Serious Game Themes and the Binding of Isaac

I’d been avoiding playing The Binding of Isaac for a while now.

See, I have this problem with thematic games.  Binding of Isaac is about a boy whose being tortured by his mother, and the goal of the game is to rise up and kill her.

Needless to say, this rather bothered me.  I kept hearing again and again, “It’s really good.  One of the best games of the year.”  But I couldn’t get past the theme.  Wouldn’t even try it.

In many ways it’s ironic, because it’s a serious theme about something that actually is a serious problem and deserves attention.  So why wouldn’t I play a game about it, whereas I might watch a movie about it and certainly would read the news about it?

I think it’s because words tell.  It’s ok in movies or books to be told something, to receive it, to sit there not reacting.

But games do.  If I’m going to play a game about a serious topic, it’s going to make me want to do something.  It’s got to be something I want to do something about.  And when I play, I want to be involved in it meaningfully.  Not cursory involvement.  Significant, meaningful impact.  Otherwise, aren’t I just wasting my time.

Conceptually, that’s hard to do.  How can you impact something through a game?  The first-order, direct approach, best represented by the Serious Games movement, has been to literally try and impact the problem.  But that’s as hard to do as it is without a game – and often poorly implemented.  I’m not doing any more then I would without the game.

The second-order approach, giving you deep understanding about the problem, has been tried too.  And some succeed, like the excellent Fate of the World.  But often these games don’t go very deep, and leave me frustrated by inaction.  I might learn, but I’m not doing.  Games have a higher standard.  Often what these games teach me is that doing is beyond my reach.

So, in reflection, the real challenge for these thematic games is one of execution.    Like in any game, of going beyond the simplistic bar, and providing new understanding and new capabilities to the player.  Of solving these problems in your game design.  And my old instincts are still that serious thematic games don’t try.  That they are thinly veiled agendas or manipulations.  That they just manipulate shallow emotions around the topic, leaving me frustrated.  And so my instinct was to avoid The Binding of Isaac.

PS  You shouldn’t.  It’s really good.

PPS And it brilliantly exposes a third-order approach – dealing with problems through humor and catharsis.


Extrinsic Rewards and Story

If Alfie Kohn is right, maybe the simplistic morality of many story games is in part due to their reliance on extrinsic rewards?  If a game’s interaction relies on rewards, and those rewards require “Pass/Fail” or even 1-axis outcomes of achievement, then wouldn’t we expect the story to rely on those same inputs?  The narratives that fit that best are hero/villian stories and good/evil moralities.

Correspondingly, we would expect games with more then 1-axis of rewards or no explicit rewards at all to have more complicated moralities in their stories.  In practice, they seem to have more complicated concepts of story in general (The Sims, Minecraft, Ultima IV) that derive more from their interactivity then their in-process narrative or post-play reflections.  More fuel for the Ion Storm side of the debate, I guess, that story is the derived companion of the designer’s interaction authorship.

I still love game stories, btw.  Just thinking.


Reading Alfie Kohn, he struck me on one particular point he makes – that ties to what Exploration design is in modern game design.  He cites that rewards hurt exploration, meaning exploration-as-risk-taking.

We typically provide non-gameplay rewards at the ends of tunnels to encourage players to Explore.  Once upon a time these were points, but they’ve evolved into more sophisticated things like story snippets.  Bioshock’s radio diaries are the most recent paragon.  Designers typically want to specifically cater to this Exploration player.  There’s a Bartle type for them after all.  These placed rewards are used as the simple level design for reaching them.  It’s common.  I’d bet even money the last game you played had them.  And If you ever try and take these non-gameplay rewards away completely, you hear “But I like exploring, why do you hate people like me?”.  Then “I don’t like how this is a dead end.”   To eventually “Why would I go over there, there’s never anything worth seeing.”  Level designers will argue there’s no reason to make all that art, if no one explores.  You’ll get bug reports about it from Testers.

I know I’ve certainly felt that way.

I believe Alfie Kohn would argue that exploration is a misnomer.  It’s not exploration we’re talking about but rewards as extrinsic motivators.  He’d probably say these players are not Explorers but Completionists.  That these people are looking for a pat on the head and a “Good job, have a cookie!”

I know I’ve felt that way too.

Alfie Kohn compares these kinds of rewards to Skinner boxes and dog training tactics – things people would do consciously only if we want to encourage attention and behavior.  (He doesn’t seem one to mince words).  If designers provide a powerful distraction that is continually operating but (critically) serves no relation to the core interactions of the game, designers can pull the player in without them noticing (or caring) about the gameplay, just enjoying themselves.  As long as the non-gameplay rewards have meaningful value.

That certainly doesn’t mean bad sales or immoral behavior.  It certainly doesn’t mean that games can’t tell good stories, either, or that Completionists are bad people or want bad things.  And Kohn is certainly controversial (like any good social scientist).  But it does question that having simple rewards under every rock means players are being Explorers.  Maybe they are seeking something else, something we might be able to design in a better way.

I remember when Fallout 3 came out, how exploring felt *different* somehow in a way I couldn’t explain.  I thought maybe it was just an added layer of randomness – not just random places but random objects in random places.  But that never sat right.  Maybe it was getting back to the essence of what Exploring meant.  In Fallout 3 I chose where I wanted to go.  I had little expectation of what I would find, but I knew I didn’t have time to see everything.  I knew it wouldn’t be easy when I got there or always pay off.  And it appealed to me in a way that none of the story objects I’ve chased through the years ever have.

I don’t know if I’ll still place rewards at the end of every corridor.  It’s still going to be industry practice tomorrow, I’m sure.  But I’ll be a lot more careful when I call it exploring, for the Exploration player.

GDC 2010: AI Summit: An AI Assist for Interactive Storytelling

Phew! GDC 2010 has come and gone, and I finally have a chance to breath.  The AI Summit in particular went fantastic.  A big thanks to Dave Mark and all for helping organize it.

Here are the slides from my talk on Tuesday on how you can use existing AI architecture you already have in your game to improve things you haven’t thought of before.  The game taxonomy has been particularly helpful in really understanding tricky game design problems.

AI Summit: An AI Assist to Interactive Storytelling

If you have any questions about the talk, feel free to post them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.

I was deeply happy with how our Interactive Storytelling session came out, and a number of people told me it was one of their conference highlights.  Another big thanks to my co-presenters Michael Mateas and Emily Short.

There’s several posts that have come out of the conference, and I hope to get to them at some point.  But things are quite busy now and so they may have to wait on more exciting news.  They say action is better then words anyways.

Immersion: Interest in Interaction

Because everyone seems to be doing one, this is my Avatar post.

Why do games have movies in them at all?

Come on, the “should games be movies?” debate has been cycled endless and endless, and the vast majority of developers  seem to have fallen into the “no” category.  But that’s missed the point.  Why do games even have movies at all?  I mean, if games were so great, we could just skip the cutscene development and story and all that and save money.  Games want movies for something.  Players want movies for something.

Avatar struck me because it’s #1 value seemed to be immersion.  Immersion.  You felt it deep and settle in.  Immersion is something game developers value a lot too.  And Avatar used a variety of the same tricks we use to get there.  Sets.  Lighting.  Sound.  Camera moves.  Artfully exposed setting background.  New graphical tech.  Sympathetic characters.  Acting.  Plot.  Tension and danger.

But our goals are different.  In movies, immersion helps draw the audience in so that you can communicate your ideas. In games, immersion helps draw the audience in so they can learn your ruleset so that they can explore and master your ideas.  There’s a middle step there.  And that middle step can be accomplished in a bunch of other ways too.  Maybe we can motivate you to learn and master rulesets because your friends asked you to, or because you get a prize, because it’s culturally significant, or even because your genuinely interested in that ruleset.

This is the key point though.  If you don’t have something better, then immersion is an incredible way to get people to interact.  Human nature seems to be genuinely less interested in interacting with what’s in front of them then in hearing a story.  Immersion is that strong.  So given a choice, every creator wants to have immersion, because (theoretically anyways) it doesn’t hurt your game, and it brings in a lot more people willing to listen.

But it’s ultimately something of a trick.  Unlike movies, games in the classical sense aren’t doing immersion to teach you something, they are doing immersion to get you to do something else.  It’s a betrayal of interest.  And games in the unclassical sense that are trying to teach you something through immersion are betraying that the interaction is important, when it’s really not.  And so critics and potential fans cry foul.

Is there a grey area?  A hybrid of both?  Of course.  As a rule of thumb, I find anywhere there could be a gray area you should live in the gray area.  There are plenty of examples of games that play both sides well.  Portal and Flower come to mind.  But understanding why immersion is being used at all is important.  Why there are movies in games.  Why multiplayer games seem like a different beast, why they don’t seem to focus on immersion in the same way.  Why people complain about games sucking people’s life away without returning any value, like a bad movie.  Often people fall for the immersion (or the rulesets!) and yet don’t receive or don’t care to look for anything on the other end.

Able to love Avatar and regret it at the same time.


All other things being equal, players will always appreciate stories more then interactions.

You can see it in the sales of the big games, the direction of the industry as a whole, the marketing, the proliferation of one-time content.   Bioshock 2 Game Director Jordan Thomas is focused on the narrative design, and let’s someone else completely handle the systems.  And this is pretty common.

Yes, you can fall in love with the interactions.  Yet usually it’s only after you’ve devoured the content, and gotten hooked by the initial fiction.

Yes, this makes me a bit sad.  But not too sad.  Different games for different folks.  And we can do both.

Branching: Considered

Consider branching.

I claim today that what breaks the feeling of linearity, of only “branching” content in our narratives, what makes the games feel non-linear, is that a player’s action that can be used in a similar context to provide a different result.  We generally call this a mechanic:  mechanics can be repeated over and over to get the same result, but give different benefits depending on the context (typically the location, aka jumping puzzles, but could be time, player resources, anything).  Any time you can apply a mechanic and get a meaningful result, you are no longer in linear, non-interactive feeling, boring space.  That this usually leads to procedural/systematic solutions is probably an unnecessary leap, albeit a useful one.

This formulation requires that mechanics be bound by at least semi-consistent rules (which create resulting dynamics, nach).  The player can reason about these rules to predict results and make informed choices.  Otherwise, there would be randomness, chaos!, and it would feel non-linear, but not complex either.  Ah, the vagracy of complexity theory.  But yes, expectation says that if I can do something twice, I usually can do it in any context where it makes sense.

It is the intermixing of these rules throughout the different game contexts that prevents the “feeling” of branching.  The inventory items of old adventure games don’t break branching, and thus by this definition are not mechanics, because they are (usually) pure one-use lock and key.  However, repeat dialogue systems in the Sims are mechanics because they can lead to different (story) outcomes.  And the coins in Super Mario Bros. are not mechanics because they do not provide any (meaningful) result, except that 100 gives you an extra life, saving them.

Why define mechanics like this?

Because it defines a story concept and a story problem with a system design solution.  A well-studied, implementable design solution.  How do you prevent branching?  You create a generally applicable mechanic that the context creates different meanings for.  Mix and repeat until ready to serve.

(Edit: Consider KOTOR.  1 mechanic (good/evil), but still felt very branching, moreso because that mechanic was rarely meaningfully in play.  Compare to two other existance proofs.  I’ll let you guess the ones I’m thinking of.  P—————— and U———.

What is significant is the number of mechanics typically needed in these sorts of branching dialogue trees.  Or rather, the number of significant choices (made significant by however many mechanics necessary).  Network/Choice Theory would predict 2-3, which is the typical number for such games.  But I have a hard time visualizing so few being meaningful enough.  Maybe it is because the mechanics themselves aren’t powerful enough to make the decisions significant, not that the options are too few.)

Role of Narrative in Gameplay

Andrew has a fantastic question up. Towards the end, he actually completely changes subjects, but I think it’s important to start at the beginning. He asks:

I keep thinking about what it is that narrative does. I’m not especially interested in the ‘effects’ of narrative on the player so much as the ‘function’ of narrative. That is, what role does narrative have in the process of playing of a game?

What indeed! After a quick brainstorm:

  • A framework and metaphor for expectations that creates predictable system reactions
  • Goal communication
  • Immersion expectations and world impacts leading to long term investment
  • A skeleton to build post-play reflection around
  • Rules that can be explored

Of these, these, the first 3 we are great at, the 4th we do ok, and the last, well. While the role-playing conversation games have used the player’s understanding of narrative structure to do morality games and plays (Ultima IV, Bioware, etc), only a few games have let players play with the narrative structure itself. Obviously Facade comes to mind, and I’m sure there’s a few more. But it has yet to catch on in the mainstream, and until (or unless) it does, narrative seems likely to remain only in a feedback role, thus a non-interactive role.

Far Cry 2: Good Design edition

Once upon a time, I wrote some criticism about Far Cry 2 that took it to task.  But there’s still quite a bit in the game to learn if you can get past the issues Clint, Far Cry 2’s Creative Director, himself expressed.  I felt it was a shame, because Clint Hocking and his design group were pushing boundaries and haven’t stopped.  We share a kinship of ideas that I’ve never expressed that Clint in particular continues to espouse and fight for that means a great deal to me.

As recompense I offer this podcast of Michael Abbot’s, an excellent approach to where Clint is coming from and why he believes that movie ‘n bomb narrative is a trap.   The conversation on players assuming roles dynamically is particularly articulate and aspirational, if it runs into the same problems without solution that have prevented it from getting popularized so far.  Normally, I find podcasts to be too slow and long for my Gen X/Y MTV-game raised brain, but this one is like sitting again at the bar at GDC, and of course featuring Borut and Manveer doesn’t hurt either.

Thanks for your work guys.  We all struggle and all fall short, within our constraints and our failures.  I certainly have.  But that doesn’t mean that the years of thought and discovery are any less important and valued to those who are listening and learning and trying to run with it.