Brandon Sheffield: It'll still make it more cohesive as well, just as a whole game, to actually have narrative that supports the gameplay, rather than gameplay supporting the narrative, like the gameplay is driving it.
PR: Right. Absolutely. Yeah, I think we spend a lot of time, and I spend a lot of time on the narrative design side, talking about readability, and it's still our biggest problem. It's still the thing I struggle with more than any other aspect of the game, is how well does the player understand why things are happening in the game world.
How well does the player understand the motivations - their own motivations as well as the motivations of the NPCs and the AI? How well can they read the reactions of characters? To me, that's vitally important. And we struggle with it, we continue to fine-tune it, we re-do things.
Like, to us, it's a really, really fluid and organic process, because so much of the game is systemic that, stuff that sounds fantastic on paper, you can implement it, or prototype it, you can build it. It might even work pretty well. You get it in the game, and you're just like, "Oh God, nobody can read this." Right?
So you have to be prepared to go through the pain of that process over and over and over again. And as you say, the function here is really to have, I think, a narrative approach, or a narrative premise that is really tightly integrated with the gameplay that we have in mind. The two should not be independent; they should really be developed in tandem.
CR: It does seem that your narrative is - from what you're saying, and also from what I've seen of the game - more of a thematically-driven thing. You've got a low-tech feel, a muted palette; the player has malaria, things break. Those do all seem to be sort of painted with the same narrative brush.
That maybe overrides a more traditional narrative in some ways, especially when you bring up things like the player can theoretically kill some major character in some mission because they're in the world. And you said you don't have really many spawning characters. That does seem to really put themes over plot. How do you actually write that? Do you ever have conflicts with writers?
PR: Oh yeah! Yeah yeah yeah. No, absolutely. But the good thing about it is that they're not conflicts over whether we should do it that way; it's conflicts over execution. And I should say they're conflicts in a good sense. Like, Susan O'Connor was really kind of our principal writer on the project. She's somebody who... she worked on BioShock, she's worked on tons of stuff, she's very prolific, she's award-winning. And she deserves it. Like, she really gets it.
She gets the difference between writing for this medium, and writing a screenplay, or writing a novel, or writing a stage play. And I think that what's awesome about that is that, yeah, like with the fights that we have, and we had some doozies, and points where we're like sending kind of, like, terse and heated emails to each other, I mean, it's over the right things.
And it's always about this idea, like I will say the story is about X, or this part of the story, this character is doing this because of this reason. And I think it's very reassuring in a way that she will push back and say, "The player will never understand that." Right? That's her point. And that's the right thing to be arguing about.
And I've done the same thing with her. She'll say, "Well, I really think that this and this and this is true, and this player ought to do this because of some previous thing that happened with them and somebody else." And I'll say, "Yeah, I don't think the player is going to get that, because up 'til now we've been telling the player this, this, and this."
So, I mean, I'm giving you kind of broad strokes versions of all of this, but I think the point is, is that, she and I were constantly checking each other on this stuff. And it was really, really good. It was a really effective working relationship for that. I think that there will always be games where the so-called narrative designer is also the person doing the writing, but I think that on a game like ours, with the complexity that we're talking about, with the amount of assistants that we need to try to give them notification on, I don't think it's a good idea.
I think it's a little bit like... the reason why a film director probably shouldn't edit his own movie. It's that thing of, you know, you fall in love with things because you worked on them, not because they're good. Or because the player will enjoy them. Or because it will help the player understand things you want them to understand. I think that there is an important dynamic there, and I think it's often a struggle, I guess, really on the higher level with producers and stuff to make sure you have the resources to have separate people doing these things. But I think it's a good way to do it.
CR: When you look at developers trying to do ambitious things, there's almost kind of two categories. You've got the developers who are trying to really perfect things that have been done, and really bring a certain dimension to that stuff.
Well then you have developers who do more or less what you guys do, in trying to solve problems. Take things that people have not quite figured out yet in game development and trying to do the first pass of it, and see where you can take that. Clint Hocking is someone that has done that, I think, multiple times in his games. How do you deal with that? That seems like a fairly nebulous area to go into, working for a big publisher.
PR: Yeah, it's a kind of a cultural value that I think that Ubisoft has been, if not 100% encouraging of, at least indulgent of. You know what I mean? Like, they're willing to acknowledge that this is a valid way of approaching that. Clint and I always said, from the very start, "Let's fail as big as we can on this." Let's take such a radical swing at this... let's put it all in and bet on red 12.
And honestly, if we mess this up, it will be one of the most useful epic failures of all time, because the shrapnel will be useful. There will be a lot of good forensics to have on this. Other developers, with whom we hopefully have a pretty decent relationship, just informally, they know what we're trying to do. We talk to them a lot about it. They appreciate that we're doing something that's risky, and that's ambitious, and also, hopefully, to the benefit of games as a whole.
And my feeling on the matter is, even if we don't achieve everything that we set out to achieve, I think there's a lot of really smart guys out there who are going to look at it and go, "Oh man, I see exactly what these guys were trying to do. That's really cool." And then they'll be thinking about it, and they'll have the benefit of having not spent three and half years on it, and they'll be like, "Oh, well why the hell didn't they just do X?" Or some super-programmer will come along and say, "Well why didn't they just build an animation system that did this procedurally?" You know, maybe we couldn't have done it, and they can.
So I think the point is, yeah, we're trying to raise the bar. I mean, it's often the case, as I think Clint found out going from the first Splinter Cell to Chaos Theory, that you have to kind of take your lumps on that first iteration. And you have to kind of just cringe your way through the parts that don't get to be as tight as you want them to be, in hopes that the message is delivered loud and clear to both players, as well as developers, as well as the publishers that, "Listen, whether you like it or not, this is something that needs to be done."
I think, like for example, I look at the use of the introduction of things like Euphoria for procedural IK, and character animation, and how it's been executed a couple of times in ways that I think are interesting but slightly gimmicky. And then a game like GTA can come along and use a very, very restrained subset of those features in a way that I think really adds a lot of verisimilitude to their game world. And I think that's really interesting, because that's a perfect example of that.
And maybe the one that kind of is the lowest-hanging fruit for some... but I mean, what I know is, given the amount of headaches that we've gone through trying to have a living, open world, that the next time we go about this, people are going to be hard-pressed to say that we shouldn't have some kind of procedural animation system, right? They're going to be like, "Well, yeah, that really seems like the right way to do that." And I think we've always kind of felt like it was, but maybe we didn't want to be the first ones to try it.
Here, we're trying to be the first ones to do the kind of dynamic story architecture applied to a first person shooter in an open world setting. And there's no way we would have tried this unless someone had done Deus Ex. Or they'd done System Shock. Or they'd done these other types of games.