Game Developers Conference Day 2 – 2

Conferences, Game Design and Development, GDC 2011

I brought my lunch back and sat at my table to watch the first 45 minutes of  The Terminator for the first time in my life. The last part of that I saw from the movie is when Kyle Reese explains to Sarah Connor why the Terminator is after her in a broken car. Now we are going to perform on an analysis on how the move tells the viewer all the information. This is the description on the back of the box:

An unstoppable murderous cyborg has traveled back in time to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor, the mother of the man who will lead humankind’s resistance against the machines that rule the world in 2029

So within the first 45 seconds of the movie the viewer knows that machines rule the world in 2029. Then at 3 minutes and 5 seconds the viewer understands that they are in 1984. At 5 minutes and 26 seconds you see the Terminator being murderous. The viewer sees the Terminator looking through the phone book looking for Sarah Connor. Then at 15 minutes and 40 seconds, the Terminator stops by the first Sarah Connor’s home and kill her. At 35 minutes and 3 seconds you see Kyle and the Terminator fight seeing how unstoppable the Terminator is. Then at 36 minutes and 32 seconds, the viewer gets a first look of what the Terminator see through his eyes understanding that he is a cyborg. Finally at 46 minutes and 50 seconds Kyle tells Sarah Conner about traveling back in time and that she will be the mother of the man who will lead humankind’s resistance against machines. The entire synopsis of the movie from the back of the case is fulfilled by 46 minutes and 50 seconds, just before the middle of the movie. It is ok to delay the information and only focus on the “need to know” basis. A good example of showing the gamer everything they can do in the game through a cutscene, Skolnick showed the opening for Left 4 Dead. Within the 4 minutes and 20 seconds you see four playable characters, zombie-infested city, witch zombie music and gameplay hint, smoker zombie gameplay, hunter zombie gameplay, tank zombie gameplay, Boomer foreshadowing, Pipe bomb gameplay, shoot and run gameplay and car alarm gameplay. However the viewer does not even need to see this opening cutscene.

Now a game that does not implement the opening cut scene is Metal Gear Solid 2. Within the 9 minutes and 45 seconds you know Solid Snakes basic character, he is on a ship with a mission to get evidence of dangerous weaponry and that terrorists takes over the boat. This is a long time for the player to be inactive with the game and not learning anything important about the gameworld. Planting is choosing a the right spot for a shrub to grow slowly and to provide a benefit much later in the story. Chekhov’s Law “If Act One opens by mentioning a shotgun hanging over the mantel, that gun must be fired by the end of the story.” Planting is establishing something specific that will be important later in the story. It is often established in a innocuous way to not telegraph to what’s to come and is half-forgotten later so it surprises the audience. Planting in games can be showing an item in a cutscene that the player can acquire, establish the character’s ability in gameplay that affect the outcome of the cutscene and establish the enemy’s ability in a cutscene that the player must contend with in gameplay. Foreshadowing is a softer focus of planting and hits at what is to come. It is usually delivered as warnings, theories, images, dreams and feelings. Foreshadowing should be delivered subtly to avoid complete telegraphing and only makes sense or is relevant later. Portal does a lot of foreshadowing by having sketches and images on the walls.

Believability can be the suspension of disbelief. It is the game writer’s job to keep the fictional world feeling as real as possible. The player wants the world to be fully realized and internally consistent and events in game should not test their gullibility. Characters need to determine the outcome of the story and that are consistent. Coincidences hurt the story’s credibility and believability and are used because the writer is trying to solve other problems. There are the seemingly small coincidences and blatant, giant coincidences where the audience roll their eyes. The three tactics to deal with coincidences are changing the plot, retrofit it and mask or downplay it. Changing the plot can see if the event can flow more organically or the character’s action help the situation. Retrofitting the action evolves planting, foreshadowing, establishing and linking. If the writer is to downplay the coincidence, they need to see if the player really notice it or if the writer distract the player. Story and all its elements must be internally consistent and any changes to the “norm” must be explained for setup. The rules of the world can be through physics and/or technology. Actions and abilities seen in cutscene must be consistent with gameplay otherwise the player will be frustrated when they can not perform an action they seen. Character’s motivations and actions must remain consistent within the story. This is between cutscene, mission objectives and in-game abilities.

GDC 2011 Day 2 Acts

There can be two types of impact for the player, scope of conflict and the element of surprise. The scope of the conflict sees what is at stake. It is often to make it overly large and any conflict can feel huge. Make sure to have the scope of conflict only as large as it needs to be. The best stories regularly surprise the audience and it is the same for game. Avoid plodding a series of missions that lead to a long-expected showdown. Plot twists are vital to maintaining interest, can easily be implemented poorly, can feel unfair to the player if set up poorly, the seed subtle exposition that increases believability in the twist and include read herrings to throw clever viewers off the path.

In the beginning, the hero is usually in a stable state but is not in the right situation he or she wants to be in. It is the reason why the hero changes and grows the most however it can be difficult to establish this in the game especially if it is a licensed one. The stakes at play must be intensely personal to the hero like an emotional bond. Hero’s takes risks, sacrifice many things to receive an reward. They are the active driver of the story can not be forced to make a choice as they are actively resolving the conflict directly. Of course the Villain is the main source of the conflict but must be more than a match for the hero. The hero can not easily walk up to the villain without getting pass through some henchmen. Villains usually do not consider themselves to be a villain and that they are right in their ways. In their eyes, the hero is the villain. He or she must have a clear and believable motivation and has the ability to change and grow. The villain must be directly confronted by the hero or the resolution will be unsatisfying. The villain can be a boss (rival), hero’s own destructive personality or the world itself.

Each significant character has their own arc with their own conflict and three-act structure. It is simpler than overall story structure and expressed through setup, confrontation and resolution. Skolnick walked through each major character in Star Trek II and how they fit in to this concept. The dialogue’s main function is for exposition (plot, character and emotion). Dialogue is a tool for the writer but it is always better to show than tell. What character say often drives plot exposition and how they say it drives character exposition. Each important character must have a unique voice that indicates their intelligence, vocabulary, ethnicity, economic background, etc. The voices should differentiate between characters and a line that is spoken can always be improved. We looked through how different X-Man characters say their lines.  Finding each character’s voice involves lots of research. It is good to read the line out loud. Emotion is mainly conveyed through character action, dialogue usually reinforces the emotional state. As emotion increases stakes, it adds weight to gameplay situations. With dialouge, do think of humor, naturalness verses compression and audience.  Even intense story experience need a laughs but the writer needs a significant amount of comedy writing experience and extends the length of a scene. To learn how to write “naturally” just record people talking and rewrite it for clarity and brevity.

During the game writing, make sure that the cutscene pays off previous game experience and support the next game experience. It must also continue to move the overall game plot forward and establish important character and relationship info. During the second pass, make sure that all the requirements of each cutscene are being met and flesh it out. It may take longer than the first pass. During editing the cutscene, pare the dialogue down to its essence and challenge it to justify its existence. Shorten, replace, remove wherever it is possible. During the second round, challenge the individual words. The more words there are the more likelihood the player will hit the skip button. These steps also is used for in-game dialogue. Don’t forget to receive feedback as other can tell you if your work is clear, is the exposition coming across and if it is entertaining.

For script writing, we studies the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King movie verses the book. We analysed the last scene. In the book there were a lot said but if we transcribe the movie, a lot of the lines were cut out. Most of the scene shown the emotion on Frodo’s and friends faces. The scene in the movie lasted only 4 minutes and 35 seconds for just 6 lines of dialouge.

We then looked at how Evan Skolnick implemented everything he taught us in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2. Since this was a licence game there were creative restrictions in place. The three things he wanted to improve on the narrative is to bring the tone up to date with modern comics and gaming audience, use narrative devices to honor and reward players, and to provide a cohesive narrative for all types of players. A lot of thought went into how this game story wise was going to fall into the Marvel Universe. It is somewhere during the Secret War and Civil War. To make this all work, the team used a narrative team structure. This meant that design, art, animation and audio interacted with the narrative director (ND) and level writer (LW)which also interacted with 2 outsourced writers. The narrative director is like the narrative champion among the team and works with the game director to concept mission flow and concepts. Lead Writer set and watch dog narrative tone and write all the conversations used in the game. The advantage of this setup is that the narrative designer does not have to write as much and can stay on top of day to day developments. The Lead Writer does not have to constantly attend meeting so they are free to write. The ND can call the LW for big-ticket decisions and moral support. Some disadvantages are that sometimes other team members did not know whom on the Narrative team to consult and occasionally decisions get rushed by the narrative team members without proper consultation with each other. A lot of technology was involved to make this all happen.

GDC 2011 Day 2 Writing Team Structure

GDC 2011 Day 2 Writing Tech

Evan Skolnick recapped the entire lecture and gave us a little post-mortum on the game. Most of the changes they implemented were successful. The onsite Narrative designer and onsite lead writer was a good model. I have definitly learned a lot from this lesson was glad that I was able to attend it. Afterwards I attended a small networking dinner. They had small hamburgers and pizza. I was still hungry so my friends and I went to a Chinese restaurant near our hotel. Once I got back to my room I was really tired. I basically went to bed anticipating my third day at GDC.
GDC 2011 Day 2 Networking Food
GDC 2011 Day 2 Chinese Food

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