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Want to write a better game? Try watching some TV

Want to write a better game? Try watching some TV

October 5, 2015 | By Alex Wawro

October 5, 2015 | By Alex Wawro
More: Console/PC, Design

Watch any good TV lately?

Remedy Entertainment's Sam Lake believes we’re experiencing a golden age of television, one that affords developers who take the time to study it some useful lessons on how to craft meaningful characters and narratives within the constraints of a video game.

“TV is a constant source of inspiration as we design our stories and the pacing of our games,” the longtime Remedy writer told me at Gamescom earlier this year. “Alan Wake had its episodic pacing, and we just feel that’s perfect for game design.”

Remedy isn’t alone on that front. Following the studio's release of Alan Wake in 2010, high-profile games like The Walking Dead, Life Is Strange and The Phantom Pain found success with narrative structures clearly influenced by modern television. 

Soon Remedy intends to try and take the format one step further with Quantum Breakits upcoming sci-fi action game designed to incorporate four 22-minute episodes of a live-action drama that fleshes out the game's narrative and shifts in response to choices made by the player. 

Practically speaking, the "choice" mechanic sounds pretty heavy-handed: Lake describes a system whereby players temporarily play Quantum Break antagonist and super-powered prognosticator Paul Serene ahead of every 22-minute cutscene and foresee two potential futures, then pick one to become reality. 

"The player makes that choice, and in our minds we see it as an opportunity for players to dynamically generate their own cliffhanger moments," says Lake, who's currently serving as creative director and writer on Quantum Break. Game design has come a long way in terms of complexity and fidelity, he opines, but it still has a long way to go to match the dramatic tension of a good television show.

Noted TV actors appear in Quantum Break's live-action episodes and, by extension, in the game itself

"In our industry, there’s this tendency to have the writers outside the team. To have them just come in, do a draft and get gone. I don’t think that works."

"Watching TV, I've always felt that there is so much awesome drama and story that hasn't been explored in interactive form," says Lake. "HBO and Netflix Originals have been a great inspiration in our game design. I can't recommend them enough."

Lake is quick to point out that TV is neither a new nor a sole source of inspiration for Remedy's creative team. Lake and his cohorts pull from a pop culture potpourri that spans everything from '90s comics to the 2010 reality-bending heist film Inception. Beyond that, Remedy has been striving to move towards near-future sci-fi and away from the idyllic, almost timeless '90s aesthetic of its last big project, Alan Wake.

By now it’s common knowledge that, as Lake says, “coming out of Alan Wake, we were really looking to do a sequel.”  But when Remedy began talking with the game’s publisher, Microsoft Studios, it became clear that the company wasn’t interested in an Alan Wake 2. It wanted something different, something new -- a fresh IP that incorporated an element of interactive narrative in its design.

“The thing that resonated with us, as designers, was the idea of a time travel story,” recalls Lake. “If you need to make a choice, if you need to change something, time travel as a gameplay mechanic allows the player to see something and change the results. That’s where Quantum Break was born.”

This is not a new idea, though it was perhaps a bit fresher five years ago, before Dontnod’s Life Is Strange and Telltale’s bevy of choice-based licensed games hit the market.

Still, I think it's intriguing to measure Remedy’s approach to incorporating explicit player choices into its narrative differs from its contemporaries. If Telltale builds choice-based games inside the narrative framework of established television dramas, for example, Remedy is taking narrative lessons from the dramas themselves and trying to apply them to third-person action game design.

“If you look at a lot of great TV these days, a lot of the characters are actually really bad guys!” Lake says, with a laugh. "TV is really dark right now, and that definitely insires us."

But today’s television writers are creating bad guys that are relatable, even sympathetic, and Remedy wants to do the same with Quantum Break

“Games, for us, are about heroes and the hero’s journey; so players play Jack and experience his journey,” says Lake. “But the ‘show’ side of it lets players see the other side of things,” and -- ideally -- drive players to empathize a bit with the game’s antagonists.

Here’s how this plays out, from a development perspective: Lake says pre-production on Quantum Break was significantly longer and more intense than most Remedy projects, in part because the team had to nail down a bunch of story ideas and flesh out the background of the Quantum Break universe so that an external production team in L.A. could begin shooting a live-action Quantum Break while, back in Finland, Remedy developed the actual game.

“We have learned...a lot,” says Lake, acknowledging that the game has been delayed multiple times due to production issues. “Our pre-production process on this game was a long was a lot of work, and gave us a lot of grey hair.”

The playable portions of Quantum Break are well in line with Remedy's prior design work

The biggest takeaway from this process, says Lake, is that having dedicated writers on your studio’s staff is critical. Even if you aren’t working with a production team on the other side of the world, having an in-house advocate for your game’s narrative and characters ensures they'll dynamically evolve alongside the game itself.

“In our industry, there’s this tendency to have the writers outside the team. To have them just come in, do a draft and get gone,” says Lake. “I don’t think that works. To get a really engaging story that’s tied to actual gameplay requires a lot of iteration, both on the game side -- level work, that sort of thing -- and the story side.”

Having a dedicated writer or writers on staff is "an absolute must" in Lake's eyes. To do otherwise -- to continue to view writers as incidental to big-budget game development -- would be the "bad" choice for the industry to make at this particular juncture.

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