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Redefining Game Narrative: Ubisoft's Patrick Redding On Far Cry 2
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Redefining Game Narrative: Ubisoft's Patrick Redding On Far Cry 2

July 18, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 7 Next

The argument that cutscenes are dead as a narrative form in games has been spread far and wide. The sense that we must push the medium toward a form of interactive narrative that is as strong and vital as the innovations in other areas of gameplay and technology has taken hold with many creators.

Here, Patrick Redding details for Gamasutra the work that he has been doing as narrative designer on Ubisoft Montreal's Far Cry 2, which is due out later this year for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC, describing how he and other members of the team have chosen to design the game for fully interactive, player-influenced narrative.

He discusses the bold change from the previous Far Cry games on console, which he was involved with, and a move which he believes will draw a line in the sand for the industry's movement toward fully interactive narrative.

[For more on the team-structure decisions  and code-sharing ethos behind the title, which follows up the Crytek-designed original and is an open-ended action title set in an African landscape, see Gamasutra's recent interview with engineering director Dominic Guay.] 

Chris Remo: With what you're doing as narrative designer, I was wondering if you could just start off with an overview, because the systems you're trying to work out are really interesting.

Patrick Redding: To kind of put it into context of Far Cry 2 - what does it mean to do narrative design? What is the function of a narrative designer on a large, open-world, highly-systemic game like Far Cry 2? I mean, really, my job is to kind of enforce the notion that the most important story in any game, honestly, is the story that the player can actually play, and can actually determine the course of through his low, mid, and high-level actions and choices.

And that in a highly open-world environment where one of the major pillars of the player experience is freedom, it becomes all the more difficult to sort of try to retain some kind of authorial control over the way the narrative progresses. And it's interesting, because even at his keynote at GDC, Ken Levine was talking a lot about the importance of shifting to more of a pull-based narrative structure, and BioShock is relatively linear, and it's still an important idea there.

Well, imagine in a game like Far Cry 2 where we don't know where the player is, we don't know what direction he's traveling in, he literally could have assassinated one of the main characters during the last mission. All of these elements end up making the way the story unfolds potentially extremely dynamic.

And if we had tried to not support that dynamic approach, what we would have ended up with is a story that really felt like it was kind of progressing along more or less independently of player action, as though the player couldn't really have any ability to affect its outcome. And we felt there was no point in doing that.

We felt like if we were going to bother to support - pretend like we were supporting - some kind of narrative component to the game, that we really needed to make sure it was a systemic narrative, what we call "dynamic story architecture", which takes large banks of content, chops it up into very, very small pieces, and then allows the systems to kind of deliver those pieces in a way that reflects the current state of the game's world.

And that sounds like a complicated thing, and sometimes it's insanely complicated, but there's kind of a simple underlying idea there, which is that rather than having an enormous tree of dialog, or a huge branching structure, where basically we can guarantee that a typical player only ever sees ten percent of what we've created, why don't we instead try to pick the right pieces?

Figure out the right way to break content down, for a dialogue, or for an animation, or for a scripted event, so that we can reuse as much of that content as possible and make sure that it can be used in lots of different locations with lots of different NPCs. And that's really the nuts and bolts of it. That's mechanically how we have to do it.

That means you need a game designer working at a dedicated role on the game design team, who's focusing just on that, who's really not principally concerned with whether the guns are balanced, or whether the vehicles are driving properly. And at the same time on the level design side isn't primarily there just to kind of help concoct missions, but is really there to try to make sure that every time the player feels like they ought to have a say in the way things are unfolding, that there's some system that supports it.

I was fortunate enough that [lead designer] Clint [Hocking] and the other leads and the technical director on the project decided that this was a priority. They were able to sell that internally at Ubisoft as being a priority in order to make an open world shooter work. And so I was brought in early enough that we were able to try to make that happen.

Ubisoft Montreal's Far Cry 2

CR: You've spoken about your game, about the underlying metaphor, the kind of journey-into-the-darkness, Heart of Darkness, Conrad-influenced narrative, and all that. Presumably you've at some level you've got something underneath that drives the player along a narrative arc, or toward some kind of climax.

PR: Yeah. And it's thematic. What I've often said, and you may have - I know you've heard my talk at GDC, I mentioned this a few times - it's like I feel as though it's important to differentiate between the premise of the game, and then the story which is ultimately the thing that unfolds as a result of player input.

And to me the story is an output. And what we can say is we have a target for that output. We want the story to be about certain themes, and so what we try to do is pick a premise that supports that, and then also pick mechanics that support that. So it's about both data and programming, basically, if you want to think of it in kind of computer science terms.

So when we say, yeah, we want to make a game that's about one man's journey down the proverbial river into the heart of darkness, into the mind of a madman, what are the things that we can put in the game, what are the ingredients we can put in the game that support that? What are the kinds of characters, the kinds of environments that we want to try to create that will help support that?

Ultimately at a certain point we have to be willing to let those things go and kind of give control over those things to the player. But I think one of the things we did is we said, "Well, one kind of overriding question we want the player to be asking themselves is, 'How far are you willing to go in order to do the right thing?'" In other words, how much bad stuff are you willing to do, how much of your soul are you willing to sacrifice, in the pursuit of a larger good?

And it's important to say that we're not trying to take a position on that. We're not trying to say, "Oh, the trouble with people today is they're not willing to do really terrible, evil, monstrous things in order to accomplish the greater good." This isn't like some neocon wet dream, right? The idea is that we don't pretend like we know the answer.

We just say, let's take the player as close as we can - or an analog of the player - put him into this really, really difficult position, a terrible situation that probably most of us would like to avoid if we could, and try to get him to make decisions in a way that will help him survive, that will help him pursue his larger goals, that will allow him to potentially change those larger goals if he decides that he doesn't believe in them anymore, and to be able to deal with characters and situations on a case by case basis. In other words, give him the freedom to fuck up, give him the freedom to have a moment of triumph, or a moment of weakness, or moments of regret.

These are all things that we try to let the player do, but since we can't know what's in the player's heart, we can't know what the player's thinking - and hell, maybe 80% of our players are just like, "Yes, this is great fun! I'm blowing stuff up and burning things." Maybe only a small piece of that message gets though. And if that's the case, that's fine. We've still built a really good shooter. But what we're saying is, for that percentage of gamers who are affected by these things, and who think about these things, we want it to be there.

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Lee Sheldon
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"PR: Yeah. I guess even I, when we went to GDC, and Clint was there, and John was talking about the repetitious stuff on his side. I did my talk about narrative design. We were kind of shocked, honestly, that... personally, I would have expected that by now, at this stage that we're at, in this generation, that there would be a whole schwack of other people all solving the same problem, kind of at the same time.

And I fully - given the number of talks on narrative that were happening - I fully expected to have somebody show up and go, "Hey, look what we did." And totally just render moot everything we've been working on. And it never really happened."

I didn't attend that talk, but I've been working on modular and systemic storytelling since 1995. I taught it for six years at one-day tutorials at GDC beginning in 1997, and continue to present it at conferences today. My book, Character Development and Storytelling in Games, published in 2004, goes into detail on how to create stories in the way Mr. Redding describes.

In the beginning I was told by people who thought stories must be linear and strictly authorial that games and stories didn't mix. Then when I started talking about modular storytelling, I was told it wouldn't work. Then I was told okay, maybe it would work, but it was too hard. Now that I've moved my systemic storytelling to virtual worlds, I'm told that narrative-driven virtual worlds won't work, especially worlds with on-going stories. We're building one now.

And for the past two years at Indiana University I have been teaching the techniques Mr. Redding describes, and other skills, to the next generation of videogame and virtual world storytellers. They get it.

The next step is to convince the majority of game companies that hiring 70% programmers , 30% artists, and 0% writers may not be the best way to build games that transcend, challenge, and inspire.

"The sense that we must push the medium toward a form of interactive narrative that is as strong and vital as the innovations in other areas of gameplay and technology has taken hold with many creators."

I guess my reaction is: "It's about time."

John Mawhorter
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I've read and own Lee's book (it's great) and largely agree that modular storytelling is the way to go in games. At the same time I see the point of those who look at the bottom line and can't justify the expense required. If they're delivering a good linear story than good for them (see Half-Life series) and linear storytelling has its place in games. My frustration with games is in waiting for the technology to be there, like PR says, so I can write the whole game myself. I don't feel I have a giant ego, but I want to see my visions realized on an artistic, design, and writing standpoint that I have as much control over as possible. This is one of the many reasons I dread my planned entry into the games industry; I don't think my creativity will be put to full use. Collaboration can be immensely helpful but also a source of constant frustration (frustration is my current feeling). The main hurdles for storytelling to me are technological. It is very difficult to generate a modular story as compelling as a guided one without a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters generating possible content (the 10% of the game gets seen approach). PR's solution seems like an interesting one and we'll see if it can generate compelling player-directed narratives.

Steve Austin
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Even with modular storytelling you'll probably get a better experience by letting a group of people drive the creative process, and just acting as a guiding force to this group (creative director?). You might be pleasantly surprised to find that many of the programmers and artists have very good insight into what makes a great game play experience, what constitutes a great story, and in general, what interesting characters are all about.

By the way, I should mention, I'm one of those 70% programmers you mentioned, and yes, I often feel like my creativity is not being put to its full use. :-)

Lee Sheldon
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John didn't mention the percentages. I did.

"You might be pleasantly surprised to find that many of the programmers and artists have very good insight into what makes a great game play experience, what constitutes a great story, and in general, what interesting characters are all about."

They'd better be able to do more than have insight. They'd better be able to write, too.

My point was that the practice of creating a game development team composed of 70% programmers and 30% artists guarantees you aren't going to have any dedicated writers around.

I have several friends who are equally good at programming and writing, but it takes more than insight. I have insight into the jobs programmers and artists do on my games, but nobody in their right mind would hire me to code or draw.

I guarantee the actors at the Globe Theatre had insight in all of those things. Only one of them was Shakespeare.

And those aren't my percentages. Those were given publicly at a conference I attended in June by a senior HR person who works for a huge game publisher.

Stephen Dinehart
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This is a great piece, it's nice to hear about Narrative Design from the trenches; thanks Patrick et. all. I wonder sometimes how much the use of abstract narrative models really helps us. I love to talk about them, but recently there was a lengthy rant on the IGDA WSIG about branching dialog systems that just about made me want to vomit. Some people seemed terribly convinced of how vital they are (clearly Zork and D&D pic-a-path novels are still a hit). Some tried to argue for sake of replayability they are vital, but between the number of people that finish a game and the number of people that replay it, I really doubt we are even talking about 25% of our audience. What it really comes down to is the UX, what does the Viewer/User/Player (VUP) feel when they are done, what is their story? It is there that the game story is alive, in cognition, in the VUP's mind.

I look forward to playing Far Cry 2 and witnessing the degree to which it drives me to emote. While working on "COH Opposing Fronts" I was able to do some user testing in relation to narrative and it proved very helpful, though in post. I imagine more robust narrative related user-testing during production would be tremendously valuable, to understand just what a particular narrative element, narreme, is conveying to the VUP and how that narreme might be improved to encourage concinnity with the intended metanarrative.

Kirk Battle
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That was epic.

Speaking just as a lowly critic, the way I think of these kinds of games is that they are a series of inter-operating vignettes. Moments or scenes that are created by a writer are activated based on the actions allowed by the game design and given meaning by the art and speech.

In other words, the writer doesn't create events. He creates reactions.

Stephen Dinehart
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Mr Jeffries... nice reduction; very nice... :)

Sande Chen
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I remember Lee Sheldon's session at GDC where he talked about modular storytelling. It was several years before his book was published. It made quite an impact on me.

I too echo Stephen Dinehart's remarks that it's nice to hear from a narrative designer in the trenches. It's always a good thing to hear about the work of game writers who "get" games.

As freelancers, Anne Toole and I are lucky that Writers Cabal does get the chance to work with developers at the earliest stages of game development.

Lou Hayt
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The modular story approach sounds very good but unfortunately it is pretty vague, especially if the atoms of the systems might be a piece of animation, sound or other type of asset. This level of granularity seems overwhelming. Since all stories are told through the human eye it is common that a cast of characters and their state form the context of a specific point in an emerging story line... manipulating that data drives the story. Places, social groups and other elements of a good story are only worth monitoring on the story-telling level if they have "character". Based on that I would steer towards using characters as the atomic unit for a dynamic narrative engine.

Sande Chen
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Lou, for modular storytelling, it's good to think about each individual segment as an atom. It is a structure.

If you have a bad day, there are any number of events that could make it a bad day.

You can go through these even in any order and still have a bad day.

You could even have the same dramatic "This is the last straw -- worst day ever" moment regardless of which event happened last.

Aubrey Hesselgren
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Excellent interview. It's great that this approach is finally getting some traction in a mainstream title.

The theories behind it have essentially already been in a lot of games, but those games have described them in a far more abstract way... Civilization, Total War and X-Com (as mentioned), feel more like emergent, player owned sets of events than guided narrative. Those games have never represented themselves as if they're *trying* to tell a story, and so they aren't landed with the criticisms that most conventional literary figures point at game narrative.

Instead, they create something *new* - a medium unto itself. A player's generated story is not necessarily going to be Dickens every time, sure, but the important fact is, it belongs and responds to them. That creates a completely different relationship with the audience. They're not an unpaid actor in a scripted world anymore. They're being listened to, responded to. While designers still have the "hands off" control through systemic design, the players forge their own path through possibility. I think that that, alone makes it a unique medium worth pursuing. We're growing up as a medium, and realizing that this whole interactive storytelling thing is NOT about self consciously, cow-towingly trying to make a perfect generative Dickens with every play-through, or trying to ape narrative conventions of fixed storytelling in order to justify the endeavor. We're discovering that we're making something brand new - something different from what the movement set out to create.

FPS game productions have typically had to be more focussed on their own core gameplay - the moving and the shooting. So much focus is required just to get those fundamentals right that higher level things suffer. Focus on the higher level things instead, and you get pretty clunky core gameplay (I'm a deus ex fan, obviously, but seriously... its combat is not what you'd call "fun").

Because of this deep focus required, the scope for adding this extra layer of *deep*, granular narrative interactivity on top of an FPS is rare, to say the least. It requires a lot of guts to back, from the money men all the way down to the devs in the trenches. I salute you!

I'm so glad we're over the notion of Branching Plot structures being the be-all and end all of interactive narrative, by the way.