CAP 211 - Interactive Design and Game Development

Chapters 17 and 18 - Stories and Games Take Place in Worlds; Worlds Contain Characters


This lesson discusses material from chapters 17 and 18 of The Art of Game Design. Objectives important to this lesson:

  1. Transmedia worlds
  2. Properties of Transmedia worlds
  3. Characteristics of novels, movies, and games
  4. Character functions
  5. Displaying character traits
  6. Transformations

Chapter 17 describes a marketing concept that adds to the experience of your players. Mr. Schell explains that the world of a game, a movie, or a story can be enhanced by the existence of each of the others, as well as by toys associated with the world of your game. He tells us about the action figures for the Star Wars world, and how they act as an entry point to the conceptual world of Star Wars. Yes, I thought they were just a money maker, as you probably did, but our guide believes they were created as another entry point, a way for children (and adults) to be introduced to that world. If your story world is associated with several types of media, fans can occupy their time in lots of ways that enhance their experience.

The advice is that you want to make a transmedia world, that can be supported by stories and toys. Mr. Schell presents a list of points about transmedia worlds:

  • Powerful - a transmedia world is rich in detail, has lots of entry points, and lets the player/reader/viewer get lost in the experience
  • Long lived - some examples are given of transmedia worlds that have lasted for decades. Such worlds span comics, books, movies, games, toys, and more, in the case of the Disney properties.
  • Evolving over time - Mr. Schell offers some examples of worlds having details added over time. He might have mentioned Star Wars again, as each movie, novel, and comic add details to the world that become part of the world, and allow the creation of more stories, and so on.
  • Rooted in a single medium - This is counter-intuitive, since the point is that there are multiple entry points to the world. The idea is that there is a single home medium to many successful transmedia worlds. I think this is a stretch, in that people tend to like the first version they encounter of something best, when they like it at all. It is true that a character that originates in a comic book continues to be seen as a comic book character, despite books, movies, games, and TV incarnations. However, a person who likes to experience that fictional world in one of the other media is no less a fan of that world than any other.
  • Intuitive - Additional story details that the writer/designer creates should feel intuitive to the audience. Those of us who have watched Star Trek for years have always known there was a reason that Kirk called McCoy "Bones". We were never given a reason, but we knew it must exist. That was intuitive to us. When the latest movie added an explanation, it felt natural enough to me. For most of us, that detail is now official, because it was presented in an official form, and because it fit our intuition of how it should be.
  • Created by an individual - Most creative work begins with one person's vision. It can be improved, augmented, or just continued by others, but there is often a guiding hand at the very beginning. DC Comics did not always get this, but several years ago, it must have occurred to someone. Every issue of Superman now contains the words "Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster". Every issue of Batman now contains the words "Batman created by Bob Kane". Whether they mean it this way or not, the publishers of these comics are celebrating the initial vision of the creator by giving the creator a credit with every issue.
  • Many stories - It could be argued that there are only so many unique plots, but it is also true that a transmedia world must support many stories, or it will not go on and on and on. There need not be an end to the stories of a given world. Ernest Hemingway wrote that all stories eventually end in death. This is not the case of a fictional world, or even the real world. Individuals may die in our story, but the world can go on.
  • All gateways make sense - Each entry point to the transmedia world must be as valid as another. There must be a way for new audience members to jump into the world and enjoy the experience in any of the available media. This does not mean that you must be able to enjoy every nuance of the next Harry Potter movie if you have never seen the others, but the ideal is that you can enjoy the movie for itself, and may want to see the rest to enjoy it more.
  • Wish fulfillment - This means that the world must be one the audience wants to return to. I have read serial fiction that made me want to find more of it immediately, and I have read some that did not. The latter failed this test.

This takes us to lens 74, the Lens of the World:

  • Is the game world better than the audience's real world?
  • Can the game world support gateways in multiple media?
  • Is there only one story to this world, or are many stories possible?

Assignment #6: Lens of the World

  1. Lens of the World to analyze a transmedia world.
  2. Use at least four of the bulleted points above, giving examples from the world in question that show how it fits this lens.

Chapter 18 discusses characters in our games. Mr. Schell begins with a list of novel, movie, and game characters, looking for common characteristics in each group. This is a little hard to accept, since he chose the characters. They will obviously support his point. Let's examine the three points he makes:

  • Novels support narration that tells us a character's thoughts. Movies support this as well, but Mr. Schell believes that games do not do this well. He has a point, but remember that he stacked the deck in this example. Many games allow a player to develop a character's point of view, thoughts, and attitudes through dialog with other characters.
  • Novels are usually reality based, according to Mr. Schell. I am not sure what he is thinking here. Literature contains lots of fantasy and fiction. His point is that games are often much less realistic, and more fantastic. This is true enough, but his assertion about novels seems less true.
  • Plots in movies and novels are often a lot more complex than the plot we find in any game. I will agree that this is often the case. It may also be a self-fulfilling prophecy: if this is the intention of a game designer, that is the kind of game that will be designed.

So, Mr. Schell gives us a challenge, to create strong characters incorporating some characteristics from novels and movies where possible. On page 315, he suggests that we might list the roles to be cast in our story in terms of plot related functions. Not a list of characters, but a list of tasks to be performed by characters. Then we brainstorm about characters to put into the story, matching them against one or more functions from our list. This gives us a chance to make the plot and characters more interesting by assigning more tasks to one or more characters. Lens 76, the Lens of Character Function supports this technique.

  • What roles exist in the story?
  • What characters do we want to use in the story?
  • Which characters will be used in the roles?
  • Which characters will be used in multiple roles? How does this affect the plot?
  • Which roles are unfulfilled, and which characters need to be changed?

Characters in a story are defined by what they do and how they do it. Mr. Schell offers a melodramatic example of adding more detail to a scene by first deciding what traits a character has, then showing those traits in dialog, attitude, and action in the scene. He suggests that an emotional character should show emotion in their speech and action, a character with a goal should talk and act in pursuit of that goal, a character with an agenda should act with that agenda in mind. Lens 77, the Lens of Character Traits is clearer once you read his supportive material on pages 316 and 317.

  • What traits are essential to each character?
  • How are the traits shown in the character's speech, appearance, and actions?

We will skip the next three lenses, because they may be useful for moments in time, but they ignore the fact that a character must change over time in a story, making the charting of their relationships with others less valuable and more work than it may be worth to you. Use these lenses if they work for you.

Lens 81, the Lens of Character Transformation addresses my point. Mr. Schell analyzes a classic fairy tale in a table. He lists characters in the rows, lists locations/events as column labels, and in the cells where the rows and columns intersect, he describes the attitude or transformation of the character at that event. In this way, he is plotting the changes in each character, as the character is affected by the events in the story. You could use this tool to track other aspects of a character over time, such as their happiness, their success, their dominance over conflict, or whatever aspect is useful in fine tuning the story.

  • How does each character change over the course of the story?
  • Are we telling the audience enough about the changes in the characters?
  • Do the characters change enough?
  • Do the changes surprise and interest the audience?
  • Does the the audience believe the changes in the characters?

The last point is important. Many of you have seen the movie version of The Silence of the Lambs, and its sequel, Hannibal. You may not know that the book version and the movie version of the sequel have two different endings. Without giving you a spoiler, I will observe that the movie producers may have chosen to change the ending of the film to avoid a change in one of the characters that many readers of the book found unbelievable. Note that rates Silence of the Lambs as 4.5 stars, and rates Hannibal as 3 stars. Characters must transform in good stories, or there is no story, but the transformation must be one the audience can accept, or they may walk away from that story/world. Perhaps the author, Thomas Harris, distanced himself from that transformation by returning to an earlier time in Dr. Lecter's life with the book that followed, Hannibal Rising.

The chapter ends with a reminder that the audience needs to empathize with a successful character. We may not like Dr. Lecter, but we are fascinated by him, and we may understand him. Mr. Schell makes a point that I will disagree with, that a character may be easier to empathize with the more it resembles a human being with certain exceptions. He lists zombies as exceptions, and robots with human-like skin as well. His source stated that audiences did not like characters that looked like humans, but were obviously "wrong". This may be more due to the treatment of the character in the subject matter than to the character's appearance. I do not recall any viewers being repulsed by the android Data in Star Trek, nor by the robot played by Robin Williams in Bicentennial Man. Is it because we are viewing these characters as people, or is it because they are treated favorably in their stories? (Or is it just that they are portrayed by human actors?)

Assignment #7: Pick a New Lens

  1. Pick one of the lenses we have not discussed in class.
  2. Prepare an analysis of a transmedia world (or some other work, if you can't think of one) using that lens.
  3. Turn in a typed paper, identifying your chosen lens and your chosen subject, and presenting your analysis of the subject.
  4. Be prepared to lead a discussion in class of your example and your chosen lens based on this assignment.