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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 3 of 3

The AI Director was a major part of what made Left 4 Dead so replayable, creating new spikes in difficulty and varied enemy encounters throughout each level. It might seem like the technology could have been applied to the game's dialog system, but Valve discovered it was actually important to keep the AI Director confined to combat.

"We never link the lines to actual Director code because players play for hundreds if not thousands of hours, they would learn what those warnings meant and be tipped off to what is next," Faliszek explained. "To keep players in the world, your character only knows what you know about the creatures around them."

"We do use the Director to give us a clue on one state; what is the player’s intensity level. We often use that in conjunction with health and other states to pick a line. You can get away with saying a quiet line in a loud situation but it doesn’t work when your character is screaming at high intensity while the character is experiencing a low intensity situation."

Valve was likewise careful to not use dialog to comment too directly on player performance for fear of breaking the dramatic illusion built up with the environments and characterizations. "Guessing intent is really scary and something we try and avoid," Faliszek said.

"We also try and not break the fourth wall with dialogue, but the characters do react to friendly fire and often offer suggestions like use a health kit or pills to other players as a way to bring attention to a character state. Coach will even actually 'coach' other characters to hang in there when they are injured."

Another major concern for games that stitch together thousands and thousands of lines of dialog, plot, and characterization on the fly is how to blend lines together without them sounding disconnected. "While it may sound like fragments, we actually record various versions of a paragraph worth of text and then programmatically piece them together at run time," Faliszek said.

"If the audio is going to play right next to each other, it is always worth picking up the duplicated audio in each take just so the actor flows with the various versions. Sometimes we need to use the entire take and sometimes we can just use the various stubs. To make sure it will work we test it outside the game and then we play through with a setting to force the audio to play so we can test even the rare occurrences. For the 10,000-plus lines of dialogue in the game, I have probably heard each one 50 times by the time we ship."

Write a Reason to Care About the Rules

It has been easiest to understand game dramatics in terms of film and novel, plots and progression serving as structural pillars in between constrained arenas of play. This structure has a kind of baroque purity that distinguishes its two parts: here is the story and here is the game. While the two compliment one another, they are essentially counterpoints that must play against each other.

There is nothing inherently bad about this approach to game design, but there are many other possible forms, many of which have no particular need for story but which can still benefit from writing. In the same way that Tetris benefits from music and art even while it cannot be called a symphony or a great painting, there is a world of expressive possibility that can come from writing, even when it does not intend to be taken as a traditional story.

"We've just scratched the surface with reflecting the personality of players," said Young, regarding Madden's Twitter embellishments. "We have stories about players and teams being far apart during negotiations or players being on the trade block, things like that. There are still plenty of ways for us to expand this feature down the road by giving you a way to have a voice."

Games have the extraordinary capacity to combine all of these creative forms -- the dramatic, visual, auditory, and performative -- into an amalgamated whole. In the rush to find a set of best practices it's often forgotten that what defines "best" is relative. Instead of thinking about formal restrictions that must be adhered to, it would be more productive to imagine all the things you might do with the rich palette of tools available.

"I've always felt the strength of the game industry is the staggering amount of variety in types of games, the fact that there are games to suit every possible interest," Laidlaw said. "I've also always felt that good games can be made even better with good writing, even if that is not the game's real emphasis, and that entertaining writing is appreciated no matter where it appears."

"I never felt like we ought to work any less hard on our dialog just because the game is not a narrative one. Valve is known for creating great characters, and we didn't want to compromise any of that just because this time our characters were these tiny little critters you mostly saw in a top-down perspective."

Games do not always have to be about storytelling but it is hard to imagine them without the art of writing, from Rock Band to Wii Fit and from BioShock to Madden. Writing can help give depth and context to a system that might otherwise be a flatter and duller arrangement of rules for the purpose of determining a winner and loser. It's the human in the system who finds the distinction between winning and losing so dramatic. Writing can be a powerful tool to make that person return again and again to a game, whether it's because of the subtle encouragement of a trainer, or the arch cries of a mystical hero in the heat of combat.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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