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Turning a Linear Story into a Game: The Missing Link between Fiction and Interactive Entertainment
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Turning a Linear Story into a Game: The Missing Link between Fiction and Interactive Entertainment

June 15, 2001 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

Appropriate Game Design

There is one essential requirement in game design: it must make room for the principles described in the first parts of this article.

There is a persistent belief in the industry that a game's lifespan is of primary importance. In reality, a vast majority of players never even finish a game. A number of factors explain this phenomenon. First, products that provide a rigid gameplay style end up wearying the player. Furthermore, once the player masters the controls of a particular game, the challenge is gone, and so is the interest. Many more players will abandon a game when they run into a puzzle or point that they find impossible to overcome.

Game authors should, therefore, concentrate on creating no more than fifteen hours of gameplay and instead focus on quality. Once the game is finished, the player might end up craving for more, but that will only build momentum for a sequel. Nevertheless, where a game's life must be extended using the same pool of resources (décors, characters, etc.), there are many ways to ensure its replayability.

Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force demonstrates excellent use of cinematics.

The following mechanisms form the foundation of solid game design:

  • A linear game architecture that guides the player, but still leaves freedom of action. This game structure is increasingly common in action titles. Medal Of Honor, Clive Barker's Undying and Metal Gear Solid are built in this way. The player is not searching for the path. On the other hand, he gets to decide how to handle arising difficulties. Events are therefore perfectly integrated into the script and the pace of adventure is easily controlled.
  • A harmonious fusion between action and narration. The story and the script are the framework around which the adventure develops. This framework supplies the events that set the pace and keep the reader or viewer spellbound. This is what gives sense to the action. For a videogame to attain a genuine cinema dimension, narrative sections must not be shoehorned between two action scenes; they must be part of the scenes themselves. Traditional level-based game architecture needs serious rethinking. Events, new characters or pieces of information must be slipped in continuously. The excellent Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force demonstrates how inserting numerous cinematic sequences into the adventure can accomplish this goal. Narration is what draws the player into the story. It is therefore essential that information is delivered to the player at a regular interval. A common mistake is providing the player with too much information at once. Game designers often forget that a player has much less knowledge of the underlying story than they do. Swamped in information he cannot comprehend, the player ceases to pay attention and misses the point altogether.
  • A rich story relies on sudden new turns rather than complexity. Avoid complicated stories containing too many sub-plots. A player will quickly lose bearings amidst the confusion.
  • Pay great attention to secondary characters. They have a critic function in a story. They supply motivation to the hero, bring personality and life to the world created by the author and are often the best way to introduce new developments. In terms of gameplay, these characters also lend themselves to multiple uses: they may help the player by guiding him across a maze or fighting by his side, they may be temporarily incarnated by the player, or may die for the player so that our hero can stay alive and well.
  • Create varied and mixed actions. Throughout an action sequence in a movie, the hero will not perform a single task, such as just shooting. For instance, in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones sets off in pursuit of the Nazis carrying the ark of the covenant, he engages in hand to hand combat with soldiers and drives a truck. These two actions are mixed. Such architecture is perfectly possible in a game's action sequence. Suppose the hero is pursued by assassins. The hero shoots back at the approaching pack. Suddenly, an ambushed villain jumps out and the player tackles him in close combat. Or perhaps he might steal a car. Such a succession of varied actions can be playable — given a common interface.
  • Change the viewing mode with the gameplay. While moving or exploring, use a third person view. In this mode, the director places the camera as he deems appropriate. Play with camera positions to determine the best angle for each event. When the player drives a vehicle or looks through a scope, a first person view is in order. And in close action sequences, a succession of close-up cameras will preserve control over a scene while ensuring the benefits of a second person view. In this mode, the camera is "attached" to the character and follows it, most often providing a view from the rear. Made popular by Tomb Raider, this viewing mode provides much playing comfort but is quite tedious. It still works well if used sparingly in movie-like games. Lastly, the camera used in ONI is an interesting compromise between third and second person view, but its use in the heat of action may be confusing for some players.

    In the second person view, popularized by Tomb Raider, the camera is "attached" to the character and follows it, most often providing a view from the rear.

  • Include a mechanism allowing the player to continue in spite of deadlocks. Difficulties in a game are meant for playing enjoyment, not frustration. The goal is to convey the fullness of adventure to the player. A number of mechanisms can be used to help the player get over a particularly challenging sequence. A clue to the mystery may be supplied to the player as it happens in Byzantine: The Betrayal. A secondary character may step in to help the player out of trouble (killing an annoying villain, for instance). When the software detects the player is in difficulty, it may adjust game settings to render villains weaker or fewer. In extreme cases, the software may allow the player to skip the sequence altogether. A short footage or a voice-off monologue will then explain what has been missed. In Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare we use two complementary methods. First, the player has access to his character's notebook, which automatically records any element conducive to understanding the story: the narrative, various encounters, etc. Solutions to many puzzles are found here. The player can also use his radio to call the second character. When the software detects the player is jamlocked, a help message fitting the context—and often full of wits—is displayed.
  • Manage the hero's death realistically. Nothing is more unrealistic that seeing the hero take in an unlikely number of hits without skipping a beat. To be credible, the hero needs to be fragile. Rather, a game is balanced by rendering villains less resilient. They may have poor eye sight or move around slowly, as in Medal Of Honor. They take hits even more badly than our hero. They can also flee. Why not have more than one hero? Only one need survive.
  • The Defining Traits of Fiction: Theme, Characters, Script, Production

    Theme is the cornerstone of any fiction. It is the underlying structure that sustains production. It dictates the way a film is edited, the choice of décor, the music and the actors' performance. An action film is edited in an entirely different way than a love story.

    Characters are the second defining trait of a fiction. It is often a character devoid of personality or acting in a less credible manner that creates a less immersive environment. A fiction enables the viewer to live the adventure by proxy. When the character or characters are overly simplified, the viewer is unable to plunge into the story. The fiction then becomes a string of images viewed with a weary eye.

    The script is the roadmap of any fiction: it brings about the principal characters and events, sets the pace, and ensures that the reader or viewer receives the essential pieces of information as the story unfolds. The script should also minimize idle time and keep the audience alert at all times. These are the script-writer's primary tasks.

    The final production should combine theme, characters, and script into a realistic and immersive environment. Nowadays, it has become possible to adapt these characteristics to interactive entertainment. Countless video games are out there to prove it.

    Successful adventure video games are most often characterized by a strong and clearly discernible theme. The Resident Evil series has an obvious horror movie theme. Metal Gear Solid puts the player in the shoes of a spec-ops soldier. In Spycraft, we discover equipment and investigation techniques used by the CIA.

    Gradually, genuine characters have started to emerge, complete with motivations and a full-blown personality. Shenmue is the most accomplished example: the cast is not merely a collection of comic book characters but individuals endowed with credible motivation and behavior. The player is able to relate to the character he impersonates, Ryo, whose father had been killed before his very eyes, because he acts and behaves in the same way that we do. Even Lan Di, the villain responsible for his father's death, is credible as he speaks and acts like a gang leader, without exaggeration but cruel and scornful of his enemies. Some older games, like Under a Killing Moon, have also introduced engaging characters like Tex Murphy, the disillusioned yet big-hearted detective.

    Shenmue's storyline is supported by its strong characters.

    The script is the one part of fiction that is easiest to translate to a video game. As a paradox, very few games enjoy a script that meets the aforementioned criteria. There are some notable exceptions, however, such as Circle of Blood and Broken Sword: The Smoking Mirror. In these games, the script begins by tossing the player into a mystery that becomes more dense as the plot progresses. The player finds himself sunk in ever more questions. He is hooked and eager to find answers. Then, shreds of answers start making their way into the plot. Sudden new turns and informative elements come up in intelligent ways. The story is no longer a mere coating for gameplay, but becomes a major source of gaming enjoyment, next to gameplay itself.

    Finally, games such as Silent Hill or Metal Gear Solid boast an excellent use of cinematics to create drama. Many of us have been impressed by the intro to Silent Hill. A music theme with building intensity, a progressive change of lighting and the use of rolls in some sequences bear witness to a consummate art of production. In an altogether different way, Metal Gear Solid provides excellent sequences such as the helicopter take-off scene early in the game, or the first encounter between Snake and Sniper Wolf. In both cases, the choice of cameras, the background animation and the sound setting live up to genuine cinema productions.


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