Tuesday, May 10, 2011

One Thing at a Time

Hey, I'm back. My writing work for Bastion is complete and the game is nearly finished. How well it finally turned out will be for the public to decide, though what I can say is that it's very much the game I wanted it to be. Everyone on the team is feeling good about where we ended up. Now that I have a bit of hindsight on the process, I'd like to comment on three principles that helped me construct the narrative. There won't be any story spoilers here, but approach with caution anyway if you're looking to play the game with no preconceptions.

It was important to me that Bastion have a rich and interesting story for the sake of players who (like me) care about story, while at the same time making concessions for players who don't care about story. This was not a matter of trying to make everyone happy. It was a matter of trying to create a good story for a game, by approaching it from the perspective of "no one cares about your stupid story," which I feel should be the baseline assumption if you're not a famous author or working with a famous property. People really cared about what the story was going to be in The Matrix Reloaded, but they had no expectations for the story in the original Matrix film. The original Matrix needed to work hard to get people to care, which is part of the reason why it's so much better than its sequels. In games, people are liable to care even less about story since there's a lot more to a game than its story.

This "assume no one cares" approach was manifest in several principles that I tried to stick to, which I'll explain in more detail below. They are:
  1. Structure the story around a clear, consistent goal.
  2. Avoid attempts to engage the player about things not happening onscreen in that moment.
  3. Suggest the emotional range of the story early on.
Let me explain each of these a bit.

Goal-driven story: An interesting story often is a complex or nuanced story. I wanted to strike a good balance with Bastion's story and layer the complexity so that it's there for people who care to see it, while the surface story remains simple and clear. Players have a lot they need to keep track of – not just story but also the game's systems and mechanics, which are in constant demand of attention. I didn't want the story to feel indulgent or like a comprehension test. I'm sure you've played games where you lose track of what's happening in the story and never get on board again. One such game happens to be my favorite game so far this year, called Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together for the PSP. It's a beautiful and complicated game, with a huge cast of characters and an elaborate plot, but as engaged in it as I am, I have trouble keeping all of the factions and political maneuverings straight. I'm approaching the end of the game now and couldn't summarize the details of the story to save my life. I still enjoy it a lot for its tone and world but I wish key parts of it were presented more clearly.

One of the ways in which Bastion's story is kept simple is that the cast of characters is not enormous, and the player goal is specific and persistent. I used to work on real-time strategy games, where each mission tended to have unique objectives, sometimes multiple objectives. I also used to play a lot of massively multiplayer games, whose quests tended to have their own fictional conceits. I found in both cases that many players of these games tended to tune out the story reasons for these missions or quests and just wanted the game to "bottom-line" what needed to be done. This wasn't because they were lazy, and wasn't even necessarily because the stories of these games were bad. It just got difficult to keep a complicated story straight while also having to parse new gameplay objectives.

Maintaining a constant "object of desire" for the player to pursue doesn't have to over-simplify the story of a game. Instead I think it can create a strong framework on which to layer a rich narrative. One of my favorite examples is the original Metal Gear Solid, which has the best story of all the games in that series. The plot, on the surface, is simple: Solid Snake, a secret agent, must infiltrate a military complex in order to rescue the head of a weapons research firm and discover whether the terrorists occupying the complex have nuclear capability.

That's it. It sounds like a totally straightforward premise for a spy thriller. But if you've played Metal Gear Solid, then you know the story takes an almost ridiculous number of unexpected turns. What helps drive you forward as you face off against cyborg ninjas, one-handed pistol-wielding sadists, and minigun-wielding tank-driving shamans? The goal remains the same. No matter what insane situation you're in, you're still after the same thing, and the game's briefer characters do a good job of reminding you of this.

God of War is another one of my favorite examples. You're trying to kill the God of War. The story has much more to it than that, but you don't have the moment in God of War where you wonder, "Wait, what am I even supposed to be doing?" Unless you're stuck on a puzzle, but that's a subject for another day.

Immediacy in storytelling: One of the reasons exposition has such a bad reputation is that it's often used to describe things that are disconnected from the matter at hand. You end up feeling like you're waiting for the story to get out of the way. Yes, Star Wars has license to open with a text crawl explaining what's happening in the world. This type of technique is best avoided in most cases, yet games do the equivalent of it all the time. Characters have long conversations about characters who aren't there. Cutscenes tell you why you should care instead of letting the gameplay make you care. You're given mission briefings about how important certain things are and how you must not let this or that happen. It's all just talk. None of this has an impact on you, and you see right through it, especially when you're playing a massively multiplayer game and you know it's just window dressing for another bit of quest loot.

To avoid this problem, story in games should concern things that matter to the player, rather than matter to the story. In Halo, you crash-land on the Halo and need to find a way out before you're hunted down and killed. Though there's a backstory around trying to defeat the Covenant and save the Earth, none of that matters to you in the original Halo, and besides, these are things that no human being can relate to. In Halo, you're just trying to get out of a bad situation. BioShock is set up in much the same way. Out of this World and LIMBO are set up in much the same way. Being stranded in strange worlds not only makes you feel empathy for the protagonists of these games, it compels you to press forward and find a way out.

In the case of Bastion, the story deliberately raises some key questions about the state of the world right from the beginning: Why is it shattered, why is the land reconstituting as you walk around, why are you being attacked by things called Squirts and Gasfellas, why is a narrator telling the story as you move through the game, and so on. Thanks to the game's narration technique, these questions come up right in the moment the issues begin to affect the player, rather than before they're of any concern or too long after. I don't tell you that there are strange creatures who want to hurt you before you face them. I don't tell you about the state of the land before you see how it looks for yourself. By not explaining away these things before the fact, I stand the best chance of piquing your curiosity and using exposition as it's meant to be used, rather than bombarding you with detail that's important to me as a writer but maybe not so important to you as a player.

Revealing the emotional range of the story: This is an idea derived from Robert McKee's story seminar, in which he points out that it's a good practice for the author to show the emotional palette of his story early on. This may sound like terrible advice on the surface. What if you have some amazing plot twist all planned out, why would you want to give that away?? But this advice has no bearing on something like that. All it's saying is to avoid jarring emotional manipulation of the audience, not even for the audience's sake but for your own story's sake. To paraphrase McKee, if, for example, you have some sort of serious drama and then try to deliver some comic relief in the final act, what's likely to happen? The audience won't laugh – the story hasn't trained them to expect to laugh, and any attempts at humor will likely feel awkward and out of place. On the other hand, if there were humor in the story early on, later attempts at comic relief would be more likely to succeed.

In other words, if the story gives evidence to the breadth of its emotional content early on, the audience will have an easier job of following along as the story unfolds. This does not need to come at a cost to the story's richness or complexity. One of my favorite movies, Fight Club, I think can't be accused of simplicity yet does a masterful job of defining its emotional palette quickly. The self-depracting humor and raw darkness of that story are all present from the start. The story moves into shocking and unexpected territory, but when you look back on it you realize that the groundwork was there. Maybe Fight Club isn't the best example of this since that third act really is crazy. Perfectly good examples are movies like Iron Man and the original Pirates of the Caribbean, each of which I think did a great job of creating a specific tone and sticking to it. Maintaining tone does not mean being monotonous if you have a rich tone.

In Bastion, it was very important to me to establish the emotional palette of the story quickly, especially considering the story is delivered in large part through the use of voiceover narration. I needed to define the narrator's character in addition to defining the gameworld itself, and I do this using a range of emotional content that should ultimately feel consistent to the narrator and therefore to the game. If I did my job properly then you should get the impression that the narrator's telling of this story is important at least to him. You should quickly gain a sense for the depth of the character and, hopefully, find him intriguing enough to want to keep listening as well as keep playing. Each thing the narrator says near the beginning of the game is in service of informing you both about the state of the world and, indirectly, about what kind of man he is. And by virtue of that, you get a feel for the game as a whole, from its tone to its story themes. The narrator's character grows from there, and my responsibility from that point becomes fully delivering on this first impression.

. . .

In conclusion, I kept in mind these three foundational techniques so that I stood the best chance of making Bastion's story something hopefully-worthwhile, without confusing players who just want to know what's going on and why they should care. I wanted to waste none of the player's time in coming to grips with what was interesting about the story. If I could do this well, I figured maybe the story would convert some of the players in the don't-care category into players who do.