Spec Ops

In Design: The Narrative Approach In Gaming

In Design is a new TLS column examining a particular aspect or topic of the games industry, development, or design, with a member of the development community. 

Video games first started out as nothing more than a simple way to pass the time. Plopping a few quarters into an arcade would allow a person to have some fun as they attempted to outrun ghosts or cruise down a fast highway. But like most mediums, games went on to evolve to go beyond simple time distractions. Instead, games have gone on to provide gripping stories which sometimes eclipse the quality found in major films.

A game can easily flounder if the world and characters aren’t believable or compelling. With the weight of a game on their shoulders, how exactly does a writer go about ensuring a game fulfills all the things it needs to do?

STARTING APPROACH

Every writer has a style or at least a flavor that they like to use when creating something. The best writers over the years have had memorable styles, and the same rings true of Richard Pearsey. A veteran of the games industry, Richard has lent his talents to titles such as Firefall, and most recently served as the Narrative Consultant on Resident Evil VII: Biohazard working alongside Game Director Koshi Nakanishi and the talented Capcom Osaka team.

So what sort of approach does a writer like Richard take when tackling a game? “I like to read everything that has been done on the project,” Richard said.

Richard’s research even goes to the very foundations of the game: the design doc. Serving as the pitch given to a publisher, the design doc is the creative bible, so to speak, of a game created by the development team. It’s within the design doc which key elements are explained such as game mechanics, scenarios, and story outlines. These design docs are usually referred to once a project enters development as it’s the goal to create and hit the targets established in the doc.  For Richard, this serves as an integral way of understanding a project and knowing how to craft the narrative. “Along the way, some very cool things get discarded that might be useful or inspiring. The Radioman in Spec Ops is a good example of that.”

ILLICITING A RESPONSE

As a writer, a personal goal of Richard is to stir something within players as they venture through a game. “My goal is always to elicit some kind of emotional response from players,” he said. Richard accomplished such a thing in Spec Ops: The Line, which he co-wrote. Showing the true nature of war rather than one glamorized, Spec Ops made players uncomfortable at times, but such a thing was the goal. Going down such a path is something Richard is aware doesn’t work for everything.

“This does vary from project to project, and there are projects for which this is not an appropriate outcome. I’m also always looking for ways to integrate the narrative or narrative elements into the actual gameplay.”

BALANCING ELEMENTS

Players have criticized certain games for having a pace which feels prolonged, abrupt and leaves breadcrumbs for players rather than giving them the full meal, such as Infamous: Second Son.  This can result in an experience which feels at odds with itself.

Despite the extra time games have to tell a story, narrative pacing can still be a problem, and it’s something Richard tries his best to address.”It’s always difficult, and it’s best to map these things out very in advance – on a large wall. It’s next to impossible to keep everything you need to be aware of when writing and pacing a story in your head. The story should always be active. Players should always be learning more about the world they are experiencing even if the story isn’t front and center in a particular encounter.”

THE CINEMATIC APPROACH

Thanks to the improved technology of games, developers have changed their styles as well.  Beyond trying to tell stronger stories, some games have sought out to match the direction and tone of cinema. This at times has resulted in games which are wholly unique compared to what’s on the market.

Developers such as David Cage and Hideo Kojima have opted for more cinematic games which some players don’t prefer.  At times, this is due to cutscenes which have excessive lengths, and a desire for games not to change too much – which in itself is an opinion that’s counter-intuitive to the evolution of games as a medium.

“I don’t know that it’s for me to say there’s a best approach for an entire medium. Also, it’s hard to argue with Kojima’s success. There’s room for a variety of approaches. The most important thing is for the story you are telling whether it is cinematic or experimental is to be interesting. A good story well told will hold people’s interest no matter what. Naughty Dog is a prime example of this.”

INSPIRED BY HISTORY

Among the many writing credits Richard has is the game 1979 Revolution: Black Friday. Released in 2016 on the PC, 1979 tells the true story of the Iranian uprising. Presented as a dramatic adventure game, 1979 took a serious subject matter and handled it in a way that was engaging and entertaining. And best of all, it gave players a glimpse into something they may have otherwise never known about, so it served as a learning experience.

Echoing thoughts shared by developer Pietro Righi Riva, Richard believes games should be inspired by history. “That would be fantastic, and the historical aspects of 1979 were what appealed to me,” Richard said. “But I’m an easy mark for historical pieces. I was a history major as an undergrad. Developers should do this if they have a passion for it. Navid [1979 creator Navid Khonsari] is passionate about telling these kinds of stories, and that shines through in the game.” Both 1979 Revolution and Wheels of Aurelia are brilliant examples of games inspired by history, yet present these elements in a way which proves to be engaging. Time will only tell if more developers are brave (reconsider “brave,” but keepable) enough to follow suit.

A GRATIFYING RESPONSE

As mentioned before, Richard helped craft the tale of Spec Ops: The Line alongside the team at Yager. While some players brushed the game aside as another shooter vying for the crown held by Call of Duty, Spec Ops was much deeper than that.

Spec Ops presented tough scenarios to the player and showed what the true effects of war are on a soldier. Of his thoughts on the reception players had towards Spec Ops, Richard said, “The most touching reaction was an email I received. They had become estranged from a lifelong friend following their return from Afghanistan. He said the game helped him understand more what his friend was going through and helped the two reconcile. That one will be with me for a long time.”

HEADING INTO THE FUTURE

Save for a few titles in the PS1 era such as Final Fantasy, players wanted gameplay first, and narrative last. But now the tables have turned and players expect a strong tales alongside gripping gameplay.

Trying to figure out how the narratives will evolve in the games industry in the future is tough. Will games finally become the go-to medium for people to get the narratives they want? Or will things evolve in another way?

“So much has been introduced tech-wise in the last couple of years. The capabilities of the equipment continue to increase exponentially, that I’m not sure it’s possible to predict with any certainty. I’ve worked on a couple of projects that have a heavy VR emphasis, and I’m looking forward to doing more. The question is whether it’s a fad or will stick around for a while. I hope it does.”

Stay tuned for the next installment of In Design which looks at the emergence of VR and the impact on game design.

Ian Fisher
A Chicago native, I'm a six year veteran of the game press industry with a deep passion for smaller indie games and all things Sony.

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