Narrative Design/Backbone Thoughts for Unwinnable

The lovely folks at Unwinnable interviewed – us for the second time! – about Backbone as part of their coverage of LudoNarracon. 

Below is the section I answered about the difference between narrative design and game writing, along with some thoughts on the art/story process and relationship, and a few other bits.

A.W.: You mentioned narrative design and writing before. What’s the difference between the two?

Danny Wadeson: This is a great question, and it deserves a whole discussion. I’ll try to summarise. A writer deals with story, characters, and sentences — and often with how a conversation flows, and branches. They should think about [the] character’s tone of voice, conveying information, emotion, and they should do so in as efficient a way as possible.

A narrative designer is ideally a nexus of storytelling within a team. Whatever the exact hierarchy — whether the narrative designer is coming up with the story, or taking direction from a game/creative director — they are responsible for working with the other departments to convey, champion, and implement that vision. However, they should also be listening to each department’s production concerns, in case a simple narrative tweak can solve production roadblocks.

Of course there are often overlaps, but those are the main differences. A writer is a storyteller, first and foremost. A narrative designer is a technically minded vision holder and communicator.

A.W.: How have you approached story and characterization in Backbone?

D.W.: The short answer is that, the story hinges on a subject close to both their hearts — that of entrenched power structures and the oppression that stems from them.

We have a few different narrative design pillars, some of which are spoilery, but the thing that unifies our approach, the lens we look at everything through, is: what is this character’s velocity? How has their struggle with/in society informed who they are, what they want, and where they’re going?

As for the overall story, we take pains to ensure that the motivation of Howard, our protagonist, is highly believable and logical. That is not to say it’s predictable. We try hard to ensure that Howard and the player’s motivations align — and though the story may be surprising, it should feel somewhat inevitable. We want to tell a story that is powerful and unapologetic — the kind of story that only our game and our team can tell. It may not always be pretty, but it will feel authentic.

We also agonised for a long time over the ending. Many games — indeed, media in general — forget that a bad ending can tarnish everything that led up to it. A great ending must not trick the player; it must irrevocably alter their perspective, and show them what effect their actions have — or have not — had on the world around them. And it must offer both closure and a glimpse into the future — what great work is yet to be done?

It’s hard.

A.W.: What about worldbuilding and lore?

D.W.: As above, mostly. Worldbuilding and lore crafting are often asked and debated questions, and rightly so. In some genres of game, such as open world RPGs, or fantasy/sci-fi settings, worldbuilding is more important as you do not have the schemas of ‘the real world’ to fall back on. [But] we’re telling a story that, although is obviously not realistic, still functions on realistic rules. The setting is an authentic (but again, not slavishly realistic) version of Vancouver. Our lore is political, and socio-economical. Our lore is the recent history of character relationships and class struggle.

To put it another way — we want this game to create compelling lore for the franchise. But of course, there are secrets to our universe to be uncovered as you play, some of which may have obliquely set events of the game in motion.

A.W.: Does Backbone’s art ever inspire the writing or narrative design? Or do writing and narrative design normally wrap up before art is made?

D.W.: It’s an iterative process. We find our artists function best when they have some narrative guidance, but we’re lucky enough that they’re so incredible, their designs often then influence how we think about that character’s tone of voice or motivation. So of course there needs to be a critical mass of narrative before art is started, but as much as possible we intertwine the two — this helps create a virtuous cycle and hopefully cements the cohesiveness of our storytelling.

It also leads to some unexpected eureka moments, which is always refreshing!

Why E=mc² Proves You Need a Writing Partner.

Einstein’s theory of relativity is well known, but often misunderstood. And I think it’s the perfect framework to describe why having a creative partner is so valuable.

One way of looking at the famous equation is that, because the speed of light (c) is fixed within any frame of reference moving at a constant velocity, there is no fixed perspective that one can measure the physical laws with total accuracy.

So why should we expect to have the perfect perspective on a story idea all by ourselves?

Galileo – whose ideas Einstein revived with his theory – posited a thought experiment. A person is travelling below decks on a boat, and they drop a ball. They observe the ball dropping downwards of course, and they know intellectually that they are moving forward, but it cannot be observed. A fish, stationary in the water outside the boat, will not observe the ball dropping, but in that same time-frame, it could observe the ship moving laterally. Indeed, if the ship was transparent, the fish would be able to observe the ball travelling with velocity while being acted on by gravity.

So, E(nergy) = mass x speed of light squared. Let’s say energy refers to storytelling energy and Mass represents your ideas, or work. Put simply, no matter how much creative energy you produce, it will always be the case that you can’t viscerally feel with perfect accuracy where that energy will end up. With another observer – or a creative partner – you can course correct.

Let’s shift away from the metaphor – which, funnily enough, I know my writing partner Alex would hate. This mental model may sound obvious, but all I can say is I’ve grappled with the quandary of how authoritative to try and be with my ideas in the past. You’re the writer/narrative designer after all, you’re supposed to know best. And storytelling is so subjective – how do you know you know best, or which idea is going to resonate with audiences more?

This model and these questions feed into another saying I find myself reusing: ‘every writer deserves an editor.’ And by extension, every idea needs an editor, and every editor needs an editor. This model  has helped me fully come to terms with expecting my ideas to be audited and edited, to be looked at through new (and preferably contrasting)  perspectives, to be seen through different lenses.

In my experience of working across more than ten games, the best ideas always come when there’s a free flow and exchange of story ideas, early enough in a project for seismic shifts to be made.

Getting the story and writing for a game done requires lots of energy, and momentum. While I’m confident enough in my abilities and experience to know I’ll produce a decent story if left to my own devices, I’ve come to relish having a great writing partner to help me understand what I don’t know, and what has sneaked through my blind-spot. Only with another perspective can you truly understand the direction your story is going in.

2019-2020 Reflections

I don’t know why, but I’ve found this post so hard to write. Almost everything I learned in the past year reinforced my belief that, for me at least, engaging in public spheres and social media, spending time and energy outputting what amounts essentially to unsolicited advice, is harmful to my state of mind and an expensive opportunity cost.

I’ve learned so much this last year – foremost of which being that my experiences are my experiences, given meaning by a multiplicity of insights and feelings that cannot be easily communicated or learned from by others. There is no one size-fits-all conclusion to be drawn from an experience, and so I have grown increasingly wary of sharing my opinions or insights, certainly publicly.  Moreover, I’ve done plenty of soul searching, and the established wisdom states rather clearly (for once) that trying to change someone’s mind or convert them to your way of thinking is a waste of time. Far better it seems to try and be a good example.

However, I felt a tension there. If I ask myself a simple question – ‘Do I want to help others? – of course the answer is yes. And how much help can I be by going completely silent? I’ve given a fair bit of advice this year behind closed doors, which means I can be targeted and in-depth, but it comes at the cost of reach. Then again – is anything in my situation worth of reach?

As you can tell, I’m conflicted. Conflicted, and busy – much as I’d like to write long form accounts of various experiences I’ve had as a narrative designer and/or as a freelancer, it can be draining to do well, honestly, fearlessly – which is the only way that people would benefit from the account.

In terms of achievements in the games sphere, 2019 saw Abandon Ship escape the clutches of the early access Kraken to a response we were all happy with – 74% positive across approx. 550 reviews. It was the first game I’ve worked on to be fully ‘out’ in the wild, and it was a relief to see streamers and fans enjoying all the world building Gary and I collaborated on. Towards the end of the year, Meteorfall: Krumit’s Tale went into early access. The bulk of the game is mechanical and art led, but I’m proud of the world building and relished the chance to write some lighter-hearted but still inter-connected flavour text. The reaction from streamers and early adopters has been fantastic, and it’s a delight to help shape such a colourful universe.

It was a very busy year in general. I completed the writing and co-directed the bulk of voice acting on Harold Halibut, the bulk of the writing and a fair old chunk of narrative design for Röki, completed a little guest writing on In Other Waters, and laid down the crucial framework of world building, interactive dialogue system, the main character designs and started on dialogue for Neuroslicers.

And of course, I signed on as narrative lead for Backbone! So all in all, it was, if anything, an overly-productive year — one of my main resolutions for 2020 is to take less on, and free up some more time for personal development and my main hobbies: birding; fermenting; and kickboxing.

2020 will be a success for me if I can continue to fearlessly audit my productivity and habits; if i stay away from twitter (apart from for the odd professional reason); keep up my non-game related hobbies; don’t get tempted into taking on any more side projects; and find a way to give back somehow.

On that note, I’ve decided to take a hiatus from my podcast, interviewing writers and storytellers on their lives and process. I find it tremendously enjoyable, and though I started it mainly to be a resource for less experienced writers, it didn’t find the audience I’d hoped, and it’s a considerable expense of time and money to maintain. So, all the content should still be available, and I’m thinking about ways to package it up into a more convenient resource.

Perhaps I’ll resurrect it when I’ve more time on my hands to also market it. For now though, I’m going to turn back inward, focus on being the best me I can be to those around me, professionally and otherwise.


The Best Form of Self-Promotion

As a freelancer, you have to self promote. Then, when you get work, you’re in promotional limbo – you have to knuckle down but when the project/s end, there’s no guarantee you’ll be asked back for the hypothetical sequel or what have you.

So, I sometimes worry about not self promoting while I work on projects. I worry that one project will end, and I’ll suddenly be left scrabbling to find more work.

But something really clicked with me today. I can’t say why. I’ve rationalised the issue to myself a few times, but today was the first time I really, viscerally felt it. Felt what?

That the best self promotion is doing great work.

Now that I’m working on a few projects, doing the best work I can is my absolute priority. They keep me quite busy, so I don’t necessarily have much energy to spend on that nebulous pursuit of making others aware of you anyway. Ultimately of course, the projects I work on and my work on them will be the true measure of my future.

Maybe I’ll keep working with those clients down the line. I’d love to, I’m lucky enough that the people I work with are not just talent, but great people, bar none, across four different projects. And if I don’t? If I have to find new clients? My feeling is that no amount of tweeting or blogging or networking is going to eclipse just having done a really bang up job on each of those projects.

I think it’s important not to ‘chase’. I’m not advocating complacency. Just that, while you have work, that work should be everything, as far as your work hours go. Cultivating a social media following or being seen to be active on industry forums or whatnot can be hugely valuable, but never at the expense of the work. I’d hate to finish a project and think to myself that hours of social media use or speculative networking could have been spent making the work better.


Letter To A Young Narrative Designer

A young man contacted me recently to ask for some advice on getting into games writing. At time of writing, he was working in QA at a AAA studio in the US. He told me he thought I had ‘achieved a lot’ and was keen to glean what he could from my experience. He also highlighted his desire for improved dialogue writing.

I probably ramble a bit, but he’d sent me a promising example of interactive fiction and, when I was growing up, I never had someone that could share the reality of this stuff with me.

Maybe my thoughts will be of help to you too.

(I’ve redacted some stuff for privacy.) 

Hey T, good to hear from you.

I think we can all always improve in the dialogue department. An unfortunate reality of games is that the most believable or stylised dialogue can be at odds with the needs of the player.

Think of the surreal debates of a Tarantino film or the incredibly deft but often very meandering exchanges of a Wes Anderson — it’s tempting (especially for me) to try and recreate those styles, but usually I have to curb my enthusiasm to write something that will deliver the relevant information and not destroy the pacing at the same time. As well as catering for players who may not, a) want to read lengthy, smartass exposition and b) may frankly not appreciate it even if they did.

All food for thought. I would say, in my experience the ability to coherently craft branching dialogue is far secondary to making an effective critical path. What I mean by that is, most games I work on, we end up making the dialogue (if indeed it branches at all) more like a figure of eight than a trident shape, with key, unavoidable narrative beats but slightly different routes to and through them depending on how the player wants to role play.

In my own tastes but so too the industry at large, I see and foresee this trend continuing and I think games and their stories will be better for it.

That said, you are already learning Ink, and it’s the best interactive dialogue script going. Good shit.

I think you’re wise to want to work with smaller teams. Of course you have more control. I’ve not worked with a team of more than about 10 as a games writer, but in my old career in advertising, I worked in a substantially bigger office and I do not think I would do so again.

There is human cost, an energy cost to all that people wrangling, the meetings, etc — as I’m sure you’re already aware, that drains those precious reserves of time, willpower and creativity that a great story requires.

I have never participated in a game jam. I’ve heard them spoken of fondly and I’m sure they’re a great way to meet people, but I worry that time could be better spent finding and working on projects with existing momentum. It’s always a chicken and egg debate.

I will say this, if you see a promising looking jam, consider it by all means but sit down and work out how many hours you think it will take, all told, including travel and such, and think whether that time may be spent more productively honing your craft alone or building relationships with existing devs/projects that may need junior writing help. And rest assured, writers of all levels are needed, it’s just a matter of matching your skills, passions and budget to the right project.

I’m glad it seems like I’ve achieved a lot from the outside! Do remember, it always looks more impressive from the outside….

My journey was a meandering one. I studied literature and film, then worked briefly in experiential marketing for an agency with the Xbox live promo account. After that, I spent a couple of years at an online video start up set up by my friend. I was essentially a new business guy, producer, and cameraman.

Through some chance networking, I met my future boss at Maker Studios (which was bought and absorbed by Disney for more money than I can even comprehend), where I worked mostly as the EMEA and APAC coordinator for our gaming channels, which included the likes of Pewdiepie. Using those connections (actually, before I started the job) I was able to get some games journalism work, my first article being a feature on gaming youtubers, which believe it nor not was a novelty at the time, and included an interview with Pewdiepie, etc.

I tell you these details so you can see the reality — I struggled, I procrastinated. I experimented and I had rent to pay. I had no-one to point me in the right direction and certainly no game specific education. So you’re ahead of me there!

After a few years burning out and selling my soul at Maker, I took the plunge, quit my dayjob, co-founded a studio and then left it for reasons not fair to burden you with after about 3 years to go freelance.

What would I tell my younger self if I had the chance?

Don’t force things. Prepare as best you can, but make sure to enjoy life in the meantime. Opportunities will come when they come. Seize them! But do not chase them endlessly.

Do not offer more of yourself than the other person or people that you’re working with. Do not give in to sunk cost fallacy. Trust easily, but not blindly.

Talent is irrelevant. What people hire you for is your personality, the things you can bond over/a shared vision, and demonstrable experience — especially in ‘finishing’ things. Be that an article, your own short stories, hobby projects.

Continue to develop your complementary skills. It is much easier to work with a writer who is experienced in marketing and/or product management than it is a writer who is also very good at gardening. But do garden – it’s wonderful for the spirit and, according to Miyamoto, for game design inspiration.

Wear your passions on your sleeve. I got my foot in the door in a great project once for essentially saying a game reminded me of a Wes Anderson movie. It helped I’d studied film and could talk authoritatively about film in that instance, but it was the first mention that made their eyes light up.

Study film.

Read. Read. Read. Read. You want to be a good writer? A great writer? Write convincing and compelling dialogue? READ. Write a lot too, but always read more than you write. ‘Reading’ includes comics, films, games, good bad and everything in between.

Do not worry about your ‘profile’. Do not confuse a loud and obvious social media profile with the right people being aware of you.

In fact — I’d probably say just don’t go on social media at all unless very strictly necessary.

Build relationships early. The best way to get on a project is before they know they need you. Never be afraid to say ‘I want to work on this with you. Here’s how I’ll make it worth your while.’

p.s. if you haven’t already, blog — on medium or your own website — blog about game design, writing, etc. Share your process. Don’t put up a facade of ‘perfection’, and forget about perfection in general. Start immediately. Enjoy it. Some of mine for inspiration, if i may be so bold.

Interviewed: Writing The Supernatural

My bud Greg asked me to contribute some thoughts on writing the supernatural for his newsletter, which features interviews around a theme with a bunch of different writers/narrative designers each month. Always a good read. Here’s my bit:

In general, I try and follow a rather classical approach to writing. That is, to be truthful and concise. And the truths I’m usually drawn to are ones about human experience. Don’t we all dream, fantasise or panic about The Other, about escaping the physical confines of our bodies and the rational confines of our minds?

The chance to write about, or around the supernatural then, is a gift. Going beyond what is natural is a chance to contrast human truths with utterly non-human ones, and the starker the contrast the more clearly we see them.

So far, I’ve written for three games that deal in supernatural elements. Duelyst, a tactical, science-fantasy CGC, is rife with arcane rituals, strange specters and otherworldly magic – usually wielded by the monstrous Abyssian faction or the mystical, transhuman Vetruvians. The object with my writing here was to contextualise the unit abilities, while giving identity to the faction itself. So the Abyssian’s sense of supernatural is that it’s something from the void, something menacing, a force of entropy and decay. For the Vetruvians, it’s something more noble, although perhaps equally unknowable and volatile. The way in which each faction sees and manipulates the supernatural informs their abilities and says a huge amount about their philosophies and civilisations.

In Röki, a dark fairytale adventure game, the supernatural is expressed through folkloric characters and superstitions made flesh. It’s all loosely based on Scandinavian myth, so there exist a certain amount of (inspiring!) boundaries. My approach has been to draw out the element of each myth, or character, and make them really grounded. Most of the game takes place in a magical forest, so protagonist Tove quickly becomes accustomed to the supernatural – it’s that or become a gibbering wreck – and must learn to play by their own rules. It’s fantastic fun to write low-key supernatural too, there’s something peculiar and satisfying about mischievous and begrudgingly helpful spirits and ghosts that you don’t tend to be able to draw out from epic gods and world-ending supernatural forces.

In Abandon Ship, the supernatural is somewhat Lovecraftian. There are lots of tentacles. It’s a mode well represented in games, so obviously I wanted to avoid it being too trope-y. In the game, the supernatural (and the cult that worships and engenders it) is very real, but again it’s a very personal thing: The Captain (whom you play as) has a strong link to the game’s dominant supernatural force, and engages in a constant mental tug of war with it. So yes, it’s a threat, an unknowable old and infernally powerful threat, but it’s one you also have a kind of dialogue with. It hopefully takes the old ‘when you gaze into the abyss…’ idea one step further.

The supernatural that I grew up with was Greek and Egyptian mythology, Asian horror and dark fantasy literature. So I’ve always loved the idea that, while powerful, whatever lies beyond the veil can be reckoned with by peeking behind it, parsing the internal logic of it – as long as your own psyche is up to the task. I suppose I approach the supernatural from a direction other than the ‘sheer horror of something like Magic: The Gathering’s eldritch-inspired Eldrazi. Although that unknowable power is alluring – one of the examples I’m drawn most to is the Chandrian from The Kingkiller Chronicles: humanoid but never fully glimpsed, sung about by children but never whispered or written about by adults who value their lives. They are clearly terrifying, but one feels their greatest mystery is anonymity and mystery. The protagonist (and unnecessarily tongue-twistingly named) Kvothe hunts for knowledge about them, he seeks them, and that collision course is an inestimably tense thread running through the series. It’s that kind of feeling I think I’m interested in exploring.

One day I’m sure I’ll want to write about murderous, terrifying ghosts and Stranger Things style gross-out horror, a supernatural that is the complete antithesis to human nature, but for now my approach to writing the supernatural is to ask: how can we reconcile ourselves to it? And what parts of ourselves gave birth to it in the first place?