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 can 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 Telltale’s Director of Narrative Design, Ryan Kaufman.
Is there a secret to crafting a compelling single-player narrative?
Yes, and it’s finding a truly playable story. With Batman – The Telltale Series seasons one and two, we had a challenge. Bruce Wayne and Batman are well-known, familiar characters with pretty strict rules regarding their behavior and morality. So, if everything’s already set in stone, how do we allow players to participate in those stories and drive that narrative?
The answer is: go find the playable parts of the story. Turns out that complicated relationships with arch-nemeses are a pretty fertile ground for players to engage with the Batman mythos. You can alter those relationships pretty drastically. DC was a great and supportive partner in that they let us deviate from canon to achieve a surprising story, filled with player agency. And the occasional frappe.
Do you think single-player experiences create a better sense of immersion than multiplayer experiences?
Single-player experiences allow you to deep dive into the character you’re playing. Whether it’s Bruce Wayne or Bigby, until you’ve walked a mile in that character’s shoes, you don’t know what it’s really like. A lot of players love the visceral thrill of the action, but they squirm when it comes to making the tough choices in a Telltale story. And that’s when I truly feel you connect with the character. That’s when you understand what they’re really up against, when it comes to morality and mercy.
Have things like branching missions and multiple unique endings changed single-player game development?
Yes and no. In a way, this is what we’ve always done at Telltale. We strive to have interesting and consequential branches. With Batman: The Enemy Within in particular, we made an early commitment to really go for it. The Joker branches in Episode 5 are two separate and completely different stories, as befits his very dramatic character arc.
Are there any genres you think story doesn’t matter, or ones you think fit the goal of telling a story better than others?
Story is everywhere. It’s all around us. I don’t think any particular genre is suited to story — or not suited. You merely need a perspective… a way in. I was utterly delighted by the story in Ridiculous Fishing! Had no idea that a wacky mobile game where you use chainsaws to fish would have such a sublime, moving story.
And, as I was watching the Winter Olympics and listening to the commentators, I’m reminded again how much of the competition is, in fact, story. As humans, we crave story. That’s why narrative games will always have a place on the shelf…er, assuming there are any shelves left after everything has gone digital.
What sort of benefits do more powerful consoles and PCs offer to single-player storytellers?
The obvious thing would be to talk about high-end graphics, and realism, amazing FX, etc. And yes, that’s all true. But honestly, to me, it’s about immersion. When I play my console, it’s often late at night, lights off, house is quiet, and I can totally focus on the game. That focus allows you to become transported, to shut out the world. I do love mobile games, but I experience them in a distracted way. They compete with a million other drags on my attention. Playing on console is much more magical, somehow.
How have single-player, narrative games changed most over the last 10 years?
Sophistication in story, dialogue, and direction has become more prevalent — and even demanded! The interactive moments are scrutinized more. Players have a higher bar of expectation. They’ve developed an appetite for gray and morally ambiguous stories that challenge them as people. 10 to 15 years ago, you saw much more focus on heroic characters. Now we see people embracing complexity. You have moments where Bruce Wayne is legitimately trying to help the Joker make sense of life and love. That’s crazy!
How do you see single-player games evolving over the next 10 years?
I think two technical innovations are set to expand the kinds of single-player narrative games we’ll be seeing. First, you have technologies like VR and AR beginning to emerge and work their way into casual gamers’ hands. How will the phenomenon of Pokemon Go become a story-based experience? That’s up to the next generation of writers and designers, but clearly there’s a passion among the public for immersive and surprising new technologies.
Second, I think we will see more procedurally-generated stories, via AI actors. There was an earlier question about branching narrative. Okay, so, imagine a game where Joker’s dialogue and behavior is governed by an AI actor. Time and budget won’t be a consideration because your AI Joker can respond instantly like an improv actor to whatever the player is doing and other characters in turn reassemble themselves to support that track. The whole game is built on the principle of flexibility and branchiness.
I also think single-player games will evolve to address a much larger audience. Women, in general, are underserved by video games, so that’s a place to expand and evolve. I think the preponderance of typically “male hero” stories hasn’t really addressed a much larger audience who want different heroes, different stories, more reflective of their experiences and interests.
You also see mobile narrative games like Episode and Choices, which are so perfectly suited to their medium: on-the-go story delivery. That’s a cool innovation worth exploring. And I personally think so-called “dating sims” are poised to break out and become a much more popular genre. Romance is an incredibly powerful form of storytelling.
And Telltale, I think, will continue to evolve the techniques of interactive narrative and reach brand new audiences. There’s a real passion at this studio for story and character, and everyone’s ready to embrace new gameplay and new technologies. The next 10 years will be fascinating.