Narrative in games
The last few years has been extremely interesting and stimulating. We released “Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay” for the Xbox about a year ago and it got splendid reviews. A few months later we released the “Developers Cut” version of the game for the PC and it contains a commentary function that runs in-game. I think it is a pretty cool thing and as far as we know it has never been done in a game before (but I think we’ll see a lot more like that in the future).
Anyways, if you happen to sit through those commentaries, I am doing some ranting about narrative techniques and approaches used in Riddick and the effect we believe those had on the player. Since we started working on Riddick I have spent a lot of time thinking about narrative in games, and we have discussed it internally at Starbreeze. Some of those thoughts are reflected in the commentary. I’ll try to sum up the ideas here and expand on them later on…
The year that has passed since we sat down and did those recordings has brought a set of new challenges to the table. Currently, we are about halfway through the production of “The Darkness”, a game based on the Top Cow comic with the same name. “The Darkness” is in many ways similar in structure and narrative to “Riddick” so I see the game as the natural evolution when it comes to narrative technique.
Chris Crawford says in his book “Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling” that one of the most fundamental features of interactive storytelling is that it allows the player to make choices that has some sort of effect in the world they are playing in. Also, Chris Crawford dismisses the “railed shooter” (for example) with added narrative and sees a future in games that are truly open and where NPC react with emotions and such. I think Chris Crawford is wrong here, even though he has some valid points and has done lots of interesting research on the subject (and reached far beyond most academic attempts).
I believe that the experience of freedom and interactivity is the core, not the freedom or interactivity itself. Furthermore, I believe that there is definitely room for “railed shooters” (like “Riddick”) with a serious narrative effort. For me, the mechanics of the game do not necessarily have to provide what it wants you to believe it provides. In a sense, this is to say that it is okay to try trick the player to believe he is playing a game that behaves smarter than it really is. I believe that is true to some extent – but not for all types of games. Games that are meant to be played over and over again (like RTS games) have mechanics that are different and an effort to add narrative to such a game would probably need a different approach than the one we used in Riddick.
So, what did we do in Riddick? The game is a fairly linear shooter that adds gameplay elements of sneak, melee and “adventuring” (walking around talking to NPCs and solving simple puzzles). Also, the game is heavily story-driven and needed means for conveying story. Often, this is done by glueing parts of gameplay together with cinematic sequences that tells you what the happens to the hero next and after the clip, you are thrown back into the game. Of course, there are games that approaches the narrative problem far more interestingly (“Halflife” and “ICO” usually come to mind).
For Riddick, we wanted to tell the story and also to make sure that the main character has a really stong impact on the player. The player was supposed to be Riddick, not just control him. Also, it was very important that the Riddick character had a strong presence in the game. This was achieved by doing the following:
- Have Riddick talk in the game. The voice of Vin Diesel is one of the Riddick franchise trademarks.
- Show Riddick on screen as much as possible.
(I think a lot can be said about impersonation – the player “becoming” the hero on-screen – and strong characters with a unique personality and features. However, I leave that for a future entry.)
Having in-game dialogue, narrative cinematic sequences and short “action cutscenes” in third person (while climbing a box, for example) helped us fulfil these goals. The addition of the in-game dialogue also gave us a tool for dealing with narrative in a way that was in line with what our ideas for how narrative in the game should work. These were our basic rules:
- Bring as much of the story into actual gameplay as possible. We didn’t want to bore the player with endless non-interactive cinematics. Here, the in-game dialogues came to play a big role. Also, in-game events, AI behaviours, voices and such is meant to add to the story experience.
- Do not let the character on-screen make choices that the player can make. This means that Riddick should never be proactive in a cinematic. Instead, the story should happen to Riddick. All proactive choices should be taken in-game, by the player.
- Don’t let Riddick know more than the player and vice-versa. The player is Riddick.
- When we take the control away from the player (in a cinematic), we should never let the camera leave Riddick. This is because of the previous rule and also because I believe that it is important that we are close to our hero all the time (the hero is you, remember?).
Of course, we came to violate these rules in the end for various reasons. Making games is very hard and there are millions of factors unknown to you when you start the production of a game. For us, the whole movie-license thing added to the complexity of the production so some of the rule violations in the end product are because of this, but certainly not all of them. (maybe it would be interesting to go through the game and make a list of all these shortcomings and find the reasons for them?)
In the end, I believe that these rules helped make a more solid game. We did use a number of other design ideas to add to the overall experience. The things we did to try create a sense of openness and freedom, for example… But that requires a separate entry.