WHF is often compared to Bioshock Infinite with good reason, and while WHF has a LOT more features than Bioshock, there is one aspect that WHF lacks: story choice. Bioshock Infinite is a completely linear game but the story does include choices that doesn't affect the overall story beyond a small aesthetic change or getting/missing a powerup, and yet it's very significant.
For example, one of the first choices the player is presented within Bioshock Infinite is whether or not to harm an interracial couple which is being accosted by the crowd. You can choose to throw a baseball at the couple, throw it at the @sshole announcer, or do nothing. That's 3 choices that don't affect the overall story in any way but give the player the feeling of choice. What you decide will radically define who you are no matter what else happens
I guess what I'm asking is, can the development team please let me not be a jerk to Sally, Ollie, etc? It doesn't have to affect the storyline, just let me decide what type of person Arthur (and his friends) will become. It would make it so much easier to connect with him and the other two characters. If 3 options is too many, at least please give me a total of 2, a positive and negative. It would be massively appreciated. Arthur and his friends will still be mildly terrible people even if they treat each other fairly.
So. The lack of story choice - with the exception of Arthur's two big choices - was partly a result of bandwidth. We just didn't have enough level designers and animators to make small story choices.
However, it is crucial to the story that certain characters are terrible to certain other characters. Everyone in our world has been broken by the experiences they've had. If we let the player play these characters as less terrible, then that might come through as an idea, but it wouldn't punch you in the gut.
Bioshock Infinite kind of lets you off the hook, doesn't it? You can throw the baseball at the announcer because you're a decent non-racist person. But the truth of the situation is that lots of decent non-racist people would throw the ball at the interracial couple, because they're in the middle of a scary mob, and then feel horrible about it, and then attempt to justify their actions to themselves for the next thirty years.
Our story is about memory and denial. Those have a terrible cost. If you felt uncomfortable, well, then you entered into our story, and believed it at some level. Which is awesome, and thank you.
The irrepressible Richard Rouse III invited me to be part of his annual MIGS "Brain Dump" panel. I thought I'd post my thoughts from that here. The overall topic was "Easy to Learn, Hard to Master." I decided to talk about--
How to Suspend Disbelief.
As you probably know if you're reading this blog, in August, we shipped a game called We Happy Few. It’s set in a Britain where everyone is taking a drug called Joy to forget the terrible things they did in the War. Also the terrible things they’re going to do to you.
My job as Narrative Director is to get people emotionally engaged. Which means immersing people in a convincing world.
This turns out to be quite hard to master. It’s given me grey hair.
Making a convincing world is not easy, because the real world has bazillions of elements, while your fellow devs have to painstakingly create each object, each gesture, each activity in the world. Obviously, they want to keep things as simple as possible.
Thing is, when players meet a world that is too neat, too simple, too symmetrical, they call shenanigans.
Reality has a shape, and its shape is ... queer. Asymmetrical.
The Earth is not really the center of the Solar System.
Reality is made of temporary solutions that got potchkeyed on top of other temporary solutions, and now everything’s all stuck together, and nothing can be fixed. Reality is not the game you designed, it’s the game you shipped.
So if you want to create a reality, don't design a fish. A fish makes too much sense. Someone could have intentionally designed a fish. Instead, design a platypus.
When I was at Yale, I took a course on the Afro-Atlantic tradition. Of all the courses I ever took on screenwriting, this one, which had nothing to do with screenwriting, taught me the most about screenwriting.
In West African drumming, I learned, you don’t play the beat. You play around the beat. In West African textiles, you don’t make a perfectly symmetrical quilt. At least one of the squares is off center. Or different.
Our game worlds tend to go in the opposite direction. Everything is a little too symmetrical. Too relevant to the main character. Quest givers wait around to give you a quest. Monsters hang around for you to kill them.
The player is the center of the Solar System.
To create a convincing world, you need to create a layer of asymmetry. Of kruft. Rumple the bed so it looks slept in.
Give your non-player characters stories that the player will never know the beginning or end of. Yes, as far as game design is concerned, they’re there to give the player a quest. But they think they’re trying to settle a score, or get laid, or renovate their kitchen. The player is just an accident that got in their way.
Give your characters secrets. Hint at these secrets in their dialog, in the way they dress, in their animations, in what they clearly mean, but can’t bring themselves to say.
Let the player unravel the secrets if you have time and resources, but secrets are good even if you never reveal them. They shape the world, like whatever it is that makes that bump under the rug.
Let your world have absences: things that are so obviously missing you can’t help notice they’re not there. The adults in Wellington Wells jump in puddles and play in playgrounds. Uh, that reminds me, shouldn’t there be kids?
Let your world have mysteries. The backstory in Horizon Zero Dawn is a mystery which gives a structure to the world.
You don’t even have to resolve all the mysteries. People want to know what happened to the kids in We Happy Few. I know, but I’m not gonna tell you.
Sometimes the opposite happens. Your fellow devs will also want to add things that have nothing to do with the player, the story, or the world, because they are “cool” or “funny". Oh, God. “Cool” and “funny” are the death of a thousand cuts of immersion. Reality has an asymmetric shape, but it does have a shape. Players can tell the difference between things that happen for a hidden reason, and things that happen for no reason. One “cool” won’t kill immersion. But the world loses a bit of blood, and the players start to care a bit less, and more than anybody realizes. They will call shenanigans. In other words, the players don't know. But they know.To create a convincing world, you’ll have to kick up a fuss from time to time.
When I worked in TV and film, I used to wonder why directors were such jerks. Then I directed a bunch of short films, and there were things I knew were wrong during the shoots, and I didn’t kick up a fuss to get them fixed, because I didn’t want to be a jerk. And the films weren’t as good as I’d hoped.
You will have to piss people off from time to time.
That doesn’t mean be a jerk. You have to be passionate and convincing, but not be a jerk about it. If you do it right, people will love you even when you do piss them off.
I’ve been passionate and convincing, and I’ve been a jerk.
It helps if you don’t fight for “your” ideas. If you fight for what the game needs.
We all remember things in ways that suit us. In Arthur's playthrough, he is the hero, or the victim, of events; it's not his fault. Sally comes across as a bit of a flake, a bit of a mantrap, even though he's mad about her. But maybe he was not listening carefully, because Sally's explanations sound a whole lot more convincing in her playthrough. Sally even remembers saying some things that Arthur flat out doesn't remember."
I do think our world is grounded in some sort of honesty and reality. I think the best science fiction takes the real and pushes it further, until it can make its point. But if there’s no reality to begin with, it’s not grounded and there’s no emotional meaning. If it is grounded, it becomes clearer what you’re trying to talk about.
“What the community told us is that they liked these goofy encounters with these crazy people more than they liked the systemic situations. We said, ‘OK, we’ll write more goofy encounters then,’” said Epstein.
I think we have an organic process, so I can't speak for Guillaume (Provost), who's the studio head and the Creative Director, [but] we're a studio that has kind of a flat structure, so Guillaume hires immensely talented people like Whitney Clayton (Art Director), David Sears who did SOCOM, who is our Design Director on this game, and then, y'know, lets them rip. And it's an iterative process, so you don't want to draw up a design document and then just make that design document, you know?
“There’s a proverb that you shouldn't copy the masters — you go after what they went after,” says Alex Epstein, the Narrative Director for We Happy Few.
PC Games Insider's Alex Calvin How Compulsion developed We Happy Few on Early Access"On our forums, people were asking over and over whether there was going to be a story. We were like: "Yes, there's going to be a story. We're making the story; we're making three stories". But there's been so much vapourware in this business that people are like: 'Pull the other one'."
Q. Do you have examples of great treatments you could send me?
I don’t. I will read a great script, but I don't read other people’s treatments. Most pro writers will tell you that a treatment isn’t really a thing they like to write. It’s a step in the WGC contract, but it’s not really useful.
There are two things that look like treatments:
a. pitches b. beat sheets
A pitch is for selling. It tells the story of the movie in 3-8 pages. Shorter is better. The idea is to get someone to pay you to write the movie. Or, if someone is saying they only want to read an outline, this is what you give them. There’s a fair amount of handwaving in a pitch. You don’t have to work out every last detail. You should put lots of sizzle in a pitch. Make sure the reader knows how cool everything is. Don’t put in dialog.
A beat sheet is for the writer to write the script. Mine are usually 10-12 pages single spaced. There’s usually about 40 beats in a movie. A scene can have two beats, or a beat can comprise several scenes, in the case of an action sequence. A beat sheet can include the emotional heart of a scene, if you think you might otherwise forget. If you have much more than 45 beats, you probably have too much going on in your movie.
Once you add sluglines (EXT. IAN’S FLAT - DAY) it’s a step outline, which is just a more detailed beat sheet.
Almost no one except writers and a few directors can read a beat sheet. Producers think they know how, but they don't, and giving a beat sheet to a producer usually results in tears. It is often unavoidable though. Producers will complain that a comedy beat sheet isn’t funny, or that a horror beat sheet isn’t scary, because beat sheets don’t express style or tone or pacing or emotional well. Beat sheets are the skeleton you hang scenes on. Never give anyone a beat sheet if you can avoid it, without first telling them the story in person over lunch.
Some producers and funders (e.g. Telefilm) are now requiring a 20-page “just add water” treatment, with indicative dialog. This creature is an abomination before the Lord. To get to this thing, you have to basically do all the work of writing a script without getting paid for a script, and without any of the fun. No writer I know considers a just add water treatment to be a useful step in writing a script. I have literally written the script first and then boiled it down afterwards, because writing a script is easier and much more fun.
The best way to write a pitch is to tell the story off the top of your head, without looking at the script. Just tell it the way you’d tell a friend the story of the movie. Then punch it up. Feel free to move events around if they sound better that way.
The best way to write a beat sheet is to tell the story to anyone who’ll listen, for three months, until you’ve worked out all the kinks in your story. Then write it down.
The second best way to write a beat sheet is with index cards, on the kitchen table. That way you can move things around easily.
I’m not sure looking at other people’s treatments is useful, except to see how different they are. The key point is to remember whether you’re writing a pitch or a beat sheet. If you’re writing a beat sheet, it doesn’t matter how you write it, because it’s just a long aide-mémoire for yourself (and your writing partner if you have one). If you’re writing a pitch, it’s a sales document, so just make your movie sound as awesome as you know how.