Is your storyteller underrated?

March 22, 2018

 

"Skip the cut scene already!" Steve complained.

"But I want to know why he was killed?" Tina explained.

"How does it even matter? The guy is dead. We now just need to find the killer and have our revenge!" Steve reasoned.

"But... Maybe... that's not true" Tina tried to counter.

"Listen we don't have all day, alright? If we don't skip these cut scenes now, I'll have to wait until next weekend to finish the game" Steve fired back and got up to skip the cinematic himself.

"But wait..." Tina watched in vain as the next mission began.

 

And as easily as that, any room for storytelling goes out the window in Digital Games, if you were relying on mere cut scene to the job. With instances like these being quoted in board meetings, its no surprise that a Storyteller or a Narrative Designer's opinions are undermined as against those of the concept artists or level designers who can randomly come up with a visual of a bad-ass Game Weapon or an exclusive game mechanic that looks too cool to not be included in an already running project. 

 

Hold on!

So who needs a story writer? Anyone could build stories; right?

 

WRONG!

 

You see, anyone can build a story around some game that already has its characters, locations and mechanics defined. All you'd have to do is permutations and combinations of basic emotions, ambitions and assumptions. 

But, that is not storytelling. And even if the game comes across as a visual spectacle, if it were a game to be judged by its story, it'd be a recipe for disaster. Not only would its underwhelming narrative erode most if not all believably from the  interactive work of fiction, it'd also be a major turn off for most audiences who would sincerely want to feel for the characters and events in the game.

 

You see, storytelling runs much deeper than mere in-game cut scenes and cinematic. Apart from adding believably to a game and connecting the player to the world of fiction, a story takes on the objective of making the player value her in game decision making ability and forcing her to feel anxious about the outcome. 

 

When a level designer begins to model a post apocalyptic city street that is supposed to be filled with garbage and dead bodies, a few questions to be asked are:

 

Which part of the world is this?

What year is this?

How did this place look before the apocalypse occurred?

What was the apocalypse?

What were its effects on the city?

What happened here (the street)?

Who were the regular pedestrians who used these streets?

Are there any survivors?

If so, what are they doing? What sounds will you hear from them?

What time of the day is it when the protagonist gets here?

How did the protagonist get here?

What does the protagonist want?

Who or what is the protagonist going to face here?

 

These are just a few of the questions that need some answering before the art team gets down with the task of designing a level that will fit the game. And if this level needs to maintain consistency (which is required of course to tell the player's subconscious that all this is for real), then you would want all of artists working on this huge Game Project to be on the same page. And that is the job of the Narrative Designer. Well of course the story writer and the narrative designer needn't necessarily be the same person, however, if they are then it works in favor of the game project, and all those developers and artists involved in it, being held together.

 

The story also has a considerable amount of impact on the design of the game itself, depending on how early or late was the storyteller brought on board (Earlier the better). If you started off the game by deciding the basic mechanics of, say, hack and slash, then a considerable part of the protagonist character design is already dealt with. However, it is upon the narrative designer to make sure that the story, which now demands nothing less than a Warrior from the Hero, does not have room for events of some cowardly meltdown, either resultant or deliberate. In other words, there should be no miss match between what the player wants to do as the protagonist (as defined by game mechanics) and what the story tell you about the protagonist and his or her actions (as portrayed by the story). Such instances where the developers failed to maintain uniformity through the game mechanics and the story are referred to as Ludo- Narrative Dissonance. If not monitored by a narrative expert, such discrepancies can creep into the game during the development phase without anyone with an overall awareness of the game content to identify and remove them before the game gets shipped. And the result? Probably a dip in the sales of the game and gun shots coming from critics who review the product unconditionally. 

 

All in all, its not just the verbal or visual delivery of a story that is referred to as a narrative in an interactive entertainment medium such as a Digital Game, but its majorly an underlying canvas of a backdrop upon whose foundations or scaffolding the rest of the game needs to be constructed to achieve an believable story.

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