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August 2013

Implicit Contracts and Game Narrative

Contract Could we discover new forms of game narrative if we considered different terms for the relationship between the player and the game?

When players sit down to play a tabletop role-playing game, one of the ways of understanding the situation is that there is an implicit contract between the players that sets out their relationship e.g. that the Games Master is in charge, that the players will try to minimize their use of player knowledge etc. Indeed, this was the premise behind the shortest tabletop RPG design ever published, Contract, which I designed with Rob Briggs – the complete game rules fit on the back of the character sheet! Each character sheet is explicitly a contract between the player and the Games Master.

The same concept of an implicit contract of play can be applied to videogames. Here the tacit agreement is between the players and the developer or designer - but it has different terms. Often, this contract is assumed to say 'you the player can do whatever you want in our world, but we set the challenges you must complete' or something similar. However, it is plausible that a game could specify a different implicit contract – indeed, there is already considerable variation in the tacit terms. Consider what players are presumed to accept from an MMO, a Free-to-play game, or kart racer as just three simple examples. The implicit contract of Animal Crossing is radically different from that of Grand Theft Auto, even though both are putatively sandboxes.

It is possible that by inviting the player to accept a different kind of contract, a game could invite the player to role-play, that is, to play in character (like an actor) instead of acting out (i.e. rampaging across the game world). Imagine how game narrative could be mounted if the player is invited to play as the character they have assumed the role of, rather than expecting to ‘be themselves’ (i.e. be mindlessly destructive because they are casually isolated from the consequences of their fictional actions). This could even be underscored by a scoring or reward mechanism based upon co-operation with the game’s intent, although this would risk overjustification.

Assuming the introduction of the new ‘terms and conditions’ could be done elegantly, might this kind of uniquely defined implicit contract of play offer a radically different kind of game narrative?

What's Stopping a Ghost Master Kickstarter?

Ghost Master WallpaperFans of Ghost Master sometimes ask me about whether I'd consider a Kickstarter for a sequel. But getting the money would only be half the battle...

I'm a long time sceptic of Kickstarter for videogames, a grumpy cynic who fears many gamers will soon be cursing the vagaries of the development process when the project they backed transpires to be vapourware. But it is not that I am against crowdfunding - on the contrary, it has already achieved wonders for both comics and boardgames. It is just that videogame development is far from a clean cut proposition, and it is the vast minority of projects that run smoothly and on time. Kickstarter gives the illusion of offering you an incredibly extended pre-order capability, while it actually makes you into an investment broker motivated by products rather than profits. This is a difficult point for some gamers to wrap their heads around.

Investment in projects centred upon risk: what might make the project a commercial failure, and what problems might emerge that would require additional funds to keep the project ticking. A Kickstarter game doesn't (in principle, at least) have to worry about the first concern but it sure as hell has to worry about the second! Whereas every aspect of a boardgame can be accurately paper prototyped and play tested, videogames emerge only gradually and can only be properly balanced and tweaked very late in the process. It is not a surprise that many more game projects are started than are finished, nor that no investor has ever put money into a game, only ever into a company. That is, until Kickstarter...

Because of the horrific risks associated with game development, I would be very reluctant to pursue a Ghost Master Kickstarter unless I had first found a developer I felt had an excellent chance of delivering. I certainly would not want to raise the money and then look for a team - having the team would be the only way of knowing how much I needed to raise! Even without all the relevant information, though, my suspicion would be for a disconnect between the budget needed and the amount that could be crowdfunded. Still, this latter concern wouldn't be a deal breaker since I'd happily go fishing if I had a developer lined up who could do the job. Alas, I don't.

What would that developer need to be like? That question goes hand-in-hand with the problem of what kind of sequel the game would be. For a start, it now seems that the rights to the original are irretrievably lost because they were sold as a job-lot with all of the other Empire Interactive properties when the publisher went under. The current owners seem to view the Empire catalogue as a modest little earner, but they're not interested in messing about with individual IP as far as I've been able to ascertain. So it would have to be a spiritual successor at most - Master of Ghosts, not Ghost Master 2. I suspect everyone could live with that, though. However, I wouldn't be comfortable making a game that was of a lower standard of presentation than the original, and that sets severe constraints on the properties of the mystery developer...

The first and most important requirement is a team that already has AI code sufficiently similar to the original's functionality. The behaviour of the mortals is both the core of the game and the principal source of entertainment - the hapless humans must act with an illusion of plausibly, and react to each other accordingly. It literally took years to get this right with Ghost Master, and the only way to mitigate this risk is to start with a code base that's already halfway there - especially with pathfinding, which is always a nightmare.

The second requirement is for multiple artists. The animations for both the haunter powers and the mortal's responses is key to what makes Ghost Master such fun to play, and this would be impossible with a very small outfit. A lone programmer-artist is certainly out, and a mid-sized developer is likely to be required. Fortunately, a company of the necessary size is likely to have a  constant need for projects (or rather, for the cashflow that projects bring) which might make deal-brokering easier - especially since the new IP could be shared with them.

Lastly, any developer that could take on a Ghost Master semi-sequel would need either the buccaneer spirit to borrow from the original content without the IP rights, or access to sound legal advice. Much can be inherited without legal issue, but in the battlefield that is the courts the fear is often of the law suit being raised, not of the cause of action being valid. This makes cowards of everyone who draws salary from media franchises. Of course, everything could be entirely brand new, but that'd be a disappointing kind of sequel. I'd like for some of the haunters to return, and that might require a company with more than the average degree of moxie.

Well that's all the balloon-deflating, bubble-bursting, nit-picking. Anyone who has read this far is presumably a fan of the game, and even if a sequel never actually happened what I suspect they'd most like to know is what would it be like? I have a fair idea for this just from the discussions of Ghost Master 2 prior to the demise of Sick Puppies. Let's call this imaginary game Ghost Lord and fill in some blanks.

The key feature Ghost Master 2 would have had was the one speculated by Rhianna Pratchett in her review of the first one: a level editor. Although I adore the intricacies of the original game's custom-built levels, they came with twin costs: considerable implementation costs, and no possibility of community content. Ghost Lord would fix that by planning a tile-and-texture system from the start making it easy for both the team and the community to make their own levels. Planned from the outset with this feature, Ghost Lord might not have levels that are quite as nice as the original, but it could have more content - and could offer fans the opportunity to keep generating more.

This would require some changes to the haunters recruitment. I was not a fan of the puzzles of the first game, although I appreciate some fans might be. (The fact that some of the puzzle designs burned through my sanity while I was devising them may be a factor!). I would therefore prefer to focus on the game systems and downplay the custom puzzles, and this would be the best balance between ease of implementation and re-usability of assets, too. Custom puzzles would certainly be removed from the requirements for completing specific hauntings, but this would not preclude a swathe of achievement-like mission challenges for various bonuses, and these could include a variety of brain-bending problems that should hopefully keep puzzle-heads happy.

Although I would expect the mechanics to take two steps away from puzzle solving and one step towards RPG advancement systems, I don't think the puzzles would go completely. Part of the flavour of the first game is laying ghosts to rest in order to recruit them, and I'd want to keep this in some manner. Likely, most locations would have just one restless spirit, and some might have none. A ghost editor is a possibility, though, and this would mean even the community levels could have restless spirits. This would give more emphasis to the Mission: Impossible style haunter team selection - for me, this was always one of the most enjoyable aspects of the strategic play, anyway, as hauntings could go very differently with different spirits at hand.

The interface could be cleaned up quite a bit, but the fundamentals are sound in the original. I would quite like a design that would work on tablets (although I don't currently own one) as this would support mouse as well. Drag and drop haunter placement with fewer submenus is probably the way to go. I'm unsure about Orders - did anyone but me actually use them? Other than what I've mentioned, most aspects of the design would remain the same - powers, plasm, and foes are all aspects of the original I'm happy with, and although Insanity is a significant bit of extra work I would be reluctant to lose it. If anything, I'd like to heighten its effects so that it was competitive with Terror powers in terms of completion times.

There may never be a Ghost Master 2 or a Master of Ghosts or a Ghost Lord, but Kickstarter has changed how I think about the possibility of a sequel. I used to say that another Ghost Master was 'impossible'. Then, after trying to reaquire the IP, I updated that to 'unlikely'. With Kickstarter, it's now 'uncertain'. But one thing is clear: the game has a small but loyal fanbase who have kept this haunting sim from falling into a shallow grave, never to rattle its chains again. To them, and everyone else who has enjoyed Ghost Master over the years, I offer my gratitude. A game is nothing without its players.

The original Ghost Master PC game is available on Steam for $4.99, €4.99, or £2.99. Sadly, none of the talented people who worked on this game receive any money from its sale. You can read the two part postmortem of the game (Part One/Part Two) on my other blog, and the fan community is at Happy hauntings!

The Interactivity of Non-Interactive Media

The Purple Rose of Cairo It has long been a commonplace that we can draw a clear line between games as ‘interactive’ media on the one hand, and 'non-interactive' narrative media such as books, television, and movies on the other. Indeed, this distinction is supposedly the reason that ‘videogame’ works as a category. I have long found this segregation misleading because it underestimates the interactivity of supposedly ‘static’ media and it overestimates the agency in most digital games.

The assumption behind this division is that the reader of the book or the watcher of a film has nothing to do but receive the content that has been constructed for them. This is not an adequate description of the phenomenology of these media. In fact, both the reader of the book and the watcher of the film are constantly throwing their mind around to interpret the content of the work in question, anticipating what might be about to happen, or reading between the lines and trying to establish details that are not specified by the artwork in question. We seem to view this as ‘non-interactive’ solely because the interaction in question does not have a measurable impact on the fictional world of the story. Yet it does have just such an impact within the head of the reader or viewer, and isn’t this actually the interesting part of our response to any artwork?

This creates a problem for the segregation since the vast majority of videogames equally provide interaction that does not have an impact on the fictional world of the game, except from the limited perspective of the player or anyone watching their specific play of that game. Take Halo: Combat Evolved as a simple example. There is one choice that the player can make that affects the story: you can open fire in the starship at the start of the game, bringing the entire story to a premature close. Alternatively, you can co-operate with the story and see it through to its entirely inevitable and pre-scripted conclusion. To take this ability to trigger a ‘false ending’ of the story of Halo as a decisive distinction between different kinds of media would be strange when we can trigger the same kind of false ending in, say Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness, by selecting an option in the DVD to see deleted scenes and alternative endings. Yet the film is not interactive, the dogma states. I beg to differ. If this film’s DVD isn’t interactive, then neither is Halo, and I am willing to extend this claim as far as a screening of the film itself.

What makes Halo the game seem so interactive is that the player has a lot of immediate and shallow agency to affect how they kill lots of alien beings and negotiate a strictly linear sequence of locations. But this is all smoke and mirrors as far as the story is concerned – the player may feel that they are in control, but this is not much different from the way the rider of a ghost train is supposed to feel that they are in danger, even though they clearly are not. I am not against this experience – it is akin, in some ways, to the greater immediacy that rendering a novel as a movie produces. The interactivity of the novel’s ambiguities that originate in the verbal narrative are reduced in the conversion to film because the makers of the movie necessarily instantiate specific interpretative choices that reduce the level of interactivity with the fictional world in question, they make it more static and less dynamic. They make it less interactive, but they cannot render it non-interactive because no artwork could possibly be incapable of interaction and still be worth our attention!

I’d like to suggest that it is even possible to add the same kind of shallow agency to a novel or a film as we find in something like Halo. Suppose, for instance, that after each chapter or scene you draw an image that depicts the fictional content in question. You have tremendous apparent agency in how you draw these contents, but you cannot actually change the story by doing so (if you did, you would be playing a different game, something closer to fan fiction). The shallow agency of the reading-and-drawing game played with a novel is just like the shallow agency of Halo – it changes nothing, but gives you a greater sense of engagement with the fictional world in question.

To emphasise the idea that the segregation is misleadingly couched as all-or-nothing, consider many early adventure games that were structured as a series of linear puzzles. In these games you have the same shallow agency represented primarily by your ability to type ‘examine’, or your capacity to (seem to) move about the fictional world by typing ‘n’, ‘s’, ‘e’, and ‘w’. Indeed, Matti Karhulahti expressly argues that ‘examine’ can be used to detect a boundary of interactivity, a claim I argue against in “What are we playing with? Role-taking, role-play, and story-play with Tolkien’s Legendarium” (currently under review for the International Journal of Play). But is this enough to mark a segregation as vast as is being attempted? In a novel, we may not be able to shift our purported location by typing a cardinal direction or asking to ‘examine’, but nothing stops us flipping through pages to re-read the description of locations, objects, and characters when we desire the extra information. Why is this not considered interactive, yet the shallow agency of the adventure game is?

The point of this invective is simple: segregating videogames from other narrative media forms on the basis of a black-and-white interactive/non-interactive distinction obfuscates the interactive dimensions of supposedly ‘passive’ media and simultaneously valorises the importance of the agency in digital media, which is often incredibly shallow and trivial. The danger lies not only in misjudging the extent that narrative media engages our cognitive faculties but in mistakenly thinking that all kinds of digital game deserve to be treated collectively as a single well-defined category. They do not and cannot. A great many digital game genres are as different from each other as books, TV documentaries, and rock operas are from one another. Could we please stop pretending that the use of computers in play is a more important feature than the range of experiences that the play of media produces? It would be a more honest way to approach the gradations of interactivity that apply to every form of artwork.

Six of the Best (and Worst) of Ni No Kuni

By mutual agreement with my wife, I get to play on computer RPG a year – although because of the birth of my son it’s actually been two years since I have. This Summer, I enjoyed Level 5’s new franchise Ni No Kuni

Ni-No-Kuni-logo Once upon a time, the Japanese RPG was the queen of the world with titles such as Final Fantasy VII setting new high water mark sales figures for videogames, and Sega betting on expensive games like Skies of Arcadia to save the Dreamcast from financial ruin. But the Golden Age of the JRPG has passed, and the genre is rapidly sliding towards niche status. With console development costs rising, JRPG sales figures are declining and massively occluded by their Western alternatives such as Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series. Of the Japanese RPG franchises, only Nintendo’s Pokémon bucks the trend – and even then, its success is specifically limited to handheld devices.

With this background, it’s hardly surprising that fans of the JRPG have been keen to dub Level 5’s Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch the ‘saviour of the JRPG’, since it combines the animation skills of the world-leading Studio Ghibli and the development skills of the company who created the successful Professor Layton franchise for DS and kept the ailing Dragon Quest franchise afloat with its eighth and ninth instalments. It even rolls in Pokémon-style creature management into its heady blend of classic (but not too classic) grinding fun – indeed, one way to neatly summarize the game is to say “it’s Pokémon meets Namco’s Tales series”, all set in a charming fairy tale world. But can Ni No Kuni bring the magic back to the JRPG, or has the sun already set on the sub-genre?

Let’s start off with those places where Level 5’s game manages to go spectacularly astray…


The Worst

Dinoceros1. Bad Japanese AI.
Oddly, despite Japanese programmers being just as competent as those from elsewhere in the world, Japanese AI is notoriously awful. I suspect this is partly from a planned decision to invest more time in the game’s other subsystems and less into AI (not necessarily a mistake) and partly down to a massive cultural difference in sensibilities about the minimum bar for ally AI. Nonetheless, players of Ni No Kuni are shocked by just how bad at making tactical choices their allies really are. When enemies are so weak you can tap them with a stick to knock them down, your computer-controlled party members will fire up a super-spell that does nothing but waste their Magic Points. When a rare golden power up appears, expect your allies to pick it up with someone who can use it to do absolutely nothing useful. If you don’t invest in a little grinding, you’ll frequently find everyone that you don’t control in your party  is lying around unconscious.

2. Ghibli – but Not Miyazaki. I’ve seen a lot of players complaining that the Ghibli contribution to Ni No Kuni isn’t on par with (say) Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away. This is a silly complaint because although this game does sport animations by the company co-founded by the director of those films, Hayao Miyazaki, no-one ever claimed Miyazaki-san would have anything to do with the game! Ghibli’s contributions are on a par with say, The Cat Returns, which is about what should be expected. Nonetheless, there is a definite sense that there’s not enough Ghibli in this Ghibli collaboration. The game suffers from slightly weak plotting (although its no worse than every other CRPG in this respect), and emotionally it falls far short of the work of Ghibli’s other co-founder, Isao Takahata, who lacks Miyazaki-san’s visual flair but more than makes up for it in emotional depth. The reason? Level 5 are completely responsible for the story, while Studio Ghibli provided solely the animations – which are excellent throughout (although when it switches from in-game sequences to traditional animated cut scene the quality actually gets noticeably worse…).

3. Whiter-than-White. Japanese developers seem to have real difficulty shouldering ethnic diversity. One of the secondary characters in the story, Rashaad, has a middle-Eastern appearance, but his daughter, Esther – who becomes the inevitably plucky female in your party – is so white she could take up golf. Presumably the developers didn’t want the major female character to be anything but white for the purpose of appealing to a Japanese audience (who have certain expectations…) – but it really stands out that Esther and Rashaad are supposedly blood kin. I began to wonder if she was supposed to be adopted! I would have loved a little more ethnicity in the party, and the missed opportunity ends up also smelling of mild racism.

4. Japanese Puzzle Sensibility. Oh those Japanese planners (i.e. ‘game designers’)… they have a funny way of thinking about certain mechanics. Case in point are the Green chests, which one of your characters unlocks by targeting in a reticule. Trouble is, to trigger the targeting sequence you have to stand at a very specific spot – and there’s absolutely no logic behind where that spot is supposed to be. A Western game designer would have made the targeting function solicited, thus avoiding the problem, but Level 5 had other (rather crazy) ideas. There are also some rather irritating look-up puzzles – but fortunately the answers to these are readily available on the internet. Still, I can’t claim the game’s puzzle design sensibility is anything but a liability.

5. Fixed Capture Chances. Capturing monsters (known as familiars) is a big part of the game – but for inexplicable reasons, Level 5 left out an important part of the Pokémon-inspired system they are borrowing. In Nintendo’s franchise, different pokéballs affect the capture chances, and the player is also allowed a special item that’ll capture anything (although they only get one…). Yet in Ni No Kuni capture chances are at a permanently fixed rate – and nothing the player does will increase or decrease the chances of capture. (There’s an unlockable that raises all the chances by a small fraction, but it’s rather inconsequential). Now random factors are an important part of game design – hell, Minecraft would be nothing without them – but when the player needs to do something and absolutely nothing they do can increase the chance of success it inevitably leads to frustration. The only possible justification for this odd choice would be that the planners wanted to artificially inflate the game length – but even then, there were better design options than fixed rate capture chances. It rankles, and many players justifiably complain about having spent, say, two hours capturing a creature other players picked up in seconds.

6. Pokémon Crossed with Traditional RPG Combat. And speaking of GameFreak’s all-conquering twist on the JRPG format, the final worst point of Ni No Kuni is that the combat is familiarly Pokémon-esque but with a twist that creates all manner of problems. Whereas the pocket monsters form a party of individuals who work just like any CRPG party would, in this game your hit points, magic points, and status effects are all shared with your familiars (which are supposedly projected from you by way of explanation). What this means is that when your best monster is put to sleep or stunned, you can’t switch to your second best monster because she’s asleep too. Worse than this, for most of the game there are very few reasons to use anything other than your best monster – because if you swap in an underpowered beastie, your HP total is vulnerable to their low defence score, and you’ll be rendered unconscious faster than you can say ‘I wish I was playing Pokémon instead’. I found the consequent inability to experiment with new monsters very disappointing, and much of my combat experience was mechanically deploying the same creature over and over and over again…


These complaints make Ni No Kuni sound terribly unplayable – but actually, I came to absolutely love the game and most of these problems are far more cosmetic than they first seem. To understand why, you need to see what Level 5 managed to get magnificently right in this bold attempt to revitalise the JRPG formula…


The Best

Puss_in_boats 1. Pokémon Crossed with Traditional RPG Combat. Wait a minute – didn’t I just say that was one of the worst things about Ni No Kuni? Well as is so often the case, the problem is as much about the prior knowledge the player brings to the table as it is about the game’s actual design. Part of the problem is that the combat and familiar-training systems initially feel extremely familiar, allowing you to pick them up very rapidly. But coming at them this way misses what is unique about the familiar system. Once you stop thinking of them as individual party members who are irritatingly denied to you when related party members are out of action, you begin to appreciate what makes the combat system work on its own terms. Need to cross the battlefield quickly? Switch out to your fastest familiar – then switch to the best combat option when you arrive in position. Enemies launching a devastating attack? Switch in your ‘tank’ and Defend – or if you’re timing skills are good enough, switch in an agile familiar and Evade. The setup has all the emotional engagement of any creature trainer but with a highly kinetic punctuated real time battle engine to fully enjoy them in.

2. Perfect Overworld. As someone who loves exploration games, the overworld is an important part of my enjoyment of any JRPG. Taking full advantage of the PS3’s excellent draw distance, Ni No Kuni offers a beautiful world to explore – and releases four methods of travel throughout the game at a pace slightly faster than would normally be expected in a Japanese design. It really helps that the world is littered with foraging spots that produce alchemical ingredients every 10-60 minutes, giving you strong reasons to dash about the map farming items as soon as you are sufficiently mobile.

3. Enemies Run Away. Speaking of the overworld, Ni No Kuni adds something simple to the Japanese formula that really adds to the fun of levelling up: enemy monsters run away from you when you are stronger than they are. It’s possible another JRPG beat them to the punch, but this is certainly the first one I’ve seen to do this – and it really works! Not only do you not have to worry about fighting the chaff when you’re high level, but there’s a real sense of accomplishment and power when you see the big guys doing a runner as you appear on the scene. Level 5 even use it to add challenge, since sometimes you want to capture a monster that is scared of you, requiring a tactical approach (and for players who find it frustrating, a later spell makes it easy). It all adds to the joys of Ni No Kuni’s excellent overworld.

4. Side Quests Matter. Although the side quest design is frequently weak (in some cases requiring you to walk ten yards to talk to a neighbouring NPC then walk back), all the side quests are joined together into an entirely separate reward schedule, Merit Stamp Cards, that unlock unique bonuses. Most of these are quite small things, but several are highly rewarding to acquire. Whereas most CRPGs suffer from meaningless side quests, Ni No Kuni invites players to spend as much time on these as the main story – and benefits from it.

5. Reference Guide Included. I’m a long time advocate of including as much reference content as possible in games. It used to be that we’d get chunky manuals for this purpose, but these days you’re supposed to pay half the price again for a Prima Guide instead. Ni No Kuni, however, includes a reference guide in its menu options – the Wizard’s Companion – including fairly complete descriptions of all the familiars, spells, equipment, and alchemic items. Not to mention maps of the overworld that show you where secrets are hidden. It unlocks as you progress in the game, and I found myself really enjoying access to useful information somewhere other than GameFAQs for once.

6. Polish. Finally, the thing that Ni No Kuni has that most contemporary JRPGs lack is production values. This is a seriously classy game throughout, with almost every aspect of the interface and structure put together thoughtfully. It’s the little touches that make a difference – like not only being able to skip cut scenes from the pause menu, but also being able to skip talking heads click-through-dialogue sections as well. This is far from standard in JRPGs, but I hope it becomes so! Add to this a beautiful score performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic, the wonderful Ghibli art design, and an excellent localisation job by stalwart translators Babel and you’re left with a JRPG Level 5 and Sony can be justifiably proud of.


Alas, Ni No Kuni will not reverse the ailing fortunes of the JRPG because the rising cost of development means the US market is now the core of the commercial fortunes of console games, and the illusion of freedom and agency offered in the Western CRPG has far greater appeal there. The JRPG, by comparison, requires patience, and at times asks the player for some intelligence. These are not qualities the mass market seeks. For the fan of lavish JRPGs of the kind that typified the late 1990s and the early 2000s, however, Ni No Kuni is a real treat and not to be missed. It isn’t old school (it’s highly forgiving, and will only punish you if you ask for it), but it builds upon everything that is great in the JRPG formula and finds an interesting new way to remount the Pokémon formula. This will certainly not convert those who hate the games it descends from, but for those players who already appreciate its pedigree, and enjoy (or can tolerate) a fairy tale world rather than a gritty fantasy setting, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a welcome rejection of the Americanisation of computer RPGs. Expect to see this on lists of favourite games for a long time to come.