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TOM FRANCIS
REGRETS THIS ALREADY

Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and a free one called Floating Point, about swinging around on a rope. I'm on a weekly gaming podcast called The Crate & Crowbar, I wrote these two short stories in the Machine of Death collections, and I used to write stories like these for PC Gamer. I'm now working on a new game called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships.

Theme

By me. Uses Adaptive Images by Matt Wilcox.

Heat Signature Floorplans Header

Improving Heat Signature’s Randomly Generated Ships, Inside And Out

Gunpoint Steam Workshop

Gunpoint Patch: New Engine, Steam Workshop, And More

Distance Header

Distance: A Visual Short Story For The Space Cowboy Game Jam

The Magic Circle

Raising An Army Of Flying Dogs In The Magic Circle

Floating Point Blog Launch

Floating Point Is Out! And Free! On Steam! Watch A Trailer!

Floating Sine

Drawing With Gravity In Floating Point

Fault

What’s Your Fault?

Hoplite banner

The Randomised Tactical Elegance Of Hoplite

Gone Point

Here I Am Being Interviewed By Steve Gaynor For Tone Control

Heat Signature Thumbnail

Heat Signature: A Game About Sneaking Aboard Randomly Generated Spaceships

GRappling Hook Thumbnail

The Grappling Hook Game, Dev Log 6: The Accomplice

Alien Swarm Heroics

A Story Of Heroism In Alien Swarm

FTL Story

One Desperate Battle In FTL

Spelunky Banner

To Hell And Back In Spelunky

Game vs story graph

Games Vs Story 2

Gunpoint Breakdown

Gunpoint Development Breakdown

Max Payne 3

Five Things I Learned About Game Criticism In Nine Years At PC Gamer

This is how you die

My Short Story For The Second Machine Of Death Collection

Clouds

Not Being An Asshole In An Argument

Skyrim Diary - Frostmere

Playing Skyrim With Nothing But Illusion

Mainstream Games

How Mainstream Games Butchered Themselves, And Why It’s My Fault

A-Rock-and-a-Hard-Place-Trio-Jan

A Short Script For An Animated 60s Heist Movie

Dark Messiah

The Magical Logic Of Dark Messiah’s Boot

Arguing

Arguing On The Internet

Stealth Games

Why Are Stealth Games Cool?

Violence

E3′s Violence Overload, Versus Gaming’s Usual Violence Overload

Suspicious Manifesto

The Suspicious Developments manifesto

GDC

GDC Talk: How To Explain Your Game To An Asshole

Crosslink

Listening To Your Sound Effects For Gunpoint

Happiness

Understanding Your Brain

What Makes Games Good

What Makes Games Good

Seat Quest

A Story Of Plane Seats And Class

Beneath Suspicion

Avoiding Suspicion At The US Embassy

Open Worlds

An Idea For A Better Open World Game

Level Up

A Different Way To Level Up

BioShock Ending

How I Would Have Ended BioShock

Meet the Spy

My Script For A Team Fortress 2 Short About The Spy

Team Fortress 2

Team Fortress 2 Unlockable Weapon Ideas

Football Manager

Don’t Make Me Play Football Manager

EVE Assassins

EVE’s Assassins And The Kill That Shocked A Galaxy

GalCiv 2

My Galactic Civilizations 2 War Diary

Gnome

I Played Through Episode Two Holding A Goddamn Gnome

Machine of Death

My Short Story For The Machine Of Death Collection

AOL

A Woman’s Life In Search Queries

Second Life

First Night, Second Life

SWAT 4

SWAT 4: The Movie Script

How To Stop Writing A Fucking Book

wowstory

Brief out-of-context quote from Blizzard honcho Jeff Kaplan that made Stardock’s Trent Polack – and me – smile:

“Basically, and I’m speaking to the Blizzard guys in the back: we need to stop writing a fucking book in our game, because nobody wants to read it.”

“We need to deliver our story in a way that is uniquely video game.”

Every time someone says something like that, I picture a scripted scene playing out some dramatic event that would otherwise have been communicated in text. But of course, that’s not games. That’s films and plays, which Kaplan rightly cites as other things to avoid imitating – games suck at it. Half-Life 2 is remarkable for coming closest, and I remember getting very carried away about its animation at the time, but the truth is Alyx’s ridiculous canned gesticulations would be scoffable in any film.

Leaving Alyx

Mechanics are the main thing “uniquely video game”: this is the only medium where we can learn about something by experimenting with it, toying with it, seeing how it responds to different inputs. But can you tell a story with that? Art game loons like Rohrer certainly seem to suggest story-like themes with their game mechanics. But those same games set out not to tell any particular story, and the zero-writing approach means they’d struggle to anyway.

screen

The cool thing about games is that books can’t show you exactly how a scene looks, and films can’t ask you to read a huge chunk of background text, and music can’t respond to you. We’re absolutely a mish-mash medium, and perhaps “uniquely video game” doesn’t have to mean pulling one magical trick that nothing else can do. Perhaps it means leveraging all the other mediums games comprise, rather than leaning heavily on any one: whether that’s books in World of Warcraft or movies in Gears of War.

The one game that springs to mind as an exemplary case of telling a story in a way no other medium could is my old favourite Masq. It has text and pictures, but not much of either one: it’s simple-looking, simply written and short. But it offers two uniquely video game experiences.

Nikki

The first time through, it’s a story that responds to you. It’s only multiple choice, but the choices are extremely multiple, and you genuinely do drive the story to an extent I’ve seen nowhere else. (Though I’m sure plenty of text adventures and simple graphic adventures like this compare favourably).

The second occurs after you’ve played it a few times, and you’re really just experimenting. You get to know the characters in a way linear fiction can’t allow: you get to ask, “What would they have done if…” Dozens and dozens of times. It wouldn’t be remarkable, except that there are fascinating quirks to some of Masq’s characters that only become clear when you know them from multiple playthroughs.

Masq can do this because its content – pictures and dialogue for the various eventualities and decisions – is cheap to make. A decision with four possible outcomes doesn’t take impractically long to flesh out. If Blizzard want to tell their story in a uniquely video game way, they have to swallow a bitter pill: the notion that any given player isn’t likely to see most of what they spend their time on. But after filling a world the size of Azeroth with quests, that’s a pill they’ve swallowed in handfuls.

The_B: Although occasionally, just blowing shit up is fine too.

Bret: Darn right.

Justice: However, games have a limitation those other mediums don't: they're defined as having to be 'fun'. Art, books, films, even music, they all can exist as thought-provoking works, not necessarily mundane entertainment.

Are video games trapped in a situation where they are represented in their lowest form, such as art could be expressed if only humour strips and smut were allowed?

Bret: Well, games sometimes try to be "art" without being fun, admittedly mainly indies and such.

Worse, they usually suck.

Bobsy: A relief to hear someone Blizzardy say that. I'm going through the last few levels in WOTLK at the moment, and while they do pretty decent story, it's not suitable for an MMO. If I'm the great hero that roused noble Thorim from his torpor to take vengeance against his trait'rous brother, what the hell about the other 4000 people on my server that claim to have done the same?

skizelo: "But after filling a world the size of Azeroth with quests, that’s a pill they’ve swallowed in handfuls."
Are sub-quests really the answer to making each person's game unique? Especially when a lot of them will be fairly simple and with binary pass/fail states. (disclosure: never played WoW. Addictive personality, don'cha know)
Also, whenever the "games suck at it" thing comes up, I remain unconvinced that it's not just that the developers suck at it. Chris Avellone has proven than games writing can be superb, and David Ward, bless his heart, is convinced that he can get the acting up there as well.

skizelo: Whoops, Not David Ward (GB Landscape photographer, apparently), David Cage (he of Quantic Dream). What an odd typo.

Dave_C: Just played through Masq twice... simply mind-blowing. It really does show that its possible to create a weaving, branching story, and still be totally interactive and involving.

Games need to do this more. I've been playing Morrowind again recently, and the conversational elements now seem totally redundant and bland. Granted though, attempting to create a coherent narrative tree for each of the thousands of NPCs would be next to impossible.

Jason L: I dunno. Dwarf Fortress and sort-of Eskil Steenberg's Love are both aimed at generating coherent narrative trees for large numbers of characters. Dwarf Fortress is already putting out silly, but coherent and logical emotional stories for many historical characters.

Chijts: I think Fallout 3 does pretty well at the "what if" moments. I think it's more of an early waypoint though, but with some more work and as the games industry evolves the possibilities will be easier to see to fruition.

Peterd102: I am one of those rare People who play WoW and read the quest, At its basic level it gives meaning to the grinds you do, some however, are intricate webs of a storyline. Yes there are many simple grind quests, but others are facinating plots that require a little more intelligence to link together parts.

The thing is there not as brilliant as some other medias. Blizzard have to make a choice, they can streamline the quests for the action based adventurer, Or they can expand the quests into a more thought based, involving process. Where instead of quest chains you had to make some of the links yourself from the quest info, a special reward could tempt people to enjoy the story, possibly a long quest chain to make a boss easier for instance, making the skillful questers a useful asset in endgame play.

Given Blizzards might, I hope they do both.

Smurfy: Or you could just do it the Half-Life way...

Ludo: The idea of a style of storytelling unique to games is interesting. Games borrow heavily from literature and films, which is no bad thing looking at self-consciously cinematic efforts such as Mass Effect. Books and cinema provide easily identifyable tropes which make it easy to tell a basic story quickly and let people back into the game. Videogame storylines in this context tend to fall into the trap of existing as seperate entities which occasionally interrupt the gameplay experience. If you're standing still in a 3D world reading a box of text, you're out of the game.

A form of storytelling unique to games would have to take advantage of elements unique to gaming, but these elements are absolutely the bane of the straighforward narrative storytelling we're familiar with in books and films. Open worlds, environments which react to the user, multiple protaganists - it's a nightmare. For a writer, success in these environments has to rely on the user's willingness to involve him/herself. If you're interested then you'll hunt down all of the tape logs in Bioshock, and you'll read the writing on the wall in Left 4 Dead.

The other option - fire the writers, give the player mechanics complex enough to allow them to form their own narratives from the gameworld. We've seen how well this can work with Tom's Gal Civ 2 diaries. Similarly we see it in Dwarf Fortress, Empire: Total War and Eve Online. I really want to talk about Masq now but this comment is far too long already.

Ludo: Actually, screw it, here I go.

Mechanically, Masq is the equivalent of those 'if you want to do this, turn to page 201' adventure books. If that seems dismissive, it's not, I think Masq is awesome, but the reason I enjoy it lies entirely with the setting.

It completely mystifies me that games fail to realise that realistic, relatable character interaction in games is far more interesting than saving the world. Masq is about a load of normal people, many of them jerks, who you can subsequently jerk around yourself. This is awesome. None of them have superpowers, they just work in fashion, but they're interesting to interact with, and these interactions have consequences. Masq succeeds here with a slideshow of still line drawings where Gears of War fails with 50,000 polygons.

Here's a game. Just simulate some people in a room. They don't have to be perfectly human, they just have to respond in a half realistic fashion and have relationships to other characters in the room modelled. Give the player a ton of interaction options and let them loose. The domino effects you could cause among them, the numerous outcomes, people falling out, falling in love would be fascinating. Somebody please make this.

There we go, now I can rest easy with the knowledge that In response to a post titled "How not to write a fucking book," I've written a fucking book.

Jason L: Games realise that realistic, relatable character interaction in games is far more interesting than saving the world; I've read articles from thirty years ago by developers wanting to go in that direction. For better and for worse, they also realise all too well that it's both incredibly difficult to turn into numbers, and more importantly an incredibly fragile player experience. If a Doom monster gets stuck on a wall, hey; one of the thousand targets got a little easier. If the person you've been conversing with for five minutes makes just one weird response, you've plunged screaming into the Uncanny Valley. So far, the most successful attempts at human storytelling have been those with the wisdom not to fly too close to the sun - The Sims, Animal Crossing, Dwarf Fortress, arguably Darwinia and World of Goo... worlds where you can observe humanoid interactions through a layer of abstraction.

The idea about puzzle quests in WoW has merit, but unfortunately the very existence of the game relies on a thing called the Internet, which many players use to share information about such topics as solutions to puzzle quests in WoW. It can work in a single-player RPG whose players choose to avoid spoilers, and we do see some story puzzles in that genre.

Jazmeister: Know what I always wanted? Since, like, Ultima 8, all the way to Oblivion? For time to pass while you read books. You know? It'd be part of the game. People would walk around, birds would sing, and you might even have to move to a quieter place. You might get attacked!

It's frustrating that we can accurately model the way light falls and how objects trade speed to conserve momentum, but lack even mediocre models for emotional response or personal decision making. Or verbal structure - paraphrasing, communication with entities.

While I think scripting everything is a solid, time-tested way of ensuring the experience you desire, it's like using animated stills (or sprites) instead of rendered scenes (or polygonal models); while fundamentally ridiculous and uninteresting in its multitude of weird information, Dwarf Fortress is a good step in a great direction. If only you could ignore even for a moment the awful, awful repitition and standardised structure.

It menaces with spikes of turtle. Why always menaces? Can't the game know what 'menaces' means, if MS Word can vaguely know?

The main problem is that DF really isn't about generating books to read, it's about survival and base-building, in a wonderful chimera of The Sims and Dungeon Keeper. They're working on letting you send armies around the map, not how to teach a computer to rehash dwarven tweets.

BrokenJPG: I'd say the problem actually lies in the belief that a story needs to be told in a linear fashion at all. I played D&D back in the "paper and pencil" days, and the experience regularly achieved what everyone is talking about here: a story told through gameplay.

It was rarely linear, and no one (including the DM) ever knew how the tale would end, but when all was said and done it was about the story crafted along the way. I think what we're all complaining about is the rift between our ability to control a character's physical actions in-game, and the constant feeling that every major decision that character "makes" is on rails.

01d55: This conversation was at the heart of a class I just took (Interactive Narrative at UCSC - they've got a Computer Game Design major here).

DnD is the holy grail of interactive narrative but fully simulating it with just a computer and a human player is "AI complete" i.e. tantamount to creating at least one recognizably human artificial intelligence, and at that point even I have to admit that your talents are kind of wasted on game design.

Procedurally generating stories, and then representing those stories with procedurally generated text, is somewhat more realistic but so far the best we've come up with are context-free grammars with simulation-restricted generators and you still have to manually author the text, with some variable substitution.

P.S. Tom where is your DoW2 review? It's been weeks.

Chijts: This is a very interesting read guys, good stuff.

Jazmeister: I guess what I'm being someone presumptive about here is that:

Modelling little emotional/circumstantial flags, feeding them into a complex-ish decision gate, and turning it into written speech and eventually into spoken words...

...is as complex a process as the one that has led us to where graphics are today. With a reasonably believable model that would stand up to the limited standard of, for example, online PvP interaction we have now, it might even help the goodbadbar problem, too.

I hope all those developers still have the idea-collecting robot trained on James.

Tom Francis: GalCiv and Dwarf Fortress are great examples of uniquely gamey story generation, but perhaps not exemplary story telling. GalCiv creates a good story and tells it through a series of slightly muddled, irrational dialogue boxes, and Dwarf Fortress creates a great story but tells it really, really badly. If it told it at all well, it would be a phenomenally successful game.

My guess was Kaplan is talking about a situation where the developer creates the story, but allows the player to discover and steer it in a more interactive way. There's probably not a hard line between the two, but in an interactive story the author knows the possible outcomes, whereas in a player-generated story they might surprise even someone who knows the game's code inside out.

Chris Evans: I must say I love Masq, it really is one of those classic games that doesn't get enough recognition. I would love to see more games in that vein.

DoctorDisaster: Portal is probably the best example of storytelling in a way that could only work in games, but I can't imagine something like that working in a sandbox setting or, god forbid, an MMO. Part of the problem is that "story" is inherently linear. It's a sequence of events that build and release tension. If you muddle up the order, screw up the pacing, or do one of a million other things a player is apt to do if given the option, your story falls apart.

There's such a thing as emergent story, which often happens in serial media like comics and TV, where you gradually start to pick up on the nuances of the relationships between the characters, but to be honest, that stuff just doesn't work in a front-loaded product like a game. The emergent qualities come from layers and layers of writing being applied to the same core setting; as an audience, the writers notice things about their characters that they then write into the next installment.

Probably the closest I've seen in a game would be the TF2 updates, believe it or not, because they are serial in a way. In response to the way players loved pitting scouts against heavies, Valve wrote the sandvich rivalry into the mechanics and dialogue. Hell, even that hilarious barrage of new taunts probably came up because of something they didn't fully realize at the initial release: scouts are ANNOYING, and scout players love to annoy other players. "NEED A DISPENSER HERE!"

Tom Francis: What would you lose from Portal's story if it was, say, a film?

Roadrunner: The mouse clicking bit is the first thing which springs to mind.

Dante: Film's typically need more interaction than games, you need more than one person to drive the plot in order to come up with interesting interactions. As such you'll eventually end up with a group of people proceeding through a series of arbitrary death-traps.

So Cube. But with Glados.

Ludo: Glodos's evolution as a character relies on your dependance on her as a tutorial in the early stages. You're literally trapped in her world in a way that you would never be in a film, and her evolution into an agnostic force that you're eventually competing with for survival draws its potency from your dependance on her guidance in the early stages.

Having two characters, in which one is one is completely silent, and the other is a robot that goes slowly mad, wouldn't work at all in a film, the point is that Glados is manipulating YOU. That's the only way the story matters. If Chell was played by Angelina Jolie it just wouldn't work.

Bret: Three characters.

You seem to have forgotten the guy with all the witty one liners. Sure he threatens to stab you once or twice...

(The cube also wouldn't work as well in the film, really. Would lose the personal touch and just be another Wilson.)

Jazmeister: The game Portal as a film, not a film inspired by/Uwe Bollsed into a film, should preserve that Chell Vs GlaDos thing that powers the whole experience. Some things it can't preserve, like the bulk of the puzzles (although it'd be a fun, trippy spectacle to see in a film). Chell needn't talk, I don't think, if the acting was good enough. GlaDos could experiment more emotionally or tantalise her with freedom more, as that'd come with the change in medium.

I don't know, if you really picture it, it'd be almost the same thrill as any film where someone solves a puzzle. Like that bit in The Pursuit of Tons of Cashyness with the Rubik's cube, you see him doing it and it's amazing. From watching her cautiously test the portal, to trying the jumps through right-angled portals, having the camera pitch with her to convey the stomach-churning, then the hilarious Cube section... it could work, actually. It's not like HL2 where it'd be twenty hours of shooting galleries.

Still, I feel it deserves to just be a game. I think it's fine to let something be a roaring success on just one medium. They'll make films out of songs next, amirite?

I hope Zack Snyder doesn't read that. You never know with this blog.

DoctorDisaster: Yeah, Ludo really hit the nail on the head, but Bret and Dante are right, too. Another issue is that portals themselves would be simply inexplicable without the interactive element. Notice that in the game they barely bother to describe them at all: they just start throwing you through them as quickly as possible so that you can figure out how they work through experimentation.

Imagine trying to follow the character through a portal. She walks through the wall and suddenly gravity is pulling her in a different direction and you can't tell where she is. Even a totally steady shot of a room with a portal in the wall and the floor would be weird: Chell drops through the floor and then simultaneously comes flying out of the wall sideways. You'd have to be watching in two places at once to actually track the action, and even a few such shots would leave the audience with a headache.

Just as baffling for the audience would be the utter disconnect between the action and the story. They're watching this girl make her way through puzzles and listening to a psychotic robot chatter about it. If the story is all in the chatter, what's the point of the puzzles? Really, if you think about it, what IS the plot of Portal? There's barely a kernel of story in the entire game: robot torments girl, girl kills robot. The omg buzzword LUDOLOGICAL NARRATIVE is all expressed through exploring the details of the world and the relationships between, say, crates and turrets -- which wouldn't translate well to the screen.

01d55: What Portal loses if you turn it into a movie is the stuff that you don't necessarily have to find in order to beat the game. The hidden rooms with messages from "the Ratman" wouldn't been the same in a movie. A movie either shoves what it's showing you into your face or shows it only so briefly you have to pause the DVD to have a chance to see it on your own. A game allows you exactly as much time as you need to find whatever hidden details you're going to find (unless a mechanic is forcing you forward, but it's easy to leave details out of those sections).

Ludo: Everything I do is Ludological.

DoctorDisaster: Isn't that the song the Police sang about GLaDOS?

Every little thing she does is ludological
Everything she do is just a game
Even though my loves before were biological
Now I know my love for her's the same

Am i first?: MASQ won't run for me, it does a C++ error. Halp?

Jazmeister549803: Great Job Website Owner! Also, wtf is with the guy?

Question about Gunpoint? Try the Gunpoint FAQ! Question about Heat Signature? There's one for that too! Question about Game Maker, Unity, tools? They're covered in both!

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