Cowboy in Space

Writer/Narrative Designer for Video Games, grouch.

Drop a Compelling Character On It - Part I 

Titanfall has infiltrated seemingly every aspect of the gaming world as of late, with everyone giving the title almost universal praise, apart from the narrative which, I have to agree, is lacking.

Though it does a few things well, there is vast improvement needed for the game’s story to even smack of a compelling experience. 

In this post, I’m going to start with what Titanfall  does well. Then, in subsequent posts, I will point out aspects of the narrative that need improvement and explore possible ways to fix them. 

What Titanfall  does well

  1. Hinting at a bigger, richer universe - It is quite clear, at least to me, that Respawn started with a much bigger story with Titanfall than they were ultimately able to tell. The core of the “Campaign” mode is teeming with little details that betray a larger, more fleshed out fictional universe. From mentions of past events like The Titan Wars, to the implied difficulties suffered by settlers of new planets, to even the lines spoken by the NPCs, it seems evident that a lot more work has gone into the Titanfall universe history than we get to see in-game, and that is a good thing for the first story in what is almost certainly going to be a franchise with, I would suspect, at least two sequels it it’s future. There seem to be a myriad of stories hiding out in the Titanfall universe’s multitude of nooks and crannies just itching to be told. Respawn has done a good job of giving us just enough of a taste for their universe to leave us wanting more.The webseries that has already been teased will, hopefully, help to further flesh out the story behind our favorite falling titans and the pilots behind them. I expect that EA and Respawn are out to build a universe as vast and complex as the Halo or Half-Life franchises, and we should expect more transmedia tie-ins in the future.
  2. Using scripted events in a multiplayer setting -  This is a type of sub-section under the “Larger Universe” category, I suppose, but I feel it warrants its own talking point. The inclusion of NPC’s into the TitanfallI multiplayer experience got quite a few people up in arms. I suppose, to be accurate, it was the inclusion of NPC’s seemingly at the cost of live players that ruffled the collective feathers of the multiplayer gaming elite. The fact is, however, that by not only including NPC characters into the multiplayer games, but getting said NPC’s to act out very specific scripted events for players to stumble upon during play helps the player to feel as though they are part of a larger battle and, in turn, a larger war. I will admit that, when I saved a friendly grunt from getting his neck snapped by an enemy Spectre with a quick boot to the neural relay for the hundredth time, the whole experience was starting to feel a little mundane, but that can be easily fixed by simply increasing the variety of events, something I hope we see in the next title, or perhaps even in DLC. 

In the next post, I am going to explore the problems with Titanfall's narrative delivery methods, how they affect player investment in the narrative, and how they could (possibly) be fixed. 

Keep Calm.

- C

Game Narrative Exploration Part II (Continued) 

In reference to my previous posts about the concept of The Idea as the driving force behind a game’s narrative, I wanted to add a bit of an addendum to my definition of The Idea in the hopes that it might better serve anyone reading this who is attempting to extrapolate an Idea from their game’s mechanics as I had advised in said previous post. 

Some people who, have read my previous post on The Idea have asked me if The Idea is a phrase interchangeable with the term “theme.” I’ve answered in the affirmative in the past and it has gotten me into trouble with writers to whom I am speaking as I quickly discovered that most writers that use the word “theme” when talking about their work have their own personal definition for the word.

I'm not exactly sure how “theme” evolved to have such a malleable definition in the minds of writers and audiences, but I do know that it is neigh impossible to have a productive conversation about a story without a common and well defined vocabulary. 

So, I don’t like to use the word “Theme,” as it is often misinterpreted, and I went out of my way to clearly define what I mean when I use the phrase “The Idea,” so that we can avoid the same confusion. 

With that in mind, I thought I might end this post with a series of examples of what I would consider to be a well established Idea:

Notice that none of these are interpretive statements. One may disagree with your Idea, but they can not interpret what you have said any other way. The meaning is clear, and it must be, so that your story can be focused, your scenes tight, and your characters well defined. 

Keep Calm.

- C

Allen, We’re About to Have Guests.  

Just for amusement, here is a short scene I wrote in about 15 min with Batman & Flash by way of Sherlock Holmes. Enjoy.

Flash: How do a couple of guys wearing costumes go incognito?

Batman: Take off the costumes.

Flash: Um…what about that whole, you know, “secret identity” thing?

Batman: I’ll know who you are by the end of the night anyway.

Flash: Come on, there’s no way.

Batman: You operate mainly in Central City. You’re accent suggests you’re from there, or not far from there. In the short time I’ve known you, you’ve made jokes about Schrödinger’s cat, chromatids, and argon. All of which could theoretically be attributed to someone who watches too much “Big Bang Theroy,” but then there is your costume.

Flash: What’s wrong with my costume?

Batman: It is made from a synthetic polymer that I can’t identify. Which means you most likely created it yourself. You’re an organic chemist.

Flash: I, uh…

Batman: Something had to happen to you to give you your superhuman speed. An accident, most likely.

Flash: How are you sure it was an accident?

Batman: I’m not. But someone who intentionally gives themselves superhuman powers probably wouldn’t use them for good.

Flash: What about you?

Batman: I don’t have superhuman powers. We’re talking about you. A quick scan of police reports from the last three years that involve chemistry labs or chemists are not exactly numerous. You’re name is either Barry Allen or Steven Pendergast. My guess is Barry Allen.

Flash: Why Barry Allen?

Batman: Barry Allen works for the Central City PD. An organic chemist would make more money working for a private company. Working for the Central City PD either means no private company would hire you, or because you need inside information regarding criminal activity.

Flash: Alright, alright. You got me. Barry Allen it is. Are you going to tell me your identity now?

Batman: No.

Flash: Figures. Hey wait a second. How did you know I worked for the Central City PD?


Flash: I have a wikipedia page?!

Batman: It’s not a big one.

A Mite Unpredictable 

The lack of posts recently belies the true status of this blog. 

As of last night, I have completed and submitted a writing test for Rocksteady Studios and thus have allowed myself to take a brief respite from narrative writing for the day. That is to say I’m going to do some non-fiction writing instead.

E3 occurred last week, as you probably noticed if your eyes ever glance in the general direction of a computer screen, tablet or smartphone. Across all those different mediums or sub-mediums, I suppose, the general consensus was that Sony “won.” 

I don’t bother endorsing consoles. Firstly, because I have a hard time believing that anyone cares about what console I’m going to buy to begin with. Secondly, because I’m going to buy both anyway. Finally, because I bought a Sega Saturn in 1995 and thus my judgement in this matter can no longer be trusted. 

I have to say that, from a PR standpoint, Sony essentially pulled a River Tam on Microsoft at the tail end of that press conference. I don’t think that, in the long run, it will hurt Microsoft too much, but I can imagine that it might look that way to a lot of people in both camps right now.

To continue the Firefly metaphor, Microsoft’s PR team has been trying everything short of shouting, "Eta Kooram Nah Smech!" in front of Sony HQ in attempt to deflate their onslaught. It doesn’t seem to be helping as of yet.

Cloud based computing on both the Xbox One and the PS4, is much more interesting news to me.  Persistent, online worlds that can seamlessly blend single and multiplayer experiences make the narrative possibilities shoot out of my ears. 

This might have been one of the best E3 showings for individual games that has happened in a long time, mostly due to the fact that there are so many new IPs this year. Titanfall, Destiny, The Division, Quantum Break…the list goes on. Last year, I commended Ubisoft for their foresight and fortitude in introducing Watch_Dogs at E3 and clearly, it was that short blog post that sparked this flood of new IPs to the market. 

I mean it isn’t like anyone else was complaining about it, right?

Keep Calm.


The Angel in the Marble 

There seem to be two methods for rebooting a once successful franchise.

The first is to look at the series itself, discern what it was about the franchise that made it successful and attempt to repeat the same notes, only changing superficial or cosmetic details to “update” the franchise. Using this method, creators often wind up making something that is, at its best, a more visually impressive and tonally up-to-date series that is as good or perhaps slightly better than the original.

Therein lies the problem. Oftentimes, the original series isn’t that good to begin with.

Many franchises that receive a reboot these days had a primary audience of children or young adults and for that audience, with its more enduring imagination and disbelief that was much more easily suspended, it was enough. As time rolls on and the young fans of those franchises get older, they remember these series through the proverbial glasses of rose. Their more mature minds, whether they realize it or not, add an imagined quality to their beloved episodes, characters and plots. In their minds, the series that they remember becomes vastly better than the series that actually existed. So when one attempts to reboot a franchise in this way, the result is usually poorly received because the reboot did its best to recreate the series as it was, instead of how it was remembered.

A classic example of this is the Transformers reboot from Paramount and Michael Bay along with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. The creative team behind the film series changed superficial details about the story, setting and characters to “update” the franchise to fit into the modern day, but did little to add any kind of depth or dimension – elements that are demanded by todays adult audiences, who have been taught by people like Ronald D. Moore and J.J. Abrams to expect more from their reboots. The Transformers film reboot, while it was financially successful, and even entertaining, fell short with critics and fans, and this was because the creators failed to recognize the imagined quality of the series in the minds of the fans.

The second method of rebooting a franchise requires a little more imagination and a lot more work, but it ultimately results in a rebooted series that is much more satisfying and entertaining for audiences, both new and existing fans.

The process, while varying in minor details from project to project, involves a more in depth analysis of the series that serves as the inspiration for the reboot. It requires picking the series apart, bit by bit until one is left with only the basic elements of the show. Picking it down to the bare bones and, hopefully at least, revealing an idea of either what the show is about at its core or what it could be about with some work. Usually, in the case of a reboot it is the latter.

Either way, a new or existing thread is revealed and one begins the process of grafting new muscles to the bare bones of the series – selectively choosing which elements from the original series to keep unchanged, while adding new elements that serve the reboot’s new, more mature direction.

Characters are rebuilt from scratch, adding new elements that give them more depth and dimension, setting them up for a more complete arc during the series run. From the characters’ history is born the universe history, which as a by-product of more realized characters, is more complex and believable.

What one ends up with is a series that rings true to the original, while vastly improving on the series by adding depth and dimension that previously only existed in the minds of fans. It is a series that is as good as the fans remember it, which is to say better than it actually was, objectively speaking. By adding in this imagined quality, it is not only a service to existing fans of the series, but also to new audiences as well, who experience the franchise for the first time expecting a level of drama and depth on par with adult contemporary media.

A great example is Battlestar Galactica reboot from Sci-Fi and the aforementioned Ronald D. Moore. The creative team looked at the original franchise as a whole and extrapolated an idea – a theme that ran through the entirety of the trilogy, spawning other themes along the way, and built the characters around this idea, keeping certain core elements (though even some of those were changed slightly, again, to fit the idea) and re-defining others. Moore and company reconstructed the mythos to rise to the imagined quality in the minds the original series’ fans.

Keep Calm.


A WiredUK article for which I was interviewed. 

A great piece about storytelling in games by David Cornish for WiredUK.

The Dismal Science 

Feb 3rd at 5PM / 0 notes

I wanted to post a small update to all five or six of you that follow this blog. While my cups of work and personal projects runneth over, my cup of time is oft dry. In other words, I don’t have a lot of time for this blog at the moment.

I’ve been working on two separate projects with Kixeye, who are carving out their niche in the “hardcore Facebook” market.

The term “hardcore” has always bothered me, as it seems elitist, exclusive and now that I think about it, generally false. It is an erroneous title that gives those who identify with it a false sense of superiority over other gamers who they consider to be “casual.” 

I got off track there. The point is that I have been hard at work attempting to bring a greater level of narrative depth to two Facebook titles. Whether or not I will succeed in doing so remains to be seen. One of the projects on which they have asked me to work is much farther along in development, putting me in the position of attempting to attach a narrative to an almost completed title. While it is a challenge, it is still better overall than attempting to build a game around a pre-existing narrative. The second title I am working on for Kixeye has me in a much more favorable position, as the team has prototyped the basic game design  systems, leaving me open to build a story around those mechanics.

Admittedly, much of the work I have been doing so far for both titles is backstory and character bios. Setting the stage for the conflict which the players will face and giving it narrative weight. Still, everything I’ve been doing, I have been doing with the core game design systems in mind. I just have to cross my fingers and hope that the attention I have paid to both titles come across in game.

This entire post is a roundabout way of apologizing for my lack of updating. This is likely to be one of the least proofread and most poorly written of my posts thus far, all do to the aforementioned depleted cup of time.

For this, I apologize.To put it bluntly, this blog, “don’t pay the bills.” 

Keep Calm.


Narrative Commendation #2 

This is going to be a long one. Grab some tea and a biscuit.

I want to take some time to talk about Spec Ops: The Line, written by Walt Williams/Richard Pearsey and built by the team at Yager. A lot of people have been talking about this game as of late, and I will admit it was flying too low for my radar to pick up, which shouldn’t have been the case, seeing as how it was a summer release and I was doing most of my work from home with full access to the internet and all of its pretty lights telling me what I should focus my attention on at any given time. 

Regardless, the game finally did catch my attention when I started to hear rumblings about what the game had to say about the modern military shooter and just how ludicrously removed games like Call of Duty and Battlefield are from the actual experience of being in an armed conflict.

Being a fan of both those franchises and very familiar with the tropes of the genre, my interest was piqued. 

I finished the game over this past weekend and I found it is a great example of a using a game’s core mechanics to convey the Idea behind the narrative. I would go so far as to say that Spec Ops: The Line's mechanics do most of the heavy lifting in regards to conveying the Idea of the narrative. Yager claims that the plot borrows heavily from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness novella, and that is true in a sense, but it seems to take much more inspiration from Apocalypse Nows version of Conrad’s story, though it may just feel that way because both stories revolve around characters in the military and the horrors of war. Either way I wouldn’t call Spec Ops a direct adaptation of either Conrad’s book or Coppola’s film, but it does seem to match the broad strokes of both works’ plots pretty closely.

I don’t mean to bring this up as a negative at all. In fact, I find it to be a very smart decision. Williams, Pearsey and the team at Yager were, in theory at least,  able to focus more of their time cultivating the Idea and how to communicate that Idea through the game’s mechanics by building their plot on the foundations of an already established plot structure, rather than trying to create a new one from scratch.

As a side note, I can imagine that pitching the game as being inspired by a film as well loved as Apocalypse Now likely helped to get it green lit as well as helped to deflate a lot of unwanted publisher feedback and requests regarding the narrative.

Though you can probably guess how a game based on Heart of Darkness / Apocalypse Now is going to end, I will go ahead and take this time to throw up the “Spoiler Warning” flag. As I said, the game isn’t a direct adaptation of either work, and while I’m not going to recount the game’s plot point by point, I will be talking about it where necessary, so consider this your warning. 

So, what is the Idea in Spec Ops: The Line? While only the writer and the creative team can say for sure, I think that the narrative is an indictment of the modern shooter genre as a ludacris, dissociative hero fantasy wrapped up in a plot that follows a soldier wrestling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in his final minutes of life.

If anyone is confused why I said, “final minutes of life,” let me explain.

The game opens in media res during a helicopter fight. Here the team does something brilliant, but the payoff isn’t until much later. Following a modern shooter trope, the helicopter fight lasts for a few minutes and then abruptly ends when an enemy helicopter crashes into the player’s helicopter and we are taken into a pre-rendered cinema that most people would read as a flashback.

However, upon reflection of my own play experience, I came to the conclusion that the main character, Walker, actually dies during this opening sequence. The entire game is a trek through Walker’s own personal purgatory as he descends into Hell for the atrocities that he has committed.

There was much evidence to support this throughout the game, even before I read that Williams actually confirmed this as his intention. 

During the first pre-rendered cinema, players immediately get a sense that something is different about this game. Like so many modern shooters, it opens with a brooding monologue. However, there are no grandiose statements about the nature of war or the justification of violence to combat “evil.” Instead, it is a personal reflection of Walker, the main character, on Konrad, the man he is attempting to find in Dubai. More importantly, this could be considered the first time in the story where the game speaks directly to the player. As Walker talks about the sandstorms that hit Dubai, he says, “You were probably all safe and sound at home watching TV.” He continues to talk about Konrad leading his battalion into Dubai to help with the evacuation, going on to observe, “Bet all you did was send a check.” These lines are meant to be the first of many moments where the game breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the player. The Dubai sandstorm may be fictional, but it is representative of any real world catastrophe, especially one that would involve military action.

Thus, the lines still sting of the truth: the player is not a hero. 

When we enter the game proper, we get a few moments to get to get to know the main character and his two NPC buddies as the march through the desert. Take note of how there is no “insertion method” shown here, such as a helicopter or some kind of land vehicle dropping them off. It is nothing but three lone soldiers walking through the desert. The surreal nature of this opening feeds this feeling that something is off about this game. Not to mention this little detail is another aspect that supports the concept that the game is nothing but Walker’s own post mortem trip into Hell.

Another quick thing to point out is that the game’s opening credits make mention of the player’s gamertag as a “Special Guest,” further enforcing the idea that the player is going to be a part of this story.

After a small cover tutorial, players will rappel down onto a sand covered street, I only mention this because this act of “going down” is a reoccurring theme in the game’s design that is used brilliantly to support the Idea. Now, I imagine that this is mainly done as a means to help with level streaming, allowing the designers to dump everything behind the player once they descend, but there are multiple ways to handle level loading/streaming, and Spec Ops makes the conscious choice to continually use the act of dropping, rappelling, or zip-lining downward. Over the course of the game, players will “descend” so often that it begins to defy logic. After a certain point, players shouldn’t be able to “descend” any further, and yet the designers ask players to once again rappel, drop or zip-line downward. This is a conscious decision by the designers, I think, to reflect the main character’s own decent into Hell/trauma induced madness. Something else to note about the descending mechanic is how often you will do it just before carrying out some horrific task. 

For example:

Shortly after the first time you descend, you are confronted by armed civilians. After a brief standoff, you are, for the first time in the game, allowed to fire your weapon as the game instructs you to shoot out the windows of a bus filled with sand that sits behind the civilians. This makes the very first enemies you kill in the game civilians, and you do so by burying them in a pile of sand, suffocating them. Thus begins the first of many firefights that will occur over the course of the game.

I suppose now is as good a time as any to speak about the actual gameplay mechanics and how they are used to support the game’s Idea. 

The combat mechanics in Spec Ops aren’t bad per se, but I would say it they are somewhat mundane. The shooting mechanics are not, if you’ll pardon the expression, aiming to do anything new or different. In fact, the shooting seems to be attempting to imitate the kinds of mechanics we were seeing six or seven years ago. The shooting mechanic is almost something of a challenge for you as you play through the game, especially if you have gotten used to more current trends in the shooter market. The actual shooting engagements are full of shooter tropes that we have seen time and time again since around the PS2 days (exploding barrels, obvious “monster closets” from which enemies spawn, turret sections, etc). You cross a trigger region, enemies spawn, you take cover and shoot until they have all died and you move on to the next trigger region. You play through engagement after engagement this way, mowing down countless numbers of (American) soldiers. 

This overly “game-like” design helps to articulate the narrative’s Idea that modern shooter games, with their overly romantic portrayal of war and the soldiers who fight in war, are so far removed from the real thing that they are almost a farcical in nature. Spec Ops makes this point even more evident as they juxtapose this “game-like” design with the horrific violence that players experience over the course of the plot. The player engages in this arcade style shooting mechanic and then is forced to bear witness to the results of the violence in which they just participated. This is especially evident in the "White Phosphorus" section of the game in which the player uses the highly controversial chemical weapon to eliminate a large number of enemies. The sequence mirrors that of the beloved AC-130 sequence from the first Modern Warfare except, in this instance, when the smoke clears and all the enemies are dead players discover (after descending, once again) that they have accidently burned 47 innocent people alive, not to mention all of the U.S. soldiers that were killed in the attack and are left burning alive when the sequence is over. 

Furthermore, the moment to moment shooting engagements are so banal and bland that, over time you become numb to the action in a way that mirrors the main character’s own emotional detachment from the horrific situation in which he finds himself. The player and the main character both find themselves in a state of cognitive dissonance. The game asks the player to kill all of the enemies on the screen all while simultaneously pointing out, both overtly and subtly, that the player’s actions are morally wrong.

This feeling of being pulled in two different directions manifests in the radio conversations between Konrad and Walker, with Walker representing the player’s need to push forward in order to complete the game while Konrad constantly questions the moral validity of the player’s actions. 

There is also a sequence that involves the Radio DJ character feeding the player personal details about the men he is killing during a firefight, saying things like “He only had two more days ‘til retirement,” and “He had a wife and kids!”

Even the loading screens are used to help support this notion. As the game progresses, the tips that are played during the loading screens also reinforce this notion by breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the player, displaying such things as, “This is all your fault,” and “Do you feel like a hero yet?” This echos lines spoken during the opening cinema, and will be further reinforced at the end of the game. 

This unsettling feeling of cognitive dissonance is combined with the overly arcade like play that yields horrific consequences to which the player becomes increasingly numbed resulting in a narrative Idea that uses the framework of PTSD in order to become an indictment of the modern day shooter genre. 

This all comes to a head at the end of the plot, when Walker comes to the realization that Konrad has been dead for months and all of his interactions with Konrad were a hallucination created by Walker’s brain as a means to cope with all of his horrific actions. It is at this point that the game addresses the player one final time, as Konrad states, very bluntly, “You came here because you wanted to be something you’re not: A hero,” finally bringing this concept full circle, the game outright says what it has been hinting at all along. Modern day shooters (and even other genres) are built around the concept of making players feel like a hero simply by playing their game. With that final line from Konrad, Spec Ops: The Line points out just how pitiful it is not only that we have that need, but that we can satiate it just by pushing a few buttons and moving a pair of sticks around on a controller.

The point having been made, the final decision given to players in the game to either shoot themselves (or let the hallucination of Konrad shoot them) or shoot the hallucination of Konrad, could be a very telling moment that gives us a window into the psyche of the player himself. How they decide to finish the game gives us a window into the player’s state of mind after the game’s Idea has fully matured. Does he accept and understand the game’s Idea and shoot himself out of shame, or does he reject the game’s ridicule of his shallow need to be a hero and turn the gun on Konrad?

If it is the latter choice, the game explores this even deeper by providing the player with yet another choice in the epilogue: to surrender his weapon to the U.S. soldiers who have come to rescue him, or to open fire on them, this gives us a gauge of just how violently the player rejects the game’s Idea. Does he still have some sort of recognition of right and wrong in the game world, or does he see this new batch of American soldiers as enemies as well? Or, worse yet, has the Idea been completely lost on him altogether and he shoots just because that is what the game has conditioned him to do for the past 6-8 hours?

I fully admit on this last bit that I might be reading too much into the multiple endings. The game’s narrative Idea has come to its crescendo in the previous scene with Konrad, so the multiple endings could be nothing but a way to wrap up the story in a way that makes the player feel as though they have some sense of control, but I can’t be the first person to have deconstructed the endings in this way and the mere fact that these questions can be brought up at all in a video game story is a big deal.

Terra Firma V. Terra Incognita 

The sporadic frequency with which I am posting is contributed to my hunt for writing gigs. This has, for the time being at least, slowed down somewhat, as I will soon be starting a three month contract position doing some Narrative and Design Consulting on a small, unannounced title. You’ll understand if I don’t apologize for the lack of updates.

I have been tapped by Eidos Montreal with a request to see samples of my work. The chance to work for such Eidos Montreal adds a level of gravitas that has persuaded me to break a personal job search rule I have been observing that dictated I only search for work in the United States. The reasons for this are a matter of practicality, and so are not insurmountable, but will require careful consideration and planning should an offer cross my desk. 

I have also recently finished a draft of a Transformers one shot comic that I have written on spec called “Dion’s Final Flight.” I have passed the script to Drew Swift, the concept artist for the Minimum Safe Distance project on which I am working and I hope to be able to post some pages on this blog in the near future. I’ve had this story idea bouncing around in my head for awhile. It was born out of a question raised by the Transformers Generation 1 cartoon episode “War Dawn." With companies like High Moon re-working the Generation 1 franchise, now seemed like a good time to finally let this story loose in that universe, as the titular character has yet to be mentioned in the High Moon Universe. 

Rest assured that this sudden pouring of opportunities does nothing to diminish the attention bestowed on my other project with Minimum Safe Distance. In fact, I have only just recently hit upon a gameplay mechanic that might help to focus the level design side of things even more and thus help to narrow the critical path’s focus and it would allow designers to focus on brainstorming and iterating on puzzles. The only caveat is that this new mechanic almost completely changes how the player interacts with the game world. While this new mechanic, in theory, is more inventive and could potentially garner more attention. The established mechanic is one based on the multitudes of successful puzzle/adventure titles in years past. It will likely come down to a question of technical difficulty and risk. Either way, it effects the game’s narrative very little, as both gameplay directions  will fit well with the game’s “Idea,” which is most important. 

Keep Calm. 


Narrative Exploration Part II: The Idea 

This post will be a continuation of the previous “Narrative Exploration,” but I must again stress that what I say herein reflects my approach and it is by no means intended to be some kind of instructional series. The number of approaches to story writing are limited only by the number of writers that exist in the today. This is simply my approach to the craft, however informative or pedestrian you my find it to be.

It makes sense to me to start this exercise exploring the element that I, ideally, start with when ever I sit down to work on a new narrative. It is an element that ultimately should touch every aspect of a game’s narrative: The Idea

Now, even though I’m aware that you likely know what I mean by “The Idea,” I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t define the term as I will use it from here on out. Especially now that that I have gone and given those words extra precedence with such a reckless use of bold italics.

The Idea of a narrative should be the element that answers the question: "What is the story about?" This is meant to be a question of substance and not plot. Plot would be the events that take place in the story and The Idea is what makes those events relevant and meaningful to your audience, or in the case of games, your players. It is, for lack of a better term, the main thematic element that all aspects of your game will, ideally, share or reference in some way. 

The concept of The Idea is not exclusive to games. Indeed, it should be something to consider when attempting any type of storytelling from novels to comics or films to concept albums. As my intention is to write about storytelling in games, however, I will keep my focus in that arena. 

For example, in BioShock the Idea centers around freedom of choice and how our perception of how much freedom we have affects us as human beings. 

L.A. Noire deals with the the Idea that a righteous attitude must be supported by righteous action or it is false, and therefore a moral slight, eventually resulting in punishment (I tried very hard to write that previous statement in such a way as to avoid spoilers…I hope it worked). 

I should point out that, since I didn’t work on any of these games, I am simply extrapolating what I think is the central idea behind their narratives. It could be that the writer’s intended idea is something completely different, but for the purposes of this exploration, my extrapolation of The Ideas should serve well enough. 

I hope my definition of The Idea is clear, because I will most certainly be referring back to this concept over and over again from here on out - in this post and in future ones as well. 

The job of focusing on The Idea falls writers and narrative designers. That isn’t to say that writers shouldn’t be concerned with the plot of the story. On the contrary, in an ideal world, the writer works with the other developers to help shape a plot that best services The Idea. I’m getting a little ahead of myself, however. I want to first talk about The Idea in and of itself, starting with the question that is asked all too often: Where does The Idea come from?

In my last Narrative Exploration post, I concluded saying that the chief differentiating elements that Games have over other mediums are the mechanics - that which makes them interactive as opposed to passive forms of media. Game mechanics are the one thing developers spend the bulk of their time tweaking and improving in order to ensure the game is as fun as is possible (at least in that oft mentioned “ideal” world, this is the case). 

As a fair warning, considering the way I have set this up, my next statement may seem obvious.

It should be a goal for game writers and designers to not only consider, but integrate game mechanics into the central Idea. Developers should consider them as interdependent elements and should be developed in tandem instead of separately. It is a practice in this industry to not bother - or bother very little - with a game’s narrative until late in the project, after the basic mechanics, systems and level designs have already been built and iterated upon several times. The game’s design and mechanics, while they might be fun, will likely be disjointed and nonsensical - from a narrative perspective. Even the most talented of writers will be so busy attempting to make sense of what the player is doing over the course of the game that they will be unable to devote their time to anything else and the quality of the work will suffer as a result. 

If we develop the Idea in tandem with the game mechanics, allowing the creative processes to feed off of one another, then it becomes possible to create a game in which the Idea is supported by the game mechanics. The narrative becomes a part of the game’s systems and will, hopefully, begin to integrate into the level design itself. This way, level designers and artists work with the writer/narrative designer to create levels or scenarios that support both the core mechanics and the Idea together. The narrative becomes much more of an interactive experience that plays to the strengths of our medium and drives the story’s Idea home in a much more impactful way. 

Keep Calm.