The Beginner’s Guide

How do you feel about “The Beginner’s Guide”? I know you think it’s pretentious bullshit, but could you elaborate?

I’m late to the party on answering this and interest has largely fallen off for “The Beginner’s Guide”, don’t really care.

Okay, so, we’ll need some axioms to really make this work.

1. Coda doesn’t exist, every spoken line in TBG is fictitious, all the levels made for TBG were designed as part of the fiction by Davey Wreden.

2. Within the fiction, the narrator, Davey, is unreliable on all of his points about the meaning of Coda’s games, but is reliable about the timeline of events relating to Coda’s discussion with him.

3. Pretentious means attempting to impress you by pretending something has a greater significance/talent/culture/meaning than it actually does.

4. The analysis of the design of the levels (that they are all very advanced things to do in the source engine, like one would do to show off) in this link is true (though whether he’s the subject of the game as he suspects, I have no opinion)

Lets assume briefly that there is a Coda for sake of conversation. His work is pretentious, it affects a meaning through words, interactions, or symbols that is incomplete uninterpretable or pointless. Assuming Davey’s statement about Coda sending him a group of levels titled, “playable levels” is reliable within the fiction, Coda is massively caught up in his own stupid funk. It’s pointlessly stupid to make a ton of levels that have such deliberate roadblocks, whether you’re making them for yourself, for the sake of making them, or the consumption of others.

These are boring exercises predicated on some sort of meaning. They’re not someone making levels purely for practice. They’re set up with text internally that are contradictory or allude to a broader meaning, often prompting a text reply about that meaning. Davey’s interpretations of them are boundlessly pretentious, but they leave no possible interpretation except pretentious ones.

I can admit that it’s a fantasy of mine to make a work that alludes to meaning to bait out people who take heavy stock in that kind of thing only to shatter their dreams by pointing out that their interpretations are bullshit, and that is seemingly the message of this, however I’d go further to argue that this non-game is built on pretentious bullshit, because it refers to all of these things as games in the first place, because it’s filled with nonsensical bullshit that it seemingly challenges you to interpret against Davey’s interpretations. It’s not trying to be a game. It’s not trying to be a portfolio of work. It is not trying to be honest about what it is. It’s trying to affect a greater message when it’s seriously just a bunch of levels we walk through and barely do anything.

As an artistic product I find the format it is delivered in lacking, because it is so easily supplanted by a youtube video of the same, when so much more of the experience is lost even in a game as simple as Phoenix Wright.

To add a little more on, I find it difficult to not evaluate a product as dripping in pretentious levels interpreted by an equally pretentious narrator as pretentious in of itself. Even if the final message and sendoff is somehow supposed to tell us that pretension, that trying too hard to find meaning in something, is a bad thing; it was still a massive experience generated by two extremely pretentious fictional personalities, in a format that is a waste of the medium, accomplishing nothing of any particular interest, that is actively painful on verge of retching to go through, with a message that undoes everything it previously said.

I mean, maybe pretentious is the wrong word to describe the overall work, but a waste of time certainly isn’t. A waste of hard drive space when you can stream it and not really miss out on any of the information inherent in the possibility space of this work.

Why? Why give this thing attention? What does it do to deserve this?

At minimum, if you can somehow claim that the message of “don’t interpret unclear things too deeply” is a worthwhile thing to hear; the game’s still not for me, because it’s not a message I need to hear. It’s a message for someone who is already a wretch, like the designer/writer of the Stanley Parable. That was a gross work.

Favorite Game Stories

What are your favourite game stories or lore? (I mean, purely from a narrative/thematic pov, regardless of the gameplay.)

Dark Souls, Bloodborne, StarCraft, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, Thief, and MGS3.

Dark Souls and Bloodborne both have a great storytelling style in my opinion, allowing a story to be told without creating interruptions, and creating narratives through fragmented information. I think these two did the job a bit better than the other souls games. It’s interesting when you finally get all the parts of the puzzle and piece together what the fuck is going on.

StarCraft has nice lore sitting behind everything in the manual, the characters are well written, well voiced, and have consistent motivations generally.

Legacy of Kain (at least, the soul reaver series), has really amazing writing, tackles some philosophy, and gets a bit mindfucky with all the travel and talk of destiny, presenting time travel and destiny in a rather unique way. The voice acting is also top notch and really sells the manner of speech for the characters.

Thief has nice characterization of Garrett and the various guards, has clever overheard conversations as well as notes and cutscenes. Some of the background information like Garrett’s eye being made by Karras is also nice. The city and missions themselves are also constructed nicely to deliver information about the world of Thief, which is rather cool.

MGS3, the theme of it and a lot of the writing I find to be really powerful, as well as the more subtle ways in which the theme and a lot of the characters’ motivations are made clear through their actions. The concept behind it is simple, but the execution makes it really strong in my opinion.

Swapping out Aesthetic Themes

Since you usually say that the theme and story is superfluous in relation to the game, would you say that, while keeping all of the combat systems, we change the theme of the souls games to be, say, My little pony: friendship is magic themed, they would be just as good games?

I actually discussed a sort of joke mod for dark souls of this variety with friends recently, except I said it should be themed like modern warfare with them swinging long barreled guns instead of swords, and stabbing each other with glocks instead of daggers.

I also discussed making a game where the cutscenes were literally cuts of Citizen Kane, or where they would introduce completely nonsensical or contradictory plot points, like alluding to things the player had just done that had never happened, bringing up central elements of the plot that previously did not exist, providing information contradictory to the layout of levels or the events in the stage. Remark on the player’s use of a weapon (recording the actual weapons the player used and always choosing the wrong one, such as saying you used an axe if you used a sword).

I think it would be a cute message. It would show how the game’s narrative isn’t necessarily consistent with events as they play out.

As long as it is clear what the current game state is, and all the elements of the game are consistently and identifiably represented, it does not matter what those elements consist of. If you represent poison (the effect which drains your health slowly over time) consistently as electrical sparks in all of its instances, it doesn’t matter if you name the effect “fred” in-game, players will learn it and remember it (and probably just call it poison), much like they do with poison in every other game its been introduced in. A lot of games name common concepts weird things and are somewhat remembered for it. There’s a TVtropes page for that. I still call any projectile in a 2d platformer game that moves in an upward arc an “Axe” after Castlevania.

When I first got into Brawl modding, I swapped out EVERYTHING, as many character textures and models as I could. I tried to have every character have at least one new thing to them, and tried to swap out every stage. I’ve done similar things in dark souls, oblivion, and skyrim. I don’t genuinely care.

At most I can say that using the MLP horse models in dark souls would look a bit awkward on the humanoid rigs. Otherwise, as long as everything is clear, it’s the same shit. Otherwise we might well have an existential crisis switching from higher to lower graphics modes and vice versa.

Have you actually watched Citizen Kane? For all you know its plot might perfectly fit a rhythm game.

I have seen Citizen Kane actually. I thought it was a good film, and it’s really obvious how it influenced the medium, even without a background in the topic. Of course I looked up its innovations afterwards, many are less obvious. I thought it would be funny to make a game, like a rhythm game, that blatantly had no relation to CK, but used CK’s footage as cutscenes. You could compare it to the Great Gatsby game someone made in flash. I think the “Citizen Kane of Games” to most people represents the breakout moment when a game will finally show everyone else how to tell stories using games that aren’t stilted and awkward, borrowing from film conventions, in the way that films borrowed from theater conventions originally. I think we’ve already discovered all the techniques for storytelling in games that we’re going to, what other means of conveying information in a game format are there? I think I’ve explained previously why I don’t think gameplay and story will ever be perfectly in sync.

Issues with Interactive Narratives

A simple look around the games industry shows that frankly, there aren’t a lot of games affecting players very effectively on a range of psychological levels outside the normal for a game except horror games. Many many indie games have attempted to create profound interaction, but frankly they fall on their face by nature of not using the medium of interactivity. Games that attempt to engage players on these levels have no capability to do so except those afforded by film and choose your own adventure books. Standard game play has the potential to be broad and open ended, with many complex interactions and sub-interactions. Games whose game play is primarily based on narrative elements are very limited in comparison.

I find this trend rather odd in some ways, but given current technology, it’s to be expected. In real life, some of the most complex things we do are interact with other people, in real life, online, over the phone, and otherwise. In real life interactions we have tremendous range of expression, between tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, and actual word choice. Games by comparison have very little word choice. The games we call RPGs have very limited roles for us to play. Even the best in the genre have at most 16 different dialog choices for a given question. Most people reading this are probably reeling at the idea of having as many as 16 choices for a single input query because they’re so used to maybe 6 at most. However frankly our interactions are limited not just because there are only 16 choices, but because these are discrete choices at all. Combat situations have options that are rarely so discrete. They have analog information that dialog trees will never have. In combat you are not choosing between pre scripted scenarios, you are creating one yourself. The scenario emerges from your actions and the submodalities of those actions. A dialog tree has no submodalities. There is no “unit of choice” smaller than the discrete options you have selected and the sum of those options compiled.

The big reason the majority of our games have focused on combat is because combat is a topic absolutely ripe with analog information in the sub modalities of actions. The location of an attack, its hitboxes, the time it occurs, the angle the attacker is facing, the velocity of the attacker, the distance of the attacker relative to the target of the attack. All of these have so many permutations between them that it enables tremendous emergent complexity. We have no such thing in dialog, because dialog is so reliant on submodalities we cannot emulate. I do not believe that dialog will ever really be a gameplay function on the same level as functions of combat until we are capable of AI with the ability to parse natural sentence structure and reply adequately. We have a few AI right now who can approximate these types of effects rather convincingly, but it’s pitifully easy to break these, and very rarely are they capable of holding a conversation. Their methods of parsing language are limited to reductionist methods (homing in on keywords relative to others, reducing a sentence to its barest level of complexity) and Bayesian filtering in order to produce semi-coherent results. In short, they have no natural understanding of sentence structure, they are only capable of recognizing and replying to trends in sentence formation.

In short, current AI technology cannot understand language well enough to facilitate natural conversations.

Video games are in many ways incapable of precisely modeling real world analogs. A vast number of our real world sports have a huge emphasis on precise body motions, but copying that in a gameplay context is frequently close to impossible. Upcoming VR technology seems to have a huge chance to change this, and in a few limited cases, like wii sports, already has, but we still have many games which require abstractions to represent things like the strength of a swing or the English on a ball. Conversation is similar and yet we see those things rarely because developers know that would never be remotely convincing. In terms of conveyance of understanding for conversations, abstractions like a bluff meter make absolutely no diagetic sense. They are not relatable, they are therefore not easily understood in any intuitive sense, and make poor gameplay mechanics. It gets even worse in that dialog responding to such bluff meter would be selected in a binary manner same as all other dialogue. Mates cut flute maturation Steve (auto correct fucked this sentence up, left it because it’s funny). Computers cannot formulate natural sentence structure in response to an analog input of any kind.

Beyond this, on an emotional level, I don’t think we’ll be able to relate to AIs until they pass the Turing test on a more specific level of interaction. Current Turing tests tend towards broad rambling conversations that don’t have specific directions really. What if an AI is to play a specific role? Not just “human”? (This section is to be expanded on)

We speak in one of the most complex languages on the planet, with the most words and arbitrary rules, yet in (video) games we have none of that complexity. People ask us why we haven’t had a “Citizen Kane” of video games yet. Games are the medium of interactivity, yet our dialog sequences, no matter how complex, are still practically devoid of it.

Games are limited in the types and styles of emotions they can convey effectively because they have a requirement to focus on interactivity. As they engage more thoroughly on comedic, romantic, or other emotional levels, they lose interactivity, because we cannot craft those in an interactive format without the use of live human beings. All that our controllers afford us is broad open actions. There are many things we still cannot capture, like the finesse of fencing. We are forced to reduce these things so they can fit the limited range of what our controllers can input. A controller has no analog to dialog so until it does we are stuck with shallow conversations. I am no AI researcher, so I cannot even begin to provide any sort of recommendation for how to craft more believable AI, but what I can say is that it must have a legitimate understanding of sentence structure beyond mere Bayesian filtering, or it has absolutely no chance of interacting with humans in a gameplay context in any meaningful way.

Personally, my thought is, if you want to have a game about dialogue, a game about emotionality, put people into it. Play with other REAL people and figure out a dynamic that has the players play off each other in a way that can be quantified and fit into the rules structure. Stop waiting for an AI development that’s unlikely to ever happen and make some friends.

Stories Necessitate Dissonance with Gameplay

Ludonarrative dissonance is a term coined to describe how a game may have a narrative that stipulates certain points, but the gameplay motivates, enables, or forces the player to act in a way that is contrary to what the narrative established. The original example used for this was bioshock, which acts as a critique from ayn rand style objectivism, requires the player to, much like many other first person shooters, act selfishly in pursuit of their objectives. Another example from more modern parlance is the Uncharted series which has a narrative establishing that the main character is having a fun treasure hunting romp across the globe, while not acknowledging that in the gameplay, the player acts as a mass murderer, killing literally thousands of people. For some reason, games that decide to acknowledge this, such as Spec Ops: The Line, are considered subversive or revolutionary.

For the purposes of this essay, I will be referring to narrative as all elements that exist “in-universe”, from the overall plot or story, the setting, the characters or artistic design excluding abstractions, the dialogue, and all written records that may exist to the characters. This includes main and side branches of a story. The narrative is effectively anything established as being a part of the character’s universe, and dissonance occurs when something that should be outside their universe interferes with it, or when gameplay constructs that should exist in-universe are contradictory to the way the universe is treated as being by the narrative.

Smaller examples of ludonarrative dissonance occur all over games, such as abstractions necessary for gameplay to occur, such as the inevitability of spawn points, ammo drops, carrying large inventories, save checkpoints, consumable items disappearing when you walk over them, countless abstractions in the interface, irrational NPC behavior, invisible walls, bottomless pits that respawn fallers back at the top, regenerating health, food healing flesh wounds, actions taken in cut scenes the player cannot perform themselves or vice versa. The list is nearly endless. These things are so commonplace and repeated that pointing them out is essentially the topic of every gaming webcomic. They have even come to be called, “gamisms” (not to be confused with Gamism in GNS Theory) much like truisms, being things that occur in gameplay that are dissonant, but we accept because they are necessary or fun. Gamisms are things that over time people have come to ignore-

On another level dissonance between gameplay and narrative may occur simply because players are enabled to do as they will. The plot may tell you the character is amazingly competent, but the player frequently blunders when they have control. The plot may say to hurry somewhere, trying to establish urgency, and the player takes their time. There may be a goal the character is actively engaged in and the player checks out, leaving the character behind.

Many games through their structuring also enable the player to do things out of sequence, breaking the law of cause and effect for events described in the narrative or producing weird game interactions. In Mirror’s Edge, the apparent narrative attempting to be established by the developers in the race with jackknife is that jackknife is so fast he manages to keep ahead of you, and you have to urgently pursue him. Many players however are actually faster than jackknife, resulting in his script teleporting him ahead, so he can be ahead of the player. Actual events do not coincide with the narrative here, producing instead a scene where you run along, as jackknife teleports around to his destinations.

In a number of game speed runs, players perform things out of sequence in ways that make no sense from a narrative perspective, or with regards to the nature of the game world. The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time run has the player clip through walls, turn a bottle into an ocarina, warp to the final boss battle, assemble all 7 sages without ever meeting them, get the master sword he has never even seen before knocked out of his hand, and defeat Ganondorf: King of Evil with a deku stick that repeatedly strikes anything it brushes against an infinite number of times. I’m aware that this is outside the developer’s intention, but I think these actions fit within the bounds of gameplay. The game is fine and intact despite all the abuses occurring, only the story is left in shambles.

A few games manage to completely avoid ludonarrative dissonance, largely by avoiding being games, downplaying their game nature, or by having minimalistic settings such that there is no established information to contradict. Examples include Dear Esther, which offers the player no options but to meander around and eventually reach the radio tower, not that there is much contradiction if they don’t. The Stanley Parable seemingly has an answer for every possible action the player can undertake with both the actual game and the demo as well, but it’s only able to accomplish this by severe limitation on the possibility space of the game, limiting the player to purely walking around, activating objects and moving a single physics object in some rooms. Beyond Two Souls takes a similar approach, making even all failure in the game redirect to another section of the game and ultimately change nothing in the larger plot. By limiting the possibility space this way it is much easier to keep track of all the ways interactivity could contradict the narrative, and keep dissonance to a minimum.

On the other end of the spectrum many old games like Contra or Castlevania have very little dissonance because they don’t try to create very specific narratives around the actions of the characters. In Contra, you follow the story of soldiers destroying an alien menace. There are no cutscenes that attempt to characterize the nature of the world, or explain your actions, so there is no narrative information that openly contradicts the actions taken in gameplay. In Castlevania you control Simon Belmont, tasked with defeating Dracula. This, like Contra, has no narrative information that directly attempts to say anything about the nature of the world or the actions of the characters, beyond the simple setting that there is a humanoid character. These games contain gamey abstractions, like chicken in the walls, or giant bullet projectiles that you can dodge, but because it doesn’t try to sell the setting as more realistic, these things can be accepted as a reality of the game’s setting rather than things that are obviously ridiculous.

My base point here is that a dissonance between the actions of the player and the narrative of the game is something that is massively commonplace across the medium. Currently this is viewed by a great number of academics as a bad thing. Games are currently regarded by many of the visionaries of our field as a young developing storytelling medium and to them ludonarrative dissonance presents a strong blow against the capability of the medium to effectively tell stories. The prevailing view on the matter seems to be that ludonarrative dissonance is something that we’ll have to work together to overcome, that for all the contradictions there must in turn be a form of ludonarrative consonance on the other end of it, and in the short term it’s something we’ll have to try our best to avoid or overcome.

Unfortunately for narrativists, games necessitate a trade-off. As more information is more solidly established about the setting or the intended sequence of events in a game, the smaller possibility space is necessary in order to prevent dissonance between the narrative and the game. Dissonance is not a hurdle to be overcome, it is an inevitability in the process of enabling emergent play. Being able to account for enough circumstances to produce branched narratives for them all isn’t clever nearly so much as it is consigning a game to irrelevance. The only games that can provide such an experience are ones that restrict any hope of emergence. As a game is less dissonant and more narrative heavy, it is necessitated that the game becomes less about player freedom and more rote following of the script established.

The reason ludo blah dissonance exists is because of the essential conflict between aspirations to create a narrative work of art, and the necessity of providing a gameplay experience. The products narratively oriented developers create are stuck in the interstice between these two and literally no medium exists, games must accept dissonance or be destroyed.

Games Where “Your Choices Matter”

How do you feel about the “mortality/dialogue” mechanics in games like Mass Effect and Star Wars Old Republic; games where your “choices matter?”

Your choices don’t matter. They matter less than a level select prompt.

Lemme break this down, I like to keep this image on hand, it’s a decision tree from a visual novel, school days. I googled some others and honestly all of them are roughly the same level of complexity.
Another good representation of the complexity of these choice types of games is A Duck Has an Adventure because at any time you can zoom out and see every pathway.

These decision trees are more or less the entire game’s structure represented visually. Do you think these decision trees look complex to you? To me they look exceedingly simple.

For comparison’s sake, here’s the tree of optimal decisions for 0 in Tic Tac Toe:
The above visual novel charts are mapping EVERY DECISION IN THE GAME, this tree of Tic Tac Toe, a game so simple that even children can figure out the optimal way to play rather easily, is many many times more complex. Tic Tac Toe is of such a low level of complexity that it’s not even NP hard, and yet from a simple graphic you can tell it has such a high level of complexity that it dwarfs even the most complex visual novels. Tic Tac Toe isn’t even a good game, it’s a terrible one by all accounts because of how easily it’s solved.

Beyond that, here’s a decision tree for an endgame scenario in chess:
Chess is so complex that drawing a complete decision tree is completely impossible. There are more possible board positions than atoms in the universe unless I’m mistaken. Then Go dwarfs Chess by several more orders of magnitude.

Now compare all this to a video game. Imagine every frame is a turn, and your move can consist of all the valid button combinations on your controller. There are already a number of mathematics papers proving that a generic version of Super Mario Bros and other classic 8 bit games are NP hard.

Mario is a game you can replay almost endlessly and still have trouble with. A VN is a “game” where you can write down the solution on the back of your hand with a large marker.

Compare a VN, a “game” when you make one choice between maybe 4 junctions at most at each node to a game where you realistically are choosing between maybe 8 different states every 60th of a second, and where prior states are remembered and cascade into future states and the environment can modulate these states to create more combined states.

People program brute force bots to try to beat these games and they get quickly lost, because it’s WAY too computationally expensive to seriously try every single path. Even TASers need to seriously limit bot use to extremely specific tasks, like optimizing movement across one small section of the game, because anything more complex and the bot just dies.

How much do these choices really influence? They sometimes lead to different quests, get you different bonuses, most of the time they don’t really do anything. They dress it up like it’s something big and important, but you know what I find more interesting? This: