Freedom Force Designer Diary #9

Executive producer Ken Levine explains what goes into the narrative of each character.

Entry #9 - 10/22/01

By Ken Levine
Executive Producer, Irrational Games

There's an old joke...How do you write a story for a computer game? Very, very slowly.

The past couple of weeks have been spent beating the hell out of the script, which includes the in-game dialogue, cutscene sequences, origin movies, and other narrative goodies. Times have changed since System Shock 2, where I wrote almost everything myself. Now I'm working with another writer on two games, Freedom Force and The Lost (our cool PlayStation 2 survival-horror RPG). Morgan Jaffit, a strapping young lad from Australia, has had the rather nasty task of taking my original storyline and writing a 200-or-so-page script that encompasses all the text in the actual game (not including origin sequences, which were short enough that I hogged the glory of those myself). I received the finished draft a couple of weeks ago and have been retooling it on several fronts--primarily bringing the characters into focus and serving as a second opinion on how well the script is supporting the gameplay.

MinuteMan is just one of the many colorful characters in the game.

One challenge of this process is that Morgan and I live several thousand miles apart from each other. When he's going into work in the morning, I'm going home at night. I've met him a grand total of one time (at E3), and there's very little way that the poor guy can know what I had in my head when I was breaking out the plot. Suffice it to say, I'm not particularly articulate when it comes to expressing such things. I know these characters. I know who MinuteMan is, what he likes, what he doesn't, and what he would say in any situation. However, I have no idea how to express that to another person without actually writing it myself. With two projects under way at Irrational, I haven't had the luxury of time (nor the proximity to the level building in Australia) to write the first draft of the script, so poor Morgan has to send me his draft and watch as I change this, that, and the other thing.

Coming up with a storyline for MinuteMan requires a lot of teamwork.

Here's the rub about having two offices--you've got to trust one another. Every month, the home office in Boston sends money down to the Australian office. We trust they're going to validate our faith by delivering great new builds of Freedom Force. Every month, Australia patiently responds as the Boston team--Robb Waters (Freedom Force's concept artist), Eric Brosius (Freedom Force's sound designer), and I (Freedom Force's executive producer and mensch)--pelt them with feedback, rewrites, and reconceptualizations of characters and story concepts. The fact that this works as well as it does is pretty amazing since we're literally on opposite sides of the planet.

Creating a Movie

Movies will help explain the origins of each character in Freedom Force.

Take, for example, the origin movie process. It's pretty convoluted and wacky, but it's been working well so far. And it's incredibly collaborative. First, I come up with a paragraph or two that outlines the origin story. Then Robb Waters and I talk the paragraph over and talk about visual ideas and goals--Robb goes off and pencils roughly 2-3 pages of panels. I'll take look at Robb's panels, make comments, and then decide what we agree upon and what we don't--at least until one of us convinces the other. After that, I go off and write the dialogue for the panels and put the text in this sexy database Eric Brosius made. Robb does finished pencils, inks the panels, and then colors them in Photoshop. He then adds elaborate directions on the Photoshop layers to let the guys in Australia know what he wants to have happen in the panels when they are animated. The panels usually have a dozen or more layers, which allow characters to move over the backgrounds (similar to the traditional animation process, with cels and background paintings).

Irrational Games is trying to give the game a 1960s comic book look and feel.

To record a scratch audio version of the dialogue, Eric uses team members (we will later bring in professional actors, including many who worked with us on Thief and System Shock 2) in Boston. We send the dialogue and panels to Australia. Dan Keating (formerly Lord of the Dance, now Lord of the Origin Movie) in Australia then listens to the audio and edits the storyboard Rob made using Photoshop to resize the images when necessary. Then Dan starts applying the images to some polygons in 3D Studio Max (a 3D modeling program) and roughs out the animation timing to the audio. If this looks all right, he goes through it again, filling in all the secondary movement and animation. Dan then imports the Max animation into the game and sees if anything broke along the way. When he fixes them, he sends the completed movie back to us in Boston. We take a look at it and then send notes back to Dan. He patiently makes any changes, and then sends it back to Eric for final audio and music.

The origin movies are pretty cool, and there are a whole bunch of them in the game. They really capture the early '60s feel of the game. Eric is writing custom music for each of them.

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