Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Meta Stories and Games

Another thought bubble about narrative and games. I've touched on the topic of meta-game elements several times but now we meet it head on. (apply directly to the forehead.)
First what do I mean by meta-game elements and stories? Where will this post go?

I remember when I first ran into the term "meta-game" while studying table-top RPG games. For example, rolling the dice and points were meta-game elements. It could also mean elements that pertain to the game world but not the main focus of game play. In table top role play, the dice rolls and charts are necessary for the game but that is not the main focus of the game. That is to say that a person doesn't play D&D to roll dice...that's what Yahtzee is for. The goals of the game are to explore, complete tasks, and refine your character.

For a digital translation, this would be interface or the repeated actions in a game. In a game with random encounters (like a J-RPG), the main focus of the game is not these random encounters, those are just a necessity. Likewise, navigating through menus and managing stats are not part of the game proper. It's something you have to pause the game for to manage.

This is the concept of a story within a story. The purpose of a meta-story is to immerse the viewer into the fabricated world. Particularly in narrative driven games, there are myriads of little details that add to the story world. Anything from the art of the environment, to NPC dialogue and side-quests build the world making it more accessible to the player.

However, there is another aspect of meta-story that is beyond the control of the game developer. This would be the story that the player projects or perceives. This is the stuff that gamer web-comics THRIVE from.

The player's experience with a game often allows them to project a part of themselves into the story. The illusion of control allows for this. It is possible in any game, even ones that do not come with pre-written narratives. These are the jokes, the silly things player's notice, or the moments the suspension of disbelief fail. This is what makes gamer comics what they are.
There are also elements of the meta-story that will just click with players and it becomes their favorite element of the game.

As a developer/designer you can help promote these instances in your game. However they are rather unpredictable. Easter eggs, glitches, or allusions to pop-culture are all ways that help hook a player deeper into the experience or pop them out of the experience for a laugh. These things are also very shareable so it gets people talking about the game with friends.

The devil's in the details they say. And details help flesh out a game that's easy to talk about and share with friends. Thus promoting the title. Granted its not something to rely on and like any spice should be applied in the right amount.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dishonesty, Lies, and Comedy

Straight up opinion this round, but I have recently started watching Glee after the encouragement from my sister. I've been making my way through the first season somehow but it's becoming harder and harder to continue to like the show. It brought up for me a couple of other things people have mentioned about romantic comedies and high school dramas.

Now for me, the only thing that keeps me interested in Glee is the music. I love musicals and having a TV show that is essentially a musical has some appeal to me. And it should come as no surprise that I was actually part of my school's "Glee Club" although we called it "Swing Choir", but it was basically the same thing. Wear a costume, choreograph a dance and sing at the same time. It was a mixed-bag experience for me because I love to sing and dance but felt bad that there was a lot of rivalry and politics between the teacher and students.

Let's talk about romantic comedies. One of my fellow podcast hosts explained to us once the reason he hated romantic comedies was that the joke or plot was contrived by the couples lying to each other or basing a relationship off a lie. And the big climax is when the truth is revealed. And I have to agree with him. The tension is contrived and lying is a horrible thing to do in a real relationship. I've had friends hurt very badly because of lies in a relationship.
Glee unfortunately has some elements of the relationship built on lies that I think are meant to be played as comedic ploys but everyone knows will have tragic results. It's actually painful to watch as it is so truly tragic.

The romantic tensions are just as bad...if not the same...in the students. Adding more tragedy. The main romantic tensions in Finn, Rachel and Quinn mirrors the tension between Mr. Shue, his wife, and the counselor chick. (I am bad with names.) They are almost point for point the same problem. Perhaps that's a statement about adults who never out-grow high school relationships, but it's nails on the chalkboard to me.

Then there's the weirdness that is "entertainment" high school which is built on contrived stereotypes about high school as set down by Hollywood. Perhaps because I've never went to a public high school so I don't know any better. However, I can't see the students as characters to care about, only their stereotype. There's nothing interesting even remotely about the students, who should be the stars of the show. Maybe it's because I'm not longer in high school and tend to find high school age teenagers annoying that I dislike them. Or maybe they're just bland characters. There are high school dramas that I do like...unfortunately most of them are animated and very silly. Because high school is very silly and so are teenagers. My favorite American high school comedy is "Mean Girls" that had some funny insight about groups in high school.

I can see why my sister would like it as she is still in high school and the other people I know like it never really left high school. I for one, remember high school as a rather miserable experience that was alleviated upon going to college and then moving over a thousand miles from my hometown. Immature relationships, I've seen too many of my friends hurt very badly and effectively crippling them as adults to find humor in immature high school relationships. The highschool I remember was not divided in the clear cut cliques based on activities, it was based on personality types and previous school and who your parents were and your wealth. The Debate Team did not get picked on by the football team. Our cheer squad was not made up of skinny, blondes that picked on the goths.

But there is the music and dancing. This is fun to watch. Having it set the mood of a particular problem or situation reminds me of stage musicals like Chicago, Wicked, or any Disney animated feature. But playing off lies and dishonesty as funny ruins the magic.