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Mike Substelny

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SPOILER ALERT! This message contains NO spoilers for Mission to Hell, but thread replies will have spoilers. If you were not at Armada I suggest that you wait until Artemis 2.6 is released and you have played the mission with your crew before you read this entire thread.

In the summer of 2015 Thom asked me to script "a spooky mission for Halloween." I laid out a general story full of sci-fi horror cliches: A scientist dabbling in technology he doesn't understand, ghost ships, space monsters, and a dangerous, twisted world with rules of its own.

I knocked together the basic mechanics in a couple of weeks. It contained a few fun tricks that I wanted to share with the scripting community. At the same time my indie film team was working on a 48-Hour Horror film and I was learning about horror writing (feel free to ask writing questions by private message or in the "Off Topic" forums). I asked the horror film actors to make spooky sound effects of ghosts and monsters. They loved that job!

I added the sounds and the mission was ready to test at Tuscon 2015 with the assumption I could release it for Halloween 2015. Unfortunately I had three problems:
  1. Scripts cannot do plot exposition through the Science console because Science cannot scan friendly ships or Generic Objects.
  2. It's hard to do plot exposition through the the Comms console because Comms Officers don't read all the messages.
  3. I could not rely on monsters to trigger actions because I could not control their brain stacks.
These three factors added up to a mission that worked fine when I tested it, but it was unplayable by crews in the field. The biggest problem was the monsters - - - even if I stood there and told the crew what to do, monsters acted on their own AI. The random choices of space monsters could spoil the plot.

A year later, Halloween 2016, I was still struggling with Mission to Hell for the same three reasons. I set it aside to work on other projects.

Fast forward to Artemis Armada III planning. Thom said he saw demand for a server video player so he was going to add it. He also added the ability to write to Monster brain stacks. When Armada Director Katie asked if I could come up with a good mission to demonstrate the videos the two that came to mind were Truce or Consequences and Mission to Hell. Unfortunately both would require a costumed Skaraan, something I was not prepared to do. Then the title "Aces and Outlaws" was selected and suddenly everything clicked. The Skaraan in Mission to Hell could become a pirate. After nearly two years it would be possible to finish that mission script!

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Mike Substelny

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Here are some things I learned about storytelling in a scripted mission with videos:

Make Your Videos Interactive
Whenever possible make the video play buttons look like outgoing messages that give the Comms officer choices. The videos triggered by these buttons should be the replies to the messages. For example, here is a choice that Comms faces early in Mission to Hell:
  • Bargain with the Kraliens
  • Threaten the Kraliens
  • Bluff the Kraliens

The way I wrote it, Comms must choose one of these (presumably after consulting the captain). If you click any of those buttons all three disappear. That is, once you have bluffed the Kraliens they will react to your bluff. You can't go back and try to bargain with them.

Do Not Wait For Comms
The paragraph above is not completely true - - - that scene in Mission to Hell does not compel Comms to choose one of those three messages to the Kraliens. If Comms just sits there doing nothing the Kraliens will eventually take action and it will be too late for the crew to do anything. The players will have missed an opportunity.

The sad truth is that some Comms players do not look at the Comms screen. They set their consoles to look at the Long Range Scan screen, where they spend a lot of time just watching blips move around. These Comms officers will only look at the Comms screen if the Captain tells them to do something. If your mission script cannot proceed until Comms actually looks at the Comms screen then some crews might wait a long time. I know you want the players to see every bit of information, but sometimes the players are better off plunging into a black hole because they missed a clue instead of just sitting there, waiting for Comms to do their job.

Make Your Videos Short
As of right now your mission script can launch executables such as VLC on the server, passing parameters such as a video file name and the way it should be displayed. This can be triggered by a Comms button or any other mission conditions. But once a video is started I know of no way for Comms to stop, pause, or fast forward. The crew must watch the entire video.

One of the hardest things that beginning sci-fi and fantasy writers must master is exposition. Expopsition reveals background information about the situation, characters, and how the world works. Exposition is hard enough in a murder mystery, romance, or western set in a world we already know. In science fiction and fantasy your exposition needs to tell us a whole lot more because the universe is completely fictive. The story might make no sense until we understand some politics, technology, biology, motivations, etc. that you made up from your imagination.

And so many beginning sci-fi and fantasy writers employ the dreaded info-dump. An info-dump is a flood of information dumped on the reader/player/viewer with little dramatic value. Like in the first Thor film when Heimdall patiently explains to Thor how the bitfrost bridge works. It's important information for the viewers, but the lecture is super boring. The same information should have been revealed through a dramatic scene.

Some of you will be tempted to open your Artemis mission scripts with long infodump videos

Quote:
Originally Posted by Admiral Stuffypants
Attention Artemis! We just picked up a distress call that you need to investigate. The ship was carrying . . . blah . . . blah . . . blah . . .
But be careful because the Skaraans just invented a new technology to . . . blah . . . blah . . . blah . . .
On top of that the Queen of the Kraliens just hatched The Egg of the Chosen One who, according to legend . . . blah . . . blah . . . blah . . .
Meanwhile Naval Intelligence reports a Space Pirate who is inadvertently spreading a plague among Torgoth freighters . . . blah . . . blah . . . blah . . .


I am sure all of that information will add up to a rip-roaring good adventure, but before the Admiral finishes speaking the players will slit their wrists. It's much better to spread the exposition out through some active scenes while the crew is doing something. Give the Comms officer some chances to ask questions of various characters. Have each character reveal an important fact in one sentence that is no longer than 12 seconds.


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ryleyra

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Reply with quote  #3 
All good points in your second post.

I remember when you came up with the "spooky Halloween mission" idea, and was sad it never happened. Now I'm definitely going to have to check it out!
Mike Substelny

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Reply with quote  #4 
More things I learned:

Give Your Adventure Multiple Endings
At Artemis Armada we have Challenge Missions like this year's Dawn Patrol that give your crew a final score. You can play the mission over and over to try to improve your score. But in a story-based adventure mission you don't usually get a score. Instead you get a story outcome. For instance, my classic mission Havoc in the Hamak Sector (which won't work with Artemis 2.6) ends when you save the sector from the Torgoth invasion or die trying. Once you have beaten that mission you know all of its tricks and there is no reason to play it again.

But Mission to Hell is a story-based adventure with several different endings*. The ending your crew experiences will depend on the choices you make during the mission. This gives Mission to Hell some replay value. Even after your crew has solved all of the adventure's mysteries you can still play it again and try to get a different ending.

* The version played at Aramada III had two different endings, but I hope to have 3-4 soon.

Offer Your Players More Dialog Than They Need, But Don't Expect Them to Use It
I bet that everyone reading this forum has played a tabletop role playing game with a party of fantasy/science fiction characters embarking on an adventure. In that adventure a Game Master portrayed various non-player characters (NPCs) who gave you amusing interactions and tidbits of information. Some parties like to linger in the local tavern/spaceport to glean as much information as they can get. Other parties will throw caution to the wind the moment they hear of a dungeon full of treasure or a dragon that needs slaying.

Your text or video Comms messages are the NPCs of your adventure. Give your players lots of chances to ask for information, even if it is redundant. For example, here are some requests the players can make in Mission to Hell:
  • Please tell us about Dr. Crelosha's reputation.
  • Please give us a tactical report.
  • Please tell us more about Project Eetan.
  • How can we escape from this black hole?
  • Please remind us again how to escape the black hole!
None of these messages is essential to completing the mission, although the crew had better receive one of those two messages about escaping the black hole! The messages are there for the crews that like to ask a lot of questions before moving on.

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ryleyra

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Reply with quote  #5 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Mike Substelny
Some parties like to linger in the local tavern/spaceport to glean as much information as they can get. Other parties will throw caution to the wind the moment they hear of a dungeon full of treasure or a dragon that needs slaying.


I actually had two characters that I roleplayed as the extremes of this difference in behavior. [biggrin]

I don't know if you developed a memorable villain for your Mission to Hell, but I found that to be a very big aid to role playing. Better yet, a RECURRING villain. Players get much more involved in a story if they can assign a face to it. About the fourth or fifth time the character appears on screen, you want the players to start muttering, "Ooo, I want to KILL that guy!"

You COULD do that with the old system (by playing an audio file which establishes the character of the villain) but I'm guessing it has much more impact with video.

Mike Substelny

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Reply with quote  #6 
Quote:
Originally Posted by ryleyra
I don't know if you developed a memorable villain for your Mission to Hell, but I found that to be a very big aid to role playing. Better yet, a RECURRING villain. Players get much more involved in a story if they can assign a face to it. About the fourth or fifth time the character appears on screen, you want the players to start muttering, "Ooo, I want to KILL that guy!"


Mission to Hell does not have a super evil villain. It has two memorable characters, one of whom most crews want to kill because he is irritating. Yet both of these characters believe they are the good guy and neither wants to harm the players. In the end it is the players who must choose between good behavior and evil behavior.

If anyone has been around long enough to remember Truce or Consequences, that mission had a powerful villain. Controlling the villain's behavior relied on the DIRECT command which was easy to trigger under various mission conditions. Unfortunately DIRECT deprecated in 2011 in favor of the brain stack. Since then I have tried to replicate the villain's behavior using the Brain Stack but it never works correctly. I have never been able to build a Brain Stack that gets the villain to behave as predictably as he did with the DIRECT command.

I would like to see someone build a complex, autonomous villain using the Brain Stack.

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Xansta

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Reply with quote  #7 
The DIRECT command still shows up in the 2.4.0 reference (mission-file-docs.txt). Admittedly, I have not tried it yet. Does the Artemis engine ignore it in favor of what's on the brain stack? Alternatively, can we just clear_ai and use direct if we don't like how the brain stack is working?

Just curious
Mike Substelny

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The DIRECT command still works for Generic Objects which have no brain stack.

I believe it is possible to get the behavior I want out of the brain stack. I just need to build a very complex system of clearing and rebuilding the brain stack under many various conditions that I have yet to figure out.

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Mike Substelny

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! SPOLIER ALERT !

Here are two more things I learned:

Don't Expect Crews to See Visuals on The Main Screen
This is actually an old lesson that I kept in mind writing "Mission to Hell", but I forgot to warn Paul about it when he was writing "Scorpion Sting." Over the years I have worked hard to use things like Generic Objects and Skyboxes to create cool visual effects on the Main Screen. I did this in "Havoc in the Hamak Sector", "Truce or Consequences", "Attract Mode", and "Party Crashers". While I expect crews to be looking at the Main Screen as if they were a crew in a TV show, many real crews leave the Main Screen set for Long Range Scan or Tactical. They never see the cool visual effect I had planned for them.

Imagine writing a mission script for the classic Star Trek episode "The Corbomite Maneuver." You create a wonderful scene in which the gigantic starship Fesarius comes face-to-face with the Enterprise. But when Captain Kirk comes to the bridge he orders Sulu to "Stay on Long Range Scan." The crew won't see your cool effect at all!

I did a couple of these in "Mission to Hell" with predictable results: about half the crews saw the visuals. But "Scorpion Sting" was a Canonical Battle so it was important for the crew to get all of the information the first time. Unfortunately the crew playing the carrier in "Scorpion Sting" did not look at the forward view when the mission showed its great visual effect.

This segues to my great failure:

Don't Expect Crews to Witness Important Events
Because "Mission to Hell" was sort of a mystery/puzzle I wanted the players to get clues through several different media. I wanted some clues to be Science scans, some to be Comms messages, and some to be action they witnessed on the Main Screen. In "Mission to Hell" the visual clue was watching the Pirate ship shoot the Charybdis, then the Charybdis shoots back with its teleporter beam. When the teleporter beam hits the Kralien artifact known as Kotan Rullix everything in the vicinity is transported into a Hellish alternate universe.

Frankly I discovered that this was a mistake when I tried to debut the mission at Tuscon in 2015. Back then the Charybdis was still behaving unpredictably so we played it over and over to try and see the Charybdis do the right thing. I observed that no matter how many times we played, when it came to the critical event which I had expected the crew to witness on Main Screen, they were always looking at something else.

I reluctantly intended to correct this with a Comms message, but when we were shooting the videos I forgot. There should have been a video in which the Pirate Captain says: "Lock weapons on the Charybdis! FIRE!" If I ever get a chance to put the same actor in the same costume before a green screen I will make sure to add that to "Mission to Hell."

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Mike Substelny

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Reply with quote  #10 
More Lessons Learned:

Sound Is Complicated
While testing "Mission to Hell" and "Here There Be Monsters" we discovered that different voices stand out on different audio systems. My main bridge at home has a subwoofer. When we tested scripts on that bridge the pirate played by Stephen Norek, the TSN officer played by Mark Bell, the marine played by Thor N. Zednik (all deep voices) plus the scientist played by Max Clark (synthetically deepened voice) all sounded very distinct. Nevertheless the pirate played by Angela Norek (higher voice) was more difficult to understand. When we played on another bridge that routed the sound through the HDMI port into a television the situation was reversed; Angela sounded great while Stephen, Mark, Thor, and Max lost the bass benefit of that big subwoofer.

At Aramda the situation was even more complex. Some bridges had massive audio systems, others routed server sound through an HDMI TV, others through laptop speakers, and some had no server sound at all. We knew this was a risk, but we didn't warn crews because we wanted the new videos to be this year's big surprise.

This gives us lessons for both mission script writers and for bridge makers.

Mission writers, keep in mind that you don't know what sort of sound system your players will have. We realize that players get the best experience if they can hear every nuance in your actor's voice as he threatens to suck out their bone marrow through a swizzle stick. But if you want a lot of crews to be able to play your mission, even if they have a sub-optimal experience, you should also provide transcripts, or subtitles, or both.

Bridge makers, when you create your awesome Hollywood quality, DMX enabled, Arduino-automated, leather upholstered, shag carpeted masterpiece bridge do not skimp on the sound system! Even as I post this, I'm sure there's a creative genius out there dreaming up a harrowing adventure with an epic cast of characters. Your crew won't want to miss a single line of dialog.

Be Gentle With Music
Artemis 2.6 gives mission scripts the power to independently control the sound levels of Music, Communications, and Sound Effects. In our mission scripts Paul and I used this power to drop the music to zero when a video played. We then used a timer to bring the music level back up when the video was done, but we never brought it higher than 50%.

Except I totally did and I regret it. [frown]

In "Mission to Hell" I dropped the music to zero for messages, then brought it up to 50% after the message played. Except while the players were "In Hell" I brought the music up to 100%. I thought this was a cute way to make Hell seem more stressful. This worked; the loud music made Hell a stressful place for every crew. But because crews needed to have their volume up somewhat to hear the Comms messages they had to hear the music at an unreasonably loud volume. I didn't need to bring the volume all the way to 100%. I think 60% would have been hellish enough.

The lesson for script writers is to keep the music down at 50% or lower at all times. Also, produce your videos at a strong volume level - - - some of our videos for Armada III were remastered several times to get the sound levels as loud as possible without distortion.

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"The Admiralty had demanded six ships; the economists offered four; and we finally compromised on eight."
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