Tag Archives: narrative

Tell us a story: Narrative in games

Around holidays and travel I’ve been loading my i-devices with a number of games to explore, and have noticed a growing number of games where the story is not only the main focus, but is delivered in increasingly inventive ways.

lifelineOne of the simplest examples is Lifeline (iOS and Android, best on mobile) which is a text-only adventure based on a familiar outer space/alien invasion theme: however, a clever use of real time narrative delivery produces a strong sense of realism and urgency. You might help Taylor (the protagonist) decide where to travel, but he’ll then tell you it might take a few hours – and that’s it for a few hours: you won’t hear from him again until he’s arrived (or something happens en route). It’s a simple trick, but one which immediately gives you agency: you’re very much in step with the character – he waits until you have time to help, and you wait until he needs it again: you might go to bed having found Taylor a safe place to sleep, then wake up to find out whether he has survived the night.  The story is, in itself, interesting too – with a number of branching paths and alternate endings.

More complex examples come from Inkle, who have been faithfully and cleverly transposing Jackson and Livingstone’s original Fighting Fantasy (‘choose your own adventure’) book Sorcery into a four-part iOS/Android game. The original text has been chopped into short sections, that sometimes provide a straight ‘choose path A, B or C’ as in the original books, but sometimes merge with other game mechanics, such as motion-based fighting, or the rolling of dice in a gambling game. The narrative unfolds on a beautiful map, and the latest chapter (Sorcery 3) includes visual/narrative layers which change based on the time zone you’re currently in. It’s a clever, compelling mix which is just as thrilling as more graphically complex adventure games.

Sorcery's mix of narrative and graphic action

Inkle’s most recent game is 80 Days (iOS/Android) – that, you’ve guessed it, is based around the Jules Verne classic text. Again, here they’ve taken the original text from the book (though in this case, embellished it with their own creative additions) in order to set up an exciting race around the world. The transfer to a game means that many more routes and forms of transport are available than Phileas Fogg and Passepartout had available in the book: meaning that replaying is as exciting as the first play through. But what struck me most was the depth of branching storytelling: on each mini journey – say in an airship between Acapulco and the Caribbean – various narrative paths open up around the passengers on board with you, which can seriously affect your onward journey both positively and negatively. As with Sorcery, the surrounding graphics and game mechanics are beautifully executed, but its the way the strong narrative has been embedded completely with the gameplay that elevates the experience.

These are just a few examples of the growing number of games looking to use narrative in more creative ways, and in combination with other interesting game mechanics. The value of such an approach in a learning context is obvious in areas where narrative is studied (English language and literature): but such an approach might work well in other disciplines where learners need to engage closely with any text – how about turning legal cases into branching narratives to explore the real world implications of different decisions; or adding battle mechanics into a study of Anglo-Saxon saga poems?

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The Neverending Story

a programme in chocolate

A programme in chocolate

Imagine a conference where you can take a respectable train (or a long breakfast), leave your laptop/iPad in your bag, sit with a near-silent appreciative audience, and where none of the presenters read from slides – in fact, every presentation is as engaging as a good short story. Oh, and then head to the pub to discuss before the office workers flood the tables.

The Story is one such event, and in addition to the above I can add that it never ceases to take me out of my normal realm and into areas which both challenge and inspire. The brainchild of Matt Locke (of Storythings, and who describes The Story as ‘just something I wanted to listen to – and it’s amazing so many of you share my delight’), the line-up this year was as eclectic (and largely unknown to me) as ever,  and on arrival we all received possibly the best conference programme ever: inscribed on a quality 70% chocolate slab, in appearance order. A sizeable portion of the audience were to be seen nibbling down the block as each new speaker took to the stage. Pure genius.

Matt’s idea, and instruction to speakers, is simply “tell us a story”. And they did. The event raises money for the Ministry of Stories – who opened with a travel writing swapshop, and sold their crafty and disgusting products in the foyer: all proceeds going towards their fabulously creative work with children in Hoxton, London. Matthew Sheret and Simon Thornton then chatted about how music traditional told stories in long player form, and was now finding new long-playing stories in online forms (such as LastFM – where Matt works – playlists). The best quote of the day arrived during their chat, when Matthew mentioned receiving a fax in the 1980s, and Simon (aged Young) interjected “I’ve never seen a fax”. Jeremy Deller was next – an artist who makes provocative installations and live action events – and told us the tale of his re-enactment of the The Battle Of Orgreave, scene of a major clash during the Miner’s Strike and re-envisaged here with sealed-knot conscripts.

Liz Henry took us on a crazy journey through the seedy world of fake bloggers – uncovering fake lesbians and subterfuge as she went. Anthony Owen, Head of Magic at the BBC (great title) opened with a fabulous 5-minute audience participation trick, and then went on to describe magic as narrative: explaining that the difference between good and great magic is the use of stories to draw in the audience. Matthew Herbert followed from Sheret and Thornton in describing his use of music to tell stories, and particularly his latest album which uses the sounds from a pig’s life from birth to consumption – the clips he played echoing around the Conway Hall raucously. One of the best twenty minutes of the day followed lunch, when Tom Watson and Emily Bell took to the stage to talk candidly about the hacking scandal from politician and reporter perspectives, drawing together a number of fabulous anecdotes into a gripping tale: rapturous applause followed utter silence from the audience as they got up to leave.

Scott Burnham told the tale of his fascinating project in Amsterdam, where hundreds of volunteers spent hours creating typographical art on a wide paved area using 1 Euro coins and it was then left for the general public to rearrange as they passed (the coins had one blue side, and several clever designs and words appeared throughout the first day in blue). The climax of the story came with the sudden disappearance, overnight, of all of the coins: which Scott later traced back to the Amsterdam police force, who had ‘secured the artwork’ for him following the ‘theft of several individual coins’; he still carries three of the coins he found on a harbour wall the morning after. Richard Ayres, helping with technical aspects during the day, took an impromptu slot to describe his journey into the BFI‘s vaults, showing some incredible film memorabilia which we were sworn not to repeat (although suffice to say there was some very interesting Star Wars and Film Noir material…). The BFI are looking for media partnerships or similar interesting ideas to release these into the wider world: contact Richard.Ayres at bfi.org.uk if you are interested.

Ellie Harrison provided another major highlight, describing her life to date as an ‘artist, activist and administrator’ and recounting some quite hilarious (and obsessive) projects such as vending machines which only dispense goods when the BBC front page mentions the word ‘recession’, or her political statements about privatisation (where a circle of massage chairs represent each of the ‘lost’ public services); Ellie also proved to be a consummate storyteller. A game was next, The End – a game about death for young people commissioned by Channel 4 education. Tom Chatfield provided a psychology background to the game, with Phil Stuart leading the game development, and the two described the process and the resulting game in fascinating detail (I was most impressed with their extensive involvement of school children in the design of the game, and their use of board-game mechanics to run the battles within the game). Danny O’Brien finished the day with tales of hackers, billionaire nerds and buddhist monks – a fascinating end to a thoroughly engaging day.

Hats off to Matt (and to Meg Pickard for keeping the stories going between the speakers): I saved my chocolate programme until now, but am looking forward to nibbling my way down it as I think back on some of the incredible stories and ideas from the day once again.

So Many Tales – The Story 2011

Hopping on the train down to London yesterday morning, I cleared my mind and left an expectant open plate (pate?) for what I hoped would be a varied, surprising, off-the-wall day of talks as part of The Story 2011: “a one-day conference about stories and story-telling”. Twelve hours later, the p(l)ate was certainly piled high.

Held in the evocatively peeling Conway Hall, and packing some seriously weighty speakers in 20-minute slots over the six hours, the day was hosted by Margaret Robertson, of Hide&Seek fame (they of the wonderful boardgame remix kit). Margaret held things together very playfully – noting, like many of the game designers in the varied audience, that she was leaving behind her rule-sets for a day and focussing on the storytelling side of games.

Part of the (fabulously affordable) fee was a donation towards the Ministry of Stories – who operate storytelling events for children behind their Monster-shop façade in Hoxton – and the Ministry started the proceedings with a crowd-scourced description of a monster we named Pedicureus – which had ‘eyes yellow and prickly like pickled onions’, and ‘ears flaky like the Windows operating system’ (oh, and my favourite: a ‘sordid tail like a… sword’). This proved to be the only interactive talk of the day, but (as could be seen from the relatively light tweet stream) most of us then settled back to simply listen, think and enjoy.

Escalating Panic

A can of escalating panic, from the Hoxton Monster Shop

Matt Adams outlined the varied work of Brighton-based artist collective Blast Theory, the most interesting being their collaboration with Channel 4 Education on Ivy4Evr – SMS text-based ‘short interactive fiction’ which used a combination of short story pieces with ‘stubs’ or nodes where players could respond to a message and receive follow-up messages for a mini conversation thread, before returning to the story pieces: a very effective mini story in only 40 SMS messages. Adam Curtis, the BBC archive-miner/documentary producer, then gave the most thought-provoking talk of the day (and was the one time the ‘no questions: move on’ policy of the day left us itching), effectively claiming that the internet/TV is stifling the development of new types of stories – only emotions or ‘moments of experience’. Adam kept nipping off on (interesting) red-herrings, and the irony was that he, and we, were creating our own new stories as we listened.

After coffee, Karl James – through excerpts and stories from his Dialogue Project – gave us some compelling (and moving) examples of why it’s good to listen. The thing which still resonates with me now was his description that “words disappear as you read them: only the change they caused remains with you”. Cornelia Parker was next, giving us some fascinating stories behind her scupltures: a feast of narrative and vision. Then Phil Gyford took us back to the 17th Century with his astounding Samuel Pepys blog, telling us about the community which has sprung up around it, the way they continue the stories, and the hilarious set of mysterious characters from his diary who have started to respond to Pepys’ daily tweets – and who are creating new narratives around the old story.

Quick refresh and reflect over lunch, then the day’s only disappointment: Tim Kring was held up stateside, and was unable to present. Collective sigh, but we soon perked up with the first of two on-stage interviews: Paul Bennun talking to Nick Ryan about the use of audio in games (the pair worked together on the clever audio-only Papa Sangre iPhone App); demonstrating how we all create our own personal stories when visuals are absent (the sound of a telephone played to the audience revealed that some of us thought it was blue, red, black etc. – although in fact, I didn’t hear a telephone at all: I heard a storm. Not sure what that says about me, but it proved the point perfectly). Mary Hamilton then brought hilarious chaos to the room, in the form of Zombie Live Roleplaying, and the firing of several high-powered foam projectiles into the room (the stories coming from shared tales of brain-mushing around the campfire at the end of a live event).

Two artists told their own stories about their work and the narratives surrounding it: Lucy Kimbell‘s ironic and slightly worrying project involving family and friends completing an ‘audit’ on various personal aspects of her character; and Martin Parr‘s fabulous little anecdotes surrounding the photographs from his early career in North Yorkshire and elsewhere: pictures with an accompanying 1000 words. The second interview of the day then left us spellbound – and in stitches – for what seemed like hours, as Graham Linehan (he of Father Ted and the IT Crowd) talked to Cory Doctorow (of Little Brother, Makers and other tech-fiction) about the processes he uses to create storylines for his programmes. There were some lovely ideas, and hilarious anecdotes – Graham revealed that he uses coloured cards with main plot ideas, then shuffles them around on the floor and matches cards together to create connected story-lines; but also that he’s recently been using Basecamp to share and develop ideas with a group of disparate writers. I’ve used Basecamp before (for the Operation: Sleeper Cell ARG) and found it as useful, and infuriating, as Graham.

Graham Linehan & Cory Doctorow

Graham explains the cat-crazed world of Moss to Cory

Mark Stevenson closed the day with a frenetic (he had just stepped off the plane from Seattle, and seemed to still be travelling at Mach 2) whizz through his round-the-world trip to discover all the hope which exists for a brighter future for his forthcoming book. Hard to catch at times, but at moments fascinating, it was a good mirror to our thoughts as the event drew to a close: a story of hope and an interesting future, just waiting for new stories to emerge.

Many thanks to Matt Locke for organising such a fabulous variety of speakers and topics, and for a wonderful day. If the discussions and ideas flowing around the beer in the local pubs afterwards are anything to go by, The Story won’t stop here.