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Posted on December 23, 2017, 12:12:52 AM by Jubal
Speech, Sound, and Storytellers: a Game Design Conundrum

Speech, Sound, and Storytellers: a Game Design Conundrum
By Jubal

As someone who both wears proverbial hats as a writer and a game designer (in a decidedly amateur context in both cases), the question of how stories can be presented in different formats is one that’s often interested me. In games, the tools we use to create and give personality to our characters are quite varied – but also may differ in form from those used by a writer or storyteller.

I do, nonetheless, think of myself in the role of storyteller when writing adventure games – or perhaps somewhere between storyteller and dungeon master, writing the story and world as the player moves through it. This, however, I suspect means that I sometimes use techniques from storytelling when others might work better. The game designer’s ability to use sound, an array of writing options, and graphical presentation to get a character’s personality over is a wide toolbox.

So many people to talk to! But how?
To take a recent example, I’ve been working and re-working my little Doctor Who adventure game, LIFE, over the course of this year. It’s an essentially complete game, I’m just trying to tinker and polish until maybe possibly hopefully it becomes a game some people feel it’s worthwhile spending the time to play. One of the major difficulties I’m finding with this is that I’m struggling – despite my theoretically larger toolset – with how to bring out the personas of the different aliens and characters the player meets.

LIFE has a predominant text based element (plus its graphics), something I feel plays fairly well to my comfort zone of writing. My tendency has been to use that as a conversation between narrator and player; the text parser feedback gives the player commentary on the effects of their actions, as well as simply reporting them, and it is certainly not above making amusingly sarcastic comments if the player’s actions merit them. I think this is definitely a feature of the game, but I’m wondering if I’ve pushed it too far when it comes to characters.

The player character is quite a blank slate, operating as a detached lone wolf rebel (but a rather less glamorous and fighty one than that term probably implies), and LIFE doesn’t have many “advanced” character relationships involved in it. As such, I’ve generally stuck to reporting conversations the way I’ve reported other actions e.g. “You ask Adrish about minerals, and he tells you that he will buy PUMICE for a billion mazumas” or whatever. This also has the advantage of making it very easy to intersperse observation into speech, which can help with giving hints to the player. What I’m trying to work out is whether these advantages are worth the less direct nature of reported speech, which I think may risk cutting the players off too much from the characters with whom they interact.

It’s worth here also addressing some of the other methods that a designer can use to bring characters across. Thanks to LIFE’s rather cranky system, there’s not a lot I can do on the graphical end: it’s hard to make pixel characters super visually expressive unless you’re a master animator. Different text effects may be do-able, but I’m not sure I have the range available to really get individual personalities working that way, and it’s worth remembering that effects that mess with text presentation can adversely affect the accessibility of the game for some users. Sound is more possible, though the primary difficulty there is that committing to a voice acting approach requires a sizeable cast to be available (and in turn restricts the scope of the game based on that). Given LIFE’s text-based nature I wouldn’t want to rely on it too heavily, either – though I do think that actual voices can work extremely well in adventure games and I’d quite like to see more properly voice-acted games  (in e.g. Yorkshire Gubbins the voices are a massive part of the atmosphere).

And so we come back to the key question of how much the game should provide a storyteller/narrator, and how much that actually interferes with the interaction between the player and their character/the game world. Whilst most games try and reduce or even destroy the position of the game as an external narrator, we should be aware of this possibility as designers, and its optimal role - especially in adventure games - is well worth considering.