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Brave New Worlds, or: What is this Flavor Text of Which You Speak?
by Dave Stern on 02/12/13 08:21:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

[Renowned fantasy and science fiction writer/editor Dave Stern tells the story of how he signed on with Stardock to work on the Elemental strategy game series, and some of the lessons he learned along the way.]

Flashback, spring 2010. There I was, in the Skype chatroom with Brad Wardell, a.k.a. Frogboy, in the final stages of my final editorial pass on Brad's Random House tie-in novel Elemental: DESTINY’S EMBERS, when Brad raised the question… we had done so much work together fleshing out the history and lore of the Elemental universe for the novel… would I, perhaps, be interested in helping translate some of that work to the upcoming Elemental: War of Magic videogame itself?

Videogame, I thought. Videogame?

At the time, I knew nothing of such things. The last videogame I played with any degree of obsessive regularity was…. Wolfenstein? Doom, maybe. How about Flight Simulator? Glider? Books was what I knew. On top of which, Elemental was a 4x strategy game. A strategy game? The last time I played one of those… Risk, maybe, where my entire strategy hinged upon holding Kamchatka. And a beer. Not necessarily in that order.

But hey… brave new worlds, new civilizations, and all that. So… into the fray. Elemental: War Of Magic. Which worked on some levels, as we all know, but didn’t work on others. One of my big contributions to that game was the text for the Hiergamenon – the printed version of which came in the Deluxe game package. Great-looking package. Good looking map; nice figurine. And a lot of good background information. But…

As soon as I got the game, and started to play it, I realized there was a problem. I'd written big chunks of text for the Hiergamenon; lost narratives, 'found' documents from pre-Cataclysm Elemental - backstories for the sovereigns, histories of the countries, legends of the world. I meant it to read as Elemental’s Silmarillion – and maybe it works on that level, as a piece of writing. But as a way to convey the lore to someone playing the game…

Fail.

There was no way for the WOM team to easily incorporate that lore in their work. For it to be useful in a game context, it had to be shorter. Pithier. More concise. No problem. I mean, I’ve done screenplays. I’ve done audiobooks. I’ve done short stories. Concise. I can do that.

Flash-forward to early 2011. Brad, had by this point in time hired Derek (a.k.a. Kael) Paxton to work as producer on the next Elemental game. The two of us began corresponding; Derek e-mailed me an Excel spreadsheet. A list of the game’s champions. The sheet contained somewhere around 100 columns, and half again as many rows.

Each column was associated with a champion - a character intended to appear at random in the game, whose name was at the top of each column. The rows represented the various characteristics associated with the champion. His/her faction, strength, appearance, etc. I focused on the row entitled recruit text - the words that would appear when you, the player, encountered that champion. What they would say to you. Ah. This, I could do. Except...

Hmmm.  How would these characters talk? Well... it would depend on where they came from. There was a spreadsheet cell for each champion indicating which faction they were associated with. At that point in time, there were ten factions. So each of the ten factions should talk differently. How should they talk?

When writing a book, a short story, especially a screenplay, you try and hear the characters speak in your head, make each of their voices distinctive. So that was what I started to try to do.  But again - how should they sound? Well... we knew that the Amarians were led by Procipinee. The most powerful mage of her era... the standard bearer for much of mankind's pre-cataclysmic legacy/history. The Queen - rightful leader of all mankind. Well, obviously  (to my way of thinking) she was British. Cultured. Refined. Perhaps even a bit snobbish. The champions associated with her faction would speak in the same way.

What about other factions? The Altarians, say? Those who had rebelled against Procipinee? Those who cared not a whit for the circumstances of a person's birth but judged rather based on ability? Geez, if that didn't describe America, and Americans...

And right about here, I realized something else. In order to realistically differentiate between factions, not only should their dialogue 'sound' different, but their names had to derive from the same linguistic background. The Amarians had to have English-sounding names; the Altarians would derive from similar stock, but perhaps a bit less formal; the Ironeers (the great miners of Elemental's pre-Cataclysmic civilizations) should have Scottish-sounding ones; the Wraiths (a faction of 'Fallen' civilization, associated with dark sorceries)... they took on Eastern European/chiefly Rumanian (Maria Ouspenskaya, anyone?) linguistic attributes...

And that led me to another realization. One of the pieces of history that Brad had laid out in the novel concerned a figure dubbed by many in the world of Elemental 'the Dark Sorcerer.' A near-immortal being... whose own winding path through the centuries I could suggest in some of the backstories for the Wraith champions, particularly those who were themselves gifted in death magic. In fact, it occurred to me, I could do something similar to that with all of the factions, and their champions.

I began to take a lot of what was conceived as backstory for the Hiergamenon, and scatter it throughout those champion biographies. Here I was, being pithy. Cool. I'm having a good time. Derek took a look at some of the stuff I'd written and said, “Those are good. I might have to shorten some of them, so they can fit on one screen.”

Screen? Say what now?

Screens. Ah. This should have been obvious, of course - every piece of text has to fit on a particular screen; not only that, the most important stuff - the key material - has to come first, because a lot of players want to move quickly on to their next encounter - many, Derek informed me, won't even read all the text.

Not read text? My mind boggled. And yet...

As I played through various iterations of Elemental: Fallen Enchantress (and Elemental: World Of Magic) that night, I realized he was correct. The optimum gameplay experience did not involve flipping through multiple screens, or digesting long text entries. The flavor of the world (ah, flavor text!) had to come to the player almost subliminally. So...

Armed with this insight, and several other spreadsheets digitally downloaded to my computer, I began trying to get not just pithy, concise, but subliminal. To take the story of the world that Brad first laid out in DESTINY'S EMBERS, and the rest of us fleshed out over the next year or so, and scatter it throughout the broken bits and pieces of Elemental you come across as you play.

In not just the dialogue of the champions you recruit, but the descriptions of the weapons and other items you find, the steps on each of the tech trees you master, the caves and broken buildings you explore. Hopefully, the work we did gave players a sense of the world without getting in the way of the gameplay... I'd be very curious for people’s reactions to how successful we were in that respect...


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Comments


James Coote
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I always look to the total war series of games as an example of how to have the depth (historical rather than fictional) in the background, there for the player who wants to immerse themselves, but not getting in the way of those who don't give a toss about 18th century global spice trade or peasant life in Edo period Japan.

It's easier to do though because the history doesn't change, and there is no chance of the writer accidentally alluding to something that players might think is a feature, but that the game designers have never heard of before

Joshua Darlington
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For game writing one has to remember directionality and velocity. Short urgent motivational text propels the action forward.

Exposition is dangerous. Even if you load it with conflict it still points in the wrong direction.

Kevin Carpenter
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I love writing, I love reading, pretty much everything about the written word. I also love art and can stand around all day appreciating a well-done game world or interesting art direction. That being said, art assets and volumes of quest text do not a game make. They're just components, and those components have got to work together. I second James' comment regarding how they handle things in the Total War games (and I'd also add the Civpedia in the Civ games). Give some flavor text and stats up front, and if you want paragraphs of historical data or back story, just put them in as a secondary source of information. I tend to feel this way about excessive voice acting, too. Having someone read aloud a long passage isn't much better than having to wade through it. It should all be organic and come to you as you experience the game.

The game experience itself is the showing part of the 'show don't tell', and when a bunch of extra text or dialog comes up, it's just as bad as excessive exposition in a novel.

Keith Nemitz
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7 Grand Steps (www.7grandsteps.com) is an experiment in emergent narrative, based on flash fiction. The tales told are much larger than a tweet, but are presented to the player in pieces: Situation, choices, results. User testing showed high engagement with the stories. Also, the stories are almost never forced on the player. They can be skipped, but again user testing showed few players did.

Brian Bartram
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I'm reminded of the "show, don't tell" mantra of Hemingway, and think it should be updated for our medium to reflect the need to tell story through interaction more so than exposition (as Joshua already mentioned).

For me, the best game stories don't involve reading a single word, or hearing words spoken. They are experienced, rather than read or heard.

Joshua Darlington
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It's worth highlighting and acknowledging the deep conceptual work that Dave describes.

This is what distinguishes a professional writer from fan fiction.


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