Learning to Write Compelling Stories from Angry Birds

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Fri Nov 11, 2011 5:26 am Post

Years ago, on a Kaypro computer, I made one of my first and last forays into computer games. It was a little program called Lunar Lander and the objective was simple--land a spacecraft on the moon using a braking rocket motor without running out of fuel or impacting too hard. Brake too fast, and you'd run out of fuel. Brake too slow, and you'd crash.

I became obsessed with solving the puzzle, so obsessed I stayed up until 2 am before I found the simple solution. At a certain altitude, you began to fire the engine and you kept firing it until your speed hit zero at the same moment you touched down. I was furious. "I stayed up this late for that?" Since then I've carefully avoided time-gobbling computer games. I don't find the games themselves that interesting. But I find my obsession with winning a bit much.

That's why I'm not among the roughly 50 million people who've played Angry Birds and whose game play consumes an incredible 1.2 billion hours of their time each year. "No thank you," I say, "I'd rather take a walk and watch the wind blowing in the trees."

But I am interesting is just what makes that game, among all computer games, so compelling. The developer, I once read, claims it was deliberately designed to be addicting. But I didn't have any idea why that was so until I read this article:

http://www.mauronewmedia.com/blog/2011/ ... xperience/

Given my disdain for computer games, I didn't read the article to learn how to write a compelling computer game. I read it to get hints about how to make the stories I write more compelling. What follows is a summary of that article and my off-the-top-of-the-head observations about how those same principles might apply to writing. I draw illustrations from that most compelling of novels, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

*******

Why Angry Birds is so successful and popular: a cognitive teardown of the user experience

1. A Simple Yet Engaging Interaction

Summary: Even brief exposure teaches a mental model about how it works. When they can build that mental model quickly, it is seen as simple. But simple is not engaging. It is engaging if new details are added at just the right time.


We've all ready stories that immediately left us so confused and uncertain that the author had any sense of where he was going, that we gave up. Early on, a good story gives us the model of a world, in the case of Tolkien, that of Middle-earth, and glimpses of where the story is headed. In the case of LOTR, we know that the plot will center around this mysterious, powerful and dangerous ring.

That's perhaps why the beginning of a story is so important. It has to give the reader a grasp of the world the story inhabits without giving the story away. And from that point on, we need to dribble out new details just fast enough to retain a reader's attention and draw him on.

2. Cleverly Managed Response Time

Summary: The general opinion is that a faster response time is better. But in Angry Birds, the flight time is leisurely. That makes it easier for users to learn to correct their errors. The long dying time of the pigs gives the user time to reflect and ponder ways to improve their game. But that pause needs to come at the right time.


How does response time in a computer game relate to a written tale? I think it corresponds to the pace of the tale. And like the fast response time of computer games, writer's guides will tell us to keep it fast paced. But a better sense of good writing lets us know when the reader needs a pause to reflect on what has gone before and what is likely to happen. For an illustration, think of the Council of Elrond at Rivendale. Commentators marvel that what is little more than a long conversation about ancient history can retain the attention of readers. But that's because they fail to grasp that, after all the hobbits have gone through, the reader needs a time to pause and reflect. Good writers develop of sense of when to speed up or slow down the pace.


3. Short-term Memory Management

Summary: Human short-term memory is very limited. It is fast, easily configured, and can handle varied data, but only a little. When software requires users to remember information from one screen to another, that stresses short-term memory. But that means interruptions can destroy those memories. Generally, it's thought that user-interface design that taxes short-term memory is bad. But Angry Birds has a different approach. It removes the stress on short-term memory by making it easier to reload that information, typically making it easy to display and hide a view of the pig's target buildings.


Ah, this is where my own book-length chronology, Untangling Tolkien, comes into play. Tolkien's tale stresses our short-term memory well beyond the break point. I'd read the tale once from end-to-end once on a trip via Bedouin truck through the Sinai. Yet when I read it the second time, I found I'd forgotten what happened in the climatic scene at the Crack of Doom. Did that make the tale a failure. Hardly. Tolkien's characters are so vivid and compelling, they carry us through a world so complex we can't begin to understand it until we've read the book numerous times. In the same fashion, when we write, we need to give users some way of retaining the flow of the story in their minds even when the details seem overwhelming.

4. Mystery

Summary: Mystery is providing details for which users don't know the reason. That stimulates their interest, even unconsciously. In Angry Birds that's provided by little touches like bananas or having the pigs shake.


Tolkien is a genius at this. LOTR can be read the first time as a typical adventure story. But each time we reread it, we find little touches in the story or in Tolkien's world that we hadn't seen before. That makes the tale new each time.

5. How Things Sound

Summary: Music and sounds have a powerful influence on us, but they needs to fit the situation. In Angry Birds, it is mapped closely to the situation, with appropriate bird and pig sounds. The music needs to vary around a common theme.


Books don't come with a musical background, but they do have a background in the scenery and the weather. We shouldn't dwell on that. I hate writers who spend a entire page describing a room when it matters not to the story. We need to introduce just enough details to set the mood. If we want our characters to be tired almost to the point of collapse, it helps to place them in an environment that's either excessive hot or excessive cold and that requires battling, up and down hills in a wilderness, precisely what Tolkien does after the Fellowship leaves Rivendell. And again, it helps to give readers a break. Frodo and Sam's long struggle through the blasted lands to Mordor is followed by a pleasant interlude in Ithilien, the rabbit stew and the sun setting through the falls. We should not only set moods, we should keep them changing.

6. How Things Look

Summary: In software a good UI only gets you to slightly positive. It does not create engagement. To be be good, a visual design must be memorable and have the desired attributes. In Angry Birds the creatures are simple but compelling. The world of each creature is different and the total world changes with each new level.


Here I'd suggest that characters matter. My little publishing house is called Inkling Books, after Tolkien and his writer friends. But one of my gripes against Tolkien's fellow Inklings is that they made fun of his little hobbits. Like the angry birds and their pig foes, I find Tolkien's hobbits of compelling interest. I'd have been delighted if Tolkien had written more about them and less about long-ago elves.

In much the same way, the genius of Dickens lies in the amazing characters he created, characters like Scrooge and Tiny Tim that still come alive over a century and a half later. I believe it was G. K. Chesterton who pointed out that no one knows characters as exaggerated as those in Dickens, but that we all know people who resemble them in little ways. The same is true of the races in LOTR. We know people who're like hobbits, like dwarves, like wizards, and even like orcs. That gives a richness and an understandability to their worlds. They are like us and yet different too.

One principle that flows from that is not to get so caught up in 'realism' that all your characters become ho-hum, looking and acting alike, particularly not like the empty and shallow lives of so many moderns and so much modern literature. Tolkien was well aware of that distinction, making it clear that the people who disliked his books were people who wrote books he disliked.

Make your characters as vivid and memorable as the bird and pigs are in Angry Birds. Make good people good, each in a special way, much as wizards and elves are good in different ways from hobbits. And give your evil people a particular bent to evil that is as different as that between Saruman and Sauron in Tolkien. Chesterton was almost write when he wrote that the only sin was to paint the world in greay. Don't paint in dull colors. Create a world with characters as vivid as the cartoon-like characters in Angry Birds. Give them life. Give them movement. As one commentator observed, in Tolkien's tale we always no one thing about his four hobbits. No matter how cast down they are, they stand up again and resume the fight.

Like I said, those are just observations off the top of my head. If you have other ideas, particularly ideas that come from actually playing Angry Birds, feel free to post them here. Popular computer games and the reasons for their success can teach us how to write better.

--Michael W. Perry, Untangling Tolkien, Seattle

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pigfender
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Fri Nov 11, 2011 9:34 am Post

Fascinating! Thank you for taking the time to post this.
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KB
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Fri Nov 11, 2011 2:49 pm Post

Interesting. Although if I used the phrase, "that most compelling of novels, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings," I would be being ironic - I'd much rather play Uncharted 3. :)
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Fri Nov 11, 2011 7:06 pm Post

I remember my KayPro and that vexing lander game, and find wind through the trees more exhilarating and rewarding than any computer games I’ve encountered. (Real reality is challenging enough, thank you.) From the evidence of sales and time spent, game developers have learned a lot from story-telling. (Anyone for Zork?)

About LOTR: it’s a story-teller’s gem in another sense: I read the whole thing to my kids — ranging from 5 to 15 — every evening through a long Northeastern winter, enjoying the telling as much as they enjoyed the listening. A year later, they asked for it again, and all were amazed/amused to pick up features and elements they hadn’t noticed or appreciated first time through.

It emphasized for me the value of reading my own stuff out loud. If it doesn’t sound good out loud, it won’t sound good to the inner ear.

PJS
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KB
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Fri Nov 11, 2011 8:37 pm Post

I find the sound of the wind through the trees exhilarating, too; especially when it's caused by bullets as my avatar ducks behind the tree to take cover. Oh, wait, what's this "real reality" you are talking about? Is that part of the Matrix...? :)
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Fri Nov 11, 2011 9:48 pm Post

KB wrote:what's this "real reality" you are talking about?


The distinction between them -- whatever the hell "they" turn out to be -- may be getting smaller even as we discuss it/them.

http://www.conditionone.com/

BTW, what are "avatar ducks"...?


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KB
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Sat Nov 12, 2011 12:50 am Post

Surely avatar ducks bring us back to Angry Birds?
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Mon Nov 14, 2011 5:19 pm Post

I love Angry Birds. 3 stars on all 700 or so levels. When a new batch of levels comes through the App I get all warm and fuzzy inside. Just talking about it makes me want to play it again.

Here's the thing. When I'm playing a "mindless" game like AB, it's simple enough that I get to think about other things, namely my writing project du jour. Maybe it's a sort of mediation. It gets my creative juices flowing and I can usually devote a good couple of hours to my work when I've killed that last blasted pig. (not you PF)

That said, no AB or any other during Nano. There's simply no time! In fact I shouldn't be reading this forum.

Gotta go....