well in the anti-story RPS article linked above). I would categorize this move as unequivocally bad. I am also against conscious level design, which is sort of in the same vein as overscripting, insofar as it works to create the illusions of choice and the possibility of failure while pushing players into situations that are actually kind of linear, obvious, and hard to ultimately fail.

I should probably finish this later.

-the decent random games, lessons we might learn from them.
-the utility of games as pedagogy, looking particularly at the frog spawning interactive we did for Discovery Place and the Oregon Trail meets Ticket to Ride mail delivery game we did for NPM.