Yes, But Also Never, Part Two of my chat with Mikko RautalahtiComplications Ensue
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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Mikko Rautalahti with nerf pistols

Alex: What are some valuable lessons that you've learned from things that are not games? What are some surprising things that you didn't expect them to teach you?

Mikko: Classics like pen and paper roleplaying games have been enormously useful. If you are a game writer who has never played a roleplaying game, you're missing something really core.

Alex: What's a lesson from roleplaying games?

Mikko: I think one of them is assuming that players will do the obvious thing. That may be the single most useful lesson, where you set up a scenario in a certain way and then it doesn’t play out how you expected.

That also applies to video games. If the players have the option of approaching something from another angle, you have to be prepared for that, but at the same time, there is a limit to how much you can cater to all the different approaches. So the maybe the reasonable expectation is that player walks down this corridor and then does a thing, because that's the only thing they can do. But can they walk out of the corridor, or can they suddenly just leave the place and do something else? Do they break the game if they do? Or can something interesting happen in response to that?

Alex: If they can do the wrong thing, they will. And if they can’t do the wrong thing, they’ll feel led by the nose.

Mikko: Yeah. What happens if they just stay there? There's a lot of stuff that works really well in non-interactive fiction, like the classic thing where there's a bomb that's about to explode and the timer is counting down and somebody's trying to defuse the bomb. And it's very dramatic. And it's like, oh, no are they going to make it on time? And it's fun! But in a video game, what happens if the player doesn't do it? What if they simply fail?

Of course, you can always say, boom, you died, reload. But is that fun or interesting? Can you have a situation that has a more interesting consequence if you fail? And if you don't have a great way of handling failure, do you want to have that situation in the first place?

Alex: It's interesting that you bring up roleplaying games because they're the antithesis of a video game in the sense that they have no budget. You can say, the world splits into sections like an orange. An angel comes down and he has a thousand eyes and he speaks to you in Yiddish and he wants you to go get his pants pressed.

Mikko: It's so different. A really great roleplaying tabletop experience is not killing orcs with bows and knives, it's what happens when the players say, “well I recognize this orc from back in high school where he was the bully. And I start to talk to him about that.” And then you riff off that and say that the orc breaks down and goes, “well I have a sandwich and we can share our sandwich.” And you can see so many ways things can go from there.

Alex: And now the Game Master is going, oh, God, I planned this whole thing based on fighting the orcs.

Mikko: Not to get too deep into this topic, but that's the sign of an inexperienced GM. If you walk out assuming that's going to happen, you're already on the wrong path. An experienced Game Master or Dungeon Master is like, I'm going to set this up, and I have a good understanding of what's going to happen if they do this. But I'm not counting on them doing it. If they approach it in a totally different way, then I understand this environment and the situation well enough that I can spin it a hundred different ways. And that's the joy of these games. For a player, the knowledge that your actions are not constrained, that you can do whatever, and it's hopefully going to have interesting consequences. And as a game master myself, what I really enjoy is those moments when players do something that I really didn't see coming. And I don't know how it's going to play out, but I know that I can handle it. But the next few minutes are going to be me working it out in real time. I have to handle it in a way that makes sense for the world and for the players. It’s leaping out of an airplane and figuring out how to make an umbrella before you hit the ground, every time. It’s great.

And obviously, that's not really something you can do in a video game. There are hard limits. Or sometimes it's more about the systems interacting and you get the emergent content, which is super interesting. But still, at the end of the day, there’s a technological framework. I know that the player has these tools at their disposal, they could be approaching these situations guns blazing or socially, and I have to prepare for that. You just have make sure that you have the kind of mechanics and technology for the NPCs to react to all of these approaches in different and interesting ways. You have to anticipate the player as much as you can.

Alex: So it's not so hard to make gameplay replayable. But if a game has a linear story, how do you make replaying it fun? Or is that even important? Is the only important thing to tell a good story?

Mikko: I have this urge to say that it's not important, but I don't think I actually believe that.

I would say that a game that has a lot of narrative replay value is probably succeeding better than a game that doesn't. And if you can make a game that really gives you different experiences based on your approach, I think that is great. But [the later experiences have to make] sense in the context of the earlier experience, too.

Alex: But how do you do that with narrative? How do you create the ability to tell a different story or to tell the story a different way or what?

What makes a book re-readable?

Mikko: If the writing is good and the acting is good and the actual storytelling, just the way it's implemented in the game is good, that is something people, at least the people who are OK with replaying stuff, are going to want to experience again. Journey, for example, is a game that I have played many times, largely for the narrative. I like the emotional payload that you get in that game.

Alex: I think there you're talking about narrative that is inherent the gameplay. In Journey, the narrative is the gameplay. I mean, aside from a few seconds of intro, the story is pretty much your struggle against all these difficult environments, isn’t it

Mikko: Well, yeah, it is very closely intertwined. But with Journey, there is such a specific emotional payload that is delivered. There’s a bit where you are close to the end, and you're trudging through the snow. Everything is getting harder and harder. And it feels sad and heavy and kind of horrifying. You feel like you're dying a little bit, stumbling in the snow, and there’s this overwhelming sense of despair.

And finally, you get re-energized and you explode out of the clouds, and you’re above this horrible snowstorm that was killing you. And now the sun is shining and the music soars. And it is just this beautiful, empowering moment. And the reason it feels so good is because it felt so bad just 20 seconds earlier.

Alex: So would you say it's the flow of the emotions --?

Mikko: Yeah. Yeah. And I like that I can sit somebody down and go, “hey, here's a video game, play this while I watch.” I've done that a bunch of times with Journey. I've had a bunch of people I know play it, and I watch them as much as I watch the game, and I can get that same emotional payload when I see them experiencing it.

And there are a couple of other games that I feel do something similar. Like Firewatch. The way it makes just talking on the radio a primary game mechanic is really interesting. And the way they have these different permutations of situations. Like this one scene where these shitty teenagers are setting off fireworks, and they're swimming and they're playing their music super loud. And you walk over there. There’s a boombox. And you can turn it off and they react to that. Or you can let it play. Or you can throw it in the lake. “Fuck you, kids.” Or you can take it with you, and after that, it's in the tower with you for the rest of the game. And it's not a huge thing; it has no bearing on how the game plays out. But you get the feeling that I did a thing and the world responded, which I think is really at the core of a good narrative experience, this idea that you are interacting with the world and the world notices.

Alex: Yeah. A pet peeve of mine is if there are dialog choices and you feel like they're not affecting anything. I played a triple-A game. And I just started choosing all the most obnoxious dialog options , I kept choosing options like, “Hey, buddy, fuck you and the horse you rode in on.” And they just kept right on blandly telling me where the quest was and what to do. They were never like, “Dude, what? Fuck off, eh? No quest for you.”

Mikko: I might know which triple-A game because I do the same thing.

Classic ludo-narrative dissonance. I remember in the original Knights of the Old Republic, which is a game that I quite enjoy, you can just go completely for the dark side. So you’re pure evil, and you’re unstoppable. You kill like a hundred really powerful enemies. And then you go talk to some clerk somewhere. And he makes you jump through all these hoops. And I can think of any number of unpleasant things I could theoretically do to him, because isn’t that what a dark side character would do? But this game won’t let me.

Alex: “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

Mikko: “I’m sorry, Darth Vader, but you do have to take your mask off for the picture, I don’t make the rules.” It gets ridiculous. And I understand why that happens; of course there are limits to what you can do in a game. But in terms of narrative design, then maybe don’t set up situations where you give me the option to do something or become something if you can’t commit to providing consequences that would be interesting or make sense. At least it's nowhere near as bad as it used to be; games have improved a lot on this front.

Alex: I think a lot of the craft of video game development is funneling the player without letting them feel that they're funneled. A good level disguises the traversal path with environmental art, but then provides all this iconography and color schemes that absolutely tell you where to go next. We’re handing the player solutions while telling them they’re smart. The player gets to push the button on the Insta-pot and say, “I cooked!”

Mikko: I think people are quite happy to be there as long as they can't see the funnel. But the moment they start to go, OK, I see exactly how it is going to play out, that’s where most people check out of the story. People start skipping cinematics or dialog. They might come back in later, but chances are that at that point they're just so confused about what's going on, it’s just easier for them to drop it.

Alex: A lot of narrative games don’t really demand that you follow the story in any way. You can play without headphones, just follow the mini-map. And then they miss the feels. And then, of course, they’re on Metacritic complaining, “this game didn’t really pull me in.” So we have to give them good reasons to keep the cans on. Either make the story really amazing so they wouldn’t miss it for the world, or put gameplay clues somewhere in the narrative, so if they’re paying attention, the gameplay is easier.

Mikko: I would like to see more games where the narrative imperative for doing things was considered to be more important than the gameplay imperative. So you don't get, “we can’t do this interesting narrative thing because the player needs to be able to murder all of these people without consequence because it's a video game.”

You don’t want, Oh, if you didn't pay attention during this dialog, then you can’t proceed, because that’s the narrative equivalent of an adventure game where you have to hunt for a specific pixel. But you can strive for context.

Alex: You ought to be able to design systems where the dialogs are replayable. There's a log. So you never actually lose the information.

Mikko: Yes. Yeah.

Alex: So if you pay attention, it's a whole lot easier. You can still grind your way through it. You won't fail. You're not blocked. But boy howdy, if you listen, it's going to be a whole lot easier. You can swim across the icy river, sure, and lose health. But if you listened to that guy, he said he’s a fisherman. I bet he’s got a boat.

Mikko: I feel like that's something a lot of games do reasonably well these days, and that's OK. But I think the one thing that games are still really bad out is giving the players a really good way to get back to a game when they haven't played it for a while. Like, you don't play for two months, you might not remember very well what you were doing.

Alex: We were just saying, it’s almost sad how fast the Xbox Series X is, because we won’t have loading screens in our game. And they’re so useful for reminding you where the hell you are.

Mikko: Yeah. In Quantum Break, if I remember correctly, you would have your current objective on the screen. But then if you went into the pause menu, you would get a more detailed description of what was going on.

Actually, what we really wanted to do was to have a thing in the menu where you could get a personal timeline that you could replay. You did at this, then you did this, then you did this. And it would have images of the places you were in at any given time when you were making the decision. Then you’d remember, “Oh, this was at the skyscraper. I remember the skyline. “

Because we had so much different branching content, we wanted you to be able to see, if you made different choices, you could see the choice you made before and compare its consequences to other choices. You would see this whole decision matrix play out.

But it was way too complex. It would’ve taken too much testing. It was a pipe dream.

Alex: I think as developers, we tend to favor the experience of streamers and reviewers. And the player who put down the game for two months, they just don’t get prioritized because the streamers aren't going to do that and the reviewers aren't going to do that. So to heck with the player who just, oh, they started playing Hades and they're gone from your game for two months. And then they finished Hades and now they're, OK, I'm back. Where was I?

Mikko: I fucking hate it.

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