LudoNarraCon’s Second Year Inspires Intelligent, Engaging Conversations, and Features Unique, Inclusive Indie Gems

LudoNarraCon has come and ludo-gone. In case you missed it in our preview, this past weekend’s second annual all digital convention on Steam was one all about games--specifically narrative driven indies, and featured developers from all around the world showing off new and old projects and hosting panels on a variety of topics related to the production of those games. But even if you’re not into ludology (the the study of games and gaming, especially video  games.) there’s plenty to glean from all the panels on storytelling in general, the unique challenges of interactive storytelling, and how to create emotionally resonant moments in the stories you tell. The panel schedule was full of interesting topics, from cultural dissonance, emotional resonance, narrative setbacks and storytelling without dialogue, discussions were engaging, amusing and insightful, and what we found was that the things these devs shared applied not only to game development, but were useful for opening up our mind to new things, whether they were new tools for telling our own stories or new things to think about when looking at the stories others told.  Here’s some standout moments from various panels over the weekend:   Friday’s Localization and Writing panel was interesting for so many reasons. Panelists included Fabio Bortolotti, Vladimir Konoplitsky, Anthony Jauneaud and Natalia Nesterova. Bortolotti in particular had a lot of interesting things to say, and as a translator, a lot of insight into the inherent challenges of adapting a game for different countries and regions. He stressed the importance of writers working closely with translators and told our favorite story from the convention.  Bortolotti was a translator for the indie game NeoCab we reviewed earlier this year and recommended in our LudoNarraCon preview and ran into a huge problem. NeoCab is about diversity and acceptance of people, and there was a main character in the game who identified as nonbinary. It was extremely essential to the story and to NeoCab Writing Lead and Story Editor Paula Rogers that this get translated into the Italian version, but, as many familiar with romance languages know, they are gendered languages, where even inanimate objects like chairs have a specified “male” or “female” gender.  This meant there literally was no translation for this key part of NeoCab--the word didn’t even exist. So, the team of writers, developers and translators did some research, even publishing a “quick” academic paper on the nature of the problem, and found a way to solve the problem. NeoCab is a game set 20 years into the future, after all, and with all the talk around LGBTQIA+ acceptance and diversity currently happening in Italy and the world at large, they could agree that in 20 years time (and hopefully a lot less, really) there could have been conversations around this problem and how to address it so as to respect people’s identities. They created a word that would be used in the game to address the person as non-binary, and through the paper, playtesting and community discussion, even tossed around the idea that their word could become THE actual word Italians use to refer to nonbinary folks and literally be responsible for evolving the language. Whether that’ll happen remains to be seen but it’s certainly a story with an exciting prospective impact. Meanwhile in the live chat pages, a user began a great topic of conversation when they asked if there’s a downside to localization, where it can potentially exclude people or confuse things, and this spawned an interesting discussion on the rules of implementing localization in narratives--when accents are okay vs cringey or offensive, for example, in both audio and textural representation.    This was expanded on even more in the Cultural Dissonance: Exploring & Learning the Unknown for Your Story panel on Saturday, featuring Mohammad Fahmi, Oli Clark Smith and Fernando Damas, where they talked about the differences inherent in creating the same game for different cultures and the challenges inherent with writing for a game that will be sold internationally without it sounding forced.    We also really learning more about emergent narratives in the Creating Emotional Touchstones in Emergent Narratives panel with Matthew Farber, Sande Chen, Kimberly Unger and Juliana Loh. Emergent narratives are those turns a story, especially in a game, emerges that the creator never intended. It often provides insight to developers on what players enjoy, want, and even what they think about the main story--even though it can also be a pain point as people discover and exploit weaknesses.  It examines how we play as humans--and how different the same game can be to different people. Some will play through something trying to follow the story beat for beat with no sidetracking, while others will ignore a story completely in favor of side hobbies or quests. Some people will try to thwart the very structure of the game, and create something different.  This also touched on the importance of streamers, and the panel’s developers all agreed--watching the different ways that people play the same game can really be exciting and enlightening. This is all “emergent” behavior that deviates from what developers, sometimes “breaks” a game- but more often somewhere in between, brings new audiences to the game, new ideas and inspiration to developers and new content tailor made for a group of avid players, as when devs code in secret rooms, Easter Eggs and areas for the diehards who are looking to uncover every mystery in a game they love. Summed up more succinctly by Unger,  who explores this emergent gameplay in her work with Oculus VR  “if you give a player a Portal gun, they’ll test it on everything. So having Easter Eggs draws people out.” Finally, LudoNarraCon panels did a great job discussing the personal aspects of storytelling  and why people play games in another favorite panel on Personal Storytelling in Games with Tanya kan, Miriam Verburg, Gabby DaRienzo and Paloma Dawkins, where Kan talked about “how to make the games you needed in your childhood” and the way that games can give you a safe space to talk about inequality, society and to help  people of all ages understand the world around them better. All four panelists agree--even though the narrative is personal to them, the interactivity of games allows for connection and exploration and even highlights the specificity of all relationships, including how video games as a medium’s perspective and portrayal of love has evolved over the years from a largely cis hetero viewpoint to include all sorts of games featuring all sorts of main characters of all people regardless of gender, size, race or orientation. In fact, Miriam Verburg, games make it easier to show there’s different routes love can take and were a healing space for her in talking about relationships.  Similar thoughts were expressed in Saturday’s Branching Narratives panel with Graham Reznick, Karin Weekes, Sam Barlow and Christian Divine, where they further looked at interactive storytelling, its rising moment and avoiding its cliches,. Roger Ebert’s name was brought up more than once- and not just as a roast for his infamous “Games aren’t art” comment, which the panelists agreed was a statement such a considered, intelligent man would not make today, but also to discuss broken narratives and new choices in storytelling.  Interactive stories present a lot of work to their authors, and can lead to lazy choices, like “good guy vs. bad guy” or the tendency to have a “right” and “wrong choice” when the truth is that real life and real situations often don’t have such black and white regulation. Instead of focusing on binary choices,  what adds depth and color to a narrative then is the B plots and the relationships, and the ability of the person interacting with the story can feel like themselves more within the narrative instead of having to choose the obvious “right” path over one they might have wanted to explore instead. Overall, discussion around developing games opened up a ton of interesting, educational, inspiration and personal conversations not just around video games and their development, but the challenges and rewards inherent in being able to tell your story in your chosen medium, and accomplishing LudoNarraCon’s overall goals of celebrating the unique, independent, intelligent community around video games and the amazing things they’re creating every day. We encourage you to check out the panels as long as they’re streaming and also check out the amazing games. There’s around 50 of them, all unique and interesting, that you can follow, play a demo for (Until May 1st on Steam), or get for not a lot of money (which then goes to amazing artists and creators like the ones in these panels) on the Steam sale for LudoNarraCon,which runs til this Saturday at noon. Check out our recommendations from the preview or go your own way and pick whatever calls out to you from the list and we guarantee you you’ll expand your horizons and likely enjoy yourself a lot while doing so.
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Marielle Bokor