Narrative Design and the Witcher

Working on the Witcher was a great experience, not the least of which was experiencing the story and capturing Sapkowski’s world. Even though the game was inspired by a linear medium, the game itself is a great example of how to offer branching narrative with non-trivial choice. Read on only if you’re willing to read spoilers of the game.

One of the major themes of the Witcher stories involves choosing “the lesser evil.” Indeed, Geralt earned the moniker “The Butcher of Blaviken” because he once chose the lesser evil and has never been able to live it down. As a result, the developers wanted to incorporate difficult moral choices with no clear answer into the game. For example, in the first act, you must decide how to deal with Abigail the witch. A bit rough around the edges, Abigail sells her magic and potions to the people in town. If you choose to save her, you have condoned her darker activities and alienated the village. If you choose to hang her, you have acted as a judge and jury of her and sided with equally guilty villagers. No matter what you choose, you will find yourself progressing in the game, but your choice will influence how you play Geralt and may have repercussions later in the game.

View one of the choices below: (click here for French version)

Unlike many other games with branching, the developers did not envision an “ideal path” for the player. In one game, Shadows of Destiny I believe it was called, I felt like I had to guess what the developers wanted me to do, and if I didn’t do it, I would get one of the lamer endings. In the Witcher, the developers don’t punish the player for not reading their minds. In fact, they much prefer the player struggle with each decision, because there is no right answer. It’s up to you to determine what the lesser evil is. You will fight the same Big Bad no matter what, but you may have had to step on different people along the way. You will have to face them in the end.

What are some other great examples of non-trivial choice in games? I’m always on the look-out for good ones!

Question Mark Guess that game dialog! Today’s line: “Sorry but your princess is in another castle.” Check back next week to see where it came from.

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Published in: on November 29, 2007 at 3:54 pm  Comments (7)  

Everybody wants to be a game designer…

Sometimes, it feels like everybody wants to be a game designer… and why wouldn’t they? From outside the industry, game designers have the ultimate cool jobs. However, when talking to these aspiring game designers, I often find they don’t have visions of Excel sheets and rulesets, but rather a romantic view of playing games all day, of writing stories in games, or of being the one in control. Unfortunately, a game designer isn’t the equivalent of a Hollywood director. In any case, it takes a director of strong character to handle the push/pull, to adopt the suggestions that fit the vision, and reject those that don’t.

Not all game designers have the clout to control the project from beginning to end. It’s not hard to find a development horror story where investors insisted a team make design changes to make the game more like another game, thereby consigning the game to interminable feature creep. It seems to me it’s far easier to make a game suck rather than to make it shine, and the more people involved in a constant tug of war of wills will only lead to a muddled mess.

Understandably, if you’re spending $X million dollars, you want the game to NOT suck. Perhaps that’s why it’s even more important for investors to trust their team and let the designers do their job. Surrendering the creative process is never easy but ultimately, the game profits from a more collaborative spirit.

Anyone disagree? Should producers and investors have tighter control over designers?

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Published in: on November 27, 2007 at 4:04 pm  Comments (9)  

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, from wherever we are, to wherever you are…
Anne in Cancun
(Anne in Cancun)

Sande in France
(Sande in France)

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Published in: on November 22, 2007 at 2:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Giving feedback: Successful TV producer agrees

Last week we offered tips on giving and getting feedback in game writing. Maybe you missed those posts. Maybe you think we’re talking out our asses. Regardless, you should know that the most successful TV producer in Hollywood right now agrees with us.

Jonathan Littman works for Jerry Bruckheimer Productions as head of television. Jonathan is responsible (to blame?) for bringing CSI to life, which spawned many, many spinoffs, including the computer games. His responsibilities include finding and developing new talent and concepts. He then shepherds projects through the studio system, receiving feedback all along. Once in production, he gives notes and feedback to the show’s creators and writers. In essence, Jonathan both gives and receives feedback, and with his track record, he knows how it’s done.

Jonathan spoke at an event in LA last week. You’ll notice how his thoughts on feedback bear a chilling similarity to our own posts on the subject.

On giving feedback, Jonathan said:
“When you say, ‘It’s just not working for me. I don’t know,’ that’s when I hang up the phone.”

We wrote on Tuesday:
Feedback should be quite specific and relevant to the matter at hand.

On taking feedback, Jonathan said:
“There are two types of showrunners.” The first kind take notes verbatim, taking every suggestion. This usually ends in disaster. The second kind listen to the studios’ feedback and “listen to what they’re really saying.” If there’s a problem in dialog, they realize that it may very well be a fundamental character issue rather than simply a dialog change. These are the great showrunners.

We wrote on Friday:
¨While many who give feedback will give reasons for the note, their reason may not always be the right one.¨
¨Take the note, not the suggestion.¨

The similarities are eerie. Now the big question is, are you ready to use these suggestions for good games and not for evil?

Question Mark Last week’s line of game dialog came from TOEJAM & EARL 3: Mission To Earth. Did you guess it right? More Guess that Game Dialog to come this week!

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Published in: on November 20, 2007 at 11:06 am  Leave a Comment  

4 tips on taking feedback in game writing

You’ve mastered giving feedback, but did you know that getting feedback is another skill?  Even if you’re a non-writing game developer, learning these tips for handling feedback may well help you understand the game writer’s perspective.  While restraining yourself from throttling the person criticising you may seem like a great skill, the subtle art of getting feedback leaves both parties better off and without need for a sedative.   

1.  Ask questions.   While many who give feedback will give reasons for the note, their reason may not always be the right one.  For example, a developer may say, “I don’t like the word this character uses.”  You may dutifully change the word, but the real issue at hand may involve a misconception about the character or the style of language required for the world.  Better to find this out earlier rather than later.  This idea leads into…

2.  Take the note, not the suggestion.  Often, feedback will come in the form of a suggestion: “Have this character yell at the player here.”  If you delve a little bit deeper, you may realize that the concern is not the yelling per se, but the lack of drama in the scene.  You may then change the scene to add more drama without any yelling.  As long as you address the note underneath the suggestion, you may ignore the suggestion with relative confidence.

3.  Prioritize the notes.  For a number of reasons, you may not be able to incorporate all the notes you are given.  You may be getting feedback from a number of people, or you may be pressed for time.  Identify your priorities through speaking with your colleagues or leadership, then take care of the key issues first.  Ideally, you shouldn’t bother with typos, for example, when your story needs a major overhaul.  However, for production reasons, you may indeed need to fix those typos for a demo or testing before getting to story issues. 

4.  Don’t take every note.  Even if you have the time and ability to fix everything that was red-flagged, you may decide not to execute every suggestion.  This scenario requires caution, a lot of diplomacy and an honest evaluation of where you stand.  Taking the wrong note may harm your work, and as the person hired for your expertise, you are responsible for keeping the story or writing on course.  By the same token, you may not be in the position to make such decisions.  Tread carefully. 

4.5.  Cool off.  Not everyone will be driven to distraction by feedback, but on occasion it happens.  If you find yourself feeling quite defensive, take time to cool off and appreciate the feedback for what it is — an honest effort to improve the game.  Never forget that you work in a collaborative medium, and feedback is one of its joys. 

Next week:  What successful Hollywood denizen agrees with the Writers Cabal?  If you answered, “who doesn’t?”, great answer, but we have someone in mind. 

Question Mark Guess that game dialog! Today’s line: “My mommy says that you’re my daddy and you owe us some money.” Check back next week to see where it came from.

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Published in: on November 16, 2007 at 11:48 am  Comments (3)  

How not to give game writing feedback

Yesterday, you learned how to give feedback on game writing.  You may have noticed it’s not all that different to giving feedback to any creative.  However, one major pitfall still lurks, and if you don’t know what it is, you could be heading into disaster. 

WARNING!  While the feedback sandwich works, never use it in isolation.  If you only give positive feedback moments before tearing into your writers’ work, they, like Pavlov’s salivating dogs, will already be steeling themselves whenever they hear “I like how you…”  Worse still, writers familiar with the feedback sandwich may think you’re manufacturing positive feedback to follow the formula and ignore it completely.  An unappreciated writer is a writer looking for work, so keep this in mind.

As in a marriage, so in the workplace:  Try to give positive feedback five times for each time you must use the feedback sandwich to serve up criticism. 

Next up — getting feedback in game writing.  Even if you’re not a writer, you’ll want to know how writers can best navigate the feedback you give them.  In the meantime, anyone care to give some feedback on this post?

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Published in: on November 14, 2007 at 7:00 pm  Comments (2)  

Giving feedback on game writing

It happens.  Sometimes, when you’re least expecting it, someone’s work — maybe even your own — needs a bit of guidance.  Feedback, or “notes” as it is called in Hollywood, is an integral part of the creative process.  Some may consider it a necessary evil, but no matter what you think, remember that it is always necessary.

Ever heard of the feedback sandwich?  This hunger-inducing term describes the ideal structure for giving feedback.  Positive feedback is the bread, while criticism is the meat.  Feedback should be quite specific and relevant to the matter at hand.  “You’re a friendly person.  Your writing needs work, but overall, good job” will only serve to confuse your writer.  The feedback sandwich for this paragraph so far might be: “I like how you start out with a question to engage the reader.  You do tend to use passive verbs like ‘to be’ a bit too much.  Overall, it looks like you’re on track.”  Simple, straightforward, and honest.  Why don’t more people use the feedback sandwich?

  • “I don’t have time to tell them what they’re doing right.”  Well, do you have time to hire a new writer after this one quits? 
  • “They know I like all the work I haven’t specifically criticised.”  Oh, really?  If your writer is half as neurotic as most, your writer may think you hate everything, but only had the time to critique the most serious gaffs.  This scenario rings even more true in game development, when you often don’t have time to critique everything.
  • “I don’t want to step on the writers’ creative toes.”  Unless you will lose your job because of it, step on those toes!  This may come as a shock to you, but the game industry occasionally suffers from a lack of good writing.  This problem may very well stem from the fact no one had the guts to say “The emperor is wearing no clothes.”  If the story or writing isn’t working, airing your thoughts earlier rather than later will save everyone a lot of time and anguish.  If the story is working, your writers need to know that as well, or else they may change things for the worse.

What’s the worst excuse you’ve heard about not giving feedback?  Tomorrow I’ll give you a warning on what NOT to do when giving feedback.

Question Mark Last week’s line of game dialog came from GRAND THEFT AUTO: SAN ANDREAS.  Did you guess it right?  More Guess that Game Dialog to come this week!

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Published in: on November 13, 2007 at 6:12 pm  Comments (5)  

Forming a game writing team

You know about joining a writing team, but what if you’re planning to form one?  It may take more work than you thought.  You’ll sort through writing samples, administer tests, and run a few interviews.  When all is said and done, you’ll have a writing team to be proud of.  The end, right?  Not so fast.  As with joining a team, getting the team together is just the beginning.  To get the team working together smoothly, you’ll have to manage a few expectations yourself.

Many of the suggestions on joining a team will be helpful to you when you work with other leaders on your project.  These suggestions will also help you manage your team as well.  When a new member joins your writing team, explore their expectations with a few questions.  Be sure to explain in advance that you’re on the writers’ side; you want to support them by putting them in situations where they will excel.  If you don’t couch these questions in these terms, your new team member may wonder if he’s in trouble and may unwittingly shoot himself in the foot.

  •  How do you prefer to write?  For example, collaboratively or alone?
  •  What is your career goal or goal on this project?  How can I support you in achieving it?
  •  What are you most excited about in this project?
  •  What kind of feedback is helpful to you?

You may have realized that these questions will help in motivating your team.  Sometimes words of encouragement only go so far.  Fortunately, as a game developer, you already know a little bit about motivation, and that a purple will move a team when mere gold won’t. 

Naturally, you will want to tell your team what you expect from them and what they can expect from you.  Even if your writers don’t ask them, you may want to answer the questions from “Joining a team.”  Not only should you be honest with them, you should also be honest with yourself.  If you want your team to check in with you every day, don’t say “Check in with me when convenient.”  In this as in all things, you get what you ask for, whether you want it or not. 

Anyone else have other experiences in forming a writing team?  Do tell!

Question Mark Guess that game dialog! Today’s line: “We are the police, you moron! We got helicopters!” Check back next week to see where it came from.

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Published in: on November 9, 2007 at 2:24 pm  Comments (2)