Monday, April 19, 2010

In Medias Ludus

Continuing with the discussion of games and improv theatre, Michael wrote a great post this week about how the methodologies of improv can be applied to Sleep is Death (and life in general). Given the inherently extemporaneous nature of that game, improv techniques are quite directly applicable. But, as I alluded to last time, while I was reading Truth in Comedy, I was struck by how relevant their observations were to digital games in general.

Michael writes, "A Player needs 3 things: 1) A character who wants something. 2) A clearly defined situation, ideally with an inherent obstacle or conflict. 3) Strategies for getting what you want."

When digital games go off the rails, typically one of these three things is absent or vague. The player's goal is unclear ("I don't know where to go now"), the obstacles read poorly ("Is this room a dead end or did I miss a door somewhere?") or it's not clear how to start achieving the goals ("I can't see any way to open that door"). When I'm banging on about readability, this is what I'm talking about.

Note, this does not mean everything should be painfully obvious. The problem is when the player is at a dead end and feels like they have no means of discovering what to do or how to do it. Having to explore and puzzle things out is good, having absolutely no idea what to do and being reduced to trying things completely at random is not (e.g what happens when you're stuck in basically every old-school adventure game).

The other interesting lesson from improv I wanted to call out is "Start in the middle." Rather than starting at the beginning of some action or narrative, which tends toward unexciting exposition, the scene starts in the middle of some event. This technique is called "in media res" or literally, "into the middle of affairs." It's more common in film and television (e.g The Usual Suspects or Reservoir Dogs) than in games.

Despite my increasing intolerance for their staid mechanics and overwrought narratives, a number of JRPGs including several Final Fantasy incarnations have used this technique to good effect. So did Uncharted 2, both Max Payne games and the recent Tales of Monkey Island, for example. And of course, Planescape: Torment's "You wake up on a slab in The Mortuary" may be the best in medias res opening of all.

Opening in this fashion is still quite uncommon though. I wonder if part of the reason why more games don't open in medias res is that the character's mechanical progress moves with the game's narrative progression. By opening in the middle of some action, it may seem harder to have the character mechanically progress from there (and if flashbacks occur, one might feel like abilities ought to be removed). Many games also open by introducing mechanics in a tutorial-ish fashion, which may be a bit harder to fit into a scene or story already in progress.

A few games also begin in the middle of the game mechanically, but at the beginning of the action narratively. Most notable would be the Metroid Prime series, where that player begins with powerful equipment only to lose it after a short opening scene (I think Super Metroid opened this way as well, but I can't remember for sure). These abilities are slowly recovered until the player eventually surpasses that initial state.

We might call this structure "in medias ludus" (Update: make that "in medium ludum," thanks Roger!) if we wanted to be delightfully pretentious, and to be honest, I'm not sure how successful I feel it is. For me, it often gives the feeling that for at least the first half of the game, you're behind the curve and simply playing catch-up. The Metroid series is so well engineered, and this formula is fundamental to its gameplay, it works. But other games that have attempted this, most recently I remember Prototype doing so, don't work as well.

I generally like in medias res openings, partially because it dovetails well with another improv lesson: "Take the active choice toward forward action." Especially in improv, given the choice between discussing some possibilities and simply doing one of them, always opt for the latter. While Shakespeare can make Hamlet-esque indecision fascinating, neither improv nor games are particularly suited for this. If a game explicitly offers a choice, it ought to be between one type of action or another, not between action and non-action. And by "action," I simply mean something meaningful for the player to do, not "action" like shooting guys in the face.

A great many games have sleepy, unengaging beginnings, rife will text-laden tutorial billboards and mundane tasks. This is something no game can afford, especially for those of us in the digital download space, where demos and conversation rates are of vital importance. But even more fundamentally, opening in media res can help focus a game. Starting at the beginning makes it very easy to justify a bunch of dry exposition about characters and a world the player doesn't care for (yet, hopefully). Starting with action and conflict, something that will be engaging for nearly everyone, we can draw players in. Don't throw a bunch of narrative at the player right out of the gate; wait until questions have been posed before supplying answers.

At the end of the day, our currency is engagement. Structuring a game to start in media res is only one approach. The first five seconds to five minutes of a game are vital, however. All games would be well served by a careful consideration of this portion of the experience.

All that from a short book about improv, eh? Again, I highly recommend it.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Nice post!

Two notes from a nitpicking classicist:

1) I did a post on in medias res that I thought was kind of fun.

2) The phrase you want is in medium ludum. For what it's worth. :D

April 19, 2010 at 8:27 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Roger Oh nice, I guess I missed that on the first go around. I'll read it now.

And yes, it's been far too many years since my undergrad latin classes ;) Thanks!

April 19, 2010 at 9:50 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

Friggin' awesome! I posted on something similar based on Indiana Jones.

If three different people have written posts on the subject, there's bound to be more. And if there's a writting trend, there will soon follow a design trend.

April 19, 2010 at 11:22 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Matador Very nice, the Indiana Jones are another great example of a in medias res opening that conveys a raft of information about the character and themes while still being exciting and engaging. I like how your post called out those scenes basically show that, by starting at the end of a previous adventure, we quickly understand these are the types of things this character does.

While Wet had lots of other narrative weaknesses, they have a similarly strong opening that I quite liked.

April 20, 2010 at 11:16 AM  
Blogger Kirk Hamilton said...

Very interesting - I was just thinking about this while playing through Uncharted 2 again. That game did such a good job with its IMR introduction - but what was interesting was that it was only good because I haven't seen a game do such a pitch-perfect ripoff of a Film or TV IMR introduction.

So we start with Nathan "That's my blood. That's a lot of my blood" Drake playing through the tutorial up the back of the car, then he stumbles out and we flash back to him getting the break-in assignment. Then back to drake as he makes his way through the wreckage, then skip back to Chloe and Drake scheming. Then through the final part of the tutorial, when Drake finds the dagger that set this whole thing in motion.

What's funny is that an introduction like that sets my teeth on edge in TV - I watch a lot of TV, and so have seen IMR introductions a billion times. But at least UC2 didn't do the thing where one main character "shoots" another main character right after the camera pulls away and we get the "72 hours earlier" chyron or whatever. That cliché is my least favorite of all.

I thought Shadow Complex had an interesting take on IML - instead of having you play as yourself in the future with all your gear, it put you in the shoes of some other dude, and even betrayed the fact that the suit has a built-in shutdown mechanism. Sort of like a twist on the Metroid introduction. Kinda cool...

April 23, 2010 at 10:44 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Kirk Aye, it's definitely easy to slip into a realm of cliche. However, given that games barely ever experiment with narrative structure, even less common cliches might be welcome at times ;)

Ah yeah, I forgot about Shadow Complex. I think if you're going to do in medium ludum, having the introductory character be someone other than the main player character is probably more palatable. Rather than spending the majority of the game trying to get back what you lost, you're trying to catch up to someone else. A subtle distinction, but it could be an important one.

April 23, 2010 at 11:05 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

I think there's a greater number of games that start in the middle of the action than you give credit. Beyond Good and Evil is a great example.

It starts with a cutscene that seems a tad slow paced, then a meteor storm begins. Jade invites fen on her back [she's a faster runner], races to turn on the power, and sends the children inside. Almost immediately, the power gets cut [revealing their poverty], and that's when everything hits the fan. A meteor hits at the base of the lighthouse, and all the kids fall into a sinkhole and are taken captive. That's when you take control...

I started playing BGE last night for my study of Cast Mechanics and it struck me that this is another great example of using narrative structure to draw the player into the games world.

April 24, 2010 at 10:44 AM  
Blogger Kirk Hamilton said...

I wonder why more games don't combine narrative IMR with mechanical IML - I'm trying to think of a game that sets players up with all of their rad powers then sends them back in the narrative.

Which would force them to progress up to the introduction and in doing so, re-earn all the powers they got teased with in the intro. So in addition to the gameplay motivation, it could also take advantage of the narrative tricks that IMR can allow (i.e. "Oh, I'm meeting that guy who was lying dead in the intro! I wonder how that'll come to pass?")

It'd be a double-whammy, in media res AND in medium ludum. No player could resist! :)

I wonder why we don't see that more. I guess it's because in order to do it properly, it requires a really well put-together narrative and an incredibly organized team? Since you have to be able to look at the entire narrative in order to tell it out of order...

But yeah, I'm trying to think of an example that does both, and can't really come up with one. But I'm sure there are examples I'm not thinking of.

You know, there's another version of this kind of thing that comes to mind - starting players out with nothing and putting them up against a no-win boss that whups their ass. So then in theory, they're extra-motivated to level up so that when that boss reappears, they can exact revenge.

April 24, 2010 at 1:39 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

I think the problem, Kirk, isn't that there aren't any designers willing to do this. I think electronic gaming has proceeded out of an archaic level-by-level structure and that designers aren't considering how each segment fits together within the composition

. If you think about the Flow channel, there's a necessary progression that your player needs to feel. Narrative and progression go hand in hand. Whether you like it or not, the player is going to perceive a story, so why not take advantage of that and craft a story worthy of your mechanic. I see plenty of games that emphasize graphic aesthetic. Why don't we focus more an storytelling aesthetic?

April 24, 2010 at 11:37 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Matador Beyond Good & Evil somewhat fits the bill, but I wouldn't say it's exactly in medias res as the game starts at the beginning of the protagonist's story. There were other things going on in Hillys, to be sure, but Jade's story didn't really begin until the attack on her lighthouse.

@Kirk Prototype did that and it didn't work too well. But I think the game had other problems, most significantly that it was never really clear if you were supposed to empathize with the protagonist or not. But even mechanically, you start the game with a raft of abilities and no real idea how any of them work. It's more confusing and overwhelming than fun. Just when you start to get the hang of it, they all go away.

Putting those things together would be great, but it's definitely difficult. That being said, a game with a different mechanical progression might be more amenable to a structure like this as well.

April 25, 2010 at 9:44 PM  

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