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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Adventures in Narrative Design #5 - 2013 Lessons

Ok, so the title of this post is a bit willfully ambiguous. I'm pretty sure I didn't learn 2013 things about narrative design this year, but I did learn a lot about how easy it is to write something that can be misinterpreted by thousands of people and how fucking hard it is to write with clarity and brevity. The latter is roughly 90% of the job (see point#1).

On the way home from the company party on Friday, I thought about a few of the lessons I learned this year and made a note of them in my phone. Let's see if I can re-hash them below:

1.) Leave the math to the game balancers - There are currently six people in our Narrative Design department. All six of us are mathematically-challenged. However, Game Design comes up with a mechanic for crafting giant clay golem statues that reward the player with 50 platinum kumquats every five minutes. Still, they narrative design need to justify the existence of said giant clay golems and platinum kumquats within the universe of a game called Steampunk Velociraptors.  We can give them three to four pages worth of ideas after just one hour of brainstorming. We can take an Excel spreadsheet of random items and craft it into a 10-step quest.

We cannot split a check for shit. Ask us to do simple arithmetic and the fire in our eyes is immediately extinguished. This is probably not an absolute lesson, as I'm confident there are narrative designers for whom math is not a challenge. All I'm saying is... if you need ideas, we got ideas. If you need your tax return done or the square root of something, GTFO.

(Source: Masters of Awesome) I just randomly googled "Steampunk Velociraptor" and this was the first image. 
Turns out two people working on a concept for a steampunk dinosaur RPG

2.) Keep it high-level/don't get too attached - This is probably the most difficult lesson that I've had to learn and the one that just keeps coming up again and again. When I first started in ND, my boss would throw in the words "high-level" about 20 times per minute (rough estimate, see math abilities above). Soon it became an adjective that we all started to inject into conversation, but it was kind of like that scene in The Princess Bride

I imagine a similar process in most creative endeavors. The first idea that is p itched is probably going to bear little resemblance to the end-product. Little known fact: The initial elevator pitch for Steampunk Velociraptors was a first-person shooter called Got Any Cheese? based on 90s icon Steve Urkel. For the first year of pre-production it was just referred to as "Project Urkel". The dev team still calls it "Project Urkel" even though it's now a real time strategy game about dinosaurs with a fascination for gears n' stuff.

I was given my first assignment to write a narrative vision document for a game that is currently in pre-production. Once again, my boss told me to "keep it high-level and only about 1.5 pages". The document that I turned in was about 3 pages long. After receiving feedback from my boss and the lead game designer, I edited the doc and, somehow, I ended up adding 2 more pages to the final page count. Five pages and maybe a grand total of three or four business days of work over the course of 2 weeks. The feedback was positive, but I could kick myself knowing that chunks of that work will never see the light of day, much less the game. It's not that the ideas are bad, it's just the nature of the beast. Until a game gets beyond pre-production and concepting, fleshing out the narrative in detail is some of the most fruitless work that you can do. Too many things are subject to change and, mostly for my sanity, I've found it best to not delve too far before the right time.

3.)  Concept artists are your frenemies - There's not a whole lot to this one. Say you've got an idea that you want to pitch. If you're friendly with a concept artist they can whip up some visuals based on your ideas, so that you're not screen-grabbing from other games to explain your idea. It's kind of inevitable that you'll end up using other games and media as references. Sometimes it's the quickest way to get your idea across, granted that the people reading the pitch understand the references. For example, I could say, "My game is like Words with Friends meets GTA." If you've played Words with Friends and any GTA game, then your brain is probably automatically compiling what that kind of game could look like. But there's not really a quick fix Google image search that can make the idea really gel. A concept artist can turn your word ideas into picture ideas. It works in reverse as well, narrative designers can turn word ideas into picture ideas.

It can be a beneficial symbiosis, when the parties respect each other's limitations. (Many) writers can't draw and (many) artists can't write. When an artist says something like, "Here's a picture, you can write something... super easy." Then, I think, "Um... sure, if you want me to just write 'Go 2 da mage, he has stufs 4 u.'" There are times when I've spent an hour polishing 140 characters of text, so that it's clear and fits in the user interface. And there are times when I'm like, "Yeah, just whip up a couple of scenarios for this character." And I can't show an example because I can't draw.

We can have each other's backs or we can hate each's a strange relationship, because we're both working towards the same goal(s).

4.) Narrative Design is usually consulted far too late in the game - It's maybe more of an observation than a lesson, but it's also been something that I've been trying to keep in mind and change. In a way, I think it's because in the gamer hierarchy (at least at my company) we simply don't project gamer credibility. Or we're too abstract. Or game design has too many ideas that they want to hold on to by the skin of their teeth.

Anyway, it's one thing that we're not consulted during the concept phase and another when we're consulted during concepting and changes are made after the fact (without our knowledge). Either way it's a dumb/dick move, because we're the keepers of the story and we can story our way our of some weird logical dilemmas.

5.) No one reads the text... until they read the text - If there was a prize for the phrase that I've heard the most this year "No one reads the text" would win. It seems to be the mantra of game designers, devs, and producers everywhere.

I try to be an optimist about it. If the words in a game are properly integrated, then the players hardly notice that they're participating in the gauche act of reading. All the words from "Start" to "Shoot dat fool!" were written by someone. Every player reads some of the text, unless they're blind or illiterate... but that's an entirely different problem.

If no one read the text, then I could literally just write any ol' shit that I wanted: "Go left; eat a bag of dicks." But I can't write that. And a Polish translator can't call a quest "Fuck me". I know this, because that actually happened. So I know for a fact that players do read the text, because if the text is fucked up... they will be the first to let you know.

That's everything on my list for 2013. I'm still just a baby narrative designer, but maybe more like a toddler now. I've got some big goals for 2014, so stay along for the ride and I'll impart other nuggets of wisdom along the way.

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