So I feel I’m at a good point to start in on that “Explanation” portion of my blog’s banner (although I think "rambling" would be more accurate for this first post). A bunch of people have been coming to me asking questions about video games and how they’re approached. I’m starting up my project for next year, and it’s going to be a video game rather than a film, and since I’m starting up on that and doing a ton of research on game design, I thought I would share some thoughts.
CalArts isn’t exactly known for its video games, but it IS known very well for its stories. CalArts students are well known for our clever approaches to story, and having been around the school for a couple of years I’ve seen a lot of those being told. Those have all been films, however. I will be attempting to focus that CalArts creative energy into a slightly different direction.
As I’m easing into production of my game, I’m realizing quickly just how different films and video games are at very fundamental levels. In a film you tell a story based on cinematic angles chosen to best convey specific thoughts, feelings, or ideas. You draw a series of images based on a vast array of rules and such that have been proven to work over years and years of trial and error. Video games have only really been around since the 80s (yes, I know that games started more in the 50s and 60s, but things didn’t get really serious until the 80s), so there aren’t a whole heck of a lot of firm rules about their creation, and even fewer about telling stories in games since so few people have really gotten that right.
Beyond that, the fundamental building blocks of story in a game are very different from in a film. In a film you see the main character and the story that unfolds around them all taking place in choreographed scenes. The camera tags along with the protagonist or whatever combination of cohorts best suit the telling of the story, and you get a very linear narrative played out in front of you. In games, the approach is entirely different, the main character isn’t someone you will ever meet or know anything about and yet you somehow have to manage to convince them to play out your story exactly the way you think is best.
The way you do that is with clever design tricks and gameplay mechanics. When you’re telling a story in a film, particularly an animated film, you start off the process with a series of drawings called story boards. These story boards convey the camera angles you want to use to best showcase the actions and reactions taking place on the screen. The problem is that video games don’t always use cameras that show anything other than the back or top of a character’s head. In fact, the few times that games do try to be cinematic, they end up being watered down crap. There are exceptions, of course, games like Dishonored, Shadow of the Colossus, Half Life2, and many many others all use cinematic staging to make particularly notable scenes really pop out at the player, but they do so in extreme moderation. The point is, you can’t just set up a series of camera placements and expect a game to be playable from those angles, so you have to approach things a little differently.
Telling the Story
The key concept you have to understand in telling a video game story, to my mind, is the level design. Good level design is like good cinematic staging in that it will present the information most important to your game in the most efficient possible way. Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a particular favorite of mine when it comes to story-telling, because its level design conveys everything you need to know about what the character is feeling without that character ever once having to open his mouth to speak. When you’re first placed in a dungeon as a child, the environment is frightening. The walls are covered with spiders and there are many barriers you have to break down in order to find the strength to keep going. Once you DO make it through that dungeon you’re thrust out into the world, and it’s HUGE! An enormous expanse of open field awaits you outside of Kokiri Forest. Eventually you go through a few dungeons and you’re confronted with the master sword. Picking it up, you awake as an adult into a confusing world that seems to have fallen apart in the blink of an eye. The first thing you see is horrifying group of walking, screeching corpses shambling through castle town, further reinforcing that horror. The first dungeon you experience as an adult is a twisted mockery of the tranquil forest it resides within, a building filled with disorienting passageways, confusing block puzzles, and the literal ghosts of the past haunting you. The final boss of that dungeon is even a twisted memory of the person who did all of this to you!
What Ocarina of Time does best is telling you the story by allowing you to experience it. Rather than trying to convey the main character’s feelings by stating them in words, as a book would do, or with acting as a film would do, Nintendo decides to cause the player to feel those emotions instead, effectively making the player at home an avatar of Link rather than the other way around. This is a type of story-telling that is distinctly video game from the ground up, and it’s something I've been trying to keep in mind as I go through the process of writing my game.
As I worked on my film this year, my teachers were very adamant about making “beat boards” or drawings that represented the major plot points that happen within the story. These don’t need to be the exact shots you want to eventually use, but they should convey the same sorts of information, just in a much more condensed way. Well in video games you don’t go through the process of story boarding at all, so you have to approach the “beat boards” with even more emphasis (though drawing them is entirely optional in this case). What are the major events that happen to your character? How do they react to these events on an emotional level? Why? These questions will help you tie these things into your level design and will cause your player to feel more attached to your character.
Another difference is the pacing of the story being told. In a film your story moves in a slow arc progressing from the initial stages of laying out the plot of the film, and eventually leading to a climax as those events all come to a boiling point. This is the same story structure as is found in books or plays, so it’s a formula known very well. In games you have a similar overall pacing arc to deal with, but you have another set of arcs you have to include as well. In a game your player is going to be involved for a very long time. Most movies are 2 hours long, most games approach closer to 40. In order to keep attention for that long, you have to set up a series of smaller climactic events that lead up to the major conflict of the story. In many games, these arcs take the form of dungeons and boss battles. In a lot of recent games, people have been questioning the need for boss battles. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, you are given the ability to craft a character whose talents are suited to whatever among a series of skills you feel is most important. Personally, I made my character excellent at sneaking around undetected and setting off explosives when things fell apart. Unfortunately, the makers of this game didn’t take that into account and they forced us into boss battles against foes balanced to take down combat-oriented characters. For squishy characters like the one I built, we had a very difficult time of things indeed. In this game, the bosses felt unnecessary to the overall flow, and it would have been better served by another form of climax. Because of games like this, players have started to question those boss battles and demand other approaches to pacing. Games like Dark Souls solve this problem by putting bosses intermittently throughout a level. In some levels you find the boss at the very end, in a very traditional place for a boss to pop up and slaughter you. In other places, however, you’ll turn a random corner and be confronted with a demonic knight glowing with red energy. Games like Mercenary Kings solve the pacing issue by giving the player a series of tasks instead of specific levels. As you go through the game, you revisit the same level many times, but each time you’re approaching it for a very different reason. Some times that reason is a boss battle, but other times it’s just to collect some materials you need, or shut down a power station, or any number of other tasks.
Each of these approaches places a different sort of arc inside of the larger one defining the story as a whole. They act sort of like the chapters in a book, but usually with a more distinct rising action, climax, and resolution. There are as many ways of approaching pacing in a game as there are stories to tell, and so long as it works out in the end you’re free to do as you wish. You cling loosely to the arc you find in a film or book, but the extended time investment required to play a game requires that you shake things up a bit.
Basically, what I’m discovering through the process of writing my story and generally thinking through the first parts of making a game is that while there are a lot of similarities between video games and film, the approaches you take towards those similar processes are worlds different. It’ll be interesting to see if I manage to pull this off despite a complete lack of formal education directly related to game design.