Game Writing

Story problems in the Witcher 3

In my video How to Write a Side Quest: Part 2, I used an example from the Witcher 3 and outlined the strengths of it and also a few weakness.

And for the most part, I was pretty positive about the game in my general thoughts and mentioned that I would not be doing a full story review of the game.

The main reason for this is the most obvious one for me – there was so much media saturation around Witcher 3’s release I didn’t think another voice screaming with/against the crowd would have been much good. It would be more like cashing in on the hype with limited information, since I did not complete the game a week after release.

And at this point, I think a short written post would achieve the most significant point I would be making in a video. I recently finished the main story (yes, it took me this long!) and there’s a couple thoughts that I wanted to monologue about. Also I understand quite clearly that what I’m about to say will probably sound like an anti-hype hipster rant. I hope you can look past that perception to what I’ve been banging on about in my videos for some time!

I think the Witcher 3 has some pretty good quests, decent dialogue and a few well written characters.

But the plot of the main story? That’s where it fell flat for me. What it boiled down to felt very simplistic and quite unfortunate. This gets pretty spoilery right now, so if you’re concerned about that then you shouldn’t be reading on.

You all have probably heard from me before I’m not a fan of world ending stories in games, because it seems to be the only story we want to tell, because huge stakes = investment right?

In many ways I imagined that the Witcher 3 might depart from a ‘generic’ storyline and go back to what makes Geralt, well, Geralt.

And I’m talking about the universe of the Witcher. Bear with me here and follow my train of thought. The emphasis in the Witcher books, or at least in the short stories were about a monster hunter. And those were always the strongest tales for me. Whereas the Witcher games are about an action-hero saving the world. Technically you can argue with me and say that Ciri was the one doing the saving, but the story by and large is told from Geralt’s point of view. Ciri may be the device used to save the world, but the getting there for us was through Geralt.

But he does a lot of monster hunting in his spare time right? And that’s the good part of the game for me. But that’s not what the story of the Witcher 3 is all about. And that saddens me.

That’s not to say that the main plot doesn’t include some pretty well done sections. The quests around the Bloody Baron and the Witches of Crookback Bog were two of the standouts for me.

Honestly the story is pretty good until Geralt finds Ciri mainly because before that, it was Geralt landing himself in various situations and having to deal with it. Once Geralt and Ciri meet around the mid-act the tone of the story changes. Instead of more personal problems between characters the emphasis shifts to global affairs and that I think is a shift that ends up hurting the story.

Let’s tangent off for a moment and think about the design of the game that may have put some pressure on how the story progressed. An open world game demands its space be used for gameplay and story. In some ways we can see this as a freeing experience. But at the same time, we are constrained to create a story and interesting experiences within a cohesive area. Instead of the well-crafted situations that lay geographically all over the place in Witcher 2 we are placed in a smaller region. Isn’t that funny to think about? That technically we see less of the world in an open world game?

I’m not saying immersion isn’t a big deal for a lot of people. Riding here and there seamlessly engaging with different people and places appeal to some. The fact that a stretch of land from quest point to quest point somehow makes us feel better about the game design does boggle me a little though.

Does that mean you can’t tell a good story within an open world? Not at all, but it makes the job a lot harder in my opinion. If I were to look at the recent Batman series, Arkham Asylum is probably the strongest story for me. And I think the reason for that comes down heavily on the design of the levels and the progression through them. Despite my problems with Dragon Age: Inquisition, you actually felt the pressure of the world and the impending threat on the continent because you saw a lot of it within large open levels.

Wait, I thought we are talking about the main quest? Indeed, and the quality of the main quest is quite dependent on how your game is designed and laid out, i.e Skyrim.

Let’s do an unfair comparison while we’re at it, shall we?

If they had just taken the short stories in Sapkowski’s book the Last Wish, produced levels for each story, have a few sidequests here and there and have a thread connecting the various stories while keeping to the heart of what the Witcher is, I honestly think it would have been a stronger and tighter story.

Instead the Witcher 3 plays it really safe. It doesn’t try and push the narrative envelope because its focus is on the ‘largest open world’ tag. It wants people to feel the sheer scope of the game by the ton of side activities, the gorgeous vistas and the explosive set pieces provided in the main story. The game is a marketing paradise.

And all this isn’t wrong to have it’s just that, for me, it was a great supporting cast of features that was missing the director.

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Story Design or Level Design?

I talked a bit about this in my Warframe Review when I said story can be woven into the design of a place. Let’s do an exercise to illustrate what I mean.

Walk into a place of some religious significance. The stained windows show a specific scene, the walls are lined with statues that refer to a specific person or persons, the mosaics are aligned in such a way to convey an image. All of this tells the story of a place whether illustrating events directly or just the emotions and feeling within a place.

You walk into a park, what do you see? Perhaps trees arranged in a way that does not seem natural. You venture a little closer. In fact these trees were planted in memory of children who had passed away due to a specific illness. All this is story.

I mentioned the Witcher 2 and Dark Souls in my videos as having great story design, and that comes down very much to how much the environments aid the stories. Dark Souls more so than the Witcher 2, since the lore of Dark Souls is almost exclusively told through the environment, just look up the Broken Statue inside the Undead Parish if you want an example of that.
With shining examples like that I think that this is a great way to tell story within an interactive medium.

So the next time you walk through a level, have a look at what was done with it. And the next time you take a walk outside, see what stories you can find!

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The Sandbox World: Expanded Thoughts

A World Done Well

I mentioned Witcher 2 as my example of a world done well, and it really is the prime example recently anyway. However I would like to give props to another game that may not have had the greatest story, indeed, the story was rather generic, but the world was a completely different beast. The game is Dishonored and I just want to take a few minutes of your time examining what it got right.
Skyrim and Oblivion served as the whipping boy in the video and I’d like to take them out again for a few more lashes. Often times the politics and racial prejudices observed in open world games are done in a rather ham fisted manner, and Skyrim and Oblivion are no exceptions. Most point to Morrowind as having done the social and political side of the world much better. In Dishonored the nebulous nature of morality and prejudice is portrayed quite well through the different locales you visit in Dunwall. The way Dishonored handled social classes and the ‘morality of technology’ was immensely interesting. Clearer examples of this would be found in some of their marketing material, the series of animated shorts, Tales from Dunwall (which I strongly suggest you watch). The world of Dishonored is not explored through its story, since the story is fairly thin and doesn’t provide anything unexpected other than introduce important characters. Instead the world is fleshed out through audio logs you find in the game, ambient dialogue and the books that you are able to read. The in-game books definitely sets the scene that this is a very small incident in a much larger scheme of things. The mythology surrounding the whales, the unexplored continent are all fantastic elements to build up this world.
Some bank on the Cthulhu style stories sometimes from the fevered writing of a forgotten explorer, others are about those delving too deep into the supernatural element which is left vague and compelling.
What Arkane has done is create such a complex and multilayered society and world that they build hype for the next game which will have most of its lore already established. Dishonored is simply a slice of this massive world. I mentioned the introduction of important characters. Most of the time these characters are only important to Dishonored and the story that it tells, but they not quite so important if you look at the world as a whole. A major exception would be the Outsider, who is very much the epitome of the supernatural in this world.
This is a great way to start off a series. You build up the world from everyday things, and sometimes everyday people, not through long monologues.
I was more than happy with the layered elements in Dishonored and hope more games follow in its footsteps.
If you’d like to see what sparked this ramble you can check out the video below!

Ur engish is wrongs

I couldn’t help that title, but let me get a few things quite clear regarding Legends of Eisenwald, and the ‘style’ of English we are aiming for.

Are we using Old English? No.
Are we using regular everyday speak? No.
Are we using the optimal way to deliver dialogue? No.

Why does it sound like this post has a history behind it? Because I’ve seen way too many comments usually saying something like ‘I don’t know anyone who talks like this’. You’re right. Neither do I. I am not trying to perfectly recreate Ivanhoe, or the modern man/woman, but I deliberately choose certain words to convey archaic dialogue. Not much fiction today when referring to the ‘old days’ will use period specific terms all the time, but some try and convey the time period through what we deem as sub-optimal language use. Some choices are deliberate, don’t necessarily assume it’s an error even though you might not personally appreciate it.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, how’s the work coming along? Quite well. I am currently occupied with a very large scenario that has some fairly neat narratives contained in it. The short stories are coming along well, and we’ll probably talk more about how that’s going to appear later on.

Hast thou questions? Verily, thou art free to ask me any questions on my twitter. Peace be unto you, and all that jazz.

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Death to Plot: Expanded Thoughts

Hi guys and gals, hope you enjoyed my recent video, and in case you didn’t check it out, I’ve linked it below.
I thought I might put together this blog post to answer a few questions you might have after watching the video.
In case you think I’m a big proponent for structured games, I assure you that this not the case at all. I enjoy and praise games that do things quite organically such as the example I mentioned (Dark Souls) as well as another example that I’ll be talking a little bit about. The Mount and Blade series.
Mount and Blade captures the plot-less game design almost perfectly. Almost.
With the exception of With Fire and Sword I consider the M&B series as a great example of a ‘true’ sandbox game. After a quick tutorial you are plonked into a world filled with characters, quests and a whole lot of bandits.
If you are unfamiliar with Mount and Blade, it’s basically a medieval mercenary/bandit/knight/king simulator. Avoid becoming king of everything, because in an almost philosophical move, a world without enemies is a dull one indeed.
The ability to ally yourself to a faction or choose to ‘be your own man’ is an experience like no other. To this day I have not found anything to the freedom that exists within M&B Warband. However like Tom and Richard said in the GDC presentation, characters are important and this is where the game falls a little short. Also the very fact that any named character in the game cannot be killed is a problem, because there is no gravitas to a battle, because you know they’ll simply come back another time.
Games are uniquely suited to allow this experience and perhaps in a way this is what Tom and Richard wanted to put forth, if only they had explained it a little better. I can definitely get behind this style of game narrative and in no way condemn non linear games. Just a bit of clarification so you don’t raise your pitchforks after watching the video!

What is this video all about?

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Yes, I haven’t put up a post in quite awhile, but there are a couple of reasons for it. The second instalment of the Daniel Roth Mysteries is eating up quite a bit of my time while working on a few other novella projects. Also Eisenwald is heating up, and a few of the short stories/scenarios I’m working on are looking quite exciting (more on that another time).
But down to the reason for this short post. As I mentioned on my twitter I’ve been getting a few questions regarding my thoughts about the game writing industry. So I was thinking about a review-style approach to critique without resorting to a traditional review. These videos are a response to those questions in a streamlined manner. Game clips might be few and far between since I’m talking about theory rather than regarding general gameplay. As to the regularity of these videos I’m not putting down a solid timeline because things could change at any time.
Well this ended up being a long rambling tweet (no wonder they have a character limit) but hopefully you enjoy the video!

Legends of Eisenwald: My Involvement

community_image_1381405533 So I haven’t really talked about the basics of what I’m doing with Eisenwald, and thought it was a good idea to finally do so. If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you would have picked up on some tweets about how Eisenwald is not a ‘translated’ work. Now those statements were born from a few things, namely a few reviews and comments people have made about the game. I totally understand the stigma surrounding a translated game and the sudden need for people to become grammar professionals overnight to highlight problems with the translation, however, I’d like to straighten out a few things, in order that people don’t get the wrong impression about the story and the English version of Eisenwald.

What do I mean that Eisenwald is not translated into English? Well, simply that. It is not a direct translation at all. Instead I take the existing story and rewrite nearly all the conversations, all the descriptions and basically all the text. Which means Eisenwald’s English version is built from the ground up.

So while I’m on the subject of my work on Eisenwald, let’s also talk about the process. How does the chain work? Well, I get sent the scripts from the team over at Aterdux and I get to work on taking the translated text and rewording it. Once I’m done with the structural edits and overall changes it gets sent to the English editor who does the line edits and proofreading. Once that’s done, it’s sent back to the team at Aterdux and then if there’s any changes or additions it’s sent back to us. Rinse, repeat.

What about mistakes? Ah, now as you know we are all human and text errors are bound to slip through here or there. And I’m no line editor, but thankfully we do have an editor looking at that to make sure that we prevent any errors from seeing the light of day. And it works, 99% of the time.

There’s something that’s not specific to game writing and that’s the fact that stylistic choices are not mistakes, even if you don’t appreciate that particular phrase or sentence. Sometimes dialogue may not seem grammatically correct, simply because it’s dialogue. There are various choices that have to be made that not everyone will agree on, but that’s just the way of it.

Why do I think that it’s such a big deal to say that Legends of Eisenwald is not a translated work? It’s a matter of perception. I don’t want people going into the game expecting mistakes, because as human nature dictates, we’ll naturally be looking for the inevitable mistake and see everything ‘stylistic’ as a mistake.

A big thanks to all the fans of the game and like them I’m looking forward to the big launch. Till then, I’ll keep writing and you keep playing!