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Rolston: Physical And Virtual Artifacts Crucial To Narrative Designer's Job
Rolston: Physical And Virtual Artifacts Crucial To Narrative Designer's Job Exclusive
November 23, 2009 | By Chris Remo

November 23, 2009 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

A good narrative designer must have at his disposal a wealth of artifacts both physical and virtual in order to create a compelling and convincing fictional world, says longtime roleplaying game designer Ken Rolston.

Rolston, who is currently working on an unannounced project at Big Huge Games and is best known in the video game world for his lead design roles on Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and IV: Oblivion, shared a multitude of his own design tools and artifacts during a loose yet fascinating and practical talk at the Montreal International Game Summit last week.

"In general, I don't think there are very many useful books on narrative design," Rolston admitted. But that doesn't mean books -- as well as magazines, films, and other games -- aren't incredibly useful to the job.

For example, Rolston said that among his array of crucial tools as a writer are a rhyming dictionary, Bernstein's Reverse Dictionary (which is alphabetized by definition, rather than by the intended word), and Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words.

All three texts can frequently assist in finding the right word for a particular piece of prose, but Rolston stressed that they are just as valuable for the psychological weight they lend as tools of the trade: "I love having the Reverse Dictionary and Mrs. Byrne's Preposterous Words on my desk," he said. "It makes me feel like a real writer. It's a badge of ownership in my trade. You want to be proud that you're a narrative game designer."

It's important to be able to have that investment in the job, when the job consists of creating a world in which its players will become invested. Filling a game's world with appropriate content that sets the tone -- in-game books, artwork, maps, signs, languages, and so on -- is paramount to crafting consistency and believability.

"The best thing you can do is find artifacts that feel in the mind like they're touchable. They're evidence of another world," Rolston said. That extends to every corner of the design, even the fonts used in the game. Rolston pointed to BioWare's Jade Empire as an example of a game that hurt its own world with its bland use of fonts.

"It's supposed to be a story about Oriental cultures, [but] when I read a sign and I realize it's in a non-serif font, it doesn't look even slightly Oriental," he recalled. "Great fonts give you a sense of place. And if they're runes, they're puzzles -- what do they mean? There's got to be some meaning, so it's a puzzle. It's a wonderful game tool."

Some virtual artifacts, like maps, are of as much value to the rest of the development team as they are to the player; Rolston maps out all the locations he describes in his documents before the design proceeds further. "The difference between just having a name somewhere that represents a castle, and having a map, makes a huge difference," he said. "Anything you can do to make artists and programmers feel like there's a real world there, all throughout rendering, helps."

Other artifacts are intended for players, but are somewhat external to the game itself. For example, Bethesda's 1998 game The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard, on which Rolston worked prior to Morrowind, shipped with a booklet called A Pocket Guide to the Empire and Its Environs, presented as a guide written from the perspective of an author devoted to the empire of the game world.

It also featured handwritten annotation from a reader of a more skeptical persuasion. That duality of perspectives served to greatly reinforce the reality of the world by implicitly demanding the reader try to determine where the actual truth of that world lies.

"People tend to forget that their response is part of the literature. It isn't just about the control we have over the artifact, it's also how the artifact affects people," Rolston noted. "Once we tar-baby you, once we trap you with some kind of intellectual puzzle, you're too busy to have doubts as to whether this is a real world."

Rolston's inspiration for game worlds comes from a surprising variety of sources. Amongst his lengthy list of touchstones are pen-and-paper RPGs (which are diverse enough to include the Nazi occupation RPG Grey Ranks), books of names, poetry, literature from long-gone eras, riddles, game guides to other video games, quote books, image archives, and "juvenile books," among many others.

By "juvenile books," Rolston explained, he refers to nonfiction for children -- books about history, impressive constructions, other cultures -- which tend to focus more on broad strokes, imagery, and tone than extremely in-depth information. The themes frequently covered by such books have a lot of overlap with themes that are successfully evocative in fantasy games: gods, death, war, magic, exotic, extinction, and melancholy.

Often, that melancholy comes when exploring the remains of long-dead civilizations, seemingly something of a preoccupation of Rolston, and one that frequently makes its way into his games by way of in-game artifacts.

"Melancholy, I think, is the underlying tone in most of the role-playing games I've done," Rolston said, adding, "I know games are all about fun, but there's an underlying tone I'm always trying to speak to."

Since giving his talk, Rolston has created a weblog consisting of links to the many online materials referenced in the presentation.

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Valentine Kozin
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Sounds like someone's finally found a way to live all those Ender's Game fantasies!

However, this article appears to be incorrectly linked to from Ken Rolston's article on the front page.

Kevin Kissell
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I have been working on player and NPC dialog, narrative is not the easy task. I am getting better...

Glenn Storm
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Internationally Celebrated Game Designer Ken Rolston is right. The more you can leave consistently interrelated artifacts, signposts, landmarks, touchstones, etc. in the world you're creating, the easier it becomes for someone else to understand that world and to involve themselves in those details as they discover them; be that the player, the client, or fellow developers. As its name suggests, world building is no trivial task, and it should be treated with the respect the inhabitants of that world, as well as the audience, deserve. These artifacts assume the role of those enormous stakes driven in the ground by elephants to hold up the Big Top. Any one of them may be looked over, but together they form the support for the whole show. And I'd only add to this discussion that the same strategy can apply to character building and plot construction as well; a sprinkling of tangible, easy-recognizable elements in a character's past will ground them; a few twists that, while extraordinary, are understandable will support the suspension of disbelief. Ken's wisdom reaches farther than he admits.

Chris Remo
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As the author of this piece, I'd just like to add that I didn't remotely do justice to Ken's presentation, which was incredibly absorbing, illuminating, and amusing. Hopefully he delivers it again at some forthcoming conference.

Bart Stewart
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How appropriate that a sense of melancholy is consciously integrated into the design of most RPGs!

By its nature, the typical RPG conventionally contains several things, among which are a relatively well-developed world and people killing each other. Well, what does it say about that world that it's considered normal for people to go around killing each other without being clapped in irons immediately as a danger to society?

As worlds in which the player character can run around killing people, that naturally suggests some kind of breakdown of order. This makes it almost inevitable that the story of the world of an RPG include lost civilizations, in which a Golden Age of the past was more civilized than the Hobbesian present.

We see fragments of these former civilizations all the time in a fantasy milieu. Michael Moorcock's Elric, last emperor of languid Melniboné, is regularly described as melancholic. In computer RPGs, there were the Ayleid Empire of The Elder Scrolls and the Tevinter Imperium of BioWare's new Dragon Age. But a happier past is almost always part of other well-developed RPG settings as well -- the mythically idyllic pre-invasion past of the Fallout series, for example, or the Republic before Palpatine corrupted it, or the pre-catastrophe world before The Computer took over Alpha Complex in Paranoia (another game Ken Rolston worked on).

In such worlds, where you can't swing a sword or fire a bullet without hitting some burnt-out ruin, any character capable of thinking beyond moment-to-moment survival must feel some sense of melancholy for a life that might have been. It's a natural way of lending some emotional depth to what otherwise could have been a simple action-oriented killfest.

So the question for RPG designers is whether they want to continue to create worlds in which lost civilizations help to add emotional heft to gameplay... or if it's possible to build an RPG world that includes all the killin' without being completely amoral, but that gets its emotional depth from some place other than comparison to "a more civilized age."

Sean Parton
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"The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard [...] shipped with a booklet called A Pocket Guide to the Empire and Its Environs, presented as a guide written from the perspective of an author devoted to the empire of the game world.

It also featured handwritten annotation from a reader of a more skeptical persuasion. That duality of perspectives served to greatly reinforce the reality of the world by implicitly demanding the reader try to determine where the actual truth of that world lies."

A surprisingly effective and interesting device to use. The Warhammer Fantasy fluff book "Liber Chaotica" uses the same technique, and was extremely fun to read. In a similar vein, Uncharted 2 uses a similar technique, where some puzzles have the player look at the PCs journal and check notes and diagrams he's taken, which occasionally include humourous jabs and other interesting notes.

David Tarris
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Continuing on that note, Sean, the lack of "facts" in the world of The Elder Scrolls is certainly one of the things that made their mythos stand out to me, and sucked me in. Though it somewhat embarrasses me to admit it, back in high school some friends of mine and I would actually discuss the "disappearance of the dwarves" event that frequently popped up in literary fragments scattered about The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. It definitely goes to show how a little bit of mystery can go a long way towards immersing a player in one's world. After all, it's that very mystery that keeps the narrative backstory from sounding like a grade-school history lesson, and makes it fun to keep exploring beyond what you're told in the opening cinematic.

Bart Stewart
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I've been thinking about this all day now, and something else occurs to me: the choices and placement of objects in Bethesda's Fallout 3 are, I think, a perfect example of how artifacts can define the narrative of a world.

The more I think about it, the more I remember the many microstories in that gameworld. Open a door to a bathroom and see a skeleton in a bathtub, surrounded by empty bottles of booze and a pistol. Look into a small bedroom and find an array of children's toys, seemingly abandoned in the moment of play. Peer into a closet in a tunnel and discover a rat's-nest of useful items guarded by a lone teddy bear. (And let's not forget the "plunger room" or the Rube Goldberg-style trapped grocery store....)

In every place where people lived, there are artifacts posed in ways that tell a small story of the moments just before The Big One... or the grim and hopeless days after. I can't imagine even the most hardcore gamer, who cares only for how many Super Mutants he can kill, being insensitive to the pathos of the little stories and the overall sense of lives meaninglessly snuffed out that they tell.

Is that "fun" in and of itself? I suppose not. But did the care that went into telling those sad microstories make Fallout 3 more memorable -- more fun -- for me?

Absolutely yes.