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Postcard from GDC 2005: Hal Barwood on Integrating Narrative into Play


March 11, 2005
 

Hal Barwood

At the last day of the Game Developers Conference, Hal Barwood illustrated the different ways a story can be integrated into gameplay. Barwood, who started as a Hollywood screenwriter (The Sugarland Express, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and then moved on to Lucasarts (Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Indy vs. The Infernal Machine, etc.) started his analysis by stating that games do not necessarily have to tell stories, yet many of them do. Abstract games such as Tetris do not have a story per se, and can be totally fulfilling experiences. At the other end of the spectrum, we have games such as GTA: Vice City. These have engrossing, complex storylines that push gameplay further. Still, many other games lie in a middle-of-the-road terrain, and throw story to the mix without planning and integration with the gameplay, and so it feels crudely grafted on top of the actual play elements.

Barwood explained that this tendency to actually introduce story elements into games may arise from well-studied scientific foundations: neurological science has proven humans have a "story sense" located in the left prefrontal lobe. Patients who have extreme cases of epilepsy were sometimes treated with the severing of the corpus callosum, a tissue that connects both lobes from their brain. As a result of this surgery procedure epilepsy was reduced, but also their sense to tell and remember stories. So, humans have a certain ability to amplify any event with a story component: maybe the dots in Pong are angry, and fight each other, and so forth.

From here Barwood went on to analyze several approaches to story telling in video games. As a first example, he compared the script of Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb for the Playstation with the song "Don't Touch my Hat" by Lyle Lovett. While the video game script felt like a sequence of rather intercut sequences with very little flow between them, the song explored all angles to hats in a very cohesive way. Indiana Jones' script consisted of too many elements, with no drama and where the story advances without much player intervention. Summarizing this example, Barwood proposed all game stories should have solidity (meaning they need to be believable), specificity (meaning they need to tell events with a sufficient level of detail), expressivity through drama, and compression so only the relevant facts are explained, and all empty ground is skipped. As a result, Barwood presented a global story blueprint, consisting of premise, setting, character, action and dialogue, items he devoted the rest of his talk to.


Beyond Good and Evil

With the premise, players understand the who and the what questions: their role and goals in the game's storyline, their motivations, etc. By using the right premise, we can explain the absurd, so the game makes sense even if it is set in a surreal world. That game world is what we will describe in full detail in the setting, along with its rules. Intuitively, the more exotic the game world, the more bizarre rules we can apply. A good example of this would be the planet Hillys which is the background of Beyond Good and Evil, the RPG/adventure by Ubisoft. Hillys is a planet totally covered by water, so it feels perfectly normal for Jade, the main character, to encounter all sorts of strange vehicles and creatures while there: the bizarreness of the setting announces the bizarreness of the rules that apply there.

Indiana Jones can be simplified to a man with a hat, a revolver and a whip, and that is what character design is all about: game characters are what they are able to do, and thus their visual display should clearly reflect their capabilities. In this respect, in order for gamers to enjoy playing a character the on-screen avatar must amplify the powers of the gamer: they should have special powers that set them apart from the rest of the world, and allow them to reach a certain elite level.

At the same time, characters should reflect their status, so the progress of the player finds a visual display in the character. This can come in a variety of ways, from weapons, to armor, to actual money they can used for whatever in-game purpose they want. Gamers need to feel like heroes, and thus characters need to become status display. This is specially true in massively multiplayer games, although Barwood focused on the single-player, story-based games for his examples.

Finally, characters should have a background and credentials that sets them apart: Indiana Jones has a PhD, the same way Tommy Vercetti in GTA has connections with the mob. Making games where the character starts as a regular person is more complex, as we need to find the way for him to become special as the game advances, as that is basically what players want when they purchase a video game: to become special and live the lives of heroes. This is the case of Beyond Good and Evil, where Jade is built around the theme of being the "Chosen One", and this way rises from mediocrity to heroic status.

A side comment must go to those games with several on-screen avatars. In this case, Barwood recommended using a special version of Occam's Razor, making sure the number was just the minimum, as guided by the differences between the available character types. The designer should not add characters that do not have unique profiles, as this would only increase the player's confusion, not the entertainment value.

As a summary, Barwood implied that, as games grow in complexity, story does not necessarily need to follow the same course. Stories should not be complicated for no reason, both in their plots or characters. The key lies in having a well constructed, elegant story arc that, like a song, hits all the right notes in a reasonable time frame.

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