Sunday, September 26, 2010

Writers Repeat Themselves (Game Designers should too)

Quite often as I read through a book, I will notice that each paragraph will describe the exact same thing three different ways. As time has gone by, and I have read more and more books, I have noticed this repeating pattern. I believe the first time I noticed this was while reading Shakespeare.

O, sir, content you;
I follow him to serve my turn upon him:
We cannot all be masters, nor all masters
Cannot be truly follow'd. You shall mark
Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave,
That, doting on his own obsequious bondage,
Wears out his time, much like his master's ass,
For nought but provender, and when he's old, cashier'd:
Whip me such honest knaves. Others there are
Who, trimm'd in forms and visages of duty,
Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves,
And, throwing but shows of service on their lords,
Do well thrive by them and when they have lined
their coats
Do themselves homage: these fellows have some soul;
And such a one do I profess myself. For, sir,
It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago:
In following him, I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end:
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, 'tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

Iago here, talks about how not all servants are loyal, and that he is not loyal. How he, like those servants who only pretend, is simply waiting for his chance to no longer be a servant.

Now in concept, we could simply leave this idea as is. We could simply follow the concept and apply three variations of phrasing to everything we write, and hope that imitation is good enough to make our writing seem adequate or, dare we say, even good.

For the most part, that would work out, but we need to capture the why of the action, or we'll be like those girls who never understand why to apply make-up a certain way, and end up looking like clowns instead.

So, is it important to use this tripling repetition all the time in writing? Or only during key moments, or important events? How about in a mystery, where you want the clue to exist, but to be forgotten until mentioned later? How about in instructions and directions?

I'm not sure if writing an entire novel in constantly repeating yet different sentences is a good idea. I've read a story like that, and about half way through I was frustrated and skipping the extra two sentences of information. Which after getting in the habit of doing, caused me to miss some scattered bit of info the author was trying to convey. So perhaps in such events, it might be better to only use the three step sentence when information is important.

What about in a mystery? By putting emphasis on something else, and having a single throwaway sentence for something of import, you may succeed in causing the reader to forget about the important item, and focus on what they thought was important.

How can this be used in games? How about in quest text? Quite often, people skip the quest text, as it is often pointless, and simply read the what the goal of the quest is. How about simply writing the goal where the quest text is. Followed by having the goal in the objectives section. Finally, you have it on the players HUD of active quests. This of course means that you have tell your story in a different way (I've seen videos of Cataclysm, where a few times, Blizzard has succeeded in changing quests to this form). This can make it difficult, as telling a story through gameplay is something that is not yet completely common.

So is there a way to use the repeating text concept in game design, to tell a story, where most people skip the reading? Are there games that have told a story without words or with few words?

Perhaps, you start with a simple quest, and you don't read the quest text and just do things. But, if those quests really do serve a purpose, you start seeing a pattern in what you are doing, even without reading the quest text. Just from the quest objectives you can start figuring out that hey, something is going on here. This means that you would have to have most quests NOT be kill 10 rats. You have to add another element, or even better, two more elements into the quest.

How about this: "Rats have been coming up from the cellar. There used to be an underground passage which was used during the occupation of the tyrannical orcs a while back. Looks like something new has moved into the passage ways. Perhaps, you would help me solve this problem? I'll make sure to reward you... appropriately."

First of all, the quest text itself mentions passage way and cellar and essentially going underground. Second, you would have updating or chain quests that would lead from one to the other. Is there more we can do?

In this case, we need to look at cut-scenes or things "like" a cut-scene to help tell the story. This would be the third step of telling a story three different ways.

So we can the quest to go into the cellar, where the quest updates to killing rats and we kill an arbitrary 10 rats. Once we kill the rats, we see one escape into another passage (the "cut-scene"). We follow, and see the passage ways that the quest giver was talking about. Now, we go deeper and explore. Now even without reading the quest text, we knew to go to the cellar, and because our objectives window is auto-updating, and we are seeing the rats escape down a passage, we follow and proceed with the quest.

Now, would you do this with every mission? Or only with important missions?

I would imagine that a developer would tier the significance of of their quests, so that as you go up in importance you have these additional steps taking place, to show the importance of these events. Perhaps even for the same reason that you would for writing.