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游戏设计深潜:Mutazione的叙事设计和“多重选择”

发布时间:2020-01-15 08:51:07 Tags:,

游戏设计深潜:Mutazione的叙事设计和“多重选择”

原作者:Hannah Nicklin 译者:Vivian Xue

你好,我是Die Gute Fabrik工作室的Hannah Nicklin。我是Mutazione的叙事设计师和剧本作者,Mutazione是小镇流言蜚语与超自然力量碰撞的一个奇异肥皂剧,于2019年9月在Apple Arcade、PS4和PC平台发行。我现在是Die Gute Fabrik工作室的CEO兼主管。

在以电子游戏为主业前,我还做过编剧和戏剧制作,我博士期间的研究领域介于游戏和戏剧之间,作为对资本主义的反抗。

我从事戏剧写作,并且我认为叙事设计与戏剧中的“dramaturg”(戏剧构作师)有很强的关联性。一名dramaturg要负责审视故事的结构,以及该结构下的故事;这是一种审视叙事的系统化视角,我发现它在游戏中的应用更令人满意,游戏中存在玩家选择这个新因素,且叙事设计工具受到新的限制。

在我从事戏剧制作的早期阶段,我的创作很大程度上遵循某种形式——先确定你想讲的故事,然后寻找最佳的叙事媒介,同时严格遵照brief(大纲)的要求。我的戏剧写作注重复杂的角色刻画、华丽的对白,以及清楚何时有效地打破规则。这些为我的游戏剧情创作奠定了良好基础,我能够在项目进行到一半时加入(作家们往往在这个时候加入项目组),并重点关注工具:现有的叙事工具有哪些可供性?哪些其它的工具或特性能最有效地塑造该剧情?此外还有dramaturg对时间、结构以及赋予主题自然形成空间的特殊直觉。

顺带一提,我强烈建议游戏设计师积极寻找身边的非传统戏剧和表演活动,由此从其它媒体中得到启示,我认为这种视角对游戏制作人来说很宝贵。

词汇术语

我认为写作领域的专业词汇有时可以互换使用,从我个人的角度及经验来看,我对这些特定词汇的定义如下(其中一些是爱德华·摩根·福斯特对亚里士多德定义的,另一些是我自己的定义)::

故事(Story):你要传达的整件事(你可能把它称为角色的生活经历)。

故事世界(Story-world):脱离现实世界/实际的背景设定。

情节(Plot):按照特定时间线顺序展开的事件。

叙事(Narrative)::叙述故事的整个设计——例如,一个叙事可能包含几个交错的情节(在电视剧中,可能有情节A、情节B,以及一个贯穿整季的情节——叙事中情节顺序可能被打乱)。

叙事设计(Narrative design):游戏剧情写作的特定知识领域,包含围绕玩家交互、选择和结果、空间、具象化、游戏感受、机制及时间的设计决策,以达到叙事目的。

narrative(from storenvy)

narrative(from storenvy)

举个例子,电视剧《星际迷航:深空九号》的故事世界基于《星际迷航》宇宙。故事讲的是一群星际舰队成员试图管控一座边境太空站,它位于刚脱离殖民的社群与其前殖民者之间。情节可以概括为“酒保怀揣一个滑稽的阴谋”、“前抵抗者必须处理早先激进行为造成的道德灰色地带”以及“指挥官必须维护脆弱的和平,同时成为儿子心中的好爸爸”。 叙事指一集中场景的呈现顺序,它们描绘的画面,场景中的角色,以及角色的互动方式。

Mutazione的叙事塑造

当我开始制作Mutazione时,游戏已经开发了大约6年(尽管不是6年内一直在开发)。我拿到的brief呈现了一个完全成形的故事世界和一组角色,还有游戏的大致情节。对话树系统建好了,不过还没和游戏关联起来,大部分动画也制作完成了——这意味着我的情感表达将受到限制。

我最初是被请来审核剧情的。然而,我很快就发现游戏没有叙事结构、时间线或任何清晰、有逻辑的情节推进系统。这种系统性思考工作很适合我,于是在获得准许的情况下,我开始脱离brief的框架展开合作,很快我就被任命为游戏的剧情主管,负责叙事手段和剧情的塑造。

当时游戏的brief也发生了改变,变成基于Nils Deneken的艺术理念制作一款包含下列特征的游戏:

1. 以群戏的形式推动故事发展。
2. 肥皂剧式剧情。
3. 以一个存在超自然现象的社区为主题。
4. 基于一个成型的、仿佛早已存在的故事世界和情节。

必须承认,游戏开发过程中的许多决策是有目的性的,也有许多是过程的结果。一些过程是可控的,一些不是。直到游戏开发的最后一年,我才有权独立决定重新设计叙事结构和情节元素。

我参与叙事设计的过程情况如下:

1. 创意总监信任我的能力,把他的故事创意告诉了我,并允许我在无人监督下改良它们。(把自己的故事创意告诉他人并非小事!)
2. 我逐渐了解了叙事工具和系统,并能提出改进意见。
3. 我能够把系统结合起来,呈现一个概览(由许多电子表格和过滤函数组成)。
4. 我们做了一些删减。我爱删减。删减使你看到所有与之关联的成分,并弄清它们是否都应该被去除,以更好地服务故事。

这就是中途加入项目的工作特点,并且游戏中许多决定和选择(实际上仍处于初稿阶段)都是基于此形成的。我在其它写作领域的朋友将惊叹初稿与成品之间的相似度。

游戏类型:奇异的肥皂剧

我很早就被告知这是一款肥皂剧式的游戏。由于我遵循形式创作,我认真研究了该游戏类型,以在此框架下写作,使设计决策更好地服务于该类型。

有些玩家认为“肥皂剧”这个标签不符合游戏,因为他们觉得这是一款“好”游戏(呃,不过还是谢谢!)。在我看来类型总体上是中性的,没有好坏之分,但我明白非作家们不这么认为。这种观点不仅存在于游戏领域。在书籍、电影和电视剧中,通常只有文学著作和戏剧被视为高质量类型。浪漫主义喜剧《傲慢与偏见》通常被归为文学著作,而不是扎堆的粉红封面言情喜剧(我们需要一个历史言情喜剧类型!《仲夏夜之梦》应该归入其中!)言情喜剧和肥皂剧的共同点是,它们往往被视为“女性向”叙事(通常围绕女性角色/体验),因而被认为“质量低下”。我敢打赌很多动作电影和言情喜剧一样烂,然而尽管我们知道动作片很烂,讥讽它的人要少得多。

因此我想为肥皂剧说句话——肥皂剧不是人们通常定义的连续很长时间、由角色驱动、采用群戏方式演绎生活片段的“低质量电视剧”。肥皂剧和情景喜剧有着许多共同特点,除了一点,它们更依赖剧情而不是梗(gag)。在我看来,肥皂剧是电子游戏叙事的一种绝佳形式。

我深深感到英雄传说最适合戏剧或电影长度的题材。最长大概5-6小时。超过这个时长,主角在你心中的地位将岌岌可危,一路上遇到的其它角色也开始显得单薄。(当然,也有许多成功的例子,所有优秀的作家都能遵循或逆着形式创作——但关键在于有意识地这样做)。

从另一方面来看肥皂剧——在一款探索型而非线性“长廊”式玩法的游戏里,例如Mutazione,群戏角色将引导你去填补一个世界,使你感觉游戏世界超出了你通过玩法所接触的冰山一角。它可能会呈现A、B、C三类情节;秘密、喜剧和戏剧;通过不同角色的视角呈现,不再依靠单个角色承担所有戏份。

确定了“肥皂剧”这个类型,以及“探索+对话”的玩法形式,我坚信必须通过叙事设计,打造一个完整、似乎早已存在的世界,并使玩家在离开该世界后,仍感觉到它的存在。

每个角色都拥有一个专属地点和时间。

我刚开始参与项目时,还没有时间管理系统。大家都清楚剧情发生在不同天内,但只是简单地让时间缓慢向前推进,玩家的对话会解锁后续主线中的对话。

然而,根据brief的目标,我感觉必须改变这种设计。

规定每个角色的日常行程,将创造一种世界独立于玩家旅程之外的感觉。它还有助于我们控制节奏——创作各个角色的故事和剧情线。时间对任何故事来说都至关重要,因为我们可以通过时间呈现变化。创作群戏剧情时,我所持的一个关键原则是,所有角色都将随着发生的事件而有所改变。

我和卓越的叙事系统设计团队(Christoffer Holmgård 和Morten Mygind)及Nils合作,加上实习生Sarah Josefsen做出的极大贡献,建立起了一个更加规范化的时间系统。

按照地点和时间,故事的发展方式如下:

-游戏中一共有8天(我们也称之为8个章节),每一天由7个时段组成:黎明、早晨、中午、下午、傍晚、夜间和深夜。
-每个时段都有一个对应的“小镇日程表”,一张包含了所有游戏场景的庞大列表。然后我把“活动”(一个由1-X名角色组成的单位)安放进去,安放在场景中的一个特定地点,并为它们设定一组常规动画。
-我在Story Editor里拟好对话——玩家与某个或一群角色互动时出现的一系列选择和对话(包括交换物品等)。它清楚遇到的人物是谁,他们会说些什么。
-我把对话加入到情节线里——这样系统就能基于先前的对话、已获得的物品、花园的状态或玩家的选择控制接下来的对话(看起来像一棵逻辑树)。
-剧情线里的每个情节元素都有一个或多个时间段值——我们称它们为“绝对时间”,它规定了情节发生的时间段。例如,第三天的一个绝对时间可能是“15”。

这个设计大概在游戏发行前一年半才确定下来。加载某个场景时,系统会先查看小镇日程表,确定发生在该地点、时间、位置的活动,以及对应的1-X名角色。接着,系统会查看情节元素是否分配了对话给这些角色,若对话与剧情线逻辑无冲突,角色的头上方会冒出一个对话图标。最后,我们还为情节元素设定了优先顺序,以免出现两条不同剧情线的两个对话同时发生的情况,你可以决定哪个对话更重要。

这些意味着在一天中的任何时段,任何一个角色都只能出现在一个地点。有时可能会发生错位——但这很罕见。这意味着角色们有各自的行为习惯,他们在这个世界中的存在似乎不只是为了服务玩家。Mori中午总是在Stir Fry里上菜,Spike和Claire早晨总是在码头玩耍。

剧情线原本的时间跨度更大——对话能够发生在一天中的多个时段,甚至数天里。但改进系统时,我认为这不符合一个早已存在的世界的感觉。我决定使玩家可能错过任何情节的早期对话,只要该情节不是A情节的关键部分(情节按重要性由大到小分为A情节、B情节及C情节,游戏邦注)。此外,这使确保良好的叙事体验节奏变得容易得多,我只需要想象玩家一天中各时段经历事件的多种顺序——在一个繁忙的下午,玩家可能要完成约20-30个对话(游戏的对话总数大约750个)。

这也意味着我可以把控玩家的进度。为了使探索的自由度、完整丰富的世界、复杂的情节和线性剧情相结合,把控好游戏节奏极为关键。

节奏

决定限制时间流动后,我们使用“story beats”和“story ticks”来把控时间进度。beats是玩家进入下一个时间段必须触发的对话,ticks则基于对话的重要性被分配给对话(B类情节2个tick,C类情节1个tick,偶然情节0个tick)——ticks的目的是确保玩家在进入下个阶段前充分接收重要信息。在一天中繁忙的时段(例如,第三天中午),玩家可能需要2个beats(两个特定对话)和至少8个ticks(通过触发包含ticks的对话累积点数)来推进时间。

然而,在团队讨论中(这次增加了Doug Wilson,音频工程师以及卓越的玩法设计师),我们感到很难清楚地向玩家介绍这种时间变化机制。ticks太复杂,很难在不打破叙事节奏的前提下向玩家介绍这个概念。一旦玩家开始通过对话收集点数,玩家会把角色当成工具,而不是有思想的个体。

更直观的时间机制

因此我们决定去掉ticks,使beats对玩家来说更直观化,且与故事世界的剧情、UI层融为一体(大部分UI层是Óscar Losada设计的,Nils做了部分贡献)。

这促成了“journal”的诞生。在journal中,我们列出了所有beats——能推进时间的对话或任务(journal是主角的笔记本,相当于游戏的任务列表,游戏邦注)。为了强调时间的推进,我们改变了每个时间段最后一个beat对话的图标——当出现推进时间的对话时,它的图标会变成一个“时钟”。

游戏中的UI层指——至少对于熟悉电脑操作的人,他们很少将UI层视为故事世界的一部分,而是引导玩家游览世界的手段。太繁琐的UI会破坏游览体验,但如果设计得当,它们就像地图上的标记——透露一种确定性和目的性。时钟图标的设计意图是告知玩家他们拥有这个推进时间的工具。经过2-3个时段后,玩家会发现一些对话没有被列在journal上,这表明如果玩家想探索该时段的所有可能性,他们应该把时钟对话留到最后。

最后一项任务是为journal寻找一种“表达方式”。我们参考了许多例子,包括《奇异人生》、《林中之夜》以及当时还在开发的《无标题大鹅模拟器》的任务列表——应该采用更中庸的表达方式吗?还是凸显角色个性,并标记玩家到达过的地方?

最终我们倾向于后者。如今journal展示了玩家每个时段必须获得的beats,即主角Kai自己制定或他人交代的任务,以笔记的形式:“我想知道Miu今天心情如何”、“我答应爷爷去档案馆找Yoké拿东西”。

这些任务不是100%清晰的,例如前者需要玩家记住Miu住在Rooftop花园旁的小屋里。我们还试图展示Kai对世界规则的理解,作为对玩家的提示,以免他们尚未建立这些联系。实现这一点的主要方式是创造事件后续,使玩家出于剧情原因和工具理性返回查看journal,从而弄清Kai对所发生事件的思考(工具理性,instrumental reason,指行动只由追求功利的动机所驱使,漠视情感和精神价值,游戏邦注)。事件后续在玩家完成一个beat后出现——它们有时是帮助玩家领悟(作为一种工具),但也总是从正面或侧面刻画了角色。例如,Kai在目睹了一场分离后写下全大写的“SADFACE”(悲伤脸)。

结果:多重选择

人们对互动叙事的一个常见疑问是“选择有多重要”“它们真的重要吗?”我认为角色在游戏中所做的一切选择都是“重要的”,但玩家对选择的控制权,以及选择对后续剧情的影响,二者通常被视为叙事设计的复杂度和成就高低的评判标准。的确,许多人在评价这类游戏时,往往基于它们有多接近“真实”世界的选择和结果。

当被问到Mutazione中的选择和结局时,我更想谈游戏过程中的“多重选择”,而不是“多重结局”。创作对话时,我使用了《肯德基0号路》的选择模型——玩家可以选择角色应对情况的方式,但不能选择角色是谁。你是善于言辞的Kai?还是用一个笑话缓和情况的Kai?无论你选择哪种方式,你仍然是Kai。对话过程中你可能会得到不同的回应、记忆和故事,但它们都指向同一个结局。

与此相反的是游戏提供了众多选择,你可以选择深入哪些B类和C类情节,与哪些角色深入交流,揭开多少复杂的剧情。

这里回顾一下开头提到的brief

1. 以群戏的形式推动故事发展。
2. 肥皂剧式的剧情
3. 以一个存在超自然现象的社区为主题。
4. 基于一个成型的、仿佛早已存在的故事世界和情节。

我讨论的工具和设计决策都与这些目标相一致; 赋予角色习惯和日常行程,无论玩家是否错过了早期对话,剧情都会照常展开,这使玩家感觉该世界早已存在并且自己不是唯一主角。

肥皂剧形式得到支撑,多条剧情线得以交织,允许玩家挖掘历史并参与过去和现在的不同事件。

多重选择使我塑造了丰富而复杂的角色,角色感觉更加真实,仿佛该世界的一部分。我精心编写了对话,使每个角色拥有独特的说话方式(腔调、惯用语、风格和语气)以及成长变化的路线(不过某些角色是一成不变的)。

最后,通过采用透明的时间变化机制,并把它和自由探索广阔的环境结合起来,这样的叙事设计能够反映游戏亲近自然的主题及主要的机制玩法;Alessandro Coronas和Doug Wilson(分别负责音乐和程序工作)携手打造了一个如此美丽的魔法音乐花园。做叙事设计决策时,我将角色视为复杂、丰富且与众不同的个体。我希望玩家像遇到陌生的植物一样认识这些角色,看着他们成长,在可能的情况下照料他们,并让他们创造惊喜。

我的目标是打造一种让玩家自己选择节奏的叙事设计:他们可以推动中心剧情,也可以按自己的节奏慢慢探索、体验和发展故事。故事主题是沉重的,围绕创伤、殖民主义、不忠、衰老和疾病,但游戏常常被贴上“温和”的标签,我想这是由于玩家能够通过“多重选择”自己控制体验节奏的缘故。

但愿您在体验游戏时,感受不到这些叙事设计的存在,而是感觉自己在探索一个生机勃勃的小镇。一个在你到来前存在已久的小镇,并将在你离去后继续存在。
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Who: Hannah Nicklin, of Die Gute Fabrik

Hi, I’m Hannah Nicklin from Die Gute Fabrik. I am the narrative designer and writer for Mutazione – a mutant soap opera where small-town gossip meets the supernatural –which was released in September 2019 on Apple Arcade, PS4 and PC. I’m now CEO and studio lead of Die Gute Fabrik.

Before transitioning to video games as a main practice, I also worked as a playwright and theater-maker, and I have a PhD in the spaces between games and theater, and their uses as anti-capitalist practice.

My training is in theater-writing, and I correlate the role of narrative design very strongly to that of ‘dramaturg’ in theater. A dramaturg’s job is to look at the structure of the storytelling, and storytelling through the structure; it’s a systemic look at narrative which I find doubly satisfying as a practice in games, where player choice becomes a new factor, and narrative design tools a new limitation.

My early career practice as a theater-maker very much revolved around form-led design – finding the story you wanted to tell and then finding the best medium to tell it in, and also working tightly to brief. My theater-writing training focused on complex characterization, elegant exposition, and knowing when to break the rules usefully. This all equips me well for writing in games, as I can enter a project halfway through (as writers often have to) and be tools-focused: what are the affordances of existing tools in telling a story? What additional tool or feature would shape this storytelling most usefully? Alongside dramaturgical instincts about time, structure, and giving themes room to emerge naturally.

Parenthetically, I strongly recommend game designers seek out non-traditional theater and performance events near them as part of the work in other media that influences them, I think the perspective is really valuable for people working in games.

Vocabulary

I think specialist vocabulary around writing is sometimes thrown around a little interchangeably, so from my own perspective and learning, this is what I mean by these specific words (some of it is Aristotle by way of E. M. Forster, some of it is my own):

Story: the total thing you will communicate (you might call it the lived experience of the characters).

Story-world: relevant when the game is set somewhere other than our world/reality.

Plot: the events that you choose to show in their specific time-linear order.

Narrative: The entire design of the telling of the story – for example, a narrative can contain several intertwining plots (in TV you might have an A plot, a B plot, and a season-long Ur plot – a narrative might also tell plot elements out of sequence.)

Narrative design: The specific discipline in game-writing which encompasses the design choices around: player interaction, choice and consequence, space, embodiment, game feel, mechanics and time in order to tell the story.

As a working example: in an episode of Star Trek DS9, the story-world is that of the Star Trek universe. The story is one of a group of Starfleet employees attempting to mediate in a border-town space station between a community recently freed from occupation, and their occupiers. The plots may be ‘the barman has a comedy scheme’, ‘the previous insurgent has to tackle some of the moral grey areas of her previous activism’ and ‘the Captain has to keep the fragile peace whilst also being a good father to his son’. The narrative is the order of scenes, what they depict, who is in them, and how they interact throughout an episode.

What: Shaping the narrative of Mutazione

When I came to Mutazione (pronounced as it is in Italian [muh-taht-zee-own-ay] /mutatˈʦjoːne/) the game had been in development for around 6 years (though not all full time). As part of my brief I was presented with a fully formed story-world and set of characters, and a plot for the overall game. There was a system for writing dialogue which wasn’t yet connected to the game, and a majority of the animations were already made — meaning I had a limited palette of emotional expression.

I was initially brought on to triage the writing. It quickly became clear, however, that there wasn’t yet a plan for the structure of the storytelling, how time worked, nor any clear logic systems for progression. This kind of systemic thinking suits me and as I began to collaborate (with permission) beyond my initial brief I was soon offered the lead on shaping the means and the telling of the story at the heart of this story-driven game.

At that point the brief became to implement Nils Deneken’s artistic vision to produce a game which was:

1. Driven by an ensemble cast of characters.
2. A soap opera.
3. Centered around a theme of looking at a community aligned differently with nature.
4. Built on a clearly defined and pre-existing story-world and plot.

How & Why
It’s important to admit, I think, that as many decisions are made in game development by process as by intent. Some processes you design, some you do not. My position on the team wasn’t one where I had full license to redesign the structure of the narrative and elements of the plot until the final year of development.

My involvement with the narrative design grew as:

1. The Creative Lead built confidence in my abilities to tell his story and change them positively without his oversight (it is a lot to hand over your story to someone else!)
2. I built my knowledge of the tools and systems in place to tell the story with, and was able to ask for refinements.
3. I was able to put in place systems for overview (many spreadsheets and filter functions).
4. We made some cuts. I love cuts. A single cut can allow you to see all of the lines of intent connected to it, and understand if it all needs to come apart, to serve the story best.

This is a quality of joining a project mid-way through and is at the base of many decisions and choices present in the game, which are still effectively first draft. My writing pals in other forms would be appalled at how much first-draft makes it into the ‘finished’ game.

A mutant soap opera: genre

One of the things that was presented to me early on was that this was a soap opera. As a form-led practitioner I made careful note of the genre I was being asked to write within, and aimed to therefore make design decisions to serve this.

A few reactions to the game have focused on the ‘soap opera’ label as ‘wrong’ because they think it’s a ‘good’ game (um, thanks, though!) Genre is fairly neutral to me, on the whole, but I can understand that to non-writers, it is not. Nor is that reaction unique to games. In books, film and TV, ‘literature’ and ‘drama’ are often seen as the only place for quality. The masterful romantic comedy Pride & Prejudice is often placed in the ‘literature’ category, rather than in the reams of pink-covered rom-coms (give me a historical romcom section! File A Midsummer Night’s Dream there!) Rom-coms and soap operas share that they are typically seen as ‘feminine’ forms of storytelling (they often center female characters/experience), and therefore somehow ‘lower quality’. I would wager there are as many bad action movies as there are rom-coms, but while we might expect an action film to be trashy, far fewer people sneer.

So I’d like to stake ownership of the soap opera form – soap operas are not ‘low quality television’ they are (to my mind) defined by being long-running, character-driven, ensemble-cast, slices of life. They share a lot of their qualities with situational comedies, except they tend to be drama- rather than gag-driven. And to my mind a soap opera is an excellent form to work with in video game storytelling.

I feel strongly that the hero’s tale is a format best suited to a play or film-length story. Perhaps 5-6 hours max. After that point you will find yourself generating false jeopardy for the central character, and those around them who enable their journey will begin to feel thin. (Of course, there are examples that are successful, all good writers can work against the grain of a form as well as with it – but the key is to do so consciously).

A soap opera on the other hand – in games, and in a game with exploration rather than linear ‘corridor’ gameplay such as Mutazione – the ensemble cast allows you to fill a world, to help it feel like it exists beyond the tip of the iceberg you encounter through your gameplay. It can offer A, B and C plots; intrigue, comedy and drama; through different characters, no longer demanding one character hold it all.

The genre ‘soap opera’, and the form of the gameplay (exploration plus conversation) made me convinced that I would need to make narrative design decisions that built a world that felt like it was full, that it existed before you arrived, and would continue to exist after you left.

A place and time for everyone, for everyone a time and place

When I started on the project there was no system for managing time. There was a clear idea that there were different days in the story, but it was just imagined that time would slowly move forward, and the conversations you had would unlock ‘later’ ones in the plotline.

For the purposes of the brief, however, I felt this needed to change.

Creating routines among the characters by using specific times of day would enable a sense of a world which could be independent of the player’s journey. It would also allow us to impose pacing – to develop character journeys as well as plot lines. Time is a vital part of any story, because it affords us the ability to show change. A key principle for me in writing an ensemble-cast narrative was to have all of the characters in some way changed by the events of the story.

I worked with the excellent narrative system design team (Christoffer Holmgård and Morten Mygind) and Nils, along with some incredibly valuable work from our intern Sarah Josefsen, to create a more formal system for time in the game.

This is how the story is told in place and time:

-There are 8 ‘days’ in the game (which we also call ‘chapters’), every day is made up of 7 times of day; dawn, morning, lunch, afternoon, evening, night, and late night.
-For each of these times of day there is a ‘town schedule’ a huge list of every scene in the game. Into which I place ‘activities’ which are a unit made up of 1-X characters, placed in a particular place in a scene, with a default set of animations.
-I draft conversations in a Story Editor tool – this is the series of choices and dialogue that you have when you engage with a character or group of characters (including exchange of items, etc.). It knows who is in an encounter, and what they say.
-I place conversations in a plotline – which can gate access to a conversation based on previous conversations, inventory items, the state of a garden, or variables I have set up in several conversations. (It looks like a logic tree)
-Every plot element in a plotline has one or more times of day value it is available at – we call them ‘absolute time’ or AT, i.e. an AT from day 3 might be ‘15’.

This ‘final’ narrative design for time was probably only settled about 1.5 years before launch. When loading a scene, the game will therefore check the town schedule for activities due in that place and time and position the 1-X character(s) accordingly. The game will then check if a plot element has assigned a conversation to those characters in that time, and (if the flow of logic in the plotline makes it available) there will be a ‘conversation’ icon above the character(s’) heads. Finally, plot elements can also be assigned a priority in case two conversations from two different plotlines are possible, and you wish to say which is the more important.

All of this means that during any one time of day any one of the characters can only be in one place. They can be moved with a warp – but this is rare. This means they can develop habits, and their presence in the world feels like it doesn’t just serve the player. Mori spends her lunches serving food in the Stir Fry, or Spike and Claire always hang out by the harbor in the morning…

Plotlines originally spanned much longer periods of time – conversations were available across multiple times of day, or even multiple days. But as we refined the systems, I felt like this worked against the feeling that you were dipping into an already running stream. I decided to make it so you could miss earlier conversations in any plot that wasn’t a vital part of the A plot. It also made it much easier to make sure that you were having a well-paced narrative experience, as I only had to imagine the multiple orders in which you could experience each time of day – which could sometimes be around 20-30 conversations on a busy afternoon (there are around 750 conversations total in the game).

It also meant I could gate progress. To combine freedom of exploration, a well-developed world and fairly complex series of plots, and a strong linear understanding for the player, it was important to be able to pace through gating progress.

Pacing

After disposing of the idea of free-running time, we worked with the concept of ‘story beats’ and ‘story ticks’ to gate it. ‘Beats’ were mandatory conversations you would need to have to move on to the next time of day, and ‘ticks’ were allocated to a conversation on the basis of how substantial it was (2 ticks for a B plot, 1 for a C plot, 0 for an incidental) – the idea was that ‘ticks’ would make sure you’d got enough ‘meat’ before you moved on. During a busy time of day (lunch time day 3, for example) you may need 2 beats (2 specific convos) and at least 8 ticks to progress (points amassed from any other convo bearing ticks).

However, through discussion with the team (this time adding in Doug Wilson, audio engineer and an incredible gameplay designer/thinker), we began to feel like it was important to be as clear as possible to the player about how time worked. And that the ‘ticks’ were too complicated to communicate in a way that wouldn’t break the flow of the narrative: if you began to collect ‘points’ conversations would begin to instrumentalize rather than humanize the characters.

Making time visible

So we decided to cut the ‘ticks’ and instead work on making the beats visible to the player in a way that was both diegetic (of the story-world) and in the layer of UI (much of which was designed by GUI whiz Óscar Losada with Nils’ input).

This led to the idea of the ‘journal’. In the journal we would list the ‘beats’ – the conversations or tasks which (when completed) would move time forwards. We emphasized this with a change in the UI symbol for the ‘last’ beat conversation in a time of day – when a conversation will move time forwards it will show a ‘timer’ symbol.

The UI layer in a game is – to people literate in computers, at least – rarely seen to be a part of the story world, and instead part of the means of navigating it. Too much UI can interrupt rather than enable navigation, but when made well, UI decisions are like marking symbols on a map – they telegraph certainty and intentionality. The intention of the timer symbol is to tell the player we want to give them the tools to know when their actions will move time forward. After 2-3 times of day, the number of conversations available that aren’t listed in the journal should make it clear that if they wish to explore all the possibility space of one time of day, they should leave timer conversations to last.

The final thing was to find a ‘voice’ for the journal. We looked at a lot of examples, including Life is Strange, Night in the Woods, and the to do list from the (at that time still in progress) Untitled Goose Game – should it be closer to the neutral ‘voice’ of the UI? (i.e. this is us, the game designers, helping you navigate), or should it be a place for characterization, and marking where you’ve been?

In the end we leant towards the latter. The journal now shows the mandatory ‘beats’ for each AT in the form of notes taken by Kai about tasks which Kai has been given by herself or others. “I wonder how Miu’s feeling today” or “I promised Grandpa I’d go get something from Yoké in the Archive”.

They are not 100% transparent: the former, for example, means you need to remember that Miu lives in the hut by the Rooftop Garden. We also try and show Kai beginning to understand principles as hints to the player in case they haven’t made those connections yet. We do this primarily in the follow-ups – giving the player a diegetic as well as instrumental reason to return to the journal – to see what Kai thinks about what’s happening. The follow-ups fill out when you complete a beat – they are sometimes for realisations (still instrumental) but always partly or purely characterization. E.g. Kai writing in all-caps “SADFACE” after witnessing a breakup.

Result: Multiple middles

One of the first things you’re often asked about interactive narrative is ‘how important are the choices’, ‘do they matter?’. I’d like to think all the choices characters make in a game ‘matter’, but the amount of control you have over them, and what they in turn affect, is often seen as the sum of how complex or accomplished a piece of narrative design is. Indeed, a lot of games discourse tends towards judging the accomplishment of games on how close they get to the ‘real’ world of choice and consequence (what is that even under capitalism anyway? lol).

When asked this question with regards to Mutazione, I like to talk about the game having ‘multiple middles’ rather than ‘multiple endings’. In conversations I very much use the Kentucky Route Zero model of choice – coloring how the character plays the situation, but not letting you choose who the character is. Are you attempt-to-be-articulate Kai? Or are you diffuse-the-situation-with-a-joke Kai? Either way, you’re still Kai. The conversations branch; you might access different reactions, memories and stories; but they come to the same place at the end.

Instead there is a great deal of choice in terms of which B and C plots you dig deeper down into, who you make deeper connections with, and how much of the complex and thoroughly plotted history you uncover. Multiple middles.

To re-cap on the brief that I started with, that Mutazione is:

1. Driven by an ensemble cast of characters.
2. A soap opera.
3. Centred around a theme of looking at a community which was aligned differently with nature.
4. Built on a clearly defined and pre-existing story-world and plot.

The tools and decisions I just discussed were all tools and decisions aligned with these goals; giving characters habits and routines, constructing plots which progressed whether or not you had found the first or second conversation gave a sense of a pre-existing and alive story-world in which you weren’t the only protagonist.

The soap opera form was served by therefore being able to interweave many plotlines, and to allow the player to discover histories and participate in different dramas past and present.

The multiple middles also allowed me to build characterization which was rich and complex, meaning that the full ensemble cast felt real and a part of the texture of the place. I worked carefully in the dialogue to imbue each character with a distinct voice – from cadence, idioms, style and manner of speech – and gave each character an arc defined by time, which allowed all of them to develop and change (and as some people do, stay stubbornly the same).

And finally, in being transparent about time, and combining this with the freedom to explore Nils’ wonderful wilderness and environments the narrative design was able to reflect the theme of a closeness to nature, and the main piece of mechanical gameplay; the magical musical gardens so beautiful composed (musically and programmatically respectively) by Alessandro Coronas and Doug Wilson. I made narrative design decisions that focussed on the characters as complex, rich, and a little different for the smallness of their community. I wanted getting to know them to feel like coming across a number of new plants you’d never seen before, watching them grow, tending to them where possible, and allowing them to surprise you.

I set out to build narrative design that would allow the player to choose their own pace: to push at the central plot, or to meander, wander, and grow at their story at their own pace. The themes of the story are tough – among the everyday it deals in trauma, colonialism, infidelity, ageing and illness – but the game is often characterized as ‘gentle’, I think, because of the ‘multiple middles’ opportunity to pace your own experience.

Hopefully, as you play Mutazione, none of this narrative design will feel visible; instead it will feel like you are making your own way through a community full of life. A community that has lived long before you, and all being well, will live with you long after you leave.

Thanks for reading this Narrative Design deep dive. If you have any more questions, feel free to check in with me over on Twitter, and please do go and play the game yourself, on Apple Arcade, PS4 and PC.(source:Gamasutra)

 


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