Friday, May 18, 2018

What the heck is "Narrative Design" anyway? Part 1

Narrative Design. It's one of those terms you only seem to hear in the games industry, and even then, not very often. It's a mystery to some, to others it's a job title looking for a function. I've even met some people who were so irritated by the term that they tried to have it erased from their workplace, even though it didn't effect them at all. It's probably because the word "Design" implies an understanding of game mechanics and interactivity that a lot of writers don't have experience with. Some people see this as a threat to their position, or just another opportunity for Game/Level Design to interfere with their work. That's understandable - writing for games is one of those fields  everyone seems to think is a no-brainer... until they actually try it themselves. But there really isn't any reason to feel threatened; a well-coordinated team has enough space for dedicated writers and a Narrative Designer, and leverages the strengths of both disciplines to completely immerse the player in the story presented.

If we're going to analyse the job of a Narrative Designer, we should start with the title itself; Wikipedia defines Narrative Designer as "a role in contemporary video game development, the focus of which is to design the narrative elements of a game, and to champion story within the development process, which differentiates it from the role of game writer" Personally, I think there's a simpler, more precise way of explaining it; Narrative Design, (or the Narrative Designer, if you prefer) is the direct link between the story and gameplay. But what does that mean in practical terms? To get there we're going to have to break things down a bit... Although Narrative Design incorporates two different disciplines and departments, it falls a bit closer to the Design domain than the world of writing. Generally speaking, a good Narrative Designer is a Game Designer or Level Designer with a strong interest in storytelling. The Narrative Designer should be aware of the mechanics of the game, pay attention to the pace and flow of levels, and have a strong appreciation of what motivates a player's choices.

It's a common belief that when it comes to gaming, gamePLAY is king. Stories in games are often given short shrift - they're what happens when you're not playing, (and when most people stop paying attention to what's happening on screen). And all too often, game stories are disregarded as "filler". Often truncated by time and resources, it's no wonder many games offer a "skip" feature during the narrative sequences. But storytelling is an innate part of human nature; it's how we understand ourselves and our place in the world. Film, television, books and comics all live and die by the quality of their stories... so wouldn't it benefit games to leverage narrative so that players gain a deeper connection to the characters and events they present? How do we do this without resorting to the old playtime/storytime dichotomy? This is the job of the Narrative Designer - to incorporate story into gameplay and vice versa. And it turns out there are lots of ways to do it!

Environmental Storytelling
Probably the most basic method of bringing gameplay and narrative together comes from the setting. Far more than just a background, a game's locations should contain information about the world and the situation the player needs to overcome. To an extent, all settings do this - if the location is a desert, then the player can reasonably expect to deal with the kind of problems a desert is known for - heat, dehydration, sandstorms, etc. But an environment like this can provide less direct storytelling opportunities; mirages, hallucinations, the sounds of distant animals, campfires on the horizon, the remains of less lucky travelers half-buried in a sand dune... by leveraging the player's preconceptions of what a desert might and might not be like, we can subtly explain the current state of the world, the character's mindset, even suggest cultural traits and historical backstory. The Narrative Designer's job in this case, is to compile as many of these environmental "beats" as possible into a location document, and submit them as a package to the writers, environment artists, level designers and animators, (preferably at the early stages of development).

A classic example of mixing gameplay with narrative can be found in adventure games and RPGs. These games often contain puzzles or riddles to break up the gameplay and create a sense of mystery and discovery. All too often, these puzzles feel like arbitrary non-secquiturs, when they could draw on the lore or storyline for their solutions. This involves players directly in the story - they can't solve the puzzle without thinking about some element of the narrative, and that makes it important to their success. You probably wouldn't want to use situations like this to introduce new story ideas - it's better suited to restating concepts that are important to the theme or elements of the plot that you really want to resonate with players. During the production of Eternal Darkness, I designed a puzzle that reiterated a key bit of the storyline, through the lens of Cambodian mythology. This had the added effect of grounding our story in the visage of reality, always a plus! Our publisher, Nintendo, really liked this solution. I think it helped them appreciate some of the ideas we were trying to get across, without the language barrier that might have interfered with spoken or written explanations.

Another great example of making story part of the gameplay experience can be found in the Dark Souls series. These games put an emphasis on loot collection; consumable items, weapons and armor, things players want and need in order to make progress. These loot items are given detailed descriptions in the player's inventory screen, often incorporating lore from the game world. And to top things off, these item descriptions are randomly displayed as loading screens when players move between different locations. A similar technique simply displays back story and lore during loading, but the added motivation of desirable loot means that without even noticing it, players end up learning about the game-world through a kind of narrative osmosis. This is also one of the most cost-effective methods of involving players in the story, so developers can save cinematic cut scene and dialog-recording budgets for more crucial sequences.

When we think of narration during gameplay, the most common example that probably comes to mind is the "voice in your ear" made famous by series like Halo and Metal Gear. And to be sure, this is an effective and very successful narrative technique... but that's not all that can be done with in-game narration! For one thing, there's the concept of the narrative as collectible - you see this method used prominently in games like the Bioshock series; players search for audio diaries in the environment, which explain the story from different character's perspectives. This technique is notable because it actually turns the story into a reward for the player, instantly implying value. In an industry where narrative is often under-valued, this alone is a big win! There's also an interesting narrative element in the placement of the audio diaries - here Narration and Environmental Storytelling come together to give the player a complete picture of what happened. Then there's the seldom used technique of First Person Narration, where the protagonist character is telling the story in the past tense... with this method, everything the player experiences has already happened, so the Narrative Designer can foreshadow upcoming events or use a "flawed narrator" to fake the player out, (this technique is more commonly used in books and films, often to great effect).         

Monday, April 23, 2018

Ambitious Dirt

Ambitious Dirt is a colour-matching puzzle game from Playhybrid, available on Andriod and IOS devices.

Ambitious Dirt was a project I never imagined I'd be involved in. To be sure, I've always loved puzzle games - from Tetris to The Witness, I've spent countless hours solving arbitrary problems, (usually to do with matching colours or shapes). But I'd never worked on a pure puzzle game before, or a mobile game for that matter. So when I decided to take the challenge of directing a game for the first time, there was a lot to learn before we could get this project to the level everyone was aiming for.

It's hard to create a product that stands out in an over-saturated field like the "match 3" genre. You want to present players with something simple with elements of their old favourites, but different enough to surprise them, and deep enough to keep them coming back for more. Ambitious Dirt takes the familiar concept of matching like colours, and adds a navigation element to the gameplay. Players need to guide a train of characters through a maze of coloured tiles, matching the characters over them them to remove obstacles, build power-ups and switch turnstiles. Sometimes, there are multiple solutions to a problem, other times there's only one. In the end, we found a balance between the instant gratification of a match 3, and the strategic depth of a classic puzzle game.

Of course, no mobile game today can go to market without monetization and retention strategies. Ambitious Dirt presents players' overall score as a "Property Value" and progression level by the size of their house. The house is situated in a "neighborhood" of other players, (essentially a leaderboard where everyone's progression is on display), and can be customized with decorative items purchased with hard and soft in-game currency. Players can purchase currency, power-ups and other consumables from an in-game store, along with gift certificates which can be sent to friends, awarding them bonus items and random surprises. The ultimate goal is up to each individual player to decide; clear all of the game's levels, or keep challenging highscores until they acquire the biggest house available. Combined with timed special activities and events, there's a lot to come back to here! 

Ambitious Dirt is also a beautiful game; full 3D environments and characters pop right off the screen with vibrant colour and lively animation. A fantastic original soundtrack and great special effects are icing on the cake. I was deeply involved in almost every aspect of Ambitious Dirt's design, and even built over 100 puzzle levels. It's another project I'm proud to say that I was a part of.


Children of Zodiarcs

Children of Zodiarcs is a Japanese Strategy Role-Playing Game published by Square Enix and developed by Cardboard Utopia. I wrote the story and dialog, and helped develop the world, characters and lore.

A group of young thieves pull off a daring heist and escape with a powerful nobleman's treasure. Relentlessly pursued by the authorities, they are forced to make desperate choices that will effect the course of their lives, those that survive that is.

This was a very personal project for just about everyone involved in its creation. In our youth, many of the developers had grown up with games like Final Fantasy and Crono Trigger from legendary developer Squaresoft. Now we had an opportunity to make a game like that for a new generation, and have it published under the Square-Enix banner! But beyond the nostalgia and excitement of being associated with such classic games, Children of Zodiarcs allowed a small team of dedicated designers, artists and programmers a chance to build something more than just your typical commercial product. It's common for a lot of blood sweat and tears to go into the development of a game, especially one that takes a few years to complete... but it's fair to say that an unusual amount of love went into this one, which I think shows in the final product.

When I first began imagining this story, some very serious themes and subjects began to take precedence, ideas that resonated with the real world today. To me, that's always a good thing; it gives a story value outside of simple entertainment. Of course, as a writer, my primary job is to entertain - characters need to be likable and fun, dialog needs to be witty and concise... and since my main subject was a bunch of kids, they had to sound and act like kids. So it was a challenge to bring all that together.

I'm proud of what we managed to accomplish with Children of Zodiarcs, despite our lofty goals. The game scored well with critics, (81 Metascore!) and remains one of my favourite projects to date.


What the heck is "Narrative Design" anyway? Part 1

Narrative Design. It's one of those terms you only seem to hear in the games industry, and even then, not very often. It's a mystery...