Last week, we took a look at the masterful 80 Days and how Inkle went about making such a text-heavy experience work on mobile platforms. As promised, here's part two of my chat with the developers behind the game. This time, we were joined by the game's writer -- Meg Jayanth -- to talk about the intertextual side of things, and the literary nature of adapting a century-old novel into a game laden with player choices.
If you're at all interested in the craft of creating branching, interactive narratives, this week's video is fundamental viewing/listening as Jayanth and Jon Ingold talk about the research and structural processes behind one of the finest games of the year, describing how the steampunk elements of the game came into being, and how some of Verne's outdated social considerations (or lack thereof) were updated for a more modern audience in this game. Finally, we talk more broadly about romance in video games, the subtleties of trying to cultivate relationships through virtual narratives, and how games might approach sexuality better going forwards.
This might just be my favourite interview that I've ever done. It's quite a long one, though, so for the sake of navigation, here's a little list of contents:
80 Days has been one of my favourite games of the year. If you told me that a text-heavy iOS game would end up being a personal contender for Game of the Year back in January, I would have probably laughed in your face. The idea of a mobile game providing a deep, narrative-driven experience is frankly laughable to me, particular one so heavily rooted in reading lots of text. But 80 Days made a mockery of my scepticism, somehow managing to be perfectly suited to little bursts of play-up-and-play action yet still offering an engrossing long-term narrative steered in large part by the player.
An adaptation of Jules Verne's classic, which updates some of the more archaic sensibilities of the original while retaining the style and politics of our planet in the late Nineties, 80 Days is a bold, refreshing game that puts players in the immaculate shoes of Passepartout, juggling valet duties to his adventuring master, planning the route across the globe, dealing with the various moral dilemmas and dynamic events that crop up and block the way from time to time, balancing speed against funds and health, all the while marking the calendar and the time left.
It works magnificently on smart devices, so much so that something would undoubtedly be lost on console or PC, such is a tactile way that you draw out the narrative, poking and prodding the screen to gently unfurl the next segment of story or attempt to wheedle more information out of the people that meet, making choices that will affect you master and those around you, and tracing your way across continents with your fingers.
I've played through it at least seven times now.
But I wanted to find out more about how the game came into being and the thought processes behind some of the design choices, not to mention how Inkle went about adapting the original novel and optimised it for a platform not normally associated with gripping, replayable interactive fictions. Which brings me to part one of our rather lengthy chat...Click here to read more...
John Carmack once said the following about story in video games: "Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It's expected to be there, but it's not that important."
Of course, games have come to encompass a wider array of virtual interactive experiences since he uttered those words, and quite frankly there's never been a better time to be a gamer no matter what you prioritise. Whichever floats your proverbial boat the most -- be it graphics, sound design, responsive and taut mechanics, dynamic content, player agency, expansive world, free-roaming play, expertly-crafted rollercoasters of action and emotion, a well-told story -- whatever your gaming poison, chances are there something damn fine out there for you.
Carmack's words ring hollow for me as a gamer, but from a development standpoint I think it's important to note that a good story or excellent narrative framing is a tool to be leveraged in pursuit of a good game just like mindblowing aesthetics, inventive art design, and other considerations. A point that we (Jon especially) have often made on this site is to include the elements that best suit your game. A focus on storytelling is not something to be shoehorned into a game. A poor story or clunkily-worked narrative elements can frequently be worse than not having it in there at all.
There are a handful of genres to which narrative design still seems somewhat alien. We hear it all the time when it comes to sports titles, fighting games, racing and driving games -- "this game doesn't need a story". But it rather depends on what you're looking for, to be honest. No game needs bad writing or poorly thought out features or modes, but in certain circumstances, narrative framing at least can serve to elevate a game over its peers. Continuing along that line of thinking, this week's video takes a look at the NBA 2K series, as well as games like Forza Horizon and, surprise, Defense Grid 2.Click here to read more...
Do be warned... potential spoilers ahoy in the video!
Last week was a bit of a shambles, and several releases, along with a press trip, and losing my voice for a day or two meant that Interactive Narratives #2 never happened, sorry about that.
But it's a new week, and a new Wednesday, and I've decided to try to tie this series in with a topical game wherever possible, going forwards, filling in gaps here and there with interviews and other features as and when they come in. I'll still be running the interview I did with Inkle in the near future, and taking a look at 80 Days, but this week I wanted to talk about the one game that's been dominating my mind (and psyche) for the last ten days -- and that game is Alien: Isolation.
So it is that this week's edition of Interactive Narratives takes a look at horror games, and why Alien: Isolation is particularly effective at eliciting an incredibly primal emotional response: fear. I compare it with Silent Hill 2, discuss the differences between story and narrative -- the written plot and the player-driven experience -- and the importance of both to this particular genre.
Back when I first started thinking about this whole Interactive Narratives idea, the first certainty would be that Knights of the Old Republic would be my starting point. It stands as arguably the best game that BioWare have ever made, is a game I attempt to play through at least once every 12-18 months, and back at the 2004 Game Developers Choice Awards it won three major prizes: Game of the Year, Excellence in Writing, and Best Original Character (take that, meatbags).
I think we can all agree that it's pretty damn good.
Naturally, therefore, my first port of call was Drew Karpyshyn, lead writer on KOTOR and the first two titles for the also-critically-acclaimed space opera that followed as BioWare sought to create a universe that was all their own in Mass Effect. After a spot of email swapping, difficulties in aligning schedules, holidays that fell at inopportune times on both sides, we finally managed to get a little exchange going, and I fired over a number of questions to him about how he got into the business of writing interactive fiction, and his experience working with such a massive IP as Star Wars, before comparing that to building something from scratch with Mass Effect.
NB. Do be warned that things get pretty spoilerrific from this point on, so if you're yet to play KOTOR or Mass Effect, do be aware that we start chatting about some rather major plot points.
"Working in a universe as expansive as Star Wars is all about research," he told me. "You need to understand the science and lore that has come before - in this case literally decades of material has been assembled to create the SW universe fans know. You also need to be a fan of the franchise, because that's the only way to know what resonates with the audience.
"For a new universe like Mass Effect, however, there isn't an existing fan base or an existing setting. You need to do all the planning yourself (with the help of others on the team!). At BioWare, we spent almost a year planning out the universe of Mass Effect before we began working on the actual game and the Shepard's story. And because we didn't have an existing fan base we could look to in order to see what worked and what didn't, we had to trust our instincts. With KOTOR, I had a strong sense that Star Wars fans were going to love the game. Until Mass Effect actually came out, however, none of us really knew if it would connect with fans. Fortunately, it did."Click here to read more...
You may have noticed that we've been realigning our focus a bit here on Dealspwn over the past couple of months, the whole point of which has been to allow us more freedom and time to do the things I feel we do best: talking at length about games and this wonderful interactive entertainment industry. You'll see some dormant features return over the coming weeks (Click To Play has already made a comeback), as well as the launching of one or two new regular columns.
The narrative experience, and the exploration of narrative both in terms of traditional plotting and as a range of experiential devices that take advantage of the interactive nature of gaming, have always been enormously important to me. I grew up on RPGs and space sims and point-and-click adventure games -- titles that valued superb writing and excellent narrative design, but with many that simply provided the context and the tools for players to create their own experiences.
That's the beauty of gaming -- the very nature of interactive entertainment is such that players become a part of the story in a manner that's impossible in pretty much every other medium, barring perhaps interactive theatre (a la Punchdrunk). I love books and films and the performing arts, but it strikes me that gaming offers up narrative potential in a fashion unlike any other medium, and when it's well-worked, it can be the most powerful at spinning stories.
With that in mind, from tomorrow I'm going to be starting a weekly feature that takes a look at all of that. I'm calling it Interactive Narratives, and it's going to be a transmedia extravaganza, a lofty phrase which simply means that some weeks there'll be written articles, some weeks there'll be videos, some there'll be audio recordings and interviews. It's all going to be rather freeform -- taking a look at some of the games that have stayed with me over the years, story-driven favourites, emotional journeys undertaken, interesting narrative devices, plots and people that have proven their quality, and hopefully interspersing analytical appraisals of these titles with discussions and opinions from the creators behind some of them.
Part of this is because I look around at mainstream games coverage and I don't see much that deals in this sort of thing (we'll hopefully be starting something similar to do with video game music composition and sound design somewhere down the line). But really, the origins of all of this is rather simple. I love video games, I love the stories that are possible to enjoy in this medium, whether I'm inhabiting a pre-written character or writing my own story as I play, and I really want to talk to a bunch of people about all of this. Especially the people who create these experiences, see what they have to say, and share the results.
So that's what I'm going to do.
Interactive Narratives is a weekly, transmedia feature looking at storytelling and narrative design in video games. It'll start airing on Wednesday evenings, here on Dealspwn.com.