GDC 2011: The Player-Shaped Hole: Leveraging the Difference Between Narrative & Story

Richard Dansky – Ubisoft/Red Storm (Clancy games writer)

-          Introduction
o   Umpires are right on 99.7% of all calls, but that’s not the popular impression.
§  Sometimes it feels like it’s like that with game writers
-          The “Conundrum”
o   Game writers spend their time trying to create good characters
o   Want to make memorable and engaging experiences for players
o   Important point:
§  Players ADOPT these characters
§  When you talk about a game, you say “I did this” not “Master Chief did this”
§  The story becomes the player’s own
o   This is a “problem” because it throws the traditional notions of storytelling out the window
§  Game writers are still reflexively using the old model
§  Mistakes and misunderstandings result (we’re children of movies and books – someone else is doing it not “I”)
o   When you don’t leave room for the player, you get big problems
-          Narrative vs. Story vs. War Story
o   Narrative: Sequence of events which is created by the developers and presented to the player
§  Design, plot, art, in game cinematics, etc.
o   Story: Moment to moment sequence generated by the player’s interaction with the narrative created by the developers
§  The “player draped flesh onto the skeleton of narrative”
§  Every player’s story is individual, unique. This is  what the player experiences when playing the game
o   War Story: The player’s retelling of game events afterwards
§  The player makes the story their own.
§  Player takes narrative elements, experiences them as a story, and digests and retells it as their story
-          Examples of Confusion of Narrative and Story
o   In some cases, the player is forced in too tight of a narrative, which forces passivity
o   Don’t force-feed the player information
§  The uniqueness of the story experience will be lost if you restrict the player’s ability to tell their own story
§  When they can tell their own story, they can get attached
§  Voice-over abuse is another example of information force-feeding
o   Removing player control is always a bad idea
§  Allow them to discover, don’t force things on them
§  Giant wall of text = bad! Want player to be playing, not reading!
o   Sandboxing narrative (the other extreme to making narrative too tight)
§  Allowing possibility is good, but being generic is bad
o   Separation of gameplay and narrative
§  Another trap to fall into
§  It’s done because of a fear that points will be missed by the player
§  Don’t make a cool move happen in a cutscene that player cannot do! (removes the “I am cool” and turns into “he is cool”)
o   End Result of this confusion:
§  Broken suspension of disbelief, broken congruence of motivation
§  Chance for player’s rational mind to re-assert – they start to critique (dangerous once they get here). You want them to CREATE
-          Key to the Solution
o   The hero of the narrative v. the hero of the story!
§  Narrative= Master Chief
§  Story = player
o   Player-Shaped Hole
§  Space in the center of narrative for player to inhabit
§  It’s a possibility space
·         If player can only do one thing in a situation, we’ve taken away the fact that this is a game!
·         Even in most linear shooters, play has a plethora of choices at any given time – story is built out of these small choices
§  Writers have to write to possibility space
§  Make all possibilities feel like the right one.
·         Realize that the only thing you’re guaranteed is that the player will turn the game on
§  Write to what they might do
·         The player doesn’t have to do anything – including keep playing J
-          How to Do It
o   There is no magic bullet!
o   3 keys to Success
§  Accept perceptual shift (“I” vs. “Master Chief”)
§  Understand writing to possibility
§  Share perception
o   Support with appropriate techniques
§  Understanding isn’t enough
§  Support through systems and approaches
§  Rely on craft, not miracles
o   Mantra: game writing should support the illusion that every choice the player makes is the right one for the story they’re creating
-          Tips
o   Create narrative elements that reinforce choice naturally
§  If action is in possibility space, support it
§  Prince of Persia
·         On demand narrative system – delivery determined by player (feels natural)
o   Empower protagonist
§  Build identification with character, the more identification, the more the player puts himself into the story
§  Example: Ghost Recon series
·         Squad members support main character, reinforces feeling of competence. They tell the squad leader he’s making the right decision. This gives the player confidence in being that character
§  Make player path seem like the protagonist’s idea
·         Have to feel like not following orders
·         Splinter Cell objectives: “Infiltrate the Mansion,”
o   As opposed to “climb this wall and go in the 3rd window”
o   Player should feel as though they can make decisions
o   Synthesis trumps exposition
§  Letting player draw conclusions as opposed to telling them
§  Let player find way through
§  Be careful with phrasing
·         If you feel you have to be explicit, you should have the idea come from the protagonist, as opposed to the protagonist’s boss
o   Relinquish your hold on characters
§  Don’t force main character to say cool lines (don’t make every line a cool line)
§  Example: Splinter Cell Conviction. Villain: “you can’t touch me, I’m bulletproof.” Main character: “Oh. Really.”
·         Understated quip.
§  Bad Example: Sam Fischer mutters to himself whenever he does something cool
·         Sam Fischer doesn’t need to remind the player that Sam Fischer is a badass
§  Save the best stuff for player!
·         Cool moves, important kills (objectives)
o   Impact through feedback
§  Reinforce player actions throughout narrative
§  Tell player that every choice they make matters – show them the impact of things that they’ve done
·         Don’t want Star Trek continuity – show them that what they do matters
§  Example: Red Dead Redemption does this well
·         NPCs reference player actions (through whole game) animations and dialogues change
-          Conclusion
o   These techniques help lead to a good story
o   Every player story should feel like a good story
o   Understand difference between your creation and the player experience – write to possibility of player action, not the certainty of narrative
o   As much reaction as possible in writing
-          Q &A
o   Reinforce player in thoughtful way, not automatic reinforcement
o   Hooks can be used well. Give player enough information that there is context for their actions, dangle hooks that will give them the choice to learn more
o   Is there room for a meticulous structure? Very linear narrative can definitely work, but do it in a way that the player feels like things are their decision
o   Where do game writer’s duties lie in terms of creating the story? The lead designer, game director, writer should all be talking to each other. The writer’s job is to setup the overall context.
o   How did you personally arrive at these definitions? Occurred to him after working on Farcry.
§  There’s a game mechanic where you can listen in on the conversations of NPCs – so he had to write a TON of dialogue for these characters.
§   As filler, he had two guys talking about the beaches in New Jersey.
§  After a he gave, some design students informed him that had decided not to kill that particular NPC guy just because of dialogue
§  Those inconsequential lines of dialogue completely changed the way the player played the game, which was unintended.
§  This helped him to understand that the player’s experience changes the game. 

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