No Time To Play

Tag: story

Weekly Links #184

by on Aug.20, 2017, under News, Opinion

You’d think vacation season is on the way out in the northern hemisphere, but my newsfeeds are still suffering from a dearth of interesting gamedev news. Admittedly there have been at least a couple of major conventions recently, including the WorldCon; this could be a factor.

To start with interactive fiction, you can still vote in the Introcomp 2017, and the Elm Narrative Engine has a new version out, that promises to bring rule-based storytelling to a whole variety of game genres, if those beautiful demos are anything to go by. In related news, here’s an article about Alexis Kennedy’s life and inspirations.

Next we have an article about the most historical games on PC, and another on what fantasy can learn from history. (It’s telling how both of them praise Crusader Kings 2.) What can I say? It would be easy to blame the theme park “Middle Ages” so common in fantasy fiction on the Americanization of world culture, but remember Tolkien’s utopian, impossibly idealized Shire. This is nothing new. And The Witcher, for all it’s solidly rooted in a specific legendary — that of Medieval Poland — has been roundly criticized for indulging in many of the same cliches as more generic fantasy.

Me, I’d settle for more fantasy stories acknowledging the fact that a sword was goddamn expensive, hence a medieval fighter was a lot more likely to use an axe, or even just a club. The former not only uses much less metal, but can also double as a versatile tool (if suitably designed). And most fighters back then were in fact peasants 80% of the time if not more.

But this could be a much longer discussion. I’ll end with an intriguing find: a game programming tutorial that teaches how to implement a Tetris clone in Lua and ncurses in the form of a literate source code file. Well done!

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Encounter-based game design

by on Jun.15, 2017, under Case study, Gamedev

Perhaps the most infamous feature of roleplaying games, computer and tabletop alike, is the random encounter. Dreaded by players, panned by reviewers, it’s nevertheless been a constant presence in the genre, ever since its original appearance in Dungeons & Dragons. It made sense in the latter, which was always at least partly a resource management game, but few modern RPGs preserve that aspect (except for roguelikes). And in a game that tries to tell a story, random encounters are just an annoyance, regularly getting in the way for no good reason.

Which is a shame, because encounters have been the basic unit of storytelling since ancient times. What else is a fairy tale than a string of encounters the protagonist runs into along a linear road?

(And the protagonist’s journey in a fairy tale is linear. Plotted on a map, it may well meander all over, but it must still be followed strictly from end to end. Straying from the path always leads into trouble, and turning back is the worst sort of failure.)

Having recognized this basic truth, about a year ago (as of June 2017) I started thinking how to take advantage of it in game design, because unless open-ended exploration is part of a game’s appeal, the map can turn into a dead weight. Players can easily tell when they’re being presented with false choice. Making good maps is hard; can you afford to waste time and effort only to have the results rejected for being pointless?

(continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #119

by on May.08, 2016, under Gamedev, News

You know the saying, in science no experiment is a failed experiment. So I’ll chalk up my little adventure in CYOA writing to a learning experience. You see, I had this story idea rattling around in my head for a while now, but it was too weak to work in static fiction. But I had this notion that games can get away with much weaker stories than books, and meant to try Squiffy anyway. I also had this plan of writing the story in a linear fashion at first, use Squiffy’s “continue links” to split it up at key moments, and only then start worrying about choices, flags, alternate text and what not.

How naive of me. Even before I started writing in earnest, I was already thinking in terms of passages and branches. How do people manage to use Twine and still come up with a linear story? A theme was even emerging where the game would offer daring/caution options early on, and that would open and close some alternate paths later, based on which score was higher.

Trouble is, the story didn’t work. At all. After three days of barely making any progress, I had to decide it couldn’t pull its own weight in any way, shape or form, and interactivity didn’t help either. So much for that. Oh well, I’ll know better next time.

In related news, as of this writing none of my beta-testers have given any signs of life for a week, so City of Dead Leaves will be a little late. Better than releasing a completely untested version out of impatience, I hope you’ll agree.

And now, for the links:

But that’s really just a nitpick. Until next time, have fun.

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Weekly Links #115

by on Apr.10, 2016, under News

Well, things certainly didn’t go as planned this week. After a newsletter long enough that I had to set a link aside, then giving up on it and writing an entirely different article instead, today I have only two links for you. Over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun we have an article arguing in favor of letting players enjoy a game’s story, without having to run the gauntlet of RPG combat if they don’t want to. Parts of it even echo Cheetah’s old rant about configurable games. And I’ll add, probably not for the first time either, that it’s grand time for game developers to stop thinking they have to make the players earn the story, a bit a a time, by running a gauntlet repeatedly. That doesn’t make your story interactive any more than making players click to advance a fixed dialogue. Learn to let the story move forward constantly, even if you lose control to a degree. That’s the whole point — you’re ceding some control to the player. If you don’t want that, why are you even making games in the first place? Go write a novel instead. I like novels more than games these days, anyway.

In unrelated news, @ifictionfr alerts me of an old interview with Steve Meretzky of Infocom fame, recently republished. It contains some trivia I never heard before, as well as scans of the design documents for Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — a surprisingly informal mish-mash of handwritten notes. Not much to say there, except to recommend it. So have fun, and see you next week.

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Weekly Links #113

by on Mar.27, 2016, under News

Hello, everyone. Once again I have a handful of links but this time there’s much more to say about them. At this spring’s GDC, a new voice rose to talk about the way emulation may be the only way to preserve old games going forward — and with them, a big part of our era’s culture. Which echoes Shamus Young making a similar argument exactly one year ago in The Escapist. You already know my opinion so I won’t insist.

In unrelated news, we have this short Golden Axe retrospective. I must confess my experience playing the game was very different. While my 15-year-old self wasn’t above staring at pixelated nudity, that was the last thing on my mind while playing a fast action game on a small EGA monitor. And I’m pretty sure that at least in the PC version the dwarf did have an axe — the whole point was that he had a slow attack that could cleave in half multiple enemies at once, while the woman had a light, fast blade that did pitiful damage, with the male barbarian being average in that department. And guess which character was my only chance of actually making any progress…

To change the topic once again, someone who worked on many of the big LucasArts games made public a bunch of design documents. And it turns out there was a proper sequel planned for the Atari classic Star Raiders — not the one that ended up on the market. What stands out in the PDF: how game designers at the time did consider potential marketing needs, but at the same time made provisions for when a feature was just too hard to implement properly. Which is the opposite of my experience in software development: what the boss decided absolutely HAD to be implemented at any cost. Yet somehow I was always the one being accused of inflexibility. Somehow.

It’s also amusing to see just how much of a Star Wars rip-off the game concept was, plus the terms liberally pilfered from Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica (the first one). Originality may be overrated, but there’s inspiration and there’s just sort of making a childish mash-up of cool concepts with no rhyme or reason. Then again, that perfectly describes Ultima I, and that’s the game that single-handedly launched the modern CRPG genre. Your mileage may vary.

Last but not least, it’s been three weeks since Rhianna Pratchett was mentioned on this blog, and here she is taking the stage again to remind people that storytelling in a game is more than just the writing — the entire design contributes, and developers need to learn how to work together in telling a story.

Then again, if people knew how to truly work together, the world would have become a utopia long ago. Cheers.

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Weekly Links #112

by on Mar.20, 2016, under Miscellaneous, News

Hello, everyone. I’ll start by highlighting a couple of rants. Over at The Guardian, Michael Cook comments on public reactions to AlphaGO’s recent victory, and why our view of artificial intelligence may be skewed. In related news, Newsweek reports on a talk at the recently concluded Game Developer’s Conference about Muslim stereotypes in videogames. I wrote about it just two months ago, so I won’t insist. And on his blog, Jay Barnson comments on the old contract, recently unearthed, that nearly killed the Ultima series. Last but not least, an article over at Gamasutra explains in detail what makes award-winning game Her Story work so well.

If I were to draw any conclusion from this week’s news, it would be that mentalities are everything. But that apparently remains too hard to grasp by people who make a fetish of high technology. And one day this willful blindness will get us all in really hot water. Have a nice week.

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Weekly Links #110

by on Mar.06, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Nearly thee years ago, I was writing about the importance of making story an integral part of your game, rather than a bandaid applied towards the end of development. And here’s Rhianna Pratchett again, standing up to say, no more narrative paramedics. An article from last week, actually, but I missed it at the time, and it’s too relevant to pass up. The good news is, game developers are learning. At long last. But the battle isn’t yet won.

In unrelated news, Emily Short writes a post highlighting the diversity of media underlying storygames, and the many different ways you can use text alone. A good reminder that stories can take many shapes, and few of them are pure anymore. And while having preferences is fine, dismissing any possibility as inherently inferior is self-defeating.

Last but not least, Michael Cook delights us with an article about those times when procedural generation goes wrong. From personal experience, I can say it’s always a problem, and my approach has always been to mitigate the worst cases — to ensure the game remains winnable, or at least playable and fun, no matter what. Which is a lot like what you want in real life.

But that’s all for today. Thanks for reading, and see you next week.

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Weekly Links #106

by on Feb.07, 2016, under News

Hello, everyone. With all my attention these days going into efforts to self-publish a couple of new books, I ended up not just with few links, but also nothing much to say about them at all. Still, let me see if I can find a few words.*rifles through pockets*

For one thing, An Accidental Man’s retrospective of landmark computer games has reached Prince of Persia, and the article has much to say about storytelling via gameplay, something most game designers don’t even try to achieve, instead running scared right back to cutscenes. (Or worse, spin-offs in other media entirely.) Maybe it is because, as I wrote on other occasions, most creators don’t even like games, and keep trying to turn them into movies or books…

In unrelated news, Gamasutra is running a feature on the state of game development in Africa. Which is, sadly, pretty much what I was expecting. But hey, it’s a big continent, and people are trying. It’s the rest of us, elsewhere in the world, who need to pay attention.

Last but not least, a couple of friends alerted me to the tweet above, to the effect that UK publisher Usborne now offers free downloads of their old Basic programming books from the 1980s. I haven’t looked at them yet, but such books often have more than historical and nostalgic value: there was a lot of ingenuity involved in designing compelling games small enough to be typed in without excessive effort, not to mention able to run reasonably well on 8-bit machines despite being written in Basic. We’re truly spoiled nowadays… and we don’t seem to know what to do with our privilege.

And that’s really all I have this week. See you around.

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Weekly Links #82

by on Aug.09, 2015, under News, Off-topic

I have a dearth of links again, after last week’s plenty. I guess my current project is taking its toll. Turns out, doing the writing and the layout and the artwork for a tabletop RPG, however modest, uses up a lot of energy. But oh well, won’t be long now.

While we’re talking tabletop, I recently started following again, and this week their long-running history of RPGs touched on the issue of women in the industry. This may not seem too relevant to computer games until you encounter a number of famous names that shaped the fantasy genre as we know it today. And with franchises crossing media boundaries so easily nowadays, that matters more than it seems.

Wait, did I mention women in gaming? Here’s the story of a game nobody would touch because it has a female protagonist. (Spoiler: Square Enix took it in the end.) Do you suppose we still have a bit of a problem in the industry?

Last but not least, Shamus Young explains in his column why romance is kind of bland in modern RPGs. And he has a point. Just like with story in general, you can’t have much depth and emotional impact when your protagonist is a blank slate, and the story must get to a satisfying end no matter what the player chooses.

Or can it? Tabletop RPG players often manage it spectacularly well. Maybe videogame designers ought to look more outside of their narrow bubble. A lot more.

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Weekly Links #69

by on May.10, 2015, under Gamedev, News

It’s odd. You’d think making games as a hobby is fun and relaxing, but OCD and stress combined with some difficulties in porting conspired to leave me exhausted to the point of physical illness. But I guess it’s all worth it in the end, because you can at last play Glittering Light in your browser, either here on No Time To Play, or else over on


It’s unfinished, mind you — for such a simple game it caused a ton of technical issues. But it’s playable, and the rest is coming along. Thank you for your patience.

And now for the week’s news.

(continue reading…)

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