Tom Forsyth's Keynote
The first keynote of the conference was given by Tom Forsyth, who worked at Valve and then Oculus VR. Tom highlighted some of the challenges we face when designing all-new experiences for virtual reality. For example, motion sickness comes from there being an imbalance between what your eyes see and what your ears feel, so having players move up stairs causes issues (elevators are apparently much better). It's also important to avoid most cinematography techniques, and to use an eye blink transition whenever possible.
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The next day we heard from Robin Hunicke, who produced Journey and is seriously inspirational. She began by talking about Wattam and its designer Keita's inspiration for the game. The zaniness levels of that game are right up my alley, making me want to get a PS4 even more...
Most of Robin's talk was about her inspiration for Luna, which as she puts it, was kind of a beast. She talked in depth about the inspiration noted on the game's website: "origami, shadow boxes, abstract sculpture and minimalist illustration." Near the beginning of the design process, she apparently spent six months alone in her apartment, folding paper. It turned out that folding paper digitally wasn't very fun, but that didn't mean some of the lessons learned from origami couldn't apply to a game's design. Luna looks wonderfully whimsical, and I am hoping I was mistaken about it being a VR game (or at least, not VR-exclusive) because I would really like to try it.
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R. Michael Young's Keynote
The first academic keynote of the conference, R. Michael Young is in charge of the Liquid Narrative Group at NCSU. He described some of the main areas his group looks at in the world of narrative after reminding us that "narrative is big. Really big."
The systems his group builds are evaluated based on whether they produce narratives that can be understood by humans in particular ways. They break narrative down into story (everything that happens inside the story world), discourse (the choices the author makes in how to tell the stories; what goes into the telling), and interactivity (what happens when a player goes into the role of a character? How do we design the story and discourse?).
The group's most used tool seems to be artificial-intelligence-based planners. Planning looks at how to automatically sequence actions in the face of a novel set of environmental goals. In narrative, this might mean anything from having characters scheme to achieve their own goals, to authors planning to mislead then reveal. Stories are broken down into the smallest possible units (such as individual actions), then built back up. Many problems arise from the use of standard planners, which often tell uninteresting stories. One of the ways to improve the outcomes is the group's current work in progress that attempts to express character traits through the action sequences created.
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Michael's distinction between story and discourse got me thinking about my own thesis project (read a somewhat out-of-date description here). I realized that a large part of what I'm doing feels more like discourse than story.
It felt even more clear to me when I thought about Mieke Bal's definitions of story and fabula from Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. A fabula is "a series of logically and chronologically related events that are caused or experienced by actors" while a story is "a fabula that is presented in a certain manner." Most of the techniques I am working on actually don't affect the fabula so much as the way the fabula is experienced.
One of the areas I struggled with in my thesis proposal was justifying why I didn't want to use planners. There are some definite reasons that were easy to articulate, such as difficult authoring. However, I also had this unarticulated understanding that planners weren't quite right for the design approach I took, but wasn't sure exactly why.
By thinking about story and fabula, I was able to realize that I'm not trying to arrange actions into a story so much as allow navigation through a set of coarser story pieces featuring fixed actions. I want players to be able to explore a mostly fixed fabula in different ways, leading to different interpretations of it. In the process, the resulting story should still have a sense of (but not necessarily actual) coherence.
As a result of this insight and another cool idea that came up during the conference, my thesis project's focus is tightening up very nicely. I'll share more about that sometime in the future.