Sunset

The wind was blowing hard over head, but down between the shoulders of two ridges, he was protected. He followed the bottom of the ravine, and dark, harshly broken boulders spread out around him. Broken shale crunched and skittered beneath his feet. The quickly fading light of the late evening sun did little to illuminate the dusty red landscape.

He crested over the highest point in the canyon and looked down into the valley. The word valley may be overly ambitious, he thought dryly, as the space below was really just a small, relatively flat area between three mountains. One rose directly to his left, its peaks reaching to incompressible heights, and another, smaller one was further off to his right. Straight ahead, disappearing into the haze, lay the last.

He squinted, straining to see what lay in that haze. A walled city, barely perceivable from this distance, was built up against the foot of the far mountain, and, just beyond that, lay the dark fortress. Just as he managed to pick it out from the dimness, a light turned on in one of its many towers. That was followed by another, and then many more. A floating constellation against the darkening mountain.

“Well,” he sighed, “there it is. The last place any sane person would ever want to be.”

Luckily for him, sanity was not a quality he had been cultivating lately.

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Rain

Dark clouds roiled overhead and drenched a grim tower, its walls slick and glistening from rainwater. It stood on a precipice, overlooking a mountain pass, a stoic sentinel for the land that lay beyond. It was here that the last remaining defenders had come, and they gathered on the round topped turret to keep watch. Some stood looking outward, crouching beside the crenellations, others rested with their backs against the stone fortifications. Rain water ran down their weathered, cragged faces, and they cast furtive glances at the sky and each other, looking for an answer to the question they all feared to ask.

Their pennant banner fluttered in the wind, snapping back and forth. Lightning raced across the sky and illuminated the valley beyond. Each time the lightning glowed, the watching guards would strain their eyes for any hint of movement. The seconds stretched into minutes, and the rain played a plinking little tune on their helmets. One of the men shifted his weight to lean upon his spear, and its wooden shaft thudded softly against the stone.

“There,” one of them said, pointing out into the valley. The others crowded over and leaned out for a better view.

The next lightning strike illuminated it, closer than they could have feared. The dragon had come, its scaled wings beating the storm winds into submission. The guards scattered, some shivering with fright, some glowering with a feral determination, all taking cover behind the tower’s fortifications. They gripped their spears tightly and awaited their judgement as death descended.

Dwarf Fortress: A Case Study in Game Design

Dwarf Fortress: A Case Study in Game Design

Dwarf Fortress. If you’ve heard of it, you’ve probably heard of how hard and unapproachable it is. What I find more interesting about it is how it has shed many of the things that people have come to expect a game to be. At the same time, it remains one of the most captivating game experiences ever created. For a long time now, I’ve wanted to write something about it to share some thoughts on why that might be.

The first thing that people notice about dwarf fortress is its graphics and UI, or, that is to say, its complete lack of graphics and UI design. Most people have come to expect games to be at the vanguard of user experience, and graphics and games seem to exist in a world where one cannot be without the other. It’s at this first barrier that many people are turned away from the game.

But the graphic and user experience aren’t the only (or even the most fundamental) assumptions about games that Dwarf Fortress forgoes. It does without things like creating “choices” for the player, designing mechanics to let the player feel powerful, or creating reward loops to manipulate the player into feeling good about spending their time playing.

Now you may be saying that Dwarf Fortress has all of these things, and it’s true that all of these things exist in the game. The fundamental difference is that these concepts aren’t placed there intentionally, but are instead emergent properties that come from a much more deeply important goal for the game. The most important thing, the thing that captures the attention of its fans, is the huge volume of narrative space to explore.

I’ve talked about narrative space in the past (I’ll do it again in the future), but for people who are confused by the term, here’s a brief rundown. A narrative space is the fundamental feature that defines a game and differentiates it from other narrative mediums. It is the collection of all possible narratives that can be created given a state, and a set of rules for interacting with that state. In other words, it’s the set of “world lines” through a game’s configuration space (if you’re into that kind of talk). In other other words, as you play a game, the sequence of events that happen in the game by interacting with the rules forms a narrative. The narrative space is all the different sequences that can come from playing a specific game.

In Dwarf Fortress, the number of different narratives to explore is ENORMOUS. It’s larger than any other game I’ve ever experienced, because the game creators have been specifically spending their time to make it that way.

This narrative space is where literally all of Dwarf Fortress’s value comes from. The game is given away for free, but there are players that find the game valuable enough to just donate money so development can continue. Remember, this is a game developed by two brothers, with no marketing budget, no graphics, and basically the same user interface as the vim text editor. Compare that to the many, many, many games on Kickstarter that fail to reach funding goals with the advantages of being pretty, and having a budget.

Dwarf Fortress shows us that many of the things that people believe must be designed into a game are really just emergent properties of a narrative space that has many compelling narratives inside it.

There is no system in Dwarf Fortress that was created to reward a player for doing specific tasks. Instead, the game models tasks and behaviors that are interesting to the players, and as players interact with the simulation, they are rewarded when things that are intrinsically interesting to them happen.

Many games assume that they must manipulate players into wanting to play more by exploiting reward circuits in players’ brains. In reality, players are motivated to play games because the process of voluntarily exploring the different stories that a game can produce, and finding the ones that appeal to the player is a feedback loop. The player chooses what to want on their own, then explores the narrative space to find it. When the player finds what they want, they feel so good that they go back to exploring the game. Repeat. The designers didn’t have to tell the players what to want, because the player just decided that something that was in the game was what they wanted.

The game doesn’t care about player choice, but in order to have a large narrative space, there must first be many different ways of interacting with the state. A large narrative space will necessarily give the player many different choices while playing. This is because, in order to create a larger narrative space, there must be more game interactions, that is, rules.

A metaphor for this is to imagine that a game is a two dimensional plane. The rules are the things that define the two axises, and specific game states are represented as points on the plane. Adding another rule to the game is akin to adding another axis to our spatial model. Now there are many different planes, and the number of different states was dramatically increased. The player has many more rules and interactions to play around with, narratives to choose between.

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It’s commonly accepted that a game should be designed in such a way to let the player feel empowered and assertive. Often this means that the game will be easily approachable, will allow the player to quickly understand it and how to do things, and has “easy parts” that are created purely to help reinforce the sense of empowerment.

Dwarf Fortress does none of this. Its UI is great for players who already know all the keystrokes, but it’s horrible for helping new players feel like they know what they’re doing. The game will often randomly throw impossible challenges at a player, and there are hundreds of little ways that a fortress can go belly up without the player noticing until it’s too late. Yet the word that players have chosen to describe all of these barriers and things that can go wrong is “Fun” (with a capital ‘f’). They really mean it, because they just keep coming back for more. With every new attempt, something new is learned, some previous barrier overcome, and it’s EXTREMELY rewarding. This can only happen because the designers decided to focus on creating a large narrative space over “balance” and “player progression”. Compare that with bland industry games where you know what to do from the beginning, and the only thing that changes is the size of explosions on screen.

In the end, playing Dwarf Fortress is an extremely fresh experience that really stands in stark contrast to the shovelware that dominates the AAA games industry. It’s a dramatic case study into what really matters in a game, and how to achieve it. Luckily, with games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it looks like some of the good ideas that inspired Dwarf Fortress are finding their way into the mainstream industry. Here’s hoping for a revolution in the way we understand games, and to the role that Dwarf Fortress helped play in bringing it about.

Reaction to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Reaction to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

My initial reaction to the E3 2016 trailer for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of Wild was to jump and down ecstatically until I had a stomach ache. Just from the trailer, there was so much see, so many ways in which this game was the ultimate fulfillment of all my hopes for the franchise. Needless to say, I am very excited for this game.

First of all, let’s just establish what the purpose of games is for me. Games are story generating engines. A good game is one where the player experiments with the game’s mechanics and stories shake out. Great games are ones that prompt the player to try hard to get the coolest stories, and rewards the player for their effort. To be clear, by “stories” I’m not referring to scripted in events that are placed into the game by a writer, but instead to the emergent narratives that are the aggregation of player actions and their results. This distinction is very important; a game that depends on having a script written into it for narrative has more in common with film than a “game” (and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that).

Prime examples of these “story generators” are games like Minecraft, Civilization, Dwarf Fortress, and even chess. Let’s look specifically at Minecraft. It creates a huge story space by giving the player a simple set of things they can do: move, collect blocks, place blocks, and fight monsters. There are obviously other things on top of that, but even with these four simple concepts, you get the core of Minecraft’s gameplay. The player has a space to discover a myriad of stories involving the collection of resources, and turning them into whatever the player may value. For me, this usually means delving into deep caves to find building materials in order to build opulent, walled castles. Because the narratives are mechanically driven, Minecraft has a very large (practically infinite) number of permutations on the specifics of how a particular narrative may go.

At its core, the Zelda franchise is also designed to work in this way. This is easiest to see with the first game in the franchise, with its non-linear progression and utter lack of scripting to direct the player (and no, “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.” does not count as direction). This openness allowed for players to simply go whichever way they wanted, and create narratives out of the events that unfurled. Shigeru Miyamoto has always said that the central theme of the Zelda franchise is discovery, and it was one of the first games to show us that this discovery really meant the discovery of interesting stories that are enabled by the mechanics.

(That’s not to say that a lack of scripting is necessary for players to discover the narratives enabled by the mechanics in a game, per se, but it does make it easier. It’s much easier to explore and discover when you don’t have a fairy ringing in your ear, constantly reminding you that Zora’s Domain seems freakishly cold or whatever.)

While the handheld installments of the franchise always seemed to tack true to the original theme, on home consoles from Ocarina of Time onwards (excluding Majora’s Mask), this discovery of narratives took a back seat to stories that were scripted into the games. Development was more concerned with creating catered experiences rather than opening up a world of possibilities and allowing the players to find the enjoyment for themselves. This has been the biggest blunder that the developers of Zelda have ever made. The franchise that helped to invent the concept of emergent narrative had abandoned it, and it has felt stale and groundless because of it.

Luckily, it seems like Eiji Aonuma has always understood this premise at some level. The first game he directed was Majora’s Mask which had an (overly) ambitious system that was supposed to allow players to play and replay the game over and over to discover and rediscover many stories and their nuances. Unfortunately, that intention was not well signaled to the player, and scripted narrative RPGs like Final Fantasy were getting a lot of attention, so the genius of system was not well received by many players. After that, the narrative structures of the next three major console releases were basically clones of Ocarina with some tweaks this way or that to bring some game specific flair (admittedly, I loved the story of Skyward Sword. I wish it were a movie).

It seems that those days are behind us, however, as Breath of the Wild returned to the core theme of Zelda to breathe life back into the franchise. Everything that has been shown and said about this game reinforces that its purpose is for the player to discover all the different sequences of events that are allowed by the game’s systems.

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The first thing I noticed is that this game invites you to go EVERYWHERE. The first thing you see after leaving the area designed to make sure you know how console controllers work is a skyline that is practically a dessert menu of points of interest, just begging you to go and explore them. Next you learn that you can climb on most surfaces (and pretty much all outdoor surfaces) in the game. So there aren’t really any walls in the outside world, either, at least, none that can’t be overcome with some perseverance and a complete disregard for Link’s knees. This game doesn’t have a script it needs you to follow, you’re invited to find the stories that are inherently in it.

They’ve introduced myriad new mechanics including (but not limited to): Link’s new stealth abilities, his various powers that allow him to manipulate landscapes, a fully functional physics engine, reactive AI for NPCs, and a revamped character simulation that allows the environment to affect Link in ways it never has before. The interactions between these many systems create a HUGE narrative space in which to discover fun and exciting stories.

I could go on to talk about how these specific mechanics work to enable this huge narrative space, but I’m going to conclude for now by just saying that Breath of the Wild is the breath of fresh air that the Zelda franchise has been needing for a long time now.

Warcraft Review

Warcraft Review

*Here there be (some) spoilers*

Warcraft is a mixed bag of good and bad parts. The orcs were amazing, some of the action choreography was great, the production design was (mostly) on point, and several of the actors were very convincing. It’s not nearly as bad as some of the critics have claimed, but it also has some very deep seated issues that are bigger than this particular film. These issues go much deeper, and are part of the development of the franchise itself.

The good parts were mostly when the orcs were on screen. Visuals aside, the orcs’ stories were interesting, textured, and multidimensional. Each of the orc characters were bundles of conflicting motives, and the way they responded to these conflicts felt natural and organic. That’s surprising considering that they were represented on screen by completely imaginary imagery, but the state of the art motion capture technology did a very good job of bringing the actor’s performances to life despite all this.

Something I found enjoyable was how, for the most part, the design of the orc’s material culture reminisced to earlier times when grunts would run around on screen saying “zug zug” to you every two seconds. This simple visual call back to the early games of the franchise was well blended with visual elements that were introduced later in World of Warcraft.

Other visuals in the film were equally good. The set design for the Alliance cities filled my inner fanboy with glee (seeing Ironforge on screen nearly had me jump out of my seat), and the armor for the humans was a good blend of historic, utilitarian, kit and fantasy art.

Action scenes were generally good across the board. I was particularly impressed by the restraint shown by the director when choosing fight choreography. This could have quickly escalated into something ridiculous that would be more at home in the Final Fantasy franchise, but instead all action was direct and to the point without unnecessary embellishment. In particular I enjoyed the dual between Durotan and Gul’dan. It was just very satisfying to see a combat scene where I felt actual dangerous intent between the combatants rather than the flourishes that can be typical in other fantasy pieces.

In general I felt like the film was paced pretty well. Similar to the action scenes, the story was direct and to the point with relatively few melodramatic embellishments, with a few exceptions.

These exceptions lead me to the parts of the film that I didn’t like. Most of this was on the human part of the story. Every time the human characters were on screen I stopped caring, and that’s not because I’m a Horde elitist (I play humans in WC3, I played a dwarf paladin in WoW). The issue was that these characters did not have nearly the drive or complexity that the orc characters had. This can be attributed to the simple story telling of the game that this film was based off from, but attempts to make the characters more interesting came off as flat.

Lothar was just another brooding hero type guy, but it felt melodramatic and forced. Maybe an extended director’s cut could fix this, but for the version I saw, I couldn’t be bothered to care about him. Also, Star Wars should have taught us that watching heads of governments talk to soldiers about things rarely makes an interesting script.

Medivh’s storyline made very little sense to me, and I would have much preferred to see the kinds of conflicts of interest and lapses in judgement that happened all the time on the orc side. Also, the duel with him and the golem at the end was pretty dissatisfying because it required accepting a bunch of things happening at once just to force the plot. I would have preferred to see the well thought out and organic actions that were elsewhere in the script.

Khadgar was fun to watch at least. I did like Khadgar. Although, his little expedition to Dalaran started to feel like some of the worst kinds of things that can happen in fantasy films.

In general, the pitfalls that the film avoided with the orcs, it fell straight into with the humans. While much of the production design of the film was good, some of the worst of it was the unarmored human costumes. They looked more like cosplay than clothes in many ways (especially Medivh’s gettups). The magic in the film had a tendency towards “way too convenient,” a general problem in fantasy media that has the effect of murdering any kind of stakes. The stilted reciting of incantations started to grate on me, even if they were necessary so they could show the “silence” mechanic in live action (which I didn’t really find that fulfilling).

In general though, I don’t think the film did anything worse than what the franchise as a whole has done. In the pursuit of making the Horde and Alliance ever more obvious foils, the dichotomy has become more and more interesting vs boring instead of the original distinction of civilized vs barbaric. The Horde is no longer barbaric, and the Alliance is no longer a bastion of civilization, instead the Horde is interesting, and the Alliance is boring.

In the film, the Alliance is shown as a more or less concrete group of people that, while they don’t agree, sit around tables discussing the logistics of moving resources. In actuality, each of these three human kingdoms, multiple dwarf clans, and factions of elves would all have their own motivations and agendas that are enough to start conflicts of their own. An interesting Alliance would illustrate those conflicts, but instead we were given a room full of angsty senators, and the assumption that these were just a bunch of unruly grouches rather than representatives of fully fledged independent cultures.

Compare that to the Horde, which, even in this story about its beginnings, is hopelessly fractured and desperate. There’s no way a room full of senators will ever be as interesting as that. This is a general problem with the Warcraft franchise, and possibly with the fantasy genre itself: it romanticizes civilization and magic without saying anything about the conflicts that can arise when independent civilizations clash. Instead (because they’re so boring) you need the hopelessly uncivilized Horde to come and make some kind of conflict.

This film did not have enough dwarves.

That basically sums up my impressions of the film. I felt like it had some very good parts and some not so great parts, but those troubles can be tied to problems with the franchise’s development as a whole and not placed squarely on this film’s shoulders.

If you need a number I give this film 7 out of 10.