BAFTA Writers Panel: The challenges of storytelling
BAFTA Games last week hosted a Game Writers Panel in London, during which experienced writers Edward Stern (Brink), Rhianna Pratchett (Mirror’s Edge) and James Swallow (Deus Ex: Human Revolution) covered a variety of topics on the subject of narrative design.
The panel, which Andrew Walsh (Prince of Persia) moderated, discussed the issues affecting videogame writing, what they thought was good writing and where they see the discipline heading in the future. All of that, of course, is too much for one article, so we’re going to focus on the challenges that writers face today.
One of the first issues covered was the issue of resources, or the lack of them. In other mediums, such as film, television and theatre, your biggest assets are your people. Even with the wonders of motion capture, you can’t simply throw a real person into a game. Neither can you use real locations or props. Game developers must work harder and invest heavily to get even the basic things that other mediums take for granted. You get “nothing for free”, according to Stern.
“The stuff you get for free in film — the close up, the meeting and joining of two characters — that is one of the most expensive things to do in games, because facial animation is way more expensive than anything else. We can make space stations blow up every five seconds. That’s not a problem. It’s not that much more expensive for us to have a building fly through the air as your character sits there… But, we have to build all of our locations. They are all sets. You can’t just go to Wales or the Rockies. You have to build mountains. You don’t get anything for free. Particle effects are relatively cheaper, guns shooting and things blowing up, we can do cheaply. Two characters having a meaningful conversation: that’s really hard.”
Recreating authentic human experiences is only part of the battle; after all, the aim of a videogame writer is not to create an animated film. Games, through virtue of being interactive, have to engage with the player. The player shouldn’t feel passive. They should feel as though they are shaping the experience as that player character. Achieving this “invisible link”, says Pratchett, is the “sweet spot” for a writer or narrative designer.
“This is possibly one of the biggest issues in game narratives at the moment, [i.e.] is trying to fold in the narrative side of the character in with its actions. Because in any other medium, we know that actions equal character, but if you take that from games, in often the way that game narratives are developed, it’s very separate from the action. So you can get a very heavy action game or a hero performing genocide on a regular basis, and the character you are following in cut scenes or whatever, they never reference it, think about it, or have any impact on them whatsoever.”
Pratchett is referring to that jarring feeling you get when you notice that the actions you do in-game simply do not align with the story that’s being pushed on you. She says it often happens whens “narrative is created in a sort of separate bubble from the game mechanics…” Developers create a “big gulf that immediately breaks down”. She adds:
“This also works in a cut scene when your player/character is doing something wonderful and cool that they never get to do in the game. That really breaks the link between the player and player character.”
It is no surprise that Swallow, writer of Deus Ex: Human Revolution (a game that gives you incredible freedom to shape the experience), believes the problem occurs when you don’t give the player agency over the actions. This doesn’t necessarily mean he believes in abandoning the narrative. Quite the opposite, in fact:
“As a writer, we want to bring a story to you. We want you to experience these events and we want you to work your way through the narrative… If we railroad you, force you down a narrow path — quite literally sometimes a narrow little corridor, and lock you in a room having people talk to you — suddenly you are losing your player agency.”
Player agency is important. They key is making it “feel like you are controlling the player and discovering the story”, instead of having the story told to you. He adds:
“We want to tell you a story, and we want you to experience the highs and lows, in the correct order and in the correct way so your emotions hit the right beats. But at the same time, we don’t want to take control away from you, and give you 45-minute cut scene. I’m looking at you Metal Gear Solid.”
Poor Kojima; MGS is clearly what happens when you give an eager writer too much freedom. That’s such a rare occurrence in game development, though, and it is one of the main reasons why so much videogame writing seems disjoined, says Stern:
“Sometimes the reason why that goes wrong is the way game writers are hired. I’m lucky, I’m a full-time writer/designer, which means I get to work on fewer projects, but it also means I get to be there right at the beginning all the way through to the end. Sometimes writers are brought in ridiculously late in the game. You would never make a film that way.”
Stern says, “Writers convey meaning”, and if you bring in a writer too late they can’t imprint that meaning into the gameplay. It’s equally true if you bring in a writer early, only to cut things later without taking into consideration the impact that has on the overall structure of the narrative. The thing that may have meant nothing to the lead director may be key to understanding the meaning.
If a writer is brought in later — often when a game is pretty much finished, and when all the developer wants is for a story to be planted on top of the mechanics — they are left with little hope of doing a good job, because all they have to work with is cut scenes shoehorned in-between levels. Pratchett eloquently compares it with a workman not being given the right tools:
“Sometimes writers and designers are brought in so late that the only tool they have on the storytelling is clunky cut scenes that are just shoved in-between the levels, and that isn’t ideal. You just have a writer who has a hammer in their toolbox, only because that’s the only tool you are letting me use… We’ve all had situations when we’ve been brought in too late and we would have loved to have used the chisel, or a set-square, or whatever, but we’ve just been left with a hammer.”
Some artisans, of course, can do wonderful things with a hammer, but it “isn’t ideal”.
Thankfully, the overriding opinion of the panel, despite raising these issues, was that things are getting better. The resources are improving and writers are learning to use their limited toolkit in smarter ways. Many proud lead designers are also starting to take note that maybe the expert they hired actually knows a thing or two about narratives. Maybe…