FPS pioneer id Software doesn't exactly have a reputation rooted in strong game stories. But in his presentation at AGDC, Rage creative director Tim Willits urged developers to change the way they look at stories -- and emphasize just what's important to players in delivering them -- and also offered a few new tidbits of information about the upcoming Rage.
As if reading the audience's minds, Willits began, "So id Software is actually giving a talk on storytelling -- that doesn't make much sense!" But Willits feels id's public perception is "sometimes a bit skewed."
"Yes, in the past, we have developed games that have very limited narratives. But to say that a game with limited narrative has bad storytelling is really a narrow-minded approach to what storytelling is."
Doom vs. Lord of the Rings (No, Really)
"I believe that a story in a video game, if done correctly, can be as great as any novel or movie," Willits says.
"If you take [Lord of the Rings'] story and distil it down to its really simple elements, that's a top-line, simple story," he says, entering what he called the "controversial" part of his talk. "But when you read that novel, you are immersed in all of the details and experiences in the middle."
Willits recounted many of the plot points of the LOTR trilogy. For example: "You get excited when Frodo's being chased." By contrast? "Doom -- what's top line? You're a space marine; UAC opens the portal to hell by accident; you kill the demons; to go hell, save the world."
"If you wrote about your feelings, about your excitement, the excitement you felt when new areas were uncovered [in Doom] -- if you wrote it well, it would be a great story," Willits says. "People call it a 'bad story,' because the paper story is only one part of the game narrative -- and people focus on the paper story too much when they talk about the story of a game."
Information, he maintains, is learned through experiences, and the experience of playing a game is what forms a narrative, by its nature. Delivering a story through the game experience is the "cornerstone" of id Software's game design, and the key when developing new technology.
"When we have a great game of WoW, we go to work the next day with great stories," says Willits. Sensitive to criticisms of this method, but totally confident in the face of them, he says, "Some people might say that's an excuse, that it's a cop-out. That it's not as difficult to do as writing an excellent narrative."
But, Willits notes, "You can put together a great story and have a bad game."
Building an id Story
So how does it work? Willits explains: "With this trade-off between narrative, game design, and technology, there are things that you can do to have these groups work together. The first and most important thing is start with a solid, straightforward plot. At id we like to focus on good versus evil. We like to be the hero."
"Once we have that," he continues, "we take and we build the story out in such a way that it becomes a kind of a dynamic story, where we have the ability to push and pull story elements that change with that technology. Technology might take longer than you anticipate to develop it, so your story needs to shrink.
"Another time, a programmer might come up with a cool trick and you might have to change your story to take advantage of that. To make these two things possible, you need a really great writer."
Hollywood writers and others used to linear media, Willits feels, want to deliver a story and can't work through the changes necessary to game design. "When you are developing technology that constantly changes, that might have limitations you don't even realize, it is really important you focus on the experiences," he says.
So how does id build a story? For Rage, Willits is working with Matt Castello, who penned the story for Doom 3. Initially, Castello developed the story idea for the game, and went over his top-line idea with the team, then wrote treatments while id worked on the tech to drive the game.
"We let him go for a few months. When I came back to Matt and we started to take that treatment, we started to add new characters to it, overall story arcs and subplots, and he went away again and we went back to working on the technology," Willits explains.
Reiterating the need to concentrate on the game experience, he notes, "We don't try to shoehorn all of our ideas and characters into our story."
As echoed in other presentations, Willits feels that all of the atmospheric, cinematic tools provided by current-gen game technology are necessary to delivering the experience of a story in games. They include:
Lighting: "Dynamic and real time lighting and shadows in Doom 3 was the cornerstone of that technology."
Effects: "We do it with heat shimmer, dust particles, tumbleweed particles. We have this very dynamic depth of field. These types of effects really deliver storytelling to the player."
Music: "We haven't done a great job on music, but BioShock did such a great job on music, I felt like it was another storyteller in the game."
Design: "Because our technology changes, we try to develop modular systems, modular level pieces that can be pushed and pulled on the desired experiences we want the player to have. These can also be changed if we shorten the narrative and lengthen the narrative."
"Rage takes place about 50 to 100 years from now," Willits says, with "a comet about to destroy most or all life on the planet. The governments of the world develop a solution: an ark program, with arks buried on Earth. After the threat passes, the arks will emerge, and ark survivors will reestablish life on Earth -- but it doesn't go to plan."
"More people survived in the impact on the surface than were anticipated," explains. Those survivors built society with "no rules, no order, no government. When you emerge onto this world, you find a world no one expected."
Willits notes that the story is a larger component in Rage than in prior id titles, and required more advanced technology -- which was designed from the ground up to support it.
Where will Rage deliver improved storytelling? According to Willits:
Pacing: "One thing we're really trying to focus on is proper pacing. If you've played Doom 3 you know that our pacing was pretty intense. It started up easy enough, but then we kicked up the intensity and kept it there for the whole game. It really limited players' ability to absorb the story, to absorb the setting. With Rage we're purposefully trying to build the action."
Visual atmosphere: "Broad stroke visuals really portray to the user about the wasteland, and what the authorities are trying to do to the wasteland. A character is not trying to tell you, 'Hey these guys are bad, look what they did to the wasteland.' You can see it for yourself."
Increased NPC interaction and improved level flow: The game's levels are instances off of the wasteland world -- "A designer can look at the game and create a subplot with our NPC system and then design levels in a different layer system so they can have a different layout, or enemy set, and totally different pieces can be built into these levels."
Willits says that Doom 3 players "zoomed right through" the game's highly handcrafted levels, so for Rage, "we have focused on reusability."
"In Doom 3, when you interacted with an NPC, the system was very difficult [for designers] to tweak and customize," he recalls. "We found that because the system was quite difficult to work with, the designers were reluctant to add more NPC interaction. So what we did with Rage was set up a much more robust, modular NPC system that allows designers to quickly edit what they say, missions they give, how they move around the world -- which has led to a lot more cool experiences for the player."
Universe building, too, has benefited from an earlier development focus. "We've spent a lot of time working on the Rage universe," Willits says. "The story that you play takes place in the middle of a much larger story. Once you complete this game, you will know that this universe will go on. The story is not over. We are going to leave a lot of things -- not on the table like cliffhangers, but we are going to leave the conflict continuing after you leave this world. We really want to try to continue this franchise within this universe, and not change this universe over and over again for these games."
With that last point, Willits was contrasting Rage against the Quake series -- which has been inconsistent in its universe and fiction from game to game, fracturing its audience and confusing gamers.
Just as level designs are able to be repurposed, reused, and reformulated, Willits urges game designers and writers to craft game narratives in a similar way.
"Create modular story elements that you can pull in and out of your story arc," he says, because the circumstances of development can change so much over the course of its development.
Though Rage has two huge wastelands to explore, the creative director says the team is "not trying to do a sandbox in Rage. It's still mission-based, story-driven. But we give the player the option to go on sub-missions, to explore around. We as gamers hate when we're boxed in, so in Rage we wanted to give the player... the opportunity to do much more."
His bottom line for Rage? Delivering more choices and more variety for more people, while still delivering "classic id-style mayhem."