The Narrator Dialogs 1: Corvus Elrod | The Narrative Design Explorer™


The Narrator Dialogs 1: Corvus Elrod

Written by Stephen E. Dinehart.
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Corvus Elrod

Corvus Elrod – Narrative Designer

This is the first series for the NDN Narrator, “The Narrator Dialogs”; with it we seek to put a face on those who are making interactive narrative design a force to be reckoned with. Today’s dialog is with Corvus Elrod, a writer, designer, performer and deep thinker. On his “Man bytes blog” he hosts a monthly open-invitation blogging event called “Blogs of the Round Table” a truly compelling forum for deep thoughts on the art of game making. He is hard at work on a role playing game system for a RPG called the “HoneyComb Engine“. Corvus is also a very active member of the International Game Developer’s Association (IGDA) where his tech wizardry and ability to craft words serve to better the game making community at large. Today he has come to share his thoughts on interactive narrative design with the Narrative Designer’s Network.

Stephen E. Dinehart: Can you tell be me about yourself?

Corvus Elrod: In addition to over twenty years of exploring how RPG mechanics impact storytelling, my professional background(s) are in IT and improvisational performance–both of which have provided invaluable insights into the video game industry and the art of video game design. In particular, it was my experimenting with applying game mechanics to my improv work that led me to exploring how games communicate meaning with their mechanics.

I’ve also designed, and will soon be publishing, a RPG system called the HoneyComb Engine. The system’s primary aims are to help storytellers cooperatively create storyworlds and give them tools that facilitate sharing control of the RPG experience. I have also designed board, tile, and card games that explore common themes with the RPG. I hope to publish these over the coming years as well.

How would you define the craft of Interactive Narrative Design?

CE: For me, the phrase narrative design describes a storytelling approach that recognizes the best storytelling tools in video games don’t rely on textual elements. When I refer to myself as a Narrative Designer, I’m essentially stating that I design video games with an understanding of how game mechanics communicate meaning to the audience. I believe that in the short term our games will be more compelling [and hopefully more profitable] if we work to ensure that the play experience does not contradict, or detract, from the textual framework we place around it. I believe in the long term that the core story experience will reside in the gameplay itself.

As a professional storyteller, gamemaker and technologist how do you feel the craft of narrative design is similar to game writing and game design?

CE: Honestly, I think narrative design has little in common with game writing and much in common with game design. I don’t know that this must always be the case, but I think it is most often the case.

Narrative design, for me, is simply a story-focused way of working with game mechanics. Rather than relying upon conventional challenge-based design models, a narrative designer seeks to use game mechanics  to provide a rich storyworld onto which the player can map their own emotional needs and interpret the relationships presented in the game through their own filters. A good narrative designer focuses on the desired player experience and works to ensure that experience is provided at every level of interaction.

Game writing, on the other hand, is often done altogether too late in the design process and very much focuses on communicating the author-controlled portions of the experience. There is nothing wrong with providing an author-driven experience in video games and I game writing is a very challenging process.  However, I prefer to communicate the core conceits of the storytelling process via the mechanics of the game itself.

In short form “game writing communicates the authors’ idea of the story and narrative design allows the player to experience their idea of the story.”

The HoneyComb Engine - peices to the puzzle

The HoneyComb Engine – pieces to the puzzle

What is it about narrative design that compels you?

CE: With the discovery of each new technology, each new medium, the way in which we tell stories has dramatically changed. The development of writing reduced the need for rhythmic repetition of key narrative points, a technique common among many oral traditions. Theater increased the number of people used to tell a story, which allowed our storytelling to explore longer, and larger, forms. The printing press standardized spelling and punctuation. Radio serials not only dramatically altered our use of story structure, in no small part to ensure continued product sponsorship, but also expanded the role of the foley artist. Movies made our stories shorter again. Television shaped our ideas about plot structure with the need to keep people tuned in for regular advertisements, and allowed for long form storytelling again with plot arc that might last for years.

Video games contain the potential to change our notions about storytelling in far greater ways than any medium before it. I contend that it will change them to such an extent that our notion of story will be completely transformed. Ironically, I also believe that this new storytelling form will be virtually indistinguishable from the earliest culture’s storytelling forms, which consisted of the performative and participatory rituals that evolved into what we call playground games today.

Of course, our tribes are much larger now and span cultural and spatial barriers that were insurmountable during humanity’s early days. This will serve to further shape our notions of story as we adapt out approaches to reach different cultures with different story needs.

Taking this perspective and approach into account, how could I not be compelled by narrative design? Narrative design is a frontier in which we get to explore our most ancient and primal storytelling needs by experimenting with new technologies

Why did you come to take on the title “narrative designer”?

CE: My preferred descriptor is actually “Semionaut” (in other words, “an explorer of symbols and their meaning”). However, geeks of a non-linguistic stripe tend to stare at me blankly when I use it–or worse, get nervous and refuse to make eye contact.

In all seriousness, I have never considered myself a writer. It wasn’t until the last five years or so that I was comfortable having my thoughts and worlds recorded in stark black and white. I much preferred the ephemeral nature of live performances.

More importantly, I believe that the symbols that most effectively help the audience craft their fabula–their interpretation of the story experience–are not the symbols contained within the text itself, but the performative symbols–the use of movement, posture, color, tone, position, and timing. Video games have yet to fully mature as a performative art, but I see the role of the narrative designer as exploring the frontier of this idea and paving the way for use of game design as a storytelling medium.

What are your duties as a narrative designer?

CE: As a contractor, my official duties change dramatically from project to project. But even if I’ve only been hired to write for an existing game design, my clients find that I am not content to simply provide a layer of text, but that I want to understand their design choices in order to better integrate my work into the entire experience. Frequently my involvement serves to help clients resolve UI questions, strengthen level structure, and even improve terms used within the game.

On my own, admittedly more experimental, projects being a narrative designer is much like being a game designer, only with a specific goal of communicating story with every design decision.

The HoneyComb Engines Life Wheel Board

The HoneyComb Engine’s Life Wheel Board

The HoneyComb Engine is a robust new story-centric RPG system that gives the player control of the plot. How exactly does the system accomplish this?

CE: The most important thing to keep in mind when attempting to give the players control over story and plot is that you cannot staple a solution on top of an existing linear structure. You must design the entire system, from the ground up, to facilitate player, or storyteller as I prefer to call them, control. I’ve implemented this storyteller-centric approach several ways.

Firstly, the HoneyComb Engine is a simple, consistent, set of rules that is easy to learn. Once a storyteller understands how one portion of the system works, she’ll understand how nearly every aspect of the system works. Additionally, the conflict mechanics give each storyteller control over her character’s action, as well as the effect the action has on the world. Storytellers are also encouraged to adopt sub-sets of the non-player characters in their storyworld so that they can seamlessly step into the storyteller prime (game master) role at any time. This creates a shared storytelling space that each storyteller not only feels ownership for, but acknowledges the ownership of everyone involved.

Secondly, the labels for character attributes and abilities are named very carefully and evocatively. This allows, or even forces, the storytellers to bring their imaginations to bear on the implementation of the rules, giving them that sense of ownership at a very basic level.

Thirdly, because the rule set is simple and robust, it allows each skein (my preferred collective noun for storytellers) to make alterations to the system that work best for the stories they wish to tell together. This gives further control and and an even stronger sense of ownership.

Finally, the system itself is designed to be a radial plot tool that follows the exact same rules and structure as character creation. In other words, you can create a plot just like you create a character. Exactly how this plot construction works will be the subject of my second HoneyComb Engine manual, which I currently plan on releasing next year.

Will the Honeycomb Engine work for video games?

CE: Absolutely. In fact, my hard drive is full of designs for everything from casual games to MMORPGs that rely on the core elements of the HoneyComb Engine.  In fact, the goal of the last five years of work on The HoneyComb Engine has been two-fold–firstly to help RPGers run gaming sessions the way I do and secondly to create computer systems that emulate my process. Some of my designs are very theoretical–like an elemental-input dialog system which allows the player to lie while selecting any of the available conversational options (while ensuring the lie has consequences within the game space), while others are more practical–such as using the basic character attributes to control Ai behaviors.

At the moment, I’m in negotiations with a studio to develop middleware for the basic RPG elements of the HoneyComb Engine. If we can work out the details, this middleware will be free and open source for use in other projects. There will also be a commercial license available for non-open source projects.

Corvus Elrod in character

Corvus Elrod in character

You have a rich background in the performing arts, how does this influence your work as a Narrative Designer?

CE: You might as well ask how breathing influences the oxygenation of my blood!

When I was working as an improvisational dramatist, I was formulating ways to give my audiences more control over the performance. Not only does giving the audience joint ownership of, and responsibility for, the performance give them a deeper and more rewarding connection to the process, I believe the performers benefit as well. When the audience is engaged as fellow players, the performances can gain significant insight into their craft, their community, and themselves.

As I worked to accomplish this goal, I realized that I was essentially incorporating game mechanics into my performances. It was only a matter of time before I began to explore incorporating my performance techniques into game design.

Is all of life a game, a stage for the player?

CE: It is when it’s done right! My definition of play is, “any pastime with a primary goal of self-guided exploration of possibility within a bounded space.” This applies to play in both performative and game spaces. When life is approached this way, I find it to be far more rewarding and joyful. That is, of course, a personal choice

How much classical story structure do you use in the HoneyComb Engine?

CE: None to very little. I am, of course, influenced by my awareness of these structures, but I do not set out to rigidly apply them. The HoneyComb Engine is intended to be a framework upon which storytellers using it collectively hang their own story structures. In other words, structure is implemented at run time. Not only that, but each storyteller involved adds their own awareness of story structure, classical, flawed, loosely defined, or otherwise to the mix. I personally feel that plot structures are great tools for analyzing a completed work, but mediocre tools, at best, for creating compelling stories. A good storyteller can just as easily start with overt no structure and engage the audience, while a bad storyteller most often can’t build anything engaging on the best of structures.

This, of course, brings into question the applicability of the subjective labels good and bad. I have seen storytelling efforts that do not hold up to critical scrutiny, but that appeal to a large audience that finds great meaning within it. Is it appropriate to judge these stories as bad? I don’t think so.

Corvus testing the HoneyComb Engine @ PAX 2009

Corvus testing the HoneyComb Engine @ PAX 2009

Do you believe video game stories create catharsis? And if so have you ever experienced such catharsis?

CE: I believe that catharsis is very possible within video games whether an authorial narrative is present or not. The building of tension or frustration in a fast moving puzzle game, such as Tetris, followed by success or failure, can certainly lead to an overwhelming emotional state from which the player emerges restored. I have often turned to short games with iterative play loops to build upon an existing emotional state in order to achieve catharsis.

Of course, I have also experienced catharsis in narrative-driven video games as well. Most recently, Fable 2 provided me with situation in which I made a character decision that was quite traumatizing for my fun-loving, attention-greedy, yet evil, hero and, by extension, for me. The decision involved slaughtering a town of innocent people and several design factors corresponded to turn it into a sobering, tension-fraught, emotional release for me.

The key is that the audience needs to be fully engaged at the communication level of the medium in order to experience that catharsis. If you’re busy comparing the sophistication of Fable 2′s plot arc to Chaucer or Milton, it’s going to be very difficult to emotionally engage to the extent needed for a cathartic experience.

Will we get to the point where our story experiences rival the classics? Yes, as long as we work with the strengths of the medium to invite more player participation (and providing that’s what the audience is willing to pay for). But that’s the true challenge that faces the narrative designer how to we train the audience, within the context of the medium, to engage emotionally and play towards a fulfilling story experience?

The HoneyComb Engine - Final Prototype

The HoneyComb Engine – Final Prototype

What is Zakelro Story Studio?

CE: Zakelro Story Studio is a two-person creative studio with a focus on story, play, and community. We consider these three core concepts to be inextricably interlinked and vitally important to our cultures’ survival. Our projects cover a broad spectrum of creative approach–from fiber-arts sculpture , to performance art, to participatory theater, to game design.
We believe that story should play a major role in our lives and not merely serve as a corporate-owned vehicle for the marketing of products. To this end, our goal is not just to tell our own stories, but to engage our community in playful fashion so that they are inspired to tell their stories too..

Your bio states that you believe “telling substantive stories about ourselves is vital to the survival of our culture”, can you elaborate on that?

CE: We cannot continue to allow the manufacturers of goods and media to define our relationship with the culture. This has resulted in numerous social issues, ecological issues, and political issues. Stories have historically played the role of explaining our relationship to each other and to the world. Stories are metaphoric expressions of our experience. By turning storytelling into a commodity, rather than a means of personal expression, we are essentially giving our definitions of self over to corporations that are more interested in our line of credit than the quality of our lives.

What do you envision for the future of the confluence of technology, story, and game design?

CE: That’s a difficult question to answer. I believe we will see more and more games attempting to truly communicate meaning and story via gameplay. I believe we will see more and more technologies that break down the accessibility barriers that currently exist for so many people. I believe we will continue to see more and more technologies that allow people to express themselves via story. And I believe that at some point it will never occurs to us that video games have ever been anything other than a storytelling medium in which our audiences, the storytellers, are able to express themselves.

Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I really appreciate and know this will make for a fantastic piece, and the beginning of an exciting series for our fledgling community

Corvus is hard at work getting the HoneyComb Engine tuned and ready for release, the first guide to the engine in due out today. You can find it @ Corvus is a multitalented man, and clear evidence of the rennisance which is upon us. Here he has provided us insight into the fringe of gamemaking we call interactive narrative design, you can find out more about Corvus @ Man bytes blog. Thank you for reading, I hope you have learned as much as I have. For the NDN Narrator I’m Stephen E. Dinehart.

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