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Tell me a Story

By Russell "RadPipe" Lauzon
Vol. 2, Issue 9
January 24, 2000

Developing The Story

If I can borrow a line from a review plucked from the early pages of loonygames, and written by my mentor, loonyboi: “Grim Fandango's storyline, which may very well be the best I've ever seen in a PC adventure game, mixes film noir with Mexican mythology, and a definitely warped sense of humor.” He goes on to say: “What really impressed me about Grim Fandango is how...solid a game it is. The storytelling's in a class all its own,...”

Grim Fandango was designed by the same genius behind Full Throttle, another great LucasArts game. And that genius was Tim Schafer. I asked Tim and the other gents what they felt the key was to developing a story throughout a game, without having it degenerate into a mindless race of “kill, find the key”, where things such as character development and a sense of accomplishment on achieving a goal fell to the wayside.

Tim Schafer: I think the key is to not separate the story from the puzzles, or from any other part of gameplay. The story and the puzzles and the characters and the technology are all connected. The characters drive the puzzles—Manny Calavera would never kick in somebody's door, so he would have to solve several puzzles in a different way then Ben Throttle. You have to constantly ask yourself, what does this character want more than anything in the world? What would be satisfying for him or her to do? If he wants to avenge the death of his father, he can't defeat his father's murderer in a game of chess. He has to kick some serious ass. Every action has to be a wish-fulfillment for both the character AND the player. "I want to kick that door down. I want to run a night club. I want to ride a motorcycle. I want to get the girl." A good game is a long string of such wish-fulfillment's.

Marc Laidlaw: If you don’t keep touching on aspects of the story, changing and developing them in the course of the game, then you might as well not even have a story. Character is probably the hardest thing to develop in a game, especially when your “character” is nothing but a pair of eyes and some weapons. In Half Life we used the oblique strategy of having other characters talk to Gordon Freeman and openly draw conclusions about his motives and comment on his state; I hoped this would guide the player (just a bit) to feel that Gordon is changing during play. But things are still at a very primitive state. For instance, Gordon starts off with bare hands. Toward the end of the game, when he’s obviously laden with weapons, a scientist tells him, “You don’t look as if you have much trouble killing things.” Most of the techniques we take for granted in film and literature are still in very rough form at this point, or haven’t exactly found their in-game counterparts.

Justin Chin: First, I can't tell about that so called, "key", even if there is one. It's my secret sauce, and you can't have it and I'm still trying to get it to open other stuff.As for conveying information to the teammates, it's a full time job. You can't do much of anything else except that. Most designers will probably agree with that. It takes meetings with groups, individuals and good hiring. And it's turn me into a schizophrenic madman. I can only hope I do this job well. Most importantly it takes constantly reminding yourself and others what the goals are on the project, and perhaps convincing them that those goals are valid and worthwhile. A bit of self doubt is also good for keeping yourself honest, and not becoming that "rock star" thing that everyone is yapping about. Screw that, more crazy artists (that includes programmers, who I consider artists) and less attitude. No offense to people with attitude... sometimes it takes attitude to create brilliant works. See, how schizophrenic I am?


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Credits: Illustration © 2000 Durrenberger David (dines). This article is © 2000 Russell Lauzon. All other content is © 2000 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited. So don't do it, or we'll make you cry, sissy.