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.