Gamedev Grievances #27: Let Me Tell You a Story…

Story-telling in games can be a bit unusual sometimes. It’s certainly very different to, say, writing an essay or a scientific report – and different to writing even a narrative or movie script.

In the past, I’ve often approached story-telling when making games as if I were writing a movie script. The idea was to have cutscenes filled with dialogue and sometimes pretty scenes, punctuating bouts of gameplay. So, gameplay… cutscene… gameplay… cutscene.

But I found a big flaw with this movie-writing approach.

Scenes in movies hold the viewers attention because, well, that’s all a movie is – just scene after scene after scene. But players don’t play games to watch scene after scene. If they wanted to do that, they’d just watch something on Netflix.

No, as silly as it may sound, players are playing your game because they want to play your game. They want to interact with the world you’ve created for them, not just watch it all pass by.

So now I’ve started a different approach when working on the writing in Ambience: telling more of the story through the gameplay.

I’ve only just started on this new approach, but I’ve already found it hugely liberating. It means I don’t have to shove everything I want the player to know about the characters into a few, action-packed cutscenes.

For example, the player is accompanied in one of the early dungeons by the hot-headed Vulcan, who was introduced to the player just moments earlier. So, I thought, why not express more of Vulcan’s character as the player traverses the dungeon? Why not have him chat to the player in his quirky, Vulcan-esque ways? It says far more about Vulcan than a long, dull cutscene which the player probably didn’t even read anyway.

Speaking of cutscenes… this was one of the other things I realised I had to fix, especially after the big LAN-gaming event I attended last month (you can read about it here and here). Many of the cutscenes were way too long and interrupted the flow of the game. The result? Players mindlessly mashing the A-button and wondering when they could get back to some proper, interactive gameplay.

Of course, there’s still a time and place for cutscenes, but from now on they’re fairly brief – small segues into the next long chunk of gamplay and interaction. Take, for example, the long cutscene immediately before the Mudreed Marsh mission, when the player meets the Renegades.

I’ve found that it’s not what you say, but how well you say it, that’s most important when telling a story in a game. Here’s a case in point – the original version of the dialogue shown above:

Pontus: We want you to go to Mudreed Marsh, the place we need safe access to. Your task is to drive out Foss’s Henchmen there. If you demonstrate your worth, and rid Mudreed Marsh of Foss’s servants… then we may be able to protect you from them. But, if you have been working against us all along… if you use this opportunity to send Foss’s Henchmen here to capture us… then we will be ready. And what is more, we will not be taking prisoners.

I bet you didn’t read all of that, did you?

Okay, let’s be honest. No-one wants to digest that much stuff all in one go – especially when this is a computer game we’re talking about. And what’s more, this is followed by Vulcan telling the player (at great length) that he wants to come along, too. Ughhh!

So I took all this and condensed it into a much shorter, punchier dialogue. It tells the same key points, but it’s more efficient and much more engaging.

Pontus: I want you and Vulcan to go to Mudreed Marsh to drive out those Henchmen there.
Vulcan: Hey, hey! Finally a chance to beat up some Henchmen!
Pontus: And I’m warning you, Player. If you try to hand us over to Foss… then we will be ready. And we will not be taking prisoners.

I was then able to incorporate some more stuff about Vulcan – such as his obsession with Zephyr, and his really bad jokes – into the Mudreed Marsh mission as short little snippets of dialogue. Much better than a deluge of text!

Fixing the dialogue has also had two unintended benefits for me, the developer. Firstly, it’s made the text script much tidier and easier to follow, which is always nice when you’re wading through code 🙂

But secondly, and more importantly, it’s making me feel better about play-testing my own game. It’s only when I changed the dialogue did I realise how stale the game felt to play, even for me! Now the whole game feels a lot more fresh and exciting, and it’s given me a bit of a motivation boost to keep pushing onwards and get the game finished.

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