By Cory Herndon, Senior Narrative Designer
(NOTE: This devlog was inspired by the "TweetQuest" talk the author gave at GDC Online 2011.)
Last time, you heard from Chad "Pappy" Moore, the leader of Carbine's (mostly) fearless Narrative Design department. And now, a word or 1,300 from a narrative designer in the trenches. I'm Cory Herndon, and today I'm doling out the story in small, easy-to-digest pieces.
What's narrative design? Those of you who read Chad's blog last week already know what narrative designers do, which is a lot more than just writing (though "I write games" is what I tell my relatives at family picnics to save time). As a Senior Narrative Designer, I work with the team tasked with shaping not just the setting and story of WildStar, but all text, lore, and dialogue in the game. We brainstorm, we plan, we plot, we write, we edit, we revise, we notice text where you might not. All this, even though everyone knows one thing to be true in MMO games: Nobody reads all the quest text.No one likes writing text that doesn't get read, and getting our players to read what we write is a challenge we take seriously. Fortunately, at a place like Carbine we have a lot of help. Dozens of content designers make the quests that you play in the game, and they usually write the first draft of quest text. And while not everyone at Carbine may be a writer, everyone--from the QA tester to the concept artist to the sound designer to the executive who's been in games for years--is in the business of telling you stories.
Nobody likes being forced to read a wall of text. Especially not in an MMO, when you may have a group waiting on you or a Frost Giant trying to smash your character's head into an ice floe at the same time a bunch of exposition is competing for your attention. Therefore the narrative design team set about finding the minimum amount of text that can convey story and character without immediately being skipped over for the "tl;dr" of quest objectives and visual icons. After much trial and error, we settled on the Twitter-length text limit of 140 characters (i.e., letters, spaces or punctuation marks).
A tweet's worth of text is like a text molecule--not the smallest unit of text, but close to it. A word-o-cule, if you will. Need a bigger story? Add more word-o-cules. Want to strip the story down? Reduce that word-o-cule to a word-atom. This simple writing rule would come to require us to tell stories in modular chunks that the player can easily spot, read, and comprehend. Text so short you can't help but read it.
WildStar is starting from scratch as a new IP, and one of our biggest narrative design challenges was establishing extensive lore documentation for the designers and for ourselves. That is, to reach the 140-character sweet spot, we wrote reams of lore that the player might never see. A great deal of this lore might end up in the game in the form of archives. The rest serves as inspiration for art and world design, guidelines for content designers, and training material for new employees.
If you want to deliver a story in an MMO, it's important to remember that story does not necessarily equal onscreen text or mountains of exposition. There are plenty of other tools that can tear down the walls of text. These include things like VO (voiceover), visuals, animations, cut scenes, and music cues, none of which require text-averse players to waste precious eyespace with words. But you don't have to know everything that's going on word-for-word to know what is happening in the story.
Art is the most effective narrative tool that narrative designers don't create, and when you're trying to tell a story in 140-character chunks you can really make good use of those thousand or so words each picture is worth. (We're lucky enough to work with some incredibly talented artists at Carbine, and they can give us three or four thousand words in each picture, easily.) Long before a zone ever becomes playable or an NPC appears in-game, we work with artists to help develop lore and a story behind the visuals.
Visual storytelling also includes animations and cinematics. Animation is shorthand for how characters and avatars move and behave. Animations can tell you a lot about a character's motivations and history without saying a word. And combined with text, animations can create ambient vignettes in towns--scenes that play out without player interaction, but which fill you in on what's going on around the area.
Cinematics, on the other hand, take control away from the player momentarily while conveying plot twists and epic visual moments. These cinematics are a compact and effective way to drive home major story developments, especially those with a concrete impact on the area in which you're playing. Did your character manage to deactivate the Eldan weather machine? A cinematic will show this happening, and afterward the local weather might be drastically different. If we just stopped using the snow effect and threw a dialogue box telling you why, a player is unlikely to read that. They'd likely cancel out of the dialog box and not even notice until leaving that zone that the weather is different--but with a short but flashy cinematic, the player can't miss it.
So if getting players to read text is so difficult, why include it at all? Why not voice everything in the game so no one has to read a thing? Though the reasons are many, for the purposes of narrative design using partial voiceover allows for greater flexibility. If you record a line word for word, you can't change it later without bringing the actor back into the studio. Instead we're using a mix of fully voiced VO and more flexible General VO that captures the gist of a written line without matching it word for word. We have dozens of basic general VO lines to choose from, so lines don't grow repetitive and still have storytelling impact. But this way stories can evolve and improve without being locked into set recorded dialogue.
For example, a piece of quest text (delivered via the datachron, an all-purpose communicator, scanner, and camera) might read onscreen:Exile, this is command. The Dominion's droppin' troops on civilian targets, and you're the only one close enough to stop 'em. Move out!
(That's 135 characters with spaces, by the way.) The details are here: civilian targets are being hit, you're the one who has to stop them...but what you might hear in General VO might be something closer to "We have a situation." Or, "The Dominion's gonna pay." This conveys a lot of information about the speaker in audio form that we don't need to waste on text.
I've written a lot about storytelling with minimal text, but not as much about how to cut those words down in the first place. Now that the world is built and the boundaries set, how do you get your text to fit into that tiny box? What kind of techniques can reduce your word count while conveying narrative, plot, and flavor to the player? How can one possibly murder enough of one's darlings (as the saying goes) to get the text down to 140 characters (with spaces)? The answers to these questions and more are coming next time in part 2!
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