Videogame storytelling is evolving, and the past few years have seen some fresh approaches to spinning the interactive yarn. Lewis Denby, on a mission to find out a little more about what stories mean to modern games, spoke to Splash Damage’s Ed Stern, who created the huge backstory for Brink, and script writer Tom Jubert, most famous for his work on Penumbra, to find out how we’re telling tales in this modern gaming age.
Brink is, as should be clear to anyone, a multiplayer first-person shooter. In it, two teams compete against each other to complete various familiar objectives, like capturing an item from the enemy’s base and bringing it back to their own. And yet, even before development properly started, lead writer Edward Stern was scrutinising page upon page of notes about something other than game mechanics - notes that went into startling depth about every element of the game’s story, from its characters, to the background of its world. His aim was to communicate a detailed narrative in which everything was crystal clear, through the form of a multiplayer FPS - a game with few cutscenes and minimal dialogue. The approach stretched right down to the most accepted of game-isms, such as why you’d even want to capture a flag in the first place.
“It wasn’t just a flag you had to get to your base,” Stern explains. “It was this thing. And you disagreed about what this thing was depending on what you’d been told.”
In Brink, your ‘flag’ was either the antidote to a terrible virus, or a fierce piece of biological warfare. Whichever side you were on, the game told you a different story. “That’s interesting,” says Stern. “I’m not sure if anyone’s done that before.”
In fact story telling in games is taking on more intricacy all the time. It now assumes - under the banner of "narrative design" - that there’s more to spinning a good yarn than lobbing some dialogue on top of an existing premise for conflict. This undertaking, the work of the narrative designer, is a pursuit that meshes writing and game design together in a more tightly woven form that we might previously have been used to. This is not simply slotting exposition between the action, but something more integral.
You might have heard the term before. I first became aware of it a couple of years back when speaking to Tom Jubert, whose narrative design helped craft the dazzlingly twisted indie series, Penumbra. “'Writing' is the old way of doing it,” he tells me now. “It's kind of being phased out.”
In the old days, a studio would most likely create a game with a basic premise, then bring a writer in last-minute to help bash together some words, maybe some CG scenes. Increasingly, though, studios are utilising narrative design techniques to help the story and the mechanics of play become one and the same. “Narrative design is 50 percent game design, 50 percent writing,” says Jubert. “You're in from the start, you're overseeing the entire narrative and anything that's related to it, and it's obviously the natural way to do it. It makes a lot of sense. There are a lot of people in games now who are good writers and know about game design, so it makes sense to have those people running the show.”
The idea, then, is to look beyond the words, beyond the dialogue, and to analyse how an entire game can tell a story. The approach is at its most obvious in things like the Portal games, and that's why writers like Erik Wolpaw have been so lauded by the press and wider industry. Games like that are nothing without their dialogue, their story-telling, their jokes and drama. It’s rarer to see this approach applied to multiplayer games - Stern says it’s probably more difficult in that context - but it’s being applied to an increasing number of releases of all kinds.
Constructing a story in this way requires a more restrained, muted approach, perhaps, than many writers are used to - even if it requires a hell of a lot more planning. There’s always the temptation to try to communicate everything in words. After all, that’s where a traditional writer’s strengths lie. But in a medium like gaming, it isn’t always the most effective route. And when you’ve not only a script, but a world and game mechanics to bounce off, being able to demonstrate concepts without words is often key.
It’s something that Edward Stern - who, prior to joining Splash Damage, worked as a journalist - has struggled with on occasion. “Trying to come up with the right size of story... In a way it's like the classic screenwriting thing where in the first draft - the ‘vomit pass’ - everybody says everything. And that's just exhausting. So how can you do that through an environment? How can you make it clear?”
His answer lies somewhere within those pages and pages of background material. Character biographies. Location details, including how and why they came to be. Brainstorms and mood boards. And an acceptance that not all of these things have to be rammed down the player’s throat. They’re things that need never explicitly make the final cut - but you can see their remnants in the art, the animations, the level design and the game’s objectives. Clues to the big picture.
Tom Jubert agrees with Stern’s approach, too: “Certainly that's the right way to do it,” he says. “Narrative design takes so much work. Not more work than game design, but there are a lot of different tracks to keep in your head. It's the age-old thing of 'tip of the iceberg'. Obviously, if you do a good job, then a lot of the work that you do doesn't make it to the final product. But it underpins what does. I know that the world design in Brink is one of its strongest elements, certainly.”
Jubert looks back at his own experiences writing Penumbra, and now considers the game to be far too text-heavy. It featured a fair amount of impressive environmental storytelling, and the moments that played with your expectations of the level design were some of the most unsettling and effective I’ve seen in gaming, but the bulk of the story was communicated via torn-out diary entries, strewn around the game world.
“I was writing fucking essays in that game,” he recalls. “It was crazy. And some people really went for it, but really that was just my lack of experience. That was me just writing down everything that I wanted to write, and not thinking about how long that was going to take to read.”
While he’s also written for some major titles - most recently Driver: San Francisco - most of Jubert’s narrative design work has been on smaller projects, where one writer can make a lot of impact. Nevertheless he thinks that the major studios are increasingly looking to transform the way they tell stories, even when much of what they do is from a cinema-derived, scripted formula. “There's no doubt that story is a legitimate selling point,” he says. “Look at the Call of Dutys - which, let's be honest, would probably sell almost as many as they do without any effort put into the story. But they put a lot of time and effort into it. Obviously it gets varying reception amongst people, but they try to push the boundaries over there.”
Jubert thinks it’s encouraging that the games industry is taking this route. It took working on a marketing-centric Facebook game for him to realise how far things have come. “That was a very different experience,” he says. “The marketing team aren't gamers, they outsource all of that, and so when you're working for them it's a very different deal, 'cause they're kind of looking at you simply as a text provider. That really brought home for me quite how great the games industry is, and how good people tend to be. And as a narrative designer, that's half of your job: not to make people do stuff that works through narrative, but to get people interested enough in the narrative that you don't need to make them - that they want to make sure that everything works together.”
So now that we’re seeing major development studios more concerned with story, where does narrative design go next? What can games do to tell stories even more convincingly? Interestingly, Stern and Jubert agree that the future lies not just in writing techniques, but also in technology. L.A. Noire’s MotionScan system is something that quickly comes up. “If you think about your tools as a writer in the games industry, you're limited in a lot of ways,” says Jubert. “Someone asked me on my blog recently, 'Why are game stories often perceived to be so shit?' Which is a fair question, because they are. And there are a bunch of plausible reasons. One of the big ones is that our tools are limited in a lot of ways as compared to other mediums. Up until something like L.A. Noire, you can't have an actor expressing things in his performance very much, because the detail just isn't there. Things that De Niro could do with one look across the room, we have to do with a line of dialogue.”
As technologies like MotionScan become more commonplace, says Jubert, writers will have new ways to communicate narrative elements with subtlety. And new storytelling techniques that merge narrative and interaction will become possible, as well. “Think about the well-written RPGs. We're being given options, but we're not really being asked to second-guess a character.” Now, he says, that could change.
Ed Stern expresses similar hopes for tech, although he’s less certain that these are tools that the industry will have full access to any time soon. “The technology’s always just around the corner,” he says. “We’re mere months away, it always seems, from absolutely uncanny-valley-vaulting photorealism, a magic box whereby every nuance of an actor’s performance can be quickly, easily, cheaply captured and faithfully, artfully rendered unto the player - an Avatar or L.A. Noire-quality performance-capture technology costing no more than the hire of radio mics and lighting rig. Well, perhaps. I just haven’t seen it yet.” And even when Epic talk about photorealism being within their grasp, nothing you actually see made in Unreal gets anywhere close.
Stern points out that even director James Cameron, when making blockbuster CGI flick Avatar, didn’t have the resources to view his motion-capture technology in real-time against his backdrops - and these, he says, are the sorts of tools the industry will need if it’s to make huge strides forward in this regard. “Because animation cleanup takes so long, cinematics often have to be motion-captured before the virtual location has been finalised, built, textured and lit, which makes it very hard for the actors and characters to behave in a way that matches their surroundings,” he explains. “As with everything else about games production, it’s the art of the possible.” And that's an expensive art.
Ideas for the future rather than the present, then? Perhaps so. But if that’s the case, I’d say the future’s looking bright.