I’m finally getting around to writing my GDC, day 2 post. That means one step closer to returning to writing posts following my New Year’s resolution to avoid killing in video games. Don’t worry, it’s coming, I promise.
First up was a talk I was very excited for. I had seen other lectures by Anthony Burch at past GDC’s and online, and am a big fan of his presentation style. He’s the only person I know of who can maintain control over his comedic timing with a slide show.
This talk was about how through the different DLCs for Borderlands 2, they were trying to write for what the players and fan base wanted, and how they realized what that actually was vs what they said they wanted.
So initially fans claimed to want big plot points and important details of world building. But statistics show that only a fraction of players actually complete the game, and less so complete all the DLCs. So they didn’t want to include important lore details in an area where not a lot of players would actually get to see it. So instead they went for a cleaner plot, that still maintained the epic adventure quality. These DLCs did not sell as well as expected.
But the elements that clearly stuck with the fanbase in these DLCs was not the epic adventure or lore stuff, but the unique character moments. This lead into the development of the Tiny Tina DLC. While it has a lot of new content, the in canon story is that of a few people playing D&D while a little girl is sad. The complete opposite of what fans claimed to want. But it was the highest rated and made the most money.
The rest of the talk was about how clearly it’s character that really connects players with the story. But in games more so than other mediums this can be difficult. With film, comics, or prose, the writing is the first step in the development process and everything else follows its lead. This means they can be entirely character driven, where events only take place as repercussion for choices made by the characters. In game everything’s being made at the same time, and the story needs to change for various different gameplay scenarios that will arise, making it important to still have a plot to steer back towards. A level designer will walk up to the writer saying “Here’s a cool level I made, where this happens, then this happens….. so what should the story be?” And this is the way it is supposed to work, as the game needs to get made more importantly than having a story, and it needs to be a compelling gameplay experience before having a story.
That being said, one can always put elements of character within these situations, with a little creativity.
I think this got elaborated even better for me during the Q&A. Being the fan boy that I am, I asked about how the mentality in No Wrong Way to Play (a meta game blog hosted by Burch) factored into his writing for Borderlands 2. He recited an anecdote I had known all but the most important detail about. In Borderlands 2 there is a mission in which a character is names an enemy type. So the Name in the HUD for the enemy changes through out the mission, changing to “Bonerfarts” for a time before changing back to the original name. What I had not know or had forgotten was that the system for changing the enemy name had already been implemented before the mission was written. So in the same way a player utilizes the game mechanics for emergent gameplay in a meta game, he used existing game systems for emergent narrative (totally coining that term right now.)
This I think, is the unique way that game can interject creative story telling and character moments into sequences, that other mediums can’t. Their toybox is just language itself, so it ends up not being the same kind of creativity in making such moments. With game you have to work with the tools given to you, potentially making for more creative scenarios.
This talk focused primarily on gathered data showed for players confronted by binary moral choices. It essentially fell 2/3 of player followed the good track, while 1/3 followed the evil. These numbers then changed a little bit for multiple playthroughs, where players on a second playthrough were more likely to now choose the evil choices to just to see all the content they hadn’t before.
She then talked about games that were then proclaiming to be more punishing toward player choosing the evil path. It should be pretty apparent why this is a mistake. Players already are discouraged from playing that content just from their real world expectations.
The games where the numbers become much more even are those like the Telltale games, where good and evil choices aren’t as binary or highlighted as either Blue or Red. Instead they are more ambiguous. Or more interestingly, like Spec Ops: The Line, where the existence of choices aren’t portrayed to the player as clearly. An example of this is a sequence where the player is attempting to quell an angry mob. If you do nothing, they’ll attack. If you shoot at the mob they’ll stop, so this is the assumed intended action. But also, if you shoot in the air they will stop. This sounded very clever.
Essentially this talk was an interesting look into some analytics that back up the need to move away from choices of binary extremes, not from a quality position, but for the purpose of showing playing all the game’s well made content. I recommend watching this talk when It comes out, without the numbers I’m not doing it justice.
So this talk was all about how through the environment art and the level design they were able to convey a believable sense of a lived in home to the player. This was accomplished through just tons of intense research into the architectural designs and motifs, 1990’s furniture from a 1990’s Sears catalog, onsite visits to a house of the same design they wanted to mirror and a bunch of other things. I’m not going to rattle off every bit of research they did and how they used it because it’s way more enthralling to hear them do it, so do that when the opportunity arises.
The big lesson I got from this talk was just how important and beneficial it can be to have the whole team on board with trying to invoke these ideas into the game. As players won’t see a wheat door frame motif and think “Oh, wheat because the family has a history of brewing alcohol. How clever.” it’s easy to see the work as not really necessary. But the work should be done anyways, even if it is only for the satisfaction of the game makers at first. Because when that level of intent is put into the work, you will have player’s thinking “Boy does this house feel like a real place that is lived in.” and it’ll be in part thanks to those wheat door frame motifs.
Given the opportunity I would love to ask how they were able to cultivate this level of passion for seemingly banal details to then be able to really implement those details. Looking back the value in those detail are obvious, but I’d imagine at the time it could have been easy to say “Oh no one’ll notice that, so we don’t need to put that in.”
Since this was a forum, with a more open format I’m really just going to list the points I found really interesting, then maybe elaborate on them.
The first is that in a Telltale game, the characters you interactive with are the puzzles. I found this thought really interesting as it clarified more so what the designers’ roles are within the team, now that the games have now found a strong, sort of house format to follow in their game play design. I also liked this as I think it is equally as applicable in real life. I know there have been many times where I was struggling to understand what a “character” in my life was trying to accomplish with the actions they were taking, to the point that very much so it was a puzzle.
They emphasized the importance of respecting the audience but also respecting the characters. I liked this idea as it made me think of the player as the leading actor in an large stage production, where the classic saying is “there are no small parts, only small actors.”
They mentioned focusing on regret and remorse, which I think can be seen pretty apparently within the games. Most of the games exist in a world where the ramification of choices have even grander consequences so the player can’t help but think that maybe the other choice would have worked out a little bit better. That being said I’m curious how this will line up with a more kids friendly world for Minecraft: Story Mode.
This played into the idea they discussed of a shoving match between the player and the world. This I really liked as a way of interpreting how some choices within the games have much smaller impacts than expected. I mentioned in my Wolf Among Us article that in that world, no one is really likely to change their minds about Bigby just from the small time the player has with him, compared to his long life. So in this way the lack of last effect from player’s choices is believable.
The last thing was that designers also act as the player’s advocates in the development, pointing out areas in which player’s would want to have some level of control or agency there. I don’t have much to say about this one beyond that I am interested in this concept, and would love to hear about it more in depth at some point.
In addition to this, that night was alumni event for my college game major. There I was able to see friends and former classmates that I hadn’t seen since the year previous. Adam Sessler attended as well, but only stayed momentarily and I was more focused on catching up. I really enjoy going to this event hosted during GDC every year, as it really reinforces how both my friend circle and my professional industry of games are so entwined. When you have a group of best friends, former classmates, and industry colleagues all at once, it’s essentially another family.
More than once during the week my friends and I contemplated how unique it must be that we can go to our jobs, take days off of work to go to lectures about out jobs, then go home and talk about our jobs for hours. Are we only able to do so because our jobs are working with video games? Or do people in other industries enjoy there work to that same extent where they can talk about it and learn about it almost continuously?
-Eric John E