Killzone 2 screenwriter interview: cutscenes and the mature dynamic narrative
Thursday, March 26, 2009 4:51 PM
Killzone 2 screenwriter Iain Howe debates the difficulties of narrative exposition during gameplay and the failures of cutscenes in video games.
Today I bring you the second part of my interview with Ex-Guerrilla Iain Howe. The first part, where Iain talks about whether a game's narrative takes the back seat in development, can be read by following this link.
Now we've moved onto the best method of telling story during gameplay, whether a truly dynamic narrative is possible and if action games will always be subjected to hammy Hollywood storylines.
When do video games succeed in telling a convincing story? In my opinion, games like Metal Gear Solid 4, Half Life 2 and Prince of Persia succeed when they tell the story during gameplay and not cutscenes. In fact, the potential of video game story telling really struck me in the Microwave and final fight of MGS4 - the sharp cutting between gameplay was outstanding. Why can't we have more of this?
Iain: Telling story during gameplay is a dark art, I'm afraid. You can never predict that the player won't be off firing into the prone bodies of dead enemies, or worried more about shifting his inventory around, or exploring behind a pillar at the opposite end of the room or trying to find an exploit that allows him to reach an unreachable ledge.
Actually securing the player's attention and having him looking in the right direction at the right time is a matter of random chance. A truly interactive storyline is a very difficult thing, and quite wasteful of resources, as it requires you to provide assets and scripts and support for a myriad of outcomes - only one of which the player is likely to experience. Most games with a storyline need cutscenes to anchor the game's story and ensure that certain events and conversations occur outside the control of the player.
But some game's have innovated solutions to telling story during gameplay, so the dark art has solutions that have been defined. For example, Heavenly Sword embedded comic-style squares with character exposition has you played the game. The solutions are here, but many developers appear too scared to break the cutscene trend.
Iain: They're sort of solutions, but they present different problems than the tried and true model. Any time you have narrative and gameplay warring for a player's attention, nine times out of ten the player is either going to get killed absorbing the narrative, turning story development into an unwelcome nuisance, or de-focus the narrative through playing the game. As I've said, I think the ultimate solution is to somehow make the game into the narrative.
Heavy Rain is rumoured to include many narrative arcs that will result in differing endings. There's even talk of main characters dying, which would greatly impact the story. Do developers just have to take a deep breath and make the effort? Or perhaps this type of storytelling isn't even what gamers want...
Iain: There's a balance between narrative depth and narrative flexibility that has to be maintained. Major characters don't die randomly - their deaths have to be given proper meaning and, in order for the player not to find them uncomfortably jarring, they need proper foreshadowing as well. I'm not sure that a character that can be plucked easily from the story at any point, can actually be defined as being major...
Most 'multi-arc' stories actually branch and then rejoin down the line, creating a much simpler story tree than their name suggests. I'll have to see how the folks making Heavy Rain manage all their narrative arcs and their character arcs and handle having things messed with on the whim of the player before I make any judgement though.
I'm certainly in favour of the idea of dynamic storytelling, but I'm also skeptical about anyone paying the exorbitant cost of creating large sections of game that they know half of the players will never see. Whether players find the upsides overwhelming or not is a question that will be settled in the market place. Success is always emulated.
So are cutscenes really the way forward?
Iain: Without wanting to insult the dedicated people who skilfully construct the cinematics of a game like Final Fantasy or Killzone 2 - I feel cutscenes are a necessary evil, rather than the way forward. However, until we master the secrets of fitting narrative into gameplay, cutscenes are here to stay. And some of them are totally epic, poignant, exciting and dramatic to watch.
Surely your solution isn't merely making cutscenes interactive? Heavy Rain appears to be taking this route - but it looks like it'll struggle to attract or please the majority of gamers.
Iain: No, that's not the solution. Giving the player full control during a scene means that the director loses a lot of creative direction over that scene. As everyone knows, the scenes we see in film and TV are heavily scripted - what the actors say, where they stand, what they do... All of it dictated by the script and the director. We can only approach that level of control in a fixed, pre-planned, cut scene. I think the solution must lie in finding some new way of interactive storytelling.
In some games it's said that the first-person view should be retained so as to embed the player in the action, but despite this the cutscenes still show the character from a third-person view.
Iain: Remaining in First Person during the action is vital, in order to maintain that sense of context and immersion that gives the gameplay it's edge. Switching to third person is like having a guy stood next to the player with the job of poking him every five minutes and bellowing 'You're only playing a game!!' in his ear.
That said, some games do switch to third person during cutscenes to establish the idea that if he's in first person, he's in control, and if he's in third person it's time to watch the movie and take a drink of soda.
Many FPS developers say that players can get a greater connection with the playable character when everything stays in the first-person, but how can a player engage with a character when they don't see them? There aren't many films solely in first-person.
Iain: The answer to this question explains the mysterious silence of characters like Gordon Freeman and "Soap" McTavish... The theory goes that the less you show the protagonist as a character, the more you allow the player to imagine that it's them who is the protagonist.
This makes the story much more relevant to them - there's nothing worse than playing as a character you find loathsome and with whom you have no empathy. This is primarily done in Western games because, apparently, Japanese gamers prefer to play a 'cool' character than to be their own protagonist.
Do developers see video gamers as too immature to be told a mature story? Shouldn't a mature 18+ game tell a convincing and complicated story, rather than a simplistic one?
Iain: First of all, any company who despises its customers is doomed to failure. Whilst it's easy to roll your eyes at the various fanboy cliques who fight the platform wars, it's important to remember firstly how small a number of gamers they are, and also how much of it is spawned purely by mischief than real animosity.
It depends on what you mean by a complex story. Certainly a story should be convincing - and I think the Killzone 2 story certainly qualifies as that, not that I'm blowing my own trumpet, I had nothing to do with the plot of the game. A badly unprepared offensive conducted on foreign soil for poorly defined objectives and questionable morality has certainly happened in the past and could happen in the future quite plausibly.
The complexity of the story is, however, something that is limited by the amount of narrative space available. Here, games are shackled in the same way that most action films are - forced to utilize the most common of stereotypes simply because there isn't enough time to develop non-stock characters, foreshadow the coming plot and adequately showcase evolving circumstances. It's like a roller-coaster in that the more twists and turns you give it in a limited space, the more you threaten to 'throw off' the people riding it.
A story should certainly be convincing, but a game like Killzone 2 could be accused of not developing its characters or even displaying a narrative that, if stood on its own, would win awards. So are action games relegated to hammy Hollywood action plots?
Iain: Action games obviously parallel action movies - it's not surprising that a game that seeks to be the interactive equivalent of a Bruckheimer summer blockbuster shares some of the same storyline quirks.
That said, I do think narrative has to be taken more seriously. The major problem with a lot of game stories is that they get buggered about too much during the course of development as things drop into and out of the schedule. It's very common for whole levels, sections of levels, cutscenes and characters to vanish during the course of development - and often quite late in the development cycle too.
Some cuts can be made gracefully - but others leave gaping holes that have to be patched somehow - with varying degrees of success. Again we come back to the 'elephant in the drawing room' - how important, exactly, is a great story to an action game? Any extra resources committed to it have to pay dividends in terms of sales - is there a market out there for more story-oriented action games that is untapped?
Our sincere thanks go to Iain Howe for passionately entering into this narrative debate with us. We hope you enjoyed the interview (the first part can be found here) and we have many more of these in the pipeline for you to enjoy.