Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Second Person: Role Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media

Editors: Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin
Publisher: MIT Press
Release Date: March 2007
Medium: Book
ESRB Rating: N/A
Official Web Site

Today's Game for Lunch comes from Dave Thomas, who writes: "As a guest reviewer, I thought I’d change things up a bit a review a book rather than a game. I know, reading, "bleh." But really, isn’t it nice to know that people actually can think of enough things to actually write a book about videogames that doesn't feature Master Chief?

0:01 Second Person is, incidentally, the second book in a series about games and narrative from MIT Press. Since I read the first book, I’m actually looking forward to pulling this one off my pile and giving it a read. I’ve met both of the editors, Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, and they are spooky smart guys. So, I figure this book will give me something to think about when playing, and reviewing games. So, here we go...

0:02 Scanning through the table of contents, this looks promising. I see names of people that I know have interesting things to say: Costikyan, Zimmerman, Faidutti, Crawford, Meretzky, Bogost and more. Onwards.

0:03 This book uses a design familiar to readers of other MIT Press books. It has lots of sidebars and references to give the book a bit of a hypertext flavor. This is cool, but hurts your brain. I’m not even through the first paragraph of the introduction before I’m distracted by a sidebar explaining the limitations of formal game definitions. I’m tempted to put the book down right now and ponder this for a while. But, I’ll forge ahead.

0:04 It turns out that the editors don’t want to debate what a game is. Rather, they just want to look at how people play with media. That really opens up the discussion and provides an obvious direction for talking about role-playing in a bigger context.

0:08 What’s the relationship between story and role-playing? How does playing a role in a play differ (or is similar) from the play acting that children enjoy? And what does all this have to do with videogames? The intro touches on so many good questions, that I feel like I’m reading a mystery story and want to jump to the end and see how it wraps up. It looks like the book is going to be filled with a variety of perspectives, some technical, some academic, some a little less formal. And (cool!) the book ends with an appendix featuring three playable tabletop RPGs.

0:11 Section I—Tabletop Systems. My first reaction is a little bit of disappointment that we are not going to jump right into videogames. But it only takes a moment to figure out that talking about pen and paper games provides a perfect Petri dish for examining the subject. We can extrapolate to videogames later.

0:13 Didn’t know this: Apparently Wizards of the Coast owns a patent on the 20-sided dice, or at least games that use it. This is, I assume, is some intellectual property they acquired when the purchased TSR, the home of Dungeons and Dragons. A footnote in the book provides a link to the licensing terms WotC provides allowing other game developers to use the old d20 system.
0:18 The introduction to the tabletop section kind of runs on, summarizing the essays to come. Lots of interesting bits of history about how pen and paper RPGs have evolved in the past 15 years, with a special focus on indie game developers. More sidebars on terminology and the obviously important influence of Tolkien and Lovecraft on the genre help round things out for anyone new to the subject.

0:20 OK, I’ve reached the first essay in the book, Greg Costikyan's "Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String." Greg must know as much about games as anyone in the world, so I'm looking forward to hearing what he has to say.

0:24 Maybe you’d have to be extra nerdy to care about this, but I am, so I do: Costikyan does a good job of explaining, and providing a historical context, for the debate around games as stories or games as sets of rules. In a nutshell, there are those who see story as critical to the game (think Final Fantasy) and those that think rules are really what matters (think Chess or Tetris). Put into a historical context of tabletop gaming, some of those debates make sense. As he points out, D&D thrives on story. Old SPI wargame simulations don’t.

0:28 Here's the conflict between story and gameplay: Stories need to be linear. They need to happen in a certain way—they need to follow the most interesting plot line. Games need players to be able to make choices, otherwise they are quite boring. So, at first glance, these are incompatible cousins. But Costikyan also recognizes that games do need constraints. Using chess as an example, he says the fact that individual chess pieces have a constrained set of moves makes the game interesting. So, if stories need constraints and games need constraints, then the solution seems obvious—when the rules of the game match the narrative structure of the story, you end up with stories you can play. He’s going to offer some examples to see if this theory works.

0:32 Example 1—Hopscotch, a novel that you read the first time in order, then the next time you read the chapters in a different order, getting a different take on the same events in the same book. Costikyan admits that this is a pretty basic example. But he provides a baseline for illustrating that literature can be game like, you can have more than one path through the same story and that can be fun.

0:34 Example 2 – Hypertext narratives. While giving these some credit for exploring the idea, he doesn’t see them as very strong forms of storytelling, since the somewhat random nature of hypertext defeats the point of taking the reading from the beginning to the end.

0: 35 Example 3 – Chose Your Own Adventure books. He sees these as game like, and better at telling stories. But still not quite the thing to scratch his itch for games that tell stories.

0:37 Example 4 – Paragraph-System Board games. Never had heard of these. I guess you have a book that takes the role of a dungeon master and some pieces you move around on the board. An improvement in the game-story combo, but still primitive the way Costikyan tells it.

0:39 Example 5 – Dragon’s Lair. Cool idea. Terrible game.

0:40 Example 6 – Adventure games. Costikyan call these “beads on a string” games. What he means is that while there are the moments where you feel like you have some latitude in how things transpire (the bead moments) really you are being pulled through a narrative thread (the string). He actually expresses some fondness for this type of game-story, in large part, it seems, because he thinks Grim Fandango is such a good game (and it is!).

0:43 Example 7 – Computer RPGs. While these games typically have strong story elements and offer a level of customizability in character and/or play style, they still don’t offer as much latitude in play as he’d like to see. Basically, these games are still hobbled by the amount of time and money it takes to create branching content.

0:44 Example 8 – MMOs. While Costikyan argues that MMOs don’t really have stories, or at least the stories don’t have a lot to do with why players play, he does make room for the idea of the MMO as a “story setting."

0:45 Example 9 – Tabletop RPGs. Finally, we get to the heart of the matter. Like the MMO, these games have a lot of story potential. But he allows that some players care more about the story than others and the rule systems is generally concerned with the outcome of action. The story gets layered in later by the players and/or a game master. This leaves us at the “So what?” point. Looks like we’ll get some answers now.

0: 49 I have not played A Tale in the Desert, but based on the discussion in this article, I think I might like to. Costikyan talks about how quests in MMOs achieve a certain amount of successful storytelling by telling tiny tales that players can encounter inside the larger framework on the virtual world. And he suggests that using game engines to generate possibilities for the player can unlock a lot of game play and even narrative possibility. But he’s still hung up on the idea that stories are linear and they have an ending. So, either you program lots of possible endings (cost prohibitive) or you use a game master (self-defeating for many computer games where you want to play alone). A possible solution? A Tale in the Desert is an MMO that takes place over the course of a year. All the players in the world work toward a single goal. If they manage to accomplish it, everyone wins. If not, they lose. By putting the MMO on a timeline—a year—and giving someone control over the basic story—the pharaoh as game master—you get a cool story that happens in an open-ended world. Neat idea.

0:56 I’m running out of time and this article is getting really good. Costikyan is talking about a new wave of RPG developers, and how they balance narrative with game play. The examples are fascinating, from role playing an Igor-like creature serving some Dr. Frankenstein to pretending you are on a reality TV show. And now he asks, “Can you transfer these ideas to digital games?” His conclusion—It might be hard to do, but it’s the natural next step in game design. We’ve done what we can with the beads on the string model, so now it’s time to try new ideas. Whether it's embedded narrative or other ways to stimulate player creativity and control, that’s where the game design business is heading. And just under the gun, I wrap up that essay. I’ve got about 350 pages of this book to go.

Would I read this book for more than an hour? Yes.
Why? Look, I’m an academic game nerd. But reading this kind of stuff really brings the whole topic of videogames to life for me. It’s fun to think back through the games you’ve enjoyed and start to see why they work (or at times don’t). This book looks like it is filled with smart ideas from people that love, and play games.

This review is based on a copy of the book sent by MIT Press.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice job. I've been looking for a scholarly book to do a research presentation on...this seems like it will do the trick nicely.