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Tell me a Story

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

The Learning Process

When Jedi Knight was released in 1997, it became an instant classic. Finally here was a game capable of rivaling the champ of FPS games, Quake, and some might argue it had even dethroned the king. Well, I won’t call the shot here, but suffice to say I love both games. And all the kudos go to the designer on the project, Justin Chin.

They say that hindsight is 20/20, and it’s very applicable to game development. When you make a game, successful or not, you have a pretty good idea of what worked and what didn’t. I asked Justin and his peers about the learning process. What is the best thing they’ve learned from putting games together? How will it change the way they make their games?

Justin Chin: I don't think I've changed the way I do things. I'm just more experienced, and thus better able to see through problematic issues. I'll say one thing, a lot of people consider me just a story person, but I've always thought that every game doesn't need a story. Though, I also believe that every story can make a game. I can't really get into that without a lot of time and effort, but it's just something I believe.

Tim Schafer: Think about interactivity more. Try to pose the story as a sequence of events instigated by the player, instead of a sequence of scenes. With the latter method, you end up with a bunch of long, non-interactive cut-scenes. Which we always do anyway. But the goal is to bring those down over time. Hopefully, we will eventually get rid of cut-scenes all together.

Marc Laidlaw: Doing Half Life, we really had no blueprint. We just had a vision that was very hard to pin down or communicate except intuitively. Now that we have a clear, tangible sense of what this new form can do, we can continue to innovate and start feeling our way into more interesting areas.

Successful...but why?

No one can deny the overwhelming success of Half-Life. How do you know when you’re successful? When you see that big fat check arrive from the publisher. Now count the zeros at the end of the number. Do you have a nose bleed before you’re finished counting? Congrats, you’re successful. But is that all there is to it?

Where did the success come from? Was it a great story? Stunning visuals? Gameplay rock your world? I posed the question to my victims, and asked how much story attributed to the success of their games.

Marc Laidlaw: In the class of single player action games, stories have gradually become more important, but I can still easily imagine forms of single player gaming that are successful and totally addictive without much more than the most rudimentary story. From the designer’s point of view, a story helps you make all kinds of decisions about what goes in and what stays out of the game. From the player’s point of view, I guess it depends on your mood or your nature. People naturally like to be told stories. Books and movies make it as easy as possible for the story to get told. But many games make it harder than it ought to be to get sucked into a story. A bad or overly complex interface can kill a fragile thing like a story quite easily. If I have to read a 200 page user manual first, the odds are low that I’ll ever make it to the story.

Tim Schafer: How do you define success? In terms of creative success, story scores a 10. In terms of sales, I can't really prove that it has any effect at all. The benefits of having a well designed story are that the story gives you an organizational structure that segments and guides your production, and it gives you confidence that the little animation or puzzle your working on will add up to something worthwhile when it all comes together. When you're really into production, you can't see the forest through the trees, as they say, so it's nice to know that some point, somebody planned out the forest really well.

Justin Chin: Story allows the solitary person in front of their computer/console/settopbox/gameboy to experience, what some might say, an indelible element of our human psyche, the heroes journey. You can't beat that with a stick. But a bad story can kill my desire to finish a game or a good one can make me want to play again. As for the story contributing to the success of Jedi Knight, I'd say it contributed greatly to it's success, with one caveat. Those levels where awesome, they told the story just as much as any cutscene might. Mostly in a way that they TOOK you to those different worlds. I think that story development has only just begun to develop in games there is a lot more that can be done.



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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.