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  • Storytelling In Games: Setting And Tools

    [04.28.22]
    - Robert Renke

  • World Narrative

    WORLD NARRATIVE is the story of a place, its past, and its people. It is told through the construction of a place and the objects within it. World narrative is not limited to cold historical data. Like any other narrative tools, it can convey both information and feeling. Prisons, palaces, family homes, rolling countryside-all of these places carry both emotional and informational charges. They work through empathy-What was it like to live here?-and raw environmental emotion-lonely, desolate tundra. (Sylvester, 2013)

    Richard Rouse III (2016) refers to Sylvester's world narrative as explorative story space. The important thing for this "side content", according to Rouse, is that it has to be completely optional. This allows for different players to find different pieces, and come up with their own version based on that pieces - and when they compare stories later, they will narrate a different experience to each other, increasing their engagement in the work.

    figure 1: Rouse, R. (2016). Dynamic Stories for Dynamic Games: Six Ways to Give Each Player a Unique Narrative [Screenshot from Gone Home]. Game Developers Conference. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SsSh62mSPZE

    World narrative can leverage cultural symbols to communicate by association. What kind of person do you think of when you picture graffiti on brick walls? Or an igloo? Or a tiny monastery atop a mountain? (Sylvester, 2013)

    Just like in the real world, everything in the game world requires a reason to be there, a history. As Behnam Mehrafrooz (n.d.) argues, "The very world of your game itself needs to produce that kind of stuff. A destroyed palace? It can't just be any ruined palace. It's got to have a past and a justification to be in ruins, and your level design should reflect that. Have an old knightly order suit of armor? It must have their symbol on it. And also everything else that comes from that order. "

    According to Sylvester(2013), "world narrative can also be expressed through documents". He mentions Deux Ex for the use of PDAs, although this method has been exhaustively used throughout the genre, for example in Bioshock Infinite or Borderlands 2. Those PDAs are a very clean and non-intrusive way to include the optional side content described by Rouse(2016), as players can either stop to listen, continue their way without paying attention to the spoken content and opt out entirely, or rehear them whenever it feels comfortable to them.

    "One particularly interesting set of PDAs follows the life of a new recruit in a terrorist organization as he travels through the world one step ahead of the player character, on the other side of the law. As the player finds each PDA seemingly minutes or hours after it was left, he comes to know the young terrorist recruit without ever interacting with him." (Sylvester, 2013)

    According to Sylvester(2013), "video logs take the concept one obvious step further". They might run in a loop on a screen, or be found ready to be played. World narrative can be transmitted through TV programs, news, propaganda, home videos, camera footage, and so on.

    Another mood-setting world narrative can be found in the radios of GTA (or saints row for that matter), or racing games. The feeling transmitted by music and broadcaster tells us about the specific culture of the area that we are located in.

    Of course as designer we are never alone, as there is a whole team of specialists, and regardless of the type of project, it will always be essential that everyone on the team understands the "feel" we want to transmit. Take these sets of decorations from GoodGame Empire.

    "Lover's Fall", a reward from the 2018/19 valentine's event, creates a strong narrative with just two words describing one asset. Symbolism used here include the pink-purple color, culturally associated to romance, intimacy, passion. Two heart shapes, one forming the trees canopy and the other formed by the twist in the trunk. Roses are a symbol of love in various cultures around the world. Swings evoke distant memories from a children playground and can stand for innocence. Maybe it was a first innocent love? But the strongest sense lies in the story the spectator makes in the mind: Why are there two swings above an abyss? Why are they empty? What came first, did the abyss open from below and took the lives of those two lovers, or was it there from the beginning and represents trust, in other words, holding each other above the abyss? In a more abstract sense, did they fall victims of their own naivety, an innocent first love dragged down by the claws of time?


    Figure 2: Lover's Fall. GoodGame Empire. GoodGame Studios.

    Few years later, introduce two new versions of the same asset for singles day 2020: on the left the "well of solitude" and on the right the "well of treachery" - but again, the names are the least telling aspect (and definite names are usually defined after the asset is made anyway). In both assets, and even more considering they are usually offered together, we can notice a strong use of symbolism in both shape and color. The first difference that the eye catches is of course the color. The main theme can be found in the color of the well: deep purple for loneliness and desperation, dark red for rage and revenge. The accompanying foliage color is simply due to visual ease (purple and green are part of a triage, red and turquois are complementary). Furthermore, there are at least two heart shapes (one forming the leaves of the twisted tree and another in the trunks shape), reinforcing the notion of an emotional topic. Above of the well, we move from the principal theme to an actual story, told by the artist solely through the visuals of the reworked asset. On the left, a single large swing over the dark abyss. On the right, two swings, one of which hangs from a broken string... the inner string, the one that would be accessible from the other, unbroken swing. Is it the same well that we found years ago? Past the years, memories of innocence have transformed into silent melancholy or even rage against the ever fraying external world in the process of growing up. Maybe even a metaphor for the slow decay of naively absentminded relationships into lonesomeness then anger? The similarity and opposition of love and hate as two sides of the same coin?

    I have probably missed further narrative, like eventually the color difference of the trunks, the elements of the tree growing from the top of a rock and leaves of grass encircled by stones, the roses that still climb the trunk, or the weathered path. In the end, every individual will attribute their own unconscious interpretation and sentiments to the same piece of art, and this is precisely what makes world narrative so powerful.


    Figure 3: Well of Solitude and Well of Treachery. GoodGame Empire. GoodGame Studios.

    At the end of the day, the artist (wether it be graphics, sound, writer, etc) will always know best how to transmit the given narrative.

    Citing one artist at GoodGameStudios, the team "would get requests from different departments. Mostly just saying we need a decoration, skin(for a specific building) or a character in halloween theme. Since we already created a styleguide for the visual appearance of this theme we know exactly how it should look like stylewise (some themes are based on a short background story provided by game design). For decorations it is mostly up to the art team to find a interesting narrative. There is always a dialogue with the department who requested the asset to ensure it fulfills its purpose. But there are also a few other cases in which the requests are very specific. For example that the character has to visually look stealthily or sneaky because it has a specific function within the story.

    Regarding the arrangement there are different ways to create focal points. The size of the elements/symbol is one way. But also very important is the use of contrast (values, color, saturation, etc.). In our specific case of empire silhouette is an important factor. If a shape looks interesting it immediately catches attention."

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