AltChar got together with Chris Avellone late last month to talk game mechanics and storytelling in video games. If you thought a good story has to come first, with everything else built around it, then you may have had things figured out backwards.
For over 20 years Chris Avellone has laboured in the games industry and worked mostly on RPG titles. Performing primarily in design and writing roles, his resume spans from Fallout 2 all the way to the recently released Prey, covering critically acclaimed titles such as Planescape: Torment, Neverwinter Nights II and Fallout: New Vegas. Owing to his extensive experience with RPG design, he has also been on the forefront of the recent Infinity-era revival, contributing to titles like Wasteland 2, Pillars of Eternity and Torment: Tides of Numenera.
Sitting at the crossroads between production, design and writing, Avellone is uniquely qualified to share his perspective on what can make or break a game narrative.
"In order to write the best story for your game it's very important that you know what all your systems are on some level. This means knowing what the player can actually do in the game, because there won't be a good game narrative until I understand all the actions the player can take in an environment, when they learn these actions and what constitutes their actual gameplay progression curve. Ideally you want a narrative to support all those things", Avellone said.
A term that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to games in the past decade is ludonarrative dissonance. This refers to an occurrence where a player's actions don't gel with the overall narrative of a game. A great example for this would be GTA IV, where the protagonist keeps going on about how he came to America to escape his violent past, while violence is central to the game and player actions within it.
"If you have a special item in a game, like Spidey's web shooters for example," Avallone continues, "and they are malfunctioning for the first hour of a Spiderman game. If they are suddenly functioning at some point, the narrative needs to support that, even though it's a physical gameplay reward, the narrative has to provide some context for why they are cool or why you are getting them just now. There is usually some resistance to such a writing approach, because design teams often think of it as just write a story. Sometimes, teams have a hard time committing to game systems, because they like to try out a lot of stuff for way too long, and this ends up dragging the process out."
Prior to becoming a freelancer, Avellone co-founded Obsidian Entertainment and worked on Fallout: New Vegas while actively with the studio. He uses the game as an example for how story and mechanics are interlinked during the development process.
"If we did not know that we would have a faction reputation system in Fallout: New Vegas, we would have written a story that might not have involved factions. We needed to know that we would have that mechanic, so that we could create this world where that faction reputation system is actually important and has a huge impact on the plot and really helps drive it forward", said Avellone.
"There were certain things that we had to hit for that game with design. It needed to have a recognisable city, it needed to be on the West Coast of the US, it needed to generally use the same rule-set as Fallout 3 had, and all these things factor into the story. So when we had our signature city, the question was how do we revolve events around that and how does it factor into gameplay. If we will have a faction reputation system, how do we build up from that. All that stuff informs your overall story outline that you keep iterating and going into more and more detail."
Avellone also said that story is sometimes viewed as the lesser end of design, with systems and level design often setting the stage and making sure there is a sense of flow to gameplay. In such a situation, time and resources that should be devoted to the making sure the story and systems work well together are often a luxury.