By Jamaal Ryan
GDC in some ways is a more valuable conference than say your E3es and PAXes. While there might not be much in the light of new game announcements (though this year, we got a chance to see games like Framed, Double Fine’s Hack n’ Slash, Monument Valley, and Among the Sleep), GDC gives developers a platform to address all things game design, game development culture, along with tools and platforms that will become integral parts of the industry’s future.
Easily one of the most talked about topics at GDC this year revolved around different methods on how to deliver story in games. There has been much criticism in the way of storytelling at this year’s GDC from the traditional 3 act structure, to how narrative delivery is often separate from the game itself.
Fictional Games’ creative director Thomas Grip highlighted the importance of designing games along the writing of the narrative itself. Far too many games we’ve seen are designed where the game mechanics and sequencing are built prior to the story itself, or at least the two facets are built separately. For those familiar with Fictional’s previous games: Amnesia and Penumbra, the actions in which the player engages in are directly related to the narrative itself. Some games go in the completely opposite direction of gameplay vs. narrative such as Liz Ryerson’s Dys4ia, an autobiographical game that narrates her hormonal replacement therapy that has the player engage in metaphorical mechanics that represent the message that’s being conveyed.
Microsoft Game Studios designer Richard Rouse III discussed how games such as Uncharted 2, while well received, adhered to a beginning, a heavy middle, and an end, other titles such as The Walking Dead, and even The Last of Us benefit from piecemeal style storytelling. Whereas TWD was delivered episodically, The Last of Us was segmented into seasons, making the story more digestible.
This common trend of a 3 act structure might explain why gamers tend not to remember story as much as they do characters. In the same talk, they explained how players typically are more capable of describing in detail the characters and the gameplay than they are able to describe the story’s plot. This is likely due to both the traditionalized story structure as well as being overshadowed by what’s holding the gamer’s attention the most, the avatar (character) and the gameplay.
Tracey Fullerton, director of UGC Game Lab, highlights this concept of narrative focus when discussing what happened when she was presented with early builds of Cloud before that team went off to form thatgamecompany. Fullerton described her reaction after looking at the original concept of the game which attempted to tell a story about a boy from Jupiter, “It was much more detailed than this and when it was presented I kind of rolled my eyes at all of this and said, ‘Why don't we forget about this and focus on the mechanics.’”
While there was great emphasis on pulling back from bloated, traditional storytelling, others focused on how crucial NPC dialogue with players is in driving a story forward, and the potential on how NPCs can shape narrative organically. Zombie Cat Studios’ Sheri Graner Ray stated that, “Conversations are a hallmark of story-driven game and adventure games. They are there to keep the player involved, to keep the story moving." Though that’s a given, she also emphasized that only a single piece of information should will prompt the player to move forward.
Bioshock’s Ken Levine described the concept of “narrative legos” before, but at GDC, he added more to the idea. Levine fits his description within the context of an RPG where players will interact with different NPCs that have different preferences, allegiances, and emotional investments. A character might help you if you murder a particular creed, or they might murder you if you befriend one among them.
To be quite frank, this concept has little difference than from what’s demonstrated in modern games such as Dragon Age, Fallout, and even non-RPGs such as Infamous. Linear narratives realize this more naturally than most like Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Quantic Dream’s (better game this gen) Heavy Rain. However Ken’s idea seems to include compelling and meaningful interactions with even the most pedestrian NPCs we typically run into in games.
Writer’s Note: I’ve decided that this piece will be broken up into multiple parts being that plenty of topics were discussed at this year’s GDC. Look forward to reactions to other GDC topics within the week.