Adventure Games · Thoughts

The Vanishing of the Medium-Budget Game

Veteran game designer Jane Jensen, creator of the Gabriel Knight series as well as a slew of other adventure games, has set videogames aside to become a prolific author of erotic novels. She has written novels before, but this time she seems to have found her audience and a good creative space. I’m happy to hear she’s found a rewarding avenue for her creative energy–making a living out of your art is hard, people. And she’s successful and has a following–what is not to like?

Well, I for one don’t like that the games industry loses someone with her extensive experience as a game designer, especially when there’s such a dearth of women designers. The article that covers her career pivot explains in detail the tribulations of developing and releasing Gray Matter (2010) and Moebius (2014). Jensen’s heartbreaking conclusion is that “There’s not much opportunity in adventure games anymore.”

The article linked above encapsulates the dilemma of being a creator in games and trying to get the financial support to make new games in the following passage.

“The very particular path Jensen had to carve out for herself is revealing of how the industry treats its superstars. There’s no real opportunity for an independent writer-director to lead a large budget work without either submitting to employment within a massive corporate structure or building a corporate structure of their own. The industry does not give any one person power and independence at once, especially not at the scale Jensen once enjoyed.”

The budget of adventure games is far, far from that of AAA games with filmic aspirations, which are made by hundreds of people over several years, to be released to thunderous PR in all platforms. Why wouldn’t publishers or investors give a chance to someone with the track record of Jane Jensen? Compared to the millions and millions that big companies spend in their games, making a story-driven game for a devoted fanbase should be a sure bet–may not make a fortune, but probably could get recoup costs and then some if they can reach their audience. Part of the struggle of creating the games Jensen wanted was that she and her husband were spending their own money to make the game, which adds to the stress and raises the stakes of making an independent game; when the budget is also tight, it can also stretch the development of a project over years because developers end up working on commercial projects to make ends meet.

Gabriel Knight in the streets of Munich in The Beast Within (1995)

One of the reasons why publishers and investors are reluctant to give money to make classical adventure games is the trite and untrue phrase that “adventure games are dead,” which the article linked above perhaps inadvertently contributes to. Publishers and investors tend to seek not only sure bets, but projects that have the potential to make obscene amounts of money–something that most adventure games are unlikely to do. And when there is a successful story-driven game, be it an adventure game, walking simulator, or something of that ilk, it is always taken as an anomaly, an exception. The money people just want more of the same.

My problem is that the tone of articles like these contribute to the insidious idea that there’s no money not only in adventure games, but in story-driven games that aim at being original and veer away from the cookie-cutter popular games , when it is patently not true. Surely, there is no AAA money to be earn, but there are plenty of people releasing so many exciting, original and refreshing games, and making a living out of it. Some of them make games evoking the style of 90s adventure games, and in some cases are directly inspired by Jensen’s work, others tell heartfelt stories with animals or mutants; some others retell works of literature from the point of view of women, there is an explosion of fantastic visual novels that tell LGBT+ stories, and a lot of the population that is wearily underrepresented in games. These developers, alongside many more, have managed to release fascinating works and find their audience, which is no mean feat. If we think about game development as an artistic career rather than software development, it becomes evident that the game developer life, particularly when one puts creativity over product, is really hard. That is why having the financial security and endorsement of publishers and investors helps being able to focus on one’s game and help developers find their audience through PR, and the final result is all the better for it.

There is a dearth of support to middle-sized games, in a similar way to how the middle-budget films disappeared for a while – think of the independent movies of the 1990s, for example. These are the kind of works that take a moderate investment, bring a gust of fresh air to the mediascape, and can recoup costs and occasionally provide a hit. This is where one can reach the myriad smaller markets, rather than one large mainstream; where we can find the works that are personal, political, innovative, quirky. As we say in Spanish, variety is where taste is. In film, this kind of works are now being produced by streaming services, which a loss for those of us who used to love watching movies in a dark theatre with other people before that was brought to a halt. Games have not quite found their equivalent yet, the space for these middle-sized games that need more than a Kickstarter, but much much less than Call of Duty. This is the budget size that Jane Jensen needed and couldn’t get. There are a few publishers who are aware that there are audiences who crave new, daring, original games, and are willing to bet on them, and work more as patrons of the arts rather than venture capitalist looking to hit the jackpot. But we need more.

I do not have enough information state with absolute confidence how the industry failed Jensen, particularly after she created her own company, Pinkerton Road, to make shorter, low budget games, which should have been the right move for her. The outsourcing of development, where she wrote the game design document for the team to work on seems to me a bit odd approach, since it may leave out the processes of playtesting and iteration that are also part of adventure games, albeit at times iterating based on player feedback can be a production challenge. Perhaps it was a matter of PR, and making sure that the game got to the right audience. Perhaps the games didn’t live up to Jensen’s ideas since she didn’t have access to the resources that she would have liked to have. Perhaps she needed better PR to get to her players–there are many wonderful games that get lost in the deluge of releases every week. I’m sad we couldn’t get Jane Jensen to stay making more games, and I hope one day the industry can lure her back to make the games she wants.

Adventure Games · Interactive Fiction · Resources

Tools to make narrative games

Since I have to keep up with a variety of tools for narrative games and interactive narrative, I have decided to share the list of resources that I keep. This post will be a living document, so I will update as I come across new tools.
If you have any suggestions for resources that should be included, please contact me.

Tools

Twine 1+2

Twine is one of the most popular tools to write hypertext fiction; it creates HTML files that can are easy to share online. It is very accessible and has a large of community and plenty of resources and tutorials. Very recommendable for beginners; knowing how to use CSS styles and basic programming can also go a long way.

ChoiceScript

A programming language developed by Choice of Games to create multiple-choice games, as a Choose Your Own Adventure electronic book. Don’t feel intimidated by it being a programming language: it’s based on javascript, and it’s very easy to use and get started, as long as you keep your indentations in the text consistent.

Inform 7

One of the most veteran tools for making narrative games, in this case parser-based text games (the kind where the player talks to the computer to make games). Inform 7 uses a language that uses sentences in English, which may take some time to get used to. It is also a design suite that packs the editor, compiler and interpreter all in one. I recommend it as a starting point to anyone who wants to create narrative games, because it teaches how to think stories as simulated worlds rather than branching plots. A very strong community of developers, as well as a variety of tutorials and resources makes this another good starting tool for newcomers.

Texture

An interactive fiction authoring tool online, that presents itself as an option between Twine and Inform. The interaction consists of drag-and-drop words on top of other words, rather than typing or choosing a hyperlink, which makes the results easily playable on a browser. It also allows integrating images into your game; the development focuses on writing, and provides easy menus to create conditional text – it is easy to use if you don’t feel comfortable programming. It’s all online, so your work is saved in your cache; the tool allows you to have a user account so that your work in saved on a server. A good fit for short games for mobile platforms.

Texture Home Page

Fungus

For those of you familiar with Unity (whose personal use version is free, although it’s still a proprietary tool) , it’s a free plug-in to make visual novels, although it can be easily repurposed to include branching dialogue into any Unity game.

Ink and Inky

Ink is the scripting language developed by Inkle Studios to write choice-based games, whereas Inky is the editor to create the text. It is a mark-up language, not very dissimilar from Choicescript above, although in order to release it as a game it needs Unity. So you still need to know how to use Unity in order to make a game. It’s open source.

Yarn – Dialogue Editor for Unity

A dialogue editor created as a tool for Night in the Woods as well as its companion games, the texts generated with it have to be exported to Unity. The developers acknowledge they are inspired by the Twine interface, and the program does import Twine files. Requires some programming chops to set up and connect to Unity.

Chatmapper

A proprietary standalone dialogue mapping editor. The trial version can be used to prototype conversation trees. The paid version allows creating dialogue simulations including visual and audio assets, provides visualization tools of different branching, and even generates scripts for voice actors, which can also facilitate localization. Uses LUA as a programming language, and exports to a variety of formats that can then be plugged into your engine of choice (XML, JSON, RTF, PDF, JPEG, Excel). May be best for larger projects with a lot of dialogue and audiovisuals – and also developers who have an actual budget.

Ren’Py

A visual novel engine that has been around since 2004, so that there is a large community of support as well as tutorials. Uses Python, one of the most accessible programming languages, it is also open source. One of its most attractive features is that it creates games that run both on desktop computers as well as mobile.

Adventure Game Studio (AGS)

A tool to make point-and-click adventure games. Initially created to make games in the style of the Sierra adventure games (e.g. King’s Quest), it expanded to other formats and allows developers to create their own style of adventure games. A classic tool that is now open source, counts with a good community and extensive resources developed over 20 years of its existence. On the downside, it is a Windows-only program, and requires special wrappers in order to release games for other program.

Visionaire

A proprietary tool to make point-and-click adventure games, which means that the support mainly comes from the company rather than a community. There is a free demo version that allows making games with up to 10 rooms; the indie version for a single user is not too expensive. It uses LUA as a programming language; the documentation is up to date if you speak German, but it is a bit behind in its English version.

RPG Maker

A proprietary tool to make Japanese-style role-playing games; it is pretty powerful and also has an extensive community because it has been around for a long time. The games use tile-based art, which facilitates both making visual assets as well as finding pre-made ones. It can also be used to make adventure games.

Adventure Creator for Unity

Another plug-in for Unity, also proprietary. It is a toolkit to make both 2D and 3D point-and-click adventure games. It uses visual scripting, which is a bit more accessible to non-programmers, and comes with a collection of pre-set templates to create inventories, branching dialogue, and object interactions. There is a growing community of developers.

articy:draft3

A proprietary tool that can be customized for a variety of engines. Probably best tailored for large games, it allows mapping your story and its logics, keeping databases of objects, imports screenplay files from Final Draft, and connects directly to Unity. The developer also offers cloud services to allow for collaborative writing for games. It’s a tool that is becoming popular in the professional scene, though probably the most expensive all of the proprietary tools listed here so far.
The Gamebook Authoring Tool
Another proprietary tool, it is designed to make Choose-Your-Own-Adventure games, but also works to write books.

Experimental tools
I’ve been receiving links to additional tools – some of them are experimental, some of them are still in the works. I’m sharing them here for you to try – and please report back if there’s one you particularly like!

Update 6 January 2018: Added articy:draft and Texture (Thanks to Evan Skolnick and Sarah Schoemann for the pointers)

Update 25 January 2018: Started section on experimental tools and included a couple of links that I received over email. Thanks to Jeff and Daniel for sending me their engines!

Adventure Games · choice design · Puzzles · Thoughts

Choice vs. Puzzles in Adventure Game Design

It is the season of writing game of the past year lists and hyping the games of the new one. I’m delighted to see how Telltale’s The Walking Dead haunts most of these “best of 2012” lists. Its success proves that adventure games still have a lot to say about game design and game narrative, and that there can be a wide audience for them. It also proves how choice design changes how we play and design adventure games.

The Walking Dead confirCaptura de pantalla 2013-01-09 a las 6.11.29 p.m.ms the potential of choice design in adventure games, something that my friends at Choice of Games had already been doing for a while. The core gameplay is making decisions, usually quickly, and living with the consequences (or dying horribly). Although many scenes change depending on your previous actions, because otherwise the choice would be superfluous, the game does not degenerate into out-of-control branching. Instead, it changes specific aspects and scenes of the story. Designing this game must have still been rather complex, which is what happens whenever we have to set up a choice and a clear narrative consequence, but it is done in such a way that choices create a hyper-tangled rhizome.

What I have not seen mentioned often enough in reviews how different The Walking Dead is from other Telltale games, as well as from many other point-and-click adventure games. This may come from the misconception that adventure games are the electronic version of Choose Your Own Adventure books, so it may seem that this is more of the same.It’s not.

Adventure games are simulations. This is obvious to anyone who’s written IF with Inform, or created games with Adventure Game Studio, for example, but it’s a concept that finds resistance from people who only play them, and usually without much enthusiasm. Zork, Maniac Mansion, Machinarium are all based on creating a world, a space, populated by characters and objects, which have different relationships between them. The simulation creates challenges usually in the form of puzzles, and the player has to solve it by understanding how the simulation works. The story unfolds as the player interacts with the world and solves the puzzles.

The Choice of Games series, as well as The Walking Dead, shift the attention to choice and consequence. This is obvious in the Choice Of… games, where the world of the game is described, and our only interaction is selecting items from a menu. We don’t interact with a simulated world, but with a world represented through text. The Walking Dead is a nice hybrid between traditional point-and-click and choose your own adventure, where some scenes allow us to walk around and explore the world at our leisure, to learn about the place and gather information, which will inform our decisions later. There’s less puzzle-solving, the core of the game is choosing the right thing in the moments of crisis. Best thing of all, what the “right” thing to do is never clear, and often makes you feel like you’re trapped in an awful situation.

As someone who designs adventure games focused on simulation and puzzle solving, I really welcome games like Choice of Zombies or The Walking Dead. It’s refreshing, it proves that there is still so much to do in adventure games beyond paying constant homages to our favourite games from Lucasarts or Sierra (I’m guilty of that too). There is a wide design palette at our disposal, we just have to use it.

ChoiceOfZombies_512x512_c

The Walking Dead and Choice of Zombies also fit choice design with their topic very well. It makes sense that we cannot go many places, that there is not a lot to explore: it’s the zombie apocalypse! Plus you’d better be careful with what you do, because any choice could be your last. The limitations in the environment bridge very well the world of the game and the game design.

Choice design is not new, RPGs have explored this for a long time, with varying success. Think of all these games series: Fallout, Knights of the Old Republic, Fable, Dragon Age… Often choices in RPGs are limited to “save the baby or kill it” pseudomorality, where the consequences are relatively predictable. Some of the examples just listed demonstrate how much more interesting choices become when your expectations are thwarted, or, better enough, where there is no easy choice, which is what probably is impressive about The Walking Dead.

Choice is not alien to adventure games either–Infocom’s Suspended depends on your strategies to try to save the world before you are disconnected, for example. Point-and-click adventure games included important choices, usually at the end, because it’s easier to generate three different endings than start working on different outcomes all throughout the game (see The Dig, or Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, for example). More recently, Resonance did a wonderful job of incorporating choices. (It’s hard to talk about it without spoiling it, but I’ll try.) Resonance also has multiple endings, but does have choice points throughout the game that feel really important, and even if the consequences of the choice are not so different (or inevitable, when it comes to the twist of the game), the game makes you stop and think about what you’re doing. This is mostly achieved by getting you to know the characters and empathise with them, you spend time with them, and when the crisis comes about, you feel for the characters, you feel the pain and the betrayal. The consequences are emotional rather than changing the events. Resonance does in practice what the publicity of Heavy Rain kept announcing, and the game eventually failed to deliver.

resonance_best_scene

The Walking Dead combines plot consequences with emotional consequences very cleverly: early on, you see how your decisions can have awful consequences, people die if you don’t act fast enough or do not make the right choice. Later on, the consequences become more emotional than changing the events. Unlike the adventure games listed in the paragraph above, where it’s a final choice that changes the ending, The Walking Dead takes you to an inevitable ending with slight variations, which may feel different depending on how you have chosen to play your character. That’s eventually the triumph of the game: choice design is about the psychology of the player, not about showing off a complex system.

The possibilites of new adventure games are wide open, it’s our choice. Those who said that adventure games were dead didn’t expect them to come back shuffling their feet and try to rip their gut open.

the-walking-dead-episode-3-9-5-2012

Adventure Games · Thoughts

The Last Symphony: Hidden in Plain Sight

As promised, here’s a bit of story behind the game The Last Symphony, why we made it and what we came across. My goal is to let you in the creative process, but hopefully without spoiling the game or being pretentious about what the game really achieves. What the game means is mostly up to you, really.

The conceit of the The Last Symphony is that everything is hidden in plain sight: the objects, the stories, the people, the music. The challenge is to reveal what is hidden, and figure out what that may be. In the process, we invite players to do things that they’re not so used to doing, such as paying attention to the text, listening, and coming up with their own stories.

My lovely colleagues at the lab put together this fine video that explains the research and the game. This blogpost extends what is in here.

As I say in the video, the focus of the project was environmental storytelling. I had developed this concept, indexical storytelling, which refers to design techniques to construct stories in the environment by leaving traces or indications, and I wanted to put it to the test. You can read my paper on the concept, or watch one of the industry presentations that I have given on the topic online if you need more detail.

A hidden object game seemed to be the way to go. It was perfect for my purposes: related to adventure games, the genre I know best, it was not a particular technical challenge, and a scope was feasible in the length of the summer program (8 weeks!). Plus hidden object games are all about environment: you’re scouring the screen, finding items in the jumble. Hidden object games seemed to be in need of some environmental storytelling techniques, so that the story also happened in the screens that the player spends the most time at, not only the cutscenes. Although some of hidden object games are certainly trying hard to give relevance to the objects you seek, and are leaving behind the photoshop-the-hell-of-it technique, there was certainly room for improvement. Hello, research!

I was lucky to get a fantastic team to work on the game, most of whom had not really played any hidden object games, but who also saw the potential for improvement after playing as many demos as they could. Since it was a game that was heavy on visual assets, I got the largest artist team of the program, plus the game designer is also an illustrator, and even the producer also had experience in animation. (Please note the wonderful team that made the game at the bottom of the page. They’re going to be big in the near future.)

The first step was common to all my previous games: paper prototyping. As with adventure games, the catch was that we had to have a story of the world which would shape the environment, and from that we wanted to have a set of mechanics that related to finding objects on a screen. Story and prototype had to go together.

With all the visual focus,it was ironic that that during brainstorming and prototyping, everyone’s favourite story was reconstructing the life of a music composer. This opened up the way to use music as another layer to tell the story, which I personally was very excited about (I love film soundtracks, and never miss the chance of using the music as a narrative element as well), and so was our audio designer. He has written his own blog post about the role of the music of the game, so go read it too.

In implementing the game, the main challenge was that every object on the screen had to be there for a reason. A lot of the weight of indexical storytelling fell on the illustrators, who had to negotiate constantly where things would go and why. Every object is part of a story, like a puzzle piece, it had to come from somewhere, and it had been left where it was for a narrative reason. (Well, at times there were technical reasons, like you don’t want to put small objects at the back of the room, because then players have to find a pixel). At times it is surprising to realize that, in order to improve games, you only have to think about what you’re doing, rather than going through the motions of what’s been done before. It takes a tad more time, but in the long run it does not become a problem for production, although it scheduling has to accomodate for it. It may seem obvious, but it bears repeating: innovation comes from putting a bit of thinking of where things come from.

What was still missing was how to make the objects meaningful. The events of the stories in the game have left a trace in the space, but how can the players also leave a trace? The first step was figuring out who the player was in the game: a museum curator seemed like a natural role, which would justify why one would go and look for objects in a house and take them away (detectives and thieves are trite at this point). Curators also have to construct a narrative based on objects. Based on that, we came up with a set of mechanics where, after finding the objects, the player had to select them based on which items may relate to each other and generate a narrative.

We still had one piece missing: how does the player know what the objects mean? How do we cover that gap? The cheap and fast solution was to attach texts to the objects themselves. That information could not be presented as the player found the objects, or making them into hotspots–this was a hidden object game, not an adventure game (I’d done that already). But what was the narrative premise for that? Our player character could give us some information on the objects, but we needed to reveal more. And that’s where our lovely Ruth Carmine appeared.

One of my demands for the game was that the protagonist of the game had to be female. There’s a dearth of female protagonists in games (although they are more common in hidden object games), and I was kinda embarrassed that only one of my three previous games featured a female protagonist. Our usher to the world, and the person who holds the key to the stories behind each object, is a lovely English old lady, endearing and absent-minded, who has more to her than just sipping her tea at 5 o’clock. We used Margaret Rutherford as a model to make our lady come to life.

The end result is a game where the player has not only to find objects but also figure out the story. Given our time constraints, the mechanics that give you feedback on how related the objects are not very complicated or have much depth. On the other hand, we hope we turned a bug into a feature: rather than us telling the story to the player straight out, the player must fill the gaps and come up with their own. It’s not the first time that I’ve encouraged this in games: Rosemary and Symon both thrive on leaving gaps. The difference is that we have turned those gaps into an essential part of gameplay, the goal of the game is to build the story through the objects.

While we were playtesting the game, asking people to tell us their version of the story was our part of the fun. At times people had outlandish versions that confirmed, yet once more, that players don’t read or pay attention to anything narrative. Others had very interesting takes. Others were right on, even when we had provided very little information. Players appropriated the objects and the story and made it theirs. A lot of players still want to know if they had got it right, see if they had guessed what the story is, and the end of the game probably does not give you enough information. We’re so used to winning and losing, to doing things a certain way, that most players cannot stand the uncertainty of what had actually happened. Although this game is not a David Lynch movie, it’s been a treat to see how people try to make sense of it.

In my previous blogpost I talked about how I struggled with whether to talk about the process or not. And what made me decide to write is was really the desire to hear more player stories. So if you made it this far, could you please play the game and tell me what the story is?