Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Keynotes and Inspirations at Foundations of Digital Games 2015

I had a great time at this year's Foundations of Digital Games, but it was the talks and the hallway track with narrative folks that really left me inspired.  In this post I'll summarize the first three keynotes and some inspiration I got from one of them; you can check out my raw talk notes and the proceedings for more details.  The sketch notes I'm including are all by Chris Martens, a fellow narrative PhD candidate (though she'll be done soon!).

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.

[raw talk notes]

Sketch note by Chris Martens, via Twitter

Robin Hunicke's Keynote

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.

[raw talk notes]

Sketch note by Chris Martens, via Twitter

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.

[raw talk notes]

Sketch note by Chris Martens, via Twitter


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.


Anne said...

I had the same reaction to planning when I was advancing, and even toyed around with using a planner for a while. However, because I wanted to make a player-reactive system, it wasn't a great fit for a planner as they are generally better suited for things done before the game is put in front of a player.

Gail Carmichael said...

I have long had that sense as well (that planners were better suited for doing things before the game started). I hadn't found a way to articulate why beyond efficiency issues surrounding having to replan during the game. Do you have a nice way to articulate why planners aren't well suited for player-reactive systems?

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