Ernesto RPG - A Side Project

First of all, I'll be straightforward: Storyteller will be put on development hold for a couple months. But it's for a good reason!

I love Storyteller, I think it's an important game and I want it to be released soon, but I've been working on it for three years now and I am starting to feel creatively numb from always dealing with the same project. There are a few important things to work out before I am able to release it, so there's no way I can rush it to completion. Storyteller still needs time and more hard work to be a great game.

It happened that recently I decided to take a week to make a small game and thus "Ernesto RPG" was born. After releasing it into the wild, I realized that there might be upsides to turning it into a tiny commercial game:

  • It will take my designer mind off of Storyteller for a while, allowing me to go back to it from a different perspective.
  • Releasing commercially means Ernesto will have to go through the same releasing pipeline that Storyteller will have to go through; by then, I will be more experienced.
  • Ernesto reminded me how I felt when I started with Storyteller. I have been in a very good mood since I started it.

Does this mean Storyteller is cancelled?

Not at all! "My Game" is still Storyteller, it's the best game I've ever made and I could not abandon it even if I tried. But I'd like to take some time off and I believe it will benefit Storyteller in the long run.

When is Storyteller development going to resume?

As soon as the heavy-duty development of Ernesto is finished. I am aiming for less than 3 months. To know when this happens, follow this blog, follow my twitter, or better yet,

(It will be updated very frequently)

Why There is No Storyteller Update Today

Colin Northway (of Incredipede) started working on a side project while visiting Argentina. Stephen Lavelle (aka increpare) is trying to get a game done from start to finish during the last days of 2013.

The last time I shipped a game was 2009, so I took this week to work on a little something...


It all started when I playfully dropped this challenge on Twitter...

My intended answer to the challenge is visual and I won't spoil it here, but then unexpected things happened:

Ummm... yes, the last frame's caption is not very informative about Maria's death. Since now I am working on a new captioning system, I added more detail to the suicide caption:

Fair enough. There is no indication that Maria went through a violent enough suicide to actually involve blood. However, having a visual cue that someone died in a non-natural way is required. It used to be that suicide tombstones looked like this:

This is a "letter to the judge" pattern, which is used sometimes in comics. But even though it is visually distinct from a murder tombstone (which includes blood) and thematically more adequate, I suspect the pattern is highly cultural-dependent. Many people that playtested the game wondered what the letter was, so for the time being I think the bloody tombstone option is better.

I am in the fence with tenses in the captions. The way Storyteller works, most actions in stories happen inbetween frames: you see a murderer hating the victim and then the murdered victim, not the murder itself. So half the time the captions are describing something that just happened but it's done already: Maria committed suicide. But there are also actions that seem to be happening now, like Maria insulting the witch or the witch cursing her for that. My policy so far is to use past tense for actions that happen off-frame and present tense for the rest. It does create a feeling of inconsistency, though, because we are used to have a single narrator and narrative, so the tense switches are a bit disorienting.

This is a neat observation. From the viewpoint of the story solver, the orientation of characters is unimportant, but as human readers, this flipping of characters (Maria & Witch on frame 1, Witch & Maria on 2) is disorienting and makes us wonder if something happened that produced the switch, making the story less readable. There is a mechanism in Storyteller that involves the issue of readability but I ignored it in this case because... it was necessary for "the mistake" to happen (and now I've gave it away).

The really interesting part is why all these interpretations of "mistakes" happened. Storyteller's mechanics have a "soft" component that relies heavily on our innate ability to make fairly sophisticated interpretations out of a sequence of still frames. This is where Storyteller draws its magic from, but at the same time it is a fragile and delicated substance: it's very easy for different people with different experiences, environment, languages and culture to come to wildly different conclusions of what's going on. Most of the "fixes" I make to the game after playtests are about helping players adjust their interpretation machinery to see Stortyeller in a way that it agrees with the gameplay!

Bonus: here's Ron Carmel's funny response to the challenge...

How Storyteller is Different

Play with Stories

Games like The Last of Us use character expressions, dialogues, settings and plot twists in a static, cinematographic way that is not directly related to the gameplay of the game itself. Games usually use a story to enrich or frame what the player does most of the time: play the game.

In Storyteller, Expressions, settings and plot twists are gameplay elements to play with. In Storyteller, stories *are* gameplay.

A Game about Love, Resentment, Death, Parenthood, Tragedy and Happiness

Storyteller has a neat story simulator that deals with these concepts and many more. Players need to ponder about these in order to make progress. What does "Inheritance Money Murder" mean? And how do you make a story that has one?

Puzzle Solutions are Not Fixed

Storyeller is a puzzle game, but unlike many puzzle games, levels are not solved by figuring out the right order to do things, but by exploiting all the character personalities. Not only are there many solutions to a level, but there are probably some solutions that even I didn't think of, and I designed the game!

Storyteller is Not Just About Challenge

While designing the game, I bump into surprising and interesting story situations. Whenever this happens I make a level out of it, and I want the whole game to be designed like this. I am not thinking in terms of difficulty and will not include any filler, even if I end up with a 3 hour game. That said, the game has many levels that need cleverness and instincts to solve, as I found out during playtests!

Storyteller has been in development for 3 years because I picked an ambitious, different and open-ended project, but the game is already 10 times better than it was when it won the Nuovo award at the IGF so I am confident the end result should be awesome. It must!

David Lynch on Videogames

- Games without Mystery

When you are spoon-fed a game story, more people instantly know what it is. I love things that leave room to dream and are open to various interpretations. It’s a beautiful thing. It doesn’t do any good for Barry to say, ‘This is what it means.’ Videogame is what it means. If Barry or anyone else could capture what the game is in words, then that’s poetry.”

- Playtesting

"Even with only ten people, you can feel a game differently than if you play it by yourself," he added. "By yourself, you're too relaxed, and you're not really forced to get that feeling of many people in the room which is a horrific feeling, sometimes, but it forces you to see a game through a group's eyes, and you can learn a lot of things from it. Up to that time, you've been working part by part and getting the individual parts working; but seeing it all at once, it could work great part by part, but as a whole, it doesn't."

- Game Stories and Meaning

“There is a key in the game as to its meaning,” said the director. “But keys are weird. There are surface keys, and there are deeper keys. Intellectual thinking leaves you high and dry sometimes. Intuitive thinking where you get a marriage of feelings and intellect lets you feel the answers, where you may not be able to articulate them. Those kinds of things are used in life a lot, but we don’t use them too much in videogames. There are games that stay more on the surface, and there’s no problem interpreting their meaning.”

But what is this?

I am giving a talk at Play & Tell in Copenhaguen, Denmark tomorrow. It's one of the best talks I'll ever give if everything goes well. It's a complicated subject and it is just a bit beyond my comprehension and ability to communicate, so it is actually exciting to talk about it!

It is related to how we create meaning in games and a magic thing that happens when you break it in certain ways.

This is the final slide:

Free to Play is like Bad Television

Jonathan Blow talks about how "Free to Play" deeply distorts game design. Also ponders a few of the common retorts made in defense of F2P:
  • "It does not affect good game design"
  • "F2P is the future of games"
  • "But people have fun playing Candy Crush!"

On other news, I gave a talk that required me to diagram this:

On other news, I give a talk in two days at Los Angeles, California, at GDC Next (which, noncoincidentally, has a ton of talks about Free to Play).

I edited a snippet of an interview about Storyteller:
PM: Has working on Storyteller changed the way you think of your own stories for future games?

DB: I realized while making Storyteller that western middle-class culture is highly trained in consuming stories in various forms, but the moment you have to create a narrative, that skill is almost useless. Making stories is still in the hands of storytellers -- we are just more sophisticated consumers.

Storyteller picked a small island of the possible stories that can be created and try to guide players through it smoothly. It tries to make a subset of story creation accessible and engaging. The surprising part is that even with simple elements, you can create pretty sophisticated situations.