In an effort to get more student developers thinking about game narrative, the Writers' Summit at GDC Austin supported an annual contest in association with the IGDA Writers SIG.
Working in conjunction with prestigious programs such as Digipen, The Guildhall and RIT, the board -- including game narrative professionals such as Susan O'Connor, Lev Chapelsky, Tom Abernathy, Dana Fos, and Richard Dansky -- has challenged students to produce in-depth analyses of the narrative elements of their favorite video games.
The goal is twofold: to encourage students to look at game narrative and writing with the intensity and depth that they do other aspects of game development, and to reward the students who excel at game narrative analysis.
Winners in the competition are given the chance to present their work in a poster session at the GDC Austin, while the top three finishers receive special recognition and a conference pass. Covering games ranging from best-sellers to obscure imports, and from today's biggest hits to classics from a decade ago, the competition shone a spotlight on the insightful and original thinking today's students are doing about game narrative.
GameCareerGuide is happy to present some of the competition's standout entrants.
Game Title: Lost Odyssey
Platform: Xbox 360
Release Date: February 12, 2008
Developer: Mistwalker, feelplus
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Game Writer/Creative Director/Narrative Designer: Hironobu Sakaguchi
Lost Odyssey takes place in a world that is undergoing a magical-industrial revolution. Magic engines have been invented to harness magic power in order to make everyday tasks easier and more efficient. At the same time, the nations of Uhra and Gohtza have used magic energy to create more destructive weapons to be used in battle. A third nation, Numara, has researched magic engines but due to its neutral isolationist policies hasn't created weaponry. Lost Odyssey begins with a battle between Uhra and a savage nation, Khent, on the Highlands of Wohl. Suddenly a huge meteor lands on the battlefield, destroying all but a few survivors. The player takes control of Kaim, one of the survivors.
The narrative of Lost Odyssey has a basis in immortality. The five major characters of Lost Odyssey (Kaim, Sarah, Seth, Ming, and Gongora) have come from a parallel universe in which time works differently. In the world of Lost Odyssey these characters are Immortal, unable to die and never seeming to age. This extends only to these characters and is not passed to their children, born in the new world. The Immortals first arrived 1000 years ago with the intention of helping the planet. After realizing the great power the Immortals wield on this planet, Gongora, an Immortal sorcerer, grows a desire to become a god over the world. Gongora uses his power to cast a spell that erases the memories of the other Immortals so they won't try to stop his plan to become a god.
There are three major factions present in Lost Odyssey which correlate to their largest city. The cities enjoy to an extent the peace of the world, but many citizens wish for a more united world. Uhra and Gohtza are at the forefront of the fighting for the most dominant country, while Numara follows a strict isolationist policy.
Kaim - The hero of the story, Immortal. Kaim is a Lieutenant of the Uhran army, fighting with a sword. Quiet and self-kept, Kaim hides a strong sense of loyalty and love under a hardened outer shell. Married to Sarah, with deceased daughter Lirum, and grandchildren Cooke and Mack.
Gongora - The Shadow, Immortal. After arriving on the planet with good intentions, Gongora realizes he has immense power in this world, and attempts to extend that power over all worlds, to become a god. A manipulative, powerful magician, Gongora manages to take control of the country of Uhra and the Grand Staff and is only brought down by the combined efforts of the group.
Seth - An ex-pirate, Immortal. Through an untold event, Seth has ended up in the Uhran army and is told to adventure with Kaim to explore Grand Staff. Once known as a grand pirate, Seth has a light hearted nature coupled with little fear of a fight. Seth is the Companion for Kaim, with him from the beginning, and shares the same major goal to regain her memory and stop Gongora.
Sarah - Kaim's wife, Immortal. Sarah is a quiet, renowned sorceress who has read and studied much literature of the world. Driven to depression by witnessing the death of her daughter Lirum, Sarah is found in a house overrun with monsters, under the appearance of an old witch. Sarah represents the Mother, as she holds the greatest knowledge of the Immortal's journey in her diaries, and is the one to console or give guidance to the other characters.
Ming - Queen of Numara, Immortal. Ming is known as the Thousand Year Queen, due to the term of her rule. An experienced ruler and great sorceress who has witnessed centuries of generations from the throne. Ming is very royal and formal. Having ruled her entire time on the planet, Ming is lonely and knows little of life outside the castle, expressed by her naiveté towards Jansen.
Jansen - A money-loving womanizer, Mortal. Jansen is used by Gongora to keep an eye on Kaim and Seth through their initial journey to Grand Staff. After learning of Gongora using him, Jansen begins to help the party through his knowledge of black magic, and eventually falls in love with Ming. Jansen is the Clown, providing comedic relief to the story, while representing many of the traits the Immortals no longer feel after their long existence on the planet.
Cooke - Kaim's granddaughter, Mortal. Cooke is a bit of a tomboy and is usually bossing around her younger brother Mack. Cooke is a skilled white magic user and supports the cast throughout the game. Cooke is a representation of the Child of the story. Cooke is the mature side of the Child, trying to mold childish hopes and dreams into realistic forms which take shape in the world.
Mack - Kaim's grandson, Mortal. Gentle and shy, Mack has a strong backbone and wishes to be like his grandfather Kaim. After becoming possessed, Mack is able to cast Spirit Magic. Mack is a second representation of the Child of the story. Along with his sister Cooke, these two provide hope for a better, more peaceful world through their childlike natures. Mack represents the immature side of the Child, the side with unending hopes and dreams for the world.
Sed - Seth's son, Mortal. An infamous pirate who wields magic rifles, Sed is met after he was captured in Uhra. Sed is a sarcastic man who often criticizes the bravery of other characters. Sed is the Engineer, very capable of working with mechanical objects and often found repairing any item found throughout the game.
Tolten - King of Uhra, Mortal. Tolten was raised as a typical prince, with no sense of the real world. Gongora exploits Tolten to return Uhra to a monarchy and then proclaims his death, granting all power to Gongora. Tolten represents the Knight, a soldier of honour, who is a skilled fighter but will not fight without cause. Through Gongora's trickery Tolten breaks from the flaw of the Knight, his unrealistic view of the world.
The narrative of Lost Odyssey is a must-experience work. The narrative path is nodal, with one main storyline that includes multiple side stories that can be explored, all winding back to the main plot. The climax of the story comes when the characters are deliberately attacked by Gongora on the experimental precursor to the Grand Staff. The cast is knocked out during the self-destruction sequence of the Experimental Staff, saved only through Mack and Cooke's awakening by the spirit of their dead mother.
The player's protagonist, Kaim, does not follow the traditional Hero's Journey, but rather a path of a hero's return. Kaim begins the game as a hero, both in nature and ability, and progresses throughout the story to remember his true identity and to reestablish the love for his family that he lost. Kaim's small incremental triumphs are based on his relationships with Sarah, Cooke, and Mack, rather than getting closer to foiling Gongora's plan, such as saving Sarah from her magic-wrought depression and rescuing Cooke and Mack from traveling to see their dead mother in an aurora borealis-like display. In fact, stopping Gongora acts as more of a small triumph in Kaim's greater journey to find himself in a world to which he doesn't belong.
The main narrative of Lost Odyssey has no direct interaction with the player. There is no chance for the player to change the structure or any outcome of the story. Any taken multiple paths bring you back to where you were before venturing down the new path, your reward being exposition. The player's only true role is to move the story along, to reach the next cut scene or dream sequence. While this removes potential from Lost Odyssey, the story has been designed in a nostalgic style accepting of this non-interaction of the player. Cutscenes have been designed to leave the player wanting to know more of the tale, rather than wanting the player to take control of the story. The game play is reflective of this in the beauty of its battles, as they do little to progress characters or the story. Much of the game play consists of exploring the environment through a mostly linear path, representative of the nodal path of the narrative. Due to the effectiveness of Lost Odyssey's narrative it would have been a great immersive experience were the player able to affect the story, but Lost Odyssey puts forth a respectable effort to work around this obstacle.
One of the highlights of game play working together with the narrative in Lost Odyssey comes during Lirum's funeral. After the cut scene of Lirum's death, the player must gather materials and act out the funeral ceremonies. While the game play for the beginning of this section is a repetitive search for branches and flowers, the focus of the funeral section includes the characters acting out the unique funeral ceremony of the burning of the ties. The player takes control of each character, and after following the on screen commands, sets fire to a cloth band tied between the casket and a pole, representing the release of the Lirum's bonds to the mortal world. At the end of the burning, another cut scene is viewed in which Lirum's casket floats off into the ocean while her children Cooke and Mack rush to the water's edge, crying for their mother.
Lost Odyssey relies heavily on exposition, as the main story is used as a tool to bring forth and emphasize the emotional elements of the past. While this is a point of caution for interactive media writers, Lost Odyssey's reliance on exposition succeeds due to the beauty of its visual side, and the skill of its written side. Cutscenes and dream sequences aren't created to just present images containing information to the player they have been specifically and effectively designed to convey more emotion than story.
A special exposition element of Lost Odyssey is the inclusion of the "Thousand Years of Dreams" short stories. These are lengthy stories, complete with their own background music and short piano sound effects. The stories appear after certain cutscenes but can be skipped and later reviewed through the main menu. Each story takes around 30 minutes to read and at first seems to stutter the flow of the game and add unnecessary pileup. But upon reading the "Thousand Years of Dreams", one is immediately immersed in their great detail and emotional responses are drawn from the reader.
The reason these long pieces of exposition succeed is due to their quality. The "Thousand Years of Dreams" succeed as great short stories beyond their inclusion in Lost Odyssey. This is important as their addition to Lost Odyssey emphasizes and improves the emotion and overall theme of the game. Stories which are developed as part of a game tend to be unstable outside the game environment and therefore fail in their attempt to reinforce game aspects. "Thousand Years of Dreams" is a perfect addition to Lost Odyssey and is a must read for those who have played the game.
The strongest element of Lost Odyssey is the how the theme of being immortal is expressed through the relationship between Kaim, Sarah, Lirum, Cooke, and Mack. One of the earliest cutscenes in Lost Odyssey is the scene in which Lirum jumps off a cliff to what we believe is her death. This scene is replayed again later, with the added information of Gongora nearby, having possessed Lirum to jump. Eventually Kaim and Sarah find Lirum, who survived the jump but is on her death bed due to illness. Kaim and Sarah reunite with Lirum for just a few short minutes before she dies. This is a great expression of the Immortal's loneliness.
Forced to live, believing and mourning Lirum's death, they are brought together for only a few more minutes before Lirum is truly lost. This emphasizes the loneliness and detachment from the world the Immortals suffer from. After Lirum's death, Kaim and Sarah take care of her children, Cooke and Mack. Later in the game, Cooke and Mack disappear, and fearing they may die Kaim and Sarah temporarily abandon their quest to search for Cooke and Mack. Immortals outlive any other beings on this world and are therefore alone, a feeling wrought through the relationship between Kaim and his family.
An unsuccessful element of Lost Odyssey is the love story between the characters Jansen and Ming. Jansen and Ming are main party members for different reasons, but were also included in a love story apart from the main narrative. The intention is to help progress Jansen's transformation from a whore-loving, self-absorbed man, who cares most for money, into a man who knows how to love and care for another.
This love story begins with Jansen attempting to take advantage of Ming. Behaving for whatever reason like a childish and unknowing girl, Ming takes Jansen's advances with naiveté, finding him charming. As the game progresses, Jansen's character begins to change and he falls in love with Ming, but Ming never realizes the person Jansen used to be and her admiration never changes, just slowly grows. This takes away from Jansen's change, as it wasn't his coming around of character that won Ming's heart, it was his old whore loving self.
Jansen's character change is also more significant to characters other than Ming. In fact Ming is nowhere to be found during the highlight Jansen's transformation. This occurs when Jansen disobeys Gongora and uses the item which is intended to erase Kaim's memory on a prison guard instead. At this point in the story the characters had only met Ming once and she was not a constant member of the party. If Ming was really supposed to be the one to change Jansen for the better, Jansen should have changed for her, or at the very least somewhere near her.
Overall Ming and Jansen seem to be only semi-important characters that were given a story in order to try to increase their usefulness. The attempt to give them a story adds nothing to the main story of Lost Odyssey and acts as a last attempt to add character.
At the end of Lost Odyssey, it is revealed that the immortals must send Gongora back through the portal to their world to stop his plans. Through the final battle it appears Gongora is too powerful to be forced back through the portal alone. It is at this moment that Seth runs up and holds Gongora, making it known she will bring him through the portal, stopping his plans but also giving up her ties to the mortal world embodied mostly in her son, Sed. While in hindsight it is Seth who is most likely to sacrifice herself, as she has the least attachment to the world, Kaim and Sarah having their grandchildren and Ming having Jansen, the narration is built to create an expectation of a mortal character sacrificing themselves for the others, specifically Jansen or King Tolten.
Reviews of Lost Odyssey's narrative tend to point out the story as the strongest aspect of the game. "Edge Magazine", often known for their full use of the 1-10 rating scale and harsh criticisms, rated Lost Odyssey a 7/10, stating "Lost Odyssey contains some of the most tender writing ever committed to a videogame," and "Kaim emerges as a deep and interesting lead character, lending additional weight and sincerity to some of the game's standout moments, which include what is surely the most affecting death yet seen in an RPG." "GameTrailers.com" follows the same suit in their 8.8 scoring of Lost Odyssey, of which the story was given a sub rating of 9.6, saying "Above heart-pounding battles lies an emphasis on heartfelt moments through liberal use of cutscenes and unlockable text-based novellas with the game's thousand year's dream feature."
On the flipside, "GameSpy.com", in their 2.5 rating of Lost Odyssey by Patrick Joynt, critique Lost Odyssey's narrative with "...every element of the story feels as if it was dredged from another source and recklessly thrust into Lost Odyssey," and "Key emotional moments are often handled through exposition, whether in cut-scenes or 'dreams.'"
All reviews have stated the effectiveness of the "Thousand Years of Dreams" and applaud their presentation of text with audio specific to the story as means to evoke emotion. In GameSpy's review, the critiques of characters were of their stereotypical nature, being swordsmen or magicians, and similarities to roles of other characters rather than their depth or progression. In Edge Magazine and GameTrailers.com's reviews, Kaim is noted for his deep past and the recollection of the flaws of humanity he has missed. Lost Odyssey's reviews have mostly praised the story, especially the "Thousand Years of Dreams", but cite Lost Odyssey's similarities to other RPGs.
The most avoided aspects of a video game can be used to create a memorable game experience. The "Thousand Years of Dreams" in Lost Odyssey is a collection of short stories, telling what the characters have been through over their thousand years in the world. These stories are long for video game inclusion and have their own respective music. It may seem too much to expect gamers to sit and read these stories, especially when they may be skipped. The "Thousand Years of Dreams" counters this because they succeed as short stories, even if you have no knowledge of Lost Odyssey. Thus, when featured as part of the game, these stories help to greatly emphasize the theme of Lost Odyssey, and upon reading of one, a player becomes encouraged to read the rest.
If a character's role seems to only take them along for the ride, leave them that way. This is in reference to the characters Jansen and Ming, whose storyline has been discussed as a weak element. These characters should not have been given a story to give them more emotional appeal in Lost Odyssey, they worked better as characters who were helpers but not central.
Lost Odyssey is a beautiful example of storytelling in a video game. The breadth of the characters and skillful emphasis of loneliness make it a very enjoyable narrative experience. While the plot appears to be simple and familiar it incorporates the needed smaller details to create a depth rarely seen before in a video game. The inclusion of the "Thousand Years of Dreams" does an incredible job filling in what we don't know about the characters, even through its tell rather than show of exposition. This creates emotion in the players, without which Lost Odyssey would be little more than a mediocre RPG.