Tuesday, June 04, 2013

From Gamasutra: Narrative design that tells the player's story


Narrative design that tells the player's story

June 3, 2013   |   By John Polson

Kent Hudson, an indie developer who previously worked on Deus Ex: Invisible War and BioShock 2, says games spend too much time talking at him, instead of involving him in the story. He aims to address this issue along with other design pitfalls in his upcoming game, The Novelist, which combines stealth gameplay with interactive narrative.

Hudson offered a first look at The Novelist's gameplay last week (in the trailer above), showing how players control a ghost who can help shape the future of a vacationing family. However, many details have yet to be uncovered for this mysterious and clever game.

Here, Hudson opens the book wider on his project, touching on his use of text clues as rewarding and not hand-holding, his making a game's story more immersive without too much text, more details on stealth gameplay and memory exploration, and Kent's own mental and emotional challenges of being indie.

What important gameplay elements are not conveyed in the trailer?

There's more to the stealth gameplay than is shown in the trailer, both in terms of player abilities and AI behaviors (especially when the player is spotted). There's also more gameplay related to memory exploration that isn't shown (and that I want to keep under wraps for a little while longer). The trailer doesn't touch at all on who the player actually is, which is revealed in gameplay sequences not shown in the trailer, and the player also has ways to make smaller adjustments to the character relationships outside of the major chapter decisions.

How will you know when you are too close to humans?

The game has a traditional stealth model based on line of sight, so if you've played Thief or Deus Ex or Splinter Cell you'll have an idea what it's like. If you're spotted by a character they'll stop what they're doing and start searching for you as you try to get away (though unlike most stealth games they're not trying to kill you). This is accompanied by voice acting and search behaviors, which will make it familiar to anyone who's played a game with a stealth component. There are also visual effects that let you know you've been spotted, but the voice acting is probably the biggest clue.

What do you think is the biggest hurdle for getting people into narrative-heavy games? How have you overcome that?

I can really only speak to my own perspective here, but for me the biggest hurdle is that I feel like narrative-heavy games spend too much time talking at me and telling me someone else's story. That's what books and movies are for. If a game throws an unskippable cutscene at me, my instinct is to put the controller down and go make a sandwich or take a bathroom break. It's a game! I want to play!

That's why The Novelist involves the player in the story. I'm trying to turn that scenario around and ask the player to drive the story forward. That's also one of the reasons I made it a stealth game; I wanted the player to inhabit the same space as the characters and have to get close to them and be active to learn about them (as opposed to sitting back and being told about them).

And finally, I should point out that I think of The Novelist less as a narrative game and more as a relationship game. The narrative choices you make are really just an avenue for shaping the relationships between the characters. My hope is that players will care deeply about their choices from a character perspective, which is why I made the game about real-life situations that most people can relate to.

the novelist 1.png

Can a game be immersive with its story without having to hear or read a lot of text?

I definitely think so, although as you move away from text you start to rapidly increase your content needs. One of the reasons you see so much text in indie games is that it's relatively inexpensive from a content perspective.

That said, when you rely more heavily on text it falls on you to try and make it as engaging as possible. One way to do this is to avoid spelling everything out for players; if you trust players to imagine scenarios and fill in the blanks, you can draw them in and play out some of the story in the theater of the mind. Some of the biggest moments of character feedback in The Novelist are written as off-screen action in different locations so that the player becomes part of setting the scene.

The blue text: was it really necessary to cue players into the two or three words that they need to act upon? How was the gameplay before the blue text, if it wasn't always there?

The blue text was definitely a response to playtest feedback.

Over the course of a chapter the player spends a good amount of time reading characters' thoughts, which are in all-white text. These thoughts provide information about the current chapter and keep the player up to date on the various relationships in the game, so it's in the player's interest to check them out frequently.

I've done three rounds of playtests, and in the first playtest people missed the final clues because they used the same all-white text and were thus visually indistinguishable from the thoughts players had previously seen. Players knew what they wanted to do at a high level but didn't know how to do it mechanically, which was a big issue. I needed a way to make that "Aha!" moment stand out more, and the blue text was a response to that problem.

I was hesitant at first to draw attention to clues by using colored text, but you have to listen to your playtesters. There's a fine line between trusting your players to fill in the blanks and frustrating them by withholding critical information. As a designer, you have to create a fair playing field and let players know what their choices are so they're empowered to drive the game forward.

To me, the colored text in most games is just to make it blatantly obvious, or for those who want to skip thinking about what the text is saying, and want to get back into "the game".

I can see how it may come off that way in the trailer, but it doesn't happen that way during the course of a normal playthrough for two reasons:

1. Clues are only unlocked after you've fully investigated a specific character's situation in the chapter. There's no way to skip ahead to them, so you'll never see them without lots of context. To use an example from the trailer, you would never get to the point of Linda thinking that she'd like to put on a record and relax with Dan without having spent time learning about her by reading letters she's written to other characters, reading her thoughts, reading her diary, and exploring her memories for clues. So when you see the actual clue you'll have spent enough time with Linda to understand why she wants to spend time with Dan.

2. Clues only explain the specific action the player needs to take to pick a path in each chapter, but the player's decision is based on his broader investigation and the emotional choice he or she wants to make. To use Linda's clue from the trailer as an example again, the fact that she wants to put on a record with Dan isn't a huge revelation or twist; they could just as easily go on a date or watch a TV show together or share a bottle of wine. The important thing is that after learning how Dan and Linda are doing, you as a player have decided that their relationship is worth sacrificing other things for. Having them put on a record is just the specific way you enact that choice.

So I don't think of the blue text clues as a cheat or a skip-ahead opportunity. Clues are a reward, so that when the player has learned about a character, developed sympathy for them, and decided to choose them in a chapter, they know specifically what to do to make it happen. But the actual experience you have with a character is deeper, as you're exposed to their personal thoughts and desires.

Why is The Novelist's main character a male? Could you easily swap out gender-related words and his artwork to allow the main character also be a woman?

That's a good question! The key word there is "easily," and unfortunately it wouldn't be as easy as it seems on the surface. I gave a lot of consideration to letting the player choose the gender of the protagonist, but when I dug into what it would take I found that it was unfortunately out of scope for a small-budget game like mine. I realized that I would have to:

* Rewrite most of the text. Simply doing a he/she swap wouldn't work; there's a lot of context that would also have to be updated to keep the writing from sounding like a Frankenstein construction.

* Write and record almost twice as much VO.

* Nearly double the animation budget. I'd have to have typing animations for Linda, painting animations for Dan, and so on.

Those are just a few examples. I was excited about making the gender swappable at a high level, but the low level impact proved to be too expensive. This is one of the areas where having a larger budget and less constrained resources would have opened up more possibilities, but when you're indie you sometimes have to make difficult choices in the interest of building something you can finish.

the novelist memory.png

You left the world of triple-A development behind to work on The Novelist. What were the biggest challenges of independent development for you, and how did you overcome them?

I'd have to say that almost all of the challenges are mental and emotional. I spent 10-and-a-half years working with teams of different sizes in the mainstream industry, and there are a lot of assumptions and processes from large-team development that simply don't apply to independent development.

One of the best things about working with a team is that other people are always adding new things to the game. Every now and then you'll grab the latest build and see that the game is suddenly better because a cool new feature's been checked in. Seeing other people's contributions is a constant source of inspiration.

It's a completely different situation, though, when you're making a game yourself. This sounds stupidly obvious to say, but if I'm not working on the game then no one is. If I take a week off, when I come back the game will be exactly how I left it. This change in pace can be really challenging mentally because you might have 3 different features you want to implement, but you can only do one at a time so you just have to be patient and trust that you'll eventually get to everything. You end up taking big leaps of faith, putting in features that you won't be able to evaluate for a month because they rely on other features that you haven't implemented yet.

In general, making an indie game takes an incredible amount of persistence and mental stamina. I wasn't prepared for how hard it would be to sit in a room by myself for over a year and work on a game that no one knew about, without the camaraderie of a team or constant encouragement from coworkers. It can be really hard to stay focused every day and maintain the enthusiasm you had at the start of the project. Over the course of working on the game I've printed out a number of motivational messages and reminders to myself and hung them above my monitor so that I can always look up and get a boost.

The biggest challenge, though, has been emotional. When you're part of a team, nothing is ever completely up to one person. It's a collective effort, and while people are hopefully invested in the project you never have a sense of complete personal accountability and identification. With The Novelist, it's all on me. If the game is bad, or if people think the concept is a waste of time, that's entirely my fault. If people reject the game, they're rejecting the best work I know how to do. It's impossible to separate the game from my own creative ability and self-confidence.

When I started out I wasn't prepared at all for such an incredible amount of emotional risk. My sense of personal accountability is total. It's the biggest emotional roller coaster I've ever been on, and there's no way to get off now; the lap belt is locked down and all I can do is stay on til the end of the ride. Here's hoping it stays on the tracks.

[The Novelist is due for Windows and Mac this summer and is currently on Steam Greenlight. To hear more from Kent Hudson about player-driven stories, check out this free GDC 2011 talk.

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