Exit, Pursued by a Zombie

Exit, Pursued by a Zombie was held on October 7th 2015 at the Southbank Centre. An excellent panel had a wandering discussion about a variety of topics relating to games and narratives. What follows is a very rough write-up of my extensive yet fragmentary notes from the event in their original bullet-point format.

The Panel:

Cara Ellison:
Has been working on Dishonoured 2 of late. Her route into games involved blogging, making text-based games, and QA at Rockstar North

Emily Short:
A former Classicist, Emily works on dialogue modelling and character behaviour. She’s also written text-based games and has lately worked on Sunless Sea.

Meg Jayanth:
With a background in English Literature and Film, Meg interned at Six to Start early in her career. She is perhaps best known for her work on 80 Days.

Naomi Alderman:
Starting out with a degree in Philosophy, Naomi worked in Law before becoming a Novelist and Game Writer. She is well-known for her work on Zombies, Run!

Exit, Pursued by a Zombie

  • A lack of competency can halt story progress (i.e. if a game if too hard for a player).
  • The notion that one should have to work to uncover the story is a bit odd.
  • Story does not equal dialogue. The mantra of show, don’t tell, is particularly true of video games.
  • A game where the story is entirely in cutscenes is a bit passé.
  • Stories become communal in games.
    • One might encounter complex challenges and need help from other players to progress.
    • Stories are sometimes so big that one player can’t explore it all and can only experience other bits through other players. (A reference is made to Dragon Age: Origins; one panelist didn’t visit a tavern in a particular town and thus didn’t acquire a companion character that would otherwise have been present throughout the game. She only discovered this character existed when speaking to another player.)
  • Board/tabletop games are great for learning game mechanics.
    • Recommended are Fiasco and Werewolf.
    • Models for ways to raise the stakes, make failing fun, and demonstrate how narrative drive can be part of mechanics.
    • RPGs are also useful.
    • Call of Cthulhu RPG has excellent character generation. It’s useful for writers in general if stuck with characters.
  • The Last of Us and Portal might be considered the pinnacle of cinematic, linear story-telling.
  • 80 Days contains over 700,000 words (more than the whole Harry Potter series?). Players will only encounter 3–5% of this on any one play through. Thus great replay value.
  • Writers generally have to give up the pace and flow of their story with a branching narrative.
  • When writing branching narratives, consider: what can prompt the unlikely?
  • Meaning occurs in the space between the author and the reader/player.
    • A panelist claims her horse shod itself in Red Dead Redemption. It may be a glitch, but it’s her experience and story.
    • People will look for meaning in and interpret procedural/random events.
  • If you (the writer) don’t question the reasons for characters going on quests, players won’t either.
    • The player character in 80 Days doesn’t ask ‘why are you going?’
  • Our choices in games reflect our personalities.
    • Regency Dating sims—one panelist always ends up a spinster.
    • “Jane Austen—actually quite good!”
    • One player of 80 Days commented they were surprised at how often they had homoerotic experiences in the course of the game. Apparently there aren’t that many, and one doesn’t stumble into them, so a reflection of player’s choices, conscious or otherwise.
  • A grasp of flow charts helps when writing games.
  • 80 Days was written in a scripting format; Notations for choices, variables, etc. Text files for Inkle Writer. One must understand the logic and capacity of system.
  • Emily Short codes a bit herself.
  • Regarding sim. games, a player ‘can die/leave in one scene, but not in another’.
  • ‘In most games you’re kind of a sociopath, or cheery murderer.’
  • People of say ‘I was exploring’ not ‘my character was exploring’—our language shows our agency.
  • There’s no rape in Naomi’s games, as there’s to much in the world and the media already. Her games reflect her values.
  • That ‘freedom is good’ is often assumed, but not true. Can’t absolve the designers or players with this. There’s never 100% freedom in games—if there’s capacity for crime/taboo activities, it’s because it’s been programmed in.
  • Reference: http://yoisthisracist.com/
  • One critique of 80 Days asked ‘why aren’t your black people sad, given the era?’ Meg says it’s not a narrative of victimisation, etc. Why is this bad?! If she wants suffering, she’ll read history.
  • Why is there so much shooting in games? Is it because it’s hard to model other stuff?
  • ‘At the end of Call of Duty, everyone is dead and you feel like you’ve achieved something.’
  • Reference: Long Live the Queen
  • The barks— i.e. ‘He’s over there!’ and ‘Reload!’—are all homoerotic in Shadow of Mordor.
  • Shadow of Mordor is a dating simulator in disguise—it has all the right mechanics.
  • Candy Crush and Farmville are important games.
  • AAA shooters are most visible due to advertising.
  • Are there any taboos, given that anyone can make a game now?
  • Anger, fear, shooting—all food groups/emotions.
  • Will video games replace novels? No, obviously.
    • Young Adult (YA) holding up other publishing areas.
    • Why are people not reading over age of 40?
  • Novels are the best for intensity of characters.
  • Games—more character, think ’that’s me’, gives intensity. Mainly provided by actions and relationships though.
  • Horror better in games than TV/films? ‘YOU’RE the idiot going through the door to the basement, giving the tentacle monster access to your vital organs.’
  • 80 Days—narrative punishment for narrative choices, i.e. taking a slave ship leads to you having to go on a slave catching trip.
  • 60–100 words between choices in 80 Days—text not too intimidating.
  • Q&A dialogues good for players getting what they want next.
  • Games cause emotions of agency (shame, pride) not just sadness, etc. (like films).
  • Education through games. Reference: Age of Empires, Apotheon.
  • Question from moderator: What do you want games to do, but they can’t yet
    • Naomi: (References Buffy), complex relationships. Total immersion.
    • Meg: AAA British Raj game with British villains.
    • Emily: Inventing objects to meet needs of people in game, but the objects not being pre-set.
    • Cara: Time and money only real limitations? Gone Home cost naff all to make, though.
  • “I wish I’d made Kentucky Route Zero.” *Other panellists agree.* KRZ approaching nuance of a novel.
  • Question from audience about disengagement from games and being too ashamed to continue with the plot.
    • Reference: Dishonoured DLC whale side quest. Euthanise a tortured whale whilst looking into its eye.
    • Reference: Oiligarchy. Things escalate. If you stop being evil, you are replaced by company board. Cash is the only reward, and there are no counterbalances.
  • Reference: A Dark Room.
  • Interiors for NPCs. NPCs don’t lie much. Bad task-matching? Lying NPCs feels like betrayal (by programmer)?
  • A test game where NPC B is rude because the player was rude to NPC A play tested as broken. Players need to understand/see NPC interactions.