Towards More Meaningful Games: A Multidisciplinary Approach
July 22, 2008 Page 3 of 3
Certainly, scripted sequences are nothing new, but Hawkins calls for a smoother and more subtle approach that would reinforce the story during gameplay. For example, in Assassin's Creed, the player leaps from beam to beam fairly flawlessly because a bumbling goof hardly fits the profile of a professional assassin. In Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, the camera switches position to show a more dramatic view of an elaborate finishing move and then returns back to normal when control is handed back to the player.
Hawkins' hope is to see the creation of director agents that would control the other cinematic agents, like camera, cinematographer, editor, sound editor, and lighting. He concedes, however, that in current console systems, the processing power needed for a director agent would require sacrifices.
Moreover, the director agent would have to be programmed on a per-game basis since each game requires different directing skills. But, he says, "If you're trying to tell a story, then spending more time on the camera might actually benefit you more than adding a few more particle systems to the game."
Even with a director agent, a narrative designer is needed to determine key story events and how that director agent would act in different scenarios. Most importantly, the narrative designer would work with the systems designer to ensure that themes are consistent across gameplay. With gameplay so paramount to a player's experience in video games, it's crucial that developers of meaningful games align gameplay with story.
Sound and Music
Sound design and music are often overlooked in games, but they are powerful tools to convey narrative. As in film, game composers know to weave themes into music so that the audience reacts on an emotional level. Such musical themes, tied to particular characters, objects, or places, should reflect the overall narrative theme.
In film, sound and music is used to increase drama. When the script calls for a tense moment, sound or lack of sound builds that tension. When the mood is relaxed, the music is relaxed. When sound and music is working, they are almost unnoticeable under the visuals. Instead, they mesh with the visuals and narrative to create a powerful, immersive experience.
Anecdotally, Davidson recalls a time at a former company when a new build of a game was submitted to a client. Nothing had been added except sound and music. Mesmerized, the client kept on asking what had been done to the visuals to make them so great. Davidson comments, "It soooo gets into our subconscious. That's where I think sound and music have so much power and potential impact."
To build that immersive experience, however, not all sound needs to be realistic. The Foley artists responsible for sound on a film are not required to use whatever object is portrayed on screen, but whatever fits the story better. In a climatic scene of a movie, as in The Matrix, the director may choose not to depict realistic sounds of bullets flying around the room, but a more artistic interpretation.
As always, it falls back to the meaning of the game. That's why it's so important to clue in composers and sound designers to themes in the narrative. Just providing the visuals isn't enough, although it is a good start. Concept art is fine, but a visual plan like that described in the previous section would show progression through the game. Even better would be a full understanding of the key narrative moments designated in the game.
This way, composers and sound designers could build upon their work in a meaningful fashion. Carolyn Fazio, composer and audio director at Sonic Farms, muses, "Maybe in the beginning, your character theme would be simple, but by the end of the game, you'd change your character theme to include your original theme but have it more complex and dynamic to show how your character has grown throughout the game."
As with the narrative designer, Ray recommends bringing in a sound designer and/or composer early as part of an interdisciplinary team. She understands fully the power of sound and music in games. Just recently, she heard the notes from a once-favorite game and experienced an emotional pull back to those times. "I almost got misty over it," she recalls. "It was like a family reunion."
Truly, the emotional heartbeat of a game can be heard through its music and sound design. Narrative designers can work with composers and sound designers to strengthen the emotional connection so that players always have a powerful and meaningful experience.
To build a meaningful game, a narrative designer joins together and balances these disciplines in game development so that the story can shine in a game. When done successfully, the game expresses themes that connect to audiences. It becomes more than simply a game, but a meaningful experience.
As such, Davidson and Hawkins believe meaningful games are the way forward to mass-market appeal. Just as audiences look to film for a variety of topics and meaningful experiences, they seek the same satisfaction in games. By using the same conventions seen in film and adapting them to games, developers appeal to this mass market through its visual literacy.
Moreover, Ray says, "When we build these powerful and emotional games, we build stickiness. We bring our players back, if not to this particular game, to similar games, to our company, to our product lines, because they know they're going to have that type of experience."
By espousing this multidisciplinary approach to narrative design, developers can elevate the art of game development as well as increase the bottom line. Meaningful games require advance planning, but players benefit much from the integration of story, art, gameplay, sound, and music. Using themes, narrative designers ensure that each play experience is not only immersive, but also a meaningful one.
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