Speaking to a packed room during their GDC Canada keynote, BioWare founders and co-heads Dr. Greg Zeschuk and Dr. Ray Muzyka addressed their studio's core value: storytelling in video games.
Muzyka kicked things off with a quick overview of narrative in games, and BioWare's approach of putting the "core game experience" at the center of design and then surrounding it with story, exploration, combat, and progression.
Zeschuk added, "After 30 years of gaming, things have changed enormously." He queued up a scene from early in Baldur's Gate II, in which the imprisoned player is tortured and a voice-acted conversation occurs between sprite-based characters.
He followed it up with one of the company's more recent games, Jade Empire, and then the upcoming Dragon Age, with high-resolution graphics and complex cinematography.
BioWare has adopted Richard Bartle's well-known character archetype classifications for MMOs, adapting it for single-player games and BioWare's particular focus, said Zeschuk. The studio's own system contains killers (action/conflict/combat) achievers (progression and customization), socializers (story and character interaction), and explorers (exploration).
Classifying Narrative in Games
"What we're seeing nowadays is more variety in structure...linear versus non-linear narrative," said Zeschuk.
But beyond linearity and non-linearity, there are also passive and active narratives -- whether actual player choice drives the "active narrative" and contributes to the non-linearity.
Finally, there are internal and external narratives; for example, games can tie into social networks like Facebook or Twitter to allow players to experience narratives outside of the core game. "The whole world is changing, and how we connect to it is very relevant," said Zeschuk.
Within BioWare, the studio also distinguishes between first- and third-person conversation perspective. For example, in Mass Effect, player character statements are fully voiced, and the character's face is frequently displayed during head-on conversation.
But in Dragon Age, players simply choose responses and the NPC responds, without the player character being voiced, and the actual conversation is "filmed" in more of a first-person style; that style is more reminiscent of some past BioWare games like Baldur's Gate II.
In Mass Effect, "You mold Shepard, but you don't know what he's going to do. It's Shepard speaking," said Zeschuk. "You're participating in the conversation as the director, not the actor.
"When we were making Dragon Age, we had a big conversation about this, because halfway through development, Mass Effect came out and it was a big success. But no, it's a different experience. We want a broad portfolio...with different experiences for different people."
Because of the systems involved in modern interactive stories, narrative is a true team-based effort involving design, writing, animation, programming -- "Everyone has a part in it now," said Zeschuk.
(As a contrast, he recalled: "Back in the day, Ray and I wrote all the story ourselves. On Shattered Steel, we wrote everything, except that the night before we shipped, we added some co-op story, so James Olin wrote all of that...We're a little better prepared now.")
New Types of Narrative
External narratives are something uniquely suited to games, due to their technological focus. While other forms of narrative engender outside discussion, games can put structure around those emergent narratives.
For example, in Dragon Age, "we're exporting data from player achievements and highlighting that on the community site," said Muzyka. For an MMO, "Manipulation of world server data based on a broad range of user activities can actually change the game world."
(On exploits being automatically published, he added: "The good news is that news of your exploits can spread all over the web. The bad news is that news of your exploits can spread all over the web.")
BioWare is also known for supporting user-generated content with games like Neverwinter Nights and its sequel; Muzyka noted that external Dragon Age content is already being created thanks to its toolset beta, long before the release of the game itself.
But there's also lower-tech external narrative that can be deliberately encouraged by developers. For example, an early Mass Effect 2 teaser suggested the first game's protagonist Commander Shepard had been killed. "Since we released that, there's been incredible buzz; fans have been talking about it," said Muzyka. "That's a form of external narrative."
"We really believe games are one of the most interesting forms of art," said Muzyka, because they can provide narratives that are linear or non-linear, active or passive, internal or external.
"What [games] are going to be in the next 30 years is limited only by, we think, the imagination" of game developers, he concluded. "Imagine mixing internal and external narrative seamlessly, with non-linearity. We're the creators; it's an exciting role to have. Narrative is one of the most powerful forms of expression."