Lucien Soulban, Part ThreeComplications Ensue
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Thursday, December 03, 2020

Alex: Is there a narrative delivery system that you wanted to implement that you couldn't? Or, is there a narrative delivery idea that you thought of as a victory?

Lucien:  Yeah, yeah, there was. I was working on a game for Ubisoft, and I ended up leaving before it was complete. And I had the support of the team, but we were a victim of time. I wanted to do a system that didn't slow the player down from jumping in from multiplayer match to multiplayer match, but that still allowed players who like story to feel like it had more meat to it than just a multiplayer PVE style game. 

So I pitched a narrative system that I thought would allow people to seamlessly go in from one match to the other, but if you were somebody who enjoyed story, if you were a lore diver, you could go into elements of the menu system and explore and find things, and things that you did in the game reinforced that. It allowed players to feel that they were part of a greater storyline, that the multiplayer matches fed into a more global element and that there was progress and process there. So you could hear the characters voicing their approach and take on things. 

Unfortunately, it just wasn't something that we could pursue.

Narrative systems that I am proud of having accomplished, though, is with the Far Cry games. I was able to create randomized bottles of conversation that mixed and matched so that the player could feel like they were walking through a world and not hear the exact same conversation repeatedly. 

I would have one container where NPCs are talking about immediate needs, right? And so two NPCs would come in. I knew the minute that their animation cycle synched up, and that when they were standing there, I would have approximately 30 seconds. Okay, we timed all of this out. We talked to the animation team. 30 seconds for these two NPCs to talk. 

Then they break and go on their own individual animation cycles. They go on patrol and they might come back, sync back up again, 30 seconds again. 

So I said, okay, so I have 30 seconds. So the first NPC would always state a need. And it was one of four or five needs. "We need medicine." "We need food." "We need fresh water." "We need supplies." "We need ammunition." 

The second NPC had multiple responses, each of which would reinforce whatever was being said: "I know somebody who can help with us with that." "We're gonna have to steal it, but I know where we can go." "I have a stash located somewhere nearby," that sort of thing. 

Then the first NPC would respond with something like, "OK. Thanks. That helps a lot." That sort of thing. But because each response was randomized, the conversation was rarely repeated note for note for note.

The one that I was really proud of, was on Rainbow 6 Vegas. I created chained barks (based on game verbs: "Reloading" "I'm being shot at!" "health down!" "friend down," that sort of thing). So the first NPC would always say his line, no matter what. It didn't matter if he was there alone or if he was there with other combatants on his side, he would always say something like, "I'm under fire." 

The second NPC had a second-stage response that never required an answer. Something like, "I've got you covered." Or, "Keep your head down!" 

Then there would be a third NPC who would say something like "shut up and fire back" or, "cover each other!" -- something to reinforce what was there, but would never necessitate any sort of response. It actually got called out in reviews for Rainbow six Vegas, where reviewers were like, “Wow, the A.I. is really smart, it knows when there's a whole bunch of people there, and they're talking to each other and everything.” 

And I felt smart because it wasn't A.I. It was just a matter of how we strung the bottles together and ensuring that the rules made sure that they never broke one another.

Alex: Is there any philosophy or academic theory that you find useful in your work?

Lucien:  I take a nibble from here, a nibble from there. I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Drama and Education, and the writing that I did initially were plays. And so I think I take the playwright’s approach, where I'm not focused on what the camera angle is, or zoom in on the eyes, or anything. It's characters in that moment, what I want them to say and what I want that subtext to be. 

Every project has its own DNA, how it approaches things, the problems, the troubleshooting, I think you need an arsenal of tricks. So for one game, I might rely on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. In another game, I might apply the Pixar approach to character design: what is their greatest strength? Their greatest weakness? What gets them into trouble? How do other people perceive them? It's a variety of tricks based on the genre or style of game and the project itself.

Alex: When you talk about grazing, I think one of the things I like about being a writer is, I don't have to cite any work. It's okay if I don't truly understand somebody's philosophy. Or misunderstand it in a useful way. It's okay if if I use the Wikipedia entry. Because I'm making this all up anyway.

Lucien: Right.

Alex: I'm not saying that this is how the world is in 99 percent of the cases, I'm just saying this is true for the protagonist. 

E.g., Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said that grief has five stages, anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Is that true? Who cares? If I put a character through that, they'll have a trajectory. I'm not responsible for whether that is scientifically true.

Lucien: On this last project that I've been working on, I realized that the villain didn't have a very concrete set of ambitions other than just being the villain. So I applied the Dan Harmon story circle to who he was and what he wanted and where it brought him. I find that these little tips and tricks are really useful when you want to get your team on board. Because if you're telling them, oh, you know, the villain does this, then he does that and this is why he does the things that he does... their eyes glaze over. 

But if you say, look, story circle! Interesting, huh? This is where the character is. This is where they're going. This is where they get what they wanted but at a cost, where they realized what they really needed instead of what they wanted... it gets other departments excited. 

And they're like, “yeah, OK, very cool. Have you thought about doing this. Or, you know, where does this put the character at that moment of the game?” And I find that sharing the mechanics of what you're doing sometimes aids in communication.

Alex: One of the hardest things for me is I see a sort of shape in my head.

Lucien: Mm hmm.

Alex: Like to me, the story is math. You know, in the way that a mathematician will see an equation as a shape in their head. I read that when they're doing higher levels of math, they're manipulating a shape in their head, they're not manipulating the formula, the formula is just how they put it down on paper for other people. And a nonverbal shape is hard to impart.

Lucien: I think that's unique to yourself. For me, there is a scale. OK, there is there is a sense of balance and weight, and I start reading it and I'm like, “oh, wait, wait. The scale is shifting.” And I sometimes have a problem articulating it. I'm looking through it and I'm like, going, let me see how I can get the balance back because it's too heavy on this side. What if I short it here -- oh hey, that works, actually.

Alex: So what I get from what you're saying is that often these philosophies and theories are a way to convey what's in your mind to people who don't necessarily grok story.

Lucien: Yeah.

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