In the West, plot is commonly thought to revolve around conflict: a confrontation between two or more elements, in which one ultimately dominates the other. The standard three- and five-act plot structures—which permeate Western media—have conflict written into their very foundations. A “problem” appears near the end of the first act; and, in the second act, the conflict generated by this problem takes center stage. Conflict is used to create reader involvement even by many post-modern writers, whose work otherwise defies traditional structure.
The necessity of conflict is preached as a kind of dogma by contemporary writers’ workshops and Internet “guides” to writing. A plot without conflict is considered dull; some even go so far as to call it impossible. This has influenced not only fiction, but writing in general—arguably even philosophy. Yet, is there any truth to this belief? Does plot necessarily hinge on conflict? No. Such claims are a product of the West’s insularity. For countless centuries, Chinese and Japanese writers have used a plot structure that does not have conflict “built in”, so to speak. Rather, it relies on exposition and contrast to generate interest. This structure is known as kishōtenketsu.
Yesterday I had the great opportunity to speak as a guest host for the Game Culture Club on the topic of “Games and Paper”. I prepared three topics and an introduction on history and terminology of board games. I will spare you the latter as you’ll find loads of information on the Internet.
The three main topics were:
and the last was actually more of an experiment trying to get our hands dirty.
We met at a beatiful location the Rosebottel Bar in Karlsruhe and it didn’t take long until the discussion was on.
The Board Game Experience
As an entry to this topic I proposed to compare a typical board game with the experience of playing a videogame together on the couch regarding communications and social behaviour. The differences between these experiences painted a good picture of what’s special about board games and how the player group interacts with them. We concluded the following main differences and thus characteristics of the board game experience:
The last point perfectly made the transition to the second big difference of board games - the haptic, the feel of the game and its physical presence.
Board games are part of our “real world” and thus often feel more natural than video games. “If we can touch it, it is real.”
And even the parts of the game itself can provide fun at a very basic level as toys. If you play with your poker chips or monopoly money while waiting for your turn. Also we tend to attach a higher value to something we can hold in our hands. If I have 30 poker chips in front of me they seem more vauable than a text display that tells the exact same number.
Last but not least these objects are very convinient and easily readable. I can hold a card right in front of my eye if I can’t read a small text and I can see right away where my pawn stands on the chess board.
So board games are different to video games in some ways. Let’s see what we can make of that.
Board Game Design
To get everyone thinking about what Board Game Design means I started with a coarse question: “What’s harder to pull off? Video game design or board game design?”
Naturally the answers varied wildy and came down to the conclusion that there is a difference in complexity and effort. Surely if you do a 200M$ AAA blockbuster game you have to put more effort into it. But creating an interesting board game with all the layers of strategic decisions, social interactions and physical limitations is a challenge of its own.Though it’s harder to master the art of programming than drawing some numbers on cards and a game board, it’s easier to distribute a digital game and have it tested or even run simulations on it.
Naturally the question arose what lies in-between? The most obvious answer was paper prototyping. What can you learn from creating your video game on paper first?
A general say is that “If it makes fun on paper it makes fun in your video game.” and the opposite. That’s a very bold statement and everyone was convinced that this heavily depends on the game itself and to some extent to its genre. You might end up with a super fun prototype and discover later that the social interaction of the board game experience was the main motivational factor and the game is dull and repetitive once played on a computer. And even more obviously some fun of real-time or skillbased video games won’t translate 1:1 to a paper prototype if it’s even feasable to create one.
Playtesting of a board game of mine with some friends and observing their reactions and interactions with each other.
So besides determining the “fun” of your game what is it good for? We found the following (additional) benefits that you might learn from your prototype:
One risk in using a paper prototype also became apparent: You might get stuck in local maximum due to the limitations of the medium. Yes your prototype is fun but you forget about what you could do with the power of the computer as a medium.
After some discussion on how you could prototype various genres and games on paper we moved on the last topic and really started to work our brains.
Board Game GameJam
This was planned as a little experiment to see how creative (and sober) the participants of this Culture Club meeting were. The topic for the Jam was set to be “soccer” and we could only use the few pieces I brought from a Settlers game.
Pieces of the setller scattered all over the small table. What can we make of that?
After some failed attemps on a game about poor women having to sew footballs in a sweat shop we finally managed to create a tiny fun board game about big companies trying to get their piece of the worldcup license. (You will find the rules at the end of this article)
After playtesting our new game the evening came to an end and after all the talking some even stayed to play a board game right afterwards.
I want to thank every participant for joining our discussion and I hope you had as much fun with “Games and Paper” as I did.
You take 7 pieces of the settler board. 2 water, and 1 of wood/grain/clay/grass and one additional w/g/c/g randomly. You place the pieces randomly upside down in the shape of a football and then you flip 4 of the 7 cards so that 3 stay hidden and 4 are shown.
For every player you take 2 cards of every ressource. (e.g. with four players you have 4*2*4=32 cards) and shuffle them. Then every player gets 8 random cards.
Every player has its own turn. When you are in line you can decide on what piece of the football you want to start bidding. Then you have to bid ressources on that piece one after another but with the cards upside down (hidden bidding - the other players only see the amount).
After every player has bidden and nobody wants to raise his bid the cards are turned over and the player with the highest points gets the piece. Cards that match the piece (e.g. sheep on grass) are worth 2 points. If you have bet on a hidden piece you first flip that piece and then check who won the bet.
The player with the most pieces at the end of the game wins.
If nobody has any ressources left or wants to bid then the piece goes to the player in line.
So our Games and Horror event was delayed by a month but we finally met up last week to discuss the whats, whys and hows of horror. It’s especially interesting how the notion of horror and interactivity are sometimes at odds but can strengthen one another. And the players’ agency can also provide access to a feeling of horror impossible in other media. Read on to find out how.
At first we need to figure out what horror actually means.
Photo by demontroll
We came to the conclusion that horror is all about fear, uncertainty. Horror fiction, games, movies always attempt to establish a prevasive atmosphere of fear. There’s a decided lack of safety, the protagonists are almost constantly in danger, and even the short moments to catch their breath are often interrupted dramatically.
But there’s also a neccessary lack of certainty, even in these grim situations: There is always hope of turning things around, of somehow surviving, or at least reaching one’s goals, even if that means dying heroically.
If the grim outcome is completely certain instead then it turns into tragedy as there’s no fear of the unknown anymore. It’s all about coming to terms with the outcome instead.
However horror is a very difficult label as it is often used very differently: Horror can be used to describe a work of fiction that evokes the above mentioned themes, atmosphere and emotional goals. However the term is also often used for something that only makes use of the tropes and aesthetics of horror, without the deeper emotional goals.
An example are shock effects and zombies. Both are staples of horror fiction but to believe that everything that features zombies or surprising moments automatically becomes horror as defined above is a bit far fetched.
That settled, the question is, why do we submit ourselves to horror fiction in the first place? The feelings caused are certainly unpleasant: unease, digust, fear… We had a few theories:
Firstly horror movies allow us to conquer our fears. At least if the ending is positive, we can do so within the story, overcoming the monster. But the same is true outside the fiction: By mastering our own fear during the experience we can show that we are daring and strong. This of course also has social relevance, as it let’s us demonstrate these qualities to others without actually placing ourselves in danger.
Photo by Katie E. Holland
In well done horror fiction the ending is also usually a very powerful. After building up tension all throughout the movie the final release is very cathartic and can be very emotionally rewarding.
Of course there’s the rollercoaster effect: the simple biochemical reactions caused by fear are a reason to seek out similar experiences.
Lastly we can make extreme experiences and ask uneasy questions in a safe environment. This way we can learn more about ourselves, how we would react in similar situations etc.
Since games have a few specific properties that differentiate them from film it’s worth looking at these and seeing what repercussions they have for horror fiction.
The feeling of fear is a very fragile experience, easily destroyed by something unfitting intruding. This often happens in pen and paper role-playing horror games: As soon as one player laughs or makes a joke the atmosphere is usually gone and it’s very difficult to bring it back. For this reason the presentation of horror games usually has to be very well-crafted and consistent. Especially considering the fact that horror games usually have to uphold their sense of dread for a much longer time than movies.
This atmosphere also needs to be in tune in presentation and game mechanics. If they are in conflict it’s usually at the cost of the horror atmosphere. Most games are strongly empowering to the player and this power is in direct contrast to a feeling of unease and fear. This is clearly visibile in sandbox games, where the entire city is the playground of the character. There is a playful interaction with the world but no hint of existential fear manifests itself.
Most horror games instead go the other route, making the player vulnerable. This aligns the narrative threat with the gameplay threat. Usually this is done by having the player survive very little in terms of attacks. This makes every encounter with an enemy a lot more tense. Additionally resources are usually very scarce meaning that whatever power the player has is often only temporary.
Sometimes even the safe/load function is a limited resource. Since saving and loading allows you to restore a specific situation at no cost, it provides a flawless safety line and that can remove all tension. This limitation be seen in the early Resident Evil games where the player had to use an actual ingame item in a specific location to save. This is terribly uncomfortable, as one can not leave the game at any point. Another version is the often called ironman mode, where one can save unrestricted but can only load until that character has died. Modern roguelikes often use that. Another option, which I have not yet seen would be, to have a lighter limit on savegames but to also limit the number of times one can load from a game.
Using this lethality to create fear in game however brings one central problem with it: The balancing becomes very delicated. High lethality obviously makes the game harder, as failure is punished harshly. Having to repeat the same section multiple times reveals the game underneath it all, shattering tension and replacing it with frustration. A player-selected difficulty level can help with this, providing the appropriate level of danger for each player.
This entire issue of disempowerment begs the question: Is this the only way to create tension in games? Our idea was to focus on the interactivity. In movies or books I can only be afraid based on the actions and presentation of the characters. In a game though the player can be horrified by his own actions, becoming the monster. We have hardly seen a game trying to do this because it creates a very uneasy feeling in the player.
The first idea is to empower the player, giving them agency in the small areas but taking away their impact on the larger scale. This works well with cosmic horror where the scale is often beyond the scope of a human life. Here the gameplay provides the player with lots of things to do, whlie the horror still builds. Often though this is only used in a twist at the end, avoiding the feeling of horror during the game.
An example that comes to mind is the excellent Spec Ops: The Line. It’s not a horror game but it is strongly influenced. Here the player is an special operations soldier who as to make decisions within the game. Some of these decisions are, after the fact, shown to be terrible ones, leading to the loss of innocent lives. Then at the end of the game all your actions are again questioned in a way that accuses the player itself in being complicit to the murder.
Our second idea was to build a sort of internal, pyschological horror. The fiction is not about an outside force but deals with an internal struggle. The player is empowered and can affect his surroundings but the question is: should he. How far would they go for their objective. There could be a tension between the ingame goals and abilities and the player’s willingness to actually execute on them. Here the player would be the protagonist and the monster at the same time, but not through retroactive revelations. So far we had no example for a game like this.
So that’s our thoughts on the matter. We are convinced that there’s other ways to create fear without stripping the player of agency. What are your ideas?
So after the look at the different ways in which the classic hardware interface dissolves, let’s peek at what makes game interfaces work.
Games and Handicaps
An often mentioned part of games is that within a game we submit ourselves to rules that make reaching the goal harder. Like we may only hit the ball with the foot for example. It’s not efficient, but it’s what makes games fun.
These rules of course also always define the interface. In this case the foot, or the club in golf for example. And one thing that can be clearly seen in these cases: The interface is a big part of this inefficiency. It doesn’t help in making things easier for the user. Quite the opposite.
Considering that the goal of many interface designers is usability this seems terribly counterintuitive, doesn’t it?
A Conflict of Interest
So assuming that a good interface makes the users job as easy as possible while a good game make the players’ job harder, then that leaves us with a conflict of interest of sorts.
If the interface is too efficient, it can destroy the gameplay. Simply carrying the golf ball into the hole would simply kill the game. If the interface is too inefficient then there is no challenge. The experience would be disappointing.
On the other hand if the interface is too inefficient, it will just make for frustrating gameplay. Imagine playing golf with a flyswatter.
And when interface design goes wrong we have something like “pixel-bitching”. In the adventure games of yore it was neccessary to find the interactive elements in complex scenes, yet these were very small.
Or think of a classic RTS game. Now imagine you had to select each unit individually to issue commands. The game would turn into a chore filled with busywork.
A bad interface creates tasks that require little to no challenge to the player yet take up lots of time. I’d imagine only very few people would consider that enjoyable. (Which is, of course, something that you can monetize if you’re into that F2P thing…)
So with game interfaces we’re caught somewhere between challenge and usability. Usually we want the interface to support and enable the actions of the player. That means, among other things: clear feedback, providing the neccesary information to the player so he can make his decisions, and understandable relationship between input and outout.
In the 12th session of the Game Culture Club we got together to discuss the topic of Games and Interfaces. Since it was a purposefully broad topic we had much to discuss and a lot of interesting points. Let’s try to break it down, shall we?