Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Pillars of a Good Game

It's been a while since I last wrote a post here. I just couldn't find a topic I could write about here. But guess what, now I have! And once again, warning, this is very much of a personal point of view/opinion/observation. You may see things differently, and if you do, you're not necessarily wrong about them.

Pillars? What Pillars?

I've been thinking a lot about what really factors into a game, and how these things interact and all that. And in the end, it comes down to three things. Narrative, Aesthetics and Gameplay

The Basics

There's some basic rules for this three pillar system. The most important one is that none of these elements should be badly executed. They should be mediocre at best, because no matter how good one of them is, if another one is bad enough, that won't save the final product. Also, these three elements are not absolute. Depending on the kind of game, their relevance varies. The quality of each pillar is always going to be determined relatively to its importance.


Yes, I know, I put that last in the list, but really, it's kind of important in a game. Gameplay is the interactive part of the game. While it's usually quite important, mediocre gameplay can work if the narrative is good enough. On the other hand, you might just accept a flimsy plot if the gameplay is good enough.


Narrative consists of the plot, the characters and the world the game is set in. The relevance of the narrative can vary a lot. Gameplay-related games often just have an excuse plot, because you're supposed to play the game for the gameplay. This doesn't make the narrative bad, since it's supposed to be judged relative to its importance for the game. A good story in a gameplay-driven game is essentially a bonus point that, ideally, makes the game even more fun and enjoyable. A good story in a narrative-driven game, on the other hand, is a must.


Aesthetics is what most people mean when they say graphics. Aesthetics are so misunderstood, Extra Credits made a video. In a nutshell: Aesthetics are not about the objective quality (amount of pixels, polygons and shading filters), but about how everything blends together and how well the end result looks and feels. Also, there's one difference to the other pillars here: Aesthetics cannot carry a game. A game is based on the interactive experience and/or the story it wants to tell. Aesthetics are a bonus point, and bad aesthetics sure can drag it down, as well as lift it up, but there needs to be more to a game than just that.

The Extremes

Of course, there's always people who focus on just one element and completely leave the others in the dust.

Gameplay - I swear, it's fun: Actually, I think it's really hard to mess up a game that only has gameplay. But if you really drop the other elements, you might just end up with something too unappealing to play, even if it would end up being a fun experience. But with these looks and that story, no one's going to touch it with a ten foot pole.

Narrative - go write a book: There can be such a thing as too much plot. This kind of game comes from someone who desperately wants to tell a story, but doesn't really get game design. This is a game you'd rather watch as a Let's Play than play yourself because it gets tedious.

Aesthetics - the spectacle: I would have liked to compare this kind of extreme to a movie, but then again, most movies have plot, too. So it's mostly like a 90s action flick that believes itself to be serious character drama. And for a movie, plotless BS can work. But a game has to be more than that.


As with all things, I'm sure there are exceptions to this, and it's by no way meant to be the ultimate way games work. It's just what I think is a good way to design and also judge games.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Zombie Table

So apparently zombies are a big thing now. Or were. Or whatever. World War Z is a thing. But when I talked to a friend about it, he said something that I, who has not seen the movie, had suspected already: It's not a zombie movie, it's a movie with zombies. Also, why weren't they already overrunning everying? That made me think about some common zombie features, and what kind of zombie they made when put together.
This list is in no way complete and rather black/white. I'm just showcasing the extremes.

The Traits

Since I'm trying to cover every combination of traits, I'll limit myself to these:

Fast vs. slow: This is kind of a big deal, to the point of sparking discussions about the anatomy of zombies. I don't care about that here, I just care about the speed.

Many vs. few: There's the handful of zombies from a local cursed graveyard, and there's WWZ-style pandemics.

Strong vs. weak: The only thing worse than a fast zombie is a fast zombie that takes a ton of hits. On the other hand, they're kind of brainless meat sacs which may or may not be rotting.

The Table

Fast? Many? Strong? Kind
No No No Wat
No No Yes Teenie-Killer
No Yes No Cannon-Fodder
No Yes Yes The Barrage
Yes No No Thing in the Night
Yes No Yes Thing in the Night That hits you in the Face
Yes Yes No Fast Cannon-Fodder
Yes Yes Yes The Invasion

The Explanation

Yeah, the description above kind of sucks.

Kind: Wat
Threat: Wat.
This is ridiculous. It's what happens when a hobby necromancer decides to dig out some corpses on the local cemetery. They're slow and probably fall apart when you stare at them too hard. Just hit it until it breaks down, or run and get a car to run it over.

Kind: Teenie-Killer
Threat: You should probably get some guns.
They're just as few as the necromancer's experiment, but they don't fall apart easily. You can still run and leave the heroism to the guys with the heavy machinery.

Kind: Cannon-Fodder
Threat: Easily underestimated.
These are Romero zombies. They're slow, so you can still run/drive away, but they are everywhere. While they may not be that strong on their own, there's a lot of them. You can probably gun them down, if you have the ammunition to do so.

Kind: The Barrage
Threat: Not so easily underestimated.
The only thing that saves you from these is their speed. And you probably need heavier machinery to take them out. Just call the military and run.

Kind: The Thing in the Night
Threat: Not so harmless.
Speed is an immense advantage. They may be brittle, and there might not be many of them, but they're fast. They can run after you, so you'd better have that car around somewhere. But then again, once you know how to get a hold of them, they should be easy to deal with.

Kind: The Thing in the Night That hits you in the Face
Threat: Even less harmless.
And now they're not even brittle. They're basically like a group of Generic Alleyway Thugs. Yeah... speed and strength is a bad combo in itself.

Kind: Fast Cannon-Fodder
Threat: This is already an invasion.
Another case of getting the military here. Only that this time, the military should be a bit faster, since the zombies are too. As with all zombies in large groups, this is an invasion, and their speed doesn't make it better. They're bound to get more people in the beginning than their slow counterparts, but at least you can try to beat them up.

Kind: The Invasion
Threat: Nuke the whole site from the orbit. It's the only way to be sure.
These are the worst zombies. They're actually the thing that got me thinking. In the movies, these are the kinds you see in "they won" scenarios. When they attack, you're boned. Don't call the military, they'll only lock down the place and, indeed, throw a bomb on it. And who can blame them?

I left out the whole infection by bite thing, since it would have made things more complicated. Just don't let anything like that bite you.

The Zombie Feel

Back to WWZ not being a zombie movie... I can see it from the trailers. The zombies don't seem threatening on a personal level, and for their abilities (zombiepile on the wall), humanity's quite fine. Because I don't know about you, but the whole "oh god, we could die" thing belongs to a zombie movie. Even if it just features Wat zombies.

Monday, June 3, 2013


So I played Digital - A Love Story last night. Not only did I like it, but it also got me thinking about immersion.

I Believe That a Man Can Shoot Fireballs

Immersion is the ability to lose oneself in the fictional world of the medium you're consuming, to be really broad. It's the big thing you want to achieve as a game developer.

Immersion is, however, not based on making it look real. If it was, all games could just throw it out of the window, since you will always have something that's not 100% realistic, especially in terms of graphics. See my post on realism.

Immersion vs Information

I once read a blog post which kind of pissed me off. It was largely a rant on how menus, stats and figures destroyed the immersion. The example was the SNES classic Lufia, and the argument was that the numbers are not part of the world.

Eeeh, I say. Sure, the numbers and interfaces aren't part of the world, but they're part of the gameplay. They tell you how well you do, how much you get stronger and if it's really worth to buy that new shiny piece of armor. Increasing stats and levels show you that you have, indeed, gotten stronger. This is part of the game. And if your immersion is ruined by stats, then, maybe, RPGs are just not your kind of game.

Sure, there is such a thing as too much information. No one wants to fight themselves through tons and tons of stats that may or may not do something.

Perfect Immersion

I realized something: The games with the best immersion possible are the ones where you play a dude in front of a computer. Because then, you are the dude in front of the computer.

As I said, I played Digital last night. It's a game where you are, surprise, a dude in front of a (really old) computer. In the end, I was equally drenched in feels and geeking out over the references. Have I mentioned that you play a dude in front of a really old computer? With dial-up internet (modem sounds are oddly calming to me) and old school BBS. At one part, you could download a patch for your computer's OS that fixed a buffer overflow bug. It actually required you to restart.

Outside of the configuration screen, this game has not broken immersion. And you know why? Because text and stats and menus are the game, so they can't break it.

But not all games are "dude in front of a computer" games. So not all games can go all the way without losing information.

The Filter

The Filter is what makes immersion possible. I'm pretty sure you noticed it before, so I'm going to explain. When you play a game, as you get into it, you kind of see it through a filter. You become immersed in it. I'm speaking for myself here, but I tend to dismiss the UI on the screen when I look at the world. In the context of the game, it's not there, and after a while, you'll be ignoring it. Sure, it's there, and you still look at it for your stats, but somehow, you don't mind. Your brain can do that. It's awesome that way. And this is why an on-screen UI doesn't matter, unless it's so damn huge that it's impossible to ignore.

In-Game Displays

Again, this is subjective, but I have more problems with shoehorned in-game display of stats than with stats in a menu. Because as soon as something's outside the UI, it's part of the game's world. You need an explanation for how it works. You can't just say "HP are a thing now, deal with it" and go on with your business.

The problem with in-game information vs UI information: Many stats and other things are abstractions. Health can't be measured in points. How do you explain ability points? Or levels. All these things are somehow abstracted and meant to be representations and shorthands. Just like toilets are abstracted out of games. And as soon as you put them back into the actual world, you have to think about the logic behind them.

Long story short: I'd rather have a UI that has been thought through than a shoehorned-in in-game thing. Mostly because the latter kills my immersion much more, since it pulls game elements into the world.

Screw Immersion, I'm a Video Game Character

The other way to approach it is to screw immersion and go meta. You know it's a game. And so does everyone else. Expect characters finding out each others' names because they're in the text box, calling you out on your sucky play style and fading to black so that you don't watch them undress, because that would be creepy.

Warning: Meta writing is difficult. Only try it when you're absolutely sure you can do it, as it can quickly be extremely annoying. Also, meta doesn't necessarily mean "cheap fourth wall shattering jokes."

The Bottom Line

Immersion's a difficult thing to achieve. There's various ways to do so, and dropping all UI is only one very limiting way. Remember, immersion isn't (graphical/technical) realism. Immersion is what helps you suspend your disbelief.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Ads on the Internet

Let's talk about ads. They're literally everywhere. You see them on the streets, on TV, they're on the radio and they're even on the internet. They range from memetic to just plain annoying and in your face.

The Background

This isn't an entirely uneducated rant. I'm a curious person, and since a few weeks ago, I'm working in what's called "internet marketing." In layman's terms: Putting those nasty ads on websites. Yes, I'm kind of on the dark side. Also, I'm quite new, so I haven't seen that much of the tech behind it.

Internet marketing involves a lot of douchebaggery. Not against the people who get the ads, but against each other. There's lots of trickery involved as to how you get ads out while at the same time stopping others from having theirs displayed. Also, circumventing ad-blockers. But that shouldn't really be that new to you. It's business, after all.

Why I'm Writing This

I admit, it's largely due to the whole "please don't block our ads" thing that's going on lately. And, no, this is not propaganda. I don't earn money if I get people to turn off their ad-blockers. I earn money for programming. But... these people have a point. They are getting money ("revenue") for each person who watches an ad in their videos.

Who Gets Money?

That said, I'm not all against ad-blockers. It's just about who gets the money. There's lots of free web hosts that put up ads on their customer's pages. These ads don't benefit the owner of the page, they benefit the owner of the web host. Ads like Project Wonderful, or AdSense or however these things are called, are different. They're revenue ads, earning the page owner money for display/clicks. Sure, some of that revenue goes to the ad company itself, but then, that's how they earn their money and allow people to put ads on their pages to earn money.

Ad Myths

Yes, of course there's myths on internet ads. I'm not sure how widespread the things I've heard are, but I've heard them, which means that they go on this list.

All ads are evil: No. That's broad generalization. An ad, in general, is just as evil as the people who provide it. I can only speak for myself here, but the part of the ad chain I'm in does not want people to be redirected to porn sites. That's bad PR and leads to people blocking you because yes, your ads are evil and so are you.
Then, there's technological possibilities. There's ads that are displayed in so-called iframes. They're effectively another page in the current page, so that offers a lot of possibilities for code to be executed. Then, there's ads like the ones  Project Wonderful uses. I don't know what their ad fetch PHP script does, but the ad you eventually get out of it is a picture with a link to the page and a link that lets you advertise in this slot. Sure, you could try to inject malicious code into a picture, but if you're good enough to do that, you should consider earning legal money with that.

You can make it so the blocked ad still counts: That one came up in the Blip discussion. I don't know who said it, but I'd like to ask that person one thing: How would you know that? Aside from this being fraud, technically, how would one know? Stuff like checking if the ad is displayed is usually done deep in the code. If you know how to cheat the ad counter, you have to be really in the know about the code. And if you are, you probably signed an NDA and are thus violating your contract. Have fun.

The people don't get money anyways: I talked about that already. See above.

To Block or Not To Block

There's a few things I block, and a few I don't.
Dubious ad providers - Block: These are the ones that try and redirect you to porn or worse. If you're using one of them for ads, it's your fault, because I sure as hell don't need malware on my computer.
Pop-Ups - Block: I don't care if they're revenue ads or not. Pop-ups are annoying, and if you willingly put one on your site, it's your fault.
Revenue ads - No Block: These are the ads that earn the owners of websites money. They're an indirect way to pay them for their service.

How to Get Unblocked by me

I'll try and unblock people who earn money through ads, but you guys need to help me a bit. Here's the things you should put up somewhere for people to see:

Tell us you get money through these ads: Because if you do, non-douchebag people will be glad to unblock and support you.
Tell us what to whitelist: Most of the time, ads come from some third party ad provider. I, as the person with the ad-blocker, need to know which provider that is. I need an URL to feed to my ad-blocker's whitelist. If you don't know, try to find out. You're allowing someone to embed stuff in your page, so you should know who that somebody is.
Tell us how to whitelist: Not everybody's technologically literate to use ad-blockers past the standard configuration. Link to tutorials, or explain, how to whitelist a page in the most common ad-blockers.

And Finally...

Even though I have name-dropped two companies extensively, I'm not trying to advertise for them. I used Blip as an example because it's a big thing, and Project Wonderful because I had a look at their stuff and it looks good.

And to those who get ad revenue: You're not selling out. You're getting paid, albeit indirectly. And there's nothing wrong with getting paid.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Putting the Crime in the Novel

I'm writing a crime novel. Well, I'm trying. There's still research to be done, details to be figured out and all that. But I'm doing this, and it got me thinking. The cases in these novels have something special. I've singled out a few things I kept stumbling across and thought about them. And since this blog is here for me to ramble, here it comes.

By the way, I'm focusing on police procedural, since that's what I'm intending to write.

The Serial Killer

I swear, I can hear you groan from over there. From the future. Serial killer plots have been done to death and back a few times. They were also the first kind of common plot to come to mind when I started thinking about this. Because even though they're ooold, they still work.
Why does it work? The serial killer is the ultimate clock. After you've found your second victim killed in the same way, with details no one outside the police could know, you know you've got yourself a serial killer. You know they'll strike again, somewhere, some when. While you wish that no more people get killed, each new crime scene could give you the little hint you need to nudge the investigation in the right direction.

The Dead VIP

It's just one victim, but damn if this victim wasn't somehow (in)famous. It doesn't matter if it's a pop star, a local politician or a bank director. The murder itself has most likely been committed out of personal reasons.
Why does it work? Again, there's the clock. This time it's not from the killer, but from outside. It's the higher ups, trying to keep things under the cover, the press, trying to get to the big scandal and the dead person's affiliates. Take too long and the killer's gone forever, and you're up to your head in dirty laundry.

The Controversial Murder

This is a variation on the dead VIP. Again, the focus is on one victim, but this time we're going the hate crime direction.
Why does it work? Like with the dead VIP, the clock is everyone around you. There's going to be debates, double standards and even more dirty laundry. I'm not sure how I should feel about this plot, since it's easy to get into exploitation territory. Also, if you touch on issues, you'd better do your research.

It's Personal

It doesn't matter if it's a serial killer or a regular murderer, but something about this case is linked to the main investigator character. Some share their secret involvement with their colleagues, some don't and do incredibly stupid things.
Why does it work? This time, it's not about a clock. This time it's about stakes. In the examples before, the stakes were vague and purely those of the police force as a whole. In a personal case, there's much more at stake for the main character than the others. That means that your main character needs to be especially compelling. Still, please refrain from throwing reality out of the window. The last time that happened, the investigator kept his relationship to the suspect (his brother, who's also a serial killer at large) and stuck to that decision. I wanted to punch him through the pages for being that stupid.

Besides The Plot

While I'm sure there's enough variations on the aforementioned plot, as well as plots I haven't thought about, there's no completely new plot. Sure, your protagonists are cops, and most of the time, they play by rules. Still, since there's only a bunch of different plots, the biggest difference between all of them is the characters. I only speak for myself here, but I can say that while I remember a few distinct police procedural plots, I've read about more interesting characters than I think I could remember. They're important too, since they're the people we're going to spend a whole book with. Having good characters also makes it possible to turn single books into series. In the end, it's all about the execution. As usual.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Pokéworld Problems

So I started playing Pokémon Sapphire again. It's not... bad, but it's not awesome either. And it reminded me of a lot of things that are wrong with the series. These largely split up in technical and story issues. I'll start with the first.

Reliance on Others

Pokémon games have always been designed to work in pairs. You either needed someone else or a second Game Boy to do certain things. There were Pokémon exclusive to either edition, and certain ones only evolved when traded. Sounds nice, as long as that particular generation of Pokémon games is being played by the people around you. After that? Screw you. Even though the games are technically backwards-compatible to a certain point, things keep changing from generation to generation. At least the spatial factor has been removed since the games got an online function.

And even if the games are being played by those around you... what's the main demographic for Pokémon? Kids. And kids can be pricks, especially to each other. And if you're not a kid and playing Pokémon... good luck finding other players in your non-gamer environment.

Another thing that bothers me is that there's more and more things that require another player. Since Sapphire's the last game I played, I can't talk much about the games after that, but my god, so much stuff. Sure, some of that stuff is purely for funsies, but that there's more and more things that actually give you advantages. No internet on your handheld console? No extra features for you!

Not to mention all these events where they handed out exclusive things. Pokémon has always been a sell-out franchise, but I feel like it has gotten worse.

It's a Secret to Everybody

Pokémon has tons of features, even if you never come into contact with any other instance of the game. Many have been introduced in Gold and Silver, as well a Ruby and Sapphire. Too bad that the game doesn't tell you. For an RPG (which it is), it's very secretive about the inner workings of stats, for example. There's tons of values that influence which stats are rising and which don't, like Effort Values and Internal Values. You'd never even find out about these if it wasn't for the internet. (My R/B/Y never said anything about that, so screw that.) I get keeping the exact inner workings of random events from the player, but stats? Stats are kind of important.
Aside from that whole EV/IV thing, there's just a metric f-ton of features introduced in Gold/Silver. Like shiny Pokémon. Which is explained to you, and you even get to see your story shinies. And then there's stuff like the Pokérus. Your Pokémon can randomly catch that and it doubles the EV they get. That's never mentioned, unless you catch it. Not even a throwaway line. And even if you catch that, the only thing you get is "when Pokémon have it, they grow faster." I'd accept the fourth wall as an excuse to not mention EV at that point, except that EXP (Experience Points) are mentioned everywhere. No, no, EV should stay a secret, even though everyone with internet can look them up. This is silly.

The World Is Dead

This is my main non-technical issue with the games. The world isn't really alive. The only time I've seen a world that static was in the game I kept using as an example in my other posts. But let's start with the beginning.

Generation 1: Okay, It'd be unfair to harp on the first two games, since they had enough problems fitting the thing onto one cartridge. But still... the majority of non-trainer NPCs is uninteresting. They talk about the gym, or the cave/forest/thingy that lies ahead... and occasionally, they give you stuff. Trainers just spout bad puns in relation to what kind of trainer they are. The only place where things get more specific is Lavender Town. And maybe the lab on Cinnabar Island, but for such a big story, that was really underplayed.
Generation 2: Gold and Silver got a bit better with their worldbuilding. I remember the town where Team Rocket tried to steal Slowpoke tails. Ew. Still, all that information came from a few key NPCs. The rest was still busy saying inane things and give me the occasional item. Since there were more features, they had more NPCs to explain these features, but other than that... eh.
Generation 3: The graphics got spiffier, and with that the text boxes. The dialogues got bigger, but I still can't get myself to talk to people.

Everything's a Feature
Let's have look... we've got instant healing sprays. We've got software to implant knowledge into sentient beings. We can transfer living creatures into energy/data and back without problems. We can clone creatures from either fresh or ancient material. We can build teleporters. And I'm pretty damn sure that there's at least one Pokémon out there whose natural abilities can be used to make faster than light travel possible.
But none of these things are really looked into. They're just there and contribute barely anything to the world. Sure, the TV series does more with them, but the games? Nope. All these things just casually exist. I mean, the evil teams of the respective games wouldn't even need their own gimmicky things to pursue. Tinkering with existing technologies would make a fine plot already. Instead, we get stuff like people making a ruckus over... Team Aqua turning off a volcano next to a village. It's a volcano that's active enough to be filled to the brim with lava. You should cheer for these people and throw Team Magma off the damn mountain.

The World Is a Stage

Similarly to my favorite example of doing it wrong, the world in Pokémon has always been a stage for all these features and sell-out things. Hence the point before. Adding more features won't change that if the worldbuilding itself isn't improved. I know that the games can't have the same story depth as you have in the non-interactive media, but you can, at least, try.

Breadth Growth

I like to think of games in terms of breadth and height, where breadth is the quantity and diversity of things, while height is the actual value these things add to the experience. Every generation of Pokémon games added things to the game, but to me, that's mostly breadth growth. More Pokémon in a battle (2-on-2 in Ruby/Sapphire, 3-on-3 in Black/White), more stats (friendship, natures...), more things happening in the game (contests, berries, a day/night cycle...)

Still, most of that feels like "yet another feature" to me. New stats mean more complexity in terms of balancing, but they don't really show to the casual player. As for added gameplay mechanics, contests were a good idea, but they still feel too much like battles, and yet you'd need a completely different set of Pokémon, considering that the best battle moves aren't always the best contest moves. And again, contests are just yet another feature.

Long Story Short

I'm okay with Pokémon. It's not bad, and it can be fun, but it lacks the depth other games have. I doubt that will change, since the games still sell, but hey, one can wish.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Publishing And NaNoWriMo Novels

It's still more than half a year until November and until NaNoWriMo. If you don't know it, it's a self-imposed challenge of writing a 50k words long novel. In a month. If you make it, you win. If you don't, you don't. If you cheat, you're only cheating yourself.

There's also people who can't stand NaNoWriMo because of those who think that what they wrote during it is ready for publishing. There's also talking about how publishers and agents are flooded with NaNovel queries in December. Since I'm neither, I don't know how true that is, but that's more of a problem with the writers. Because, and here comes the topic for this post:

Your NaNovel is not publishable.

I hear the sounds of bubbles being burst, but it is very, very, very unlikely that your NaNovel, as it is, is publishable. To those of you who point at Water for Elephants or any of the other titles that came from NaNoWriMo, I highly doubt that any of them were sent out the way they were. And even if one of them was, that's one (1) book, of who knows how many.

I'm not saying it's impossible, but there's a number of things in NaNovels that just don't work for publishing.

50,000 Words

Sure, there's longer ones, but the minimum for a winner NaNovel is 50,000 words. That's Middle Grade/Young Adult length. The shortest I've heard as the starting point for adult novels is 60k for mundane settings, and even more for Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Yes, that's a whopping 10,000 words more than you have. So from 1666.6... words per day, you go up to at least 2000. Or 2500, better.


NaNovels are full of :words: (or , as Something Awful puts it). They are what happens when it's 10 o'clock and you've still got a three-digit amount of words to write. You start to pad the thing like there was no tomorrow. :words: are the first thing that has to go in December editing. They don't do anything, except for said padding.

Word Count Tricks

Aside from just :words:ing around, there's a whole number of word count tricks. There is avoiding contractions, giving things overly long names and writing them out every single time, writing out things that are abbreviated in any other situation (like the Federal Bureau of Investigations), having characters talk in a really unnatural and stilted way, and also having them address other characters with their full overly long names. None of this is in any way good writing. It is just another way of padding and belongs to the thing you should edit out or, even better, leave out entirely.


NaNoWriMo likes to take Chandler's Law and turn it up to eleven. When in doubt, use ninjas. When in doubt, have the Traveling Shovel of Death show up. Throw in a new subplot. Do this, do that. While some of these techniques are relatively tame, some (NINJAS!) really aren't. If you attempt to write a publishable novel during NaNoWriMo, stay the hell away from these in(s)anities. Because while you can always edit out pointless side plots and happenings later on, these things are bigger. You might just end up cutting a lot and end up with even less useful plot.

The First Draft of Everything is Crap

I think Hemmingway said that. At least people say he did. And that's what your NaNovel is. A first draft. If it's clean enough to be sent out... uh, congratulations? Writing instantly usable first drafts does not get you anything other than time. Everything you do to your novel before you send it out doesn't matter. What matters is the thing you eventually do send out. Being able to write good stuff from the get-go is just as valid as being able to turn mediocre stuff into good stuff through editing.

Sometimes, it's Just Crap

Not everything can be turned into a great book that people will love. Some things just don't work. That doesn't mean you should give up immediately, but sometimes... yeah. Some things just don't get better. It's up to you to figure out if that's the case.

Be a Rebel

If you can't get past your 50,000 words a month quote, start earlier. Or stop earlier. NaNo means 50,000 words, written in a month, to form a lengthy work of fiction. No one hates you for being a rebel. They even have their own forums for that kind of thing, so why not try that?

After All That's Said...

Even though I said a lot of negative things about the novel you're going to write during November, I'm not saying you shouldn't try. A daily deadline is a great motivator. But remember that the things we write during NaNoWriMo are often less than stellar. Your job for December is to fix that.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Code and Design

These two are not the same. Well duh, one's code, and the other one's design. Except that it's not that easy. So let's talk game design.

There's Code, and Then There's Code

When people talk about code in the context of computer stuff, they think about this:
int doSomething() {
Or whatever your syntax looks like. But code, in this context, can mean everything that tells an engine what to do. RPG Maker event code counts, some engine's script language counts, everything counts.

Look at me, I know Java!

But there are people who think that code's strictly lines of keywords, characters and names that you stick into a compiler/interpreter. Everything else is below them, and they're somehow better because they know a programming language. I once encountered someone like that in an RPG Maker forum where he had presented his game. It was, in fact, coded in Java and looked hideous. He brushed off all criticism on the basis that he knew Java, and therefore his game was better than the others.

No. Even if it was the most beautiful, efficient and maintainable Java code ever, it still looked hideous. That has nothing to do with the framework/engine it's based on.

Also, I'm pretty sure that I know some people who never touched a programming language, but still have a better idea of how programming works than some programmers. Analogy of the day: Just because I don't speak your language, that doesn't mean I'm a bad writer.

Pretty Good Coder, But...

Now let's assume you let go of your programmer hubris. You're just good at whatever you use to code, and you go on to make your game. Since the main screen works, you build, let's say, a menu in beautiful code. You go to a related forum and post a screenshot, or maybe a short video. After an undefined time of F5ing your browser, you get a reply. It's full of how your menu just isn't good. But... but... it's flawless. It doesn't have a single bug. You considered every single thing that could occur.

Then your problem's not the code. It's the design. Design, much like the ability to make good code, transcends platforms. A crappy menu will always be crappy, no matter what it was made with. But still, both have hardly anything to do with each other. Just because you're good at one thing, that doesn't mean you're good at the other.

The Difference

Now, as I said in the beginning, code and design are different, even though they have a few things in common.

Visibility: Unless the player has been in programming long enough to turn into Neo, they will not see the code. Like all background mechanics, as long as the code works, it isn't noticed. The only time the player will actually see the code is when the game glitches up and throws an error message at them. That's another reason why the engine doesn't matter. People are, except for some telling things (e.g. RPG Maker 2000 splash screens) not able to tell what it was made with.
Usability: This has to do with visibility. Both code and design must be best usable for those who are going to work with it. For the code, it's the programmer, but for the design, it's the player. I've noticed that the creators of things are often very defensive of them and dismissive of their mistakes. "It's not a bug, it's a feature" comes to mind.

Design 101

Since this is basically a rant blog, I'll go and rant a bit on things I have encountered in terms of design flaws.

(Anti-)aliasing: Anti-aliasing is smoothing out edges by blurring them a little bit. I'm sure you have all seen it. I'm not definitely for or against it. It just depends on the context. If the rest of the game fits, why not? If you're going for retro and everything else's is in clear pixels, please don't. The reason I'm bringing this up is that anti-aliasing is often used for scaling images and drawing text in engines/frameworks. Either turn it off, or turn it on, but don't do both. If you can't turn it off, work around it. What? Good design requires effort.
Menu additions: This is a thing I keep seeing in RPG Maker games, mostly because the engine already has a UI. If there's one thing I learned, then it's that UIs across the game should be uniformed. They should look and behave the same, and feel like they have always belonged to the engine. Photoshop gradient Times New Roman/Arial is not what they look like.
More clicks than your average download: Again, this is mostly a menu thing, but translates to everything that requires player input. Giant mazes of sub-menus, often with different reactions to the same key, don't make good UIs. Stop trying to be so goddamn fancy and keep your stuff simple. Because, as mentioned above, you're not making these interfaces for your ego, you're making them for your players.

Of course, there's more than that, but these were three I remember seeing quite often.

In General...

Of course, this stuff doesn't just apply to game design. You could probably replace "player" with "user" and have it still make sense. That's how important good design is. I'm not saying that good code isn't, but just because one thing is good, that doesn't mean the other one is too. Rant end.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Friday, April 5, 2013

Help, my Fiction's Unrealistic!

Once upon a time, I wanted to write a blog post. But then I forgot about the thing I wanted to write about in the first time and let it be. Today, however, I stumbled, through some weird mental leaps, over something I keep hearing.

"Science Fiction is Bull!"

Now, I get that not everybody likes every genre. I like science fiction, but romance just doesn't appeal to me. So if you tell me that you're just not into sci-fi because, yeah, it's not your thing, I'm okay with it. But if you tell me that you don't like it because it's so unrealistic, I'll call counter-bull on you. Because I'm pretty sure that the books you like have their fair share of unrealistic stuff too. Going back to romance here, I'm pretty sure that, if you look at the plausibility of the things happening in their respective settings, I'm sure that both have things in it that are not likely to happen.

Now, I said sci-fi here, but I'm sure that pretty much every genre gets this from one side or another. And I have to agree. In some sense, all fiction is unrealistic. Because it's fiction. If you want your things to be all real, there's such a thing as non-fiction.

"It's Fantasy, it Doesn't Need to Make Sense!"

Hey, hey, just because I said that all fiction's unrealistic to some degree, that doesn't mean that it shouldn't make sense. One thing that really helps or hinders immersion is how well it fits together and if it makes sense. If your story constantly breaks its own rules, I'm going to call bull. If your story runs by the rules of our world and breaks them later on, I'm going to call bull too. But I'm not going to call bull on something because it has dragons. Mostly because dragons are cool.

Again, that's for all genres. But having a genre that's often called unrealistic does not mean that it shouldn't have its own logic. Have it and stick to it. If you want to break the rules, think about it. If it's worth it, go for it, but you have to be sure it is.

Logic vs. Realism

Both of the above statements deal with this. When they say that something's unrealistic, what many people mean is that it's illogical. Because, as I said above, fiction's not reality, and can take a few breaks from it. It's based on the fact that people can suspend their disbelief. They can believe that a man can fly, so to say, even if it's just for the duration of the story. Especially in genres like science fiction and fantasy, the world the stories are set in is not ours. It might be based on ours, but there are differences. The key is to have it all make sense.

Okay, I'm not saying that you can't point out how silly a concept is. But you have to look at the context too? Does it work? Does it fit into the world? Is it just so goddamn stupid you're laughing at it whenever it's mentioned? Well, most of that is subjective. If you can't get over faster than light travel, soft sci-fi's just not your thing. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't make sense in context.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

On Criticism and Soup

I don't know if you've heard about it, but there's these people who respond to negative (never positive!) criticism on something with "Do it better!" or "You've never created a [thing], how would you know anything?"

Judging the Soup

These statements imply that, in order to be able to criticize things, you need to have done/created them. I call bull on that, and will now bring the eponymous soup into play. I'm not a cook. I know how to cook noodles and make generic Asia style food. And I can put things on toast. But does this stop me from judging the food I get at a restaurant? No. I can tell if the soup tastes like hot water, and I can damn well tell if my Schnitzel is raw on the inside. I may not be able to tell you how much of what spice is missing, or how long it should have been cooked, but I know damn well that there's something not working with my food. I may not be a cook, but I'm an eater. I've had my fair share of food and I can tell if something tastes good. For things I've had more often, I can even tell what's wrong with it. In a nutshell, yes, I can judge the soup.

I want to see you do it better!

I'm very compelled to reply to that statement with STFU. It's closely related to an eater's ability to judge the soup, but there's more to it. Let's say you are a cook. You can tell what the soup lacks, and how long you have to cook things until they're al dente. Still, there's that other thing that will be thrown at you: You've never gone public/aren't a professional. I'll drop the allegory here and return to the thing that inspired me to write this post: "You don't know how much work it is to make a game. I want to see you make a better one." Aside from the fact that you don't need to be a game designer to see a game's faults... You guys, who write stuff like that under Youtube videos, do you have any idea how much time goes into making a good game? Do you know how much experience one has to gather before being able to make games as good as you want them to be? Alot. (Sorry, there was no good picture of an alot in a TARDIS.) Going back to the cooking analogy: Just because you can't cook a fancy meal, that doesn't stop you from using your knowledge to give a detailed critique of it.

The Pointless Point

Well, I'm pretty sure I won't stop these people from demanding you write a book before you call one crap, or make a game, despite all the experience needed to make a good one. But that doesn't mean that people who don't have these "qualifications" should listen to them. After all, if consumers couldn't criticize things, where would we be?

I will now step down from my soapbox. Thank you very much.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Characters as People

Since I love segues when I can get them, let's talk about the Mary Sue Litmus Test. Not the one I talked about in that post, however, but the one you're more likely to find if you ask Google about it. And no, this is not another nit-picky look at the test. This time, I'm just talking about one question.

Do you view your characters more like tools than friends/children?
Yes, I did that test before. Yes, I took it with a shaker of salt and did it for the same reason many people read newspaper horoscopes (that reason being lulz). And no, I never, ever checked this. As a writer, I feel a bit offended by this.

You're just overly attached to your characters!

Because yes, this is, presumably, the reason this question is in there. I'm still not going to check this box, because it asks me if I do something I do not. And no, I don't see my characters as my friends/children (even though I'd want to hang out with some of them if they were actually around). I see them as people, and that's closer to 'friends/children' than it's to 'tools'. Also, just to poke around on this some more, most side characters to Mary Sues are actually tools for the author. Ha!

So no, I'm not overly attached to my characters. I just see them as people. Because that's what you should do, as a writer. And I warn you, this post might just be a bit angrier than my usual ones.

But you're the author!

Also known as "they're your characters, so they should do what you want them to do." This comes up again and again, both as something non-writers have told writers, and also from people who do write. I don't remember where I read it, but someone claimed that not having total control over your characters means that you're not a good writer.

Do not tell me this when I'm in a bad mood. Your characters should have their own mind. When placed in a situation, they should not do what you want them to do, they should do what they would do. It's a good thing if you can't bring yourself to make a character do something they wouldn't do. It's a sign that your character is actually a character. If you can make your characters do anything you want, they're not their own characters. They're stand-ins/mouthpieces for you. If a character develops in a direction you didn't plan, let them do so. Don't force them in directions that don't flow.

Those Crazy People Talking to Their Characters

That's another thing I noticed. People talking to their characters and people calling these people crazy. Okay, stop right now. Before you say anything, if you literally hear voices when you don't actively try to imagine them, you should probably see a doctor. But honestly, I don't think that the people mentioning this on the forums do not literally hear voices. That's called imagination and it's something you should have as a writer.

But I'm a bit confused by the "talking to" part of the whole thing. You shouldn't talk to your characters. You should listen to them, watch them and dump them in situations to see how they react. As the author, you're your characters' creepy, invisible stalker. (No, seriously, if you'd keep that amount of notes on a real person, you should probably stop.)

Character Creation vs. Development

Now, I talked about how you should just let your character be your character and follow them around with a notepad all the time. But at some point you have to define that character. I'm not a big fan of over-defining characters, so I start with a basic concept with a few character traits. Everything from then on is observing. I look at the character and their interaction with their environment. I look at all their traits and wonder where, in-universe, these come from.

Sure, that's my method, but it works. It allows characters to just be themselves and develop as a reaction to things happening. When I write, I don't think "my character needs to do x." I think "what would my character do?" From time to time, I find myself unable to write things because I just can't see that character doing this particular thing. And that's good.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Original Fiction Mary Sue Litmus Test, with a shaker of salt

Back in my rant on Mary Sues, I mentioned the Mary Sue Litmus Test, and that one shouldn't listen to it blindly. Now, this is a follow-up to that part, wherein I take a look at the Original Fiction Mary Sue Litmus Test (OFMSLT or just the Test). I'll go by this version, since you can see exactly where the points come from there. I might omit a few points that really don't matter that much, though.


This category features a bunch of questions about the character's name, mostly focusing on whether or not it's unusual or something any sane person would call their child.
Is the character named after you (this includes your first, middle, and last names, and any nicknames or online names you use)?
Points: 20

Why it's in there: How many of you have wished to have adventures like the characters of your favorite TV show/book/comic when you were kids? Or, any adventures, really. That's why you'll find a metric f-ton of self insert fanfics all over the fanfiction websites. Sure, they can be done well, but most often the authors of said fanfics don't have the experience to do so.
Buuut: I've seen quite a few people who named their accounts after their main character. I don't think that the reason for this is always that the character's a self insert. Maybe they like the name, or they couldn't come up with an account name that wasn't their real name or their favorite Dragonball Z character. So, remember, it's "named after you." Not the other way 'round. And self inserts can be done well, too.

Does the character have a name you really, really like?
Is it Raven?
Is it a variation of Raven?
Is it Hunter?
Points: 1, 3, 1, 5 respectively
Why it's in there: Aside from Raven being on my buzzword list for "dark" and "mature" stories, this can be explained by the fact that this test was, in fact, based on a Mary Sue test for Gargoyles. Both Raven and Hunter are characters from that show and, just a wild guess, they're known for being all aloof and cool. And awesome.
Buuut: Even for someone who has never watched that show, names like Raven and Hunter should stick out as being highly unusual. But I don't think that these warrant any more Sue points than they would already get from the test.


This category deals with the character's appearance, as well as the other characters' reactions to it. Here we have the classic improbable hair, eyes and stature things. This is also the first category that allows you to add less points under certain circumstances, such as an immortal character looking way younger than they are. I'm okay with this category, but there's one thing that sounds a bit weird.
[Subtract 3 points if the character is over 20 and appears much older than she/he really is.]
I have no idea where this comes from. Especially if you have a character that's ~21 and looks like 60. And no one ever thinks it's weird. Honestly, I have no idea where this line comes from.


Here we've got the, well... other stuff about the character. This is one of the things where I'll quote more, because it's a catch-all category.
Does the character have a clone or identical twin?
Points: 7, 1 if "there are a large number of clones in your story, and your character is neither the original nor above average in prowess."
Why it's in there: Oh come on, if a having a clone doesn't make you speshul, what does? I agree on the mitigating circumstances too, but...
Buuut: The second part sounds an awful lot like the clone saga. In order to get the one point, your character needs to be three things: Not the original, not significantly better than the other one and one of many clones. I don't like your usage of and here. It sounds like the author wasn't really sure on how to handle the clone issue.

In general, this category contains many of these traits that work alone, but become less and less plausible the more you pile them up. And then there's the subtraction part:
 [Subtract 2 points if the character is a protagonist but ever freely, willingly, and knowingly worked for the villain/evil regime.]
I mention this because it shows what this test was not made to work with: Villain protagonists. Characters who're clearly not on the good guy side.

More on Character

Why is this a category? Well, this is more of the same. Character traits that, if not all in one character, are just character traits. There's a few things that are oddly specific, though.
[Subtract 3 points if the character has ever fairly lost in any kind of duel, fight, or competition against someone of equal or lesser ability, and the winner was not the character's rival.]
Read: Is your character the protagonist of a shounen series? I'm not sure what the point of this is. Maybe it's to show that your character isn't unbeatable. Or has humility. Also, most ways of losing against someone who's actually worse than you are not really that fair, since they depend on luck, you not being in shape, you not being prepared...

 [Subtract 1 point if the character is a smoker.]
Huh? Did I miss something? Because the last time I checked, smoking was still used as a shorthand to convey badassery, douchebag behavior and impossible coolness. Smoking is "the thing the cool kids do." Sure, a smoking character can go both ways, but on the other hand, smoking can also be used as one of these fake flaws that actually give you points.

[Subtract 2 points if the character has a dependency or addiction that is or would be very hard to break (e.g. alcoholism, drugs, gambling, sex addiction, etc.)]
           [Subtract another point if the character never overcomes this vice.]
Again, this depends on the way it's handled more than anything else. It can, just as well, be used as a fake flaw. So I can get a total of four points out of this.

Does the character have wings (this counts even if she/he is an angel, only has wings sometimes, can't fly, etc.)
Points: 10
Why it's in there: Yet another thing that makes your character unique and special. It's not a bad thing, though, but gratuituous wings are kind of a thing in Mary Sues, though. Mostly for symbolism and, maybe, an episode on fantastic racism.
Buuut: "Even if she/he is an angel." The test's handing out redundant points here, as there's a category on nonhuman characters, which gives you another point for your character being an angel. Also, that etc there. It basically means NO EXCEPTIONS. Even if your character's a member of a race that has wings, even if the story's set in a world where everyone has wings, even if [enter argument here], you get these points. You see where this is going, right?

[Subtract 1 point for each of the following that applies to the character:
           She/he remains in a committed relationship for the full duration of your story.
           She/he has a child or children for the greater part of your story.
           She/he does not learn from major mistakes.
           She/he has very little or no empathy for other people.
           She/he is selfishly manipulative or sadistic (e.g. threatens self-harm, lies, blackmails, etc. in order to get her/his way).]
The first two are okay. Giving your character a family rounds them out and helps to stop them from hogging all the spotlight. Then the test loses me. Not learning from mistakes, not giving a crap about others and being a general asshole sounds like 90% of the self-absorbent Mary Sue self inserts out there.
Update: For the first two, I assumed that they're reasonable characters. If these characters are just decoration or just as sparkly as Mary Sue herself, that's another thing.

Work and Play

This category is mostly about the character's skills and will, in general, net you a lot of points if you're testing a self insert. I don't really have anything to say there, since this will get you points depending on how many skills you're piling up on your character. Even though, if said character's immortal, that might just be justified, because what else are you going to do in all these years?

Immortals, Gods, Fay, etc.

Talking about immortal... this category is the first non-mandatory category, and is only for characters that are immortal or not human. There's questions about your character's involvement in history, such as being the Mona Lisa, or dumping an apple on Newton's head, which I like, since "oh look I'm notable" is something that's really tempting to do with immortal characters. And here we also find the question about your character being an angel. Yay for redundancy!

High School

Non-mandatory category number two, only for characters in high school (duh). The main points are, again, being good, being troubled and what feels like all the cliches in the book. Also, Japanese seems to have been the epitome of cool things when this test was made.
Does the character talk about anime frequently or have lots of anime clothes, collectibles, etc.?
Does the character have a pet named after an anime character?
Does the character draw really well in the anime style?
Points: 1 each
Why it's in there: Yes, I see the point, all these pseudo-Japanese anime lovers with no real idea of how Japan works, blah, blah... But if a character likes anime, they like anime. And hell, who'd blame a Sailor Moon fan for calling their cat Luna? It would be weirder if they didn't. Bottom line: I see where this comes from, but come on, these are really just character traits.

The Plot

Ah, yes. The plot, and how the character fits into it. Here are the various questions on the character interacting with others, how the character interacts with the plot... In general, this part checks for various degrees of wish-fulfillment. Also, this:
Have you ever written a fight scene in which you described with needless extravagence everything your character did?
Was this scene inspired by a movie, show, or game?
Did you actually reference the movie, show, or game (e.g. "He jumped up and hung in the air, like Neo in The Matrix"?
Points: 2, 2, 15
Why it's in there: I'm not really sure since...
Buuut: This is a writing thing. Not being able to describe fight scenes without directly referencing them should not be worth fifteen points in a character test. After what I've seen, I can imagine people writing it like this on purpose, but that would still be "nspired by a movie, show, or game." The rest is writing.

Your Character and You

This category is about you, the writer. It's about your ability to take criticism. The points you get here are for being too involved with your character, to the point of not being objective about them. Again, there's points for the character being wish-fulfillment for you, but that doesn't necessarily need to be the case.

Some Words on the Test

First of all, even the test states that you should take it with a grain of salt. Characters that have gone a long way to where they are now are bound to have accumulated things that are on that list. Your goal shouldn't be to just cut parts of that character, but to check if said parts have a reason to be there and that their consequences are handled well. On the other hand, I've seen at least one fanfiction author who used a low test score to claim that their character was well-written.

The other thing I'd like to say is that this test is better than the other, more fanfiction specific test. Sure, it's a bit biased against things of Japanese origin and it has a few things that give you quite a lot of points. But on the other hand, it handles the Your Character and You part way better than that other test I've seen floating around on the internet. Especially since it actually goes into detail. But that's for the next article.

The bottom line is that these tests are to be taken with a shaker of salt. They can help you, but if you don't know why these questions are on there, they're just half as useful.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Our heroes!

I "just" (read: yesterday evening) finished watching the final part of a Let's Play of a little German indie game. What's so special about it? Well, it features what the LPer called the least sympathetic protagonist he has ever seen. I'm not sure he is, but it's hard for me to think of a protagonist I wanted to punch in his fake French face more than this one.

What I think is, that the creator of this game wanted to go for an anti-hero as a protagonist. What he got was a douchebag, a jerk, a [expletive].

Anti-hero? Like, villain?

Most of you have probably heard about anti-heroes already. And no, they're not villains. They're still the good guys. Anti-heroes are pretty much the answer to characters like Superman, or Micky Mouse, who are squeaky clean and nice and just overall good.

There are various degrees of anti-heroism. It starts with protagonists that aren't always politically correct, not afraid to swear if they feel the situation calls for it and might just have a more ambiguous set of morals. Some of them can be villains, pushed in heroic positions by circumstances. Or they live in a world where everyone's an asshole and are really the good guys by comparison.

The fine line

Back to Douchebag Protagonist (DP). As before, I won't name the game, because most of you don't know it, and those who do will recognize it anyways. Retelling the whole game would be too much and would also delve into the other departments it's lacking in, so I'll just list my "favorite" douchebag facts. The only thing you need to know for now is that the game is set in a parallel world, and ~300 years in the past.

#4: DP is culturally insensitive. So he's ~300 years in the past. Time paradoxes, keeping the past intact, or even talking in a way similar to the locals? Why should he? He's the hero, dammit! Sure, this can be done well.

#3: During his travels in the past, DP and his Native American companion accidentally free an evil arch king. But all they care for is why there are French soldiers in a parallel world and where they can find a portal back. In the end, DP even admits that he just did it for the portal.

#2: DP is a (mad) scientist. For sheer lulz, he and his team built a time portal, powered by the bodies of children. Later on he uses one of his colleagues, and when things go awry, he uses a Russian farmer's family.

If powering your private time machine with people isn't #1, then what?

#1: Being a prick about #2. Big spoiler, in the end, both DP and his companion need to prove they're pure in heart, or else they can't proceed... Now remove your palm from your forehead and/or clean your screens. And yes. Our "heroes" (more like one jerk and his gullible friend) actually pass. Even though DP lied and basically downplayed/ignored his past actions, he was found to be pure of heart. Okay, maybe pure evil counts too. Also, he lied to a powerful creature and guardian of the underworld. Right in the face. Without batting an eye.

Now let me take a deep breath. *breathes in*

Our heroes, ladies and gentlemen and others!

Make it better!

Can do. I think that characters like DP come into existence when their creators forget the "hero" part of anti-hero. Even though your hero is a douchebag, you should be able to root for them. They should be, in their own way, likable.

The lesser evil: The so-called hero might be a selfish jerk, but if you look around, they're still the best choice. They might have higher moral standards, or just be on the side you want to win. They're not good, just better in comparison.

Redeeming moments: This is hard to pull off. You might think that just giving your anti-hero a scene or two where they do something nice count as redeeming moments. No. They're token redeeming moments. If they're just slapped in, the audience will see that they're a last ditch effort to make the hero less of a jerk.

Actually nice: Sure, your anti-hero is gruff, rude and pragmatic. But other than that, they're a perfectly okay person. If you don't mind the snide remarks, you can hang around with them and even have fun.

Call them out: One of the worst things you can do to your anti-hero is to paint them as anything nicer than they are. If someone's a jerk, people should react like they react to someone being a jerk. Just because your anti-hero has hero in their role, that doesn't mean that everyone's going to cheer at everything they do.

There. Your anti-hero.

Why is that so important?

Sure, you always want a protagonist the audience can root for. If the audience can't feel involved, it can't be interested. But the importance of an acceptable protagonist is higher in interactive fiction. Why? Because while in a TV series or a book, or an other non-interactive medium, you watch that guy. In a game, you are the guy. But if the protagonist is thoroughly unsympathetic, you don't want to be them. And why would you want them to succeed? Why would you want them to win their battles? And, most of all, why would you want to commit their acts of douchebaggery?

Squeaky clean heroes can be boring, but that's no reason to overdo it with the edgy qualities. And remember, kids, at the end of the day, your anti-hero should still be a hero. I can't believe I went there...

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Plot, not Setting

It's time to talk about my favorite writing pitfall! Yay! And no, I don't mean favorite to talk about, I mean favorite to fall victim to.

As you should know already...

I'm going to assume that you people know what plot and setting are in terms of writing. I'll still reiterate it here, just for the sake of being on equal terms.

Plot: In general, the plot is the what. What happens, what's at stake? What the fudgesicle are you two doing in my closet? Plot is what the audience invests in.

Setting: In contrast to that, the setting is our where. Where, in this case, is not necessarily a place. Where encompasses time and deviations from reality as well. I think the Relativity Theory should cover some of that.

Then what's the deal?

I'll highlight a sentence from the above definitions again.

Plot is what the audience invests in.

Plot is our important thing, but what are we going to do with the setting? This isn't such a big deal if you're in Anytown, USA. People should know that already. But what do you do if you're in space colony 15 alpha? There's a whole new setting that you can't just ignore, mostly because you most likely made it up on your own. And it has all these spiffy details you want others to know about. Who needs plot when you have space lasers? Well, your story does, because, uhm... I tried. You need that red string and the personal ties to make your reader care. But that doesn't mean you should leave out the part with the space lasers. They're still awesome.

Setting Stability

Wait, weren't you just talking about how we need plot? Well, yes, but the stability of the setting says a lot about how we get our plot in there, instead of tacking it onto it.

Stable settings: In stable settings, nothing really happens. When you hear the fire sirens, it's probably a kitten on a tree. If you want it grittier, you're in a dystopian future where people just live on their dystopian lives. Still, if a zombie staggers into town, it's probably just Tuesday again. As is, nothing's going on, so your characters need to do something. Maybe they go out and have adventures, plan on doing stuff, suddenly, a new guy's in town or the zombies learned to breakdance and challenge everyone to a battle.

Unstable settings: What do you think? Yes, this is the exact opposite. Things are going on. Disaster warnings, revolutions, war... (except for the western front, where all's quiet). Unstable settings are more dynamic and may have the occasional plot pop up on their own, some of which might even pop up in your story.

Once more, I'm going back to the game I used as an example a few times already. In the release notes, the developer stated that he wanted to step away from Save The World plots. Instead, he wanted to create a world that was in no need of saving, and wanted to make you want to change it. So there was a stable setting and characters that, in the end, would bring on change. Right? Right? Err, no. First, "change," in that scenario, pretty much equaled "saving." Second, no. This setting has never been stable. Things had started escalating with the event that kicked a) off the actual game and b) the protagonist in his man parts. From then on, things had been escalating on a large scale, and in the end you had a big bad who wanted to, you guessed it, take over the world. I'm calling the setting unstable because all these events were caused by things outside the hero party. They were on a large scale. The protagonists might have influenced things, but that escalation would have happened anyways.

Uh, where was I?

Setting As A Plot

Ah, yes, there's my point. What the developer did there, even if he thought he'd avoid it, was to create a Setting As A Plot. That means exactly what it says here, namely that the setting basically is the plot. For that, you need, of course, an unstable setting, which already throws plots at you.

This principle is full of pitfalls, though. You can't just throw random characters at your plot and force them to become involved. They still need reasons to do all these things. If Earth was suddenly invaded by aliens, I'm sure that not everyone would instantly grab a gun and shoot them to chunky salsa. On the other hand, you have to be careful to have your characters stay proactive. No one wants to read about a protagonist that just has things happen to them. Also, as I said before, you don't need to use all the plots your setting throws at you. Use them as B plots, or just have them cross paths with the main story from time to time.


I'm not telling you what to do. I'm not telling you how to write your story, how to create your system or that you should include space lasers at any cost. I'm just telling you what I stumbled across, and what I'm thinking of it. Personally speaking, I'm better at creating settings than at creating plots, but I've eyed both things hard enough to have an opinion on them. An uneducated one, but have you looked at the blog name lately? If you're looking for me, I'm most likely not in my tomato-safe bunker.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Plot vs. World

If you want to put games on sliding scales of x vs. y, one of these is definitely the Plot vs. World one. On one end, there's the sort of game that's almost like an interactive movie. There's not really anything to explore, and you have your plot in front of your eyes. On the other end, there's your sandbox, designed to let you do stuff. Plot may or may not be involved.

The Wide Wide World

I'll start with open world and sandbox games. There, the focus is on, as said, stuff to do. Plotless sandbox games, like Minecraft, don't really give you any goal. (I'm not counting the End, since that's basically just a vague goal and, honestly, you're in it for the blocks anyways.) And you know what, that's fine. Because the stuff you can do is fun on its own. It may not be fun forever, but it's fun for a while. But that's the far end of the scale. What do you do if you want your game to have a plot that's more than "you're here now, do stuff" or something like that?

Plot: the Game

Let's go to the other end of the scale. I don't have an actual, first hand experience example for this, but I'll just throw in To The Moon. This is plot. It's, in fact, an interactive movie made in RMXP. And it sells. Why? Go buy it, go watch an LP, go listen to the music. It conveys a story, and it conveys it well. But what do you do if you wander away from that end of the scale? You include gameplay, you numbnut! That's what a game does. Or does it?

The Middle Ground

In both paragraphs above I asked how one could move away from one side of this scale towards the middle. The reason why I didn't answer the first question in a snappy retort? Because adding plot to an open world is, in my opinion, harder than adding some world to a plot. Because in the latter case, you still have your red string. You can fork off a path, have it go through somewhere else and then go back. The sandbox is just that. Sand, sand and even more sand. Where do you start? Where do you go? And, the most important question...

Where's the damn plot?

So you have your game. You start out fairly simple, introduce your heroes and, maybe, your villains. You do some stuff, and then, bam, hello world! Now, in good open world games, you still have your red string, but don't need to follow it (which can lead to a bunch of other problems). In less than good open world games, you might end up with your string unraveling. Then you stand in that world and... have to look for the plot.

My king, my king, the front yard's on fire! I'll look at that in a week.
Now let's assume that we still have our red string to follow. Who tells us that we need to do so? No one, it's an open world game. We can do whatever the hell we want. That works for plots like traveling the world. It makes less sense if there's something really urgent going on. Like, to pick up my favorite example game, the big bad literally being on his way to the thing that lets him take over the world. This is not the time to catch up on your sidequests, but since this is an open world game, you can do so. If you couldn't, a part of you would be pissed off since you have stuff you want to do.

So much dilemma...

Open world yes, open world no, open world shoe. There's no one way to solve these problems. But what you do need to decide is what is more important to you. Do you want to tell a story, or provide the player with a world to explore? Can you tell this story through the world, or is it hinged on the characters? Do you really need to travel the world? Why would you want to visit a remote mountain village? There's many questions to ask yourself, but in the end you'll (hopefully) know where you want to go.


Now that the dilemmas are checked off my imaginary list, there's some things to think about. Namely, what your effort goes into. I'm very tempted to use a tree (data structure) analogy, but that's not layman friendly. I'll go with a tree (plant) analogy instead.

Plot: Plot games are poplar-shaped. They don't branch out particularly widely, but they grow high. Boy do they grow high up. You'll have to put effort into tiny details that, at first glance, seem like they'll fly right over the players' heads. If you look closer, every one of these details adds to the whole thing. Simple gestures and speech patterns make characters unique without giving them a gazillion belts and hair that makes Saiyans look reasonable. Since you don't grow particularly wide, you can put more attention to other details, too. You don't have much world, so you'd better make it awesome.

World: World games are... uh, pretty much every other tree ever. They're not particularly high, compared to poplars, but they are wide. They've got a high amount of branches that easily grow wild, cross each other and do wonky stuff. Of course, I'm not telling you to leave out details. Of course you need good characters here too, but not every NPC in every backwater village needs to be a unique snowflake. Unless you're an absolute perfectionist/mad, you can copypaste character designs across the world. No one will care if two guys have the same hairstyle. No one will care if something looks similar somewhere else, unless it's too unique. There's a line, and it differs from game to game, but in general, you need to think on a larger scale. Look at our world. Look at the cultural differences. You need something to make the whole world worth visiting, and I'm not talking about copypaste dungeons. Little details, in this case, are already larger in scale. Give your villages traditions. Give them myths. Give them designs that are different enough to tell them apart, but similar enough to tell that this is still the same world.

The bottom line is that, in the end, restricting the player's access to the world doesn't mean less effort. It just means that you have to put more effort into the accessible part. This is one of these things that really just boils down to what you want to do with your game. Don't try to turn it into something it just can't be.

Monday, March 4, 2013


After a stray piece of inspiration hit me, I decided to talk about stakes this time.

Steaks? Yay!

Nope, not these. I'm glad I can make random Asian...ish food without burning off my taste buds.Now, stakes can mean two things. There's A) the things you impale vampires with and B) the things that are at stake. I'm talking about B, unless it's in the context of vampires, where the presence of A can easily lead to B. The stakes are, in a nutshell, what matters in a story.

Why should I care?

You should care about stakes because they are what make you care about the story. And by story, in the context of this post, I mean anything that's a plot. I'm talking books, comics, games, movies... all that has a story, and that story has to have stakes.

Stake Facts

Stakes are, first and foremost, things that matter. They are where excrements go down or hit the fan. They are the reason why you stick to the story. But you can't just throw something at your audience, tell them that that's your stakes and expect them to actually be invested. There a few big things that make your stakes interesting.

It's personal.
That's, in my opinion, the most important thing. Your story's stakes should have a connection to the protagonist. Before you point me to any of these rescue the world/country/universe stories and tell me how they work despite the goal being unpersonal or how these stakes are personal because the protagonist lives in the world/country/universe... stop. That's not how it works. Now, think of any recent catastrophe. Sure, it sucks. You might find what happened to be abhorrent, sad and even terrifying. But still, it's something that happened somewhere. Now what if, say, your best friend/significant other was involved in said catastrophe. Suddenly, you care for it on a whole new level. Because it just got personal.
I have a great example here, and that's Batman. Gotham is a craphole. But if you asked little Bruce Wayne about it, he'd say that his parents are rich and can afford the security to live there. Then his parents were killed by a random goon. That's when Gotham's criminals became a personal issue to him and he became Batman. Even though his motivation, and ultimately the thing at stake, is safety in Gotham, he has a personal connection to it.

Who cares?
Now we have personal stakes, but why should I care about Bruce Wayne's problems if I don't care about Bruce Wayne? That's the second important thing. The audience needs to care about the character who's got things at stake. I know I might just be abusing this word horribly, but I'm going to call this character the stakeholder. If you want the audience to be invested in your stakes and, thus, your story, you need to make them be invested in your stakeholder. Writing compelling characters is, however, not the topic of this post.
Here's the part where I'll pull the second comic book character out of my hat. Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man. His backstory has definitely got the personal stakes down. The reason I'm listing it here instead of up there with Batman is that Tony Stark was designed to be a bit of a douchebag. Look at this fantastically awesome review by Linkara *cough* for more information. He may be a rich douchebag, but we still care for him, and we care for his story and what's at stake for him.

Stake Special: Interactive Stories

Interactive stories, aka game plots, act a bit differently in the game of stakes. The reason is just that: They're interactive. Let's assume you care about the stakeholder and their stakes. In a non-interactive story you now follow them as they fight for their stakes. In an interactive story, you are them as they fight for their stakes. That means that there's one more thing the audience needs to care for, and that's the stakeholder's environment. Why would you want to save the world if you, the player, don't care for it? Sure, Bruce Wayne cared about his parents, but why should you? They're not yours. Or, a better example, the often-used doomed hometown. You spend what, five minutes in that town, then go out to do stuff and when you return, everybody's dead. Sad music plays, rain falls, the stakeholder breaks down in the dirt and bawls their eyes out. You, the player, just sit there and wonder why the hell you should care about these people you didn't know. And that's the point. As soon as the story becomes interactive, the audience becomes a stakeholder. This, in turn, leads to the aforementioned most important thing: The stakes need to be personal to the stakeholder. Making these stakes personal to the audience is another topic, which I won't talk about here, because this post is going to be long enough as it is.

And now?

Stakes need to be important, yet personal. Designing them is easier than making them believable, and getting high stakes that aren't too detached from the characters takes work. On the other hand, low stakes might not be stakes at all. If your romance plot is happy and perfect, then maybe it shouldn't be the focus, but rather a background thing that runs along.

Inspirational credits go to the Query Shark. Chew away, Ms. Shark. Chew away.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

In-Game Tutorials

After a while, just rambling about things I have an opinion got boring. I'll now also ramble about things with the intent to teach you something! ...hey, where did all of you go?

Why Tutorials?

There's so many things you can get wrong when you put tutorials into your game. Actually, this kind of segues into my last post. I covered the Kitchen Sink Design aspect of that game pretty well, but there were other things it did wrong. One of them was the tutorials. Oh god, the tutorials. They were everywhere, mandatory and didn't teach me anything I wouldn't have been able to figure out on my own.

Tutorial Fallacies

This is going to be another post where I list things. These things might sound incredibly matter-of-factually to you, but they're way too present in games.

Press WASD to walk
Exactly what it says on the tin. For some reason, games decide to explain to you how the most basic controls work. Okay, the worst offenders here are RPG Maker games. Come on. We all know that we use space to confirm, Esc to cancel and the arrow keys to walk. "But what about the people who're not familiar with the engine?" If you wanted to ask this now, I'm glaring at you through the internet. Hard. People aren't stupid. If you have a game with keyboard controls, what are you going to try first? Either WASD or the arrow keys. Even Esc/Space (or Enter) are kind of self-explaining, since all over the operating system itself, these are used to confirm or cancel things. So, again, these are the things that are going to come to mind first, and even if not, the player can try around and find the action key on their own. People aren't stupid!

It's dangerous to go alone. Take this tutorial!
This one is more of a placement fallacy than a content fallacy. Sure, you might have some ultra-awesome game mechanics to show to the player. So you hand them out at the beginning. All of them. And expect the player to get all that and remember it until it's actually brought up. Spoiler: Most won't, because at the moment of the tutorial, that information is completely irrelevant. The human brain is wired to ignore things that are irrelevant and not necessary for survival (of the player character). Bring the information up when it's necessary and when the element is actually first used.

Remember the time I pushed that crate? It was totally awesome!
So you have your gameplay element the player won't easily grasp without a tutorial, you introduce it at the time it's first used, and then this happens:

Bob and George stand in front of a bunch of crates.
Bob: "Hey, look! Crates!"
George: "I can push them, you know? Because I'm strong."
Bob: "Cool! But can you pull them?"
George: "No." *sad*
Bob: "But I can, because I'm... reverse strong. Yeah!"

So our characters, in the middle of the action, paused in front of a bunch of crates to discuss their crate-pulling abilities. While in-universe tutorials are awesome, you have to be careful. If this came up as part of a cutscene, it would be okay. But if it comes up during gameplay, a piece of dialogue like this stops the game dead in its tracks so that the characters can explain their abilities. Again: People aren't stupid! If you need to explain it because you're using a key that hasn't been used before, give the player a blurb that says tells them what key it is. Don't stop the gameplay for something like this.

But What Should I do Then?

The tutorial fallacies I brought up are most often removed by removing the tutorial itself. But sometimes, you may want a tutorial to explain a mechanic that might be unconventional. See the nonstandard key example. Sometimes you need to explain.

In-Universe vs. The Blurb
In general, there's two categories of tutorials. Those that are explained by the characters and those that aren't. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. One of the most important things about in-universe tutorials is that the characters know about things. So either you need to wrap the mechanics into a nice flavor or you break the fourth wall and risk having a guy with a purdy hat fall onto your head.
Fourth-Wall-Breakers I remember are, for example, the kid in Link's Awakening that told you how to save. It then proclaimed that it didn't know what saving was because it was only a kid. Also, an example that takes it further, is the toad in the beginning of Super Mario RPG that warns a goomba that Mario knows about timed hits. Even further goes Mario party, where, in one part, Bowser Jr., while explaining the rules for a game, clarifies that A is, in fact, the green button.
But for everyone of these, there's at least a ton where it's not as amusing/self-aware/generally well-done. I suggest to stay consistent with the way things are explained. You don't need an in-game explanation for every button you press. But if your character's health is literally measured in hit points,  you'd better tell me how that works, and you'd better have a good explanation.

Tutorials for outstanding features that really need to be explained are, for many players, only needed for the first time. Every time after that, especially if the controls and inner workings are memorable (very good thing), it's only annoying. For these kinds of tutorials, unless they're really woven into the game, as explained above, you should have an option to turn them off. A good example for that was the (sadly canceled) German RPG Maker game Velsarbor. While you started with an overpowered character that just plowed through the enemies like a warm knife through butter, the real gameplay started with two ordinary dudes. From then on, you had explanations for whenever a new gameplay element was introduced. These infoblurbs could be turned off, so those who, after the first two or so blurbs, noticed that they'd get it anyways, wouldn't be bothered by it any more. Those who needed the tutorials could keep them.

Now bring me an idiot
The best way to find out if your tutorials work well is to have them tested by different people. The important thing is that you get people of various skill levels. An experienced gamer will react differently to someone who doesn't regularly play games of the genre. I refer to tests with the latter kind of person as idiot tests. These tests are done to make sure that the most ignorant person would understand your tutorial and act on it. Also, just because it's called idiot test that doesn't mean that the tester shouldn't try playing the game. For random button-mashing, see Fuzzing.

The Bottom Line

Tutorials are not necessarily evil, but they need a lot of thought. They should be appropriate for both beginners and experienced players, and should not be annoying to either one. There's many ways to incorporate them in the game universe, but this isn't always necessary and often difficult to pull off. But the bottom line to said bottom line is:

People aren't stupid!

Encourage the players to try things out on their own and you'll find that you might not need as many tutorials as you thought you would. Now, click inside the textbox underneath this article, type in your opinion on this article and click the publish button. In case you're viewing this on the main page, click the article title first.