BioWare CEO Ray Muzyka, BioShock's Ken Levine and Harmonix VP Greg LoPiccolo gathered at the DICE Summit to discuss the development and implementation of narrative in the context of their games, all of which are reputed for their strong story element.
Ken Levine began by contrasting the narrative style of his BioShock with the past works of Muzyka's BioWare team, known for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur's Gate and, most recently, Mass Effect. "Personally, I'm way too lazy to write that many words," Levine said.
He explained, "Our goal was to tell the story in the world, visually, and make it optional for the player, so the gamer could experience the game on very different levels... I think it's great that the industry is starting to figure out how to tell narratives in very different ways."
Muzyka agreed that the increasing importance of narrative is exciting. More than that, he said, "The definition of narrative is continually evolving, and that's the most exciting part for me. There's many different ways to slice it."
Many Methods Of Storytelling
Muzyka says that many of the modern gaming narratives lead players, but still allow them the freedom to diverge from the story. "It flows, but it's still directed. Two of my favorite games this year, BioShock and Call of Duty 4 are a more directed experience... a tight, polished experience in a narrative flow."
These kinds of storylines are expressed through observations, gameplay and actions, subtle factors that can shape the narrative. "In BioShock, the narrative is expressed in an observant way that you might miss it... but it's a watercooler talk thing, you can discuss it."
Muzyka also speculated that increasing realism and the use of actors and lifelike digital models make story more about fulfilling emotion.
He also said that there are an increasing number of ways to express narrative: "There is the narrative of a story and character action, there is the narrative of a multiplayer experience that is both internal and external to the game, and the narrative of a community talking and observing a game, and there is the narrative through the flow and the pacing, a different kind of narrative -- and I am stretching the definition here -- and there's the narrative through the development of characters."
Muzyka elaborated, "In a role playing game, you are developing your character through points, an aspirational fantasy." This is a contrast to the "brief and poetic" narrative in a sports game, he said.
Levine says that Civilization was one he'd always thought of as having a great narrative -- with no words, and no dialogue. "Who has played Civilization, but doesn't remember, 'Damn those Scots, they kept taking that one city back from me!' That's a narrative of your own, and you're in control of it. It's an abstract narrative."
Similarly, he says, players' Warcraft experiences building a character in Azeroth constitutes a personal narrative without words. These kinds of narratives, Levine says, are new directions that the industry is examining further, and therein lies the future.
From LoPiccolo's perspective, Harmonix had a pragmatic goal. Their gameplay aim with Rock Band was to join players together in a band -- "but we wanted a toolkit to allow people to make a long-term emotional investment in that band. So we blatantly ripped off RPG design tools, dumbed them down, stuck them on a map, and to our surprise it worked really well... it was all about the emotion."
Freedom Versus Constraint
So where to draw the line between taking suggestions to enrich the story while still ensuring it doesn't go off into left field? With BioShock, Levine says he recently looked back on original story documents. "They're fucking insane," he said. "There's like 1,000 characters and it takes place from 1946 to the modern day."
So from that beginning, Levine explained, it became about "paring things down as much as I possibly could, turning five characters into one, taking two notions and turning them into one -- or none, quite often."
"Every character became an expression of an idea," Levine said. "There were no characters who were there just to be, 'Oh, hey a plumber.' They were all there to be a meme in the game. So we really tried to limit the ideas we were getting across. Compared to most FPS, there was a lot more depth there, story-wise... I wanted people to be able to follow the story without Cliff's Notes and a notebook by their side."
The Tip Of The Iceberg
Muzyka said that the BioWare team has faced the same challenging decisions in building a story, and that having a strong team along for years helps. "These are the difficult choices we make throughout the collaborative process... if it's a rational collaborative discussion, it's very humble, and people are willing to take a better idea," he said.
Muzyka said that the process of building a body of knowledge around an IP can take six months to a year, all with the aim of creating a livable world that feels real.
"It's like an iceberg -- 90 percent of the content created will never be seen by fans," he said. "The tip is the part that's so hard to decide -- what to show?"
So BioWare focuses a lot on the activity chains -- where does the story intersect with player behavior like combat and exploration? "We always try to improve and tighten this so the narrative flow, the pacing is improving," he said.
But building a detailed universe, he continued, is really the key to making the game feel real. The places the player doesn't get to see are what creates possibility and makes the story resonate.
Levine said, "Sculptors chip out a statue from stone. The challenge with games is that you build the rock and THEN take out your chisel... I feel people don't chip enough."
LoPiccolo agreed. Writers have a commitment to what they create, and then are loath to remove their ideas from the final project. Muzyka agrees as well -- "Every artist needs an editor," he advised.
Living A Core Fantasy
So how did the Harmonix team decide just how far to take the music experience? Might fans expect a more RPG-like, involved game down the road, or should they keep the formula simple?
"I think we're debating it.... we're not sure," said LoPiccolo. "We want to stick with the T rating, which takes a lot of awesome rock and roll content away. And we're worried about turning it into an RPG, because it's not -- it's really a performance simulator. But once people are comfortable with this level, I can see stretching it a bit, adding a few more elements."
"I think every game in a sense is an RPG, because aren't you role playing in some fashion?" Asked Muzyka. "Embrace it... you're fulfilling a fantasy."
Indeed, Levine agreed, games are quite often about a core fantasy. "That was a problem we had with Bioshock, because, what is the core fantasy of Bioshock? When we did some testing on it, the audience were scratching their heads. Who doesn't want to be a hero? Who doesn't want to be a rock star? ...Who doesn't want to be a tool in a failed objectivist utopia?"
Muzyka said that Mass Effect was BioWare's first game where a defined character was a marketing focus. "It's hard if you want to make an RPG where you have complete control over who they are, because you have to let the player be who they are and who they want to be, and let it feel completely valid."
"I can't write games like that," demurred Levine. "You guys have a generosity of spirit to allow all those moments, but I'm much more greedy and lazy about it -- I want to tell my story."
How Far Can You Go?
Art is important, but games have to sell. So when developing a story, how to find a balance?
"I think that constraint is your friend," theorized LoPiccolo. "You can make any game about anything, and that can sort of paralyze you. I think having a set of constraints to work with really helps you figure out what you want to accomplish... you can make case-by-case decisions."
"I think, at the end of the day, if someone's handing you 15-20 million dollars, you have a serious responsibility with that," said Levine. "We took a lot of flack on Bioshock for betraying System Shock 2 or whatever that had come before, but you have a responsibility to sell your game."
He continued, "We actually hadn't sold a lot of games before. Everybody loved us in the press, but we didn't sell a lot of games. I take that responsibility, that fiduciary duty. It sounds really boring, but it's also very empowering."
Concluded Levine, "Are people going to look at this and go, 'oh my god that's so awesome?' It sounds stupid, but sometimes you get all caught up in your RPG systems and all that, and you forget that your job is to amaze people. If you amaze people, they will buy the thing."