Tag: storytelling (page 1 of 2)

Ballad of the Doomguy

I’ve been playing a lot of 2016’s DOOM lately. It hearkens back to the shooters of my youth. There’s a lot of catharsis in blasting demons with cool weapons and punching them in the face. The levels are large and they reward exploration with opportunities to customize your preferred blasting methods and adorable figurines. Perhaps most of all, for me, it showcases some fantastic storytelling and a wonderful way to leverage a silent protagonist.

The data logs you find on everything from the UAC’s methodology to data on the demonic minions you’re exterminating are very well-written. They, like the upgrade tokens, are fun bonuses. You can get all of the story you need, though, just from the brief in-game interactions and the Doomguy’s emoting. From the start, you get a sense of your avatar’s personality, without him uttering a single line of dialog.

In brief: explorers discovered an odd geological rift on Mars that was spewing a fascinating form of energy. The Union Aerospace Corporation’s CEO, Samuel Hayden — imagine the love child of Scott Pruitt and Elon Musk who downloaded himself into a cybernetic body — went into leveraging this resource to solve an energy crisis back on Earth. The EPA can’t file lawsuits if you’re exploiting a natural resource on another planet, right? Right. And Argent Energy rendered nuclear power and fossil fuels obsolete overnight. Hayden didn’t count on his head researcher being a covert cultist who discovered the energy was coming from Hell, and talked to demons about some sort of shady deal. Next thing you know, the UAC facility is getting worked over in the style of the colony from Aliens, and Hayden is trying to figure out how to maintain profits when all of his workers are dying horribly.

Enter the Doomguy.

Our hero hates demons with a fiery passion, and was put on ice after the last time he somehow made Hell worse, at least for its demonic denizens. He wakes up in one of the UAC’s isolated labs, find his iconic armor after smashing some zombified UAC folks with his bare hands, and realizes there’s a demonic invasion afoot. Hayden contacts him right away, figuring the Doomguy can clean the place up and get the energy production back on track.

It takes about 5 seconds for the Doomguy to communicate he’s not down for being a corporate stooge.

The monitor with which Hayden contacts our hero gets smashed to the floor. Moments later, in the elevator to Mars’s surface, Hayden tries again, giving some spiel through another monitor about “the greater good”. That monitor gets a solid, indignant punch.

I can’t tell you how much I love this.

Characterization in video games can be difficult, especially in shooters. Halo’s Master Chief is your stereotypically stoic one-man army in power armor. Most of the Call of Duty protagonists tend to be walking talking recruitment campaigns for modern military organizations. Other bullet-dispensing avatars whoop and wisecrack their way through the bad guys, kicking ass and looking for a fresh pack of bubble gum.

Doomguy’s just here to smash demons and give middle fingers to corporate America while he’s at it.

On top of the pretty obvious disdain he has for the UAC, the Doomguy’s got a sense of humor. When you find the collectibles, there’s a fantastic little sting of classic DOOM music as the hero looks the figurine over. But when you find one that’s the same coloration as your current incarnation, the Doomguy gives it a fistbump. The scion of anti-demon violence and masculine badassery fistbumps a figurine.

And then there’s this little Terminator 2 Easter Egg, when the Doomguy takes a bad step and falls into molten metal:

The developers could have easily just left the Doomguy as an angry psychopathic killing machine. But they didn’t. He has a sense of humor. There are glimmers of knowing self-awareness. And when confronted with the notion that smashing all of the UAC’s work will plunge the Earth into a new energy crisis, the Doomguy shows himself to be a person with conviction, weighing that reality with the fact that demonic invasions are literally the worst thing. Hayden doesn’t agree; the Doomguy doesn’t care. Demons are bad. Sure, making life difficult on Earth is bad, but it’s still life. Better to worry about the prices of your utilities than an Imp eating your face, right? Right.

Video games are mediums of visual storytelling. They’re made for showing, rather than telling. And 2016’s DOOM does this beautifully. I think that these moments, and the data logs, keep me playing just as much as the action and exploration. Fast-paced shooting is one thing; being compelled to see the next bit of story is icing on the cake. It’s a glorious storytelling experience on top of a visceral exercise in catharsis.

I love story-based games. My next solo gaming project is Witcher 3, which will be very different but, from what I understand, rich in its own storytelling. I’m just as invested in the lore of Overwatch as I am its game balance and being a better Reinhardt. But I’ll probably be coming back to DOOM now and again. There are harder difficulties, arcade modes, classic maps, challenges… there’s a lot there, and not just in terms of ammunition and well-designed enemies.

The ballad of the Doomguy is a work of pulse-pounding death metal punctuated by shotgun blasts and breaking bones, but its melody is one of those sprawling lyrical epics about one man standing against a tide of darkness. It’s Beowulf with a BFG.

And I am, as the kids say, so here for it.

D&D Matters

I’m really glad I started playing Dungeons & Dragons again.

It’s taken me the better part of a year to feel comfortable going out-of-doors again. I was walking around like a man with my skin peeled off, and the fresh air and particulates of the outside world stung like a son-of-a-bitch. I had to take that time, in a place of safety and solitude, to reacquaint myself with myself. Take a good long look in the mirror. Start fixing some shit. Get better.

Then I started going out to watch soccer matches again, and I made a friend.

She noticed my d20 ring, a souvenir of days gone by that has only the meaning I’ve given it. No other associations, no bad memories. Just a spinning random number generator for rolling skill checks in the real world. We got to talking about D&D. And she mentioned a game she was in on Monday nights. Without knowing what I was doing or why, I jumped at the chance.

Then I got nervous.

You see, I might have gone a bit too far the other way in correcting myself. I was a little hyper-vigilant. I had trouble trusting my instincts. Here was a smart, lovely, challenging person who saw in me enough value and goodness to invite me into another part of her life, and I was asking myself a bunch of questions — do I have the right reasons for doing this? Am I going to be an invasive presence? Will I get along with everyone? Should I be scared?

In order: yes, no, yes, and no.

My partner told me so. A few times. I can be a little thick-headed; it’s an aspect of myself I’ve had since I was young. Still, the answers were conveyed to me in love, even if they had to be repeated. I finally quieted the head weasels, drew up my character, and headed downtown. My head was on a bit of a swivel before I got into the Raygun Lounge. I didn’t know how my Paladin of Bahamut would go over with these new people.

I guess the best way to put it “like gangbusters.”

He had to leave the party at one point because a fellow party member made, in his opinion, a monumentally bad and immoral decision. So I reintroduced one of my favorite characters, a dark elf necromancer, to the party. Again, he was a big hit. Sure, he was the complete opposite of my paladin in personality and motivation, but therein lies the challenge. And since my life isn’t exactly on hardmode, being the sort of white male of education and relative means that often serves as a poster child for the Patriarchy, I tend to game that way. See also my pacifist/stealth run of Deus Ex Human Revolution’s Director’s Cut that is my current PC gaming ‘project’.

Long story short: I was worried over nothing.

With everything going on, within and without, it’s been difficult to fully engage with my writing brain. Certain parts of myself have lain somewhat dormant while getting better, engaging in self-care and self-correction, and generally being an isolationist hermit have dominated my time. Being with others and collaborating in telling a story about people making bad choices has started reawakening my own storytelling synapses. If nothing else, it’s underscored my need to shift my career path away from banging out code for a living to making words happen. That’s been mostly what I’ve been looking for when I’m on LinkedIn looking for a new job that has nothing to do with start-ups — I am unsuited for such a life. Perhaps I’m just too old at this point.

Anyway. Dungeons & Dragons.

The classic role-playing game matters to me because it hits all of the right buttons. It’s escapism. It’s storytelling. It’s interacting with other humans, revealing parts of oneself in a safe environment and bouncing off of one another and the Dungeon Master in delightful and intriguing ways. It’s taking chances. It’s putting on a performance in the ‘theatre of the mind’ just because you can.

I want to start my own group, and guide people through the bones of a story I construct, and watch them flesh everything out and make it a living, breathing thing that we all enjoy.

Storytelling matters. Collaboration matters. People, their dreams, their imaginations, their fears, their potential and ambition and passion — all of that matters.

All of that comes together in Dungeons & Dragons.

That’s why it matters.

Tuesdays are for telling my story.

Art courtesy Wizards of the Coast

Making Words Happen

Bard by BlueInkAlchemist, on Flickr

Writers are a curious breed, by and large. They can be very difficult to live with. They have a tendency to live inside their own heads. Over and above anything else, they are richly imaginative creatures that bring whole new worlds to life.

To make those worlds viable and accessible for an audience, a writer must put their imagination into words and assemble those words into a coherent narrative. Believe it or not, the words are the easy part. They exist in the writer’s brain like precious metal in the veins of a mine’s rock. They’re already there. They just have to get from the veins to the page.

This requires more than imagination. Making words happen requires perseverance. Crafting new stories and populating them with vibrant, believable characters is not a once-and-done sort of thing, except in the case of flash fiction. To hammer out a long narrative that will stick with audiences and have them coming back for more, a writer has to commit time, focus, and energy to the project every day, at least in some measure. Every word counts, and every letter matters.

Keep at it, writers. Don’t give up. Making words happen is what we do, and it’s something we need to do. Our stories are worth completion, because the world needs more stories that come from unique perspectives and bring entertainment and inspiration into the lives of others. Your stories are worth telling. Take the time and energy to tell them.

Papers, Please – A Love/Hate Relationship

Courtesy Lucas Pope
Glory to Arstotzka.

Let me be clear right from the off: I adore the fact that Papers, Please exists.

For those of you who don’t know, Papers, Please is a video game described as “a dystopian document thriller.” You are a citizen in Arstotzka, a fictional country ruled by an authoritarian regime, and you are tasked with monitoring one of its border posts. You examine the documentation of someone entering the country, look for discrepancies, and then bring down the stamp to either approve or deny their entry. You can detain people trying to smuggle contraband or weapons into the country, and your earnings are based on how many people you process in a given day, less any mistakes you make.

In a market dominated by first-person shooters, sports simulations, and massively multiplayer online games, it’s fantastic that Papers, Please even grabbed a toehold on the market, let alone climbing to success. Most of the reactions to the game have been entirely positive. Personally, I think it’s a deeply immersive and very atmospheric experience, with dashes of humor and some very real moral dilemmas that add to the emergent narrative that comes with every person that steps into the booth. Despite not having top-end graphics, the stories both spoken and implied by those giving you their passports and awaiting judgment is some of the most involving story-driven gameplay I’ve enjoyed in a long time.

It’s so involving, in fact, that I can barely play it.

You see, dispensing your tasks requires you to compare the would-be visitor’s documents with several sources you have yourself – a guide to various neighbor countries, their seals and cities, different permits to allow, etc. The money you earn has to be split between your family’s needs, and if you don’t make a certain amount, you’ll have to choose between food, heat, and medicine. Finally, if you miss something, the antiquated dot matrix printer in your booth begins to chatter, telling you how you messed up and how much it’s going to cost you.

It’s this last bit that really affects me. You could even say it triggers me. I have enough problems in dayjobs where a detail slips by me, or the alignment of an element is off by a pixel, or the timing of an animation is not quite what a client was looking for. I’ll think a task is done, on time and without incident, when news hits me like a hammer that no, there’s more work to do, and I know it reflects badly upon me and my self-esteem takes another blow and I feel the crushing inevitability of time and decay as I re-open my assets and go back to something I thought I’d actually done well for a change. And now a game is invoking that feeling? No, thank you.

I bought Papers, Please and I do not regret it. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and Lucas Pope deserves all of the credit he gets for bringing it to life. Maybe, at some point down the road, when I feel less like the sword of Damocles is hanging over me every time I open a new task, I’ll return to that cramped little checkpoint on the border of Arstotzka. There are good puzzles, good stories, and good design all over and throughout it, and I do recommend it. I just hope that someday, I can play the game without that paralyzing sense of dread that I feel during business hours all too often.

Tabletalk: Let’s Tell A Story

Courtesy Bully Pulpit Games

As someone who writes tales about people who don’t actually exist, the process of telling stories fascinates me. While working alone allows me to be the final arbiter of what does and does not happen, some of the best storytelling experiences I’ve had come not from a word processing document, but from other books and dice. The methods and weight of rules might vary, but the experience is always unique.

Some games are built specifically to emphasize their story and characters more than anything else. Fiasco and Shock: are my two go-to examples of tabletop games firmly in story mode, while Maschine Zeit and Farewell to Fear maintain some more traditional dice-rolling rulesets not to define gameplay, but to reinforce storytelling. The emphasis in these games is on who the players’ characters are, not necessarily what they do.

On the flip side are games like Dungeons & Dragons and any of the titles within the World of Darkness universe. The ‘background’ portion of a given player’s character sheet is entirely optional, and the emphasis is on the stats depicted on the front. These games are built to generate epic moments, memorable feats of daring-do, and nail-biting suspense as the dice roll.

And then, there are those games with what I’d like to call ’emergent storytelling’. Quite a few board games try to work atmosphere and elements of storytelling into their gameplay, like Pandemic, Elder Sign, or Escape!, but the nature of these games’ mechanics tend to get in the way of actually telling a story. Boss Monster and Seasons, on the other hand, give players enough breathing room to give their on-the-table representatives a bit more personality. Between turns, you may decide that your adorable forest-dwelling bunny wizard is actually bent on world domination, or that your towering and malevolent gorgon dungeon master actually wants to flip her dungeon so she can go on a long-awaited vacation. The towns built in Suburbia can’t help but take on some personality (“Why is that high school right next to a slaughterhouse?”). And the excellent Battlestar Galactica has you not only taking on familiar faces, but pitting them against one another in new ways as you try to determine who among you is a Cylon even as you struggle to survive. There’s nothing quite like throwing the Admiral in his (or her) own brig just on a gut feeling your character has. Finally, there are those who would advise you not to play Twilight Imperium with role-players. If a gamer take the honor of their race seriously, there may be a major grudge that plays out over the game’s many hours if you do something like occupy one of their systems or assassinate one of their councilors. Who says politics is boring?

What games do you feel cater more towards storytelling? What emergent gameplay do you enjoy the most?

Older posts

© 2020 Blue Ink Alchemy

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑