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  • Storytelling In Games: Theme And Mood

    [06.23.22]
    - Robert Renke
  • As we have seen, there are many methods of analysis and structuring, as well as varying responsibilities that might fall in the hands of the job title depending on the studio.

    Now that we have reviewed the literature in all kinds of aspects, let's finally move on to a more practical note!

    "Months ticket by, and patience wore thin as we argued

    over style and anorexia and Angelina Jolie"

    - The Art of Alice: Madness Returns

    Defining the mood

    A theme is the central topic of an artwork. Themes are usually abstract notions as opposed to the tangible plot topic. They describe what the game is about, what binds all components together. For example, we could argue that Black Desert is, at its core, a story about sacrifice in favor of power.

    Figure 1: Black Desert Online. Pearl Abyss.

    As with all branches of game design, communication is key. Creative director Mike Laidlaw breaks down the most important aspects to communicate clearly and briefly in his 2018 GDC talk. Those aspects should be defined early on, and be present throughout development for the whole team as a point of reference.

    Next to themes, the second aspect is tentpoles. This notion refers to the plot moments that stand out, and are generally what marketing wants to put in the trailer, as well as serving as a reference for the team to focus on the moments that are "spectacular, emblematic, or evocative".

    The third aspect mentioned by Laidlaw is character motivations. Why do the main characters care about the plot and story world, and with whom do they disagree?

    The fourth and last aspect is elevator pitches. They serve as a quick way to explain why something is important, and, even if the game of feature is not going to be pitched to a publisher or investor, they serve as "a vision touchstone".

    Weekes and Epler(2016) describe their iteration process on Dragon Age Inquisition: Trespasser as three-parted: Vision(the shared target), critique(get the content playable asap to evaluate it early on), and revision(how to get the content closer to the vision).

    Vision starts with broad goals, that is, "The functional objectives that you need to accomplish over the course of the piece of content you're looking for". In the case of Trespasser, the first goal was to learn the truth about Solas while giving a sense of wonder about the world, and melancholy, as one of the closest allies so far maybe wouldn't be around anymore. Second, to show that the inquisition was infiltrated.

    The second step within Vision is to find appropriate references. References, according to the speaker, need to comply with three characteristics. First, they need to be intuitive, meaning that it should be instantly understandable why they relate to the product. Second, they have to be inspirational. And third, "good" is optional, instead, they should focus on conveying the emotion.

    In the case of Trespasser, references were "Truth behind Mythology"(seen as a theme of Indiana Jones), together with "the corruption of organization" from Captain America: Winter Soldier. That's the overall vision for the project, on a macro level. On a micro level, we can also part from there to set a vision for individual dialogs, dungeons, etc, which gives this consistency across content.

    In The Art of Alice: Madness Returns, one of the artists gets interviewed regarding references and states that "Artists we found particularly inspiring included Dave McKean, Mark Ryden, and Zdzislaw Beksinski - but we drew from a wide variety of sources including cosplay, custom jewelry, collector's doll props, burning man art, and taxidermy. We also owe a lot to fantasy films like The neverending story, The Dark Crystal, Return to Oz, The City of Lost Children, and Pan's Labyrinth, as well as the work of the Creature Shop and the Brothers Quay."

    Breaking Down

    Mehrafrooz proposes to "just start our game narrative by trying to understand what kind of emotion or ideas we want to explore with the game."

    This breaking down equals setting a theme, and can equally apply on a lower level to individual characters, zones, sequences, etc.

    Figure 2: Mehrafrooz, B., (n.d.). The Ultimate Guide to Game Narrative Design. Pixune. https://pixune.com/game-narrative-developing-a-story-that-works/

    Mehrafrooz argues that we can divide a story world into three sections, each of which can be treated individually regarding the narrative as a whole and the game's overall design: plot, character, and lore.

    Figure 3: Mehrafrooz, B., (year unknown). The Ultimate Guide to Game Narrative Design. Pixune. https://pixune.com/game-narrative-developing-a-story-that-works/

    Apart from the many sequencing devices presented in the previous parts, one that resulted suiting to me, personally, is the framework provided by Mata Haggis in his 2017 GDC talk. Here, the story is ordered in a classical Aristotelian structure. Parting from the principal block, smaller blocks of the story may branch off following any framework, being ordered for example in a circular Monomyth shape or a maze or rhizome structure within the preferred software.

    Popular tools for plot layout include Twine, InkleWriter, or Choicescript. Joseph Humfrey explains the ups and downsides of InkleWriter compared to the scripting language Ink in his GDC talk titled "Ink: Behind the Narrative Scripting Language of '80 Days' and 'Sorcery!'".

    Figure 4: Haggis, M., (2017). Storytelling ools to Boost Your Indie Game's Narrative and Gameplay. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fXE-E1hjKk

    Haggis(2017) draws a connection between gameplay flow and story tension. Similarly, at BioWare story tension is sequenced episodically on a graph, as Epler(2016) explains.

    Figure 5: Haggis, M., (2017). Storytelling ools to Boost Your Indie Game's Narrative and Gameplay. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fXE-E1hjKk

    Figure 6: Weekes, P., Epler, J., (2016). Dragon Age Inquisition: Trespasser - Building to an Emotional Theme. Game Developers Conference. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ao4b4aN7RgE

    Plot sequencing in The Last Of Us took the form of a "serialized TV story", as Richard Rouse III(2014) explains. While it was not released episodically, as was the case in The Walking Dead, the story can be broken down into smaller episodes.

    Figure 7: Rouse, R., Abernathy, T., (2014). Death to the Three Act Structure! Toward a Unique Structure for Game Narratives. Game Developers Conference. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6Hjfu0-oZY

    Likewise, Kaufman(2019) proposes to look at sitcoms to structure free-to-play narratives, since both mediums don't know how many seasons will be done from the start - both sitcoms and F2P are aimed at an evergreen model. According to the speaker, this structure suits the mobile environment better. In sitcoms, characters with unresolvable dilemmas result in infinite scalability. Sitcoms present cliffhangers instead of one large story arc, and character-based scenes.

    Figure 8: Kaufman, R., (2019). Narrative Nuances on Free-to-Play Mobile Games. Game Developers Conference. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILFzKNLAwVQ

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