Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Interactivity in Narrative Pt. 2

I've written a lot about interactivity in narrative, but I feel that I have a slightly different perspective on it now that I'm deeper into actually professionally writing interactive narratives. Last week I did some brainstorming about what makes good interactivity in narrative. In particular, we talked about the importance of meaningful consequences.

But having meaningful consequences is not the only thing important to a good choice. The other factor is that the choice itself presents as an interesting decision in the moment. There are a few pitfalls that could prevent that: having not enough information, having too much information, or one or the other choice is obviously better.

Here are a few types of choices I've been thinking about that have potential...

Fog of War Choices: A choice should be informed, but not obvious. If you know exactly what the outcomes will be of each choice, then it better be a damn hard choice or there's no choice at all. You'll just pick whichever one is better for you. Similarly, if you have no clues at all as to what lies behind each door, or the clues you think you do have are totally unrelated to the actual results, then again, there's no choice at all. You might as well flip a coin.

Speaking as an English teacher, I also want to say this is a great opportunity to evoke the skill of using clues in the text to make inferences. The way I imagine it, the most fun way to be informed about a choice is to only have the roughest outline spelled out for you, but to have more clues buried in the text. The reader needs to read closely and apply the skills of observation and critical thinking. If done well, this rewards the reader with a positive outcome. If the reader fails to observe a critical detail, or misapplies her logic, then she may be in for a nasty surprise.

Of course, the down-side of this type of writing is that it's only exciting once--on a second read-through, the player will simply remember the correct choice and select it. Boooring!

Which leads us to...

Difficult Choices: In an ideal world, the choices you make should not be easy. You have to pick between priorities. Which is more important to you, the life of this one survivor, or the crate of food that could mean the survival of your whole team? Which is more important to you, protecting the honor of your clan, or showing mercy on a hapless transgressor? 

Of course, as a reader... I want it all! It's actually a serious problem I have, both as a player and in life. But I do think it's artificial to constantly enforce difficult choices. Not every choice should force a terrible decision on the player. Sometimes it's satisfying to have a "right answer," which can be deduced, giving the player the thrill of victory when it's discovered that his guess was correct. 

Or, alternately, you could write a double difficult choice: do you pick A or B--or do you try for both, with the chance that if you try for both, you could lose both? This sort of question works well with the...

Strategic Choices: One which my partner in Dwarf King is quite fond of is the strategic choice, in which the player is not dealing with absolutes but with chances. No choice has a guaranteed outcome, instead, it will be based on a semi-predictable random factor, such as a skill check. In these cases, you can make a statistics based best-guess, but it's not absolute, preserving the replay value. This is cool because it values your prior decisions. If you've previously made the decision to specialize in diplomacy, you'll be more likely to attempt the diplomatic option to resolve a conflict, rather than go straight for the fighting option. This feels very true to life, but...

It does have the pitfall that if one option is clearly better--even if it's only better because of the prior choices you've made--it's still not really a choice. Instead, you've encountered an if-then statement. If you've specialized in combat, go to the fight; else if you've specialized in diplomacy, go to the negotiations. You still don't have any real choice! 

However, strategic elements can be layered on to other choices to add factors for consideration, making a choice more interesting. Consider this: The orcs have taken your friend hostage, and will kill him if you attack. But taking this step constitutes an act of war, and they must be punished. Will you attack (utilizing your combat skills) knowing they will kill your friend, but determined to crush the orcs once and for all and claim their valuable treasure? Or will you negotiate (using your diplomacy skills), suffering the humiliation in order to hopefully save the life of your friend.

Neither option is certain; both are based on skill checks. In a simpler choice, it would be easy to just pick the skill check you're better at, but in this case, that's not the only factor. This is also a Difficult Choice: do you suffer humiliation to save your friend, or accept his heroic death to strike a blow against the orcs? This choice too might be easy if it stood alone. You probably have a tendency to go one way or the other; but it's complicated by the strategic factors--neither branch is guaranteed. In the end, you need to weigh which option you want more, and ALSO which option you are more likely to succeed at. Now that's an interesting choice to run into in your game.
In conclusion, two important factors to consider in writing interactivity in a narrative are the quality of the choice, and the meaningful consequences. First, any instance of a branch in the narrative should present to the player as an immediately interesting choice--one in which the player is at least partially informed about the options, but neither path is the obviously correct one (even on replay! at least if you're considering computer games.) Second, the decision the player makes should have real consequences. They can be small or huge, near or distant, but the experience of making a choice is most rewarding when you can see that, and how, your choice affected the world around you, in big or small ways. If it doesn't, why make that choice at all?

Friday, November 20, 2015

Interactivity in Narrative Pt. 1

A constant presence in the back of my mind somewhere is the question, "what makes good interactive fiction?" I mean, this is the angle I've chosen to pursue, and there's really a lot to untie in that one question.

As I write and work, and break, and come back, and as I read over the latest crop of Windhammer entries, I find myself thinking of it again.

I think the real thing it comes back to is consequences. The choices you make should matter somehow. Something should happen because of the choice you made. It doesn't have to happen right away. In fact, it can be especially fun if a choice you made ages back comes up later to bite you somehow. One of the most rewarding and memorable choices I ever ran into actually came in the 2013 Windhammer entry by the excellent Andy Moonowl, in which stealing from the King's treasury goes off without a hitch in the moment (originally earning my frowning disapproval), but comes up later--all of a sudden you're a wanted man, with countless consequences that make the whole adventure more difficult. I loved it.

You can't always include that level of consequence. In The Good, the Bad, and the Undead, in particular, I've made the choice to include strictly nothing that breaks the immersion of the narrative. That means not even traits or keywords. Which means, unfortunately, there is no built in memory into the narrative. If you do something in Act I, there is no way for the story to remember that you made that choice later, in Act III. It really puts a damper on the possibilities.

So I've had to get creative. How can you include meaningful consequences of the reader's choices, without long-term memory?

There are a few kinds of choices you repeatedly run into. Which character do you want to tag along with through this scene? Maybe you get a different version of events depending on who you chose to go with as your POV character for the scene. Character-driven choices are also a big one: do you choose for the Marshal to be more sympathetic, or more hard-ass? You may run into half a dozen situations where you make a choice that's fundamentally between those same two options, but it gives the reader an interesting chance to explore his character. Do you pick the hardass option every time? Or the sympathetic option every time? If you break ranks from your habitually type of answer, when, and why? What happened in that scene that you think would cause the Marshal to break from his habit? 

There's also situational consequences. Maybe the book can't remember in Act III the choices made in Act I, but not everything has to be resolved two acts later. Say you rescue a survivor, but then you have to make a choice, in which balance hangs the life of that survivor. It may not technically matter two acts later, but you're going to remember whether you let that survivor die or not. And it will change your experience of the character and, ultimately, the whole story. 

But I also have another project on the back-burner, which is not constrained by the limits of dead-tree-format. Dwarf King is planned to be an Android game, rpg-strategy. It's been in slow production for a while now, but I believe we're reaching the point where Part 1 should come out in 2016. And in that game, I have no such limitations.

In fact, the reason I'm writing all this tonight is to take a moment to pause and reflect before planning some more adventures for Dwarf King. What do I want out of these storylines? What makes the difference between good interactivity in a narrative, or interactivity that falls flat? Have I made sure to include proper consequences for each of my mini-stories in Dwarf King?

Another element has to do with the quality of the choices themselves. I've written about this before, but it's been a while.

However, this is dragging on a bit already, so I'll put that off till next time.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Winding Road... leads to Bodie?

Today is the last day of the Kickstarter campaign for "The Good, the Bad, and the Undead," and it has been a long and rewarding road.

Coming up next, I find myself looking forward to the last stages of writing the novel and developing the rpg. Unfortunately, creative time has been in short supply lately, with my main project having become managing the Kickstarter campaign myself. Now I'm looking back at my story notes, looking at where I left off, and thinking about moving to the climactic finale of the book.

After all the excitement lately, we've been considering a vacation, and this may be the perfect opportunity to go soak in a little Old West atmosphere.

I've discovered an old ghost town here in California called Bodie. It's not Texas, but it's about the best I can do at the moment. Actually, it turns out that one of the inspirational images we've used for art for "The Good, the Bad, and the Undead," are actually pics that came from Bodie!

Recognize this?

That's a church in Bodie, CA. And I imagine the local saloon in Affliction, Texas looking a lot like this:

Once things calm down a bit, we'll be planning a trip out there, both to get away and to soak up some atmosphere before writing the final scenes. 

If you'd like to take a closer look at Bodie yourself, check out this video by a California local on visiting Bodie with his son. There's some really cool background info about the town there, including how killings occurred almost daily, and how the minister, Reverend Warrington, concluded, "Bodie is a sea of sin, because of greed, passion, and the overall lust of the civilians in the city."

Check out this video by youtube user moneybags73: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8v_BkxQuy1o

Also--there's still 10 hours left to contribute to the Kickstarter! The last of the Collector's Edition books have been claimed, but there's still room to name a character or to have an illustration of yourself as a cowboy vampire included in the book! Don't miss out! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ashtonsaylor/the-good-the-bad-and-the-undead

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Hate and Fear in Fiction - What makes a compelling villain?

I've been bouncing some crazy ideas around about fiction and how we use it to process our darker emotions. First, a question for you...

What is the nature of evil?

I feel like most people would probably answer "hatred," right? (If you disagree, or have something else to offer, please let me know in the comments!)

The question of how to create a really good villain is something of an enigma. There's no one right way to create a compelling villain, but there are a few commonalities...

1) They should be someone you love to hate. Perhaps most important, they need to offend, insult, piss off, and/or enrage the reader sufficiently that you want to destroy them by the end, you yearn with a visceral hatred to just rip them to pieces, see them and everything they love destroyed. The best villains evoke this kind of reaction--but you can't try too hard for it or the villain just ends up seeming silly and melodramatic. Game of Thrones is full of these characters: Joffrey and Cersei, for my money.

2) You should be able to empathize with the villain. Right or wrong, even as they hurt you and anger you enough to make you hate them, at the same time you should /understand/ them at least a little bit. It may make you sad, but you should be able to see how they came to be where they are and--chillingly--recognize that it could have been you in the right (wrong?) circumstances. The villain of Watchman, Adrian Veidt/Ozymandius, is an excellent example of this kind of character. Even as you loathe him in the end... you can't help but wonder if you agree...

3) They should be fascinating in some sense. The Magnificent Bastard, for example, makes an excellent villain: bold, charismatic, independent, audacious and genius. Something mysterious and exciting about them. They should be as evil as they are charismatic. They make you want to follow them, even as you know you shouldn't. And when you eventually come to hate them, the feeling is all the stronger because of how much you could have loved them. The Phantom of the Opera is a good example of this kind of character.

But here's the magnificent irony of it all. While hatred is at the heart of true evil, the most successful villain is the one who elicits hatred in the audience.

By exploring evil, we tap into the evil parts of ourselves. By observing what we hate on-screen, we ourselves become creatures possessed by hate, by the desire to rend and destroy.

But it's okay, right? Because we hate something evil? But is hate still evil even if it points at something evil? Many of the most heinous crimes in the history of the world have been committed with hatred--genocide, murder, torture. But it's always a reaction to the villainy we see in the other; we are okay with hating and hurting because what we hate and hurt is evil... but in so doing, we ourselves become filled with hate and the desire to hurt.

It's a lot to wrap your head around... I'm just glad to get this stuff out in fiction rather than in real life. I'd much rather cathartically destroy a villain on-screen, rather than actually destroy another human being in real life under the hate-filled guise of some noble cause.

If you define evil as 'driven by hatred,' then it's beautifully ironic that the best villain is the one who turns the audience themselves into villains...

(If you like this, back the Kickstarter for my book: "The Good, the Bad, and the Undead" today, and see some of my explorations of the nature of good and evil in practice--with zombies!)

Monday, August 3, 2015

Artist Profile: Callie MacDonell

As we enter the third full day of the "The Good, the Bad and the Undead" Kickstarter at 85% funded, with less than $600 left to go, I think it's safe to say that a Western Action Horror featuring cowboys and vampires is an idea that has legs. People like it! Hell--that's why I'm writing it! I saw what the Fabled Lands guys were doing, and I liked it so much I wanted to join in.

Join the party on Kickstarter!

But this idea wouldn't be what it is without the magnificent art that brings it to life. You all know Jamie Thomson, and I've talked in a few places about who I am, but we haven't yet made space to talk about our wonderful artist, Callie MacDonell.

First, I want to say that I had a lot of trouble finding the right artist for this project. We talked to half a dozen artists, and many of them we even commissioned a piece or two from before it didn't work out for one reason or another. Just as I was ready to tear my hair out from frustration, Callie came along with the right skills and talent and agreed to join the team.

A stylized self-portrait by Callie MacDonell

Callie MacDonell is a professional artist and designer. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, in California, where she works full time doing art, design, and video production for the mobile game company Kabam. She got her undergraduate degree in Media Arts and Animation from the Art Institutes International Minnesota, and went on to get her graduate degree in concept art from The Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

She has a remarkable array of eclectic experience, having done animation, writing, illustrations, motion graphics, design, video production, and concept art. She was a character and environment concept artist for the short film Curpidgeon, where she worked along side Pixar Art Director, Anthony Cristov. She did design work at Marvel Comics, using Marvel artwork to design merchandise such as T-shirts, jackets, children's wear and the like. And she worked as a writer for a TV show pilot for FonCo Creative Company... but if she told you the name, she'd have to kill you ;)

Callie is a lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy movies, tv shows and literature. She loves art in all forms, but is especially excited by opportunities to work on sci fi and fantasy projects within the comic and animation industries. She is currently working on her own short animation for children, "Cat Walrus," about an exchange student who is a cat-walrus mix, and she's struggling because it's picture day at school and she's clumsy on land and has nothing to wear... it's adorable!

In her own words, she couldn’t be more excited to be working on The Good, The Bad, and The Undead! We're excited to have her :) The book wouldn't be the same without her vision bringing it to life.

Callie MacDonell painting her own self-portrait

If you like her work, check out more of it!

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ccmacdonellart
Deviant Art: http://calliemacdonell.daportfolio.com/about/

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Demo Story Available for "The Good, the Bad and the Undead"

The Kickstarter goes live in one week! Aaaaaauughg! To commemorate this occasion, I've put together a short demo story for your amusement and edification.

In case you have managed to get this far without being aware of what "The Good, the Bad and the Undead" is, I like to describe it as 'Clint Eastwood meets Night of the Living Dead.'

It is the result of a collaboration between myself and Jamie Thomson, in which we both created the story and content, I'm doing the writing, and he's editing, revising, and providing creative input as I go along. Originally, this was borne out of an idea he had that he was going to write himself, but time constraints interfered (as they so often do) and I came on board to help make it a reality.

The cool thing about "The Good, the Bad and the Undead," (aside from cowboys vs. vampires... duh!) is the style of interactive narrative it uses. It's not so much a 'gamebook' in the traditional sense, as instead an 'interactive novel.' There are absolutely no mechanics, no dice, no character creation, no inventory--nothing that would interfere with your experience of immersing yourself in the story.

Furthermore, it's written in past tense, third person, just like most mass market novels. And it even jumps around in point-of-view between three protagonists.

So how is it interactive, then?

As you read, you get to inform the decisions of the whichever character is in the driver's seat at the time. Your choices let you discover and create that character at the same time. You get to make decisions that reveal who that character is, while simultaneously changing who that character is. You can tilt them toward good, or toward evil. You can tilt them toward cooperation, or toward strife.

It blends the lines between reader and author, between recipient and creator. As you read, you will make decisions as to which character's point of view you want to follow, and affect choices that character makes while you're following him or her. And your input, the way you influence these characters, can have a profound effect on how the story turns out.

It's a pretty unusual interactive fiction style. To my knowledge, it hasn't been done before, at least not in a paper book. Therefore, to help people get a sense of what they would be getting into should they decide to support the forthcoming Kickstarter...

I have prepared a short demo story for "The Good, the Bad and the Undead!" It is a short story, written in the same style, set in the same world, featuring two of the same characters, but at a different time and place compared to the main book. You could consider this a hint of a prequel.

Will you read the demo story? Will you capture the criminal, or let him escape? Will you save the family, or let them die?

Will you support the Kickstarter and read the full book? Only YOU can choose!

Read the full demo here :)

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Snarkiness or Fear? How to Write a Compelling Main Character

Hello hello, long time no see. I've been doing a lot of writing lately, and I keep having these observations I'd like to share, so might as well dust off the old blog.

Today's observation has to do with the snarky hero. How much snarkiness do you want? How much real terror? How do you find the right balance?

I see this as a spectrum ranging from characters like Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden on one end, spit-talking and cracking jokes not only in the face of death, but in the face of utter world annihilation, over to on the other end, characters like the hapless protagonists of bad horror movies, capable of little but screaming in terror.

Should your character be awed and disgusted and terrified by the dangers and horrors she sees? Or should she face it with a brave smile, cracking jokes to keep her spirits up (and to keep the reader amused)?

As in many cases, I think the correct path is the middle one. Characters without spine and spirit are no fun, either to write or to watch. And persistent action scenes can get boring if there aren't some jokes to spice them up. Yet at the same time, you don't want your character to be so insenitive to the violence and danger that the reader doesn't care either.

I think probably the ideal--at least for me at this time--is to strive for landing closer on the snarky end of the spectrum, maybe about 80% snarky, 20% real. This way, the 80% snarky keeps it fun and makes the character strong-willed enough to be interesting. Furthermore, saving the real reactions for the most crucial times will help bring power to those moments.

It's all about contrasts, right? If the character screams at every spook, then there's no difference between the zombie that lurches around a corner or the Cthulhic Old One that rises from the deeps. But if the character faces horror after horror without blinking, then that one time she does drop her jaw and run really tells you something!

What do you think? Post in the comments below!