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.