Wednesday, January 06, 2016

X - Y Axes

Part of a series on The Caldecott Caper.

As I was preparing for the “reception” post of my Caldecott Caper retrospective, I belatedly realized that I never wrote anything about the actual story of the campaign. I think I kind of missed the forest for the trees by focusing on a particular aspect in each of the retrospective posts; it’s a story-driven campaign so everything relates to the plot, but I neglected to actually examine what I did with the story.

I won’t recap the plot here - that’s what the game itself is for, and in any case I haven’t yet distilled it down to a good elevator pitch - but the following discussion is very spoilery, so you should probably skip this if you plan to play the campaign.

I felt like the overall narrative structure of the game ended up working out really well… it isn’t by any means original, but it’s different from what HBS has done in any of their main campaigns, and I was happy with how it complemented the gameplay and advancement. The main framing device of the game is a heist, and you move through the same story beats that you would hit in a caper flick.

There’s a brief intro where you establish your motivation and goal (Act 1). This is followed by scenes where you meet and recruit each member of your crew (Act 2). This is essentially the same as what I did in Corona, which in turn ripped off Mass Effect 2’s recruitment missions, which in turn was ripping off caper movies. I really like it because it gives each person a proper introduction, a turn in the spotlight, and forces you to at least try controlling them for a little while so you get a feel for their abilities and how they fit into the party.

After an intermission where your newly-formed crew works out the details of the plan, you move into Act 3, where you undertake the preparations for the heist. This feels like the real meat of the game: you have a full crew, latitude in what order you approach things, and a looming deadline. This is followed by the heist itself, which occupies Act 4, and then the aftermath in Act 5.

If I were to diagram the mission flow, there would be a straight line through acts 1, 4, and 5, and loops for acts 2 and 3. In those, you pick the order in which to do missions, and may tailor your approach based on your gameplay goals or your narrative goals. In contrast, Dragonfall and Hong Kong both have 3-act structures, with the vast majority of the game taking place in act 2. Players have a lot more freedom in those games, since at any time they can pick one of a half-dozen or so missions to play next, in contrast to the relatively more constrained structure I offer. Dead Man’s Switch is more constrained yet, since it has a predetermined linear path through the story.

I guess my main objective was to get the narrative thrust and sense of urgency from Dead Man’s Switch, combined with some of the agency and freedom from the latter two games. The overall goal of The Caldecott Caper is inverted from the other games. In those, you need to earn money in order to advance the plot. In the Caper, you need to advance the plot in order to earn money. There’s a narrative deadline on your actions, and the efforts of your character are focused on solving the crisis they face.

I think this ended up being pretty successful. There’s a clear reason for your character to do everything they do, and you check in with the main plot frequently enough that it’s hard to get lost or confused about what’s going on. My hope is that the front-loaded choices and freedoms will help players identify with their character early on, and when the plot narrows and accelerates near the end, they’ll be even more invested in pushing it forward.

One kind of interesting implication of this structure is a reinterpretation of legwork in these games. Traditionally, “legwork” is what you do at your base (the Seamstress’ Union, the Kreuzbasar or Heoi) in between missions: talk to people, line up jobs, make preparations. That’s still kind of the case here, but in a sense, all of the missions of Act 2 and 3 are themselves legwork in preparation for Act 4. That’s why you have the people in your roster that you do, and why you have access to the stuff in Act 4. I kind of like that way of thinking about the game. On its own, the heist might feel a little short or simple, but it becomes tied in with everything that you’ve experienced up to that point, since everything was done specifically to enable the actions you’re taking.

There were a few specific goals I had in mind when I started writing this, and pretty early on I became interested in exercising several in particular. One overarching idea that I was drawn to was trying to have the player actually experience emotions, rather than delivering those emotions via exposition. I wanted to make the player a participant in the genesis of their motivations, rather than starting at the point where their motivations are locked in.

Specific examples would help! Each of the three extant HBS Shadowrun games open with the death of a character who you are told is important to you, and whose death provides the impetus for the story to move forward. Dead Man’s Switch begins with you learning of Sam Watts’ murder; you witness Monika’s horrific death early in Dragonfall; and Hong Kong opens with an attack that kills close associates of Duncan, Gobbet, and Is0bel.

In each case, your character is given opportunities to express differing reactions to the event. Your PC can imply that Monika was a former lover, a close friend, a comrade, or an employer. But you, as the player, haven’t experienced any of this.

This does make a ton of sense when it comes to narrative economy: you want to jump right into the interesting part of the game, not spend a lot of time in backstory. And exposition pretty much always works in video games. We’re well-acquainted with receiving capsule stories and accepting what we’re told about ourselves. There’s sometimes even virtue in ambiguity: the vaguer the backstory, the more opportunity for you to project meaningful events and emotions into your character’s past.

However, I was really interested in trying something different. I wondered, would it feel any different if you actually experienced the stakes: if you had spent meaningful time with the people involved, gotten to know their circumstances, had a real arc to your relationship, and then reached a crisis point? So, uh, that’s what I did.

I feel like it turned out pretty well - the rhythm of the game makes sense to me when I play it, and the responses I’ve gotten from people have been pretty good. It’s kind of an open question whether, big-picture, this approach makes sense or not. I could easily have begun my game at a crisis point, and then cut out all the stuff before it, or moved it to later in the game, or made a second game with all the time I’d saved. I think it works well for this campaign in part because it’s different from the structure HBS has used, so players end up being a bit surprised by how this one plays out.

Another area I was a little apprehensive about was “the twist”. At a certain point in the campaign, something surprising occurs, which recasts some prior information you have received and changes your understanding of what the game is about. I love twists, but they’re very hard to get right. If you broadcast it too clearly, then people will roll their eyes and complain about how they could see it coming from miles away, turning it into an active annoyance. If it comes from out of nowhere, though, then players can feel manipulated or just baffled; it may seem “unfair” in the same way that a poorly tuned combat would.

I seeded the revelation in a few ways. The villain is actually pretty straightforward about his viewpoint, so after he tips his hand, players won’t go “Oh, I thought he believed X, when all along he actually believed Y!” Instead, the reaction should hopefully be closer to “Holy shit, I knew he believed X, but I never thought he would actually DO anything about it!” If people replay the campaign, I hope that they’ll kick themselves at how explicit he is about certain things. The key, though, is that all of these revelations happen in a context when players aren’t expecting them. It’s presented as flavor information, similar to what the player receives from many other NPCs and which they’ve been conditioned to treat as unimportant. (There are a few more nefarious hints as well, which are buried more deeply and would only act as signposts after the player has already learned where the story is heading.)

There are a bunch of mechanical tools that are available to me as a game developer, as opposed to a novelist or screenwriter, which I also used/abused to hopefully help conceal the twist. One item I shamelessly stole from Neverwinter Nights 1, which (SPOILER) blindsided me by having Aribeth turn evil. Since she plays the Lord British / Merchant role, resurrecting you and selling you items, I hadn’t even considered that she might have the agency to get involved in the story that way. I do something similar here, by drawing the villain from the ranks you may not expect, selecting a “functional” NPC rather than one who appears primarily involved in the story. He's subtly and unobtrusively introduced, seems to just always "be there," and his perspectives seem to play a mechanical role in one particular mission, rather than a thematic role that would influence the rest of the campaign.

The pacing of the revelation is another rather cruel trick. I send all sorts of signals to the player that the game is ending - victory music is playing, all of the shops are closed, all of your friends are having a party and dancing and saying farewell - before twisting the knife. Again, this wouldn’t work well in another medium. At the Red Wedding, you see that there are another hundred pages left in the book. In Edge of Tomorrow, you know that the movie is about two hours long, and won't be fooled when it seems to end after thirty minutes. But in a game, every player will have their own unique playthrough, so players could very reasonably expect that they had reached the end even when several hours remain. (I’m at an even bigger advantage here as a user-created mod, since mods range from several minutes to dozens of hours in length.)

I’m a little bummed that I lost what may have been my best trick: the crew advancement system. As designed, your crew progresses from the 1st through the 4th levels over the main course of the game. You can see all 4 levels from the beginning, and reach the 4th level a few missions before the end, so the UI is subtly reinforcing the idea that the game is ending. Only after the twist occurs does the 5th level of advancement reveal itself, and the 6th in turn doesn’t appear until right before the REAL endgame. Sadly, I lost this due to a still-outstanding bug with the save game system, but I really hope that it gets fixed so newer players can experience that unique form of manipulation.

All of these elements combine to send subtle messages to the player that the game is over, but none of them are story elements, and so I think it works to deceive without feeling unfair. The content of the plot justifies the reversal, while the presentation obfuscates it. It seems to have been pretty successful; I’ve gotten multiple comments from players who were surprised by the turn of events.

That’s all fun from a storytelling perspective: twists are a fun way to grab (or re-acquire) a player’s interest. But I also really appreciated how well it worked for me narratively. The campaign sits on top of a strongly-developed background of political and social conflict, which is quite well-documented in the source material and which I’ve been fleshing out in both of my campaigns. For most of the campaign, the political conflicts seem to be purely flavor. It explains why your environment is so messed up, why people are attacking each other, why your crew members behave the way they do. After the twist, though, these abstract power dynamics suddenly have very concrete consequences. The political becomes personal, and stuff that initially seemed like window dressing turns out to be the true heart of the story.

Anyways, that’s another thing I enjoyed about the arc of the story. It doesn’t feel fake or unearned. From the very first splash screen, you’ve been reading about the toxic dynamics at play in the 2050s Bay Area, so the actions really shouldn’t be that big of a surprise. It’s just a surprise that it’s happening to your team, right now, right here.

Finally! I wanted to recap tropes. I alluded to this briefly in a previous post, but it’s something I thought long and carefully about during my design phase, so I wanted to capture some of that internal deliberation here.

To back up a bit: a trope is an element that recurs across many different stories. Tropes aren’t inherently bad or good, and I can guarantee that your favorite story is filled with tropes. Tropes often recur because they’ve been proven effective in the past, and new creators want to recapture that effect for their own works. “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy regains girl” is a wildly popular trope, but it continues to drive storylines because it’s effective at grabbing our attentions. “A hero must defeat the forces of evil who seek to destroy the world” recurs a ridiculous number of times in fantasy RPGs, but it continues to be popular because it leads to epic games that appeal to a certain market segment.

As I see it, there are two main dangers to be aware of when introducing (or discovering) tropes in your own story. The first is laziness. Are you doing this thing just because that’s how it’s generally done? If so, it’s probably going to be boring to your players/readers/viewers, and you should consider subverting or removing the trope. (One tiny, random example: merchants in RPGs generally have no personality or are presented as greedy. Why not mix it up and have a merchant who is generous? Maybe she inherited a store she didn’t want, and can’t wait to liquidate her stock so she can go back to clubbing.)

That first danger is an aesthetic one. The second one is more of a moral problem. Are your tropes reinforcing harmful or hurtful stereotypes? Does your race of evil monsters have black skin? Does the hero need to rescue a helpless princess? By producing a story that repeats these tropes, you’re reinforcing cultural ideas about the value of certain types of people, the proper roles for individuals to play, and the correct way to solve problems. Even if you, personally, are a rational and kind-hearted individual, you might inadvertently be contributing to a culture that encourages bigotry and negative actions towards others.

Again, I don’t think that the solution is to remove all tropes, but rather to be aware of when tropes are being used. Identify what they are, what purpose they serve, and whether they may cause any harm. In some cases, you might want to press forward with such a trope… maybe you want to expose it and inject discomfort into the narrative, or maybe it’s powerful enough to be worth using. But it’s also worth considering whether you can tweak or subvert the trope. At an absolute minimum, that should make the story more interesting, since it will present a variation that your audience hasn’t encountered before. It will also give you an opportunity to make it your own and make it do what you want.

While writing The Caldecott Caper, I did a lot of soul-searching about the refrigerator trope. Most simply put, this is a trope where something awful happens to the protagonist’s wife/girlfriend/sister, removing her from the story, and giving the hero the motivation to seek revenge on the enemy. There’s a crucial story beat in my campaign that invokes this trope. It was very deliberate on my part - I absolutely wanted the player to feel the sense of shock, horror, and anger that would propel them into the final phase of the game. But given the negative history around this trope, I wanted to be sure that I was minimizing potential harm.

For starters, my refrigerator is kind of a quantum model. One of three people may end up in the refrigerator. One is a girlfriend, one is a boyfriend, one is a male friend. Furthermore, because this is a Shadowrun RPG, the player can choose to be either a man or a woman. So, all things being equal, there’s a 1 in 6 chance that this will be a traditional “angsty male avenging his victimized woman” refrigerator trope, and a 5 in 6 chance that it’s a different spin on it.

However, that may be a little disingenuous. While I don’t have any analytics data about people who play my mod (I wish I did!), I strongly suspect that it’s predominantly male. Of those, I suspect more players will romance a woman than a man. (I’m uncertain whether more players will romance a woman or abstain from romance altogether.) All that to say, while the traditional refrigerator is hypothetically a minority outcome in the game, there’s a good chance it will be disproportionately experienced by players; and, crucially, since most players will only play through the game once, they will only experience the game when it’s manifesting the original flavor of the trope.

So, what could I do to mitigate or complicate the trope? There were a few things that hopefully make this a bit more palatable and less egregious.
  • The player is invested. This arguably makes it WORSE, but a character only ends up in the fridge after the player has actively shown that this character is important to them. I as the creator am not telling the player how they should feel about this event; I’ve learned how they feel, and push the story in a direction as a result.
  • The event is crucial to the story, and part of a larger thematic arc. The quantum victim isn’t killed by the villain in order to taunt or goad the hero; the victim is an unintentional casualty of a chain of events that the player has participated in. The villain is involved as well, but unlike traditional fridging, doesn’t particularly care about this individual or the hero. (That’s actually one of the deliberately infuriating things about this particular villain: he’s convinced that his actions are realistic and rational, obliviously discounting all evidence to the contrary.)
  • Tenure in the refrigerator isn’t permanent. The player’s immediate motivation is to save the victim, not to avenge him or her, and if they make certain (difficult!) decisions, he or she can be restored to health. They’re removed to the sidelines for a few missions, but if they return, they will be at full strength and an equal partner in your eventual victory.

Anyways! That was my thought process. I sometimes worry that I’m rationalizing this to myself, but hopefully the end result is different enough to engage players, rather than making them roll their eyes. The reception I’ve gotten has been pretty good… I haven’t gotten very detailed reactions from anyone other than my alpha tester, but the general comments I’ve seen have been positive.

I seem to be outdoing myself in rambling, so I’ll bring this to a close now. Up next and last: a more quantitative look back at the release and reception of The Caldecott Caper. Hooray for data!

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