The Narrative of Weather in Gaming

The chaos of a raging storm or the tenderness of a falling snowflake both have the ability to evoke an emotional response. They set a scene and prepare the audience for what’s to come. This audiovisual conveyance is what captures the attention of a user and provides a buffer for slower paced storytelling, whether that’s through gameplay or otherwise.

The first time I became enamoured by an in-game environment was after seeing the introduction sequence to Zelda: A link to the past running on the SNES. The scene has become iconic in gaming – the player wakes up in the midst of a thunder storm, during the night, to follow after their father who has left to rescue Zelda. It succeeded in exploiting human curiosity and maintaining dramatic tension.

Link braving the storm

Up until then I was preoccupied with 2D platformers. These, while being incredibly popular and having laid the foundation for their genre, lacked the depth that came with RPGs and had little to no focus on storytelling. Zelda was my first time exposure to what a game could be, a prescribed emotional experience.

Since that time, plenty of titles, even those light on plot, have delved into using weather as a means of enhancing the narrative design. This is the idea of using a story element as a gameplay mechanic. Think of having to find shelter during intermittent gusts of wind or putting out a fire by summoning rain.

In Jotun, snow storms can cause harm to an unprotected player

Narrative design in the context of the user experience means making sure the interactions required to play are relevant to the story. There are plenty of great examples showing how weather and the environment can be used to enhance this process and I wanted to provide an awareness of some of the ones I find most interesting.

Stalker: Call of Pripyat

A ghost town in the aftermath of Chernobyl makes for a curious setting but there’s more to it than that. In Stalker, the environment is sentient and at various intervals releases pent up psychic energy in the form of ’emissions’. A siren sounds and the player has seconds to find shelter before the sky turns against everything beneath it, showering death in the form of red light. The sense of desperation this creates if the player is in the middle of nowhere is formidable and the panic compromises any ability to think clearly.

An emission taking place in Stalker

If you’re lucky, there might be an abandoned building nearby or, if you look closely enough, an entrance to a sewer. There’s also the possibility that, in your mad visual sweeping of the surrounding area, you miss everything. Happily though, the minimap affords some mercy in that, during this time, it highlights the nearest safe zones.

Shenmue

As a revenge story and murder mystery, entire books can be written on Shenmue and it’s implementation of narrative design but I promise to stay on topic. As part of its suite of innovative features, the environment changed as the story progressed. There were situations in which the player was required to be at a very specific time and place to initiate dialog with a potential lead. Without any means of ‘skipping time’, the player is presented with the choice of whether to use it wisely or ‘squander it’. Whether it’s invested in training or playing darts is entirely at your whim and the outcome is always fun thanks to the minigames involved.

To everyone’s delight, on snowy days the environment would undergo an audiovisual metamorphosis. The quieter roads would accumulate far more snow and ice than the busy streets of the shopping district and the sound of your footsteps would reflect this change. Similarly, when it rained, pedestrians could be seen with umbrellas. Today, these adaptations no longer represent the technical feat they were at the time of release but credit goes to Shenmue for being the first to tackle dynamic open 3D environments in this manner.

Running around the town of Yokosuka in Shenmue

Dark and Light

The promise of Dark and Light was that of a vast open world which spanned 40,000 square kilometres of terrain. While it succeeded in delivering this, the initial release back in 2006 was received poorly due to a lack of content. The other unique feature, in addition to its size, was that time played a very real role in the world. As seasons passed, so did the freezing of large bodies of water, allowing players to cross on foot. Snow would also gather on mountains, allowing players to slide down on the back of their shields leaving trails in their wake.

Despite there being very little to do, the seasons added a lot of value to what would have otherwise been a blank canvas. By simply picking a direction and walking, one could become immersed in the visual representation of the journey. This wasn’t enough to save it however and the concept is being revisited as of 2017. I mention it here because it was one of the first games to attempt full seasonal transitions on such a large scale.

Left 4 Dead 2: Hard Rain

Cooperative zombie survival has never been more fun thanks to a unique twist in this campaign. The second half of the level requires that the players backtrack to a previous location but in the middle a torrential downpour. The visibility is severely diminished and the deafening roar of the rainfall drowns out the audio cues one would normally rely on to prepare for danger. The game also interferes with the voice communication making it more difficult to hear what your teammates are saying, forcing them to speak more loudly.

As if getting wet wasn’t bad enough

Zelda: Oracle of Seasons

A prevalent theme throughout this talk of weather and seasons is time. In Oracle of Seasons, the state of flow can be manipulated through the use of an item carried by the player. Moving from one season to another allows the environment to be experienced in one of four different states.

In summer, water sources evaporate and allow the player to traverse the bottom of a lake or riverbed.
In winter, bodies of water freeze thereby allowing the player to cross, unimpeded.
In spring, the winter snow thaws causing floods and a rise in water levels.
In autumn, leaves fall and create traversable bridges over holes in the ground.

Summer and winter in Oracle of Seasons

The ability to control the environment provides an opportunity for creative problem solving. Players will also have a preference regarding their favourite seasons and default to these as the opportunity arises.

There are many more games which use these narrative devices and honourable mention goes to ‘The Long Dark’ for its focus on surviving the cold and ‘Metal Gear Solid’ for making creative use of camouflage options to blend in with different environments and weather.

That’s all for this week, I’m going to continue exploring narrative devices for a few more posts as they continue to fascinate me the more I think on them. See you soon!

Beyond Inventory Systems

Going on an adventure means, at some point, having to look through your pockets for those all important bits of kit. Whether it’s a map, compass or gauntlet of power, you need to make sure your preparations weren’t in vain and that you’ll last long enough to reach the next safe spot. Inventory systems are a core component of many genres and aren’t exclusive to roleplaying games. Choosing your loadout in a first person shooter, making sure you have your long and short range options carefully considered also qualifies.

Rather than focusing on the different ways of handling a grid of images (as most discussion on this topic seems to get stuck), I wanted to reflect on some great examples of how item storage can be tied more closely to narrative elements used to enhance the emotional conveyance of an experience.

Survival Horror – Safe Rooms

In gaming, the survival horror genre came of age when titles like Resident Evil and Silent Hill were released. What makes them special, in my eyes, is how they paced the action gameplay. Much of the experience involved exploring environments and solving puzzles. Inevitably, through the sheer volume of of discoverable items, the player was required to decide what to take for another trip outside the confines of the safe room.

The safe room is, as implied, an area of sanctuary wherein an opportunity to save game progress and shuffle through an item bank exists. As a standalone mechanic, it doesn’t sound remarkable but, when considered in the context of an incredibly tense gameplay environment, it provides an indescribable sense of relief. There is a genuine feeling of progression when entering into one of these rooms, even with all the backtracking the gameplay demands.

An item box in a save room – Resident Evil

Roguelikes – Permanent death

Roguelike games are defined by a number of characteristics, the most prevalent of which are permanent death (one life only) and procedurally generated content. If you visit any online community wherein this genre is being actively discussed, you’ll often find heated debate surrounding what constitutes a true roguelike experience versus a more diluted one, usually referred to as a ‘rogue-lite’. That aside, these sorts of games have a lot to offer by way of variety and much of the experimentation seen in the indie gaming scene, these days at least, occurs in this genre.

Item storage in roguelikes is tricky business to say the least. Upon death, any evidence that the player once walked the world is usually erased from existence. There are a few exceptions however and they remain, to this day, unique in their implementation.

Nethack is an older game which, much like those before it, is rendered via ASCII characters. Though never designed to be visually compelling, it delivers an incredibly challenging dungeon crawl in which all learning is implicit. That is to say, you learn through trial and error and, true to form in this pit of despair, most experiences end in utter failure. Upon death however, there is a chance that the game will retain the state of the level in order to be loaded again in a future play session. After encountering the ghost of the previous player, there is an opportunity to recover their inventory but with the caveat that much of it may be ‘cursed’.

As implied, anything which is cursed shouldn’t be used unless the player is able to mitigate against the risks. Whether those are unpredictable behaviours, reduced efficiency or something directly harmful to the user.

Open Worlds – Morrowind

Despite their current prevalence, open world games weren’t always so popular. The big change in recent times has been the focus placed on the user/player experience with titles like World of Warcraft raising what was, admittedly, a rather low baseline. Much has been learned about how players interact with large environments and how we, as humans attribute meaning to our actions. To keep this commentary on track though, I’m going to use The Elderscrolls: Morrowind as my primary example.

Dr Who and his TARDIS in the lands of Morrowind

In Morrowind, you are homeless for the majority of the game. Disembarking the imperial prison ship, with not even a penny to your name, you find yourself scorned by all those who inhabit the realm. Shortly after finding your way however, it’s not long before you realise that you can’t carry everything you ‘find’ / steal.

Unlike most modern games which seek to optimise system resources like memory, in Morrowind, if you drop something on the floor it stays there. There are no magical cleaning fairies employed by some centrally-funded government program and that means you can find a ditch someplace and make it your home. As the player ekes out their miserable existence, they may find themselves living anonymously in someone’s attic or, as I preferred, the balcony of the thieves guild in Balmora. Granted, the game does provide you with a small house which you inherit after the passing of a friend though, for many, the joy of the game lies in claiming a nest of their choosing and filling it with all manner of shiny objects.

That’s all for now, there are many more examples of excellence though the takeaway message for me is that even something as simple as an item bank can be a powerful tool in a gaming narrative when used creatively. There are things I want to experiment with such as allowing a player to bury items and mark the location on a map, I see it as a more acceptable way of keeping an environment clutter free whilst providing an opportunity to personalise an isolated area.

I’ll be posting more on my thoughts in the near future.

Cartography in Gaming

To this day, I continue to get excited whenever I see a game map. I feel the urge to explore and my imagination goes into overdrive, creating stories for the areas depicted and quickly convincing myself that the world is more expansive and fantastic than it usually ends up being. This ‘runaway imagination train’ effect is something I always look to experience when I pickup a new game and hope to be able to replicate in future projects.

In games, maps tend to provide context. They show us where we sit in the scheme of things and sometimes allow us to gauge our progress en route to a terminal destination, be it a snowy mountain or the lair of a fire breathing dragon. It’s also the role of a map to further enhance the narrative elements, often through some sort of visual abstraction. To sustain the emotional bandwidth which keeps a player immersed is no simple feat, and the map is another tool the developer has at his his/her disposal.

map1

A stylized map from Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light

Cartography is a complex idea and goes beyond being a substitute word for ‘maps’. There are many different ways of portraying an environment ranging from photo-realism to more thematic approaches.

While a map is designed to convey information, it’s normally of one type. Whether it’s a depiction of political boundaries or the location of valuable resources, it’s rarely a good use of space to provide as much visual ‘noise’ as possible. The idea of complexity being synonymous with depth isn’t always right and often leads to confusion.

xolotl_map

An example of ancient man getting things wrong again #easytarget

Maps in games are often romantic and, in the spirit of nostalgia, I created an homage to one of my favourite MMO games of all time ‘Ultima Online’, hereafter referred to as ‘UO’. Much of the content in UO was player generated and the real tragedy was that it was incredibly hard to find from inside the game. People would often spend hours on forums attempting to locate points of interest and the player experience usually suffered from this disconnect. The video below is based on some of the locations found on an unofficial player-run server from some years ago. I attempted to mimic the functionality of Google Maps with a view to further expanding on some of the features though, as time passed, this distraction lost its appeal (shortly after realising what I had gotten myself into)!

Accompanied by the OST

Games like UO and Everquest initially shipped with cloth maps depicting the game world. This, in addition to being a lovely collectors item, served to bewitch people by manipulating their escapist tendencies, drawing them away from their loved ones back into the imaginary world whilst drawing their life energies away as they suckled on the poisonous, proverbial, teat of the fearsomely addictive early generation MMOs. There are even games which allow the player to create his/her own maps and this remains a hallmark feature of titles like Etrian Odyssey on the Nintendo 3DS.

That’s all I have to say on this subject at the moment. I’ve avoided talking about minimaps in games as that’s not what I’m exploring currently, though I acknowledge their importance. My curiosity lies in seeing how emotional conveyance can be enhanced by the use of visual aids and will no doubt be revisiting these ideas in the future.

Demonstrating Virtual Reality at the University of Hertfordshire

It’s not often that we get the chance to demonstrate what we’re working on as, in education, it’s more about the finished product and conclusions. Nevertheless, during the HEaTED East of England network event , we were given the opportunity to allow people to wonder around a bespoke 3D environment while using our HTC Vive headset and touch controllers. We used the controllers themselves emulate the functional behaviours of a smartphone. The reactions were all positive and I managed to have chats with some senior managers about where it is we’re hoping to take our vision for VR at the University.

You can find a brief video depicting the space below:



The idea was to illustrate how intuitive behaviours can be replicated inside a 3D space to allow for simple interactions. A lot of people tend to be confused by their initial transition into a virtual world but by including recognisable elements, it makes the experience much less daunting. It’s for that reason the 3D environment in question is a lecture theatre, based on a real-world equivalent, only a few metres away from the stand. This made the experience all the more compelling as, after having spent a few minutes in the 3D version, the attendees would then enter the same room shortly afterwards.

We’re going to be demonstrating again in the near future in a bid to capture the imaginations a few academics. VR promises a lot of interesting things, everything from multi-user role-playing exercises between people in two different locations (partner institutions overseas) to single user familiarisation exercises. We’re hoping to establish some more usage case scenarios.