In a fascinating lecture on the first day of Austin GDC, BioWare senior writer Mac Walters and senior cinematic designer Paul Marino talked about the concept of cinematic design for games such as Mass Effect, sketching the move from "The Dark Ages" through today's "Golden Age."
Cinematic design, according to BioWare, is "crafting interactive narrative using cinematic presentation" -- and all of BioWare's project now have dedicated cinematic designers, including Marino, who is known as one of the pioneers of machinima.
The discipline, as BioWare's Marino portrays it, combines writing, audio, environmental settings, a dynamic camera and digital actors that "can express emotion with their faces", alongside player choice -- key to many BioWare titles, from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic through Mass Effect.
Walters referenced the "cinematic moments" in Puzzle Quest that helped him be further drawn into even such a simple game. But if narrative is so important, why is it so hard to implement? The duo then ran a series of videos, starting with clips from Eric Chahi's Another World (a.k.a. Out of This World), arguably one of the highlights of "The Dark Ages" of cinematic design.
Next was "The Renaissance," with titles in the early '90s such as Wing Commander and Rebel Assault making things a "fantastically exciting time", as Walters put it. Marino noted some of the key games later in the '90s, including the "watershed moment" of Half-Life, with 3D characters interacting and speaking to the player in real-time.
The present day "Golden Age" and the future is what BioWare wanted to concentrate on in the lecture, and it's really a balance between a "pull" and "push" in the game's communication with its players. "Pull," according to Marino, is about gameplay and crafted events that pull the player through a perceived narrative.
On the other side, the "push" is when linear narrative is pushed towards the player, revealing key plot points and evoking emotional reaction. In the end, it's all about the balance -- player choice combined with cinematic reward.
Even recently, the creators at BioWare discovered how much more they can do with digital acting and emoting instead of dialog -- how a frown can communicate things where words previously had to.
Walter then explained that one of the key tenets BioWare has recently been operating on is "making sure that our characters are much more believable. One of the key things we try to do is make the characters feel like they had a purpose other than delivering information."
He also explained the evolution of storytelling, saying, "In the not too distant past we wrote [games] a lot more like a novel", in that most of the information written down was available to the player. Nowadays, we're pushing more towards a script. A lot of the words are being moved behind the scenes -- it's direction for the actors or someone like Paul."
The EA-owned developer is moving towards fewer choices in dialog which have a greater impact, and also revealed that the team is experimenting with new dialogue wheel-type technology, as most recently showcased in Mass Effect.
Walters noted he couldn't get too far into details, but indicated the team was looking at concepts like the player being able to say: "OK, I'm done; I'm out of the conversation," and not miss anything critical.
Marino then concluded by showing a set of cinematics from the Bring Down The Sky DLC for Mass Effect, showing the complex, well-acted cinematics that involve such relative innovations as killing characters during dialog trees -- rather than in combat -- and longer scenes exposing emotion between the characters, with long lenses and tight shots to convey potency.