CAP 211 - Interactive Design and Game Development

Chapters 14 and 15 - Experiences Can Be Judged by Their Interest Curves, One Kind of Experience is the Story


This lesson discusses material from chapters 14 and 15 of The Art of Game Design. Objectives important to this lesson:

  1. Interest Curves
  2. Fractal patterns
  3. Types of interest
  4. Story techniques
  5. Goals and obstacles
  6. Simplicity and transcendence
  7. The Hero's Journey
  8. The weirdest thing
  9. The story, the game, and the tetrad

Chapter 14 is another short chapter. It discusses a pattern of interest that works for most stories, movies, shows, and games.

The level of interest that a player has in a game can be compared to the level of interest an audience has in a show. Mr. Schell relates a lesson he learned from a magician that is similar to a story I read about Red Skelton, the comedian. Mr. Skelton believed that you should know how an audience would react to every joke in a show, in order to know whether to take it out or leave it in. He would take a joke out of a show if the associated laugh was too small or too large. What's wrong with a big laugh? His theory was that the audience would remember the one really big laugh, if there was only one that big, and forget all the others. This relates to the idea in the text that an audience will enjoy a show better if it consists of a series of thrills, laughs, or other such experiences, such that each one is a little bigger than the last.

Mr. Schell believes that the interest your players have in a game can be graphed. His examples show time on the horizontal axis, and interest in the game on the vertical axis. An ideal game will have an interest curve that looks like a series of mountain peaks, each one a bit higher than the last.

If you expand the timeline so that you graph more events per minute, you may see that there is a similar interest curve that can be drawn for the overall game, for each level of the game, and for each challenge of the game. This leads to the observation that there is a fractal nature to well constructed games, in that there should be a growing interest curve at each of these three levels.

Lens 61, the Lens of the Interest Curve asks us to examine our game with an eye to the player's interest.

  • What is the shape of the interest curve for my game?
  • Does the game have a hook (an initial peak of interest for the player)?
  • Does the game's interest curve have the most desirable shape: gradually rising interest, with brief periods of rest in between?
  • Is there a peak of interest at the end of the game, bigger than the other peaks (a grand finale)?
  • Can we make changes to improve the interest curve?
  • Does my game have a fractal structure to its interest curve?
  • Do playtesters draw an interest curve like the one I want the game to have?

Mr. Schell observes that some game situations and elements are inherently (naturally) more interesting that others: risk, rather than safety; fancy, rather than plain; unusual, rather than ordinary. Lens 62 the Lens of Inherent Interest, examines our game for elements of this type.

  • What elements of the game are immediately interesting to players?
  • What does the game let players do that they have never done before?
  • What base instincts, and higher instincts, does the game appeal to?
  • Are the changes that happen in the game dramatic enough to interest the player?

Games can also be interesting because they are beautiful in some way. Many players thought the game Myst was an example of this concept, each scene being very detailed and luxurious for its time. Lens 63, the Lens of Beauty asks about this aspect of our game.

  • Can we make the elements of our game more beautiful?
  • Can we compose the elements of the game so they become poetic, beautiful, or meaningful?
  • What does beauty mean in our game?

The text also asks us to consider how much the players project themselves into the game, using empathy, imagination, or both. Mr. Schell suggests that we can measure the level of empathy players have for a character by asking whether the the character is a stranger, a friend, or a representation of the player in the game. I will suggest that we ask the player to choose one or more of the following statements about a character to place the player's level of empathy:

  • I don't know this character (stranger)
  • I like this character (friend)
  • I identify with this character (self)

Characters are not the only elements of a game that can capture the imagination. In another chapter, Mr. Schell will tell us that games are more successful when they are doorways to interesting worlds. The metaphor of a doorway is appropriate: we want the player to want to enter the game world.

Lens 64, the Lens of Projection asks how well our players project themselves into the game through the characters.

  • What do players relate to in the game?
  • What parts of the game capture a player's imagination?
  • Does the game take the players to a world they want to enter?
  • Does the game let the player become a character they cannot be outside that world?
  • Does the game have other characters the player wants to see, meet, interact with?
  • Does the game provide wish fulfillment, letting the player do something they want to do?
  • Do players have a hard time stopping playing the game? (Dinner time... I said dinner... DINNER!!)

Chapter 15 takes us to an examination of the story in a game. The text discusses the arguments that stories are inherently linear, and games are inherently multi-threaded. Given that this is often true, the text offers two methods that have been proposed and sometimes used in games:

  • String of Pearls - (also called lakes and rivers) provides alternating cinematic or narrative story episodes and interactive game playing sequences, which gives the player multiple opportunities to make choices, explore the world, gain status, etc, interrupted by rest periods of story presentation.
  • Story Machine - a technological solution that would generate interesting sequences of events, that would be unique to each game, different with each player

Lens 65, the Lens of the Story Machine, asks us how well the second method above can be used in our game.

  • Does the game give the player different choices for achieving goals that lead to different stories?
  • Does the game allow for different conflicts to arise in different playings of the game? This will lead to different stories.
  • Does the game let the player personalize the character they play, making it a different story?
  • Do the different stories that are possible have good interest curves?
  • Can the player tell the story of the game to someone else for each of the stories?

The text moves on to explain why the first method is often more successful than the second:

  • Good stories have unity, in that their episodes build on each other, refer to one another, and connect to the audience with a rising interest curve. This is not always possible with random selection of the events of a story.
  • The more possible elements that can occur in a story, the greater the liklihood that the intended story will not be told. If it is, then where is the effect of the choices that the character/player makes?
  • The concept of multiple endings for a story bothers some players, in that they want to see the real ending, they want to see all endings, and they want to spend as little effort as possible to get to a different ending. The text lists Knights of the Old Republic as an effective exception to this problem: the player can play as a dark sith or a light jedi, and will get a very different story for their effort. (As we noted in class, this is of limited value to some of us. I tried playing as a sith, and found I did not enjoy it. An illustration that the character must be somewhat like the player, or the player will not project into the story.)
  • A game generally does not have the rich set of verbs that can occur in a story or a movie. Again, there are exceptions to this, but most games do not lend themselves to full range of human experience.
  • The idea of saving a game and restoring to that point makes the game a world in which time travel is possible, which Mr. Schell sees as a problem that keeps the game from having any tragic aspects. He has a point, but it is far from insoluble. Any game that follows the string of pearls model can still include planned events that the player must accept.

To improve our game stories, Mr. Schell offers a series of suggestions that each have their own lens.

A classic film formula is given: give the character a goal, set obstacles in the way, and have the character overcome interesting conflicts to attain the goal. Lens 66, the Lens of the Obstacle, examines a game that is attempting this.

  • What is the character's goal, and what is the character's motivation?
  • What are the obstacles to the goal?
  • Is there an antagonist causing the obstacles? If so, what is the relationship between the main character and the antagonist?
  • Do the obstacles increase in difficulty?
  • Are the obstacles the right size for the story?
  • Do the obstacles transform the main character?

The game world is intended to be simpler than the real world, to offer the player an escape from reality. The player is offered powers in the game workd that are unavailable in real life to provide transcendence over the game's obstacles. Lens 67, the Lens of Simplicity and Transcendence examines this aspect of a game.

  • How is the game world simpler than the real world?
  • What powers does the player/character get in the game to transcend the obstacles?
  • Does the combination of simplicity and transcendence work in this game?

Mr. Schell recommends a classic work by Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. If you have never heard of it, Mr. Schell describes it well. Follow the link here to an article about it on Wikipedia. In the book, Mr. Campbell discusses classic myths that include common elements that most of us would recognize in stories, movies, and games. Mr. Schell also references Christopher Vogler's book, The Hero's Journey. Follow the link here to see a good diagram of the plot elements that Vogler identified as ocurring in mythic adventure inspired stories. An explanation of Vogler's twelve elements appear on pages 273 and 274 of the text. It leads to Lens 68, the Lens of the Hero's Journey.

  • Does the story of our game have elements that make it a heroic story?
  • Does the story match elements of the Hero's Journey?
  • Would the story be better if we added more elements of the Hero's Journey?
  • Is the story lacking an original spin?

Several suggestions are offered that do not lead to lenses. Another discussion of the Disney attraction Mr. Schell worked on leads to the idea that games often contain weird elements in their stories. Mr. Schell's illustrations seem more like weird elements in his game mechanics, but the idea is still sound. Lens 69, the Lens of the Weirdest Thing asks us to consider what is weird in our story.

  • What is the weirdest thing in the story?
  • Does the weirdest thing confuse or alienate the player? If it does, how do we fix that?
  • Does the story have too many weird things? Can we remove or combine some of them, and make the story better?
  • Is the story interesting without any weird thing in it?

The last lens in the chapter, Lens 70, the Lens of the Story, asks us if we need a story at all.

  • Does our game need a story?
  • What makes players interested in the story?
  • Does the story support the other three parts of the tetrad?
  • Does the rest of the tetrad support the story?
  • How can the story be better? (I am incredulous at this one. This question should have been at the beginning of the chapter, not the end.)