Notes from Wordplay 2015

I had the pleasure of attending Wordplay on Saturday. Unfortunately, I missed Emily Short’s opening talk, but the other speakers all had interesting things to say and I’m glad I went. A few bits I found striking:

  • Two members of the Night in the Woods team (whose names I’ve unforgivably forgotten) mentioned that they write dialogue in Twine and then have Unity read it, complete with emotes, using a touch of technical wizardry. You could see a lot of people in the audience thinking ‘brilliant!’ at that moment. The theme of the talk, ‘Rust Belt Gothic’, probably deserves its own post, but I was really struck by the emphasis on agency as a tool for exploration rather than something that lets the player ‘win’.
  • Sherwin Tjia counterposed the model of the heart or circulatory system with the more traditional, pruned-by-failure-state ‘bonsai tree’ of player choice. What I found most interesting was Sherwin’s emphasis on role-playing as a tool to encourage empathy, and his fantasy of an eternal ‘Quantum Leap’, shifting from one situation (and embodied agency; one self) to another. It think there is some kind of unresolved tension there that needs to be explored. In what sense is empathy becoming (or already) instrumental?
  • Christine Love was embarrassed that people still play Digital: A Love Story and insists that it’s terrible and tedious. I agree, in that the manual search for and entry of codes becomes a chore, but I also think that the mechanic serves an important purpose. Forcing the player to go through a mildly laborious process in order to explore a new place both builds a feeling of anticipation and forces the player to reaffirm their own agency. This is why you don’t destroy the Enterprise with a single button press or voice command (aside from safety reasons). More operations equal more weight. It also adds to the feeling that you are actually interacting with something. The trick is to avoid making this a routine tedium.
  • Love also mentioned the, for want of a better term, ‘temporal’ approach to dialogue she is taking in her new game Ladykiller, where speech options appear and fade as an NPC is talking (something a bit like a less silly version of those quicktime events in Mass Effect, if I’ve understood correctly). This is absolutely fascinating and I may have to shamelessly steal the idea for something myself. The conversation tree model of dialogue is an accepted trope, but in many ways it’s creaky and limiting (though it does tend to provoke contemplation). Exploring other models of interpersonal interaction in games is something I think holds a lot of promise. You can see the way Mass Effect was trying to resist the tendency of dialogue trees to make players speak strategically, though the effect felt forced and obfuscatory. I’m looking forward to seeing what writers like Love are able to accomplish.
  • Finally, Sam Barlow made an interesting point about the use of ‘framing’ or ‘distancing’ (reminding the player that they are not the protagonist, but rather a person playing the game; explicitly presenting the game as fiction rather than simulation) to encourage players to become complicit (a term Emily Short apparently used — I wish I’d seen her talk) in the fiction. Something something something Brecht? I need to think about this.
  • Following on from this, Barlow mentioned that the experience of piecing together a narrative like Her Story is a bit like the process of writing it — there’s a lot of revision, and this is part of the thrill. I’m suddenly reminded, oddly, of Morrowind and the way players had to unearth its contradictory truths. A thought for later.