AUSTIN, Texas--With games such as Jade Empire, Knights of the Old Republic, and, most recently, Mass Effect to its credit, BioWare is a company that has become synonymous with reaching, intricate, and immersive storylines. However, as senior writer Mac Walters and senior cinematic designer Paul Marino put it during their session at this year's Austin Game Developers Conference today, storytelling is changing at BioWare.
According to the duo, "cinematic design" is one of the biggest changes at the company in the last five years. Simply put, cinematic design is a way for gamemakers to create interactive stories by using tried-and-true filmic precepts. To better explain this point, the pair launched into an analysis of narrative, saying first that game companies other than BioWare finally seem to be coming around to the fact that narrative can no longer be ignored, as it gives players a compelling reason to play a game.
Using Vicious Cycle's hit Puzzle Quest as an example, the duo illustrated the point that cinematic storytelling can help get the player more in touch with the gameworld. Walters noted that while the Bejeweled-style gameplay itself is quite addictive, it was the quest progression and dialogue moments that set Puzzle Quest ahead of other games of that ilk.
Breaking down BioWare's process of cinematic design, Walters noted that it is built on six fundamentals. The first is writing, which provides the dialogue as well as narrative in general. Audio--which encompasses voice work and music--then provides another immersive layer, followed by setting, or key locations in a game. Camera, which provides a filter for the scene, is an integral tool in conveying emotion, and digital actors provide yet one more layer of cinematic design, thanks to their ability to express emotion through their faces. A hallmark of BioWare storytelling, player choice rounds out the design philosophy, as it allows players to choose the parts of the narrative they want to pursue as well as how it will unfold.
Walters and Marino then delved into the history of cinematic design. In what they called The Dark Ages, this design style had its roots in writing, primarily with text-based adventures. Here, game designers relied upon the player to set the cinematic stage, filling in the blanks due to technology constraints. The highlight of The Dark Ages, for Marino and Walters at least, was an early 1990s Amiga game titled Another World (aka Out of this World). With this game, designers were just beginning to meld writing with a filmic visual style, they said.
Another World and other games like it gave rise to the early-'90s Renaissance period, in which designers began to scale back the text and convey more through technology. Examples of games that took advantage of these techniques include such classics as Myst, Wing Commander, and Rebel Assault. As Walters noted, the industry was both imitating and innovating during this period--taking sensibilities from the film world and riffing their own creations for what works well in interactive properties. Valve's Half-Life was another "watershed moment" for cinematic design, noted Walters.
The Renaissance transitioned into the period which the industry is currently in: The Golden Age. For BioWare, this period is defined by the "push" and "pull" forces, both of which are balanced on the fulcrum of the studio's six basic tenets outlined above. The pull is exerted by players, while designers and writers provide the push, a concept that the duo clarified through a variety of examples.
While designers craft and provide context for the narrative, it is the players who want to be in control of the story through the choices that they make. Gameplay then, noted Walters, combined with crafted events, is what guides the player through a narrative. However, it is the story elements imbued into the narrative by the designers that give weight to player choice and provide key plot points that evoke emotional reactions. As part of this concept, the duo said that the audience wants to play a game, while the designer wants to tell a story.
A balance also must be struck between what the audience expects and what the designer wants. While the writer may be interested in creating the best narrative, players are struck with the here and now, judging the game for whether it is drawing them in, pushing them away, or just boring them.
As for cinematic concerns, Walters noted that BioWare's philosophy has evolved to convey more emotion and less exposition, to reduce dialogue and increase emotive scenarios. "In the not too distant past, most of what we wrote was visible to the player," said Walters. "Now we push toward something like a script. A lot of the words are moved behind the scenes."
Marino then closed out the presentation, showing a variety of cutscenes from Mass Effect and its downloadable expansion, Bringing Down the Sky. The cinematic scenes portray the power of the camera, with Marino saying, "the camera is the strongest ally or weapon in our arsenal. It is a pathway to the emotions of the player." Marino also noted that it is important to use cinema as a reward, giving players the payoff of seeing a compelling scene.
In closing, the two noted that it is important to reveal the narrative in a cinematic way, but to give the player the agency to decide the outcome.