Alexis Nolent is the Editorial Story Design Director for Ubisoft, responsible for titles such as King Kong and Far Cry: Instincts, and he kicked off the Game Writers Conference in Austin discussing narrative design, the art of combining story with gameplay.
Tackling the question head on, Nolent asked: does story even matter in games? Many hardcore gamers claim they don't care about stories in games; they skip story elements whenever they can, and story just gets in the way of the experience. "But whatever they say, they complain about it most of the time," said Nolent. "They say the plot sucks, the dialog sucks. So they must care at least a little bit." So according to Nolent, the problem may not be story itself, but the current quality of stories in game.
Getting Everybody On Board?
He said the first way to tackle the problem is to acknowledge that building games is a team effort, and to achieve high quality writing and narrative, everyone on the team needs to be on board with the idea of story incorporated with gameplay. He said game designers in particular need to work closely with the writers, and writers need to leave their ego behind and be a team player.
His advice to writers was to think of their job as generating lots of good ideas. They can't afford to hang on to any one idea, especially if that idea gets in the way of gameplay or other constraints of the game. A good game writer needs to be humble. When one of their ideas gets dropped or changed, they need to have a thick skin and move on, coming up with another good idea.
Nolent says the ideal working situation for great narrative design is to have the writer "embedded" in the development team full-time. A writer in the trenches can keep an eye on story, defending it when necessary. With everyone creating together, problems can be solved immediately.
As an example of where this could have been helpful, he described a scene in a game where the story needed to deliver the news that the President of the United States had been kidnapped. The writers intended this to be a big deal where the player would stop other interactions and pay close attention to the news. However, the way the level designer implemented the dialog, the player only heard the news in the background and had to continue with other tasks.
Ways to Improve the Quality of Game Writing
Nolent said there's a battle to be fought for higher quality game writing and he gave a list of ways to focus our efforts.
- Storyline: keep it coherent so it doesn't wander and it doesn't get confused
- Material you start with: licenses or original IP, the core needs to be good
- Sequels: he says we're doing too many of these, but that's not going to change anytime soon, so don't fall into the trap of being repetitive
- Situations created within the plot: make the individual scenes compelling
- Characters: make characters distinct and unusual
- Dialog: including having the voice director know all about the game and having the writer in the room when it's being recorded
As writers work to improve in these areas, he suggested to keep in mind that nobody can please everyone. So, games should have a style and point of view. Writers should write to a particular audience. Otherwise, the story gets watered down into blandness. Nolent blamed the marketing department as a frequent roadblock in giving games a unique voice, because they want to reach a mass audience and get nervous about aiming at any niche.
Trends in Writing and Technology
Nolent identified several trends coming down the line in game writing.
First, he saw a trend toward fewer cinematics, and more scripted events. Nolent says Ubisoft is trying to get rid of cinematics entirely, but they do sometimes sneak back in when a map has to be scrapped or there's some other unexpected problem. Nolent expects to see more "playable cut scenes" or scripted events where the story moves ahead, but players still have opportunities for interaction.
The next trend he saw was fierce competition along tight genre guidelines. He thinks soon every studio will have a shooter, every studio will have an RPG, every studio will have an MMO, with story and writing one of the ways individual games will stand out.
He also saw the technical side of games presenting new challenges with the next generation of consoles opening opportunities for deeper settings and larger worlds with more detailed character animation.
Nolent concluded by saying that in spite of all these areas he highlighted as needing improvement, he felt the level of game writing has been steadily improving and sees further improvement in the future. He also sees games tapping into wider audiences with new demographics, presenting new opportunities and challenges.
Gamasutra will continue to present write-ups from the Austin Game Conference and the Games Writers Conference throughout this week.