Aug 16, 2013
Title Screen

Today things are a little bit on the lighter side, but that's mostly due to that fact that many of the devs that normally share this space are hard at work on preparing for PAX or imminent game releases. All of those are good enough reasons for me, as that means more games to play. To make up for it, I'll be talking about a bit about our topic and other indie-related subjects. But before I start getting too long-winded, let me bring on the people you actually want to hear from. I posed a few questions to the group about the importance of story in RPGs. The replies on this topic were very interesting, so I hope you enjoy them.

Name: Craig Stern
Studio: Sinister Design
RPG Project(s): Telepath Tactics (PC)

1) When designing a game, how much of your focus is on the story? Is it one of your first inspirations or do you build a story around your game's design? Just trying to get an idea of how you approach this aspect of design.

Design fundamentals always come first for me, followed by story, then level design. (If I'm reusing an engine, as I did with Telepath RPG: Servants of God, I get to skip that first step; but it's usually in that same general order.)

You have to nail fun gameplay, then craft a story that works with it, then design the actual content to tell the story. Constraints breed creativity; if you don't have the game's basic mechanics defined, you have no constraints, and you risk designing a game that's just an incoherent mishmash.

I think most RPG developers can get away with fudging the order of the first two a bit because of how well-defined RPG systems are; they know the general subgenre they're going to be working in (JRPG, WRPG, roguelike, etc.), they know the mechanics involved, and that probably colors their idea of what the story will be from the outset.

You can seldom get away with swapping the order of the last two, though. There are so many games out there where designers went hog-wild designing a bunch of random levels without any thought as to why the player would visit them, and then suddenly the writer is asked to come up with something that plausibly explains everything. This is the exact reason why so many AAA games have such half-assed narratives: the developers do all their level design first and tack on a story later.

2) What are the most important aspects of story writing? Why?

I'd argue that character development is the single most important thing to get right in an RPG; plot is secondary. Plot is "this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens, and..." Okay. That's great--and maybe the plot really does do some cool things--but it is the characters that ultimately make us care about all that.

Take Final Fantasy VI, for example. You can name all sorts of cool things that happen in that game, but what makes them really interesting is how they're significant to the characters experiencing them. The opera scene isn't interesting because players really super like opera; it's interesting because of how it develops the characters. The whole sequence is totally out of character for Celes, who is ordinarily quiet and cold; it helps establish Locke's romantic interest in her; and it serves to cement Ultros as a persistent, vengeful, and hammy villain. It's all those really dramatic character moments that make it such a delight. In a more subtle way, you can say the same thing for the phantom train, which wouldn't be nearly as potent a set piece if it weren't also a metaphor for Cyan's persistent thoughts of suicide (something explored again later in the World of Ruin).

3) What have you used for inspiration when crafting a plot? Why did those things inspire you?

I often draw inspiration from contemporary political issues in the real world. Real-world issues are things that affect my life; they're topics about which I have something to say. That makes them fruitful topics for examination in a story. As far as filling in the world with interesting details, I like to draw from history; there are so many fascinating people, events, societies, and so on embedded just in our own past, and there's no question about whether they're realistic: they actually happened. Once I've got the base set up, it's easy to sit and extrapolate with my imagination.

The one area I try not to draw inspiration from is other creative works of fiction. It's much too easy to end up simply copying what other writers have already done that way. If you draw from history, then even if someone else taps that same well, you're at least likely to end up taking different elements and forming different interpretations.

4) How do you feel about the current state of narratives in RPGs? Does your approach differ, and if so, how?

As with everything, Sturgeon's Law applies. Most contemporary RPGs have stories that are just absolute crap; a few, like Ni No Kuni, have managed to hold themselves apart with an unusual tone, or simply by having well-developed characters with some actual personality to them.

The only thing I know for certain that I do differently from other RPGs, narratively speaking, is in my choice of subject matter. I don't care about exploring abstract concepts like "free will," or dredging up insipid platitudes about teamwork or the power of friendship. I'm happy to leave that stuff to everyone else. Personally, I want to explore current issues that matter to peoples' lives, right here and right now, and I want to make people think about them. In Telepath RPG: Servants of God, it was the role of government and religion--in Telepath Tactics, it will be something else. It's up to the player to figure out the theme; but when you're dealing with one of my games, it will always be there, waiting, right below the surface.

Links: Sinister Design Official Site

Name: Dave Welch
Studio: Experimental Gamer
RPG Project(s): Boot Hill Heroes (PC, Xbox 360)

1) When designing a game, how much of your focus is on the story? Is it one of your first inspirations or do you build a story around your game's design? Just trying to get an idea of how you approach this aspect of design.

For Boot Hill Heroes, we knew we wanted to make a classic RPG. We knew we wanted it set in the Wild West and for it to be multiplayer. That's all the game designing we did before then writing an outline of the story. I don't know if this is the best way to do it, but if writing and game design are not done in tandem then you can run into problem with either the ludonarrative or the gameplay.

For us, we'd sometimes have an idea for a great scene only to realize--there's no actual gameplay here (i.e. No RPG battles). So we would have to revise and figure out how the story could work to better serve as a reason for gameplay to exist. I don't think it's possible to divorce these things successfully.

2) What have you used for inspiration when crafting a plot? Why did those things inspire you?

Our plot is centered around a theme that asks a controversial question. The narrative is inspired by demonstrating both sides of the issue so the player can think for themselves about which is right.

Boot Hill Heroes poses two viewpoints: order--when societal rules are upheld at the expense of survival and chaos--when survival is upheld at the expense of societal rules. These two sides are demonstrated by one character's decision to not succumb to chaos and uphold law and order by not killing another character. However, the decision to allow this character to live has harmful repercussions. Throughout the story, the player has to consider whether it was the right decision or not.

3) How do you feel about the current state of narratives in RPGs? Does your approach differ, and if so, how?

Why the Player Should Care?

A good game story is one that engages the player. This means that through the careful direction, pacing, and execution, the game makes the player care about what is going on. To me, writing a good story is an attempt to constantly answer the question, "Why should the player care about this?"

Engaging the Player

In Super Paper Mario, the game opens with what feels like five or six longwinded prologue scenes before you can even play. To me it comes across as audacious for a game writer to think that their story is so interesting that the player should be subjected to so much of it so early. What has the game done in order for me to care so much at this point? I believe it's up to the game to earn the player's interest, not the other way around. A game should not be trying to make me know its story, it should be trying to make me want to know that story.

A game should not be telling the player you should know this and instead be trying to make the player say I want to know this.

Take Final Fantasy VI for example. The game opens with three imperial soldiers in Magitek armor that have come to Narshe to investigate an Esper, and the girl with them is under mind control. That's all you know and all you need to know at first. As you play, you start to wonder, "Who is this girl? What is an Esper? Why does the empire want to investigate it? I would really like to know!" And then the game starts feeding you this information bit by bit. After Terra is knocked unconscious, you are treated to a flashback revealing more about the empire and her involvement on it. Soon afterwards you learn about the Returners. And so on. All this information is deliberately paced and given after the game has earned the player's interest.

Final Fantasy VII is another fine example. It begins with an exciting action sequence as Avalanche tries to take down a Mako reactor with the help of an uncaring new recruit named Cloud. As you play, you slowly learn what Mako is, who Avalanche is, and how Cloud became involved. Again, the game does the work of generating interest in these things before slowly pulling back the curtain on these things.

I feel like if these games were made today, players would be flooded with flashback or exposition dialogue that explains everything too early and without first creating a thirst for the player.

I think that often when players complain that a game has "too much text" or "too many cutscenes" what they really mean is the game has "too much text and cutscenes where I do not care enough about what is going on in them." Any game in the Metal Gear Solid series is full of hours upon hours of non-gameplay cutscenes, yet it seems most players tolerate them in this series because the games succeed in making the player care about what is going on (although I'm sure this series tends to push it for some).

Brevity is the Soul of Wit

A related issue is that even if a game has something interesting to say, they use too many words to say it (not unlike what I may be doing right now). Art thrives under limitations, and since technology no longer limits how much text can go into a game, too often the writing will abuse this.

Again, Super Paper Mario comes to mind. I'll concede the game does have some clever jokes occasionally, but this comes at the expense of generating a lot more text. Everyone has a different threshold for this sort of thing, but to me it does more harm than good.

Another game that I feel had a problem with this is Golden Sun: Dark Dawn. The game has far too much hollow dialogue exchanged among the characters. This ends up backfiring. When something important is finally said, it ends up drowning in the sea of purposeless text that makes up the majority of the scenes. The disengagement with the player is then exacerbated.

Brevity, succinctness, and meaning should always be in mind when writing any story (not just a game story). If a line of text within a scene does not serve a very useful purpose then axe it.

How does this apply to my writing process? After I write a first draft of a scene in Boot Hill Heroes, I will write it again and this time try to cut out 50% of the text. This forces me to shave off the fluff and squeeze more usefulness out of the existing text. It ends up making the scenes tighter and more engaging.

Links: Experimental Gamer Official Site

Name: The Brothers (Brian & Andrew) Allanson
Studio: AckkStudios
RPG Project(s): Two Brothers (PC, OSX, Linux, Wii U), Project Y2K (PC, Wii U, PS4)

1) When designing a game, how much of your focus is on the story? Is it one of your first inspirations or do you build a story around your game's design? Just trying to get an idea of how you approach this aspect of design.

In the past I've worked on various types of games--sometimes leading projects, other times just as the composer. One thing I would hear over and over again is "gameplay first; nothing else matters. Story must be created once the gameplay is set!" and I think this statement rings true for everything except RPGs.

An RPG that doesn't place heavy focus on the story usually isn't very good at all.

With Two Brothers, we began with a screenshot mockup. Brian (our lead artist/programmer/game creator) was making Gameboy style mockups during the Gameboy demake fad from a few years ago. At the time we had been working on a 3D game called Atlas, inspired by Ico. He started off by "demaking" the games character in the style of Gameboy games, and before long we really loved the look of it and had more excitement to work on a Gameboy style RPG than our 3D one.

Brian decided to color the some of the sprites and soon we had a collage of colored and not color objects/buildings/characters/items. This is what inspired the story for Two Brothers; a world that begins as a green-scale Gameboy game and eventually becomes a Gameboy Color game. Looking at our screenshot mockup, it was pretty obvious to us how it would play using elements of Sword of Mana/Zelda/Pokemon/Mother series. We wanted the game to have the rich narrative closer to a Super Nintendo RPG rather than something more primitive you might find on the Gameboy, so we began writing a script which was soon over a couple hundred pages long.

I think recalling this process was a long way of me realizing that story and gameplay go hand in hand with game concept when it comes to developing RPGs. So., story was an extremely huge focus right away because the moment we saw mockup we knew what the game should be.

2) What are the most important aspects of story writing? Why?

Characters need to be interesting. If you have characters who don't go anywhere, what's the point really?

Roy and Bivare Guarder are brothers, but they are very different people born about six years apart. Roy is a married man, and an accomplished Scientist with his first child on the way. Bivare is the younger on the Guarders, but in some ways more experienced. He hasn't settled down yet and has seen more of the world and done more research on-site than his brother, who spends most of his time in a laboratory.

So when they both approach situations it was important that they feel like different people. It was very fun and challenging developing their characters throughout the game. Early in the game, Roy is killed and discovers an afterlife filled with color. As a scientist and non-believer in the supernatural, he has some difficulty reconciling this. Once Bivare learns of his findings, he is extremely intrigued by the implications of this afterlife and the two of them begin their research into the other worldly, even though the scientific community mocks their claims.

Another aspect we took very seriously was the game's antagonist, as we both wanted one and didn't want one at the same time. We worked very hard to find a solution to making the game's main enemy not ripped from Indiana Jones or Final Fantasy and yet still have a enjoyable story arc. I won't say more than that.

We refused to have anything along the lines of..."Give me back that piece of color!" or "No! It belongs in a museum!" in the game.

3) What have you used for inspiration when crafting a plot? Why did those things inspire you?

We knew we wanted to write about scientists, so we read quite a few biographies on scientists as well as their journals. The game has a huge fantasy element, so we mainly used that to get general ideas about personalities of brilliant men.

4) How do you feel about the current state of narratives in RPGs? Does your approach differ, and if so, how?

That's a difficult question, mainly because not a lot of RPGs have been coming out lately, so it can be tricky to trace general trends. Inside of companies you can find them easily, but that doesn't say much.

One specific comment I'll make is I think BioWare did something really special with the branching story in Mass Effect. We took a similar (although less drastic) approach in Two Brothers and allowed the player to mold some story choices.


Links: AckkStudios Facebook, AckkStudios Official Site

Kickstarter has been a hotbed of indie RPG love lately. Here are a few recent offerings to take a closer look at.

  • Liege
    Liege is a party-based tactical RPG with a very unique art style that is planned to be the first game in a trilogy. Instead of simply focusing on leveling, players will be encouraged to rely on spatial elements, evasion, and defense along with a strong offense. Not only does Liege offer a class system, but there are also banners that characters can align with for a stat boost to certain areas. This project reached full funding, including all stretch goals, which means the game is not only supposed to be larger but will be available on PC, Mac, iOS, Android, PlayStation 4, Vita, Linux, and Wii U. That huge list of platforms is always exciting, but frightening at the same time. The game is scheduled for a late 2014 release, so we shall see how things progress.

  • Soul Saga: Episode 1
    Next, we have the first episode of Soul Saga, which has an art style I can only describe as adorable. The team mentions that this project is a love letter to PlayStation-era RPGs and it shows. The environmental puzzles remind me somewhat of Wild ARMs and the combat prototype shown clearly harkens back to that age of RPGs. I can say that I hope the battle animations speed up greatly before release, as they are pretty lengthy in the demo. Thankfully, these battles appear to offer more depth than a simple turn-based system, as players often need to use certain skills to defeat foes or help allies. Like many Kickstarter projects, this one was funded well beyond the goal and the list of platforms includes PC, Mac, Linux, Vita, PS4, and Wii U. I truly hope all of these devs can handle all of these ports.

  • Project Phoenix
    The most recent "RPG" project to hit Kickstarter is Project Phoenix. You can read all the details the developers are pushing in our story here. What you don't see are a lot of specifics about the project, and that is setting off all manner of red flags for me.

    The first issue I have is the overuse of genre labels. The project has a header calling it "Japan's indie RPG feat. AAA talent," but is then called a "squad-based, real-time strategy game" in the very next description. While I believe the problem is just a matter of poor labelling, it does give off an air of obfuscation. The brief details about combat make it sound more like Starcraft than anything, but without more details it could really end up being anything. A gameplay prototype would go a long way here.

    One other big issue I have is the touting of AAA talent. Certainly this team has worked on AAA projects, but the details as to how much work and to what extent is vague at best. It lists the game's director, Hiroaki Yuri, as having worked on games such as Diablo III and Valkyria Chronicles, but I can find no mention of him ever holding a directorial position for development of a game before. Several other key staff members cannot even be officially announced yet. The most prominent name on the staff list is that of Nobuo Uematsu, and it wasn't revealed until the second update that until the first stretch goal was met, he was only composing the main theme. Only now that the $300k level has been passed will he now compose all major motifs for the project. Just another aspect of the project that was vague and unclear.

    The last problem I have is the most serious, and that's the fact that the initial goal for the project was so low because it is only going toward 3D tools, recordings, and assistants. All of the development staff are volunteering their time for a promise of a royalty percentage when the game starts making money when it's released in mid-2015. That's a long time to work on a major project with no payment. Who's to say these people won't change their mind and bail within a year, and then where will we be? Back to Kickstarter? I hate to be so down on a project, especially one that does seem very interesting in many aspects, but the details just aren't there. The whole thing feels like a very unstable house of cards, and as someone who normally jumps to back things like that, I can't the way things are right now.

Story is one of the more debated topics in RPGs. Some say that no RPG has ever really had a great story, but many of us still love them for their stories regardless. There are many that feel that even talking about stories in general is completely uninteresting. As many in the feature explained, there is much to learn from past games as to what works and what does not in this area. Regardless of your feelings on the importance of plot, a solid focus on characters and their adventures is something that can set a great RPG apart from a good one. This is a subject that should never go by the wayside, especially if you are seeking to create a truly memorable RPG. The battle system in Final Fantasy VI certainly was fantastic, but when I look back I remember the characters and their struggles first.

That's all for this time. I hope you enjoyed our developer's replies as much as I did. Keep an eye out for the next issue where we might just get into a topic that's a tad more controversial.

- Michael A. Cunningham

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