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  • Out Of Weakness, Strength: The Three Ds of Narrative Design

    - Danny Allen

  • iDentity 

    Discussing player identity requires a more holistic view of the gaming experience. Why would a player choose one dialog line over another? Why would they choose one mission option over another? This depends on the identity they have chosen for their in-game character.  

    Narrative designers, generally don't have a lot of control over the systems that get put into a game: reputation, good/evil, social, companions, skill trees, crafting, combat, etc. ad infinitum. The best way to contribute to an immersive gaming experience is to provide effective writing. This doesn't mean injecting Nabokovian wordplay into your gear descriptions, but rather making sure to describe the object and its role in the larger world as fully as possible. 

    Something I learned as a storyboard artist is that clarity always trumps artistry. A stick figure drawing that clearly expresses a gag is more useful to the director and animators than a beautifully rendered mural that does not. The same principle extends to narrative design. Are your gear descriptions brief and evocative, or are they lengthy expeditions through the thesaurus? Do your NPC callouts/barks reflect the avatar identity the player envisions or are they a run-on string of syllables and clichés? Probably more than any other artist, narrative designers must be willing to kill their darlings.

    A game that does an excellent job describing its world is Wasteland 3. I want to go over some examples here, but first a Trigger Warning for gore. This is the kind of game that keeps Joe Lieberman up at night.

    The game starts with a cinematic ambush that leaves the player, an Arizona Ranger, stranded and vulnerable atop a frozen Colorado lake. As the player's party navigates the icy terrain in search of safety and leadership, they encounter horrific sights. Corpses of massacred Arizona Rangers litter the map, each with a unique OST description. This is an impressive world-building effort that pays off in an unseen way.

    Can you imagine seeing a dead soldier, his eyes so wide with fear when he died that they now reflect the broader scene of carnage? How do you react as a player?

    Whoever did this is taking no quarter. The player has been warned.

    This could have been a friend of yours. Now he's just a pulpy stain on the ice.

    This is a brutally evocative description of a dead body. This tells the player that the enemies he or she is up against are vicious. The enemies have tortured the player's compatriot to death. How should the player react to this? Cautious about another ambush? Eager for vengeance? Anxious to get to safety?

    If Wasteland 3's OST descriptions were limited to just "Dead Ranger," the player would have less information to influence their reaction, and thus their character identity. They might conclude that their own Ranger HQ is cruel for sending so many brave fighters to a bloody death in a strange northern land. They might blame wild animals. They might even deduce that a very aggressive stomach virus is going around Colorado.

    You might think it's silly to worry about the player deriving so many different opinions about the dead Rangers, considering they just watched the opening cinematic of the Dorseys' ambush, but you would be surprised by gamers' unlimited ability to misunderstand and misinterpret.

    But the Patriarch's Colorado isn't entirely a frozen hellscape of death and torture. There's still a silver lining of merriment to be sought out:

    Maybe it's just lemonade.

    One last note, the narrative designers on Wasteland 3 had the advantage of working on a game that speaks directly to players. But not every game has such a robust OST system. How can the writer contribute to world building on games that give the writer less control up front? The answer is that not all of a narrative designer's work is player-facing.  

    Video game creation is a supremely collaborative effort. The writer should have a consummate vision for any writing they do, be it NPC conversations, character backstories, mission assets, mission locations, and so forth. They must be willing and able to clearly convey their vision to the artists and designers tasked with bringing them to life. Writers should also be willing to listen to other departments as well. Some of the best story solutions I've seen have come from outside the Story. 

    Whether on the front or the back end, the narrative designer's job is to give the player the information they need to build their character identity, which in turn affects their decisions, which determines their dialog.

    In Conclusion

    Plot, Person, Place, and Purpose dictate conventional storytelling, but video games have additional tools to immerse the audience: Dialog, Decision, and (i)Dentity (yeah, I'm sticking with it). With these extra dimensions, we can create the most impactful stories our audiences have ever felt. I remember the sense of betrayal I felt during John Marston's last stand in Red Dead Redemption (and the boredom of helping him build a house in the prequel/sequel), and the pride I felt at the end of New Vegas when I told the major factions that the Strip was under new management: mine. The palpable shock and dread I felt all throughout Naughty Dog's The Last of Us Part II was on par with any episode of Battlestar Galactica. The hallucinatory finale of Rocksteady's Arkham Knight is every bit as mind bending as The Simpsons episode where Homer eats the Guatemalan insane asylum chili.

    Video games are often derided as an immature medium, There is no Citizen Kane, Moby Dick, or Sopranos (unless you count the Playstation 2 adaptation). Or is there? There is nothing to stop us from creating stories that will stick with audiences across the generations, as many games already have. A medium is only as good as the stories one uses it for, and video games devs have no excuse for not creating the most compelling stories that modern audiences have ever experienced. We are far past the days of rescuing princesses or mayors' daughters. 

    A final word of advice from Dale Carnegie: "All men have fears, but the brave put down their fears and go forward, sometimes to death, but always to victory." Video games force the audience to take control and to take accountability. That's not a weakness; it's a strength.


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