It’s no secret that one of the areas of videogames I’m most interested in is their storytelling potential, so I made a point of going to as many of the talks on the narrative track at Develop as possible. Perhaps the most interesting of these was a panel hosted by the Wellcome Trust, in which three very different game designers detailed their approach to building narratively believable worlds.
Dan Pinchbeck, the Creative Director of The Chinese Room, of Dear Esther fame (or notoriety, depending on which side of the fence you sit), spoke about new project Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Set in rural Shropshire after a catastrophic or Biblical event, the game sees you exploring an open world devoid of people, piecing together stories from the things left behind or the past played out by ghosts. Rapture sees The Chinese Room moving away from the absolute linear nature of Dear Esther, which saw the player become something like the stylus on an old record player, triggering audio clips as you move through the space but largely unable to leave your groove. Instead Pinchbeck describes Rapture as “a giant first person jigsaw puzzle.”
At least part of this is down to how players use the camera to frame the scene. Pinchbeck reminds us that the history of cinematography teaches us how the meaning of something can change dramatically depending on how you frame it, and in videogames a large part of that process rests in the player’s hands. “The most powerful tool is the player’s imagination,” Pinchbeck says, “we try to avoid hindering it.”
Tameem Antoniades was also on hand from Ninja Theory to discuss Hellblade, their forthcoming character action game set around the invasion of the Vikings upon the Picts in Orkney. The player takes on the role of a traumatised young woman named Senua, the sole survivor of the massacre of her village.
As Tameem’s colleague Dominic Matthews outlined in a separate talk on the Hellblade project, Ninja Theory are, through self-publishing, attempting to build what they call an ‘Independent AAA game.’ Through it they are hoping to take more risks and demonstrate that’s it’s possible to reinject some creativity into the AAA space by finding a space for development between the increasingly distant indie and commercial poles. One of those risks is the theme of mental illness, an issue that the studio are trying to treat sensitively having teamed up with The Wellcome Trust, whose remit is to improve the perception of medical science and issues like mental illness through their accurate portrayal in media. Ninja Theory are therefore working closely with Paul Fletcher, a professor of Neuroscience at Cambridge, as well as other mental health charities to flesh out the portrayal of Senua who is suffering from schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress.
Through it they are hoping to take more risks and demonstrate that’s it’s possible to reinject some creativity into the AAA space by finding a space for development between the increasingly distant indie and commercial poles.
The player will witness the world “through the lens of mental illness,” the trailer boasts, Senua’s experience triggering hallucinations and a distorted world view that’s echoed in the art style. “We all create a coherence from an abstract world,” says Tameem, “and so do people with mental illness.” The game therefore attempts to project a reality that, despite being warped from our perspective, represents a truthful presentation for the protagonist. Whether this experiment pays off largely depends on how successful Ninja Theory are in handling their difficult subject matter.
Last up was Jay Baylis from Chuckle Fish, an animator working on the procedurally generated sand box game Starbound. Despite there being no traditional overarching narrative, making it the polar opposite of the narrative driven Hellblade, in Starbound the developers attempt to impart narrative context through game mechanics and interacting with the world. This is a universe being co-created with the audience.
At a later talk I saw Alexis Kennedy of Failbetter games discuss the narratively rich world of his game Sunless Sea, which is part text adventure, part procedural roguelike, part love letter to H.P. Lovecraft. In his talk Alexis pointed out the difficulty of writing meaningful branching narratives (although this is a phrase he detests), which are based on the three qualities of choice, complicity and consequence, the before, during and after of a narrative moment. Of these consequence is the most valuable, but also the most expensive as making meaningful consequences that ripple out from events and colour what comes later takes a lot of extra writing.
One way of making players care about your story is making it seem like the story cares about the player. Tell Tale’s “clementine will remember that” may be a cheap trick, according to Alexis, but it does the job. People need to understand the choice, what is at stake and why they should care. Thus asking players whether they want to go left, right or straight ahead, a staple of early chose your adventure stories, is a terrible choice because it lacks any kind of context to make one choice meaningful over another.
Ed Fear, creative director at Mediatonic, who has worked on localising pigeon dating sim Hatoful Boyfriend, and, most recently, created a new IP with Square Enix called Heavenstrike Rivals. Ed sees narrative as something that underpins all other elements of game design, but should never be allowed to override anything. In this sense its use is like a supporting scaffolding. Ed found no problems convincing Square Enix of this given the studio’s emphasis on narrative across their games (even their collaboration with Pop Cap, Gyromancer, had an incredibly complex story), but suspects it might be a harder sell to other companies working on stories based on service models.
Traditionally games, and the broader world of media, are character driven and worlds and stories derive from them, but in a game that is built as a service model, in which content is released gradually, the world must exist first and be robust enough to contain a number of stories and characters. Ed set about ‘seeding conflict’ by devising two sides fractured into many factions, whose relationships with one another varied from hostility, to alliance and isolationism. He then splits the narrative events into those that change the world state and those that do not, but emphasising that too much of the former will lead to production problems (your spiralling costs and creating assets that many people won’t see) and too many of the latter makes for a stale world.
As you can see from the talks outlined narrative can function in many different ways in many different styles of game. It can be implied, gradually built up, expressed through mechanics, seen through the perspective of a character or given over to the player, it can branch of in a million directions or be a linear cinematic affair, and it can support every other aspect of the game. Different sorts of narrative carry their own problems, risks and benefits. One thing is certain, so long as there are venues like Develop there will be arguments about how narrative functions in games.