04: Narrative, the World and Everything

After completing their side quest, our heroes make camp in a nearby forest to discuss the interplay of narrative between characters, player alignment, and worlds.

  
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Introductory Guy  

Welcome to design thinking games, a fantasy and user experience podcast. In each episode, your podcast host, Tim Broadwater and Michael Schofield will examine the player experience of board games, pen and paper role-playing games, live-action games, mobile games, and video games. You can find every episode, including this one on your podcatcher of choice and on the web at design thinking games.com.

Tim Broadwater  

So last time, you asked me a lot about the games that I gravitate to and like. Specifically, the question was identity and games and how I see myself in games. I kind of want to ask you the same question. And so what is the type of game that you like? And how do you see yourself in games, and what are the commonalities between those games?

Michael Schofield  

I'm very drawn to Choose Your Own Adventures. The games I'm thinking of literally off the top of my head at the moment are DONTNOD's Life is Strange series, TellTale's series before TellTale went under. Even before that, these old Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series, where the game is mainly in choosing the questions you ask or how you answer, how you react to situations, more than navigating through dark hallways and popping the first thing on site.

I enjoy those games, too, but when I think about something that I'm in the mood for, it's one of these experiences more often than not. Where, yeah, so you were talking last time about RPGs. And the ability to and the idea of the sandbox world. 

I don't very much appreciate a sandbox, even when it's good. Red Dead Redemption comes to mind here, where it's arguably one of the best sandboxes for an individual for a single player to have ever been made. And even though you're constrained to the narrative of Arthur Morgan, you know, you can wander off and live in the woods for the entirety of the game and never engage with a plot point. And I find that it can be as fun as it is to be a rum runner and shoot bears and grow a beard, I find that continuity error where the town is going to burn, and then you wander off for 40 days. I find that so disruptive that I kind of get repulsed by it. So I have my fun on those games. And then I walk away. 

What I like is a Mass Effect, right? You have several choices that you can make.

Tim Broadwater  

100% transparency I've never played Mass Effect, so I don't know anything about it. 

Michael Schofield  

It's one that I've totally encouraged you in the past off-mic to try. The idea is that Mass Effect is a science-fiction game. It's a little bit of space opera in the 80s, and you are the one person in the universe who can assemble the ragtag team, fight the big bad, maybe save the galaxy, etc. You aren't Tim, in the year 2142. You're Commander Shepard. You have a name, and not only do you have a name, you have a voice, and you can pick male or female, but they have different voice actors. So you are piloting Commander Shepard. You are not Commander Shepard. And there's a lot of wiggle room about how your Shepard responds to the situation. And they do something really cool where the decisions you make in game 1, which roll over to the decisions on game two, which roll over into game three, and even vaguely impact the spin-off Mass Effect Andromeda. And when Mass Effect 4comes out, I assume it's going to take your saved files there. 

Tim Broadwater  

So is it first person?

Michael Schofield  

No, you are a third-person Shepard. Looking over the shoulders of your hero. So they're either the equivalent of a magic-user or a fighter, just space versions. Those are the things I gravitate toward. I don't want to be me. I want to be Commander Shepard. And specifically, I have a particular Commander Shepard who is defined by my decisions. 

So Life is Strange has Max Caulfield. You are Max Caulfield. You're piloting Max Caulfield, those kinds of things.

Tim Broadwater  

So is it safe to kind of, I guess to describe it, you would say that this is its narrative, and then your actions in that character? When you're not playing yourself, you know, you're playing these, you know, the specific characters you're talking about. Changes the outcome of the story. Is that accurate?

Michael Schofield  

Oh, 100% it's like the hand of God guiding some humans or human-like things who don't know better than they are being guided?

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, so there's a decent amount of what I would call in lack of a better word. It's like you're it's a movie, like yeah, pretty much just watching a movie and you and you make decisions at certain points. And that changes the story, right.

Michael Schofield  

So last night, I played. I think it's called. I think the actual series is called The Dark Pictures Anthology.

Tim Broadwater

Man of Medan

Michael Schofield  

I haven't played little hope yet. No spoilers, but I beat Man of Medan yesterday, and I started over again because I only made it through with three survivors instead of all five. That's the kind of thing that is -- chef's kiss — that's my type of game.

Tim Broadwater  

You really liked it then.

Michael Schofield  

I loved it. Yeah, that's the kind of thing I like. I want I'm in it for the story. And I want the characters to behave the way I imagined they would. I don't desire to see myself represented there.

Tim Broadwater  

So it to you doesn't matter if it's sci-fi or Cyberpunk, or if it's a Western or even, like, dystopian. Like, it's the story that attracts you.

Michael Schofield  

It has to be a tight story as well. So once you can wander off the rails. I get bored. In Fallout 4, there's this mechanic that some people didn't like (I did) where you could build settlements. So it's kind of Minecraft in the loosest sense where you can, you know, you can construct walls and put up turrets and stuff like that. And I admit that I ended up just becoming a settlement maker, like, and I stopped with the story altogether, but because, but because, like I don't give a shit about the story. 

Tim Broadwater  

It's funny because when you talk about Red Dead Redemption, there are definitely places that you are mentioning that are, oh, you have this pressing story or thing to do, but you don't have to do it at all. And if in this story, and I think there's one in Cyberpunk that I've heard from a friend, specifically you have to do this by tomorrow night. Well, you can just go off and do whatever you want for a year and then come back, and it's still tomorrow or something like that. 

To your point, like, you can just go off and to the woods. And by the way, my life goal is to be a rum runner and to shoot bears and grow a beard, scamp in the woods. 

But I mean, yeah, it's just like, I don't even have to do the main story, you know? So that's kind of, I think, a template, right? To where like, you have this open? It's like, when they say open-world game, it seems so vague, right? But it's just like, Oh, well, there's some story quests that you can do. But you don't even have to do any of them ever. Maybe if you want a piece of armor or a certain weapon, or just to complete the story. You can search and unlock points, or you can just kind of explore, so the story is kind of de-emphasized in those games.

Michael Schofield  

On the flip side, what it means is that you're like, with Red Dead Redemption, could I just wander off and let it become the early 1900s and grow old and gradually the West diminishes, as the railroads are built? That would be dope. That's the story. I mean, that's what an open world is because the world is alive. But the discontinuity between the world is either living or isn't based on your actions. That bugs me, and so I think with these kinds of heavily narrated games, your actions in the world are interwoven.

Tim Broadwater  

When you think about this living system, right, or living game, and that if you are the chosen one, the Neo to The Matrix, or Aragon of Lord of the Rings, or whatever you want to say, one of the things you don't see in a lot of games is like what happens when you don't do anything? I see it in like, you know, kind of very specific, and these railroad narrative games, like Detroit: Become Human, or, you know, like you said, Until Dawn, or Man of Medan, to where there are very specific things that happen if you don't do things within a certain time, or don't make the right narrative choices or screw up, right, so there's cuz it changes the story. Y

So let's say you're playing Guild Wars, and in Guild Wars 2, there is the main story that is your character, but then there's also an open world. And you can come back to the main story at any point, just like Cyberpunk, just like Mad Max. But nothing negatively happens if you lose or fail the quest, and you just go to one specific place to load up or join up with people to do that thing, right. But there is no Oh, no, now we're in the dark timeline because you failed to do X or save the princess or whatever. And so there's no kind of, you know, it's, it's something that's very unique to this railroad narrative kind of game that you're describing. And that the living system goes on with or without you, you know, things change.

Michael Schofield  

The difficulty in designing that must be pretty, pretty substantial. But yeah, I think it's the I maybe it has the illusion, what I need out of the game is an illusion of impact on the world. And maybe through those narrative-type adventures. That the gulf between my actions and what happens in the world are is pretty, pretty small.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, so I'm wondering, you try to make the choices, or run the character play the character and the context of the story as they would act? Do you ever just be evil to see what's happens or, you know, be or, you know, whatever he wanted, just to see how the story changes in the play, cuz I'm assuming there's a replay value of all of these games because of the way the story changes? 

Michael Schofield  

Not really, like I'm always all of my characters like, okay, yeah, all of these characters. Express a kind of an assertive, neutral, or a sort of good version of themselves. I feel real pain when I make them do something evil. But it depends on how it's cast, right? If the game teaches you that the evil choice isn't like blatantly cartoonishly evil, but it's actually, again, like influence from prior actions taken. It's within the realm of the character, then yeah, maybe. So in Mass Effect. Again, not a spoiler, really. But there's this. I forget if it's in the first or second game, but your Shephard becomes a bit of a celebrity for a variety of reasons. And the like a reporter comes to ask you a question. And Mass Effects introduces these quick-time actions during conversations during the cinematics where, depending on how good or evil you are, they use the term Paragon or Renegade. They appear to you, and if you're just badass enough to be like on the renegade spectrum. There's this thing where the reporter is asking a probing question, and you get a renegade QuickTime action. That's just like, I'm done with this conversation. It's clearly the evil action. But that's what the phrase says is like I'm done with this conversation. At this point, Mass Effect is taught to you that what you see in the subtitle and the preview of your choice is not what the character will say. And it's not cartoonishly evil or cartoonishly bad. It's in character. So anyway, what happens is like when you click this, like, I'm done with this conversation, I'm opting out of this interview, we're done here. Your Shephard, just just like sucker punches, the reporter bam, just knocks him out and then walks away. And those are the things like is under those circumstances where, okay, I'll be a little bit more badass than not because it feels real. But obviously, there are circumstances where you choose the evil action, and they're like laughing underneath a flashlight. 

Tim Broadwater  

Yes, there's in some of the games that you're describing. And I definitely, Man of Medan as well as I think the Call of Cthulhu game. There's also Wolf Among Us. I don't know if you've ever played that?

Michael Schofield  

I have. Excellent. Yeah.

Tim Broadwater 

It's all fairy tales living in the city, and you are the big bad wolf and called BB. And but if you were diligent about talking to people or pursuing leads, or finding out what's going on, options become available that in conversation and unlock that you can sometimes see, like, crossed out or grayed out, like you don't know what that option was. And that cues you that you could have missed something. 

Michael Schofield  

Those cues and game games are traumatic, and the Telltale Games, especially like The Walking Dead. You say something either hurtful or whatever. And it's like, Lee will remember this. And you're like, Oh, shit. I didn't intend for that at all. 

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, so there's a sequel to The Wolf Among Us that comes out this year. They did a trailer last year that says it's coming out in 2021. You know, really, so I played it for the very first time last year when that trailer dropped for two. And then I was just like, a, my nephew kept telling me is like, you're gonna play it. It's its own thing. 

I don't want to ruin the ending of the story or anything like that. But I was a total asshole badass. I'm bringing you to justice. And yeah, the story really changed based on Okay, you're an asshole, and this is what the asshole's story is, you know?

Michael Schofield  

That's funny. Oh my gosh, I hey, I did not know that happened because Wolf Among Us is one of those cult classics that I don't think played very well. At least in the market. 

Tim Broadwater  

When it's definitely a cult classic. They revealed the trailer for Wolf Among Us 2. So yeah, you should watch it. I don't want to ruin anything. 

Michael Schofield  

You should play Life is Strange, man, if you haven't.

Tim Broadwater  

I think I have, actually. What is it about?

Michael Schofield  

You are Max Caulfield, you're an artsy high school girl in the Pacific Northwest, and lo and behold, you discover that you can wind back time a little bit. Stuff happens, and you navigate through your overly dramatic, like, like school experience in the frame in the framing of like a larger main net, And that has a point. And you can play through, you know, it's basically the same thing where you pick your actions and do whatever. But if you don't like it, you can rewind and change and change your actions. And what you see sometimes Is that you get to a point where you die. You took the wrong action. But instead of reloading your checkpoint, it's through this framework framing of rewinding time to the right point. So it always feels like it doesn't feel like you died. And now you have to restart over it feels like you died. And now you have to navigate this situation again, but that dying is part of your timeline. 

Tim Broadwater  

Have you seen Medium? It's a new game that just came out. It's called Medium. It's something that you may like because it is using a kind of psychometry, which is the fact that psychic ability to read objects' histories or the history of objects that you're holding, right, as psychic power. Yeah. And then a medium can kind of is kind of not only unfolding their story and discovering some stuff but then also exploring this place and piecing together a mystery. So it's very story-driven. I think you might like it. And I've seen what's up my alley. Yeah. Yeah, but I imagine a young Michael is very much loved to pick a path book or choose your own adventure. Is that correct? 

Michael Schofield

100%.

Tim Broadwater

Yeah, so it sounds like it's kind of up your alley? If so, if you took this narrative, what you're describing video games, in many ways, is just like choose your own adventure books. Does this also extend to like tabletop games and board games? Are there board games that are story-driven that you really like? Was it something of Dracula or Vlad or something like that? 

Michael Schofield  

Fury of Dracula. Yep. This is specifically a game where you're kind of in like the late Victorian period, and you are playing the roles of Van Helsing and other vampire hunters who must trip chase Dracula around Western Europe. And like you, what's Dracula doing? Like? Yeah, you know, he's going from city to city making vampires, you know, doing Dracula shit. But your goal is to find him, and you don't. It's not clear where he is. So you have to, it's very much a mystery detective type of game, where you have a ticking clock. You can fail and become infected yourself. You can just run out of time. And Dracula wins. It's hard to find, though. If I'm looking at it on like, oh, gosh, I mean, like, you can buy it from Amazon for like, 150 bucks. I didn't. I couldn't say it's worth it. But it's one of those games that I have that I don't really have anyone to play with. 

Tim Broadwater  

Is it story-driven?

Michael Schofield  

You are constrained by the narrative that you are chasing Dracula for #reason, and you have like a player card that explains some of your narrative backstories. But it's about chasing the bloodsucker down and putting driving a stick through his heart. If if you're good enough, and it's designed, in a way, I think, to suggest that you're not.

Tim Broadwater  

So the stories that the games no matter what format they're in, it sounds like largely railroad narratives or for video games, and then, you know, you jamming and a tabletop role-playing games are very aspect you like is the character, the story and that the world exists you know, regardless of the characters in action and then hopefully their actions do intercede or change, but if not, it still goes on.

Michael Schofield  

Yeah, the world must be conducive to the narrative, and your narrative must impact the world, and I think those two things together create a Michael drug.

There we go. I think we can end there.

Introductory Guy  

Thank you for listening to the design thinking games podcast to connect with your hosts, Michael or Tim, please go to design thinking games.com where you can request topics, ask questions, or see what else is going on. Until next time, game on.