I love storytelling. I feel that other people should care about storytelling, too, because it is so very important to us: it is a fundamental substrate of human existence. A lesson I learned from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman is that a story is a metaphor for life and life is a metaphor for a story. All our forms of entertainment, including the modern invention of videogames, are culture, and “culture” is just shorthand for (among other things) “who we are, what we do, and what we enjoy.” Stepping sideways into music, there are always the words of Amanda Palmer in her Ukulele Anthem:

You may think my approach is simple-minded and naïve
Like if you want to change the world then why not quit and feed the hungry
But people for millennia have needed music to survive
And that is why I promised John [Lennon] that I will not feel guilty

This sort of reasoning contributes to my general enjoyment of all sorts of games regardless of format. (Though I am aware that each medium has its own qualities that may be employed to good result in the artistic creation. But such brings its own discussion.) For years, when broaching this topic with people I would refer them to my videogame collection: most everything I owned was there because of the storytelling. This included an oddity or two . . . which will come in two paragraphs as the main reason I am posting today.

But before I get there, first let me note the timeframe of this collection. Around the turn of the century/millenium, videogame technology had advanced to the point where real storytelling was possible. I took particular note of Looking Glass Studios’ Thief (fan site here). Years prior, in seeing early first-person games and all their straightforward violence (see Wolfenstein 3D and Doom), I’d imagined the development of a game where enemies had personality, a real life. Your actions might be violent in the end, such as assassination, but this hypothetical game would have computer-controlled characters do such things as sleep, talk, and get angry. They’d HAVE background, instead of BEING background. Then Thief came along and did exactly so (minus much assassination).

The feeling that the world is not “just background,” but that it is alive and filled with living, breathing people, is what many gamers such as renowned author Sir Terry Pratchett enjoyed in the Thief series. I agreed. Thus it was that I bought Unreal Tournament for the story.

It sounds impossible. This is the first-person shooter that made “frag” into a (gaming-) household word. And to this day I have never met another human being who realized that Unreal Tournament HAS a story at all. But I did. Why? And how? Simple: I was the only human being I knew who bothered to read the character backgrounds presented before each match. Thus I saw that the world of Unreal Tournament is one filled with living, breathing people; one where the enemies have personality, a real life. There is even a little mystery about who and what the final enemy of the game is supposed to be. I liked this, and I felt that the background enriched my experience as I played through the high-quality first-person frag fest.

Ken Levine, during the development of the game Bioshock (which is very violent but also has extensive story), discussed how the goal was to ensure the game worked on three levels. On one, the story could be ignored beyond “okay, so, that’s the boss” and it would be a good action game for people who wanted it. On another, the story would be integrated well enough that gamers could observe “oh, I see what motivates these people” intermixed with the gameplay. Then on yet another, of course, the story would be there for people to devour in its entirety, pouring over each log and line to understand the world.

The fact that a batch of “mindless enemies” can be so interesting leads me to now, where I’ve decided to run with this and develop a story world (the same thing as a game world) based around fighter background information. Part brainstorming, part game design, and part just having fun as always. And I will do it in my next post.

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Variety is – Part II

August 9, 2014

As I explained, variety is the fundamental substrate of human experience. There is nothing to discuss if there is no variety. Adding the right amount of variety and “visual interest” to a piece of art can make it better. If videogames are art (a part of culture), surely variety has some sort of role in game design.

For today, I had planned to describe its importance across a sample of games, but then wound up with a post mostly about Thief. I’m not talking about Thief‘s more recently-released reboot of the series; no, I’m talking about the original games that left such an impression on gamers that they continue to rank highly in “best of all time” lists, and prompted the recent reboot. The original Thief, and then Thief II, are excellent examples.

But let me start with two others. One day I was interested to see gamers comparing Hellgate: London and Diablo II. The Diablo series made an impact on gaming history, and the first sequel arguably improved on many aspects of the original. When Hellgate: London was presented, it was as an amazing new game from some of the original Diablo creators. Surely it should have been a competitor or even replacement for Diablo II. Why wasn’t it?

The comparison looked to variety, and it’s sinister counterpart “boredom.” In Hellgate: London everything was gray. Gray concrete, gray pavement. Travel from one place to another and you hardly could tell anything had happened. But in Diablo II there was always something of interest. Across the four regions of the game you went from green and brown, to brilliant yellow, to dark green, blue, and gray, to brilliant red and black. Even if you didn’t play the game and simply saw it on someone else’s computer screen, things were always changing.

So in that light let me talk about Thief and Thief II. (Fan site here.)

When it was being developed and released, the original Thief offered two demos, both of which allowing you to do a little housebreaking. My long-term gaming consultant, my brother, played these with me and in the end we knew we wanted the full version. Then we got it and I, for one, was stunned: every single level introduced something new, sometimes drastically new, extending far beyond housebreaking.

My brother and I came to divide it into “thievery” levels, with normal housebreaking, and “Indiana Jones-style” levels, where you found yourself leaping around and mantling surfaces in a 3-D dungeon avoiding traps and nightmares. So, taking just the first four levels, there came “thievery / Indiana Jones / Indiana Jones / thievery” with each teaching the player new game mechanics. This is important: a progression of content matters not just for the sake of interest, but for player learning. The beloved game Portal is studied — yes, studied — for its ability to guide the player through learning tasks in an engaging and enjoyable way, introducing new content at the right speed and with the right tools for understanding.

Even when Thief got back to “normal thievery” in level 4, it struck a high point of artistry with a complex and memorable cityscape — that is, variety in sights, sounds, and setup. (And if you really want variety, I haven’t even mentioned the Escher level yet.) I adored all of this and I hold up Thief as the prime example of variety in a videogame.

Enough so that it could be too much. Note that levels 1 and 4 as I just described . . . were the demo levels. Between the two in the full version is a system shock (mildly-punful joke intended) of dungeon-diving. My brother observed it’s a good thing he played the demos first, as the knowledge that “more normal thievery levels are coming” is the only thing that got him through having to completely recalibrate his expectations for 2 and 3. Nowhere in all the advertisement for Thief did the developers prepare the audience for such variety.

Still, I loved it. When a demo for Thief II came available almost immediately afterward, I played that too. I personally wasn’t impressed by the new mechanics so I didn’t push to play the full version. But then I came to see people listing Thief II, not Thief, as their pick for “best of all time.” An endorsement by Sir Terry Pratchett of all people (a fellow who enjoys playing videogames while writing) finally compelled me to try Thief II.

Now . . .

I could dive into the level design in Thief II. An entire level of picking up tiny coins two by two? Waste of the player’s time.

But I was struck by something else: the developers eliminated variety. Instead of engaging in “normal thievery” and “Indiana Jones” in alternation, you go from levels 1 through 8 robbing from the same human guards in the same geometric buildings over and over again, with a little variation as the Mechanists increase in prominence. Any monsters are just for flavor, entire mechanics (“holy water”) are absent, and even new mechanics (“secrets”) are largely ignored. Despite the standard fantasy concept of “trapped treasures,” for almost the entire game you need not worry about traps. You almost never mantle a wall or climb a rope. You almost never see magic. You never see the light of the sun, period.

Even as Thief II attempted to mimic the original with an explorable “cityscape,” the streets had none of the variety. Buildings were all the same color and architecture, regions made all the same sounds.

At the start of this essay, I discussed the “visual interest” that the successful Diablo II has while the struggling Hellgate: London does not. Doesn’t this mean that Thief II, by visuals alone, should have been a flop?

It would seem that “breaking into houses and beating up on human guards” itself scratched an itch. The popularity of Thief with Actual Killing (I mean, Assassin’s Creed) makes it obvious that people will buy such games anyway, and so variety isn’t everything. But even so, I’ve kept shaking my head and wondering about Thief II: what do people like so much?

Well, I’ve spoken with people on that — people like Sir Terry Pratchett. At the 2009 North American Discworld Convention, he discussed what Thief games give us: an immersive experience. A sensation of being in a living world, where you can look out over the city and watch the people going about their evening. As such, he and his friends hold up one level as the prime example: all Thief II players will immediately recognize level 10, the “Angelwatch” level, as the one where you cross the roofs of the vibrant city and feel life around you. This isn’t the low-variety “cityscape” I mentioned above: Angelwatch is the cityscape concept done correctly.

Okay, follow me here:

Angelwatch was the demo level released shortly after the original Thief. Full of buildings with vastly different colors and architecture. Spread with different types of humans and peppered with different monsters; not for flavor, but where they belong. As far as I could tell, it was designed when the creators were still using the principles from the original Thief, and as such exhibited more variety than any other level in Thief II.

“And so variety isn’t everything,” because apparently people-who-aren’t-me think that Thief II surpassed the original. But what people remember about it isn’t the boring picking-up-two-coins-at-a-time level: it’s the living city level, imbuing the whole experience with a vibrance it would lack otherwise.

Isn’t it funny how variety improves even the “best of all time”? Thus, yes, variety has a valuable role in the storytelling and artistry of modern games, just as it does in any other aspect of life. A lesson to remember.

Culture I say

April 17, 2014

Let’s talk culture.

In college I developed a definition of “culture.” My journey toward it came from odd places: like teachers telling us students that we had to attend “cultural events.” Attendance even had grades attached to it. Here, look at this syllabus for an orientation class at the University of Maine:

“Each student is required to attend two cultural events . . . . Cultural Events may include, entertainment events, lunchtime lecture series, Art exhibition etc. Only one athletic event can be used. Turn in ticket stubs with your name on the back or a short description of the event and your personal reactions on a separate sheet of paper” [sic]

Whoa, really? Why? What’s so valuable about “cultural events” that you can justify requiring students to attend?

Well here, maybe an explanation can be found in this program description from the University of New Hampshire:

“In order to expose students to the broader constructs that frame our societal environment, as well as enhance their worldview and facilitate the acquisition of a global perspective, the McNair Program will provide access to cultural events for participants to attend. These events will include the fine arts, activities of ethnic diversity, and community/geographical events unfamiliar to McNair participants. During the academic year, participation in at least one (1) cultural event is required of all McNair students. During the summer component, all cultural events on the summer calendar are required.”

Oh, now that’s interesting. “Culture” is about “the broader constructs that frame our societal environment.” And yet we’re still talking about (per UM) “entertainment events” and “art exhibitions.” Yes, UNH also gave the example of “activities of ethnic diversity,” but pray tell: what are those? Demonstration of ethnic dance, perhaps? Workshops in making arts and crafts? All the things that make people happy or make their world more livable.

Culture is entertainment. Perhaps entertainment and art, if you feel those are separate categories.

Or at least, culture is entertainment when we speak of “being cultured.” Ask yourself: what is a cultured person? Images come to mind of an upper-class individual quoting Shakespeare. Which, come to think of it, is exactly in line with these college links I provided: once upon a time, universities existed to create “gentlemen,” the properly-cultured individuals of classical education.

But we need not look to upper-class snobs to quote Shakespeare. As you know, the average person is capable of saying that “all the world’s a stage” or complaining “lord, what fools these mortals be.” Culture, it seems, is nothing but a shared geekdom. It is the idea that you have experienced some entertainment (or art) and so have I. It is the assurance that if you ask “wherefore art thou Romeo?” then the people across the way know you’re not calling them Romeo; you’re quoting Shakespeare.

This means that videogames are culture.

Absolutely no way around this. Some people ask “Can videogames be art?” Less-presumptuous people ask “Are videogames art?” because the first question assumes it currently is not. But no one, NO ONE, questions whether videogames are entertainment.

Last time, I wrote about Jonathan Blow’s speech titled “Design Reboot” from 2007 (with the lovely animation of choice quotes by Superbrothers). Here’s some more:

“Why do people play games? We already know one of the answers is pretty obvious.
“1. Games can provide entertainment/fantasy/escapism. . . . But if this is all that games were, I would be intensely dissatisfied. Because fantasy and escapism is not fulfilling to me. At the end of the day, I want to feel like my life has meaning.
“2. Meaningful artistic expression. Coming from a different angle than other media. . . . Music doesn’t feel like a movie or a poem. In fact, if you have a song that is sad and a poem that is sad, the sadness from the poem is going to feel fundamentally different than the sadness of the song.
“3. A means of exploring the universe. . . . Games are formal systems . . . and systems like that are biased toward producing truth (or at least consistency). . . . You can think about mathematics. You start with some axioms that are defined or assumed as true and then you have some rules that you can use to combine those axioms . . . until eventually you end up with something that makes a statement that must be true that you didn’t know when you started.”

Thus we have videogames. Valve’s popular Portal series is quoted by people who share this geekdom: “The cake is a lie.” “We do what we must because we can.” “For science. You monster.” How did we get to this point? Portal is a puzzle game that fully explores its mechanics, granting the player an interesting new “means of exploring the universe” (“thinking with portals”), and then going forward logically. The gameplay engages the audience, as does the humor in the unfolding story; and, as the story proceeds, it explores the humanity (and lack thereof) of the characters in the play. I mean the plot. Thus is it both “entertainment” and “meaningful artistic expression.”

It is culture. The “cultured gamer” has played Portal. Just as you can say the word “Tetris” (no link possible, for it is ubiquitous) and the people across the way know you’re not sneezing.

And now gaming culture has been around long enough that the earliest gamers, predominately starting from the 1980’s, are now the grown-ups raising children. Just search online and you’ll see bloggers asking when and how it’s okay to introduce children to their own personal geekery (in movies, comics, or games). The people raising the next generation, the people running and spending money on today’s businesses, are people who’ve played Tetris.

So today’s game developers are advised to remember their creation is not “just a game”: games expand our mind and our language, they “frame our societal environment,” and they’d jolly well better “enhance [our] worldview” in preference to shrinking it.

I’ve performed in Shakespeare, and I’ve played in Portal. The great playwrights of past centuries are all dead. Videogame developers aren’t. Are you prepared for history to hold you to the same standards?

The quest for content

March 4, 2014

Time to essay an essay.

Game developers want players to play their games. It only makes sense. On one level, a small independent developer might be happy to know that a million people played something. On another, an established company might want to make money off of a million players with monthly subscriptions.

Both of those are fine, but there’s the question of what comes next. If you need to keep a player base, either for interest or for money, what do you do when the players “finish your content”? Unlike with paying for food, players need not pay twice for the same sort of content: they already own your game. They’ve “consumed” it. And now they might just say “there, I’ve done everything” and uninstall it.

This sort of “quest for content” affords three approaches.

A: Offer players more content.

B: Slow down player consumption of the content.

C: Make “consuming the content” irrelevant.

I’ve come to understand that bad decisions at this stage can defeat the purpose of gaming. We have created a monster: a sort of “anti-gameplay” in modern entertainment. Let me show you how we get there.

Solution C is a healthy choice, but hard to define. Consider: does chess have content to consume? No. You can play it forever against different opponents and always be satisfied . . . assuming you ever enjoyed chess in the first place. Thus if an experience is inherently fun, however one defines “fun,” then none of this matters and players will keep coming back.

Often, though, people need something to consume in order to have fun. A new story to read or new world to explore. Solution A is an answer, but, traditionally, is expensive to implement: one can make a longer game. One can produce an expansion pack. One can develop a sequel. Some players will buy it, then they’ll consume it and you’ll have lost them again. Repeat.

Solution B is the cheapest and most failsafe way to solve the problem. One might think I’d support solution B and dislike solution A, since I’ve argued that more content is not necessarily good content. But in that essay I made a point on “filler,” on forcing the player to do “the same thing twenty times,” which I did not fully substantiate. Solution B is the “filler” solution. It brings the threat of bad game design, and is the reason I’m writing this essay.

Now to tell a story that any gamer already knows, but bear with me as I get to the conclusion.

I first became aware of solution B years ago when I learned about MMORPG’s. My roommate was hard at work advancing within, oh, one of those really popular games toward the start of the era. The game had released super-special “legendary items” that took a lot of effort to earn as the player had to collect intermediary items from different locations in the world.

So one day my roommate was camped out near a lake. To populate the lake with aquatic nasties, the developers set spawn points which periodically would replace critters the players killed. No problem so far; though of course it breaks immersion a little when the players locate these magical “instant monster” spots. Anyway, my roommate explained that this one item you needed was only available from an alternate version of the fishy foe, which only appeared on a tiny fraction of the respawns. How could you tell if the alternate version were in the water? Ah, well, because it’s the only one that would follow you out of the water and shatter all suspension of disbelief by swimming in midair. Then, on a tiny fraction of the times you faced this watery loot machine, it would drop an intermediary needed for your “legendary item.”

One of several intermediaries.

And therefore once you had it, it was time to do another tiny-fraction-of-a-tiny-fraction hunt in another part of the world with another monster.

Yes, by the time all this was done, it’d be long enough of a “quest” to make a “legend”! No argument there! But why was this happening? In an ordinary “quest,” you engage in things that are personally meaningful, meet and lose friends, face real risk and find remarkable rewards, and maybe, just maybe, change the world. Here, the only real event was gaining the “legendary item” at the end. Meanwhile? The developers slowed down the player, dragged out the content, kept people paying to play, and implemented solution B.

I’m far from the first person to talk about this. Jonathan Blow, well-known developer of Braid and thinker of gaming thoughts, presented a speech titled “Design Reboot” in 2007. It started with sentiments like mine about “game developers want players to play their games” and followed it through to logical conclusions. It left such an impression that Superbrothers (the brilliant minds that were to bring us Sword & Sworcery EP) made an animation you want to watch of the kicker of the argument. To whit:

“It doesn’t really matter if you’re smart or are adept at trying to get ahead in a system because what really matters is how much time you sink in, because of all the artificial constraints on you. That also says that you don’t really need to do anything exceptional because to feel good, to be rewarded, all you need to do is run the treadmill like everyone else.”

As I said, though, any gamer already knows about filler. My point is here: consider how removed we are from any gameplay.

Pretend I’m the game developer, dressed in the regal robes and crown of a mighty quest-giver. You are my old roommate. With all gravity, I set to you the challenge to retrieve the 7 Whatsits so you may earn your Legendary Polygonal Reward. Where are the 7 Whatsits and how do you retrieve them? Ah, therein lies your challenge! So now you go forth to accomplish your challenge by downloading a Whatsit location guide that somebody posted in an online text file.

Wait a minute.

You are doing nothing to find the 7 Whatsits. In fact, you can’t: how were you to know that a tiny fraction of all fish monsters spawned in one lake in the entire multiverse might give you one of your Whatsits? You’d have to spend days per monster in the whole game just to test each one. You can’t do that, so you don’t.

So you, my roommate, depend on someone else to have found the solution and have posted it online. You don’t even need to think: somebody else already did the thinking for you. “What really matters is how much time you sink in.”

Or you can imagine an even worse scenario. Assume Whatsits are ordinary items available to all players, including those who don’t seek the Legendary Polygonal Reward. It’s easy to imagine that the first person ever to get Whatsit #3 did so by accident. This person then posted online “I just got a ‘Whatsit #3’ from this rare nasty in the lake, but I don’t know what it is so I sold it.” Then you, my roommate, searched online for a Whatsit guide, found the post instead, and camped out by the lake.

No one sought the item and found it. No one solved the challenge.

No one “consumed the content.” No one played the game.

I argue that methods to slow down the player’s consumption of the content are ways to stop the player from playing. It’s long been known by many (including my roommate) that the sheer drudgery of filler gameplay is no fun. I argue that this approach, in its inevitable extreme, is the polar opposite force to gameplay: the “anti-gameplay.”

Thus, by definition, this version of solution B is bad game design. And if only the story stopped there.

In years since, I’ve seen the games on . . . oh, you know. That popular website. The one that took Livejournal and traded all the good features for a million incomprehensible privacy menus. Anyway, these games adopted a new game system: the “energy system.” For those blissfully unaware, this limits player actions or choices (in game design, “choices” and “things to do” are synonymous) by assigning a cost in some resource called “energy.” How do you get more “energy”? By waiting.

When I saw this, I couldn’t believe it. It was like an advertiser or politician using doublespeak to admit terrible wrongdoing but call it “an exciting innovation.” Energy systems are a mathematical in-your-face implementation of anti-gameplay: they define how you will not have fun now. And more games are released that use solution B this horrifically all the time.

So now that we have plumbed the depths of depravity, is there any way upward? Fortunately, yes. Solution C, making a game that’s actually fun, is still there for whomever dares the attempt. Some would argue that player competition, like the chess example, is an inexhaustible source of this. Developers are also wising up to the sheer breadth of solution A: by providing level editors and easy game-modification tools, developers let the players make their own new content. This they do gladly, sometimes going so far as to make nearly-standalone games that may then be developed and sold as a new product.

The opportunities are there, and I would say that the quest for content should lead in these more positive directions, not down the frightening spiral into anti-gameplay. That way lies madness. Which, if you’ve viewed Jonathan Blow’s speech, you know might be more then hyperbole.

Last time, I argued “A well-designed game has the correct amount of choices, elements, mechanics, and so on, with little excess.” It’s not just that “too little stuff” is a bad thing, but “too much stuff” is as well. Such flies straight against a casual understanding of gaming.

Standard practice for videogame RPG’s is to release an update with a new character class. Standard practice in collectible card games is to release a new “set” with new mechanics. Standard practice in, well, any game with levels (as in “levels you play”) is to release “downloadable content” with new levels.

The company proudly trumpets “the such-and-such expansion,” “now introducing the so-and-so class!” It is exciting. It is big. It can be very fun indeed! But then, just as with all advertizing, it is repeated enough that a million consumers believe “patching a new character class” is exciting, and big, and something every game must do. They believe “more is better.”

So now I argue how that is wrong. Good game design means the correct amount of player choice (or content in general), and well-designed expansions are a real thing. But you still may make a game worse by adding more material.

My examples: classic chess, Jonathan Blow’s Braid, Blue Manchu’s Card Hunter, Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and Capcom’s Capcom vs. SNK 2.

I already cited Braid as an example of the push to come with up a game mechanic, fully explore it, and then stop before creating pointless “filler.” Now consider chess:

“A choice” in chess means “a move of one game piece.” Basic movement on a square grid could be horizontal or diagonal. Maybe even both. You could move a limited number of squares or an unlimited number. Now, about exploring the possibilities: do we have an unlimited horizontal mover? Yes, the rook. Unlimited diagonal? The bishop. Unlimited in all directions? The queen. Limited in all directions? The king.

Then it gets a little funky with the pawn, and let’s not even talk about the knight, but we’ve run most of the way through available combinations. So if I were to make an “expansion” to chess, could I add any pieces and still have a good game design? Say I added a limited-movement piece that could only go diagonally: would it be exciting, and big, and worth your money to buy? No.

So let’s go to the extreme. Capcom vs. SNK 2 and Super Smash Bros. Brawl grant “a choice of a fighter” (or a team). These games are very popular as the descendants of unique and fun predecessors. They also are the epitome of “just add more characters; more is better”: Capcom vs. SNK 2 has 48 characters, some of which are literally worse or better versions of others; Super Smash Bros. Brawl has 37 characters and the same situation.

Hand a game controller to a new player who is unfamiliar with these series and ask “Who would you like to play?” The result, as per Barry Schwartz, is paralysis. A new player cannot understand how to choose, much less avoid choosing “the wrong character.”

I selected the unusual link for Capcom vs. SNK 2, above, because it shows how the players themselves have put characters into “tiers” and then “banned” the ones that are “too strong for tournament play.” It doesn’t matter how popular these games are, or how good their predecessors may be: the game design has become worse by adding more material.

In the end, design decisions can be assessed by their effect on player choice:

Consider Card Hunter, in beta development, with big decisions still underway. The first “choice” in-game is “a choice of three party members.” Characters come from three races and three classes. If you chose one of each race and class, it would be akin to chess: you could perform every “move” in the game.

Blue Manchu states they will add a fourth class. The impact? It is no longer possible to play every “move” in the game. Your choice becomes “Which one class (at minimum) will you leave out of your party?” This choice is still meaningful: it is far more meaningful than “Which 45 of these 48 will you leave out of your team?” As with most videogame RPG’s, the player may enjoy going back later to play with the class (or classes) left out. It is good design.

A well-designed game has the correct amount of choices, elements, mechanics, and so on, with little excess. When designing, your challenge is not to figure out new content to throw at the player under the guise of “more is better”: your challenge is to explore your mechanics until you know your content is good. Then you can understand what else might be good.

I asked before: what’s the point of your writing? It varies by type of writing, but if you seek to tell a story then your point is often the same: a moral, a message, a feeling, whatever the reader takes away in the end.

Some have turned up their nose at “lesser” forms of writing such as the comic book, and expressed outright scorn for videogames, but I argue they all may have a “point” just as movies, plays, and “book” books do. Storytelling is storytelling regardless of format. Consider:

What’s the point of H. P. Lovecraft’s horror literature? How about:

“One fears the unknown”

(See his famous quote.) When his heroes get a grip on their situation (and themselves), they may live beyond the last page.

What’s the point of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman? Comic book or “book” book, such doesn’t matter, it still has a point:

“One must change or die.”

As a bonus, he made other points along the way, but the “moral” of Dream and his family is stated explicitly.

What’s the point of Andrew Hussie’s Homestuck? A webcomic this time, and he makes many points, not the least of which being:

“One must grow up or die.”

Same moral, different age group. The story is strewn with growth and death, and even the consequences of trying to deny this moral.

What’s the point of Looking Glass Studios’ Thief? (Fan site here.) At long last, a videogame! An explicit point is:

“One fears the unknown.”

However, more total game time is dedicated to:

“One overcomes anger through empathy.”

After two-thirds of a game learning to dislike the Hammerites, who would have guessed you would come to empathize with them? And yet there you are in their old cathedral, tending to their dead, creating an emotional connection to at least some members of their faith. When you’ve finished Thief, you might still dislike the “heavily-armed fanatics,” but you can accept such “strange bedfellows” for a mutually-beneficial relationship.

Then Thief II happens, and . . . well, that’s another story.

Having said all this, the tools available to a writer do vary by format. In videogames, the writer may be forced to conform to the needs of gameplay. However, this is no different from a playwright being forced to conform to the reality of stage. The end result is the same: the story makes a point.

So I ask: what’s the point of your writing? When the monster descends on the heroes, does it do so because you want to see blood, or because the scene supports your point? No matter how effective a big visuals budget is for drawing a viewer to your film or videogame, it is the point — the moral, the message, the feeling — that he or she will take away in the end.