The Back-story Alternative...
...or why that quest text you ignore actually matters...
...but maybe not for the reason you think. So what are we talking about this time out? We have the 'Storytelling in Games' hat on again today, but with a slightly different perspective to some of my previous missives on the subject...however it is a long one, so buckle those seat belts, and as always there will be a question for you all at then end!
Let's get started...
In a manner of speaking this is an article about storytelling that doesn't actually relate to any of the traditional narrative elements of telling a story. This is not going to be about narrative structure, characters, plot, or delve into things like pacing or antagonists, rather I want to explore the actual worlds that we create when we make these games. We are going to be looking into what forms the background for our games, and why they matter far more than you might think.
Think of the games that usually trot off people's list when it comes time to tally the 'best games of all time'...we have covered before the fact that almost all of them have a great story, but there is another element that many of them share that I think is often overlooked. That is the amount of effort and time that developers put into creating the worlds themselves. The very places that these games exist within. Sure, a game can be good on it's own mechanical merits, and first and foremost a game must be a compelling game-play experience...but those truly great games? Those are the games that also create a sense of place for the player. A world they can believe in.
A Sense of place...
The background and setting for a game is one of those things, that if executed correctly, almost shouldn't be noticed, but should be an integral part of what makes a player feel compelled to explore your world, regardless of the mechanics of your game. Players will get that oddly hollow feeling in a game where the world isn't as well established.
Now many games do amazingly well in one element of this, and that is the creation of the world visually. Whether it is style, art direction or inspirations, modern technology now allows for the creation of some truly stunning locations. The visual coherence of a world is important, but here many developers are on pretty sound footings. We have many great artists and imaginations working in the industry, so the creation of these fantastic locations is rarely a problem. The visuals in and of themselves though are not enough to define a world.
I firmly believe that better games are made when the art team, writers and creative leads are working together from as early as possible on a project, as you need a unified vision of what your world will become. The back-story can drive the artists, and vice versa, it can also inspire designers in ways they might not have considered if working in isolation.
However even then, there is a very important element that many often overlook. The visual design and back-story are hard to miss, being integral elements to the creation of a world. A world though needs people, and it needs people other than the players...
The World is not enough...
...a world is nothing without the society that lives within it.
From the outside looking in, people sometimes try and separate the background for the world, and the back-story for the characters of a story, whether that is the player, or those around them. In some ways that is the wrong way to look at it, as both are vital, fuel each other, and are often flawed if they don't mutually co-exist. You can have a very well realized world, but without believable or compelling residents, even the most imaginative or well defined settings can fall flat. This is because it is the more often than not the communities within a world that create a sense of place or allegiance for the player.
Thus the success of the back-story and the lore behind the world can more often than not be decided by the characters through which the players experience that world. If you don't populate the world with characters that draw the player into your the story of your world, and make them care about that world, you may fail to engage them at all.
A good story needs conflict, jeopardy and for something to be at stake for someone. In the case of a game, that is usually the player, but may also be the NPCs. You need to establish a society that exists (or existed) within the game-world that you want players to believe in. Half-Life 2 did this pretty well with it's opening sections. A game like Bioshock (and it's predecessors) also did this superbly with it's use of recordings, old radio broadcasts, posters and propaganda material. You very easily got a sense of what it was like to have lived in Rapture. It created that all important sense of place, not just through the art deco art styling, but also, perhaps more importantly, through the society that existed within it. The Fallout series also excelled here, as did the original Deus Ex, you can even extend it to games like Left 4 Dead...
Consider the locations that Valve chose to set their zombie Apocalypse survival special in? They chose every day locations, that showed everyday events, abandoned in the wake of what had happened in their back-story. Since the game is set in our society, we are drawn in because the streets we are asked to navigate to safety, feel 'believable' (at least as believable as is possible in a game that features the zombie apocalypse!), because we can relate to the society that has been effected. So even in a game that features virtually no actual NPCs (at least none we see) that aren't out to eat your brains, it still manages to create that sense of place, and a sense of the society that was part of the world you are being shown. They didn't get tempted to go for typical military bases or 'epic' locations, rather they fashioned locations from a setting that we, as an audience, would find believable. It was all the more effective for it. 'Looking cool' is often not enough in itself.
If you don't have a way for the player to relate to the world you are going to thrust them into, then they may struggle to relate to the goals and ambitions you then present to them.
Characters in place...
Brink fell into this category for me lately. There was clearly a potentially interesting world there. The back-story was defined, and while a little bit of a science fiction cliche, it provided all the potential you needed for motivations, protagonists and antagonists, and the required drivers for the conflict. Likewise the world was visually interesting, it could have been fun to explore. However the players was thrown so roughly into the midst of the action, with no time to get a handle on any of the characters around them, there was no sense of place. Some might quickly shout 'but it's a shooter, it hardly needs characterization', and I will chuckle slightly and easily point to half a dozen great first person games that still managed to instill a sense of place through appealing characters and setting (Half Life obviously, games like Borderlands, and even the trailers and pre-release material for ID's Rage show a greater sense of place than you found in Brink, more on that shortly!). Hell, some might even shout '..but Craig, it's a team based first person shooter!' and I would instinctively point towards Team Fortress 2, and point out that it has more characterization, and creates a better sense of place, despite being a 'team based first person shooter'...sure...it might not have a story exactly, but in it's own ACME way, it has a terrific sense of place and character.
Let's go back to one of the examples above as a practical example. Let's look at that trailer for Rage that was released during Quake-con recently. I'd argue that it allows you to pretty clearly see the importance of the setting, and vitally, the characters, in the world that ID want you to be immersed in. Haven't seen the trailer yet? Take a watch first:
Even from less than three minutes, they have established a world, a sense of place, and more importantly characters, are your relationship to them. Post apocalyptic cliches they may be, and the player is clearly being set up as 'The One' Matrix style, but look at all that was accomplished just in that trailer from a world creation point of view
Backstory was explained - The world was blown to hell by a big chunk of space rock, and the player was in some kind of cryo storage and wakes up afterwards to a changed world. This also plays on all the 'traditions' of that type of story, that we as audience bring with us, but that will happen anyway, so developers can use that to their advantage. You don't need a long voiced over passage of exposition to explain the consequences of an asteroid hitting the earth (...although quite a few people still fall into the trap of feeling they have to do so...glad to see it avoided here)
Locations are shown - The wastelands are a bad place, technology is shown, establishes that it isn't a low tech setting.
Society is defined - We don't just get to see the world, we also learn a bit about it. We are told that some forces, the ominous sounding 'The Authority', are trying to restore order in some way. There are lawless areas, and there are some areas where man has re-established some for of society. Again, it relies somewhat on our preconceptions of the genre, but it very ably reveals the type of post-apocalyptic setting we can expect.
Jeopardy is firmly established - All good stories need a motivation, and difficulties to be overcome. Here it is explained that the players themselves are a commodity wanted by different factions in the world.
Characters are created. They are defined clearly, and designed to draw you into the world
- The selfish and presumably previously self centered survivalist, who gets involved with the hero in order to impart knowledge of the world, and provide context that we would otherwise lack, presumably at the start of the game.
- The Resistance as the potential sympathetic rebels, complete with multiple characters and roles
- The authority as the Orwellian dictators of the piece
- The Mad Max style anarchic elements of society are hinted at
..and all that from a three minute trailer. It sets the player up perfectly for entry into the world that the developers have created for their game.
Reap what you sow...
Going back to Brink then for a moment, in relation to this, a game like Brink also doesn't do itself any favors by highlighting the world, because it then fails to flush out the characters and story within it. I don't think I'd have felt so oddly unmotivated if the game had simply sold itself a competitive team based shooter, but they choose to place it in this possibly elaborate world, a world where I expected my motivations to be better established.
If you take that route, and aspire to create a great world, you better be sure you are going to use it to the best of your ability and use it generate actual motivations for the player.
((It is also why I think many games in a certain genre are doing themselves a disservice by moving away from meaningful single player campaigns, but that's a subject for another post entirely!))
Getting it right...
..as with those mentioned above, there are games that get it right.
Take the case of Borderlands when compared to Brink, and you can easily identify that difference in approach. In Borderlands you quickly find characters that actually draw your further into that setting. Their attitudes, dialog and behavior help to draw you in because they fit with the setting. They are not blank disposable character cliches. Even in the most ideological of conflicts you usually need to create some personal motivations, stakes, personalities, or character flaws , rather than just relying on a 'Black vs White' partisan separation of your characters into camps. That usually results in them seemingly being there 'just because', which all too often rings as hollow with gamers as it would in a movie or book, where you didn't learn anything of anyone's motivations.
You don't have to do it with expensive cut scenes, it is about all those little things coming together to create that sense of place that allows players to be immersed in your game world.
MMO games generally have good and bad elements here, as developers get to do much more world building, over a longer period, but the current generation are hamstring to a certain extent by the static nature of the NPCs and events in the world. So they often have brilliantly realized worlds, but struggle to overcome that artificial feeling generated by quest givers with glowing question marks over their heads, and farmers who never leave their fields to eat, shit, drink or sleep.
So in some ways, when we make MMOs, we compensate for that lack of dynamic behavior by trying to put as much 'life' and background into the games as possible, so that they feel as believable as they can in a world where that NPC lets his daughter get kidnapped every five minutes so the next hero to stumble along can also conveniently go ona quest to rescue her. MMO worlds are often chock full of back-story and 'life' - its just shown in a different way. I used to love that element of working on Anarchy Online, and even in a mechanics heavy game like EVE Online there is a wealth of background for those who want to be immersed...and that is the power of that kind of background, it just makes a world more believable, more compelling, and increases immersion. In the case of EVE I am in the camp of liking their direction with Incarna, as when my avatar is now sat on his sofa watching those screens before a mission, trade run, or corporate encounter, I feel like the EVE universe is a little closer to feeling like a real world than it was before.
..so in many ways I would argue that even when you don't think it is relevant, or don't instinctively think it would matter, the setting and the world in which your game is based has a deep rooted fundamental effect on whether your audience will find the world you want them to believe in to be compelling or not.
So to end on the question for you all, which is your favorite game world and why? What is it that the developers managed to achieve in their creation that drew you in and immersed you in everything it offered?