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[In this thought-provoking design piece, writer Sande Chen (The Witcher) takes a look at how to ratchet up emotional intensity - through narrative design, visuals, and music - to create more meaningful games.]
While games have come a long way, developers have yet to take full advantage of the medium by incorporating meaning within the very structure of a game. Time-tested techniques from film can help, but first they must be adapted to fit the unique properties of video games.
One of the strongest tools to convey meaning is thematic expression, which can be integrated not only in narrative, but also in other game elements, such as art direction, game systems, sound design, and music. Developers who yearn for mass-market appeal can use this multidisciplinary approach to create meaningful and more emotionally charged games.
"If we're going to build really powerful games, we need interdisciplinary teams," says Sheri Graner Ray. As a freelance game designer and production consultant, Ray knows firsthand the level of collaboration that can occur when artists, writers, designers, programmers, and composers work together.
In particular, Ray advocates bringing in a writer or narrative designer early enough in the design process so that the game can have more depth. A programmer wouldn't be expected to know which colors evoke which feelings, Ray points out, so why would anyone without training or experience presume to take on the role of the narrative designer?
As champions of the story, narrative designers are more than just dialog writers. By using themes and other tools of storytelling, they oversee the process of crafting a meaningful experience throughout the game. Themes, like an emotional heartbeat, enable stories to deliver a universal message, yet also resonate with players at a personal level. Thematic expression can surface in the narrative, art direction, game systems, sound design, and music. As such, the role of the narrative designer is inherently multidisciplinary.
Themes also are likened to the game's or author's point of view. "Even in games," says narrative designer Stephen E. Dinehart, "we seek to communicate a message."
The theme gives the reason why this particular story should be told. Often, to find these meaningful themes, writers soul-searchingly delve into a personal credo to discover where their passions lie - because to convey passion, one should be passionate about the underlying message. Because themes are best felt at the subconscious level, a writer must be careful not to be preachy and instead, let the theme flow from the situations presented in the story.
The integration of themes is what elevates a film to cinematic art. Developers of video games can adapt the very same techniques used in film to create more meaningful games. Just as films have stirred passions, evoked emotions, and even encouraged real-world action, so too can games.
Much as the Munsell Color System provides a way to specify a particular color of value 8 and chroma 2 without confusion, Bruce Block's visual theory of cinematography gives a common language for developers to discuss visual components.
As described more fully in his book, The Visual Story, Block discusses how film directors use the narrative structure as the basis for cinematography decisions. Color, tone, shape, line, angles, lighting, and camera movement are all choices that reflect theme and affect how audiences feel about a character or setting.
For example, ambiguous space can create anxiety, confusion, or tension in a horror flick.
Curved lines have a more whimsical quality than straight lines. A car zooming diagonally across a frame looks sleeker and speedier than if it were travelling horizontally. Likewise, a composition built around triangles will be more visually intense than one centered around round shapes.
Furthermore, a director can use affinity and contrast to control visual intensity.