Familiarize It

Internally, games are no more than computer algorithms for manipulating numbers. While you can have fun manipulating numbers and abstract symbols, most games go further and invent fictional labels for the numbers in the game.

In Medieval: Total War, individual nobles are given named traits which affect their abilities. For example, being Slow to Trust gives +1 to Personal Security, which makes it more difficult to assassinate the noble. Slow to Trust is increased by assassination attempts,  becoming Overly Suspicious, then Paranoid, then Completely Paranoid as more assassination attempts are made. At high levels, being paranoid improves a general’s Personal Security a lot, but also reduces his ability to command troops.

Internally, all that is changing when Slow to Trust is applied is the Personal Security value. The game makes it more interesting by attaching a label to this numerical property. The label makes it easy for the player to spin a whole story out of the general’s personality. There are some legendary examples of these types of player-generated stories written online. I highly recommend checking out Boatmurdered for an example of this.

Familiarity of the subject matter is also very important in fictionalizing part of the game. With a bit of prodding, you can extract a story from almost anything if the subject matter is meaningful to you. This happens best when the game events echo familiar interactions from other sources or real life. The simple game event is imbued with the meaning of the real-life event after which it is modeled.

The Sims, for example,  references real experiences which we all understand, and draws meaning from those external sources. Thus when Biff McStupid, your favourite Sim, cheats on his wife and she displays a primitive “anger” reaction, we perceive far more than what is on the screen. All the game did was run some canned character animations. Meanwhile, we imagine angry emotional outbursts, tears, screaming, gossip, mistrust, or the development of long-term personality scars. None of this stuff is actually in the game. The game just plants a seed in your mind. If you’re familiar with the subject matter, the seed will grow.

So try labeling your numbers with something that people will understand and relate to. It’s amazing how austere a game can be while still creating incredible stories if this is done intelligently.

3 thoughts on “Familiarize It

  1. Andrew

    Boatmurdered is fun so far :) I couldn’t get started in Dwarf Fortress, this is making me want to try it, heh. Will have to read it all.

    Other player generated stories? I also liked The Amateur ( http://silentamateur.wordpress.com/ ) and Living In Oblivion ( http://livinginoblivion.wordpress.com/ ). There’s some other old ones I am sure I read, but can’t remember them.

    “How Do I Play Game?” is also a nice read, in a similar vein but more a person playing FPS’s for the first time ( http://www.howdoiplaygame.com/ )

    I love detailed descriptions of stuff for bonuses/penalties. Makes a lot more sense too, numbers are so arbitrary. I’m near the beginning of my Medieval 2 “Take the English to world domination” campaign, and really should finish it. I hate it when your generals die, all that experience, and nay, personality, all lost! :(

  2. Tynan Sylvester Post author

    Thanks man, those blogs looks really cool. I also noticed that you’re doing a DX retrospective. Strange, considering that I just re-played the first half of that game last week (for the 4th time). Every time I replay it it seems more and more sublime. I want to write about it, maybe I’ll join your discussion.

    Good point about the generals in Medieval 2 dying. That’s part of the problem with “developing” emergent game characters. They tend to be expendable and die a lot since so many games involve lethal combat. You might check out Bully for a counterexample. Interestingly, every student at Bullworth is a unique individual. Since the combat is nonlethal, they can seem to develop personalities over time. I wonder how else we could present the same individual to fight you more than once?

  3. Andrew

    Usually “Respawning”, although if Unreal Tournament 3 is anything to go by, it’s hard making the story worthwhile and personalities any good in a war where no one dies.

    The Deus Ex thing is for the Vintage Game Club, it’s there the major discussion is ongoing – so worth checking out that forum :)

    I watched a Bully “Let’s Play” – was interesting, the characters are as individual as they could make them, although without any real RPG interaction they’re mainly superficial (ie; only appearance, name and voice) – notably the big battles, you fight the same people several times, so it’s tough to pull off even then.

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