It’s hard to match the narrative scope and immersive experience that a compelling story-driven game has over other storytelling mediums, allowing players not only to fall into the world of a well-crafted story but to experience it firsthand. These types of games can empower someone with a new perspective, or let us live a double-life as a superhero. Narrative-driven games allow us to become someone we’re not, which is perhaps the biggest reason we enjoy these experiences. Now, with the power of Xbox One X, creators are able to bring us even closer to their vision. With our Xbox One Storytellers series, we’ll sit down with some of the industry’s greatest creators to talk about the strength of storytelling within games, their inspirations, and how they see the genre growing in the years ahead. Today, we’ll be talking to Marcin Blacha, Story Director for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt at CD Projekt Red.
Is there a secret to crafting a compelling single-player narrative?
If there is one — I’d love to know it! Myself, I only know a certain set of rules on how to craft such a story. However, we can never be certain our players will end up enjoying the finished product. That’s why every launch is such an exciting moment. Still, I will attempt to point out some of the less obvious rules I’m familiar with. First of all, the best stories happen as a result of chemistry existing between characters, so always make sure to develop them in a way they feel like actual living beings who care about each other. Play off of players’ feelings as well as their intellect. You can accomplish this by creating an element of mystery, capsuled in series of emotional events. And when doing so — keep in mind you should never be afraid of invoking negative feelings in the audience. Another thing to remember is the pacing. Aim for a good balance between funny and serious situations, pure gameplay and pure storytelling.
Do you think single-player experiences create a better sense of immersion than multiplayer experiences?
Multiplayer titles offer interactions with real people who join us in the fun. Single-player games attempt to substitute them by using believable NPCs and imitate real life the best they can that way. Of course, fictional characters will never be as unpredictable and complex as real life players, but we can direct them to never step out of their role and stay an integral part of the universe. That’s not to say immersion cannot be found in multiplayer titles. It all depends on the people we play with. I have some great memories of times when I was a part of an MMO role-playing group. Engagement in single-player games just works on a different level — by providing players with interesting, authentic characters and convincing worldbuilding. And that’s not an easy task.
How do you balance your narrative goals with your gameplay goals?
This type of balance is always difficult. It’s best to set the tempo and emotions we expect out of players upfront. If we compare it to a musical piece, every tact is a set of notes — simpler elements like enemy encounters, conversations, exploration. We use these elements — our “notes” — to compose the entire song. The melody itself should be diverse but cohesive. Furthering the comparison — repetition works the same way. In game design and in music. The challenge is using it to our advantage. And once the work is done, it is time for testing, gathering feedback and fixes. Constant fixes are an inherent part of the process, up until the very launch day.
Have things like branching missions and multiple unique endings changed single-player game development?
In a sense, they already have, and players certainly enjoy them. But that’s not to say linear games will stop being developed. They’re simply easier to design. Naturally, there’s nothing wrong about a well-crafted and always unfolding storyline. However, I think we should discuss the direction in which games start to diverge instead of stating any major changes in their development. Many titles will still feature branching stories and multiple possible endings; but others will stay linear. The industry changes rapidly and thus, we now see massive followings of genres we previously considered niche. Keep in mind, there will always be trends — whether it’s open world, multiple choices with lasting consequences, or else. But games which break the current trends will still be made and those will find their audience as well.
Are there any genres you think story doesn’t matter, or ones you think fit the goal of telling a story better than others?
For a narrative designer, video game development is like the Wild West. There are things to discover, adventures and goldmines at every step. It’s a new medium, far from being fully explored. And, as it is all about experimenting and pushing the borders, there will never be a “worse” genre for a storyteller. Speaking for myself, I enjoy both gothic horror and a good comedy. Interestingly enough, video games can handle themselves outside of the rules already set by literature or movies. An excellent example of that is what we call “emergent storytelling” — stories happening purely as a result of player’s involvement in the game’s world and mechanics..
What sort of benefits do more powerful consoles and PCs offer to single-player storytellers?
Large processing power of computers and consoles mean more details in graphical fidelity, bigger worlds and more natural character animations. As a narrative designer, I use all of those in various of ways. For example; to show subtle changes in emotions via characters’ facial expressions and body language. Or to send the hero on an epic journey to the other end of the world and birth emotions in players who will then relive the same feelings of excitement they had when they read children stories about pirates and new land discoveries.
Were there any particular single-player experiences in your gaming life that inspired you to create or really struck a chord with you?
Twenty-five years ago, I tried to achieve victory in the battle of Saratoga. This resulted in my desire to learn BASIC and develop my own strategy game. Then, I found myself traversing dangerous dungeons with a group of adventurers. In order to not get lost, I kept a notebook of hand drawn maps. A memento I still have to this day, stashed next to a box of floppy disks full of Gold Box Engine modules. Later, I discovered games can be thought-provoking and tear-jerking — just like a good book. This was my turning point — I wanted to learn how to tell stories using video games. Long story short; every time a game plays on my own emotions, I want to make something like it. Or bail out and tend to lucerne instead as I doubt I’ll ever manage to craft a story as amazing as in To The Moon. For the past twenty-five years, just as I grew as a person, video games grew to become a very powerful and culture-building medium. My own imagination thrives on this spirit, pushing me to try out new things.
Is there a specific game’s single-player level or narrative moment you consider close to a perfect narrative experience?
The betrayal scene in Summoner, the changes in music in Silent Hill 2, the plot twists in Knight of the Old Republic and Planescape: Torment, the last mission of Mass Effect 2, the birth of Ezio Auditore in Assassin’s Creed II, the ending of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, attempting to call the police in Costume Quest, the satisfaction of beating the King of Shadows in Neverwinter Nights 2, the lessons about dangers of time travel learnt by the protagonist of Life is Strange… I could go on and on. Each of those times I was genuinely moved and surprised and I make conscious effort to remember all of them.
How have single-player/narrative games changed most over the last 10 years?
Ten years ago, a narrative-based video game usually meant a point and click adventure. In it, the players were also required to solve a series of puzzles, usually not even linked to the overarching story. It was a mechanic used to present players with a challenge. Currently, puzzles are secondary. Players can choose to play on the easiest of available difficulties and focus on the story without having to deal with gameplay nuances. The engagement mechanics we use now are players’ own tempo of exploration, as well as character relationships — sometimes reaching such complexity they also have to be explored. Remember though — video games aren’t just huge productions. We also play smaller-scale games on our phones and the clicker genre basically plays itself, requiring only a minimum amount of attention out of players themselves. Games aren’t a big event anymore. Not like heading out to see a movie or going to a concert. They crawled into our lives, slipped between our routines. We could even go as far as to say they became common. That’s what the current generation definitely consider them as.
How do you see single-player games evolving over the next 10 years?
They’ll develop in every possible direction. Among them, we will find both short ten-minute gems to play during a subway ride and huge productions crafted by thousands of devs. Our task will be to choose those we find most interesting and best executed.