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Game Design: Secrets of the Sages -- Creating Characters, Storyboarding, and Design Documents
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Game Design: Secrets of the Sages -- Creating Characters, Storyboarding, and Design Documents

March 15, 2002 Article Start Previous Page 6 of 7 Next

Ragnar Tørnquist, Funcom

The brilliant and articulate Ragnar Tørnquist—creator of The Longest Journey, arguably one of the most critically acclaimed adventure games of late—talks in this chapter about creating a successful protagonist and the importance of design docs and storyboard sequences.

"Creating strong characters in a game is not as hard as people think," begins Tørnquist, when asked to reveal the "secret" to creating a successful lead character such as April Ryan in The Longest Journey.

Most of it has to do with depth: depth of personality, depth of background, depth of characterization. It's important to avoid clichés and stereotypes, and one way to go about it (at least initially) is to use real people as models for your characters. Think about what it is that makes a person unique: Is it the way he or she talks, walks, laughs? Observe his or her expressions—facial, verbal, body language—and dig deep into that person's full history. The more complex the background, the more thorough your preparation, and the easier it is to develop a strong character. Even if it isn't mentioned in the game, take the time to write down personal details such as family history, likes and dislikes, favorite pets—anything and everything that's suitable for the kind of character you want to create.
In other words, if your character is a butt-kicking marine with a grudge, you probably don't need to think about his favorite color, but you'll need to find out why this guy became a soldier in the first place, what makes him tick, and what he wants to accomplish.

Okay, so what about the creation of April Ryan?

With April Ryan in The Longest Journey (TLJ), there was actually a ton of background material that's only briefly hinted at in the game, but that gave her depth and character. There's a reason for everything she says and does, and I think that's quite apparent. Long before I started writing her dialogue, I knew everything that had happened to her from the day she was born to the day the game started. I knew what made her tick. I knew how she spoke, how she would react in any given situation. At that point, it's a lot easier to develop the character and to have him or her become a natural part of the story and the setting.
I said earlier to avoid clichés and stereotypes, but sometimes clichés and stereotypes are great ways to establish a character immediately, without a lot of dialogue, especially in the case of supporting characters who may not get a lot of screen time. Don't knock stereotyping; there's a good reason why some people do conform to stereotypes. With TLJ, we had The Surly Detective, The Funny Sidekick, The Mysterious Stranger, The Mad Wizard, and so on. These types of characters, done right, appeal to us on a very basic level: we understand them. We've seen them before. We know where they fit in. While you don't want your lead character(s) to fit into an easy mold, clichés and stereotypes are tools that can be used to fill out your character gallery. After a while, you'll probably want to play with these clichés and stereotypes, twisting them ever so slightly to keep the players on their toes throughout.

The Longest Journey creator Ragnar Tørnquist says he creates thorough background dossiers for most of the important characters in the game. Of April, Tørnquist says, "There's a reason for everything she says and does, and I think that's quite apparent. Long before I started writing her dialogue, I knew everything that had happened to her from the day she was born to the day the game started."

And on the development of these characters, and using the story—or, more precisely, the plot—Tørnquist says to keep in mind that good characterization (at least in games) comes from placing ordinary people in extraordinary situations.

This is usually a lot more interesting than extraordinary people in extraordinary situations: By virtue of the changes in the game world, and the way your characters react to these changes, you'll find that your protagonist(s) often start to evolve and grow on you, regardless of your original intent. Let the player experience the world through the eyes of the protagonist; if the protagonist's eyes are jaded or all-knowing, it's not particularly interesting. But if, as with April, the extraordinary things that happen on her journey are as surprising to her as to the player, there's an instant link between the person playing and the character he or she is controlling. And that's a good thing.

On design docs for an adventure game, Tørnquist mirrors many of the sentiments found in this chapter:

A design document is a blueprint for the programmers, artists, and level designers. It describes in detail the concept and ideas, the systems and functions, and the suggested implementation of all game features—both the obvious ones (visual interface, for example) and the not-so-obvious ones (AI, scripts, saving and loading, and so on).

Tørnquist expands on this comment, and also touches on storyboarding:

The designer's job is to think of every eventuality that might occur, every action the player may want to perform, every problem that could pop up, as well as create an interesting world, a strong story, intriguing characters, and fun gameplay. It's impossible to cover every eventuality—to second-guess all possibilities—but the point is to be as well prepared as possible. Design will happen, whether you want it to or not, throughout the production, until the day the game ships (or, in the case of online games, even after the game has shipped, and for years to come). A design document is therefore an evolving document, constantly updated by the designers, providing a living record of intent as well as result.
A storyboard is a visual representation of what occurs onscreen, which is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the actual design. A storyboard visualizes what the player will see and do, and so it's an interesting way to "play the game" long before the game is up and running, but it doesn't replace the design document. For The Longest Journey, we storyboarded a few important in-game sequences, but not all of them—not even most of them. However, we did make detailed concept drawings of all locations and every single character in the game—this is called the visual or graphic design. By doing that, we were able to plan out what animations, sound effects, dialogue, and code we needed. Of course, all of the game's cut-scenes were fully storyboarded, much like with an animated movie.

And lest we forget about a script—arguably the most important part of a creating an adventure game, Tørnquist has a few words to say on that topic:

Last but not least, an adventure game needs a script; this is the document that "tells the story," in dialogue, scripted events, every possible response to every possible action—much like a movie script, but much, much bigger. Combine the three—the design (technical, systems, interface), the storyboard, and the script—and you're ready to start production, at which point you'll realize that making adventure games is even more fun than playing them!

Ragnar Tørnquist offers sagely advice in Chapter 3 on creating adventure games.

Ron Gilbert, Humongous Entertainment

The gaming genius behind many of our most lovable characters, such as Monkey Island's Guybrush Threepwood, Maniac Mansion's Bernard, and Pajama Sam, believes that "there has to be something about the character that's visually recognizable, and simply understood." He explains:

We don't have the bandwidth yet for complex characters like in film, so we simplify and often rely on stereotypes, and then we build them up through storytelling. In action or real-time strategy games, we rely on these stereotypes for you to instantly understand who the character is. The story is secondary, more of an afterthought, but not for adventure games, of course.

Daniel Greenberg, Freelance

The talented Daniel Greenberg is an award-winning freelance game designer with almost two decades of experience making critically acclaimed and commercially successful games. Some of these include Star Trek: Starfleet Academy, Vampire: The Masquerade—Redemption, Star Control III, Tenchu II: Birth of the Stealth Assassins, Independence War II: The Edge of Chaos, Sea Dogs, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Al Qadim/The Genie's Curse, and X-Men: The Mutant Wars. He is also a consultant for a number of well-known computer and console publishers.

Greenberg was first asked to provide some important pieces of advice to share with newbie game designers on becoming a success in the industry. His answers are quite thorough, so dig in and get comfortable.

Apprenticeship: Learn the rules. Stay in school. There's a lot more to game design than being really into deathmatching. The best way to learn it is to absorb the distilled essence of what mankind has learned over the last few thousand years. There's a shocking amount of good stuff in college and even high school—if you keep your ears open. Learn the basics—at least enough English to write crackling dialogue and avoid passive voice; at least enough dramatic theory to understand why Aristotelian theory is still essential 2,000 years later; at least enough programming to create flowcharts that are efficient and meaningful; at least enough art theory to be able to speak intelligently to artists about color, form, motion, and asset management; and at least enough business and marketing and corporate culture to talk coherently to people who will turn your games into cash. None of this stuff is dull to an active mind that is restlessly churning everything it digests into fodder for games. Once you're firmly grounded in a multidisciplinary approach, get inside the business any way you can—quality assurance, administrative assistant, etc. Once you're inside, it's easy to learn the ropes and even find mentors. Knowing the rules will help you avoid the pitfalls that tripped up so many designers before you.
Professionalism: Follow the rules. It doesn't matter if you're 16 or 60; there's no excuse for unprofessional conduct. Handle the basic stuff. When you give your word, can your boss and coworkers and employees count on you? Make sure they can—every time. Underpromise and overdeliver. The temptation to do just the opposite is often overwhelming. Resist it.
The rules are there for a reason: they work. The rules can help you isolate bad ideas and eliminate the pressures that result in crappy games.
Revolution: Break the rules. Game design is full of devotion to stupid conventions that are slavishly copied in hopes of duplicating success. Innovation requires a leap of faith into the void. And that's the easy part. Once you've created a brilliant, unconventional, defiant design, harness your creative powers to create imaginative ways to sell your innovations to marketing. If you learned how risk-averse corporate culture is during step 1 (apprenticeship), you should have an edge in this process. Following the rules makes good games. To make great games, you have to know which rules to break.

With the nearly 20 years of experience Greenberg has under his belt, he can easily support his advice above with real-world personal/professional examples.

I'm still pillaging classes I took years ago for good ideas. My psychological studies into reaching autistic children became the basis for the secret final mission in Starfleet Academy ("A World of Their Own"), in which the only way to survive a confrontation with a planet-killing vessel is to not try to get them to understand you, but to understand them by getting into their dissociative world.
In my Advanced Dungeons and Dragons computer game, The Genie's Curse, I drew on notions of honor and sacrifice from a Philosophy of the Middle Ages course, in order to let players make meaningful choices about expediency versus the difficult but honorable path. (The Computer Shopper magazine reviewer said " is refreshing to see a game where honor and courtesy are an integral part, and portrayed in a way that isn't trite.")

Much of this chapter looks at storyboarding, the various theories on why storyboards are important, and how to approach them. Greenberg looks at the importance of the story itself and offers the following paragraphs:

Aristotelian dramatic structure has not been repealed in the digital age, but it needs some adaptation to account for user input. Story structure needs to follow the basic pattern of rising and falling action, but the player needs some ability to alter the pacing, or the story will feel forced and labored. But just as Arthur Miller had to seriously rework Aristotle to reach a modern audience with "Death of a Salesman," good games need to rethink dramatic structure for the new medium.
Many games have paper-thin characters because our art form is still in its infancy. For all their rapidly accelerating power, PCs are actually still a very crude canvas. They're bursting at the seams to contain an art form as potentially explosive as interactive storytelling. Unlike mature art forms, like books or films, our medium is in its infancy, and our ultimate structure is utterly unknown to us—though many of us suspect it will make the Holodeck look like a child's toy. (Wait. The Holodeck is a child's toy.)
The people in our audience who "get" interactive entertainment are still a small subset of the general population (though this subset is growing and evolving faster than the keepers of our culture understand or imagine). So we can be excused for catering more to the more primal interactivity needs of our audience than the more subtle forms of characterization and intricate plot construction. It only makes sense that we (and our audience) are more enthralled by the gimcrackery of the exponentially increasing technology than exploring the depths of the human psyche via video games (though that, too, is happening). So the simple conclusion is that Lara Croft is about as developed as she needs to be for the style of game she appears in. That style of gameplay is evolving, however, as we find what's really meaningful in storytelling.
Great stories resonate in us, because somewhere the story relates to journeys we have taken, struggles we have endured, and burdens we have borne. Even the most fantastic story can connect with us on a symbolic level. This has tremendous power, even if most people are not fully conscious of the effects of story on their emotions, actions, and lives. Games can illuminate our own inner landscape just as books and movies can, showing us a little bit about ourselves as we play. Good games let us take charge of that process, and let us explore that inner landscape. One secret to illuminate that path is the tool of multiple good outcomes.

Any secrets Greenberg can share on storytelling in an interactive medium? Indeed there are. Greenberg provides the following, and supports his comprehensive words of wisdom with examples from games such as Vampire: The Masquerade—Redemption and Star Trek: Starfleet Academy.

Multiple "good" outcomes
A big secret of superior interactive storytelling is the concept of multiple good outcomes, with varying degrees of "good."
When I first began designing, most games had a very linear storyline. Interactive choices offered were largely illusory, as any deviation from the storyline was punishable by death (or at least game over). This became too obvious, so some games decided not to kill characters immediately after the player chose the death path. This made the game livelier, but led to terrible frustration when players realized they were "dead without knowing it." It was often quite difficult for players to locate the killer choice point and start over from there. Eventually, interactive story design evolved to the point where games could offer a third, more ambiguous choice to spice up the mix of a fairly obvious survival choice and a fairly obvious insta-death choice. These good, bad, and ugly choices improved the mix, but were still very limited.
My favorite solution was to make the insta-death choice very rare (You chose door number two? You're dead!), and focus on a wide range of variables to track choices within the main story. Players don't have cut-and-dried choices that point in obvious directions, but more subtle choices that could each turn out well. Each choice has real consequences and real rewards far beyond issues of death and survival. They take the player along differing paths through the main story, and result in a range of consequences and endings depending on the preponderance of choices made throughout the game. This lets the player feel more in charge of his destiny.
This "multiple good options" approach has another beneficial effect. Players can personalize their character to a greater extent, and therefore feel a closer connection to their avatar. For example, if the player needs to question a non-player character, consider providing a range of dialogue approaches. Choosing between dialogue options like browbeating and sweet-talking lets players sculpt their characters' emerging personalities. Players not only control their destinies, but shape the kind of ride they have on the way to that destiny.
Technical note: If you're going to offer the player these kinds of choices throughout the game, it's important to reveal this experientially early on, by setting up a simple, low-impact choice and result early in the game. The player needs to feel the consequences of his choice very quickly to know that the game is indeed responding qualitatively to his decisions.
The trick is tracking all the variables set in play, and making sure they're all paid off. It's also important that the player has a sense of why he gets the outcome he did. He doesn't need to understand the direct consequences of each choice, but should have some idea. (If he wants to know the direct consequences of each choice, he's free to replay from a myriad of saved games, and believe me, a lot of players will. And then they'll post the consequences in great detail on gaming sites.)
One of the best ways to offer multiple good options is to use the approach of short-term pain for long-term gain versus short-term gain for long-term pain. Tempt the player with expedient choices, but hint that there's a price to pay later. And offer a price to be paid now for hope of a return later. This is a diabolical bind, and makes for very textured choices for the player—neither of which is obviously objectively bad. When players are wracked with nervous apprehension while making choices, you have done your job.
Examples (and reviews to show how the goal was accomplished):
Vampire: The Masquerade—Redemption offers the player multiple endings based on ethical conduct during the game. While ethical vampires might sound confusingly contradictory, in practice it works well. We implemented the Humanity system that we had used quite successfully in the paper game version. Vampires are unliving creatures who either cling to the tattered shreds of their former humanity or yield to the beast within and become ravening monsters. So if the player made difficult but ethical choices in his dealings with others, he could forestall the slide to oblivion, and even find a kind of redemption. If he acts like the monster he's becoming, he hastens his slide into oblivion. However, even this "bad" ending can give him power to defeat the boss villain, but at the cost of his soul. In the end, the game's basic choices became a meditation on what we sacrifice for power, on defeat in victory and on victory in defeat.
Adrenaline Vault said: "The well-constructed storyline and character development system give VTM: Redemption an overpoweringly immersive quality, possessed in very few offerings today."
Star Trek: Starfleet Academy requires that the player manage a crew of raw cadets and mold them into a team. Besides having to make career path decisions, resolve inter-crew squabbling, and deal with opportunities to cheat (just like James T. Kirk), the player has the option to neglect his studies to help solve a serious problem he and his science officer have stumbled upon. From the very beginning of the game, it appears that the top victory condition is graduating first in the class. Therefore, all the academic choices seem far more important than more fun distractions. And, for the most part, they are. But the player gets an inkling that the fringe research project he has embarked upon could have tremendous, far-reaching consequences, saving more than a few lives. The player will have to sacrifice what appears to be the whole point of the game—winning command of his own ship by graduating first in his class. The research plan that will let him crack the problem is presented as yet another tempting distraction from his limited study time. But clues interspersed throughout the game, including interactions with Academy Special Instructor Kirk, hint that it could be far more than that. If you actually dare to ask Kirk audacious questions about his notorious defiance of the Prime Directive, you learn all about how and when to break rules. Many players figure out the special ending the first time through the game, but not all. Which is as it should be.
Cnet Game Center's review said that Starfleet Academy's "...clever writing and an understanding of the Trek mythos (and its implications) surpasses most of the current TV shows and movies. In fact, the question of what we are to learn from Kirk himself and his "Cowboy Diplomacy" (based on the original series and first set of movies) is one of the major themes of this story."

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