Today, I’m pleased to present Karl Andre Bertheussen, senior narrative designer for Funcom‘s game Age of Conan. Karl Andre’s job is to make sure the story told in AoC is compelling enough for people to keep playing the game. So who better to share some insights on designing narratives for games with us? I’ll leave the floor to this master story designer.
Narration in Games
What is game narration?
Most people associate “narration” with books or movies, but most games today rely on storytelling as well, just not in the conventional way of the traditional mediums. The key difference being audience interaction. A game involves the player actively in the story, whereas the audience of a movie or the readers of a book merely observe it.
However different, writing a game narrative has some similarities to that of a novel or screenplay. The degree of difference often depends on what sort of game the studio is developing. For example, a story in an first person shooter (FPS) will most likely be told in a very different way than the story of a single-player role-playing game (RPG). In this blog post I will focus on massively multiplayer online games (MMO’s), and the challenges of making good game narration for these types of games.
In a novel, the writer takes the reader down a strict and narrow path, much like a screenwriter does with the audience of a movie. From beginning to end, the reader is presented with plot, characters, and inciting incidents in the order the writer intended. The audience knows and accepts these rules, because breaking them (by fast forwarding or skipping a chapter) would ruin the experience of the medium.
In a game we don’t have the luxury of guiding the player down that same path, because if we do, we take away the freedom of choice which is a key part to why we have an audience in the first place. That presents us with the following challenges: How do we go about telling the story? How do we make the narrative work if the player has complete freedom of what he wants to do when, or even skips entire areas of the game? And on top of that: With games being so much more than narration, how do we make the players invested in the story?
The last question isn’t a big mystery: Players get invested in game narration for the same reasons they get invested in a good book. Plot, setting, characters, and drama – but unlike books, the game medium presents another important element: the possibility for the player to choose the outcome of the story, that the choices they make in its course has consequences and can change the world they interact with. However not impossible, these are difficult elements to incorporate in an MMO, because the game world must be constant to all players. If you rescue the farmer’s daughter, another player can do the same five minutes later. Even though you’ve made an impact on the world, the farmer’s daughter will still be captured for all those who didn’t rescue her yet. For some players this can take away from the story immersion, but as with skipping a chapter in a book, most players accept this rule of perpetuity in an MMO, and sees the story as something being told to them personally, rather than to everyone at once. Clever design can also help with this. As long as the captive farmer’s daughter is kept away from your future adventures, it becomes easier to accept that your action had an impact.
Making narration work in a game which offers freedom of choice in what to do when and where, is not an easy task. Having the player do quests is one solution. A quest is basically a small task, sending the player into an area with a specific purpose in mind. For example: rescuing the farmer’s daughter. If the main story of the play area is that brigands have taken control, you weave that information into the quest at hand, for example by placing the captive daughter in the brigand’s HQ. In this way, we can add a visual component to the narrative. Adding an HQ and placing out hostile brigands for the player to encounter on his way, is narration by gameplay, and an important way of telling the story. When the player returns to the farmer (with the freed daughter) he will know that the brigands are antagonists, whether he read the written narrative or not.
Quests are an important element of game narration. The way they are structured is very important, and the narration can easily falter if the story designer doesn’t know his job. How the quests are arranged, in which order they appear and where, and what bits of information the they give the player at which time, needs to be carefully planned to tell a story successfully. Sometimes quests are tied together, thus making sure the player is told the story in the order the designers want; sometimes quests stand alone, just supporting the main story by introducing characters or locations that are important to the narrative. The key to success is to find the right balance. As with a novelist, a game narrator doesn’t want to confuse his audience with too much information at once, give away the plot too quickly, or bore them with tedious details. He simply want the audience to enjoy themselves.
Game narration is a huge canvas to paint, but since I have greatly exhausted my suggested word count of 300, I believe I should end on this note. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments.
With a humble bow to all you dreamers out there,
Karl Andre Bertheussen,
Narrative Designer, Age of Conan (Funcom)