I had kind of iffy luck on Friday in terms of finding good sessions. Part of going to conferences, though, is knowing when to cut and run, rather than let yourself get stuck in a boring lecture. So I spent most of the day wandering the show floor, talking to various people about the cool things they’re working on, and bumping into various friends.

I did get to see most of a talk by Patrick Redding on narrative design in Far Cry 2. Redding talked about the need to separate premise from story, which kind of connects to Rolston and Nelson’s talk on the divide between setting and plot. In the case of Far Cry 2, the idea seems to be to plant the player in a “moral universe” and to force him or her to make some hard choices that both drive the plot along and change the relationships between player and NPC. Redding also talked about enabling better player control over the flow of the story, not through stiff and unworkable branching storylines, but by way of “bricks of micronarrative” that can be triggered in various places at various times. Building a story system like that successfully sounds like an uphill battle to me, but good on them for trying.

I went to the Game Designers Rant with a little bit of apprehension, fearing an hour of bitching and moaning from a bunch of people who don’t know how good they’ve got it. (Anyone who follows my Twitter feed knows that I whine about work more than enough for all of us.) The designated ranters, however, are much smarter than that, and know exactly how good they’ve got it. The general message was that game design is in as good a place as it has ever been, and is poised to make a serious impact on culture and life in general. Clint Hocking and Jenova Chen challenged us to make more emotionally and intellectually challenging games. Daniel James encouraged us to keep reminding people of the things that delighted them as children, and Jonathan Mak sort of made a similar point by releasing balloons and happy music into a bemused but pleased audience.

The rant that resonated the most with me may have been Jane McGonigal’s. “Reality is broken,” she asked. “Why aren’t game designers trying to fix it?” Describing games as the “ultimate happiness engines,” McGonigal compared them to soap, a thing we used for years before we really realized just how good for us it could be. After 30 years of “optimizing human experience” within virtual worlds, perhaps it’s time to see if we can apply what we know to the real world as well, to try and alleviate some of the drudgery and crappiness of everyday life. Listening to McGonigal’s talk was one of those moments when I remember why I got into making games in the first place. Inspiring, reenergizing rants like these might not be as practical as advice on gameplay metrics or content filtering, but they’re what stick with me the longest as I dive back into the rush of work.