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The Tip of the Iceberg: Storytelling and Reactive Design in Canabalt and Capsule
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The Tip of the Iceberg: Storytelling and Reactive Design in Canabalt and Capsule

November 5, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Can you restart the engines? I tried, but couldn't get it to work.

AS: If you run out of fuel, there is a way to jumpstart. Especially in the full version of the game, it ends up being a pretty crucial part of surviving. When people figure out how to do it -- because the game never tells you, steps have been taken to make it discoverable, and not by a clue you find. You'll run out of fuel again, and you'll notice something is slightly different. I wanted it to be like: you're an astronaut -- or a deep-sea diver, it doesn't matter -- and you run out of fuel, and it's actually a problem in a minute. It's not a problem right now, but in a minute it's going to be a big problem, and you have that wiggle room.

I thought about doing something like that and then decided against it, but Robin really, really wanted it to be in there. He made all the sounds for it; then I felt guilty that I had the sounds for a mechanic that wasn't supported, so I put it in.

That was the hardest thing to tune, and to put in the little hints in exactly the right ways so that people had to discover it themselves. When that thing turns back on for the first time because of something you did, it was actually exciting: you just prevented yourself from having to sit there and listen to yourself choke to death. It's a really meaningful thing that you've just avoided.

The game has checkpoints. Did you consider making it so when you died you had to start all over again?

AS: I thought about it, but I wanted to have this element where it would tell some stories. The fancy way would be to call it a posthumous epistolary narrative. You're finding these traces left behind and it's a little bit sci-fi gothic.

Everyone talks about the way BioShock did it, but I like the way Doom 3 did it better, actually: in the first hour of Doom 3, there are no bad guys. It's awesome! It's just you and a flashlight and some audio logs. You're in these dark tunnels but there's nothing there; it's just [id] showing off their lighting engine, but in the process of doing that they actually made something I really, really liked. You're in a coherent space and the light is acting in a really believable way, and you're listening to these spooky stories.

In Capsule, if you could drive around and just listen to audio logs for the whole game, that would be awesome. We could have done that, but it turned out that we wanted to use a voice in a specific way later in the game. There's something about reading something versus hearing someone talking, and if you know that person is dead, that is more lonely. We wanted to find these abandoned places where the only traces of human existence are notes. Lots of games do this. Finding notes that are creepy is a classic horror game thing to do.


Do you think games can move on from using audio logs, letters, and graffiti to tell stories?

AS: It's iceberg theory, right? Hemingway's name for giving people the best 10 percent and they'll just imagine the rest better than you could write it anyway. I think a lot of that's true. That's what a lot of Canabalt's art was all about: I just wanted to show the most interesting thing that I think there is to show about Canabalt's world. It's everything they need to know. I don't care what version of the story they imagine for the rest, because it's all going to be within the same ballpark that creates the right emotional palette.

Isn't that part of the game as well? Imagining the story?

AS: Yeah. I wanted people to play an arcade game a couple of time, say, "I'm bad at this," turn it off, and then later that day, start wondering about what was going on. Or sit down and play it tomorrow and notice there are giant robots in the background. Suddenly it's a slightly different setting than you thought it was.

I think it's good, but I think we will move past it. There are things moving past it that are doing totally amazing things with storytelling and systematizing storytelling mechanics in a way that's really meaningful. And even if it's not happening with sentences written out, there will be more complexity. It doesn't necessarily need to be artificial intelligence or anything like that.

That's the dream, isn't it?

AS: Yeah, and I think we're beginning to see games that are starting to prove out that idea. It's not like a Holodeck that can tell any story, but games that are a very narrow situation. [Interactive fiction author] Emily Short is doing this in a couple of different projects. It's about taking a very narrow slice of a human story and exploring that.

Now that you don't have to simulate the entire range of human behavior, now that you have some constraints, you can revisit the idea of whether these characters have motivations and whether they form their own ideas about things based on what they see around them. As long as what they can see and how they can act is conscribed in some fairly narrow social circle, then you can do it.

And lots of books do that anyway. Lots of books take place in these tiny comedy of manners stories, undercover cop stories, three people trapped on a spaceship, and so on. You can tell multiple stories in these settings that turn out different every time, but that would actually be meaningful and reactive to the player.

It happens in TV, too.

AS: There's a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where Picard gets trapped in an elevator with two children. He hates kids, it's part of his character, but in the end he decides these kids are okay. You get people and you isolate them, then you don't have to worry about simulating a whole world at once, because it's just so intimidating to even consider how you would start trying to do that.

I think we'll get past it, but in the meantime, epistolary narrative is still totally legit. Dracula is an epistolary story, right? I love it. I love reconstructing worlds from bits and pieces that I find. It's human archaeology; you're given a series of clues and you have to fill in the blanks. I love that process, but I want the other thing to happen too.

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