Cute Bite and Mechanical Coherence

Cute Bite is the latest raising sim from Hanako Games, where you take the role of a butler training her vampire mistress, who’s decades long sleep has reduced her from a fearsome queen to a small child. By training various stats, the player guides the vampire towards her true power, gaining various endings for their efforts.

The main gameplay loop is choosing activities for the vampire to do – either jobs that gain money, or classes that raise stats and cost money – and balancing this with her mind and body health meters. In this respect the game is a standard, but very well executed, raising sim.

The thing that I found interesting was the additional mechanics and minigames that could be played at the end of the week, and how they tied elegantly into the main loop rather than feeling like seperate elements. Minigames can often feel tacked on, but despite the range of additional activities they fit excellently into the game.

The stats screen.
The butler and the vampire.

For example, one of the activities available by default is hunting. This can increase your mind and body meters if successful and uses the stats raised in the core loop. There is also a chance of money dropping. Because the stats are at the heart of the game, and the player is afforded an opportunity to gain crucial resources, this feels like a consistent part of the overall product despite it using turn based combat – the hallmark of a different game genre altogether. It is worth noting that Princess Maker, arguably the origin of these sorts of games, did have a dungeon mechanic, so it isn’t that Cute Bite is original in doing this, just that it is done exceedingly well.

The battles are based on the opposed stats of the vampire and her victim, which are in turn made up of two of the stats raised in the core loop. Not only do they tie into the main form of gameplay, but they are thematically appropriate to the vampire genre and are a little different from what you might expect from RPG stats. The target’s aloofness versus the vampire’s feigned helplessness was a particular favorite. The stats of each target are hidden at first, but as you encounter the same targets, you gain a picture of their competencies and weaknesses. This not only serves as a fun mechanic for discovery and strategy, it builds a painting of the town that you live in, as you meet the same people on the streets at night.

Cute Bite’s RPG style battles.
Princess Maker 2 Refine on Steam
Princess Maker 2’s RPG style battles.

Other activities include testing the vampire’s stats as she shmooses at a ball, attempts to burgle the local shops and mansions or arm wrestling grown men in the local pub. While these are all simpler, stat based challenges, it is worth pointing out the non-intrusive but well telegraphed difficulty of these challenges, using colors to signify difficulty, and the randomised nature of which stats will be challenged. Both make these great little mechanics that tie in nicely to the stat raising core.

The ballroom activity – I had no chance here.

There are also activities that allow the player to predict and affect their ending, by trading stats for money or divining a hint towards the ending they’ll get. Again, because both activities are tied directly to those stats that are at the core of the game, they work well.

Swapping stats for money.

What feels really great about all this is that these stats are not only the mechanical heart of the game, but the narrative one too. The game is a raising sim, you are trying to turn this girl into someone. The stats are both what you do and what the game is about. The stats affect your vampire in ways both telegraphed and obfuscated, with an icon appearing in the corner when the vampire is reacting to something that you chose for her or said to her in the past. The different choices, previous scenes and the personality the player sets for the vampire at the beginning of the game combine to change outcomes in a way that feels like the game is listening to you.

I searched for a game design term to describe what I’m talking about here. I wanted to use the word elegant, because it feels that way, but elegance in game design has a specific meaning to do with simplicity, depth and mastery. I’d argue that Cute Bite doesn’t have the kind of depth an elegant game does. While there is a lot of room for discovery and some interesting elements that feel emergent, the game is all authored and there is a finite amount of content that can be seen. This isn’t a bad thing – it just suggests that elegance is not the design philosophy I’m after here.

Coherence is possibly a better word, and one I’ve been using. Specifically I’m talking about mechanical coherence. Yes, there is narrative coherence here – as I mentioned earlier, what you do and what the game is about are the same thing, but I specifically want to highlight how every mechanic feels seamless and like it is build from the same set of bricks, on the same foundation.

Everything in this game is build around three concepts: Stats, Time and Money. The core mechanics of the game touch all three of these, with the less important aspects of the game touching less of them, but never having no basis in any of them.

A diagram of some of the activities in Cute Bite – I hadn’t yet discovered all of the mini games when I made this.

I can’t say what methodology the team at Hanako Games actually uses to design their titles, but the idea of designing from this core outwards is a great one. I’m not sure I could design something that neatly, especially considering I tend to approach a design narrative first, but making a diagram like this is a great exercise to both make the core of the game clear and discover how connected your mechanics are. I’ll try it on my next project!

Enter The Mansion Card Editor

It’s been a little while since I’ve been able to work on Enter the Mansion, but I got back on it this week and finished up my rudimentary card editor. Previously, I’d been looking at scriptable assets and how to use them as a way for designers to create different ‘cards’ that could be displayed in game. This week I focused on how to make this card setup a little easier to use.

I’d initially hoped to have the TextArea boxes in the editor UI be the same size as the area in the game UI, so users wouldn’t have to check their word/character counts in game. Unfortunately I also wanted spell check, and the spell check package I used only game with extendable TextAreas that are a fixed size to start off with. Ultimately I preferred having spellcheck over the counts thing, as all content should be tested in game anyway!

The spell check feels a little clunky, as it is a separate window and does not offer suggestions, but its damn sight better than nothing and far more complex than anything I’m currently equipped to make myself.

In addition to the spellcheck, I added a slot in the card asset for an image that is then displayed in the UI alongside the text. Keeping these together is important, so that when I’m writing the room’s description, I can ensure that the text and the image match.

In addition to the window I added a unique, generated ID to each card. This is for debugging and tracking purposes, especially as content changes. Initially I wanted to create an ID when the asset was created and have it static, but Unity wouldn’t let me look up the asset database in a constructor, so I did it when the card loads instead. This actually turned out to be a good thing, as it meant that if I delete a card the others update accordingly.

    //assign ID to cards when they are loaded
    void OnEnable() { 
        string[] assetNames = AssetDatabase.FindAssets("", new[] { "Assets/Cards" });

        foreach (string asset in assetNames) {
            string assetName = AssetDatabase.GUIDToAssetPath(asset);
            string[] assetNameSplit = assetName.Split('/');
            assetName = assetNameSplit[assetNameSplit.Length - 1];
            assetName = assetName.Split('.')[0];

            if ((assetName + " ") == this.ToString().Split('(')[0]) {
                this.ID = System.Array.IndexOf(assetNames, asset).ToString();
                break;
            }
        }
    }

The last thing I did on this was add a button that moves through each of the cards, replacing the former random card on start logic I had in there before. This is a lot easier to test until I decide how I actually want to deliver my cards!

void setCard()
{
    try
    {
        if (card != null)
        {
            int current_index = cards.IndexOf(card);
            card = cards[current_index + 1];
        }
        else
        {
            card = cards[0];
        }
    }
    catch (System.ArgumentOutOfRangeException e)
    {
        card = cards[0];
    }
}

One Page Pitches

After my research into magical realism in games, I wanted to find a quick way to explore some potential designs in the space. I decided to create some one-page pitches.

This is something I’ve seen at all the studios I’ve worked at, but was surprised to see very few examples of this style of document online. I used Canva for these, which is (mostly) free online alternative to powerpoint.

Dream Dilemma!

As I’d realized that DD! was in fact a Magical Friendship game, I started off with this. It let me get the template down without worrying about the actual design of the game, as I’d already made it!

Random Game Ideas

I boiled my Magical Friendship idea down to a formula of:

Important Relationship + Everyday Setting * Magical Influence = Change in Outlook

This is obviously very reductive, but made for a nice way of generating story ideas quickly to let me brainstorm mechanics around them. I wrote down examples of each part of the formula and drew them at random, then created one pagers for my favorite combinations.

Cooking Murakami

Otherwise known as Co-Workers at a Fast Food Restaruant Encounter Ghosts.

The themes of being stuck, liminality and moving on are expressed though Alex’s position in life, Ronald’s position in brand-death and the common misconception that minimum wage jobs are temporary and not people’s livlihood.

I brought the calandar concept from Persona and merged it with the puzzle simulation mini-games of Cooking Mama or Papers, Please. With the core of the story being about the complicated emotions of the brand-spirits, I’ve got dialog in there too, riffing off of Christine Love’s timed dialog mechanic in Ladykiller in a Bind to promote the hectic feeling of working in a kitchen.

This idea is incredibly cursed, and I love it. When I said ‘this idea is like if Murakami designed Cooking Mama’, I knew I only had one choice for the title.

Island Obscura

or: Siblings on Holiday Encounter UFOs

In this one I explore the relationship between siblings by using co-op puzzle-traversal gameplay. Mechanics wise, I’m riffing on Unchartered, Tomb Raider and dungeons in Zelda but without any of the combat, to create an experience that feels like a more exciting version of a walking simulator. I wanted to get the discovery aspect of slower games in there.

Narrative wise, I wanted to use the way that Dark Souls or Shadow of the Colossus tells its story to speak about imagination. The main inspiration for this pitch comes from the time I tagged along on my friend’s stepdad’s diving holiday and the two of us were just dumped on South Uist with nothing to do. Our imaginations went wild, and we made up all sorts of things about the island’s residents and what certain pieces of architecture or ruins ‘really meant’. I’d like to blur the line between what’s real and what’s a shared dream of the kids and I intend to do this by telling the story in a way that is not explicit.

Rule the Scene!

Otherwise known as: A Found Family who are Mega-Fans of Something Encounter Faeries

With this, the first thing I latched onto was the similarity between the complex social hierarchy that exists in the Fey seelie and unseelie court mythos and the hidden rules and structure of social life in the music scene. I wanted to create something that focused on social climbing and intrigue without it being a VN/CHOA/dialog options only experience.

As such, I went with something card based, focusing on specific social interactions as battles. This was inspired by the idea of being able to ‘counter’ when met with brags or challenges to your knowledge of music or the scene.

Magically Real Mechanics

To follow on from my previous post on finding that the core of my ‘Magical Friendship’ vibe was a magical realism stint, I decided to take a quick look at some games I’ve played that employ magical realism as part of their story to see how their mechanics imbibe the genre. This is less a comprehensive review of mechanics and more a short brain dump!

Coffee Talk

Coffee Talk on Steam

Which aspect is magically realistic?

Coffee Talk’s world feels rather magically realistic, as the setting is generally realistic and modern, bar the inclusion of fantasy races.

How is this shown through mechanics?

The main mechanic in Coffee Talk is drink making and serving while you listen to the patrons talk about their lives. Drink serving is used as a way to branch the story, and depending on what you serve their stories change. This feels slow and cosy, which brings in the glorification of the everyday element I discussed in my last post.

Life is Strange

Life is Strange (Time Travel, and the Mechanics of Point-and-Click  Adventure Games) | Gaming Backlog

Which aspect is magically realistic?

The world in Life is Strange is the real world, however our main character has time travel powers. These powers are not the focus, rather the focus is on the revival of old friendships and the question about whether you’d change the past if you could. This exploration of human questions though the fantasy element is indicative of the genre.

How is this shown through mechanics?

We traverse environments, picking up clues about the story then later get to use that information to make key decisions regarding characters. At certain points, the player can choose to time travel back to an earlier point, retaining the knowledge gained in order to change dialog options and open up more paths. This is a fairly literal interpretation of regret over the past as a mechanic.

Persona 4

Persona 4 Rainmeter : Rainmeter

Which aspect is magically realistic?

Everything about this game! The way mundane and magical concerns are placed alongside one another, the participation in the mc’s daily life and the TV, something very ordinary, as a vehicle for magical elements all make Persona 4 magically realistic.

How is this shown through mechanics?

We see glorification of the everyday and the elevated status of normal activities to sit alongside the fantasy hero narrative, as the game is split between the daily life and dungeon segments. Players must balance keeping up with school work, maintaining friendships and yearly events with their quest to find the murderer in the TV world. The way that social relationships affect the stats of the personas that are used in the RPG style battles show how the magical and real are intertwined in a way that supports the main themes of friendship, rebellion and longing for escape.

Papers, Please

Immigration as a game: 'Papers, Please' makes you the border guard - The  Verge

This game is not an example of magical realism, however I think the stamping and verifying mechanic is a great way to explore theme. Papers, Please is about the conflict between survival and providing for one’s family vs doing what’s right against an authoritarian state. Your work as a border guard is mundane, but can completely change someone’s life, potentially even dooming them to die by stamping a card one way or another.

Genre Quest: Magical Friendship

A couple of months ago, I intended to write a choose your own adventure game. I had the ChoiceScript IDE downloaded, its tutorials completed, and a vibe. Not a story outline, not a design doc, but a vibe. So of course, when I began to write this game, I didn’t understand what I was trying to achieve. Now, I’ve ‘pantsed’ games before, but this wasn’t the sort of thing I could just write on the fly. Part of this unknown ‘vibe’, and a key element of game design according to the choice script standards was that the stats featured in the game would not only allow for player expression and multiple ways to play, but would communicate the themes and feelings I wished to explore within the narrative. That’s great, if you know what your themes are.

As such, I started analysing the media that served as inspiration for this enigmatic ‘vibe’ and, while that incarnation of the project is now dead in the water due to my realisation that I didn’t want to write a whole CYOA book’s worth of prose and that the setting was probably not for me to write, I discovered some interesting things about genre and type of media I like, so figured it was worth a write up. I’ll likely come back to this as a theme later down the line, and am interested to explore the potential within the kind of narrative I’ve outlined.

The main sources of inspiration for the project were The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Makoto Shinkai’s movies, Persona 4 and a light novel called Chain Mail. Initially, the main connection that I drew between these pieces of media were that they were Japanese in origin and I first encountered them when I was in my teens. This was not encouraging as I was concerned what I was hitting was personal nostalgia and not any particular genre, theme or convention. Via analysis I discovered that there was significantly more to link the properties than my own feelings, and I’m going to discuss each point of similarity below.

Escapism as a Form of Rebellion

The first link between these properties is the theme of escapism as a form of rebellion. In Haruhi, the titular character is bored with mundane life and struggles with the idea of insignificance in a world of so many people. As a response, she endeavors to live in a world full of aliens, time travellers and espers. (Unbeknownst to her, the members of her club the SOS Brigade are aliens, time travellers and espers – we’ll get to this point later.) She uses escapism and the search for media-like phenomena (this show is full of anime tropes) as a way to be different from her classmates and to rail against the world that made her feel insignificant.

Likewise in Chain Mail, the way the main characters – in particular Sawako and Mai – view their lives, is much like Haruhi Suzumiya’s perspective. They believe other people’s mundane concerns to be beneath them, and refuse to engage with conversation and activities they see as boring, like discussing idol TV programs or trying to meet their favorite bands.

Mai, Sawako and Mayumi all had trouble dealing with reality, and had only been able to connect with each other through fantasy. Was there something wrong with them? Or was the problem with a society that didn’t accept them? Or did both sides need to reach out more?

In contrast to Haruhi, who wishes that the real world had media-like crazy events, the characters in Chain Mail are adamant on keeping their forum separate from the real world, as they feel bringing any semblance of reality into the equation will taint it somehow – they will cease to be stalking victims and detectives and just be ordinary school girls. Their focus is on escapism over dealing with reality. This becomes a crux of the mystery, as despite the situation becoming potentially dangerous, each character refuses to meet or email the other girls with information, afraid it will ruin their fantasy.

In Weathering With You, Hodaka runs away from home as he is dissatisfied with living on a small island. The idea of being trapped or bored in a countryside setting is also explored in Persona 4, particularly in Yusuke’s story as we see him battle with guilt over feeling better than the small town of Inaba.

The central characters of all these works are teenagers, and while the desire to escape from one’s life can be present at any age, it is a fairly universal teenage trait to be looking towards the future and towards the freedoms that adult life will entail. The idea that there is a bit of a ticking clock and the characters will ultimatley have to decide to grow up or to defend their fantasty world was present in all of the media I studied and the resolutions to this question fell on a specturm between ‘fuck conformity’ and ‘joy can be found in the mundane’.

Glorification of the Everyday

Juxtaposed against the idea of escapism is the glorification of the everyday. This adds some thematic tension and is key to the particular feeling that these pieces of media invoke in their audience. A lot of the scenes in these pieces could be described as ‘cosy’ or ‘peaceful’, which stand out in contrast to their more action oriented moments.

In Chain Mail, we see one of the characters freed from a hectic schedule, and she takes the slow train, waxing lyrical about the sense of peace the train gives her.

…the air currents in the local stop trains whispered ‘it doesn’t matter what happens.

In Persona 4, we get to play not only RPG dungeons and boss fights, but dates, homework and hanging out at the local department store, for lack of anything else to do. While it is possibly portrayed as less idyllic here – especially with the malcontent some characters express towards small town life – we go through the daily routines of our heroes and find joy in the small moments together. P4 also features seasonal events that match with the Japanese high school calendar, such as holidays, exams and school trips. This immerses the player in the cycles and routines of the characters and makes daily life a fun gameplay mechanic.

Haruhi also features this, with events such as Tanabata wishes, Tests of Courage and Baseball games. While these are anime tropes, they derive from real life events.

As well as calendar events, global brands drive this familiarity. These are almost modern myths – common symbols that we all understand and relate to in some way. This is prevalent in Weathering with You, as it features many advertisements in the environment design and Hina working at McDonalds is key to the plot.

In general, Weathering with You features some particularly great examples of the magic of the everyday, with there being something warm and delightful about Hodaka’s chores montage and the cooking scene in Hina’s apartment.

‘My days were hectic but for the first time someone was relying on me.’

In Haruhi, one of the slowest episodes, yet one that comes to mind when I think about the general feel of the show, is one where they just hang around the club room for most of it. Kyon fetches a heater in the cold; Harhui and Mikuru take photos. It invokes nostalgia for a time where we could just do that. Hang around after school, nowhere to be and nothing to get done.

It’s the feel from this episode, especially in comparison with the more crazy ones, that invokes the theme at the heart of the anime – finding joy in the mundane. Haruhi spends all of her time wishing things were fantastical, but the thing that prevents her from destroying the world is a kiss from Kyon – the very ordinary boy she spends all her time with. The happiness and fulfilment is found not in the extra-ordinary, but in the connections between the group as they search for such things. Ultimately, you could say that the real aliens, time travellers and espers were the friends they made along the way. (Yep, that’s what I’m going with.)

The Real Time Travellers, Aliens and Espers Were the Friends We Made Along the Way

By which, I really mean use of Magical Realism. Magical Realism is defined by Wikipedia as:

…a style of fiction and literary genre that paints a realistic view of the modern world while also adding magical elements, often deals with the blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality…Despite including certain magic elements, it is generally considered to be a different genre from fantasy because magical realism uses a substantial amount of realistic detail and employs magical elements to make a point about reality, while fantasy stories are often separated from reality.

All of these properties contain magical or fantastical events to some degree, and generally these elements are key to the escapism and rebellion that the characters are expressing. It is however, these themes and the human aspect of the story that form the core of the narrative, not the magic.

A major example of how magic is used to make a point about the key themes I’ve established is where we see a group of teens that must investigate a mystery that adults do not understand. This is the sunshine girl in Weathering with You, the TV world in P4, the strange happenings around Haruhi and the disappearance of Sawako in Chain Mail. We see an us against the world sentiment, focusing on friendship and elevating everyday bonds, and a rebellious streak, showing the gap between teenagers and adults.

In Weathering With You, we see the magical experiences of children and teenagers, and the magical wisdom of older folk, but working age adults are generally ignorant. Even the head of the occult magazine doesn’t believe in the occult, and his profession makes him somewhat of an outcast in the adult world. The magical phenomenon is used as a metaphor for the pressure of the adult world and the need to conform and fit in, again coming back to our central theme.

Just exploring themes with fantastic elements is not enough to define a piece of media as Magical Realism however. This is a common enough trait of fantasy and sci-fi, particularly those that fall on the more literary side of things. What really makes these properties magically real is the way that the real world and the magical sit alongside each other, without much explanation. The author never attempts to codify or create hard systems for the fantasy elements, instead leaving them as an ambiguous vehicle for theme and character-driven plot.

We see this in Haruhi, where the question of whether she is God is never really answered, as the answer is instead, it doesn’t matter. We also see it in Weathering with You, where elements of Shinto and Japanese folklore are used to fuel the magical elements of the story but are never explained beyond contradicting rumors that we hear from various older folks.

In Weathering with You in particular, the magic is somewhat mundane. Hina’s ability to control rain only affects a small area and the problems it solves are real, everyday ones, like not cancelling a flea market or fireworks display. Rain is a universal, everyday problem. This is true of our other pieces as well, with a possible kidnapping being a misunderstanding in Chain Mail and alien powers being used to win hackathons and baseball games in Haruhi.

This magic is always set alongside and compared to everyday things, using the glorification of the everyday we discussed above. We see this when fish fall from the sky as Hodaka has his first visit to a girl’s house in Weathering with You, or when Kyon finds a love letter in his locker in Harhui, which leads to an alien battle in a pocket dimension. These first-love sort of events are incredibly nerve wracking and important in the real world, and these feelings are never diminished, with the magical storyline having equal if not less import.

Magical Realism

With all this in mind, I wondered if I had just come across a name for a genre that I’d been enjoying without knowing that it was in fact a genre. I had been concerned that the ‘vibe’ I was chasing was a uniquely Japanese phenomenon and wouldn’t translate well to a Western setting, so exploring literature and fiction with a wider cultural heritage seemed like a good way to test this theory.

I had read Kafka on the Shore not too long before exploring these themes, and while it certainly had this core of teenage rebellion and magical realism, it was considerably darker in tone than the other pieces I explored and didn’t feel like a good fit for my ‘vibe’.

In addition, I read a number of short stories in the genre from a few different cultural backgrounds, including the opening of Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who is credited with sparking the entire genre. While some of these stories were charming and all had strange phenomena set alongside the real world (a particular favorite was Americca by Aimee Bender), they never quite held the same feeling I was chasing.

While these pieces of writing were all Magically Realistic, they did not share the same themes as my original inspirations. There was no teenage escapism, and the portrayal of the everyday was considerably darker in tone. I was looking for more than just genre.

For the next step in my quest, I turned to film. Particularly, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Funnily enough, this just so happened to be another film that I enjoyed when I was a teenager, but had later on disliked for what I saw as more problematic elements. It does actually exemplify many of the traits I’ve discussed so far. Its incorporation of magical, video game inspired elements into a realistic world of music subculture and this as a vehicle for telling the story of Scott’s romantic drama makes it a good example of Magical Realism. The young, slacker type characters, with their derision of their home city of Toronto as not-as-cool as Montreal or New York exemplify the teenage escapism and rebellion aspect. Here, music and video games take the place of folklore or religion as the myth-making vehicle for shared symbols and motifs that drive the magic.

Like the other properties, Scott Pilgrim never seeks to explain its magic, dismissing the hyperspace corridor in Scott’s head with ‘I forgot they don’t have those in Canada.’ and seamlessly weaving the narrative of fighting evil exes with more mundane concerns such as cheating and trying to get noticed as a band.

Its key themes are explored though its fantastical elements, with Ramona being quite literally Scott’s dream girl and Ramona’s dilemma of people getting hurt because of her coming out as a physical fight with evil exes.

The glorification of the everyday is less present in this movie, as the main characters lead fairly chaotic lives, but we still see the routine element come out when we see Scott and Knives’ date is repeated twice to show the change in their relationship. Often, the everyday is less glorified than elevated, with video game sound effects used during key moments to make it feel like the characters are gaining something, winning or levelling up.

Despite the similarities, Scott Pilgrim vs The World didn’t fit into my ‘vibe’ either. Not entirely.

One of the things that is most dissonant between what I’m exploring and Scott Pilgrim is that of a core group of friends against the world. Here, everyone knows everyone to their detriment, as this causes untold amounts of drama.

The largest issue however, is with the lack of sincerity. While this movie shares a lot of the key themes I’ve highlighted, it lacks an emotional core that really made me invest in the other properties. The main character is utterly unlikable, and there is a disaffected and aloof air to the movie that makes it difficult to take seriously. While Scott grows to be less of an asshole to the women in his life, it doesn’t really feel as if the characters grow due to their bonds and face growing up. In fact, Scott and Ramona sort of just run away.

Despite this, it has given me confidence that the themes and genre are not particular to Japanese culture and therefore could be successfully explored in a Western setting. I’ll update this space if I do find something that fulfills all my criteria – I’m sure it’s out there!

Magical Friendship

So, having explored all these different properties, I came up with a framework for my ‘vibe’.

It must:
– Contain elements of magical realism.
– Explore themes of escapism and rebellion.
– Glorify the everyday so that it sits alongside the magical elements in terms of importance and reverence.
– Have a sincere emotional core that focuses on friendship.

For now, I’ve chosen to refer to it as ‘Magical Friendship’. While this isn’t all encompassing, it does well enough to describe this very particular feeling that I’m looking to achieve.

In my next post on this subject, I aim to explore how this Magical Friendship theme could be used in a game narrative.

Enter The Mansion Card Assets

The next step for Enter The Mansion – my procedural card based adventure game – was to convert the sets of data for each card into assets that can be authored outside of C#.

I inherited from scriptable object for my card asset, which let me generate new instances of the object as resources in the asset database.

using UnityEngine;

[CreateAssetMenu(fileName = "Data", menuName = "ScriptableObjects/Card_Asset", order = 1)]
public class Card_Asset : ScriptableObject
{
    public string ID;
    public string title;
    public string body;
    public string body2;
    public string choice;
}

It was then fairly simple to get all the assets in the cards folder using the AssetDatabase functions which fits into what I’d already written to pick a random card and populate the UI with its information.

    void PopulateList()
    {
        string[] assetNames = AssetDatabase.FindAssets("", new[] { "Assets/Cards" });
        foreach (string name in assetNames) {
            var assetPath = AssetDatabase.GUIDToAssetPath(name);
            var card = AssetDatabase.LoadAssetAtPath<Card_Asset>(assetPath);
            cards.Add(card);
        }
    }

This is a step in the right direction, however the editor for the asset remains unfriendly to the user. There’s not enough room in the box to type out a whole paragraph, and there’s no spellcheck. The ID field also needs to either be generated by the system or forced to be unique. Thinking about how to make this useable is the next step!

Unity For Dummies

Its me, I’m the dummy.

I wanted to get out of Ren’Py for game making. As much as I love it, I’d like to create some narrative based games that don’t rely so heavily on the visual novel format. I chose Unity with C# as I’ve been wanting to learn a little more code and C# is a pretty good skill to have on hand for my technical art day job too!

The game I had in mind revolves around using random cards to build up a spooky haunted house exploration story, much like World of Horror or Betrayal at House on the Hill. I’ve got some game design stuff that I’ll share in another post.

I sort of rushed right ahead into this, then realised that Unity doesn’t work in the way I’m used to with regard to classes and data storage. (I’ve used it professionally, but only as an artist.) Being in python mostly I’m used to just defining a bunch of classes and functions and using them whenever and wherever I want to. Unity is a lot more strict on what types of classes can be used where and how things should be structured.

The video below was a nice intro to how classes work in Unity – super simple stuff, but exactly what I needed. It shows how to make a constructor using the same name as the class, which was one of the things I was unsure about as I’m used to Python’s __init__ function.

My first task was to populate some UI text using predefined card objects, and I needed a card class, a dictionary of all existing cards and something to handle populating the text.

At first, I made three classes, all as monobehaviours, as is the default, and everything broke! Monobehaviour classes are designed to be attached to GameObjects, not to be created inside other scripts. As an alternative to monobehaviours, you can use a ScriptableObject – a data container that stores unchanging data, create your own super class or not have it derive from anything. For data with no behaviour, a struct is also an option.

In the end, I made a struct to hold the card data, a ScriptableObject to hold the dictionary of cards, that also contained adding and removal functionality, and a Monobehaviour attached to the main canvas that handed picking a random element from the dictionary and populating the UI fields with it.

Created with Coggle.it

The next step with this is to work out how to create card objects outside of runtime, and how to populate the dictionary with these. It looks like ScriptableObjects can be created as .asset files and used in editor, so I’m going to look into this as an option. Ideally, I’d love a tool that is aimed at narrative designers that lets them not only fill in the content, but create choices and localise text – that’s getting well ahead of myself though!


Choice of Games

ChoiceScript

I’ve played a few Choice of Games titles recently and really enjoyed them, so figured I’d try my hand at choiceScript, their proprietary scripting language for creating games. I don’t have much to write about the language itself, as it was fairly easy and has a lot of similarities to ren’py. I’m much more interested in the design philosophy of the company, which I’ll cover when talking about their style guide.

To test it out, I made a wee intro about a high school paranormal investigation club which, since I enjoyed making it, I intend to develop at least one chapter of.

Style Guide

The choice of games style guide is here.

I particularly like how there is an emphasis on mechanics mattering and being story appropriate, diversity and player expression. All things I love!

Conventions in Choice of Games

I had a look through the Choice of Games I’d previously played to get a feel for the writing style and how choices are presented.

Generally, it seems that they are written in second person, present tense, with the choices in first person present tense. It’s as if a narrator is talking and the player is replying. Past tense is used in flashback scenes that determine character traits.

Different games present their choices in different ways. Choice of romance uses a lot of questions, sometimes without diegetic context, such as:

‘Are you a daughter or a son?’

Creme de la Creme doesn’t really ask questions – you just pick the next thing that happens.

“Your father straightens the collar of your coat. “
“Remember you’ll always be our son”


This lets the player choose what other characters do and say in addition to their own actions.

Vampire the masqurade presents some choices as incomplete sentences with ellipses.

“drove from city to city learning to do what you loved, which was…”

Ambiguity in Text as Interaction

I’ve seen the idea that every choice in a branching narrative must be meaningful or ‘do something’ floating around, and it doesn’t sit well with me. I really like choices that don’t functionally do anything, but allow me to express myself as a player and get to know/create the character that I’m roleplaying.

The video below has a lot of great points about interactive fiction, but what interested me most was the idea of ambiguity in the text as it reinforces my thoughts on this topic. Ambiguity lets the player shape the story by filling in parts by themselves, while serving the writer because it allows the same text to take on differing meaning without the need for additional content or code.

Heather explains why it’s a good thing to have choices that don’t affect the gameplay on a mechanical level nor show the player entirely new pieces of text. Small bits of flavor or backstory, especially where it relates to the character and their life, can entirely re-contextualize scenes for the player, leading them to make different choices. As in the example in the video, while the player will always have to fight the enemy captain, whether that person is a true enemy, a friendly rival or a lover-turned-enemy completely changes the emotions surrounding the fight and thus leads the player to a different experience. I’d certainly be playing three times over to experience the plot from those perspectives!

Mechanics as Theme and Aesthetics of Play

Mechanics as Theme

On the back of my choiceScript experiments, I started thinking about expanding the idea I was using to test the language and what stats I would use. I don’t want to try and force a story around a set of mechanics because the story won’t be very strong, nor do I want to try and add stats and choices to an existing story because then the stats won’t be particularly meaningful and there will be an obviously canon set of choices. What I want to do is to start with theme, genre and atmosphere and build a set of mechanics and narrative goals that align with these. I’m thinking of it more in the way I design content when I’m GMing a ttrpg than writing a novel or designing a video game.

Stats should:

  • Represent player’s relationship to their world
  • Be important for gameplay and have consequences
  • Express who the pc is as a person
  • Express the ideas and themes of the narrative

Mechanics and story should be so intertwined that you can’t separate them – one without the other is significantly weaker.https://www.youtube.com/embed/f5I6uo39ujQ?version=3&rel=1&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&fs=1&hl=en&autohide=2&wmode=transparent

This extra credits video expands on the topic of mechanics carrying their own sperate – often opposing – meaning from the narrative themes. As an example it uses Pokemon. The plot appears rather fluffy – being friends with the Pokémon as your cute animal friends, but the mechanic is essentially about forcing animals to fight each other. You get rewarded for winning battles in exp and money. This is the sort of thing I want to avoid.

Aesthetics of Play

Another Extra Credits video talks about Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics – a paper I’m pretty sure I read about six years ago for uni, but I’m just riffing off the video here.

Mechanics = Rules and systems
Dynamics = Actual play
Aesthetics = Reason to play

Genre is explicitly defined by aesthetics in other mediums. It appears that game genres are mechanically focused, but really we are defined by aesthetics too.

For example, portal is a puzzle game, though it functions as an FPS. Fallout is an RPG though it also functions as an FPS. The genre truly defines what you’re getting out of the experience, rather than the physical mechanic.

Personally, I used to think that games should be defined by two genres – their narrative and mechanic genres. So ‘action shooter’ or ‘romance visual novel’. There’s some redundancy to this however – in the examples I’ve provided, the mechanics and narrative generally do go together and follow expected conventions. This format also adds to the perceived divide between mechanics and narrative, which undermines both game design and criticism – mechanics are a story tool and if they do not support the narrative themes of the game they are not successful.

As an example, if you used this two genre idea and had a ‘romance shooter’ – how does that even work? You’re posing your MC as a lover, then they gun down a bunch of people? Even if it’s to save the one they love, the message is irreparably changed by the mechanics. Killing one person to save the one you love is dramatic and shows how far you’d go. Mowing down armies just says that human life is worthless in this world and/or the MC is a psychopath.

Conversely, I worry that thinking like this just reinforces tired genre conventions. If the mechanics and the story must match, do we not get anything new? Its one I back and forth on.

Core Aesthetics:

  • Sense Pleasure – Good music, art etc.
  • Fantasy – Step into a role you can’t/don’t perform in real life.
  • Narrative – Game as drama.
  • Challenge – Joy in overcoming obstacles.
  • Fellowship – Social gaming.
  • Competition – Expansion of social gaming that is combinative.
  • Discovery – Uncovering the new, either through environment or mechanics.
  • Expression – Creative expression.
  • Abrigation – Pastime, disengagement.

Genres generally share a core aesthetic.

CoG will have narrative as the main aesthetic, with creation and discovery as secondary elements.