Making Stories in Games Matter

Writer Maurice Suckling (Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, Killing Floor 2, Driver) discussed the ways you can fit a nice story into the game.

Maurice Suckling is a freelance writer with a vast experience in creating stories for video games. He’s worked on a number of games for 2K, Nintendo, Sega, Sony, Square Enix and Ubisoft – and titles such as Driver, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! and Killing Floor 2. He’s also one of the authors of Video Game Writing: From Macro to Micro, a great resource for people who are interested in the world of games writers. We highly encourage you to take a look at it. After the closure of 2K Australia, we’ve arranged a little interview with Maurice and now we can present you our talk. In this post Maurice talks about stories in games and various ways you can integrate powerful messages into your project.

About Maurice Suckling

Well…as a child in the 1970s and early 1980s I played and made my own games, read ‘Asterix’ books and wrote stories – mostly about cryogenically frozen super hero Nazi hunters – because the Nazis had also been frozen – I don’t remember the backstory, which is probably just as well… Anyway, the point is, as a kid, the profession of ‘games writer’ didn’t exist, so that was never in my mind – I just had these two hobbies and never really thought too much about how, or if they could ever connect.

Maurice Suckling, interview, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, Killing Floor 2, Driver, stories in games, gamedev, indiedev, game development, 2K Australia, gamestory, freelance copywriter

I was working as a freelance copywriter doing occasional bits of TV in my 20s when Gareth Edmondson, a friend I was at university with, asked if he could book a couple of weeks of my time – he’d recently taken a job at his brother’s company, Reflections – which later became Ubisoft Reflections. They were developing their first story-centered game, ‘Driver’, and they needed some help for a writer. I ended up freelancing for the company for several years, and by then I’d become a games writer by accident.

I’ve now worked on 35 published games, and several more that either got scrapped at some point during development, or, in some cases, are still being developed. Among some of the projects I’ve worked on are ‘Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing’, because it was a fun game, ‘Battleplan: American Civil War’, because it was my own company’s game, ‘Driver ’76’, because I thought the script, with co-writers Neil Richards and Marek Walton, and the comic book style worked out particularly well, and the ‘Wii-Fit’ games, because I earned my audio producer spurs on the series.

My favourite game I’ve been involved in so far has been ‘Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!’, and the ‘Claptastic Voyage’ DLC – the Borderlands story world is just so much fun for a writer – the characters allow you to work with designers in ways that normally have you pulling in different directions.

Since 2K Australia shut down I’ve been doing some contract writing for ‘Killing Floor 2’, working on VO for some of the player characters – and I’ve been enjoying that – the Tripwire guys have a good sense of humour and are easy to work with. Aside from that I’m talking to various companies about longer term positions, and until anything becomes clearer I’ll use the time to do some work on some boardgames and story ideas, and to bring out some DLC for ‘Battleplan: American Civil War’.

Story in Modern Games

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There are different genres, and different studios have different takes on those genres, so there’s no one unified view on this topic. In general terms, story has become a bigger element in the industry, employing more writers and approaching storytelling with greater care – and skill – than before. It remains the case that some genres – for example, action games – need story more than others – like strategy games.

Publishers do seem, in general, far more aware of the importance of storytelling in a game than they perhaps were 10 years ago. Perhaps as technology becomes less of a barrier for developers, with the ubiquity of middleware, and as genres become more settled (and inflexible?) as commercial entities, storytelling is an area where it’s possible to be distinctive and to harness loyalty from large devoted fan-bases.

The Power of a Good Tale

The Last of Us

The player also treats story differently nowadays. It depends on the game, and it depends on the player. You can see in games like the Bioshock series or The Last of Us developers try to give players the opportunity to engage with the story on their own terms – to explore it deeper if they wish, or to skim along the surface if that appeals to them more.

I enjoyed Last of Us. I thought it was very well written and well-acted – the animation, the sound design, the game design, the art – it was all very high quality. The only real downside for me was I do have a pretty lousy sense of direction and I did get lost quite a bit.

I did engage with the characters and I did develop sympathy for them. I thought what was especially important was that the developers took time to set up the story and the character of Joel. It is a certain kind of game – a very-story driven game in a sort of old school mould – a story that’s effectively on rails with moments triggered at specific junctions; control will be taken away from players at certain points enabling the next piece of storytelling to become unlocked. There’s nothing wrong with this – I certainly wouldn’t want all games to be like this, but then there’s no game that I want to be the model for all others – I want games to be many and varied.

I think, clearly, given how the industry is burgeoning, we’ll continue to see more games, and that means we’ll certainly see lots of light-hearted games – the casual market is still booming and I don’t think those kinds of games ever really went away.

The Witcher 3

But I think the success of games like ‘The Witcher’ and ‘The Last of Us’ means we’ll also see less light-hearted games continuing to be made and played.

When I think of Borderlands I think of a game world that may look like a cartoon, but is, in fact, one that has a far more mature and progressive point of view on gender and sexual politics than most other games, so it’s worth bearing in mind that there’s often more to a game than merely how it looks.

Integrating Story into Games

Valiant Hearts

It depends on so many things – the type of game, your audience, the platform, your budget, timeline, skills of your team…

The classical cutscene approach can still be an extremely useful tool for a game writer to have in their toolkit and it’s very short-sighted to simply dispense with it altogether and never use it again. It worked perfectly well for Ubisoft Montpellier making ‘Valiant Hearts’ in 2014 and I think ditching them would have created far more (unnecessary) problems than they might have solved.

That said, yes, I think game writers should certainly be looking for opportunities to find more interactive means of storytelling whenever expedient, but they should do this judiciously, not with a blanket ‘this is the ONLY way to ever do this’ type of approach.

Telling the Story Through the Environment

The best way of showing what’s going on in an environment is for an artist/level architect, a level designer and a writer to work together as they consider the player’s pathing – so key elements – like important waypoints and objectives – are naturally showcased by the player character’s natural (or at least likely) positioning within that environment; use topography and architecture to lead eye-lines to places and things that matter at moments that are timed to optimise or at least not detract from their impact.

The Winged Throne © ACeye & Desmera, 2015

A couple of tips come to mind on this topic – make sure the environment makes sense in the first place, before layering in a more recent story – i.e. if the location’s in a shipyard make sure it’s believable that ships could dock in the space and their cargo could be off-loaded before worrying about what happened when the plague struck.

It’s also a sound principle to try to keep the chronology of the environmental story you’re telling in step with the sequential progress through that space, i.e. have evidence of a Roman legion being slaughtered first, then the evidence that they have risen as ghosts, followed by the evidence that a newly bereaved mother has been abducted to the spirit world by those ghosts. Messing with the environmental story’s chronology is likely to be confusing for the player when they’re in the thick of the experience – where they’ll have a lot of other things going on – like probably keeping their character alive and working the controls.

Presenting Dialogue in Games

I’ve never been a huge fan of dialogue trees. Conceptually they’re neat and certainly they require skill to conceive of, write and integrate (as well as to get the VO right). But at a gut level they’ve always left me a little cold – I’m conscious that I’m stepping out of the experience of the moment and back into the meta world where my replies are given some kind of binary value and trigger specific consequences.
Perhaps gestural controls could help – working in much the same way as some trees, but with less on-screen text.

If you’re talking about how you communicate dialogue choices to a player most of the things that spring to mind are graphics related approaches an artist or UI specialist could talk about with more authority than me. But how about considering if we really want to communicate dialogue choices to players?

The Sims 4

Ok – here’s an ‘outside the box’ idea: give players the choice of different characters and a choice of when and perhaps even where they interact with other characters in the story, but don’t give the player choices to make with these characters once a conversation begins – work on the principle that people just can’t help who they are – maybe the conversation would have gone differently if the characters involved weren’t tired/injured/bereaved, or whatever – but remove the cold calculation of a response (or even a timer that defaults to a reply if none is given in time) and see what happens when characters are true to themselves. You’d need a pretty unconventional story and game design to fully support something like that…maybe what I’ve just described is ‘The Sims’ with high quality writing and related production values…Still, maybe aspects of this approach could be used in controlled ways to integrate it with a more traditional narrative driven story.

Developers Have Something to Say

I think developers have a lot to say to the gamer. You just need to be able to listen.

Looking at specific titles for examples – ‘Borderlands’ says characters are more important than plot, it says the world is chaotic and terrifying and there are serious moral failures of corporations, but the world is also full of surprises, it’s dark, and fun, and darkly fun, and it’s filled with all kinds of people who may be selfish and have a whole host of personal issues, but even the very worst of them are usually wayyyyy past regressive views on gender and sexual politics .

Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock’ says despite/perhaps because of your best intentions to create a utopia, you will likely end up creating a dystopia instead – the irony inherent in human ambition!

The Stick of Truth’ says everything the South Park series says on TV – humans (especially adults) are insane, the world is insane, compassion and reason are our best hope – as well as saying have you ever noticed how dumb the conventions connected to game design are?

I don’t think there’s a silver bullet solution. I think part of what makes stories in games so intriguing, and the life of a games writer so engaging, is that every project is different – even sequels – and even if you find the right balance between gameplay and story in one project it doesn’t mean that the same approach will work again – there are just so many shifting parameters that all need re-assessing with every project – technology, audience expectations, budget, timescale, team members, available assets, available actors, bugs… Anyway, It’s been a lot of questions already. Hope you find the answers interesting. I’d better go do a bit of work now.

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