Today, I'm Writing Someone Else's DiaryComplications Ensue
Complications Ensue:
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Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Two people's, actually, both of them playable characters for We Happy Few.

If you're writing non-blockbuster movies, you learn to pay attention to how much a scene is going to cost to produce. A conversation between two people in a room is cheap. A conversation between two people outside, in the day, is also cheap. A three-hander is more expensive, a dinner party is a lot more expensive, because you're going to want to shoot coverage of everyone who's not talking, so your editor can cut to their reaction shots. A conversation at night is more expensive, because the lighting package costs more, and the director is going to insist on wetting down the street, because that just always looks cool.

In video games, you have entirely different production concerns. In We Happy Few, I'm recording voice actors and then editing the audio into scenes. Our art director painted characters, a character modeller built them, and the animators rigged them. Once the audio is ready, the animators can animate the scene.

In a 3D, third person cutscene, the camera is independent of the virtual actors. So you can animate the scene and then change where the camera is without re-animating it. However, We Happy Few is a first person game, so we have made the decision to present all the cut-scenes in first person, so you never see the character you're playing.

Cut scenes take a terribly long time to animate. However, they are not the only way to get across narrative.

At the other end, simplicity itself, are things like journal entries. If I give a character a journal that the player can consult, then adding journal entries is essentially a matter of my writing the journal entries and then the level designer slotting them in. No muss, no fuss, no bother.

However, players don't tend to like to read text in a game. So, for slightly more effort and more money, I can have the actor read the journal entry.

That gets into substantially more money. We're using professional British actors and recording them in London sound studios, while we sit in a Montreal sound studio and I direct them. However, it is nothing compared to a cut-scene. A journal entry does not typically demand the apparently-wild-but-actually-quite-precise swings of emotion that a dramatic scene has. So the actor can get it right in a take or two, just reading a block of text.

Then the player can trigger the audio, and then go around doing his thing (looting, fighting, exploring, whatever) while the audio plays.

I can also make collectibles. These might be an old toy a character treasures, or a photograph of his or her parents. These are not cheap because they have to be physically modeled in the game world. That can get into a lot of world. However, collectibles can be made at the last minute and dropped into the game. Animation requires a whole pipeline. One of the last things I did on Contrast was write up a whole slew of collectibles. We didn't have time to make them all, but some of the players paid very close attention to them, and pulled out the narrative goodness we tried to put into them.

One of the paradoxes of the progress we've made in game design is that, as stories are taken more seriously, and budgets go up, the limits to story telling also go up. To have a branching narrative in a text adventure is just a matter of the writer getting to work. Add a narrator reading it, and it's expensive. Have Elias Toufexis act it in a mo-cap suit, becoming a fully rendered Adam Jensen, and you can only afford one or two branches.

All this stuff takes money, and as usual, more money than we hoped to spend when we started concepting this thing back in January 2014. So we're doing a Kickstarter, starting tomorrow, to supplement our resources. Watch this blog for more musings about We Happy Few, tomorrow at noon!

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