Saturday, October 23, 2010

Writing Bastion

On September 2, I officially joined the small team at Supergiant Games as their creative director, and together we showed our game Bastion for the first time at PAX in Seattle. The response was almost overwhelming, and on a personal level it was one of the most rewarding moments of my professional career. Part of the reason for this is that Bastion is a pure expression of many ideas that are close to my heart – ideas about games, stories, and other things that matter to me – so the enthusiastic response really meant a lot. In the game you'll find a lot of the stuff I've been writing about on this blog put into practice. Granted, my contributions to the project are only just beginning in earnest, but because I was involved in developing the original concept back when my colleagues and I parted ways with Electronic Arts in August of last year, I feel much closer to this game than any other thing I've worked on. Moving forward, I'd like to use this space from time to time to talk more about my thought process while developing Bastion, and to begin with I wanted to explain how we're approaching the game's use of storytelling through narration. But first...

GDC Online Lecture: Delivering Exposition in Games
All this is tangentially related to my GDC Online presentation I gave on Tuesday, October 5. I've posted the slides here and invite you to take a look: I Don't Want to Know: Delivering Exposition in Games. The slides are fully annotated so just by flipping through the slides you'll get a feel for the substance of the talk. If you have a chance to look it over, let me know what you think.

Narration in Bastion
In film, narration is one of the most misused and mood-killing techniques out there, for its unique ability to eliminate the type of ambiguity that adds richness to scenes and characters. While I've often fantasized about being able to read people's minds as a superpower, if movies have taught me anything it's that knowing people's inner monologue would make life far less interesting for someone as neurotic as me.

Nevertheless, Bastion uses real-time narration extensively. Its purpose is to deliver story and exposition, and to build atmosphere, investment, and immersion in close partnership with the gameplay. The narration wasn't part of the original game concept. It was born in a flash of inspiration (through a development process that enables such happy accidents to occur), stemming from a couple of self-imposed constraints. The first constraint was to never interrupt the play experience for the sake of story or for any reason, which meant no cutscenes, no dialogue trees, no pressing the A button to advance through dialogue, and none of the other such trappings that tended to slow the pace of other RPGs. I love many games that do these things, but Bastion just isn't this kind of game. One of the things I miss about games in general is that sense of immediacy that console games used to have (before disc-based media ushered in a new era of loading times and cutscenes), where you'd hit Start and, indeed, start the game. Bastion is meant to be that kind of game. Text-based dialogue wasn't going to work. The team's suspicions about how it would negatively affect the pace of the game turned out to be accurate.

From the outset, before the company was even formed, I wanted to work on a game with some narrative substance and emotional depth, to create an original world with its own characters. We would have these long late-night conversations about how to deliver story in ways only possible through the medium of gaming, because why not? Games should aspire to be games. Cinematics interrupt the play experience no matter how well crafted they are. And as much as I love stepping through dialogue in games like Fire Emblem or Torment, I had to agree that reading lots of text in a game usually isn't a good feeling. All the theorizing needed to be grounded in reality due to the would-be team's small size and limited bandwidth in art and animation. This other constraint meant no elaborate scripted scenes or silent emotive storytelling as in games like Ico or Limbo, where nuanced animation is essential to mood-setting and atmosphere.

Eventually through prototyping and experimentation all this led to the idea of real-time narration, having a narrator who responds to the player's input. From the outset I was interested in having the story begin with a young man rising as if from sleep or from death, to discover a world changed around him in some profound way. The story would start on a mysterious but emotionally low point and expand from there. The intent was to provoke questions for the player immediately, and allow the game to reveal two worlds in parallel: the way things are, and the way things used to be. At any rate, in that waking-up moment, it turns out that just by adding the spoken line "He rose" to coincide with the player's input, it got a lot stronger. (This later changed to the current "He gets up" after further exploration of the narrative style.) This was one of an initial set of lines that our studio co-founder Amir recorded with our audio director Darren and their childhood friend Logan, a theatrical actor who provides the narrator's voice, after Amir suspected that adding narration may bring something positive to the experience. I remember when I first heard it, not knowing what quality it would have, never even having heard Logan's voice before. It felt powerful even inside a low-fidelity prototype. Players don't normally expect this type of output from a game, so it immediately speaks to some of the qualities that are specific to Bastion. The narrator's voice alone says a lot about the game.

The other reason, probably the main reason, Bastion is using narration is because of Logan. In addition to being perfect for the part, Logan offers us one other great advantage: We have access to him. Some people mistook his voice for Ron Perlman's. Let's say we could afford Ron Perlman, lost our minds, and decided he'd be better than Logan for the part. We'd have maybe two or three recording sessions with him for the lifetime of the game. With Logan we can iterate rapidly, and we need to in order to get the narration in the game to feel as closely connected as possible to the moment-to-moment play.

Logan's natural speaking voice is quite different from that of the narrator, though we were always interested in a fantasy-frontier aesthetic, something with some the beautiful-melancholy tone of some of Cormac McCarthy's novels. I also take inspiration from the late William Gaddis, whose novels have characters with such distinctive voices. And so we developed a character who embodies the tone we were interested in. And Logan nailed it.

Bastion's narrator is designed to support our game on a fundamental level. He's a man of few words not only for fictional reasons but also, conveniently, to support a design constraint that we simply can't have him talking a lot during gameplay. Bastion has a very fast feel to it, closer to an action game than a typical action role-playing game. Our narrator needs to be very concise to keep up with the pace.

Five Rules for Writing Bastion
Logan can probably make the stupidest combination of words sound awesome. Even still I'm attempting to write good material for him, in the spirit of not wasting the player's time with bloated unnecessary prose. By exploring the character and which types of narration work best for the game, we gain a low-level understanding of the narration in addition to our high-level goals for it. As such, here are the factors I bear in mind when writing for the game:

1. Dialogue is for subtext. The player's actions in the game are the "text", the surface-level things that happen. When the player explores, builds things, attacks things, or acquires items, these are all clear and affordant actions. There was initially a temptation and a novelty in having the narrator declare these actions along the way. But this would mean missing the point of why we have the narrator in the game. This would have resulted in that brand of movie-style narration I dislike so much.

Our narrator deepens the player's interactions by saying something about them that the player could not have known. He provides character intent, subplot, and backstory through his comments. The ultimate goal with every line is for it to tell you something about the player character, the narrator, the way the world is, and the way the world used to be. For example, the first item you find in the game is a large sledgehammer, to which the narrator says, "Kid finds his lifelong friend." You can see that it's a hammer so you don't need the narrator to point that out, but through the narration you can deduce that the protagonist has history with this hammer and that the narrator knows it. Further, through the narrator's particular delivery you sense that this history has had its ups and downs. Using this type of narration, we gradually build the backstory in the context of the player's immediate actions and surroundings – I would never expect you to care about something that wasn't onscreen. Following the points in my GDC presentation, I mean to deliver on the major questions raised in the game, but moment-to-moment this type of narration should give a sense of a detailed world that existed before you started playing the game.

2. Keep it short. Our narrator is a storyteller but a terse man. Unlike me he doesn't waste his breath, and that's fortunate because our environments are packed with detail and leave no room for long speeches. In order to achieve the moment-to-moment reactive feel we want from the narration, the lines have to be short. Our narrator has a flair for the dramatic and speaks in a low flat voice, so tonally the lines tend to fit well together even if there's a lot of silence in between statements. These were factors in the character design.

3. No breaking the fourth wall. One of the most exciting aspects of having a narrator in our game are all the opportunities to break from player expectations, and raise a lot of interesting questions over time. A temptation in all this is to have the narrator address the player directly or step out of the story and break into metafiction, maybe tutorialize the game by telling you when to press and hold the X button and so forth. But it didn't take long to realize this wasn't going to work. As mentioned earlier on, our high-level goals include building immersion and investment. If the narrator were to break the fourth wall, we might get a momentary gag out of it but we'd be undermining the experience we want to achieve by violating the player's expectations around the game's own logic. We have a cleaner way of training players, and as with everything else, the narrator is there to reinforce those moments without stepping on them.

4. Reward experimentation and playing with finesse. Our narrator provides a great reward system, provided players like what he does for the game. I want players to develop a relationship with him as a character and to feel like they can provoke certain types of comments out of him. This happens to be well in line with the type of play experience we want to deliver, one where players feel like they can do whatever they want in the world, experiment with all the different systems and weapons, explore a bit off the beaten path, and so on. Having the narrator specifically acknowledge these moments tends to provide positive reinforcement in a natural way. We realized the closest thing to what we were going for were some of our favorite announcers in games from completely different genres, from the announcer screaming "BOOM-SHAKALAKA" after an awesome dunk in NBA JAM to Shao Khan saying "Excellent" after a ferocious uppercut in Mortal Kombat (both games were done by Midway in their glory days). The key difference is our narrator isn't quipping, he's telling a contiguous story for the most part. Having him sneak in a few incidental remarks based on the player's choices or performance helps make the whole thing feel personal and specific.

5. No repeats. When done properly, our real-time narration starts to take on the quality of a story unfolding, and starts to get at those high-level goals we want to achieve. But nothing sucks the momentum out of the game's narrative like a repeated line. Almost every game uses repetitious dialogue even if it's got tens of thousands of lines of dialogue in it; combat encounters will repurpose enemy battle chatter and so on. With Bastion we realized that the moment any line repeated itself – for example, our narrator has different things to say if the player falls off a ledge – immersion is broken. You realize in that moment that you're playing a game where the narrator might loop through a host of different lines after a specific event, as in a real-time strategy game where your units will cycle through several responses whenever you issue an order. So we drew a line in the sand: No repeats in the game, not unless you replay the game from the start or restart a scenario from scratch (and even then we mix up the narration). This posed certain design challenges, such as what happens if a player revisits certain areas, but we're happily taking those on in the spirit of maintaining the feel we're going for.

If there's one main underlying point in all this, it's that everything we're doing with the narration in Bastion is there only to support the specific type of play experience we're making. Everything from how the narrator character sounds and how he talks came about purposefully as part of the exploration around gameplay concepts and game themes. Bastion is hardly the first game to use narration to deliver story, so we never set out to pursue the idea of having a narrator purely for the sake of being different. Instead, we're pursuing it because we realized it worked well for the game we wanted to make and for the process we're using to make it.