Video Games

TEDx Talk, “Storyscreens: Tomorrow’s Narrative Classroom”   Recently updated !

Almost a year ago, I had the good fortune of teaching a JanTerm course at The Westminster Schools with Kate Morgens, who directs the school’s theatre and performance programs. Several of Kate’s industrious students spearheaded a project to organize a TEDx event at Westminster, and I was excited to be asked to speak at the event. Immediately, I knew that my talk would deal with the ways in which I have been able to use video games in the classroom to help my students think more deeply about interactivity and narrative design.

Through bringing video games into the classroom, I’ve discovered that students often need to develop a vocabulary and a framework for understanding how interactive narrative is distinctive from traditional print literature. While there are some terms and concepts from print literature that can be mapped onto video game narratives, more often than not, providing a stronger slate of terms for them to draw can help students develop a more sophisticated understanding of how game narratives function.

“That Dragon, Cancer” Review

TDC3This week sees the release of That Dragon, Cancer, a new game from Ryan and Amy Green. The game has already received a good deal of press coverage from outlets like The Verge and Kotaku. My own review is now up at Gamechurch. The game tells the story of Joel Green, who was diagnosed with cancer at age one; he subsequently passed away when he was five years old. The Greens invoke their faith throughout the game, and my review examines how their beliefs are integral to the story.

Read the review here.

Gaming with the Victorians: 2016 Course

Assassin's Creed: Syndicate's Jacob Frye

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate’s Jacob Frye

UPDATE: The completed course website for Gaming with the Victorians is now available here.

This is the preliminary course description for my Spring 2016 ENGL 1102 course at Georgia Tech. I’m still trying to figure out how to insinuate Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, which releases later this month, into the syllabus.

Gaming with the Victorians: Narrative and Play

This course will facilitate the continued development of multimodal communication strategies by engaging with both nineteenth-century literature and video games that adopt nineteenth-century and/or Victorian settings to tell their stories. In order for students to hone their WOVEN (written, oral, visual, electronic, and non-verbal) communication, the projects throughout this course will allow participants to design and create artifacts that examine manifestations of nineteenth-century literature and culture in video games.

Espen Aarseth has described video games as “integrated crossmedia packages” that combine a variety of narrative forms into a whole that gets metonymically flattened by the term “games.” Drawing on this understanding of video games, this class will explore how the literary and historical heritage of the nineteenth-century in general, and the Victorian period in particular, have informed a number of contemporary games. Andrew Stauffer argues that “time and technology make plain that our Victorian period will […] always be a simulation,” and video games offer some of the more compelling simulations of the nineteenth century. By highlighting the immense cultural, economic, and technological changes that occurred during this century, such video games encourage us to trace the nineteenth-century’s lasting influence on the present.

Games will include Sunless Sea, Amnesia, and 80 Days, among others. Readings will include nineteenth-century short fiction and poetry; expect to read from authors such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Elizabeth Gaskell. In addition to a semester-long blog project, students will write a multimodal essay, develop a branching video game narrative, and code a text-based adventure game as a collaborative project.

The Literary Heritage of Sunless Sea at Kill Screen

sunless sea
My summer composition course focused on nautical narratives and nostalgia. As part of the final unit, my students encountered a variety of narratives from non-textual media, and the videogame Sunless Sea really seemed to capture their imaginations. Many of them chose to focus on the game for their final projects. Here’s an article that I wrote for Kill Screen on how Sunless Sea draws on its literary heritage to offer a compelling vision of sea narratives.

Read the article at Kill Screen.

Coding Interactive Fiction for Students

Zork Opening LineThis semester, I’ve been team teaching a composition class themed around narrative and video games. My co-teacher, Joshua Hussey, and I decided to have our students create an interactive fiction game for their final project. We considered both Twine and Inform 7 for the assignment; Twine has a low barrier to entry, as it is user friendly and allows content creators to almost immediately begin building their projects. But Twine’s level of interactivity is somewhat more limited as it is mostly built on a multiple-choice style of interaction, in which reader/players are given a list of options from which they select the next path in the story. Zoe Quinn’s well-known game Depression Quest was developed with Twine. Inform 7, on the other hand, has a much steeper learning curve. As a naturalistic code language, the code that it produces is very readable; even someone with little to no coding experience could probably make some sense out of a simple Inform 7 project without too much assistance. However, this naturalistic language can be somewhat deceptive to an unsuspecting novice, as it can make it seem as if Inform 7 can understand whatever English you throw at it. Nothing could be further from the truth; while Inform 7 eschews the brackets and braces that adorn other coding languages, it is still very much a language with clear and specific rules that users must learn and follow. However, Inform 7 allows users to create interactive fiction games in which reader/players have a far greater degree of control over how they interact with the story space. These games are the progeny of Zork and the genre it created.

The basic Inform 7 dual-paned screen, with code on the left and the "skein" on the right.

The basic Inform 7 dual-paned screen, with code on the left and the “skein” on the right.

Considering these two options, we settled on Inform 7 as we felt that the challenge it offered and the creative opportunities it provided would be best for our students. But I had not done any significant coding since high school, and so in the weeks leading up to the beginning of the unit, I created a small game for our students to play. The experience was a chance for me to learn some of the basics of Inform 7, but also to think about puzzle design and spatial dynamics in a textual form. In this case, I thought it would be fun to make the assignment sheet for our students’ Inform 7 Project the “prize” for completing the game. Drawing from our class discussions of textual space and branching narratives (one of the puzzles requires the player to consult Borges’s story “The Garden of the Forking Paths,” which we read early in the semester), I wanted the game to allow students to explore a small text environment while also providing them with an example of what they could accomplish using Inform 7. In all fairness the game is pretty haphazard, but I wanted to share it nevertheless.

In the end, the game may have been too difficult, not because the puzzles themselves are impossible, but because building great puzzles is also about providing the right kind of clues and directions to players. Judging from my website’s metrics, most of the students at least attempted the game, but only a fraction made it all the way to the assignment sheet at the end. Furthermore, the puzzles in my game were really a hodgepodge because I was trying different kinds of functions in Inform 7. Still, when a student says that playing an interactive fiction game was the most interesting way they had ever been asked to find an assignment sheet, I count that a moderate success.

Play my Inform 7 game, “Meaningful Instructions and Where to Find Them”

For more information on playing interactive fiction games, consult Emily Short’s Introduction to Interactive Fiction