One of my favourite talks at GCAP was by Brooke Maggs. Her talk: Advocating for the Story, The Importance of Narrative Design in Video Games discusses her trek going from a writing career into video games. As a Designer, this talk was fascinating, because the story is an essential component of my game, Introspect. Telling a story is one thing, but telling a story in a way that works within my strengths and limitations is key.
When Maggs started at The Voxel Agents, her first roadblock was the fact that their game – The Gardens Between – is limited to having no dialogue or written text. No visual or aural language means that the team doesn’t need to localise their game or hire voice artists, both of which are cripplingly expensive for a small studio. The main issue for Maggs was that a language-free game requires an alternative storytelling method to work effectively.
Maggs walked us through some the hidden storytelling potential in The Gardens Between, and how it’s possible to set up narrative through very simple colour, animation and mise-en-scene. She showed us three levels, each with a different colour palette and mise-en-scene. The first level was blue and green, full of grass and soft curves. The second was a blue ocean level with rain and a rocky level which the player stood upon. The last one was an orange sunset-coloured level, with orange grass and peaceful natural aesthetic. The three levels presented a very simple introduction, complication and resolution structure of a three-act story. With no dialogue or written text, it is possible to display a simple, yet visceral story.
Just as interesting was her role within the team. As a creative writing graduate, her initial attempt at the narrative design for games was a “write like hell” mentality. While it did mean that the game quickly had a substantial backlog of story, it didn’t have the engagement of the team. Part of what’s important about teamwork is to ensure that everybody is on the same page. Initially, part of the problem was her storytelling method left members of the team out of consideration and meant that she quickly hit ceilings where she couldn’t tell a story using the technical abilities of her team. For example, Maggs couldn’t use cutscenes without an animator, and overall she wasn’t sure of how she could utilise the technical features of the project and of how the game’s design might affect the story. Her solution to this problem was to pitch the game to the team. She consulted all of the team members to get to know the technical limitations of her story, and gathered already completed levels to pitch a story to everybody that put them all on the same page, and to help them understand how their work fits into the story as a whole. The result was that the team was confident about the narrative design, and Maggs could confidently write a story that will work within the limitations of the team (And she now has an animator for some extra storytelling).
The reason why Maggs’ talk was so compelling was that it helped me to reconsider my storytelling ideas for Introspect. Introspect is a first-person exploration game for PC in which the player plays a Neural Investigator tasked with investigating the mind of a deceased person to determine the true cause of death. Introspect’s environments are thickly veiled metaphors for the person, in which their literal demons manifest in the world, as well as the mise-en-scene. Initially, I’d considered a Firewatch (2016) style approach, of the player controlling a fully-voiced character, with a disembodied companion who is moderately interactive. Maggs talk helped me realise that I can’t afford a voice actor, and I probably don’t have the skills to write compelling dialogue or written text to a Narrative Designer level, but I can set up a scene in Unity, and pull together visual and audio design to produce a similar effect. In discarding visual and spoken text, I can use compositional, visual and aural storytelling to tell an arguably more compelling story.
I’ve spoken at length previously at how I simply love breaking down metaphors and symbolism in art, games and film, and how interesting I find alternative storytelling techniques. YouTube channels like Every Frame a Painting have provided glimpses into how composition and editing techniques provide alternative sources of emotive language and storytelling. For example, Bong Joon-ho’s use of the telephoto profile shot for villains in his movie Mother (2009) becomes a motif for the movie’s final moments. Similarly, the use of Quadrants in the Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) provide another compositional method of telling a story through balance. My favourite example in games is Bioshock’s (2007) major plot-twist, in which the player discovers the game’s illusion of choice. It’s clear that Irrational Games understood gamers’ traditional approaches to playing games, and turned it on its head by recontextualising the experience from following direction by choice to following instructions by divine order (Would you kindly?).
In Introspect, the player must determine the cause of death of a suicide victim. The player plays a voiceless and nameless Neural Investigator, moving through the metaphorical house in which they live. All objects represent a pastime or trait of the Host character. The game’s first-person perspective is essential to ground the player as an intruder in someone else’s home. The perspective also means that the enemies that pursue the player do so to the player, not simply the player’s character. Because the player is well out of their depth, they are relatively powerless to defend themselves from the demons. However, similar to how we as people hold the ability to overcome our struggles, the environment (representing the body of the Host) holds the key to defeating the demons that took the Host in the first place. As the player solves the puzzles and unlocks more secrets about the Host, the player will gain access to a new ‘layer’ of the world, or a more personal circle of the Host. Deeper layers will reveal increasingly personal information about the host, represented by the environment peeling away and coming apart, just like how the Host’s life fell apart before taking their life. I can enhance the meaning of Introspect’s narrative through using colour, composition and symbolism to enhance or direct the meaning and emotional hold which Introspect has on the player.
Like I’ve said many times, I believe games have a powerful ability to tell stories, and like film, music and theatre, there are so many layers with which to do them. Moreso, by rejecting verbal and written text for storytelling purposes, I can rely fully on symbolism and compositional methods without letting my lacking written and verbal storytelling abilities dilute the emotional output of the game.