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Vital Game Narrative: A Conversation With Rhianna Pratchett
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Vital Game Narrative: A Conversation With Rhianna Pratchett

August 7, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 6 Next

A lot of complaint is made about cinematic experiences -- i.e. cutscenes -- in storytelling but some developers continuously show them to be effective. What's your take?

RP: There's no denying that given the fan-base of games like the Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy series, many gamers enjoy cutscenes, even incredibly loquacious and lengthy ones.

Whilst, personally, I'd rather a game wasn't turned into a wannabe movie, I believe there's still a place for artfully crafted, well timed and smartly paced cutscenes. Granted, the games that manage to do all three are fairly rare. Putting interactivity aside for a moment, there's still a lot we can do to improve our linear storytelling. There are exceptions (there always are) but our strength in this regard is by no means across the board. It is improving though, title by title.

Cutscenes are still an important tool in our narrative toolbox, and we shouldn't throw out the hammer just because we keep hitting our thumb with it. We just have to learn how to wield it a little better.

Cutscenes vs. direct during-gameplay storytelling -- is one more or less effective in your eyes? Can they coexist in the same game?

RP: They can coexist in the same game just fine. Most of the titles I've worked on have used a blend of narrative delivery techniques. The Overlord games use a lot of on-the-fly ambient and directional dialogue, as well as cutscenes.

However, more interactive cutscenes or, what I'd personally like to see, more context for limited/locked view points (like being frozen in ice in BioShock's Fort Frolic, or being held on the metal Citadel transport pods in Half-Life 2) is eminently desirable. But there are two problems inherent in that (actually there are probably loads, but these two shout the loudest to me.)

The first is, as I mentioned earlier, that interactive narrative has to be supported by a game's core level design structure. It can't just be slotted in. Developers need to adopt the mindset of thinking about narrative right at the start of a project. I think we're still a little way off from that.

The second issue is that there's simply no one-size-fits-all solution to this. Whilst BioShock, Portal and Half-Life 2 made undeniable progress in game storytelling, the interactive elements were composed in relatively small, closed-off and controlled spaces (again, with level design playing a large part.) This would certainly be hard to replicate in something like a large, open world RPG with lots of exterior locations, or a traditional strategy/adventure game.

I'm not denying that these are important steps, but they're still quite small ones, and not an instant and all-encompassing solution to the interactive versus non-interactive debate. However, I do think the ways in which the aforementioned games showcased the power of visual storytelling, in particular, has something to teach the industry as a whole.

What techniques have you taken from storytelling in other media? What can't you take?

RP: Well I guess we're back to the Frankenstein metaphor again. It really is a little bit of this and a little bit of that. The central components of good, structure, plotting and characterization are essential, but given the nature of the medium you need to constantly revise your techniques to fit with the titles you're dealing with.

I'd say that games share more in common with writing for TV than they do with writing for film. Each involves turning scenes and bringing out characters in a relatively small space with limited resources. At the same time I think there's a kinship between writing for games and writing for the stage. Particularly in the way that audiences engage with characters. The difference being that in games you're pulled out of your seat and straight through the fourth wall.

For me one of the most useful things to keep in mind when creating stories (and particularly characters) is the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote "action is character." Whilst this is important for all storytelling mediums, I think it takes on a unique significance with games where action is such a tangible and often very visceral component.

Often games seem to have an odd disconnect between the player character and the action which they're performing. So I often try to start with the central premises of the gameplay and work out what kind of character would be engaging in such activities, where would they have come from, what might have happened to them and what impact would that have on their mental state.

Mirror's Edge

For example, in Heavenly Sword, how would being a skilled (and somewhat bloodthirsty) warrior impact on Nariko's ability to be a normal, emotional human being? What would push Faith (Mirror's Edge) to throw her body through so much physical exertion and yet appear to have disengaging her empathy for what's going on around her?

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