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Posted on October 21, 2017, 12:08:22 AM by Jubal
To Adventure - The World of Adventure Game Design

To Adventure?
The World Of Adventure Game Design
By Jubal

This week's Exilian Article, brought to you by Tiny Bertrella Slugkin.
This week, I want to discuss the humble adventure game, especially since I've just been playing a humble adventure game and it was rather good. A great deal has been written about adventure gaming as a genre, so most of what I'm about to say is unlikely to be news, but I thought I'd give my own takes on a few of the genre's core elements, design features, and ideas. As you may well know, adventure games were a massive part of gaming in the 1980s and 1990s (the era before I was actually doing a lot of gaming myself, since I was born in 1994!) The two major formats of adventure game, the text-parser (prevalent in the mid 80s) and the point and click (prevalent in most adventure games from the end of the 80s to the present) both tend to revolve around some fairly similar ideas and gameplay structure.

What are these? Firstly and most importantly, adventure games tend to have inventories, object interaction, and puzzles. These form the core of the gameplay, which is mainly about puzzle solving: enemies are there to be avoided or tricked, rather than destroyed by a more militarily powerful player. In general a classic adventure game has no consistent/regularly used combat mechanic; the aim is to work through all the different puzzles (or some of them, in branching or open-world adventures) in order to complete the game. This in turn is part of what gives adventure games their specific feel - the lead character is rarely a combat-heavy or powerful figure (or if they are, as with the lead of the early King's Quest games, they are put in situations where this is of little use to them). This strongly differentiates them from RPGs, which tend to involve heroes who have the combat abilities to directly take on enemies. Many adventure games have a fairly clear plotline, even if there are choices as to exactly how it unfolds in different versions. Death is usually not a major issue or severely punished, though this can vary.

Another theme of adventure games that it's worth mentioning is light-heartedness. One can make dark point and clicks, of course, especially if they're escape the room type puzzles, but they're somewhat limited in scope; object-interaction gameplay, plus a physically weak character, plus a lot of easier task/puzzle ideas needing character interaction, all add up to it being easier to make adventure games in a chatty, talkative setting. Dark adventure games risk leaning too heavily into other mechanics, and for good reason: if you're in a war-zone, or a house with zombies in it, you're going to need to either spend vast amounts of time sneaking or give the character weapon abilities, both of which dilute the core mechanical theme of the genre.

Space Quest: the snarky parser perfected?
I think it'd be proportionally harder to make a truly dark parser adventure than a point-and-click, because one would need to find a way to present the parser responses in an actually unnerving way - which leads me to a further point on the different between parser and point-and-click. I love both, and disagree with the idea that point-and-clicks are simply the superior genre; good parsers are *really* hard to code, that said, so point and click does give the developer a bit more control over what the player can do. The other key thing, though, is that parsers are more likely to put a narrative voice in between the player and the game, though it's not a hard and fast distinction: this is more suitable for some games than others, but it's worth thinking about. The Space Quest series in particular mastered the parser-narrator, who could give very funny, snarky feedback to the player. This ability to create a conversation between player and designer has always been an endearing feature of adventure games to me.

The difficulty of providing high variation (and thus replayability) and the problems of massively multifaceted object interactions are elements that may put some developers off the adventure genre, and indeed there are very few story-driven adventure games coming out of bigger studios nowadays - they're a feature of hobbyist and indie gaming markets primarily. When bigger designers do make adventure games, they often try to rely on non-adventure gaming mechanics, with disastrous results - the Matt Smith era Doctor Who adventure games being a very particular case in point, where many games relied purely on the "sneak" mechanic plus a few minigames. Doctor Who is the sort of setting that could be great for adventure gaming, but without the sort of classic object-interaction and character-interaction puzzles that make up traditional adventure games the recent DW series felt a bit flat.

So, we've talked a bit about adventure games, what makes them distinctive, and I've introduced a (very brief) summary of the genre's development. What are some things to think about when making adventure games?

  • Puzzles. A good adventure game needs good puzzles! I think this is a genuinely hard element, especially if you want to appeal to both genre-savvy players who will have high expectations of what they might be able to combine, and newer players who may get stuck more easily with object interaction. This is one reason I like the idea of putting in secondary routes through the game that use items/characters in more unexpected ways. One thing that's emerged in gaming since the golden era of adventure gaming is achievement systems, which are BRILLIANT when combined with multiple-route games, as they encourage players back to try and find the more hidden routes.

  • Place. That is to say, both the setting of the adventure, the position of the character with regard to that setting, and the position of the player with regard to their character. Is the adventure something where you want the player to feel very strongly that they are the character, or something where they are telling the character's story? Will speech be reported, making more of a storyline feel, or direct, making things more close to hand?

  • Playtesting. Adventure games probably require more testing than most genres, because the player has a large but limited set of options. Object types are usually fairly unique in adventure games and players expect to be combining them and thinking outside the box, unlike RPGs where actually despite a wider range of inventory possibilities there's a limited range of types of item each of which has one clear use (food, armour, weapon, weapon supplies, maaaybe potions/potion making kit). I don't think there's any better way to do out of the box testing than with real players.

Who knows where your game could end up? Mine ended up with an adipose in a forklift.*
*I am not legally responsible if your adventure also leads to inappropriately qualified aliens in charge of industrial vehicles and machinery.
With these three core elements in mind, constructing a story-driven plot and then working an adventure round it is the next step. In general, I tend to do this one screen or location at a time - focussing first on general exploration, and any puzzles related to exploration, and then moving on to the more general puzzles that require hopping between areas. This may be quite different if your adventure game is more strictly linear in some way and a higher proportion of the puzzles involve the player character physically advancing through the game (as is the case in escape the room point and clicks like the great flash classic, The Mystery of Time and Space). I find that looking at exploration first works well, though, because it lets you as a designer think through setting and theme more easily early on and then working out puzzles that fit around that feel. Adventure games, for all that the object interactions are hard to sort, can be nice from a development perspective in that they can be built quite sequentially and in quite a modular way. To put it another way, tweaking one puzzle doesn't usually affect all the other puzzles in the game, whereas in a strategy game or stat-driven RPG, tweaking one player stat early on subtly affects their entire character development from that point onwards.

I hope this has been a good overview of some of the history, problems and ideas around adventure games - in future articles I'd like to go more specifically into how to design particular puzzle mechanics and settings that will work well with the genre (not least because I have a lot of game ideas that I'm never going to get done myself, so throwing them at other people is the best chance they have, in what may become a sort of bizarre orphanage for game themes). I love playing adventure games, and if you've got one that I haven't tried then I'd love to see what other people are coming up with!

I do think that there's a lot to be said for adventure games as a genre - their history of light-heartedness and the easy ways in which observational humour and satire can be worked into the genre make them the perfect antidote at times like the present when the world is all too grimdark. They allow for strong interactions and character crafting compared to many RPGs & combat adventures where the story is often something that has to be packed around the gameplay rather than driving it. Getting started making simple adventures isn't hard - why not give it a go yourself? You never know where you might end up!

Posted on October 17, 2017, 11:13:30 PM by Jubal
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Exilian Articles is here to support independent creative work and links between that and other arts/academic areas. As such, submissions should ideally be in a public-facing style rather than being academic essays, and we encourage writers to think about what parts of their work may be of interest to other creators and designers, be that useful tips from current creators on design work, or historians highlighting material culture or story-focussed elements that may be interesting for game developers, and so on. Creative submissions are welcome on occasionbut are not the focus of this section, and we encourage people to share their creative work in The Storytellers' Hall (poems and stories) or The Artisans' Guilds (music, drama, art, comics).

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Posted on October 13, 2017, 06:41:54 PM by Jubal
The Evocation of Place

The Evocation of Place
By Jubal

Hello, Exilians! Today I’m going to talk about a writing phenomenon called evocation of place, and look at how we create places and use limited sets of markers as cultural filler in our work, as well as thinking about what gives those markers that power and how we can use it (and avoid misusing it) better.

To start with, let’s meet a few examples…

Iuri looked over the fence and out over the snow-covered wilderness beyond, a wasteland of tall trees and scattered rocks that seemed to stretch out into some forgotten eternity. He had a name for the wilderness, and the name was “home”.

The sun glinted on the Ariazza, the city’s guardian statue of a golden lion, as a long, sleek galley flew past it and out of the city’s harbour. The flag of the republic flew proud above the mast, and aboard the ship, a small company of men stowed their pikes and boxes of crossbow bolts and settled down for the voyage.

Her name was Siabhe, and she was a witch. She’d known it since she was six, and had felt the call as she walked across the moor past one of the cairns; she certainly knew it now as she stood atop the hill, her red hair fluttering in an autumn breeze that bit and whipped around her ankles as it shot inland from a grey, angry sea.

These three vignettes each give an opening paragraph that a European/N American reader can probably ‘place’ even though not a single place-name is mentioned. It’s an inherent feature of writing that, in general, cultures are evoked rather than described. Our own cultural learning and understanding of the real world fills in a lot of the gaps. In the second quote, how did you imagine the buildings around the harbour? You probably guessed that they were made of stone, and that the country was warm. I didn’t need to spell those things out, let alone use the

You don't necessarily need to say "Venice" to conjure up the image...
word “Venice” to drop you into something you might have recognised as evocative of an Italian city-state. Iuri’s pseudo-Russian and Siabhe’s pseudo-Celtic evocations function similarly – Siabhe, for example, you probably imagined wearing something woollen, but from what I’d written she could just as well have been in full plate mail, or a toga, or a grass skirt. The culture, once evoked by her witchcraft and the cairns and her hair colour, fills in around her.

There are some key elements it’s worth picking out as being critical to creating evocations. Names are a classic one, because different languages may well have familiar spelling and naming patterns. Regionally specific items/markers are a second – a hat could exist anywhere, but a torc, or a toga, or a camel, or an elk, all give a regional specificity that gives the reader pegs to hang their ideas about a place on. Climate is a third: had I replaced the word “snow” with “sand” in Iuri’s passage, the entire feel and evocation of place changes dramatically. It’s worth thinking about all these when you introduce new places, as they allow relatively sparse fragments of text or hints to build up a much wider picture for the reader.

This “evocation of place” is one of the most powerful – and dangerous – tools in the hands of a writer. Fictional cultures, whilst never being perfect analogies of real ones, are in general constructed from rearranging elements we know and understand, with additional twists, additions, and edits. Fictional cultural development is, in short, usually a process of editing rather than first-principles creation. This is why evocations of place are so useful in narratives or in the visual look of a person or place; they act as cultural filler without the author having to spend laborious extra time fleshing out more detail, and, allowing the writer to unfold any additional elements at their own pace.

Indeed, it’s almost impossible to not evoke places as a writer, because we construct our worlds in the way described above – a set of evocations of places and cultures are operating in our heads as much as on the page. There are, however, great risks to the use of these techniques, and ones we should think about more carefully. Let’s look at a couple more evocations of place:

They called the child Vakhtang when he was born – after a hero from half-forgotten days, from before the world had turned and the Kadjis had been driven back into the wilderness. He grew tall upon the mountainside, and learned the name and call of the planets and the whip-crack of a hunting bow and the whoosh and sound of the long rushing river that curled and snaked a thousand miles to some far-off sea.

She was as big as a great boulder, and strong – not just in the force of her muscles, but in all she radiated from her, in the sharp ambition of her eyes, in her voice and cry and all that she was. A thousand camels were kept in her fields, a giant guarded her gate, and they called her Dahabo, for there was little she liked more than the gathering of gold.

Many people from North America or Europe (as I am myself) might have struggled to place these two, despite them if anything being more specific than the first three. The first is from the Caucasus nation of Georgia – Vakhtang Gorgasali, the wolf-head, was one of their earliest semi-mythic kings, and the warrior-wizard Kadjis are the villains of the greatest medieval Georgian epic, the Knight in Panther Skin. The second is heavily Somali – beside the Somali name Dahabo, giants and camels are both prominent in Somali myth, and the description here of Dahabo is quite a close analogy to some descriptions of the warrior-queen Araweelo, the central character of one of the main cycles of traditional Somali tales.

A modern statue of Vakhtang Gorgasali, from Georgia Guide
People find these evocations harder to place because they are unfamiliar with the cultures being evoked – and there’s nothing inherently wrong with being unfamiliar with things, unfamiliarity is an opportunity to learn which is great. It does, however, lead to a more troubling realisation – that cultural evocations work only so far as the reader’s cultural understandings go, and that if those understandings are vague or wrong or unhelpful, evocation of place can rapidly become evocation of stereotype.

Older Anglosphere literature is certainly saturated with these sorts of evocations of false or constructed ideas of places, especially in colonial contexts - the “jungle savages” evocation being one of the most common. These more extreme examples may be easy to avoid, but modern writers often fall down such traps as well, especially if trying to evoke a place with limited words. Genericising to evoke “east Asia” or “Africa” is easy for western audiences and writers, all of whom have usually grown up with genericised ideas of those areas, but it’s an absurd thing to do. It insults readers’ intelligences and dims their curiosity; if someone is capable of understanding that evoking Germany and France, which share a border, involve cultural differences, it’s hardly a stretch to appreciate that Somalia and South Africa, separated by about 1600 miles at their closest points, might also do so. Worse, it can condemn the interesting things about those cultures, and the genius of entire peoples past and present, to be lost in incoherent continental homogenisations.

These blinkers of experience and genericisation of the other are not new things in human understanding – nor indeed are they fundamentally a creation of the colonial period. Colonial era literature and ideas did, however, redraw those boundaries of where could be genericised, and subsequent globalisation has often led to those ideas being exported even to areas that were less involved in the active periods of military colonialism themselves. A good starting point when thinking about counteracting this is just to compare to some cultural areas you know better – if the place you think you’re evoking seems unfeasibly or weirdly large, it probably is. We should recognise that and think about the places and contexts we’re evoking in our work. I don’t think there’s an option to avoid evocation or simply ignore/obliterate cultures that we don’t understand as creators – such an approach tends to ignore the impacts of those cultures on our own and erase people and ideas by whose inclusion we are strengthened in our work.

If you’re a creator - and this goes for musicians and game developers and artists as much as writers, because cultural contexts are very much multi-sensory things - challenge yourself to think more about the places you evoke, what elements of a scene you use to invoke them and where they come from in your own mind. What elements, what learning, did you use to inform that scene and that creation? If – as I have done on numerous occasions – you decide that your basis looks rather threadbare, then it’s a great time to do some reading and discover more (especially from writers native to any culture you’re looking at) about what you’re working with. Your readers or users, your writing, and your world may just get a little bit better as a result.

Posted on October 07, 2017, 12:54:13 AM by Tar-Palantir
So, You Want To Write A Medieval Epic?

So, You Want To Write A Medieval Epic?

I’ve been reading a lot of epic poetry recently, for what must be my fairly considerable sins, and I was therefore inspired to pen this guide to aspirant writers:

So, you’ve been doing a bit of reading and you think you might like to write a medieval epic to secure your place among the immortal pantheon of poetic greats and exalt the unquestioned virtues of your race. No, I don’t know why you would either in this day and age. But, if you’re sure, answer the questions below to check:

Obviously, a good epic needs a rhyme scheme. Do you go for:
A: Something mostly like this // With rhyme and rhythm, and varying stress.
B: Why is this in words? Numbers are better.
C: ‘As I was going to St Ives…’

You’ve read The Iliad as background research. What was your response?
A: The main problem was that there was too much plot and moral ambiguity, not enough fighting and Achilles wasn’t OP enough.
B: Yes, fine as a feat of literary genius. But obviously totally inaccurate as a historical source.
C: I never knew Homer Simpson knew that many words.

Religion was an important part of medieval life. How do you feel about God?
A: He’s amazing and great and the best thing evah.
B: The evidence suggests there’s no such person.
C: Who cares? I’m a Belieber!

What’s your favourite political system?:
A: Divinely-mandated Imperial monarchy.
B: Democracy.
C: Anarchy. Because I’m so edgy.

You find a horn lying on the ground. Do you:
A: Blow it so hard your head explodes?
B: Try to find out where the horn came from and return it to its original owner?
C: Ignore it, because you’re glued to your smartphone?

Bums. What is your response?:
A: Snigger. And then feel guilty about thinking impure thoughts.
B: How immature.
C: Lol.

You are an innkeeper. A large party of travellers have just turned up at your inn. How do you react?:
A: Make friends with them, set them a challenge, and then leave with them to make sure they keep their word.
B: Endeavour to sell them as much food and drink as humanly possible to boost your cashflow.
C: Close up, because it’s Strictly I’m a Celebrity X Brother on Ice tonight and you’re not missing it.

You’ve started writing and spotted a major plot hole. How do you solve it?:
A: Your main character prays and God creates a deus ex machina so everything works out.
B: Spend hours trying to find a satisfying and practical way round it within the self-imposed constraints of your story.
C: Get pissed and forget about it.

Who is your main heroic character descended from?:
A: The Romans. Or the Trojans. Or the gods. Or some mixture of all three.
B: A historical dynasty that you’ve carefully researched to work out who the main players were in your chosen time period.
C: Who’s that really old guy in all them films? Ganbledore?

At what level of outnumbering does your hero become concerned?:
A: Never. With God on your side, unnumbered legions of infidels pose no threat to your all-conquering sword.
B: It depends on the tactical situation, the morale of the troops and several other factors. In a defensive siege, maybe 10 to 1; in a pitched battle, perhaps 3:1; in an offensive siege, 1:1.
C: Never. Because the baddies can’t shoot straight, no matter how broad a target they’re presented with.

What is your attitude to barbarians, natives and other sundry peoples not related to your hero?:
A: Infidels who will all submit to the divinely-ordained rule of my hero, or be slaughtered.
B: All are equal members of the human race and the primary objective is to develop constructive and mutually-beneficial trade links and social interaction.
C: Bloody immigrants.

What is the role of women in your writing?:
A: They can have some supporting roles, but, ultimately, it’s all about the men. They’re just better.
B: They’re as important as the men. In fact, I’m considering making the main character a woman.
C: There are no women. Just pneumatic wenches and females wearing minimal clothing.

You’ve reached the end! How have you finished your epic?:
A: The good guys win and set up a new Eden, whilst the baddies are all horribly punished, all in accordance with Biblical teaching.
B: There’s a well-thought-out conclusion with an unforeseen twist that ties up all the plot strands.
C: Everything explodes.


Mostly As: you clearly have exactly the right mindset and skills to write a medieval epic. Get going and I look forward to reading your newly-minted piece of dubious historicisation!

Mostly Bs: you’re far too sensible and rational to write a medieval epic. Have you considered a career in science?

Mostly Cs: why are you even reading this? Do you even know what a medieval epic is?

Posted on September 29, 2017, 10:58:10 PM by rbuxton
The Power of Rules

The Power of Rules
By Richard Buxton (rbuxton)

Should dragons obey the rules? Art from DeviantArt member Soulsplosion.
When I was young I met a girl who, like me, enjoyed writing fantasy stories. “Fantasy is very exciting,” she declared, “You can put a dragon over here, a wizard in his tower over there. Anything can happen.” I, in my cynical, childish way, disagreed. What was so creative, I wondered, about mashing up a load of fantasy clichés and seeing what came out? To me, the really exciting fantasy worlds were those where only certain things could happen. Where the laws of nature, though different to those of our own world, could be used to create all sorts of interesting characters and storylines. Even at that age I saw an irony here: was it possible that true creativity required rigid rules?

Some years later, I started work on my Demons saga, a trilogy of fantasy video games. The project never made to the screen, but it nevertheless kept my brain occupied on long car journeys. At the start of the story the hero, Dannial, has his soul forcibly removed. This comes to the attention of three warring demonic races, who all vie to fill Dannial with their own essence, thus turning him into one of their own.

Why am I using this half-baked project as an example? After sketching the plots of the first two instalments of the trilogy, I decided to think in more depth about the laws of nature of the universe I was creating. Why could some beings use magic, and others not? Why was each demon homeworld distinct? What was so important about a human’s soul anyway? When I had made these decisions, an interesting thing happened: the third instalment wrote itself. The characters, their limitations and their access to sources of magic were so clear in my mind that I could weave them together with ease. I was very pleased with this but, when I looked back at the first two parts of the trilogy, I found that their plotlines no longer made scientific sense. If only I had created my rules at the start of the process!

An island on Ravnica. Fan art from DeviantArt member fooyee.
Let’s look at another example: Ravnica, my favourite world from the card game Magic the Gathering. Ravnica consists of one giant city (think Coruscant, only fantastical) and is governed by ten independent guilds.  Like any of the Magic the Gathering worlds, all things in Ravnica can be defined by their relationship to the five “colours” of Mana, loosely comparable to the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Each guild draws its power from precisely two colours of Mana, and its role in the governance of the city is defined by those colours.

The Izzet Guild, for example, is responsible for infrastructure and machinery, especially anything powered by steam. Its chosen colours, therefore, are Fire and Water. The guild’s members are maverick scientists and mages known for their dangerous experiments. The guild’s leader, meanwhile, is a knowledge-obsessed genius (a Water trait in the game) who also happens to be a dragon (Fire, duh). As you can see, the simple act of combining Fire and Water enabled the designers of Magic the Gathering to create a fascinating cast of characters and a whole aspect of Ravnica’s society, both of which could function within the confines of the game.

When playing a game, the audience explicitly interacts with the laws of nature through the game’s mechanics. The principle of following strict rules in fantasy, however, is equally applicable to other media. In books, for example, the laws are just as important, but, in general, only their noticeable effects end up in the narrative.

I believe that the empowering effect of rules is not limited to the creation of worlds. Picture two art lessons in a school (I work in education so apologies if this feels like a tangent). In one lesson, the teacher is strict and rigorously enforces the school rules; in the other, the children are ill-disciplined and their behaviour is poor. In which lesson are the children able to be more creative? Children, no matter what they tell you, crave (and flourish in) a stable environment. So my paradox appears once again: in order for children to be truly creative, they must be provided with rigid rules.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that rules liberate, rather than restrict, a storyteller. Many storytellers would, of course, choose a different method of creating their world and, if this applies to you, I’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below. I am often accused (and justly so) of over-prescribing my rules, especially in my current “big” project: a board game in which players use the rules of the Greek myths to prove themselves the best god on Mount Olympus (you can read more about it here).

Thank you for reading, and please feel free to share any thoughts you have on this article!