Belated GDC Tracks — Are Stories Integral To Games?

20 Jul

These are my notes from a writing track at VIGS, what became GDC Canada.  I’ve been meaning to transcribe them forever, but never got around to it, and it wasn’t long before I forgot which notebook they were in.  But, I’m going to start posting them now.

Unfortunately I didn’t record one of the names.  John Meadows, one of my writing teachers at VFS, was on the panel with Marianne Krawczyk — I marked all their names with one letter, and unfortunately the writer for Sony’s The Agency and for Everquest remains just a “T” in my notes.

This was more of a conversation in front of the audience, so bear with me.

M: The better stories we can integrate into a game, the better it can become.  Stories are best told in moments —  How do you make the player feel like he’s playing the moment?

J: You can’t always rely on cutscenes.

T: It’s got to be concise…they just don’t care, they just want to get the quest.  In an MMO, the story is about the player.

M: Make storyboards that drive players into the next area.

T: Players will hit certain parts of the story [in The Agency] where characters will becomes part of cutscenes.

M: Gamers are thinking in gameplay terms.  Simple action = more room for dialogue.  I always feel like I’m clubbing them over the head, retelling story bits.

M: What Sony Santa Monica does is they start with a story [fill out game design from high concept of story — top down], writing backwards for design — things will get cut and crammed.

J: Problem solving can become your best asset for coming up with ideas you otherwise wouldn’t have.

What would you do differently if you were studio head?

T: Writers need more gameplay experience [everyone agrees].

Inspiration for characters and story.

M: When I started with Kratos, he was white and nobody knew why.  What’s the worst day for him, he’s already a killer.  The things that bubble up organically work the best.

Example: Saren from Mass Effect.  He made so many good arguments for his cause…I agree with you, I’m still going to kill you, but I agree with you.

T: Those human stories.  I try to find one thing about an NPC, no matter how insignificant, a little quirk they have.

M: Write from their point of view, not just listen — you’re speaking to iconic human emotion.

Future of narrative storytelling, dialogue

T: The player can pick something up [a quest], run with it, and not have to spend five hours online.

J: Battlestar Galactica does it, do you want them to be totally exhausted?  Do you have to play for three to four hours to get a [story] beat?

T: I have to lighten it up, but not too much, not “too fluffy in a serious world”.

How did you come to game writing?

T: Coming from a “serious” background, games allowed for a creative outlet [television]; I could write “silly” things.

M: Went to film school, had some luck.

J: It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

T: You have to keep playing games and you have to love them.  I was turned down on Star Wars Galaxies for not having played enough games.

M: You never stop learning how to write, or how to write better.

Building an interesting protagonist

M: A Half-Life 2 kind of a trick, the player probably wouldn’t do that, but the character would.

M: The God of War story, although it wasn’t completely thought out from the beginning, it was thought out as a “seed”.

J: A miniaturized version of a bigger story.

T: I write six word biographies, if I can describe them in six words, it reveals that kernel of truth about that character.

M: First person exercises; write as them, not about them.

T: You have to know that emotion, it has to be true to you — write what you know.  “This character would do that”.

J: The player brings so much of their own character – blank, subtle, like Gordon Freeman.  RPG characters, NPCs, unveil things about your character.

M: It’s not straight storytelling; they’e doing, not watching.

Emotional experiences, using story to affect players directly, not empathetically through characters

J: A hockey game, events, momentum, injuries, a close game — that tells a story.

M: Choices — making players make hard choices.

T: In Everquest I wrote a quest where people had to rais a dog, then kill it.  Some people were upset with the time investment lost, but some people actually felt terrible.

M: Never underestimate the power of animals, empathy.  People tend to love them, so we have to kill them.

T: Dependency – it was dependent on you and so it increases the emotional tie.

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