Murder in the Marketplace: An Exploration into Interactive Storytelling

Here is a link to the story: http://writer.inklestudios.com/stories/bx6g

For as long as I have been gaming, one of the things I have always wanted to explore was the process of creating a branching story. I have played many of these types of games over the years such as the Mass Effect series and The Wolf Among Us, each of which gave me the joy of creating my own path through the story, exploring and playing as I desired. So, when I learned that Champlain College was offering a course in interactive storytelling, I eagerly signed up waiting for an opportunity to stretch my writing muscles.

The course was quite interesting and the individual who taught it, Professor Greg Bemis, insured there was always time for discussion and debate on narrative subjects, and challenged us to explore spaces and techniques we had, up until that point, only had the chance to play through. The course covered many topics such as environmental storytelling, writing dialogue, and even script writing. However, the final project was by far the most interesting as the goal was simple, “take something you have already explored in this class, and make it better.” This left me with quite a few options and I wanted to explore them all, but I finally settled on seeing how far I could push the program Inklewriter.

Inklewriter is an online program that allows for the easy creation of branching stories and dialogue. At first glance, people have been hard-pressed to not comment on how Inklewriter reminds them of the old choose your adventure books except without the arbitrary, “If you wish to do this, go to page 34. If you do this, go to page 96.” Inklewriter is so much more expansive on this idea as not only can it keep track of certain variables and values, but also if a writer deems it necessary, certain choices will not appear to the player based on the player’s choices. However, this is just the bare minimum of what can be done with the program.  With Inklewriter, a designer can also add in simple sentences or whole paragraphs that only appear based on what the player chose without having to rewrite whole sections.   Add in the ability to keep counters and track a player’s responses, discovered an item, or gone through a particular section, writers have the mechanics to create robust, multifaceted stories without the frustration and difficulty of learning a brand new game or dialogue engine.

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Above is a section from the teen suspect’s path. This feature allows for the quick navigation of the story and lets writers to see how well their story is structured.

The story I decided to rewrite I had initially planned as a potential quest for my thesis project. This was to be the trial of the dialogue trees, testing to see if the quest was both interesting and logical. Even though the quest ultimately did not make it into the thesis, it was still fun to write the quest and explore Inklewriter as in depth as I did.

This is an example of a paragraph and choices look like in Inklewriter.  Depending on the designer's parameters, some choices could not appear.

This is an example of what a paragraph and choices look like in Inklewriter.

In short, the quest is a murder mystery. The player takes on the role of a town guard and after choosing a few attributes such as their age and purpose for joining the guards, the player is tasked with investigating three potential suspects. Through talking with the characters, investigating the body, and scouring the general area, the player can obtain clues that help to incriminate the suspects. It falls on the player’s shoulders to slam the gavel of judgment down on one of the suspects, provided they obtain enough evidence to do so. Using the systems of Inklewriter, I endeavored to create a complex system where the player was given certain clues depending on the attributes they chose, but did not receive other clues. Players could find these clues through careful investigation, but it was more likely they would miss the clues entirely.  The player also had to be mindful of their dialogue choices for if they were too rude or offensive to some of the suspects, the suspects would ultimately withhold information that would later lead to important evidence. I also made a note to have some of the characters actually incriminate one of the other suspects, in hopes of leading the player astray. Lastly, I included a state in the game where if the player failed to obtain enough information to incriminate any of the suspects, the player was forced to end the investigation, allowing the murderer to escape.

Here is a small example of how the tagging and conditional system.  If a player chose to be old, they would see the first paragraph, not the second.  If the player chose to be young, they would see the second, but not the first.  I used this system to give certain perks and unique evidence to certain attributes.

Here is a small example of the tagging and conditional system. If a player chose to be old, they would see the first paragraph, not the second. If the player chose to be young, they would see the second, but not the first. I used this system to give certain perks and unique evidence to certain attributes.

To say that the draft of the story I ultimately ended up submitting, and the one you can find below, is exactly what I had in mind when writing the story would not be true. Due to the end of the semester crunch, I was unable to implement certain features that I felt would be needed to truly make the story what I really wanted it to be. For example, some of the attributes the player can choose, mainly the motivation to help others and the blunt demeanor, fail to have some form of negative that would make them less desirable over their counterparts. Adding this negative side in would have allowed for more unique experiences on each run as the suspects could have much more dynamic responses based on the chosen attributes. Another aspect I would have liked to rework if given enough time would have been trying to insure the two false suspects were slightly more suspicious. This would lead the player to have more doubt about their choice and force the player to be as discerning as possible. I definitely would have liked more time to just streamline the whole story and quest as well. There are some clues that have a rather arbitrary route to them, almost on the same level as the old point-and-click adventure games such as knowing ahead of time to pluck the bamboo in chapter one so you can appease the panda in chapter five. Thankfully, none of the clues are that obtuse, but a more streamlined story would be better none the less. Lastly, I also would have loved more time to just make the story more complex. Adding in at least one more suspect, maybe adding an accomplice that could be bribed, and of course more clues to further either incriminate one suspect or deflect attention from another. This story still has plenty of potential and I feel a few more drafts of it as well as gaining more experience with Inklewriter’s systems would lead to an overall better product. That being said, I am still happy with this draft of the story and encourage you to read it if you have time.

Here is a link to the story: http://writer.inklestudios.com/stories/bx6g

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First Time in Skyrim: Environmental Storytelling Exploration

One of the classes I decided to take as an elective for my graduate thesis was a junior level course in Interactive Storytelling. The course covered several topics, but one particular issue I enjoyed was a rather short section on environmental storytelling, the act of depicting a scene or tale using only the player’s surroundings. During the section, we discussed many amazing examples of environmental storytelling including the now near infamous example present in the original Bioshock. It was these ideas of banners, food, and happiness destroyed that were in all our minds when we were assigned the task of building our own examples of environmental storytelling.

This room from 2K Games’s Bioshock is a perfect example of environmental storytelling and is often cited by professions.  Thanks to freakygaming.com for the picture.

In an effort to test my knowledge of the Skyrim Creation Kit, I decided that I should use it for the assignment. Here is what I decided to build. The player takes on the role of a town guard who has been called in to check on Gregor, a citizen that has not been seen in a nearly a week and some of his friends have started to grow concerned. The player arrives in Gregor’s house and finds it unlocked. Stepping inside, the player is greeted to a typical, apartment for the area. The kitchen is furnished rather simply as is the rest of the apartment, but something catches the player’s eye. Under the kitchen table, the player finds a bloody dagger. Near the dagger is a discarded note, which turns out to be a writ from the local tax collector explaining how a majority of Gregor’s property was seized a few months ago to pay for his family’s excessive debts.

Entrance to Gregor’s house, designed to look shabby but still feel welcoming.

Bloody dagger and writ of tax.

Wandering into a side room, the player discovers that the room has been made into a child’s bedroom. Everything about the room seems relatively welcoming and nice, but then the player spots the over turned table and the vase. What could have possibly caused this? If the player is observant they can also find a weak poison of paralysis. Curious… and concerning.

A child’s bedroom and obvious signs of struggle… worrying.

Continuing into the master bedroom, the player can find a number of interesting objects, but the items of note are two wedding rings and another note. This time it is a letter, a response to what can be assumed was marriage request from Gregor. The father of the girl Gregor desired to marry apparently heard of Gregor’s loss of status and riches and not only forbade Gregor from marrying his daughter and mocked him for even asking.

Signs of a lover’s heart broken.

Heading out of Gregor’s bedroom, the player finds several books have been knocked off their shelf and that several candles have been knocked from their table. Judging from their arrangement and the book of gods underneath, it can be assumed that the table is actually supposed to be an in home shrine to the local deity. However, where is the idol that is usually in there center? Just as the player begins to wonder about this, they spot a bloody splatter on the wall leading into a storage room. Following the trail, the player soon discovers another blood splatter and a hidden door. With no other options, the player heads down into this new section.

A shrine disturbed.

Bloody breadcrumb one…

and bloody breadcrumb two.

Heading down the ladder, the player finds themselves in some abandoned basement. Gregor must have discovered this place and used it for his own purposes. The area is small, just two rooms, so it does not take long for the player to find the body of a teenager in the room that opens on the right side of the hallway. The room smeared blood caused by what looks like a brutal beating.  The weapon of choice, the shrine of the city’s local deity lying in a pile of dirt, blood smeared across its sacred face.  Judging from the several skulls that sit on the shelves around the room, it is clear whomever killed the teen in room has been doing this for a long time.

The last room in the basement is at the end of the hall and is filled with the final pieces of this morbid puzzle. The corpse of a middle aged man lays impaled by a sword on the floor.  In one corner an alchemy table with several vials of paralysis for stunning, a basket of sweet rolls for luring, and several knives for finishing the deed. The only other thing in the room is Gregor’s journal that tells of his slow spiral into depravity. The first death was an accident, a drunken strike levied too harshly against a brat’s face. However, the others were all thrills, finally something he could fight and be stronger than. Something that couldn’t overlook and ignore him based on the actions of his traitorous and parasitic family. He kept their skulls as memorials to his success. Though as the days went on, Gregor began to delve into the good book of the local deity and soon began to find peace in it. Yet, he could not stop. This latest child must have somehow managed to get away from him before nearly escaping. Bloody and scared, the child ran and eventually made it down to the cellar. Gregor, acting purely on anger and desperation, grabbed the shrine and used it to finish his victim off. Distraught at what he had done, Gregor must then have committed suicide in an effort to gain some salvation from the deity. His final destination, only the gods know.

The actual designing of the levels were pretty straightforward. I tried to figure out interesting things that a player could find to follow the story then built the apartment according to those needs. Below you can find two aerial views of each level of the apartment. Admittedly, the basement level was supposed to be a bit larger, but out of wanting to be economical space wise, I shrunk it down to just the two rooms.

An aerial view of the first section of the level.  Small and definitely overly well-lit, but still manages to spur curiosity.

An aerial view of the first section of the level. Small and definitely overly well-lit, but still manages to spur curiosity.

The second part of Gregor's house.  Dark, dank, and hidden, the perfect place for sinister deeds.

The second part of Gregor’s house. Dark, dank, and hidden, the perfect place for sinister deeds.

Project Mirage: Augmented Reality Maze

During the summer portion of my graduate program, we were given the task of exploring an area of technology we were curious about, but had not had the opportunity to research.  The technology I chose to delve into was augmented reality, the idea of having our normal everyday lives improved by an overlay of data.

Currently, augmented reality tends to be used in one of two major ways.  The first major use is usually information distribution such as flashy advertisements or smartphone applications that show your location in relation to a tourist spot or subway entrance.  The second major area you see augmented reality is in experimental or artistic projects.  In this type of situation, augmented reality often takes the form of  3D models that are either tied to a symbol or GPS coordinates.  Then once a device, such as a smartphone, recognizes the symbol or location, the 3D model is generated for all to see.  A rare, interactive example that falls into this second category is Dr. Adrian Cheok’s Human Pacman, an augmented reality game that allowed players to take on the role of Pacman as they ran and moved through their everyday surroundings.

Seeing the work of Adrian Cheok and certain other projects, I really wanted to test the capabilities of this particular technology by instead of just having small objects appear on paper or allow people to view a structure from afar, I wanted the structure to be interactive in some way.  This is when I hit upon the idea of building a maze.  I loved the idea of having an invisible maze, a selective mirage that was only viewable through a special device.

Aerial view of first maze layout.

Aerial view of first maze layout.

With the idea planned out, I built my first in a series of mazes using an architectural design program known as Sketchup.  From there, testing began on trying to view and walk through the maze using Sketchup’s augmented reality smartphone application.  Why a smartphone when there are potentially other devices that would be more precise for this kind of spacial work?  I wanted the experience to be available to as many as possible, so I intended to limit myself to something a large population of users would already have, a smartphone.  At first, prospects were dim as the GPS for the program and device were so vague that the maze would not stand still, often hopping about the area or staying a set distance away from the user.

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Aerial view of the final maze build.

While working and refining the coordinates, settings, and other features in the program, I began to adjust my original concept for the maze.  At first my maze was built to be difficult, more of a labyrinth of confusion instead of a fun adventure.  However, as I talked with people and redesigned my maze in hopes of trying to make it easier for the smartphone application to handle, this aspect of the project changed.  I did not want my players to have to deal with confusion or struggle with moving beyond a particular section.  These people would be voluntarily playing the game, a game with boundaries and rules, my maze’s walls, that were so thin they could easily get frustrated and just storm through to the exit.  I needed to find a compromise between difficult and pathfinding.

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One of the maze’s man landmarks.

The final version of the maze has a number of features that help players set mental checkpoints.  These can be as simple as a cog on a wall or a pipe overhead giving players landmarks to guide themselves through the maze.  Furthermore, several statues have been placed at key intersections that subtly direct the player down a specific path based on the number of gems in its hands.  This last version of the project still qualifies as a maze, but also acts as more of a museum tour with off shoots with interesting rooms and statues.

The maze itself was a success and I was able to briefly walk about and explore my work.  However, if I were to redo the project I would probably see if I could use a device other than a smartphone or see if there was a way to place markers in key locations to fix the maze in a single location.

Below are some of the pictures from a successful run of the final maze build:

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One of the statues in a side area.

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Had to duck otherwise the wall would cover my face

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This statue and the other assets were first built in Maya then transferred to Sketchup. It was quite amusing to explore using my Maya skills to make my maze pleasing to explore.

Game Concept 1: States of Crusade

This board game was born out of a class assignment where we had to try and educate a particular audience about a particular topic.  In this case I chose the Crusades, the wars of religion that define much of what we see in the Medieval Era of history.  The goal was to challenge the audience’s underlying themes that we possibly unknowing use to characterize the crusaders and their actions.

The game can best be summarized as, “Pandemic crossed with Risk,” and revolves around the use of multiple decks, each one designed to help or hinder the players in some way based on the crusade the players are currently in.  For example, let us say the game is taking place in the Third Crusade.  One of the cards a player can pull is Richard the Lionheart, a card that might give the player a particular bonus for their turn.  However, the player may also draw a Famine card which will undoubtedly harm all the players to some extent.  Additionally, at the end of each turn the players must add to and advance the number of enemy troops  on the board by pulling cards from the Enemy deck.

This mechanic of a multiple deck system allows for two fundamental things to occur.  First is that it allows players multiple play throughs based on which of the Crusades they decide to start in.  Players can begin the game at the start of the First crusade and slowly work through to the end of the fourth crusade, each round encountering special events or famous characters from a particular crusade.  Players could also decide to just play during a specific crusade and only deal with cards and events from that era.  Secondly, by using multiple decks, players can encounter similar cards that help that might trigger discussion.  For example, one card I intended to put in the crusaders deck for the First Crusade was “It is the Will of God” the famous phrase spoken by Pope Urban II that sparked the start of the First Crusade.  This card grants certain bonuses and gives the players a little surge of power to help taken on the marauding hordes of Islamic forces.  However, at the same time inside the enemy deck, in the enemy deck there is a card titled, “It is the Will of God,” which does very similar effect but for the Islamic forces.  This card and others are meant to bring to the player’s mind the idea that just as the crusaders were fighting for the Christian God, the Islamic forces were fighting for Allah.  If this is the case, then who is the villain, who is the hero?

The board for States of Crusade

The board for States of Crusade