SAN FRANCISCO--At a GDC session targeted at writers and developers today, Epic Games' Susan O'Connor drew on her own experience to offer suggestions on how to synthesize narrative and gameplay cleverly and effectively. With games like Gears of War and BioShock on her resume, the audience sat in rapt attention, hoping to learn how to leverage O'Connor's experience to the success of their own games.
O'Connor first articulated the challenges facing storytellers in the video game industry. "There's only one Marcus Fenix [the protagonist of Gears of War]," she said, "but there are three million guys playing Fenix. So you've got one hero but three million faces." The logically minded thinking of game designers, she added, is often in opposition to the truth of a story, pitting writers against developers when it comes to trimming down story content. "Logic and truth are not the same thing," O'Connor asserted, arguing that human behavior is far from logical.
So how can storytellers successfully connect with such a wide array of players and not hinder gameplay? O'Connor had three primary suggestions: mirror neurons, backstage storytelling, and the use of a throughline.
O'Connor briefly described the study that led to the discovery of mirror neurons: Monkeys were presented a pile of peanuts, and scientists noted that certain neurons that fired when the monkeys reached for the peanut also fired when someone else reached for the peanut. The relevance to game writers? Mirror neurons help players feel as if what is happening to their avatar is also happening to them.
Accordingly, O'Connor suggested, game narratives should be designed such that the player and the avatar want the same thing; the player experience and the avatar experience should match as closely as possible. For example, a noninteractive cutscene in Gears of War depicts one of Fenix's teammates being killed by an enemy boss, but Fenix is separated from his comrade by a large fire and is unable to help, being forced to defend himself from an enemy onslaught. O'Connor suggested that players might feel frustrated at their inability to interact and help, just like Fenix. Said O'Connor, "If the story mirrors the player's experience, then the story amplifies the gameplay."
But O'Connor also cited the unfortunate fact that story can hinder gameplay if the player is assaulted with narrative. She then presented her concept of backstage storytelling--telling the story in the background, in small, bite-sized chunks, early and often. The underlying idea is that the story should be told around the player, rather than to him or her. Gears of War did this effectively by communicating the majority of the narrative through fragmented radio chatter during gameplay.
Engaging in backstage storytelling, she said, renders the narrative much more portable and flexible in the likely event of game design changes, especially if the narrative is tied only minimally to the gameplay. With the story's development parallel to the gameplay, the player is less subject to extended bouts of noninteractivity (which many players find insufferable), and the story is allowed to build more naturally.
The last tool that O'Connor described as indispensable for effective storytelling is a throughline--what the story is really about, at its core. "The throughline is your story's engine," she said. "It's what pushes your story forward." She used a new favorite film of hers, Children of Men, as an example: Though its plot is about a dystopian future where humans are unable to reproduce, the throughline is a man's transformation from despair to hope. (O'Connor conceded that Gears of War didn't effectively define a throughline.) In a broader context of game design, throughlines can help the writing team maintain focus and help them make informed decisions about drafts and edits.
At its core, O'Connor's session seemed to suggest that the effectiveness of using mirror neurons, backstage storytelling, and throughlines indicates that the principles of good storytelling align perfectly with game-design practices in general. As conceptual as well as analytical tools, they can offer closer connections with players, fewer script revisions, flexibility in the face of fundamental changes to a game's design, and a strong narrative foundation for franchises.