In class four, we took a more traditional approach to narrative and looked at how narrative arcs play out across entire game storylines, and also across specific in-game plot arcs (AKA levels). We talked about what games we thought had great stories, beginning to end, including whose plots may make up for lackluster gameplay.
As a prime Mass Effect oriented example, we picked apart the Tuchanka Mission from Mass Effect 3. Staring with Priority: Palaven mission all the way to the end of Priority: Tuchanka, we looked at how each mission in this arc flowed from the last and flowed into the next. Even the side missions on Tuchanka seemed to provide crucial insights into the goings-on with Shepard’s quest to either cure the Genophage and helping the Krogan, or sabotaging the cure, aiding the Salarian Dalatrass in her attempts to crush the Krogan threat once and for all.
One of the things that we identified as a huge reason for the Tuchanka mission’s success is how it interfaces with A) character, B) plot, and C) Lore. With characters, we are treated not only to a deeper understanding of side figures such as Primarch Victus. We understand, through the side mission to rescue his son, how much Victus’s choice to take up the leadership of the Turians has cost him. We better understand the sacrifices a leader must make in order to get the job done, foreshadowing the hardships Shepard will face down the road. We also see characters from all three games working together. Mordin and Wrex’s partnership establish a sort of parallax action that simulates plot development in the universe besides Shepard’s story.
The plot is revved up significantly with the Tuchanka mission, as we see three homeworlds (Palaven, Sur’Kesh, and Tuchanka) under attack by either Reaper or Cerberus forces. We see the stakes of the overarching conflict first hand, while at the same time forging the nucleus of the galactic army that will stand behind Shepard against the Reapers.
Finally, a great amount of Mass Effect lore is accessed, bringing a centuries old conflict surrouding the original Genophage into the present time. We get an understanding of the ages old feuds between the Turians, Salarians, and Krogan. Using lore in this way makes the player feel like he or she is in a fully realized world.
In the next class, we will be tackling what you’ve all been waiting for. The ending to Mass Effect 3. Was it effective? Was it not?
Hold the Line: http://www.holdtheline.com/
Retake Mass Effect: http://retakemasseffect.tumblr.com/
Retake Mass Effect Data Cache: http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/355/index/9851623/1
Indoctrination Theory Documentary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=caAqFFhBn2U
Gamasutra article, “Sad ending: Is good storytelling at odds with ‘winning’?”: http://gamasutra.com/view/news/177004/Sad_ending_Is_good_storytelling_at_odds_with_winning.php#.UEjxdTDC9c4
Bookends of Destruction (in-depth analysis of Mass Effect 3 ending): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iiN8gL40d84
About the fan uprising against perceived wrongdoings by game producers: http://www.puresophistry.com/2012/04/09/big-news-from-retakeme3-save-point-extended-cut-and-retakegaming/
Selected articles by journalists:
Reviewer Roundtable on Mass Effect 3 at The Verge: http://www.theverge.com/gaming/2012/3/26/2898253/mass-effect-3-ending-talk
About Gaming Journalist reaction to Retake movement: http://thegaminggang.com/2012/03/igns-colin-moriarty-tells-mass-effect-3-dissenters-where-to-get-off/
In Class Three, we talked about how to structure game mechanics, including character choice, on a micro scale—how player choices can fan out and collapse to fit into the overall story of a game.
Pic from http://masseffect-caps.tumblr.com
In Class Four, we look at just how one structures a game’s overall story. For those who have taken fiction writing classes before, some of this will seem familiar. That is because the fundamentals of narrative storytelling—including rising and falling action, climax, and resolution. While there are many different methods of structuring narrative (and many methods of structuring non-narrative/experimental stories), the one that is used most often by story-based video games (and movies) is that of the dramatic arc, best detailed using Freytag’s Triangle:
Using this diagram as a model, we will look into how the first major movement in Mass Effect 3, culminating in the cure for Genophage virus, is a prime example of how to structure a major narrative movement. But more than that, many parts that make up Priority: Palaven, Priority: Sur’Kesh, and Priority: Tuchanka, provide narrative binds, narrative closure, and narrative seeds that both come from previous games and help build to Mass Effect 3’s endgame.
Interview with John Dombrow: http://blog.bioware.com/2012/04/02/interview-with-senior-writer-john-dombrow/
Electric Hydra’s six part podcast feature on Mass Effect: http://electrichydra.com/2012/03/15/81-mass-effect-diaries-5/
Hello, all. In class three, we discussed how storytelling gets done in video games—basically how events (especially those involving character choice) are arranged and ordered in order to create the fabric of a narrative.
First, we asked ourselves the question, “What exactly is a plot”? Some answers included key words like conflict, character development, rising action/tension, and resolution. These are all things that are key to not only video games, but stories in general. One aspect of video game plots that came to the forefront of our discussion was the notion of player choice determining the course of the story told. Indeed, player choice was one of the main features touted by Mass Effect’s creators. The writers wanted to present the player a set of options that made them feel like it was not only Shepard’s story, but their own.
We talked about how one can look at a certain scenario and then derive a set of choices that a character may choose, depending, of course, on who the character is, what resources he or she has, and what knowledge he or she may have uncovered on her quest.
The issue for the writer becomes the balance between giving a player a sense of freedom without allowing for the story to unravel. In short, how do you present a true choice to the player that still will get him or her to a certain funneled waypoint (or end point)?
One of the ways that we tried to tackle this question was to look at Bioware’s schematic for the Mass Effect 2 Suicide Mission:
An interesting comment that many students conveyed is that despite knowing the prescribed outcomes and the techniques to reach the optimal end, some would still choose non-optimal choices, depending on the character they are playing and their relationships to their crewmates. For example someone playing a Shepard who had romantic feelings toward Miranda may choose her to be the key biotic providing the shield to protect against Collector swarms. Even though this may end up with character deaths, it may still ring true to some players, and therefore be what they pick even if the results are negative.
One of the strongest points in Mass Effect is in how it offers the option of failure without inducing a game fail state. Sure, crewmates might die, and victories may be pyrrhic, but if it rings true to the character, it can still be rewarding. That’s why it retains such staying power with its players, and why it supports multiple playthroughs.
Finally, we tried our hand at a bit of scenario building ourselves and saw both how choices presented to a player can be drawn from aspects of character and setting. We also saw how opportunities can arise to bring disparate choices into nexus points that allow for the continuance of a single narrative throughline.
Once again, I thank you for your enthusiam and insight in class. Next week we have off, so the next class will be on November 27. For next class, we’re going to take a magnifying glass to one of the most impactful missions in any of the three games: the Tuchanka mission from Mass Effect 3. We’ll talk about why it worked so well, and why some other missions didn’t work.
The third class concentrates on the events depicted in Mass Effect 2, focusing on the leaps in storytelling technique from the first game to the second. Again, Shepard’s crew will be discussed, as well as the choices Shepard makes. Special emphasis will be given to how the choices in the first game affect outcomes in the second, as this is a landmark achievement in video games—every major choice, and many minor choices, made in one game gets catalogued and directly leads to consequences in the next. Students will discuss how the carry-through of consequences affects their feelings toward their main characters and toward the Mass Effect universe in general.
Students will discuss the different kinds of branching narrative structures that video games have thus far used to construct their stories. Then the class will go over the complex matrix of choices and outcomes that makes up the endgame “Suicide Mission” of Mass Effect 2, including the production ramifications on giving such a wide range of choices to players.
Sci vs. Fi: Mass Effect 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqEySWgaI1c&feature=results_video&playnext=1&list=PL5E4BA77EEBE853C0 (multiple parts)
Gamasutra article on “The Perception of Interactivity”: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/167963/Opinion_The_perception_of_interactivity.php?
The decision making system at work: http://www.dwrl.utexas.edu/content/usingmass_effect_to_teach
Detailed explanation of Mass Effect 2’s endgame (called “the Suicide Mission”): http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/105/index/5855452/1
Electric Hydra’s six part podcast feature on Mass Effect:
For Class Two, we concentrated on looking at how characters shape stories in games. We started by going over some of our favorite Mass Effect characters and why they remain our favorites. Many agreed that the reasons for some characters being their favorite were myriad. Some pointed to great gameplay aspects, such as Legion’s tech abilities or Wrex’s handy combo of health regeneration, damage (thanks to his shotgun affinity), and biotics.
More often brought up were the character aspects inherent in the story. Mordin was a favorite not only because his character defied expections—no one pegs a serious Salarian doctor for also being a showtune fan—but also because his dialogue tree was very easy to open up. He often was given new things to say after, and even during, several missions. Garrus was one of the characters who showed character change and progression from the first game, through the second, and into the third. In many cases, the fact that the characters changed alongside Shepard from game to game allowed the universe and playing experience to feel much more organic, much more real.
Finally, the trilogy’s romances were brought up, with the caveat that it was a shame so much of certain characters’ content was locked up unless you pursued a romance with them. Jack certainly fits this description, as some in the class hailed her character development in Mass Effect 3 as touching, and others simply dismissed her as a prototypical angsty teen.
We all agreed that the characters in Mass Effect were one of the aspects that very much differentiated these games from others. So much care went into bringing them to life—from animation, to voice acting, to character arc—that they became more than just cannon fodder. They became integral parts to the playing experience.
For the second half of the class, we returned to our in-class world that we detailed in Class One (still without a name, all suggestions certainly welcome). Recall that the world was a post-civilization jungle version of Earth in which most aspects of civilization had become overgrown after a world-shattering cataclysm (whose aspects are not entirely known to the planet’s remaining human population). The small remnant of humanity has banded together to not only survive, but to find out about the world as it once was—the world that had been forgotten through the ages.
This week, we attempted to flesh out what kind of character would live and work in such a setting. We started big by trying to detail the protagonist, the character that the player would control. Using a character-building organizer, we filled in some details about the character’s main disposition and outward appearance (that being a “normal person,” respective to that world), a guiding “alignment” principle (Chaotic Good), and some of the special abilities this character would have that affects gameplay (climbing).
This last character aspect was particularly illuminating, as it sparked a long conversation about world-building and gameplay design. Indeed, if the setting allowed for high skyscrapers to be taken over by jungles, and for resources to be located in remote situations and locations, perhaps a climbing mechanic would become central to gameplay overall in vertically constructed levels (as opposed to the standard horizontal corridor construction found in most first/third person games). This led to discussing other gameplay aspects, such as climing implements, the impact of armor, and the notion of tactics in a 3D space. This process really showed how, just like overt universe-building, all manner of gameplay aspects can come from the character-building process.
All in all, it was a great class and great conversation. I’m looking forward to next week, when we talk about plot and level design. Next week, we focus on Mass Effect 2 and attempt to deconstruct the “Suicide Mission” at the end.
See you then!
This class session concentrates on the events depicted in Mass Effect 1, focusing on the various characters that make up Commander Shepard’s crew, on the Reapers as the existential/ineffable threat, and on chief antagonist Saren as a complex foil for Commander Shepard. Students will weigh in on how they felt about the revolutionary (at the time) branching decision making system, which decisions they felt were the most difficult in the game, and which ones resonated with them the most.
Special focus will be given to the character of Saren, ME1’s principle antagonist. As video game villains go, he is one of the more dynamic personas, a renegade version of the player’s own Commander Shepard. Students will be asked how Saren struck them, and whether they thought he expressed a range of emotions or was more like the standard supervillain. The class will also contrast Saren with the Reapers and discuss how Saren is in many ways more effective as an antagonist than the true villain of the game, the sentient starship, Sovereign. In general, the class will explore the make-up of a good villain and how they are juxtaposed against, and made parallel to, the principal protagonists.
The second half of class will have us exploring just what it takes to not only create a robust character, but what details are necessary to flesh out in order to best equip game designers, programmers, and audio directors with the information they can use to bring that character to life. Detailing the characters as much as possible, and making unorthodox choices about those characters, makes for unique interactions and an overall unique and dynamic world.
Resources to read/view/listen to:
Sci vs. Fi: Mass Effect: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIwYYtI5Np0 (also available on Xbox Live as free download)
Games developers often use the Alignment System from First Edition Dungeons and Dragons as shorthand for a basic character personality:
Electric Hydra’s six part podcast feature on Mass Effect:
Thank you all for a rousing class! I hope that you found the universe-building session illuminating and inspiring. Such brainstorming activities are great for teasing details out of your head and onto paper or your computer. I wanted to post this debrief to go over the results of our session because I wanted to use it as a reference for future writing exercises.
We started out with a basic genre premise, that being “sci-fi game.” And filled details out from there. Some details we added were that this game world would take place in a post-apocalypse, but not your typical desert wasteland (a la, um, Wasteland). This would be a world where nature has grown to reclaim much of the land that civilization had paved over and bulldozed. Descendents of animals once kept in zoos now roam free in wild packs around the countryside.
What caused this calamity? Some conjecture that it was a result of a dramatic climate shift. Others think an asteroid crashed on the planet and altered the landscape forever. Still others view man’s fate as the inevitable result of total societal collapse. No one knows for sure. What is sure is that humankind, perhaps for the first time ever, is united in a singular pursuit to survive and re-establish itself in a more natural conscientious role as the prime species on Earth.
The player’s role is one of exploration and adventure. He/She, armed with wits, unconventional/recovered weaponry, and not a small amount of derring-do, has been tasked to perform one of society’s most important jobs: recovering the past. By uncovering old troves of books (libraries) and technology (factories, plants, or even retail stores), the player tries to uncover the truth about the distant past. But is the truth one worth finding? Will the player discover something that could shake this new, fragile society?
For Class 2, I’d like you simply to think about what kinds of characters would populate a world like this. Who would the hero be, if you could choose? Who might possible antagonists be, and why are they so antagonistic? Any ideas on possible enemies or obstacles that may get in the hero’s way?
These are all questions that have to do with our Week 2 topic, characters. In the first half of class, we’re going to take some time to discuss our favorite characters from Mass Effect, with a highlight on Saren Arterius. Then in the second half, we’ll discuss how to go about making characters that are interesting, and how to detail characters so that programmers, designers, and audio directors can make that character come to life on the screen.
Also, please feel free to use the comments on these posts to add and discuss anything about the class, including exchanging ideas about possible game worlds/characters. That’s what this space is for, so use it if you’re so inclined.
See you next week!
Mass Effect is certainly one of the more notable efforts to get more storytelling into video games. But by no means is it the first or only time game developers have tried this. As far back as Adventure for the Atari 2600, games have had some sort of narrative to go with the bleeps the sweeps and the creeps. This first week will begin with a discussion about your experiences with video game storytelling in general. What games have really inspired you not only with action, but with characterization, plot, and drama? What heroes and villains have stuck with you?
This week, we’ll also put our money where our mouths are. It’s easy to be an armchair developer criticizing a game writer. But what if it’s you that has to create a world? What if it is you who is responsible for what a player will experience? We’re going to get a taste of that responsibility when we dive head-long into world-building ourselves.
Here are some links to get your mental juices flowing:
History of video games: http://www.pbs.org/kcts/videogamerevolution/history/
Games telling stories?: http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/juul-gts/
Sierra On-Line information: http://www.sierragamers.com/
LucasArts information: http://www.lucasarts.com/
Bioware information: http://www.bioware.com/
Mass Effect 1 previews: http://masseffect.bioware.com/me1/gallery/index.html
Interview with Casey Hudson on Mass Effect concept: http://xbox360.ign.com/articles/756/756883p1.html
Video game development process: http://www.gamedev.net/page/resources/_/creative/game-design/the-game-design-process-r273
The Doom Bible: http://5years.doomworld.com/doombible/
World Building Discussions on TVTropes.Org: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/conversations.php?topic=00000000000000000000026g
The Self, Presence and Storytelling by Thomas Grip of frictionalgames.com: http://unbirthgame.com/TheSelfPresenceStorytelling.pdf
Storytelling in Games (IGN): http://www.ign.com/articles/2011/05/30/storytelling-in-games-part-1-the-past-and-present
Alright, folks. This is it. The first post (well second). But the first one that matters. If you’re reading this, you’re most likely enrolled in a class on Mass Effect. Congratulations. You’re one of the cool kids. Didn’t think it would be that easy, did you? Well it was.
Now you gotta prove it.
Don’t worry. It’ll be fun. Here are a few things that you’ll need to know.
Class Goals: This class is part study of Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy of video games, part beginner’s exploration into the basics of video game writing, and part experiment in multimedia education. The goal of this class is to show how Mass Effect and games like it (Mass Effect being the most visible) have fundamentally changed the possibilities writers have to express their stories. As one of the first video game series to establish a tight, coherent universe, Mass Effect hopefully will engender further inroads into immersive and interactive storytelling.
Each class session is separated into two distinct parts.
The first part of each class session will be a directed class discussion about specific elements in each game that stand out as vital for writers looking to create branching, interactive narratives. Many times, these will be concerns similar to those that apply to prose writers (e.g., characterization, plot momentum). Other times, these will be concerns arising out of the medium (character choice, negotiating a narratively empowered fandom).
The second part of each class session encompasses a writing (sometimes individual, sometimes group) activity geared to get students into the mindset of a video game designer. Students will use world and character building templates, branching narrative flow charts, and other graphic organizers that designers themselves use to flesh out games. These writing activities are based on game design templates used by real game designers.
Online Component: As well as the in-class experience, the class features an online component. In addition to the materials students will receive in class, they can augment their understanding of the weekly class’s discussion and exercise by reading articles and viewing videos posted on the class website (http://calibrations.tumblr.com/). The tumblr site will be updated a few days BEFORE each class to give students opportunity to read/view the content. Students will be encouraged to continue the conversation online AFTER each class using the tumblr site’s comment feature.
Hi. Nice to meet you. My name is Reinhardt Suarez, and I am an editor and writer based in the Twin Cities, Minnesota area. I’ve been published in a few small arenas (short stories, essays, and in an upcoming graphic novel anthology), but the great majority of my printed work can be found as sparkling text in other people’s books, articles, and the whatnot.
This tumblr is a supplementary site for the class, “Writing the Video Game Narrative: Mass Effect,” October 2012, at the Loft Literary Center. This class is part study of Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy of video games, part beginner’s exploration into the basics of video game writing, and part experiment in multimedia education.
On this tumblr, students will be able to access all suggested class readings and activities, as well as links to essays and videos that augment the discussions and lessons we engage in as a class. As well, it functions as an online discussion space for questions, comments, and insights that students have outside of class.
The goal of this class is to show how Mass Effect has fundamentally changed the possibilities writers have to express their stories. As one of the first video game series to establish a tight, coherent universe, Mass Effect hopefully will engender further inroads into immersive and interactive storytelling.