At this year's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Dr. Greg Zeschuk, one of the joint CEOs of BioWare, explained the role of stories in videogames such as Baldur's Gate and the forthcoming Jade Empire, detailing the process that takes place at BioWare to generate the narrative component for their games. Being a studio that prides itself of the depth and immersiveness of their titles (some of them boasting well over a hundred hours of gameplay in story-mode), it was a deep, exhaustive session where many perspectives on story-making were observed.
Zeschuk started by stating BioWare's compromise with story-based games: the studio has a permanent staff of writers, most of which have published in traditional media before. Thus, when a project is started, BioWare spends well over one year just world-building, to make sure the universe they are trying to make is coherent and provides room for interaction. Then the story arcs are built, and only after this stage does the content pipeline actually create the assets for the game world.
The Story Blueprint
Story at BioWare is constructed according to a story blueprint that has been devised and refined through the years. Following this blueprint, the story should commence with an introduction, which accounts for less than one percent of the actual play time. This is often an intro movie, or an interactive but simple level which establishes the mood and setting of the game (the train rides at Half-Life 1 and 2 are perfect examples).
From this introduction story should move on to the prelude, which is about five percent of play time. The prelude tells the player who he is, what his goals are, and gives a short tutorial on how to control the action. The city of Candlekeep in Baldur's Gate, or the train station at Half-Life 2 would be examples here. By having a prelude you can ensure the player actually reaches a minimum set of skills before embarking in the adventure. Preludes can be linear or non-linear, depending on game design, but they actually have an exit condition which gives access to the third portion of the story, which is the Linear Start.
In the Linear Start, players embark on their first adventures in the game world. As such, they should be guided towards clear objectives, and thus this phase tends to be linear. Irenicus Dungeon in Baldur's Gate 2 would be an excellent example of this stage, which approximately takes ten percent of the play time. From there, the player enters the Wide Open World, which is the middle segment of the game, encomprising about seventy percent of the play time. Here the game unfolds in a nonlinear way, combining quests, exploration, and both linear and non-linear segments. Knights of the Old Republic by BioWare worked this way, while Doom 3, with its almost corridor-like advance, would be a clear exception. By using this approach, the game gives a greater illusion of freedom and exploration.
To complete the journey, Zeschuk suggested the use of a Linear Finale, accounting for approximately fifteen percent of the gameplay. KOTOR is again an example, while games such as the Grand Theft Auto series are exceptions.
Once the blueprint was set, Zeschuk explored dialogs and characters. For their new Jade Empire, he said they crafted 340,000 words of dialog, in more than 300 speaking parts for NPCs alone. But dialog without emotion is nothing, and so BioWare is currently very interested in the field of virtual actors. So far, they have integrated lip-synching, autonomous facial animation, emotional responses, procedural body movements and NPC intelligence to raise the bar with regards to character realism and interaction. In a short demo from Jade Empire attendees could see all this in action, in a three-way conversation between characters full of cinematography and virtual drama.
According to BioWare, their NPCs can be classified in a set of predefined character types, with regards to their role in the story. Among others, this list of archetypical characters includes the Villain, the Henchman, the Love Interest, the One-Liner, the Information-Giver, the Rival, etc. By classifying them, they can streamline their use and easily understand the implications of each one.
As a series of interesting story telling techniques, Zeschuk mentioned telling the story of the player not directly, but through the reactions of NPCs towards him: we can show the character is someone of importance by just making NPCs react in a certain way to his presence. This technique has been used in games like Fable or even Half-Life 2, saving lots of dialog or exposition text.
The BioWare Rules for Story
Finally, Zeschuk explained what makes BioWare different with regards of story telling in three factors. First, he spoke about player influence: all BioWare stories orbit around the player, who is the center of everything. He even mentioned BioWare believed in the concept of games providing a sort of fantasy fulfillment, allowing you to become your secret dreams and desires. The second factor that sets BioWare apart is personalization of the story. All BioWare games allow the player a certain level of non-linearity, often linked to moral choices he must take during the course of the adenture. By doing this, the player is actually asserting who does he or she want to be within the game: a good or evil character, a hero or a villain. In Jade Empire this can notably be seen in the two sides: the way of the Open Hand and the way of the Closed Fist. Last, he spoke about the non-linearity present in all BioWare games. While he said a story-based game needs to have a story by nature, he said at BioWare they believe in non-linearity with guidance, this is, a linear story that can be advanced in non-linear ways. An example architecture for this would be a central hub location used to acquire new quests, and several non-linear satellite locations where actual adventuring takes place.
As a final statement, Zeschuk stated that stories need not be genre-specific, and all genres can be greatly improved by a high-quality story. Story will require some engine features (a dialog system, in-game cinematics and actors, mainly), and should never be added at the very end just to add purpose to the gameplay: it should be planned early on, and add the gameplay that best fits each narrative segment.