By Cory Herndon, Senior Narrative Designer
(NOTE: This devlog was inspired by the "TweetQuest" talk the author gave at GDC Online 2011.)
Last time, I wrote about the ways the narrative design team works with every other department at Carbine to ensure all aspects of WildStar gameplay--including art, design,and audio--present opportunities for storytelling. In part two I aim to describe some of the specific methods I like to use when cutting text down to manageable levels without sacrificing story.
At Carbine, we split Narrative Design--the group in charge of text and story--from Content Design, the team that designs and implements the quests in the game. And in this case, implementing includes writing the first draft of the quest text--because the content designers are generally the closest to the specific objectives in each quest, they can make sure all the details are covered. At other places I've worked, a writer or narrative designer might take the first pass. The point is, you're crazy to try to write it perfect on the first try. Write a first draft of the text, get as close to 140 characters as you can, and then revise. No matter what you think you're going to do as a writer or narrative designer at an MMO developer, you should include "editor" in the job title as well.
Redundancies aren't just what British people call layoffs, they're also unnecessarily repeated words or concepts or words or even concepts. Redundancies exist not just within the quest text, but in objectives, previous quests, follow-up quests, and ambient dialogue. They included unneeded restatements of fact as well as visual clues. A redundancy might be a single word, or an entire quest, in fact, and these are the ones you should be directly dealing with the most. Is the sky dark and the moon visible? You don't need an NPC to tell you it's night. Is the title of the quest "Journey to Gallow"? Then the first line of dialogue should not be, "I need you to journey to Gallow."
In part one, I used as illustrations a series of three screenshots. Now I'm going to walk you through how I cut the text in those screenshots down to size.
As first written the line read like so:
Head down the hill toward that tower and help any survivors you find. I suspect that tower has somethin' to do with this crazy weather, but it's hard to be certain. And keep your eyes open - that crash riled up the local yeti somethin' fierce. Yetis are a ferocious species in these parts, and one o' the main reasons we ain't settled this area yet, but we got no choice now but to deal with 'em. Check in with Aron Brightland when you're done.
At 444 characters with spaces, this is more than three times our limit for quest text, and looking at the screen from last article, it's easy to see why. The wall of text almost immediately blocks a big chunk of the screen, doesn't have any line breaks, and in general is stuffing way too much information into a simple task.
Let's try this again. We can lose the information about how the "yetis" are a ferocious species, because we know they're "riled up somethin' fierce." It's needless exposition - one might call it redundant. It even contains a typo--in the WildStar style guide, the plural of yeti is just yeti. Furthermore, they're obviously "in these parts" (they wouldn't be "local" otherwise) and roving bands of carnivorous bipeds would naturally put a damper on settlement efforts. The bit about the tower causing the crazy weather is interesting, and will come into play later, but at the moment has absolutely nothing to do with the immediate, urgent task of protecting crash survivors from the yeti. Axe it. On to take two!
Head down the hill toward that tower and help any survivors you find. And keep your eyes open - that crash riled up the local yeti somethin' fierce. Check in with Aron Brightland when you're done.
Huzzah! Look at that--half as much text as before! In fact, we've taken this line from 444 characters with spaces to...196? Uh-oh. The above line is very tight and informative, rife with flavor and information relevant to the quest. Yet it's about 56 characters over the limit. This could be one of those rare exceptions that proves the rule, but is a simple quest to protect survivors and kill yeti worth breaking the rules? I'm going to say, "No." If you break the rules, it should be for something memorable or especially important. So what do we do here?
That last sentence is a bit superfluous. Aron Brightland is not the NPC giving you the quest (you can't see that in the screen grab, but it's coming from Bosun Redmark), which means you can tell the player about that later on--in another piece of quest text or just an objective line.
Head down the hill toward that tower and help any survivors you find. And keep your eyes open - that crash riled up the local yeti somethin' fierce.
148 with spaces. So very close, but we've come this far, surely we can get that under 140.
"Head down the hill toward that tower" seems like a good candidate. Directional information and description of local landmarks can be taken care of with objective text or map labels. But this is one of the first quests the Exile player receives after arriving in the Northern Wilds, so let's go easy on them. We only need to shave ten characters.
"Riled up the local yeti somethin' fierce!" also could be cut to save space. But that's now the most "flavorful" part of the line, and clearly gets across the speaking style of the Exile giving you the quest. "Keep your eyes open" isn't that rustic, however. And it basically means "be careful." And so...
Head down the hill toward that tower and help any survivors you find. And take care - that crash riled up the local yeti somethin' fierce!
138 characters with spaces. TweetQuest achieved!
While that's just one example, it illustrates how a systematic and editorial approach to quest text and dialogue can help you keep the character count down--and ensure that you create text that's packed with story but is still short enough to get read.
A game story doesn't really exist without the player. Though we can create multi-part stories or small vignettes, the huge, sweeping character story of any game is going to be comprised of all the smaller pieces the player has stitched together by simply playing. And so the most important piece of advice I can give any game writer or narrative designer is this: trust the player.
Don't necessarily trust them to read every line you write, or to understand every nuance in every story you wish to tell. In fact, you can trust some players not to read text at all. But if they care about the stories you're telling and the characters you've created, you don't need to overwhelm them with dialogue or exposition. The player isn't just the audience for the story you want to tell. In any video game with a story--and especially in an MMO game, with many stories--the player is the storyteller's ultimate collaborator.
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