dinsdag 11 augustus 2015

Part 2: No, no narrative!

Just when I had created an incredibly fun local-multiplayer game for iPad I had decided to raise the bar and make an iPhone version of a similar game. Similar? Not really because I had decided I wanted to change the experience from being mostly multiplayer focussed to being single player focus. And on top of all that I decided I wanted to tell the story of the bird man: Tangatumanu. I’ll reflect on my design decisions in an attempt to help you other designers out there and maybe even prevent you from taking your project in a similar direction. 

Of course, the radical change from a competitive multiplayer to a narrative single player experience should never have happened if I wanted to finish and release my game within half a year. I explained how a poorly defined design goal enabled me to loose focus this much in the previous developer story and thus I will not elaborate here. I will elaborate on my motivation and goals concerning the focus on narrative design.  

There are several things that motivated me to turn Tap Tap Shoot for iPhone into a narrative game. The first: a feeling that I was morally obligated to create something that would urge people to think about their behaviour. You might be thinking: “ Wow there, take it slow, bro. Isn’t that goal a bit too ambitious?”. In hindsight: yes, it is. Designing and developing your first (iOS) game is hard enough and I don’t know why I wanted to change the world with it as well. 

There's a Captain Planet in all of us (at least in me)
I have a hard time accepting the impact of the human race on planet earth. The individualist attitude and the everlasting hunger for more of everything is rapidly exhausting resources and destroying eco-systems everywhere. Boom, there I said it. What could I, as a game-desiger do to let people reflect on their behaviour in relation to these problems? I wanted to create a game where player’s are confronted with an ego-self (someone focused on their own needs and desires), social-self (someone focussing on achieving happiness by focussing on the wellbeing of the social surrounding) and an eco-centred self (someone focussed on balance of resources in the environment in relation to the local population). I want to give a brief introduction of the narrative of the game to be able to explain the design and it’s problems. 

Moai on Rapa Nui: Some of them have their bodies buried below ground.

The story I wanted to tell is that of Easter Island (or: Rapa Nui). Rapa Nui is famous for it’s Moai: tall stone statues of mysterious heads. The island of Rapa Nui once used to be a tropical paradise. However, due to overpopulation and exhaustion of resources the island now looks like a barren wasteland. It is unclear exactly how the Rapa Nui let things get out of hand. Couldn’t they have changed their behaviour before resources declined beyond a point of no return? Details surrounding this question haven’t been answered yet but we do know that the culture on Rapa Nui changed dramatically while the island was suffering. The population had forsaken their old habits and believe in the Moai. Instead they became the cult of the birdman. Scarce resources led to war between tribes. To stop the fighting the people took inspiration from the frigate bird that nests around the small islets around the island. Whoever could claim the first egg laid by the temporarily   visiting frigate birds would be the new birdman. The birdman decides the distribution of resources on the island for a year until the challenge of collecting the egg is repeated and a new birdman comes forth. The birdman challenge did not eradicate all suffering but it seems like it did return the island to a politically stable situation and one could assume life was little less bad then it used to be. This would be the foundation of the story of my game. 

Tangatumanu (bird-man) on the rocks. Men would dive off the rock into the shark infested ocean and swim towards the islet where the frigate birds nest in the background. 

I decided the player would take on the role of the deity that inspired the bird man (or: Tangatumanu in Rapa Nui language). The goal of the game was to ensure the survival of a flock of frigate birds while they’re traveling to the small islets around Rapa Nui. Gameplay was focuses on evoking the feeling of taking care of others (in contrast to a focus on individualistic goals). The player controls an avatar similar to the final design of the Should Shoot avatar. The goal of Tangatumanu was to shoot the relics of the old religion: the Moai who came to destroy the flock. The Moai stood for an individualist-self whilst the birdman cult represented an eco-self (finding happiness in balance with the environment).The player could instruct the flock to move to a certain part of the screen while shooting the enemy moai with the deity.

Telling a story with text. Fun fact: the arrow icon is the 'back' icon still used in Should Shoot.

The story surrounding the main character (Felicio) and the flock would explain the story of Rapa Nui and the islanders. But how to tell this story? Do you hate endless texts in games explaining the situation and context of the game? Me too! It was my main way of telling the story since creating animations and cut-scenes would take way too much time. It was at that time I realised this is not how you tell a story in games, even though it’s how it’s been done for almost two decades.

The best narrative experiences satisfy the player’s desire to learn more about a character’s development and their relation to an interesting game world. Want to learn more about great narrative in games? This might help you. The core-mechanics are means to explore or interact with important characters and the game world in order to engage the player. Telltales’ games do this very well: players can make important decisions while interacting with other characters or they can explore the environment in order to advance. The Stanley Parable facilitates a player’s exploration of self by having them navigate the game world: A different but interesting approach. In games where the gameplay is not focussed on sharing more about the world or context of events it is common to implement events according to the three-act structure. I realised I had two choices: evaluate/change the core mechanics or implement the three act structures and tell the story in text and animation. I even made a draft for the story events during the different levels (called acts!). 

The mechanics in Tangatumanu did not facilitate player engagement in the world and it’s context but I did not want to change the core-mechanics because of their uniqueness and how they could facilitate quick action gameplay. I did come across a great episode of Extra Credits on Narratve Mechanics. The core-mechanics of Tangatu Manu at the time were:
  • Directing the flock by double tapping anywhere on the screen
  • Shooting by tapping and swiping

Design of Tangatu Manu: getting a flock, managing their movement and shooting enemies.

These mechanics fit the design goal: players feel like they are in control. And they did provide the feeling of having to take care of a group: players are forced to focus on the safety of a flock of birds rather then the player avatar. Everything I had tot tell in text felt like an obstruction to this experience. It’s like a first person shooter with long cutscenes.
I decided I had to redefine the focus of my single player game. The quality of playing the game was best with Tap Tap Shoot when player’s competed with each other. Competition was the best fit for the shooting mechanic. My design goals were rephrased as:
  1. The game is about competition: the sweet taste of victory or the sour smell of defeat. 
  2. Players feel like their skill (with shooting) and tactical decisions (placement) define the outcome. 
  3. Players always feel like they’re in direct control of their avatar and the related events on screen.
Telling a story did not contribute to the feeling of competing! I realised I had to re-think the whole single player experience. It was nice to let go of the art-style since it was a bit time-consuming (considering I’m not really a 2D artist). It was at this time I also started working on the local multiplayer and an art-style that would communicate function while still being customisable. 

One enemy in Tangatumanu chased the avatar and fighting this enemy was by far most fun thing in the game. I tried balancing the enemy in such a way it felt like a challenge: starting easy and getting harder to dodge and shoot as the player progressed. Since I did not want to waste the player’s attention with unnecessary story the enemy had to be something that could come after anything and that anything would always know the enemy is dangerous and is to be avoided. What could that be? A rocket of course! Single player rocket was born.

Players responded really positive to the Rocket mode. I wondered why. My personal philosophy on game-design is that the game should offer the player an interesting choice over x (x = length of time). The 1P Rocket Mode was fun because players had to choose every second or so whether to dodge or shoot the rocket. The 1P Rocket’s behaviour forced this choice on the player by chasing the avatar.

What remained of Tangatumanu in Should Shoot: The Rocket Mode.

I was delighted to learn players were having a lot of fun with the Rocket Mode. It was by this time I also re-made the multiplayer mode that formal existed in Tap Tap Shoot. Since the goal of the game was to facilitate competition: I started thinking of it as a tool rather then a narrative experience with context. I redefined the art style: it had to be as simple and clear as possible. I also allowed for customisation of the game by implementing alternate color schemes and backgrounds. I noticed how players told each other stories about how they narrowly survived and won or how small the chance was for a draw though it still had happened. Players did not consume a narrative: they created one by communicating with each other. 

The biggest takeaway here is that a gamedesigner can't slap a little narrative on to an existing project. IF you do the experience is unlikely to improve: there’s a big chance everything you’re trying to convey something to the player that will just be experienced as being ‘in the way’. Designers should think about the story they want to tell and come up with mechanics that fit with that concept. Navigation and observation are the core mechanics of a first-person game and there are a lot of examples of first-person games that really tell a great story through gameplay. I did not think about the story when I came up with the concept and my narrative did not fit the mechanics. I could have changed the core mechanics but that would have changed my project entirely, increased the already heavy workload and would have required a lot of iterations before it got to a certain level of quality. 

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