Games and Stories – in which, in a roundabout way, I try to tell you wat I’m talkin’ ’bout.

While I talk and the flies buzz
a seagull catches a fish at the mouth of the Amazon,
a tree falls in the Adirondack wilderness,
a man sneezes in Germany,
a horse dies in Tattany,
and twins are born in France.

What does that mean? Does the contemporaneity
of these events with one another,
and with a million others as disjointed,
form a rational bond between them,
and write them into anything
that resembles for us a world?

Great art is most commonly defined as that which casts some light on the human condition. This poem, Fulcrum / Writing a World, by David Morley, is one of the current crop of Poems on the Underground and a perfect illustration of the conundrum facing the storyteller. In a chaotic world, full of overwhelming irrelevance, we seek meaning. The storyteller takes on the fearful task of linking disparate facts, events, places, people, in ways that resonate for us, that help us to make sense of it all. We cannot take in every detail, and we tire quickly of information without pattern, without story.

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Opening the Box

As I said in my introduction to my interview with David J. Williams (game writer and novelist), I’ve become fascinated by storytelling through the medium of computer games. Unsurprisingly, being an MMO junkie, I want above all to look at the state of storytelling in MMOs, which present tremendous obstacles for writers, but also really exciting possibilities.

There are a lot of assumptions to examine along the way. What are we talking about when we talk about stories, and games, and narrative, and play? What are designers trying to achieve, and what are gamers looking for, and are they the same thing? It’s a rich field in every sense, what with the games industry having been widely reported in 2009 as having overtaken Hollywood as the biggest sector of the entertainment market.

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It’s Officially Time

The latest edition of The Culture Show (BBC2) contains an eight-minute report by Jacques Peretti on the status of video games as art. It’s only available until Thursday, but if you catch this post in the next 4 days and are interested in seeing it, click here. The piece starts at #11.10.

The Story of Homeworld: Interview with David J. Williams

With Apocalypso firmly on hold, I’ve had time to do some reading. For the past several months the focal point of my interest in games design has been converging with my interest in narrative, which is a boring way of saying Stories! Gameplay! WTF?

WTF, because stories and gameplay do not always seem to get along happily when tied up in the same canvas sack. There’s no shortage of commentators pushing the opinion that games are unsuitable as a medium for storytelling, that games will never be ‘art’ nor contain anything of literary value, etc., etc. Some folks are fine with that, some are pissed off about it, and some of us just think it’s a load of crap. Games can tell stories, and well.

So I contacted a man I thought might agree with me: David J. Williams, author of the Autumn Rain trilogy, and story creator for the first Homeworld game. I started off by asking him how he first came to be involved with Relic, and Homeworld.

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Wikiwiki – Documenting Game Design

I decided that the only way we were going to progress with the MMO project was to start inputting all our research, discussions, decisions and design documentation into a Wiki. I tried a few out and settled on Netcipia. It has the same problems as PBWiki – the WYSIWYG isn’t, and the overall feel is cluttered and not customisable enough. But it’s free, and it’ll do for the time being. There are tools available for working on MMO design (e.g. Video Game Design Pro 2006 (http://www.thecorpament.com) ), but I’m not ready to invest in a commercial package at the moment.

I made a list of articles I wanted to write for the blog, but feeding the Wiki has taken up an immense amount of time. And that’s the thing with a collaborative project; you have to write everything down. Topics on the Wiki cover our initial vision for the game, background reading on sandboxes, multiplayer game design, player psychology, combat systems, skills trees, and elements of world building, such as geography, climate, flora, fauna, transport, technology and politics. We also needed to think about marketing and finance, and there’s a huge section on development tools, as we’re working our way through, evaluating the available options.

It’s a more than daunting task. We’ve been talking about it for six months, and the work is only just beginning.

Who am I?

OK, so in my last post I started talking about how forming social bonds within a game starts to make the virtual world real. By virtual world I mean not only the game world, in my case the rolling hills and aquatic badgers of Hibernia, but the websites, forums and social networks that accrete around a game. I want to talk next about prydwen.net, the forum that supported hib/pryd players (Hibernians on the Prydwen server in DAoC), but before I do that I’m going to allow myself to digress a little and take up the theme of identity. It isn’t really a digression, because in order to be a member of a social network, one does have to have an identity. People need to know who you are.

Identity online can be a tricksy concept, however. In a roleplaying game, potentially even more so, as people adopt personae in order to play out scenarios in-character. DAoC is an MMORPG, the RPG is in there and roleplaying is an element of the game. It’s not exactly rife on the Prydwen server however, and has never been a large part of my own playstyle. So, the dominant culture on Prydwen (now clustered with the Excalibur server under the collective moniker ‘Dyvet’) has always, I think, been one in which players present themselves as ‘themselves’, unless a roleplaying event has been arranged.

Why is ‘themselves’ in quotation marks? Well, when you meet someone online, you very rarely have a lot of information about who they are, unless you know them in ‘real life’ already. Take me for example. My first character in DAoC was a hero character called Ambera. I didn’t roleplay her, except occasionally in my head. When I talked to people I talked as ‘me’. They may have felt that they were getting to know the real person behind the avatar. However, I was cautious about sharing anything that didn’t relate directly to the game. I enjoyed the anonymity. I liked that people didn’t know I was really a 30-something English woman with dyed hair. I didn’t pretend to be anyone else, but I liked the way in which the game system – avatars, text-based conversation – prevented people from judging one another in the usual ways. People still judged each other of course, but in game terms. If you had skill and treated other players with respect, it didn’t matter what you looked or sounded like, what age or class you were (I’m talking social class here, not character class, which matters a whole lot), or where you were from.

So, anyone talking to me experienced only those aspects of myself I chose to share. And, although I never pretended to be someone I wasn’t, sometimes… well, sometimes I was someone else. At least Ambera was. My partner also played that character during our first months in the game, and was never very forward about letting people know he wasn’t me. It always made me deeply uncomfortable, and became unbearable once I started to make friends with Talien and others. I was acutely aware that if they didn’t see some sort of consistent ‘me’ behind the avatar, we wouldn’t be able to form a connection. Once my partner opened his own account and started playing, that tension went away, and the pair of us, playing together, became quite recognisable and made many friends.

I had to trade the benefits of anonymity for being able to make lasting social connections. People like to know who they’re talking to.

Of course, there are degrees of anonymity. You don’t have to share everything with everyone. There are many people, even in my guild, who know me simply as ‘Ambera’ (or Ascarii, the name of my warden character). They have little interest in how old I am, where I live or what I do when I’m not playing DAoC. They know the history of my characters, they know that I’m a mid-flight warden, not top-flight but not too shabby, they know what weapon I use, but they don’t know, or care to know, who I am in ‘real life’. And that’s fine, but those people will not remain my friends once the game servers are shut down. Friends are the ones who ask you how work’s going, have you had the operation yet, how’s your mum? And those are the people who keep you coming back to the game.

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.

So said Einstein.

To be honest, I’m not terribly interested in whether our default reality is real or illusion, at least not for the purposes of this blog. I am interested in the shared realities deliberately created for us, purposeful illusions that hope to be persistent, known as MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games).

I’m a keen player of games, and for the past 4+ years I’ve been playing Dark Age of Camelot. My time there has come to an end, possibly temporarily, possibly permanent. As I explained over at Zora’s Corner, this has been an upsetting process, and I am grieving for the loss of a major part of my life.

People often say things like ‘It’s just a game’ and talk about games and ‘real life’ as being completely seperate things. But a game can become part of one’s life, and if reality is what we can agree exists, as has also been claimed by philosophers, an MMORPG is lent its reality by the people playing it. If a couple of thousand people are sharing a virtual world, spending hours every week acting in it, forming and breaking relationships in it, it is real, if only in the sense that it has a real and sometimes profound effect on the lives of those playing it.

Arvon, Clarion West, and the Great DAoC Aftermath

I’ve spent a couple of hours this evening talking to my friend Sharkith about MMO’s, and the breakdown of ‘community’ in virtual social groups. It’s a subject that’s dear to our hearts at the moment, because we have both recently left Dark Age of Camelot (I haven’t offically left but I am not playing). It feels as though there has been a catastrophic breakdown on the Dyvet cluster (Excalibur & Prydwen), but who knows as to whether what we experienced actually had any effect on the population.

I’ve decided to take a look, as objectively as possible, at what causes so-called game communities to go bad, and what breaks the trust between the playerbase and the company running the game. Does it really make people leave? What can be done to prevent it? I’m partly doing it as catharsis – I am grieving over what I’ve lost, strange as it may seem – but I have always been fascinated by the psychology & sociology of MMO’s.

I shouldn’t be doing this as this point, because I am still flailing around trying to complete my novel, a task which has become far more urgent due to my acceptance onto Clarion West. Six weeks in Seattle during which I will not have time to work on it, followed by an imminent Pipeline issue, means I have to have it ready for a final proof-read and edit by 15th June if I’m going to hand it in on time in September. I’m very excited about CW, excited enough to risk the novel for.

I’ve come to accept that I may not finish on time thanks to a lovely bunch of people that I met last week at a writing retreat at Lumb Bank, a mill owner’s house outside Heptonstall that used to belong to Ted Hughes. The place is owned by the Arvon Foundation and MMU takes students there at this time every year. It was a last-minute decision for me, but I’m very glad I went. The tuition (from Nicholas Royle and Conrad Williams) was excellent, the food was good, and the company was superb. Lumb Bank is a wonderful place. It’s not the open fire, the comfy sofas, or the incredible view across the valley that make it – it’s all those things, experienced through the imaginations of talented and fascinating people. The company of writers brings you to life and makes you appreciate everything around you so much more intently. Thanks guys.