Kernels and Satellites

Last week I reminded myself that I hadn’t sought out Cohen and Shires’ Telling Stories: A Theoretical Analysis of Narrative Fiction, which had been referenced in an article on game narrative. It was low down my list of priorities, mainly because it was written in 1988 – which feels like ancient history in citation terms. That shows in chapter one, where defining “narrative” as recounting “a story, a series of events in a temporal sequence,” the authors explain that:

our culture depends upon numerous types of narrative: novels, short stories, films, television shows myths, anecdotes, songs, music videos, comics, paintings, advertisements, essays, biographies, and news accounts.

Games aren’t mentioned, and I guess that’s no surprise, given that in 1988 computer games were still a relatively youthful medium, and the audience for games were relatively youthful too. The investment of Hollywood amounts of money in game narratives was still a twinkle in programmers eyes. If they looked at games at all back then, the authors might well have consciously excluded them from their analysis, because, the central premise of their book is “the events making up a story are only available to us through telling”, which might (arguably) exclude the procedurally generated narratives that most games provide.

But one of their ideas does have some relevance to game narratives. The article I looked at last week made reference to this passage (page 54):

From the vantage point of a completed sequence, events function either as kernels or as satellites. Kernel events raise possibilities of succeeding or alternative events – what we can call, taking the term rather literally, “eventuality.” They initiate, increase, or conclude an uncertainty, so they advance or outline a sequence of transformations. Satellite events, on the other hand, amplify or fill in the outline of a sequence by maintaining, retarding, or prolonging the kernel events they accompany or surround.

In game narrative terms this is a neat summary of how games work as a storytelling medium. In more scripted games such as Red Dead Redemption, the sequence of Kernals is quite rigid, and the satellites are optional or even (in the case of games like Skyrim) procedurally generated. I remember nearing the end of RDR: I’d helped John Marston, the character the game had been following, to track down and (mostly) kill his old buddies from the gang he had run with, and confront his old boss, who throw himself off a mountain. Marston had been given back his farm, and wife and child, and the game challenges had become less about death and destruction, and more about production and family life – rounding up cattle and and the like. Then a blicking icon had appeared on the game map, telling me that I was ready to play the nest kernel event.

I didn’t want to, I knew the game was nearing the end, and having discovered Marston’s life story, I knew it wouldn’t end well. I wanted to prolong the rural idyll of farming, hearth and home. So I found satellite quests to prolong the current kernel. I became obsessed with beaver hunting, promising myself I wouldn’t play on to the next kernal event until I’d found the five beaverskins a crazy glider pilot Marston had met in Mexico needed for his glue. I spent days and days hunting beaver. It became a running joke with my wife.

But after shooting the first two, it seemed the beavers had gone into hiding. There was beaver drought, it seemed, by every river in the gameworld – and yes I did try every one. So with a heavy heart, I turned John Marston back towards his fate. Damn, was I emotionally engaged.

But even in purely procedural games, the idea of kernels and satellites works. As Tynan Sylvester points out, in a game like The Sims, the narrative is reliant on the interpretation of the player:

This story was co-authored between the player and the game. The game simulated some simple event (attraction between redhead and roommate), and the player ascribed meaning to it (jealousy and frustration) the same way he might have for the Michotte balls, even though that emotion was not actually in the simulation. The next part of the story was cued by him when he orchestrated the murder. The game simulated the logistics of firey deaths, but the sense of sorrow and revenge was, again, ascribed completely by the player. Most of this story is apophenia – present of the Player Model, absent from the Game Model.

While not talking about games, Cohen and Shires manage to predict how the random calculations of a procedural game can become an emotionally engaging story:

While kernels may appear to function as primary events and satellites as secondary ones, satellites are as important as kernels to a story sequence. Furthermore, an event’s status as a kernel or satellite depends entirely upon a particular sequence and not on the event itself, which does not possess the ability to advance or amplify a transformation on its own. An event acquires its kernel or satellite function for a given sequence through its placement in the sequence, because the sequence is what sets the events in relation to each other.

I like to play Civilization, which is an example of unscripted, procedural game. Some games are more satisfying than others, when the random generation of events becomes, in my mind, the thrilling story a plucky little nation that could. Sometimes, despite my best efforts to manage my nascent state “events, dear boy, events” conspire to make the game boring – but the advantage of procedural games is that if its boring, you can start again. Well designed procedural games are the ones that keep you restarting because of the all the great narratives you’ve discovered on previous plays. Ones that are consistently boring don’t get restarted, they get turned off.

The challenge for cultural heritage sites is that they can’t be restarted, so a purely procedural approach of interactive narrative would not be constructive. Some degree of scripting – the selection and ordering of narrative kernals is required.

Narrative Structure and Games – Backstory?

I’ve started writing up my literature review. And that has sent me back to the literature itself, to try and make head or tale of the cryptic comments I made to myself when I read it the fist time. Take for example Barry Ip’s two part article in Games and Culture, Narrative Structures in Computer and Video Games. Ip offers, in part one, his own pretty complete literature review of story in games. Indeed I could quote him extensively and move on, except there are some things he said that obviously prickled me. And now I’ve had to re-read him to find our why.

Overall, its the useful summary of game narrative I thought it was. It saves me having to play games for months, with a stopwatch to hand. And looking at it again, I’m reminded of a particular reference to a now out of print and distribution book I was going to check for in the library, but never did*. It needs a bit of updating, mostly by references to Tynan Sylvester’s work, and Terence Lee’s piece on emergent narrative.

But the thing that gets my goat is his use of the term “back story”. I was obviously annoyed this quote:

Backstories are usually presented just before a game begins or seen written on the back of game packaging or in its instruction manual to capture a player’s attention as well as set the scene for the entire game.

Now to my mind, what he is describing is the “blurb”, or at best a prologue that states “what has gone before” and, maybe sets the scene. Whereas I think of backstory as the background created for a fictional character, which isn’t explained at the start of the narrative (where it really becomes part of the narrative) but may be referred to as the narrative progresses. It is complete (if anywhere) only in the author’s head, but the reader (or player) can construct their own understanding of it from the clues peppered throughout the narrative. This was one aspect of Red Dead Redemption that I liked, the player’s avatar had a backstory (and not a very pleasant one) that the player could only piece together during the game. In contrast the player’s avatar in Skyrim has no-backstory – other than he is a captive at the start of the game.

So this time, rather than tap out a barely understandable note to myself, i went to the dictionary to be proved right. The online Oxford dictionary says:”A history or background created for a fictional character in a film or television programme” Aha! I was right! But then it goes on to give an example: “‘a brief prologue detailing our hero’s backstory'” Curses! That’s more like Ip’s definition … And Merriam-Webster agrees with Ip. On the other hand, Wikipedia backs up my understanding (today at least).

Oh! I don’t know, maybe I should just live with it. It seems I’ve spent more time niggling at the word than actually writing – which may of course have been the point.


*Kernels and Satellites from Cohen and Shire’s 1988 Telling stories: A theoretical analysis of narrative fiction

A literary view of gaming

What I should be doing today is creating the structured interview questions for my research on Cultural Institutions and Tech SMEs. But I’m distracted by this series of articles on gaming from playwright Lucy Prebble. Lucy is most famous for her play ENRON about the stocks and shares scandal surrounding the eponymous US energy company. More recently, her The Effect has had positive reviews. But she is also a gamer, and writes  a monthly column on games for the Observer.

Her column tends towards narratively driven “authored”  games, such as Gone Home, which as she is a professional narrativist shouldn’t be surprising, though she also discusses and appreciates more procedural games like The Sims and Farming Simulator. In her conversation with Bioshock’s Ken Levine, they discuss a possible future project which he is considering, which has all the procedural narrative of games like the Sims or Rimworld, but “this would still be authored, it would still tell a story. It would end. And actually, that makes it more true to life, not less.” which reminds me how powerful “the end” is to to storytelling, and why Red Dead Redemption is more emotionally involving for me than unending Skyrim.

Her most recent article praises Device 6 (enough to make me download it after considering it for months) and the Novelist among others, while making the claim that charity shops are starting to turn away books, unable to sell them because “Everyone has Kindles”. I’m not convinced that she, or rather the charity shop workers she spoke to are correct to prophesise the death of the book yet – the second-hand bookshops at National Trust places seem to be thriving and turning over stock at a reasonable pace. But she does make the point that adventurous writers are looking to games as a when to tell stories differently. And the truly adventurous are playing with the conventions of what a game is too:

Depression Quest is a simple interactive fiction game that guides you through the experience of someone with depression. Its creator, Zoe Quinn, reveals a powerful understanding of how to affect through gameplay. Some options are visible, eg “Open up a little, hoping she’ll understand” but you are unable to select them. This basic but intelligent design expresses so much about a mental reality where the sufferer knows what they “should” do but is literally unable to. Your own frustration with the choice is mirrored by the protagonist’s and eventually a peek into self-loathing and stagnation is achieved, as well as a glimpse into how to move forward.

A game she has persuaded me to buy and try is Gone Home, which describes as though it is a near-perfect cultural heritage interpretation experience.

You piece together a sense of who everyone is and what happened through seemingly disconnected items and evidence hidden around the house. And those connections are intentionally weak. It allows the plot and conclusions to take place in the mind of the player and not in the action of the game… By withholding its story so fully and wisely, Gone Home insists we join the dots ourselves. It takes the gaming element away from the screen, and into your head.

Prebble is very interested in games and emotion, and makes and important point about how words alone fail can fail to trigger an emotional response:

As a playwright, I have long been disappointed by the weakness of words. An audience is rarely moved by words themselves, but by the gaps between words. In theatre sometimes we reference irritation with actors who act “off the line”, meaning they put in breaths and little sounds around what’s written, slowing pace and drawing attention. But that’s because they know the writing is just a scaffold… I think games have an unrealised potential to be even more emotionally involving than other forms, because they can make room for the player/audience directly. And because they are alive to flexibility of choice and narrative. I believe the more you nail down a plot point or a line, the more it dies. When you catch words like butterflies and pin them behind glass, it feels like an achievement, but something seals as you press down the pane. And so, now more than ever, we need games like Gone Home that withhold and reinvent and leave space for thought and feeling.

Of course this can be incendiary stuff, for gamers and non-gamers alike. Ludologiest would argue (as one commenter did) “The problem with Gone Home is that people refer to it as a game, which ultimately it isn’t. Any piece of entertainment software that focuses solely on story is by definition not a game,” while traditionalists will say that a game narrative can not possibly be compared with the emotional resonance of a half-decent novel. But Prebble isn’t looked only at what either games or storytelling are, but what they might be…

I’ll finish this piece with a quote within a quote from Prebble’s most recent article, which illustrates the reactionary fears expressed when new technology encroaches on something we love:

Maybe it’s best to close with this warning from an 1815 publication bemoaning the demise of the chalkboard in schools: “Students today depend on paper too much. They don’t know how to write on slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?” (fromRethinking Education in the Age of Technology by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson)

I suppose we’re finding out.

The Narrative Structure of Red Dead Redemption (my first Prezi)

In preparation for my presentation next month at University of Rochester’s Decoding the Digital conference, I’ve finally mapped out (with some help from the narrative structure of Red Dead Redemption. I wanted an easy way to show the nested structure of the story, and having seen a few Prezi presentations, I thought I’d give that a try. You might have seen the swooping, twisting, motion-sickness inducing form of presentation before, and I worry that it may become so overused that its the twenty-teens’ version of “death by PowerPoint.” But I think in this case it does a difficult job very well. Edit: hmmm I can’t seem to embed the presentation into wordpress, so here’s a link instead:

See what you think (you can skip over the song in the middle if you want)

EDIT 24/08/2013 and here’s an workaround embedded version, which may or may not work:


I think that will do. I may even include it in my Rochester presentation. If so, I’m going to have to do Dear Esther and (gulp) Skyrim too.

Non-linear sound in video games

The week before last, I wrote about Annabel Cohen‘s paper on music in video games, and mentioned Karen Collins of Collins has written a great deal on games and sound. Her 2007 paper, An Introduction to the Participatory and Non-Linear Aspects of Video Games Audio, from the book Essays on Sound and Vision, seemed a good place to start.

Collins begins by suggesting the subtle difference between the terms “interactive,” “adaptive” and “dynamic”. In her useful set of distinctions “interactive” sounds or music are those that respond to a particular action from the player, and each time the player repeats the action the sound is exactly the same. Citing Whitmore (2003) she argues that “Adaptive” sounds and music are those that respond, not to the actions of the player, but rather to changes occurring in the game (or the game’s world) itself. So “an example is Super Mario Brothers, where the music plays at a steady tempo until the time begins to run out, at which point the tempo doubles.” She goes on go describe “dynamic” audio as being being interactive and/or adaptive.

She also explores the various uses for sound and music in games. She has read Cohen, obviously and so her list is very similar. She quotes Cohen in relation to masking real-world environmental distractions, and in the distinction between the mood-inducing and communicative uses of music. She points out though, that the non-linear nature of game sound means that its more difficult to predict the emotional effects of music (and other sounds). In film, she states, its possible for sounds to have unintended emotional consequences – a director wanting to inform that audience that there is a dog nearby will tell the sound designer to include a dog barking out of shot, but the audience will being their own additional meaning to that sound, based on their previous experiences (which she calls supplementary connotation) . But in games, she argues, where sounds are triggered and combined in relatively unpredictable sequences by player actions, even more additional means are possible.

She also discusses how music can be used to direct the players attention, or to help the player “to identify their whereabouts, in a narrative and in the game.” She points out how “a crucial semiotic role of sound in games is the preparatory functions that it serves, for instance to alert the player to an upcoming event.”

This is something that was made very clear while I played both Red Dead Redemption and Skyrim. Red Dead Redemption would often alert me to an upcoming threat by weaving a more urgent, oppressive tune into the background music. Skyrim took a different approach, the music for Skyrim doesn’t work as hard, but while my cat-creature was sneaking around underground tunnel systems, I was often alerted to potential threats by my enemies muttering to themselves as I approached blind corners. Collins points out that these sorts of cues have occasioned a changing listening style from passive to active listening, among gamers.

Sometimes though, as Collins points out, games are created that put musical choice directly into the players’ hands. The Grand Theft Auto series gives the player a choice of in-car radio stations  to listen too, so that their particular tastes are better catered for. Though they weren’t around at the time of Collin’s writing many iOS and other mobile games have a feature by which the player can turn off game music and even other game sound effects if the so choose, to listen to their own library of music, stored on the device. She even cites the game Vib Ribbon, or the Sony Playstation, which allows the player to load their own music from CDs, and the music then changes the gameplay according the structure of the music the player has loaded.

Collins also discusses the challenges that composers face when writing for games. For a start, Collins points out that “in many games it is unlikely that the player will hear the entire song but instead may hear the first opening segment repeatedly, particularly as they try to learn a new level.” (Though she also points out that many games designers are leaning to include what one composer calls a “bored now switch.” After a number of repeats of the same loop of music, the sound fades to silence, which both informs the player that they should have completed this section by now, and stops them getting annoyed and frustrated by the repetition.

The other main problem is that of transition between different loops (or cues, as she calls them). “Early games tended towards direct splicing and abrupt cutting between cues, though this can feel very jarring on the player.” Even cross-fading two tracks can feel abrupt if it has to be done quickly enough to keep up with game play. So composers have started to write “hundreds of cue fragments for a game, to reduce transition time and to enhance flexibility in music.” This is the approach taken in Red Dead Redemption, where as I move my character around the landscape, individual loops fade in and out according to where I am and what is happening, but layered together they feel (most of the time) like one cohesive bit of music.

Multiplayer games present another problem. “If a game is designed to change cues when a player’s health score reaches a certain critical level, what happens when there are two players, and one has full health and the other is critical?” she asks.

There are rewards too, get the music right, and games publishers can find an additional source of income. She quotes a survey which discovered that “40% of hard-core gamers bought the CD after hearing a song they liked in a video game.” (Ahem, guilty as charged m’lud, even though I’m not a “hard-core gamer.”)

Just before she completes the paper, she has some thoughts on the perception of time too. I’ve noticed a sort of “movie-time” effect in Skyrim, which presents a challenge for my real-world cultural spaces. So I think I might need to look at that in more detail.

Music in new media

I’ve been thinking about music again, and staring into the pit of unknown unknowns that is my non-existent understanding of music, except as a casual listener. I know music affects me, and I’ve how important an emotional trigger in the games I’ve been playing for my studies, but I don’t know how or why, and right now I’m wishing I had a degree in Cognitive Psychology to help me understand. (The certificate would sit alongside the degrees in Computer Science, English and History that I don’t have).

Its such a huge subject, but I came across this paper, by Annabel Cohen, which though quite old (1998) I’ve found to be a useful primer. It also led me to the Gamessound website of Dr Karen Collins, Canada Research Chair in Interactive Audio at the Games Institute, the University of Waterloo, Ontario, who has written lots of juicy papers which start where Cohen left off, and are (the clue’s in the URL, a lot more games specific).

Lets start with Cohen though, a sort of new media music 101. She begins from the notion that “music activates independent brain functions that are separable from verbal and visual domains,”  and goes on to define eight functions that music has in new media:

  1. Masking – Just as music was played in the first movie theaters, partly to mask the sound of the projector, so music in new media can be used to mask “distractions produced by the multimedia machinery (hum of disk drive, fan, motor etc) or sounds made by people, as multimedia often occurs in social or public environments.” Apparently lower tones mask higher ones, and listeners filter out incoherent sounds in preference for coherent (musical) sounds . Of course the downside is music can mask speech too when that speech is part of the intended presentation.
  2. Provision of continuity – “Music is sound organised in time, and this organisation helps to connect disparate events in other domains. Thus a break in the music can signal a change in the narrative [I’m reminded of the songs in Red Dead Redemption here] or, conversely, continuous music signals the continuation of the current theme.”
  3. Direction of attention – Cohen has obviously done some experimental research on this function, broadly speaking, patterns in the music can correlate to patterns in the visuals, directing the attention of the user.
  4. Mood induction – ( quick aside here, check out this Mirex wiki page on mood tags for music). I’ve written about this before, and it’s the most obvious function to me, but Cohen is careful to make a distinction between this and the next function, which is:
  5. Communication of meaning – Cohen says “It is important to distinguish between mood induction and communication of meaning by music. Mood induction changes how one is feeling while communication of meaning simply conveys information.” Yet, when she discusses communication of meaning, she uses examples of “emotional meaning: “sadness is conveyed by slow pace, falling contour, low pitch and the minor mode.” I take from this that her nice distinction is between music that makes the user sad, and music that tells the user “this is a sad event” without changing the user’s mood. Hmmm … I’ll have to think about that.
  6. A cue for memory – This is another one that I’ve written about before. Music can trigger a user’s memories from a past event that’s totally unrelated to the new media presentation, if they’ve coincidentally heard the particular piece before, but the effect is more controllable with music especially written for the presentation. The musical term for this (from opera, arguably the first multimedia presentations) is leitmotiv. The power of the music to invoke memories or “prepare the mind for a type of cognitive activity” is well recognized in advertising and sonic brands such as those created for Intel and Nokia.
  7. Arousal and focal attention – “it is a simple fact that when there music, more of the brain is active” Cohen says (without reference). She does on to argue that with more of the brain active, the user is more able to filter out the peripheries of the apparatus running a new media presentation, and concentrate on the diagesis of the presentation, what Pinchbeck calls presence. On the other hand, she admits that some think excess stimulation pulls focus away from central vision and towards the periphery.
  8. Aesthetics – Here we come to what my colleagues report is the biggest issue with using music in interpretation. Cohen says “music is an art form and its presence enhances every situation in much the same way that a beautiful environment enhances the experience of activities within it.” But she admits that aesthetics is subjective, and “music that is not appealing can disturb the user.” Not only that, but some individuals may find all background music difficult to cope with.

So that’s my new media music 101. Next time I’ll look at what Collins has to add.

My first abstract

I’m excited because my first conference paper proposal has been accepted, and it gets financial support to help me go deliver it. So in September I’m off to the University of Rochester, NY for their Decoding the Digital conference. I thought I’d share the abstract here. Now, of course, I have to write the paper.


The creators of digital narratives, in the form of computer games, are experimenting with form as they explore story telling in virtual spaces. Different approaches to so-called “open world” games all succeed in creating emotionally engaging diageses, three-dimensional virtual story spaces around which the player can wander with apparent freedom.

Cultural heritage institutions, including museums, built heritage, historic and ancient sites and heritage landscapes, have long been telling stories in three dimensions. Where it’s done well, visitors to those sites can immerse themselves in stories that they co-author as they make choices  about what to look at first and subsequently and how deeply they want to explore individual points of interest.

Digital content creators have long had the opportunity to learn from heritage interpretation (Carliner 2001, Sylvester 2013), but what can cultural heritage institutions learn from computer games?

This presentation reports on early research comparing narrative approaches in digital games and cultural heritage institutions. Using case studies of open world games such as Red Dead Redemption, Dear Esther, and Skyrim, the presentation identifies different narrative techniques, structures and emotional triggers and seeks comparators in a number of UK cultural heritage sites. Highlighting the relative strengths of the digital and real-world media, the presentation discusses how cultural heritage sites might adapt some of the techniques of game narrative, including structure and music, to interpretive use. The results of an evaluation of a digital ludic interpretation case study, Ghosts in the Garden, at the Holburne Museum, Bath, illustrate the discussion.

The presentation concludes by setting out the plan for further research, including an exploration of adaptive narrative and the narrative braid (Hargood et al, 2012), and experiments with more considered use of music to trigger emotional responses at heritage sites.

A very short note on the power of music

This really is a very quick note. I was mowing the lawn this morning, with my phone playing music on shuffle. During a quiet respite while I emptied the grass hopper, Dead Man’s Gun, the elegiac final song from Red Dead Redemption came on.

I suddenly felt a sense of loss, and bitterness, and tears came to my eyes. An incredible feeling of nostalgia washed over me, and I wanted to visit again the virtual world of RDR’s west.

Now, THAT’S what I call emotional engagement.

Skyrim and the Radiant Engine

I’m finally getting my head around Skyrim.

The game (much recommended after I completed Red Dead Redemption) was less engaging than I’d hoped. I wondered if this was because of the graphics (pretty, but not as smooth as RDR), or the fantasy setting, but actually I think its because in the early stages, I was out of my comfort zone in terms of thumb twiddling skill. I was never the most dextrous videogamer, but RDR had a pretty perfect flow curve. (Flow here used in the Csikszentmihalyi sense, which is the say exactly the right level of challenge to put the gamer in an almost transcendental state).

With Skyrim, I wasn’t in flow. And that simply resulted in me not enjoying it, and thus not playing it for very long, as well as being reluctant to even start playing it again. Working against flow for me was the first person point of view. I’d been told that players could switch between first person and “over the shoulder” POVs, but sadly not in the introductory sequence.

There’s a reason for this, as it turns out: after a journey on a cart, talking to the other bound prisoners that share your situation, and so hearing a little of the context of game, you are eventually asked who you are. Suddenly the camera angle reverses, and you get to decide exactly who you are. Choosing your fantasy race (human, orcish, lizardman, catperson – the “usual”), sex, build and facial features. Were my daughter old enough to play this game, she’d be playing at this stage for hours. I didn’t spend quite so long, but even so I’ve ended up with a snow-leopardy fellow, which, given the fine controls one has over length and position of nose and ears, size, colouring and position of eyes etc, I like to think must be almost unique out there among the millions (?) of Skyrim players. And this is a point in Skyrim’s favour. It hardly matters how scripted the story is from here, its my story, unique to me because its about my particular cat-person. These and subsequent choices about how I develop the character will define how I play the game – cat-people are (apparently) better at sneaking about than full frontal attacks – so the resulting story will be different to the one played by someone who chooses to play (say) a barbarian. And this is why the graphics aren’t quite as smooth as in RDR. In that game, the graphics engine only has to portray John Marston. Yes, he can wear various outfits, but the games only has to cope with a limited number of graphic choices, not the near infinite possible combinations that Skyrim gives you.

Even so, once my cat-fellow was designed, I hit the non-flow wall again. Still in first person POV, I ran around with my hands tied, like a headless chicken while a Dragon attacked. Against all logic and common sense, I didn’t die, and the attack afforded me and somebody else the chance to escape the clutches of the Imperials, who must now forever be the “bad-guys.” Here was a piece of heavily scripted story, during which my actions (no matter how inept of otherwise) had no impact on the conclusion. Did I feel emotionally involved? I did not.

So when the other guy said we should split up and I headed on my own into the world to get killed again and again by wolves, or falling off mountains, I wondered why I was wasting my time, and Skyrim sat unplayed for a couple of weeks.

Eventually, my conscience (and a boring night of television) persuaded me to try again. This time, when the other escapee said “lets split up” I stayed with him, and he introduced me into the storyline proper. About 16 hours of play later, and I’m Thrane of Whiterun, Dragonborn, and a member of the Companions’ mercenary band.

What have I learned? Well, though there is a main storyline (which I think I’m following), about the rise of the Dragons and the return of the Dragonborn, there are far more “sidequests” available than in RDR. It seems possible to ignore the main story completely for a time, and build your profession and experience with any number of allies and mentors. And I wonder if I’d have still more choices open to me if I had chosen to play a different sort of character. Indeed, the number of sidequests threatens to overwhelm the main story. I’ve already been confused by having more than one quest running at the same time, and so following the GPS style marker for the “wrong” quest.

It might have been worse though. Some of these stories are apparently generated using the Radiant Story engine. There’s an interesting article about that here, which says “the Radiant Story system helps randomize and relate the side quests to players to make the experience as dynamic and reactive as possible. Rather than inundate you with a string of unrelated and mundane tasks, it tailors missions based on who your character is, where you’re at, what you’ve done in the past, and what you’re currently doing.” The article also highlights the risk of side quests, especially randomly generated ones, overwhelming the main story, and explains that (at the time the article was published, while the game was still in development) the producers of the game were engaged in reducing the risk of Radiant stories overwhelming the scripted one.

The Radiant Story engine is available for PC using Skyrim fans to play with, as part of the developer’s Creation Kit. There’s a wiki available for users of the creation kit that explains a little bit about how it works. The key component is  the Radiant Story Manager which “holds the hierarchy of conditionalized quests to start in response to Story Manager Events. Quest Aliases are the “objects” (non-player characters, props, locations) which the quest requires. What’s special about the radiant engine, is that these don’t need to be defined as the game is written. They can be defined then of course, but they don’t have to be, they can also be chosen during gameplay from a predefined list, or even selected by the game on the fly. So if the quest starts with a patron of some sort, asking the character to do something, that role could be filled by a character especially created for the task, or whoever is the most appropriate member of the local population, where ever the player-character happens to be. Packages are behaviors, actions that an alias (for example, a non-player character) will demonstrate. Most townsfolk will have a “package stack” that involves them doing their job (whatever it is), eating, sleeping etc at appropriate times of day. But if a character is called to take on the role of a patron for a quest they will be given the required packages by the story engine so that they behave in the right way (for example, crying about a missing relative).

What all this means, is that the stories seem to be more flexible than in RDR. In that game, if you killed a bad guy before he gave you a quest, you’d fail that quest (which was pretty frustrating, given that in some cases, the objective was to come back and kill the bad guy who’d sent you on the quest). It seems the Radiant Story engine, could simply assign to the roles of patron and/or bad guy to other characters on the fly.

The Creation Kit seems to be a pretty well supported toolset for modifying Skyrim. I know somebody that is planning a game that involves interpreting a lot of Roman archeology, and I wonder if she’s planning on using this software to make it. And talking of archeology, the same person also alerted me to the Archaeogaming blog, which explores the archaeology both of and within computer games.

Music, narrative and space

I’m thinking about music. Which is slightly scary for me, as I’m not very good with music. I have no sense of rhythm, I’m not tone deaf, but I do struggle to tell the difference between notes, and though I enjoy singing, people around me don’t enjoy my singing. This might have something to do with two of my favourite musicians being Bob Dylan and Shane McGowan whose own singing voices are a matter of some division among critics.

But while I may not be terribly qualified to think about music, I have become aware of how important music is the storytelling that occurs in some of the most applauded video games. When I hear the words music and video games in the same sentence I think first of the god-awful bleeps and beeps that I used to turn down in the eighties, but music in games has come a long way since then. Something I think I was only actually aware of when I started playing Dear Esther for this research. I was so impressed with how the music added to the atmosphere, and helped tell the story that I was not surprised to learn that the composer, Jessica Curry, had been nominated for a Bafta for her work on the game.

Then, when I was telling people I was planning to play Red Dead Redemption, everyone I spoke mentioned the music as an impressive feature of that game, most pulling out one particularly impressive example, which indeed take the number two spot in this list of the top twenty songs in games. This is the first time in the game that the (excellent) ambient music gives way to a very “front of mind” song, licensed from Swedish (with South American roots) singer Jose Gonzales. The simple fact that so many people talk about this moment in their appreciation of the game indicates that the music contributes to an emotional, memory creating, response in the player.

We talked about this at work on Wednesday, briefly mentioning the way music is used in the Bowie exhibition at the V&A, and the hope that the experimental opening of Leith Hill Place might include an innovative soundscape. However we concluded that cultural heritage doesn’t use music enough in interpretation, and where it does, it doesn’t do so that imaginatively. My boss said she might be up for sponsoring an innovative (and repeatable elsewhere)  use of music in interpretation. (So if anyone out there has an exciting ideas that would fit in a National Trust property around London and the South East, get in touch!)

It definitely seems to me that if I’m planning to learn from how games tell stories, I can’t ignore music. But I have some questions that need answering, and I think these are questions occasioned by the broad range of cultural heritage sites that my organisation, the National Trust, looks after though they would also apply elsewhere.

  1. Many examples of music and sound in interpretation occur through headphones. This tends towards an insular, individual experience. Lots of people enjoy audio guides but many people seek a more social learning experience in museums. How can places use sound and music in a more open, participatory manner? (This is one of the questions the Ghosts in the Garden tries to address.)
  2. Similarly, many people visit outdoor locations in part to enjoy the sounds of being in the open air. Can we design musical experiences that make space for, or even amplify some of the ambient sounds that may be occurring around the listener in the non-virtual world?
  3. Lots of the music we hear in cultural heritage interpretation is bought off the shelf – existing recordings, licensed or borrowed from royalty free collections. Occasionally (for Ghosts in the Garden, for example) new recordings are made of music historically connected with the site. More rarely (I’m aware of a piece created especially for Ham House last year, and another in development at Mottisfont) have new pieces of music been commissioned to help tell the story of site. Why doesn’t this happen more often?

Luckily I don’t have to try and an answer these questions on my own. I’ve already met colleagues at the university that are already asking similar questions. The At Home with Music project has already worked at National Trust sites, and this post from Ben Mawson suggests he’s recently been dealing with exactly the same narrative frustrations that started me on this research. I’m hoping I can enlist their help, and that they don’t mind my singing.