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Storytelling Without Stories: Writing for Infinite Replayability
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Storytelling Without Stories: Writing for Infinite Replayability

September 17, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

The Computer Narrates You

For Madden NFL 13, EA Tiburon has embellished their already sprawling Superstar Mode with between-game Twitter commentary from real world sports reporters and analysts. As a simulation of a professional sport, Madden enhances its drama by attempting to mirror the post-game analysis and opinion-jockeying that accompanies the physical sport. In addition to playing for stats and league position, one feels the sting of pride when being hectored in public by a familiar persona, or else enjoys the prideful satisfaction of having made an infamous curmudgeon say something nice.

"We really wanted to capture each person’s Twitter usage accurately, so the early task was to figure out was what did each person talk about," Mike Young, Creative Director at EA Tiburon said. "Adam Schefter focuses on breaking the news about signings, trades, and things like that in a very dry way. Some personalities are opinionated about the news. Others, like Todd McShay, mostly talk about draft prospects."

"Then we had to figure out how each personality actually translates on Twitter. Do they use exclamation points, hashtags, all caps? Do they talk about a certain team more than others? Are they snarky, corny, witty? Mark Schlereth talks about his chile company all the time. Studying them really was the key to making it as authentic as possible."

With a reasonable sense of how each of these people appear through the keyhole of Twitter, the focus shifted to a question of scale, creating characterizations to address the huge number of possible situations that come up during a 30 year Superstar Mode.

"So many permutations can happen in our game, so it is a real challenge to cover all the scenarios and not be repetitive," Young said."Often we would find the real Tweets for similar situations and use that as inspiration.For example, we would see something like Curtis Martin elected to the Hall of Fame."

"Skip Bayless said 'he had to think twice' about him going into the Hall of Fame. How do we make our Skip Bayless say something like that about a similar player? When we were done with the scripts the media personalities reviewed the content and gave feedback. For a couple of the personalities we were able to show them the feature in person which really helped."

The story in a given playthrough of Superstar Mode can be almost anything: the underachiever, overachiever, the veteran who couldn't face retirement, the journeymen who went from team to team, or the mythic legend who changed the game forever. The addition of Twitter is not meant to favor one over the other but to deepen the emotional context of each choice the player makes for themselves.

"For any one event it will be factoring in a ton of criteria," Young explained. "Is the player a former high draft pick?A future Hall of Famer? Age? A starter? That way when something like an injury happens we can be pretty specific. So if the event happens to Tom Brady it will feel like a much bigger deal than if it were Kyle Orton."

"That brings to the surface things that you wouldn’t normally hear about. It makes the world feel real, the players feel special. I actually felt sad when Ray Lewis retired in the game because of how we bring it to life. Seeing the entire Twitterverse talk about his career and if he is a Hall of Famer or not makes it much bigger than a digital guy disappearing from the roster."

The Infinite Narrative Loop

Before turning its attention to the Dota revival, Valve re-conceived the multi-player FPS with the two Left 4 Dead games, combining the manic intensity of competitive shooters like Quake with the lush story atmospherics of Half-Life. The games are ideal examples of how, in moment-to-moment experience, a perpetually replayable game, multiplayer or otherwise, can be as full of drama, character, and emotion as a traditional single-player story game.

As with Dota, a huge amount of the emotion in Left 4 Dead comes from character dialogue that must both comment on the immediate objectives and hint at a larger story. "We never try and say everything in one playthrough, because we know people will play the same campaign multiple times, so we can leak out bits of story each time," Valve's Chet Faliszek said.

"For campaign specific lines, we go through the maps and mark up areas for the players to mention or to talk about. We can control the chance of them speaking when they see it and how far the player can be from the object before they speak. So for the maps of The Parish, if you get Coach close to most signs and look at it -- he will often read it. Other times you will notice, characters will talk about a plot point -- these bodies don’t look infected -- when they are in a general area."

The games' flexible approach to dialogue most not only hint at broad narrative pieces but account for momentary circumstances that aren't necessarily broad or narrative. "Other times we take that piece of data and then compare it to other data," Faliszek said. "If Nick is going to talk about a horse -- is he by the statue? Is Ellis alive? How close is Ellis? Are they out of combat? All of these conditions help control how often a campaign specific line will play. So while there may be fewer of them, the campaign specific lines end up taking the bulk of the work."

"'Clever' lines can become tiresome if you hear them too often, but if you choose to only have Nick make a comment about his suit while in one map and only 10 percent of the time -- players won’t become irritated by the line. We also always make sure the characters are saying something, if nothing else at least, 'reloading'. This gives a bed for all the lines to live in and become part of the world. That way the story points don’t stick out of the silence."

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