Richard Dansky is a veteran game writer and horror novelist. Among his many novels,
is the horrifying tale of a game project that refuses to allow herself to be killed off. There is a monster in it, but not the one you think.
How would you define a narrative designer versus a writer?
Richard: I would say that the two jobs can overlap, but the narrative designer is responsible for the systems for delivering narrative to the player while the writers are responsible for the content that gets delivered.
Alex: And why do you think it's valuable to separate those job descriptions?
Richard: Because it's…. how can I put this delicately?--
Alex: --Some people can't write, and some writers can't program, is that it?
Richard: Some writers can't program, some writers can't design. As games get more sophisticated, you need more and more sophisticated ways of telling stories, you need more intricate artificial intelligence structures to call on for systemic dialog, you need better environmental storytelling. You need somebody to keep track of all of that, and somebody whose primary skill is writing may not have those skills. At the same time, someone whose primary skill is writing should be able to go ahead and write. Maximize the resources, make sure that you're getting people in a position to succeed. But it's not just writing, it has to be a way of delivering the story as well as the story itself.
Alex: So talking about narrative delivery systems: what's a narrative delivery system that you really thought worked? Something that you thought, This is cool, this is doing a new thing. This is something movies don't do.
Richard: I thought that the narrative delivery in Assassin's Creed: Odyssey was fantastic. Really brought you into that world.
Alex: How so?
Richard: For the first time in that series, you really got a sense of who the people in that world were. And it was deeper immersion. The sense that their lives have been going on before you got there and will continue to go on after you left.
Alex: I was talking with Anna Megill and she was saying that's apparently called "negative capability." Was that a term you've heard?
Richard: It's not a term I've heard, but I'm happy to steal it.
Alex: What was happening in the game that was new that was making you feel like these people had lives?
Richard: Part of it was the content, what they were talking about, what they were asking the player to do. The language that was used felt realistic and personable. And part of it was the structure of the conversations. There wasn't a character standing around waiting for you to interact with them, in a way that was obvious that they were just tools in the delivery of narrative. They felt like characters. They did not feel like signposts on the way to the story.
Alex: So were these were these branching conversations? Was there AI going on, do you think?
Richard: Yes. And I fully imagine that QA spent many hours screaming into the night testing that because branching dialog is hell. But they did a wonderful job of it.
Alex: What is an interesting narrative delivery system that you weren't able to implement, that you wanted to?
Richard: Well, the early days of the Clancy franchise we basically had no narrative implementation except for a giant wall of text at the beginning of the missions. And with pressure from production and management to fill in every last detail of the mission, those walls got pretty tall indeed.
Alex: I feel like games had way more dialog in the 90s, and then there was a big step back. Because in the 90s it was all just text, so you could write as much as you like. Like Planescape: Torment, there has to be several novels worth of dialogue in there. And then once we started voicing lines and animating characters, then it's like, oh, my God, we can't do that anymore. And we're only now getting back to where we were in the 90s when it was just texts. Does that feel right?
Richard: I think so. But I would say you look even at a game as venerable as Knights of the Old Republic, that had a metric fuckton of dialog. The revolution happened a while ago, to get us back to more and more dialog. Planescape: Torment, I used to know the word count on that. But if you looked at Old Republic, that must be 26 times as large. Just the blossoming of how much is in there. Part of it is the game types that are available now. Part of it is the idea of games as a service so you can keep extending the life of the game and keep on telling more story with that one game. And part of it, like you said, is the advanced technology and the ability to record more easily and more cheaply.
Alex: The mocap, the cost has come down. We're putting more of those dots on people. They can capture more expressions. People don't have to go to a mocap studio anymore, they can have a mocap room in their studio.
Richard: Yeah, ours is in the break room at Red Storm. So when the animation team is at work, everybody clears out, nobody's getting any snacks.
Alex: Oh noes!
Richard: They all deny that. They will say, “You can walk around the edges.” But you don't want to go in there.
Alex: What can you do in non-linear narrative that you can't do in linear narrative?
Richard: We can do a lot of things with messing with the players expectation. One of the nonlinear narratives that I wrote was Splinter Cell: Conviction. That starts with Grimsdottir shooting him. And then the entire game is a flashback leading up to that moment. It tells you how you got there and why that's actually a perfectly rational thing for her to do. Except there's also a flashback within the flashback.
Alex: OK, but to me that's telling a linear story, just not chronologically. I'm talking about, in games, you can have the player discover narrative bits in different orders.
Richard: Sure, that's something that's more prevalent with open world now. Yeah, games like The Division. You still have a lot of short, overlapping stretches of linear narrative. It's a question of what order of the player encounters them. And whether they're gated by difficulty for the player to only run across some of the easy stuff early on.
Alex: Do you think that that is more fun for the player? Does that create verisimilitude? Is that more powerful emotionally? Does it immerse the player more?
Richard: It certainly gives the player more feeling of authorship of their experience. If you talk to somebody who's played a video game, they're going to say, "I did this." Not, "The main character did this." And by letting them choose, you're increasing the amount of authorship that they can have. They'll even say, "I did this" on something that's a roller coaster ride straight rail shooter. Because they will have a better feeling of ownership of their actions, I think, when they have an open world to play with and they can go in any direction.