Drama doesn’t always mean guns

August 18, 2011 | Filed under: game design

I’ve just re-watched the film ‘glengarry glenross’. For the unitiated, it’s a ‘feel-bad’ movie that is primarily a lot of legendery actors playing distressed real-estate scam artists shouting abuse at each other. I thought it was good. Anyway…

It got me thinking about a recent discussion following the news about a new star trek shootemup style game, where people (rightfully imho) despaired that even with a star trek game, it’s another game where you shoot stuff.
Now shooting stuff is fun, and it makes for great games. I’m making a game about shooting and blowing stuff up right now (but I’m also involved in a non-shooty game too…), but there is definitely more to life.

People say that drama requires conflict, and that’s fine, but glengarry glenross reminds me that conflict doesn’t have to be rocket launcher vs tank. It can be al pacino vs kevin spacey in an office. I know it’s MUCH harder to code believable, interactable NPC personalities in a familiar situation like an office, than it is to code convincing guys shooting at you, but hey, it’s 2011 shouldn’t we be trying this?

There is a big market out there (I suggest…) for games that involve conflict and drama, that do not involve guns. I’m sure a lot of these ideas suck, but one might work… why can’t we have a game where you are:

A hostage negotiator
A marriage counsellor
A businessman that performs hostile takeovers
A trade union leader
A schoolteacher
The leader of a political pressure group
An investigative journalist
A paparazzi photographer

Forget the graphics, forget the physics and the tech. Make a game based around characters and situations that are dramatic but familiar. I’m sure millions tried farmville because they see farms as something familiar, unlike orcs, or lightsabers. If you could do it right, I think you could make a game out of any of those concepts. It’s tough as hell making a game on a topic that isn’t normally used in games, there is nobody to copy. Sometimes, that turns out to be a great idea.

19 Responses to “Drama doesn’t always mean guns”

  1. Thomas says:

    Have you heard of SpyParty? http://www.spyparty.com/about/

  2. Mark says:

    There has been a game that fits in being so different Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. I really enjoyed it, but it was very quirky.

  3. JoeCairo says:

    LA Noire kind of fits that bill – there’s a bit of (optional) driving and some shooting, but 90% of the what I’ve played has been detective work and seriously ahead-of-the-game interaction with NPCs.

    Unfortunately, I can’t comment much more on it because it’s been sitting unplayed on my shelf for the past six weeks…it seems shooting things is just more fun ;)

    Oh, and yeah, Glengarry Glen Ross is a fantastic movie.

  4. cliffski says:

    yeah, spy party was the one game I was thinking about when I wrote this. Certainly should be interesting.

  5. Keith LaMothe says:

    I haven’t checked, but I think EvE encapsulates a lot of the roles in that list.

  6. Horatius says:

    Even though it’s more militarily themed than the examples you noted, I found some of the most tense and deep moments of the original X-Com were during the geoscape planning phases. Simply watching days tick away whilst receiving sporadic reports from scientists and agents demanded intense thought and concentration. The tension came from the fact that you /knew/ the enemy was out there plotting and maneuvering, but you had to infer a master plan from just scraps and rumours.

  7. Mike says:

    What’s EvE? Search engines don’t respect caps. I’ve heard of Spy vs Spy, maybe Entrepreneur vs Entrepreneur? there are lots of hits but nothing related to a game?

  8. Kiddex says:

    For me, games are a form of escapism from normal, every day life. I do verbal negotiations every day, so playing a game in which I do more of that seems somewhat less appealing. The Mass Effect series makes it work to a degree, couching those non-shooty verbal sessions in between the shooty bits. I play a game looking for an experience I can’t get normally, and shooters (be it spaceships or thugs) often appeal because I (thankfully) don’t go dodging a hail of bullets and/or laser beams while skillfully unleashing my own as part of my daily routine.

  9. bkd69 says:

    Even when the games do involve shooty bits, the drama doesn’t necessarily have to come from that.

    I’ve long wanted to see a “Mercenary Tycoon” game, where you negotiate with vendors, bid on contracts, manage personnel, and deal with the bonding authority, or whatever oversight agency the setting calls for.

    This is inspired by a seen from an early Hammer’s Slammers story which features Col. Hammer in his morning staff meeting contemplating shipping some surface to air missiles to a unit on a job, and one of the beancounters pointing out how expensive they are.

  10. kone says:

    Wow!
    “Mercenary Tycoon” that would rock totally!!

    If your troups are nicely trained (good training facilities) and some escort goes wrong and you have the satellite connection you could watch your soldiers tearing apart those bad guys.
    Bonus effects if you have invested in good weaponry.

    In some mission beforehand you needed to tidy up the portal facility, black mesa and Umbrella Corp. after “some experiments” had gone wrong.
    So you could find “special items” which would greatly help in fightings… hehe.
    But this is just relevant for the statistical outcome of the fight from one contract.

    You need to gain levels to have access to bigger and “badder” contracts…
    Hmmmmmm. Niiiice.

  11. Gnoupi says:

    Evil Genius was a bit filling the idea for “mercenary tycoon”, but only as a side element, I guess.

    For investigative journalist, does Beyond Good and Evil counts? :P

  12. PaulMode7 says:

    I was thinking about this topic a bit last week, mostly remembering an ancient Sierra game called SWAT 2, which was a very clunky isometric real-time SWAT strategy game.

    It had one really interesting component, which (in my mind – I might be over-elaborating it) went like this

    You had to chose whether to take a phone in with you to try and negotiate with the hostage taker.

    If you did choose the phone, you had to get your guys into position and then throw the phone into the building. But, if the hostage taker saw you moving around too much, he’d get scared and refuse to negotiate.

    If you did get to the negotiation phase, if you managed it correctly, you could basically avert a crisis and then just simply had to go in and arrest everyone in a non-confrontational way.

    Sounds boring but it was actually BRILLIANT, because you knew that negotiation was a real option and mopping up the dull procedural police work quickly at the end really brought it all home.

    Equally, when you said the wrong thing in a negotiation, or it all turned nasty and you had to react quickly, it had so much more impact because you knew it could have been different. There was this additional layer of realism.

    Although most “core” games are still going to be combat-centric for a very long time, I think something that I’d like to see developed is the use of systems like that to augment the action. It’s something that games like Mass Effect do quite well, but I’d like to see indies experimenting with it as well.

  13. PaulMode7 says:

    Oh and also Glengarry Glen Ross is a masterpiece!

  14. Xenomath says:

    Isn’t that what Chris Crawford tries to tell us for nearly two decades now?
    (I toyed around a bit with his storytron, it looks very interesting, but haven’t seen one story world that is any fun to play…)

    Can’t remember where I read this Comparison first, but i think it captures the point quite well:
    Just compare what you do in space freelancer game like Freelancer,
    with a TV series about the same topic: Fire Fly.
    Is flying around between the planets the interesting part in Firefly? No!
    Among other things it’s the part where their interaction with their clients and among the crew members, etc. but that is abstracted away in most games.
    (Or scripted, but seldom modeled by some kind of mechanic for social interaction)

    We have very sophisticated models for spatial and physical simulation,
    but not much going on for social simulation.
    The last game I played that tried to capture some of this was The Sims Medieval, where you got one stat representing the relation to NPCs.
    (mostly the same in Kudos 2, if I remember correctly…)
    That’s literally one dimensional and wasn’t that much fun.
    I fear we need a bit more complex models than that
    and a way to present it intuitively to the player
    oh, and a way to make it fun :)

  15. Xietanu says:

    I totally agree that this is a side of games that should be explored more, and is part of the reason I’m sad that the various Tycoon games of old seem to be far rarer now. RollerCoaster Tycoon, Railroad Tycoon, Sim City, etc. rarely (if ever) had death or killing in, and if they did it was /always/ a bad thing, but at the same time they were super engaging and exciting and fun. There are examples of non-violence-oriented games around (has anyone heard of that obscure series called something like The Sims?), but they’re a lot rarer than say non-violent books or movies. Even these, though, aren’t really character dramas like the sort of thing you list as examples.

    I actually don’t feel that the lack of character dramas in games is a coding thing so much as it is a writing thing. To do an involving and immersive story with interesting characters, one of which is controlled by the player, is horribly daunting. Writing a good character drama is very hard when you control all the elements of the story, and it’s going to get worse (or at least, completely different) when you give some control to a player.

    Just from a game design point of view, think about what you’re suggesting as the central mechanic: talking. Human communication is incredibly complex, and even the way a sentence is spoken can radically change its meaning or how it is received, never mind body language, etc. How do you give a player a list of things they can say that is simultaneously not overwhelming and covers everything one might reasonably want to say?

    Assuming there is a middle-ground there, writing a script from there is completely unlike any other kind of script writing ever. Steve Gaynor described the player as an ‘agent of chaos’ when talking about how stories are told through games, a description that I think is quite apt, and said that by giving them agency within your story, you inherently give up control of the story. The stories become the players’, not the authors’.. The amount of control given can, of course, vary, but for a compelling narrative of this type to function, the player has to feel like they decide how things end up. In the example of the hostage negotiator, at the absolute least, the player has to feel that they had input into whether the hostages are shot or released, and which outcome it is and how they got there is a story that is personal and unique to each player.

    Thus each point that the player gets input gives you another load of branches, and you have to work out where they can intersect and how people can respond, while keeping all the branches on some kind of coherent narrative and consistent on representation of the characters and setting. Pretty quickly you end up with a lot of roughly parallel (but not quite) plot lines that probably still don’t cover everything a player’s character might reasonably want to do. Worst of all, do it badly and you can make the railroading of the plot very obvious (or let a lack of railroading lead into a nonsensical story), and shatter any feeling of choice or immersion that the player had in the story. If the player can tell that all roads lead to Rome, they won’t care or get invested in which they choose.

    Alternatively, you can give them more freedom at the expense of structure, asking the player to construct their own story from very rough and simple blocks that you give them – interesting NPCs, an interesting situation that they might want to get involved in. This, however, gives up even more authorial control (risking a story that doesn’t make sense or have a point), and is daunting to a lot of players; when given infinite options, they do nothing at all. Then the idea of a ‘script’ becomes more loose, and you have to write characters and situations that can handle very wide ranges of actions and combinations in a believable manner, which is even farther from normal script writing. An example of the former might be something like the Bioware games, while that latter is more like Fallout: New Vegas or Far Cry 2 (and all of those are still about killing things, and only New Vegas has more than two end points).

    I can’t speak from experience, but given the reputation that game have in regards to stories, I imagine attracting talented writers can be difficult, and then they have to learn an entirely new way of writing, if you want this kind of character drama. I imagine that this is why most games are structured the way they are at the moment, with traditional story segments bookending the gameplay and action, with often very stark transitions between them. Usually that’s done with cutscenes, but even when it isn’t there is usually ‘action bits’ and ‘story bits’ (F.EA.R., for example, has very obvious transitions between when you’re moving through a building being scared by a psychic ghost and when you’re moving through a building being shot at my psychic clones).

    This all said, the complexities of doing it well are actually the reasons I think we should try. It’s a whole new approach to story telling that we’ve barely scratched at yet, that could offer unparalleled immersion and stories that deeply personal. It’s going to take a new way at looking at writing and a new way of looking at games, so it’s not going to happen tomorrow, but I think it will eventually; at least, I’m hopeful.

    In summary: I think it’s a tougher than you suggest, for slightly different reasons than you suggest, but I totally think it’s something we should work towards.

  16. cliffski says:

    any kind of simulation of actual language is a nightmare, but generally the exact word chocie isn’t the interesting dfecision in interaction, and in any case, that misses out body language and intonation etc.
    I think possibly the sort of (admittidly geeky) solution that could work is something akin to the ‘aura fields’ in Iain M Banks books, where drones (robots) have a glowing field which is used to represent emotion.
    Maybe I don’t want to pick exact words to say to an NPC, but I want to color my response to him by way of certain attitdues and emotions.
    Maybe stuff like ‘negativity’ could effectively be used in a game in the same way that buffs are used in RPGs?

  17. Xietanu says:

    That’s the sort of solution that was offered by Dragon Age II and L.A. Noire, but I think it comes with its own set of limitations. If you choose the ‘feeling’ you are going for and your character chooses something appropriate to say, which is what those two games did, it can lead to what comes out of the mouth of characters being very different to what you intended (being too extreme or not enough). That was a common complaint about L.A. Noire in particular, with players believing a suspect was lying but not being able to prove choosing to ‘doubt’ them, hoping the character might subtly try to draw out more proof, but instead had the character yelling at them, or some similar thing.

    Alternatively, if you just choose an ’emotion’ or very vague response and it’s left up to the player to decide what exactly their character said (say, choose blue for a calm statement, and a picture of a dog to ask about a dog), the system loses a lot of depth. People are very rarely trying to communicate one single, simple emotion or idea with what they say, and any chance of misunderstanding through ambiguity is lost. If you’re the investigative reporter interviewing a corrupt politician, you can’t give them leading questions, create clever traps for them to force them to show they’ve been lying, and they can’t cleverly dodge questions by giving answers that only technically answer what you asked, because that all relies on making use of the specific language that the player has employed (and all of which would be the most interesting aspects of playing an investigative reporter, I think). Also, how the NPC reacts will give an indication of what you said and how you said it, at least to a degree, because of the limitation of how they can respond. For instance, red + dog symbol leads to ‘You think I killed the dog, how could you?’; you implicitly accused them of murder, which maybe wasn’t your intention. Perhaps there’s a way of avoiding that, but I can’t imagine it without reducing conversations down to quite abstract levels which then will kill the drama of interacting with and listening to interesting characters.

    The multiple choice system employed by Dragon Age I and the recent Fallout games works pretty well, keeping the protagonist silent but giving a clear list of options with precise wording that cover a decent range of responses. I’ve never felt too limited by them, and the voice is still personal. However, even there the act of giving multiple choice can be a spoiler, and I remember at least one case where on the responses spoiled me because the character had figured out something I hadn’t, robbing me of the ability to find it out through my own probing of the world. And done badly, it’s like a multiple choice exam where the question is ‘what is 5 x 3?’ and the choices are a) -1, b) 15, c) 150646′. It’s a choice, but the ‘right’ answer is kind of obvious. Also, in none of those games is talking the main mechanic and progression isn’t controlled by conversion; I don’t know if the system would hold up to a transition into a game where it was.

    Speaking of the RPG thing, though, reminded me of an idea I was kicking around for a bit (might maybe still use, if I ever think of a good way to do it). Basically, an RPG that contextualizes conversations as more traditional turn-based battles, with each ‘attack’ being the thing you say next and with the whole buff and status effect style thing coming off of particular choices (confuse the opponent with a sudden non-sequitur, for example). The end of the battle coming when you’ve alienated or allied the person you’re talking to (maybe alienating people is easier, but makes the later game harder?). Kind of ridiculous, but at least it isn’t hitting people with swords.

  18. Vurogj says:

    It’s pretty much just a very complicated take on Risk, but http://www.tankopoly.com has something called Fashion Tycoon, where you play the CEO of a multinational fashion company.

    It is at the least, an original idea/art set pasted on top of a game engine that’s been used in their more “traditional” gaming fare (the other games at that site).

  19. Hardy24 says:

    For those who haven’t tried it Heavy Rain is a great game which is a big step in this direction, a game all about making decisions, what should you do in this situation? And there is no answer which means you have to replay the level!