Narrative Design: A Day in the Life, Companion Goals, and the Undead
Update by Eric Fenstermaker, Lead Narrative Designer
Undead abound in Heritage Hill.
Hey everybody. I'm Eric Fenstermaker and I'm the lead narrative designer on Pillars of Eternity. Before this I held the same position on South Park: The Stick of Truth, so if the dialogue in Eternity ends up being a long string of obscenities and fart jokes, you know who to blame. You can direct all hate mail to my work email account, email@example.com.
I know we suggested last week that I was going to give you a lore update, but I thought, this is a crowdfunded project. Why not completely fail to deliver on what was promised and instead give our backers something no one asked for?
I have three things for you today - the first is a look at what my daily experience is like, then I'm going to talk a bit about some high-level goals we have for writing our companion characters, and finally I might just have some lore about Eternity's undead.
On the next episode of Pillars of Eternity: Josh Sawyer writes a class update about wizards and druids, and Adam meets a wacky goblin neighbor only he can see!
But what to talk about first? Being a narcissist, the answer is obvious.
What It Is Like to Be Me
Today has been busy and varied. I thought it might be interesting to take you through a typical day as a narrative lead person. I will tell it in second person so it feels like virtual reality. Most of this is somewhat based on real events - at least as much as American Hustle.
You arrive at work. Take serpentine route to your desk to avoid being seen by anyone who would frown upon your five minutes' tardiness. End up accidentally passing all of them in the hallway anyway. Pass subordinate in hallway too. Shake your head at him to note disapproval of his tardiness.
10:10 AM - 10:25 AM
Watch internet video of intro to Japanese wrestling match featuring life-sized animatronic raptor. Dream of making it big as a game designer and having a raptor of your own. Someday...
Deny your subordinate's purchase request for an ergonomic keyboard to help with her carpal tunnel. That is what stem cells are for. Back to work, slave.
10:30 AM- 11:30 AM
Brainstorming meeting: What kind of monsters can we reasonably use in an urban docks district along the shoreline that somehow have not worked the surrounding populace into a panic? Proposals: invisible giant crabs, giants with poor height genes from both parents, low-key mummies.
Reminded for seventh time about backer update, which you knew about but have been deliberately putting off. Chastise producer for not reminding you enough.
11:50 AM - 12:00 AM
Called in to review cutscene animatic. Despite the storyboard being delivered exactly as asked for, you berate the storyboard artist to consolidate power. This is garbage, GARBAGE!
Lunch alone at office desk, like every day.
12:10 PM - 1:00 PM
Spend the rest of lunch on Facebook and Twitter making it look like you have the perfect life and everybody loves you.
1:00 PM - ??
Intermittent raptor daydreams.
1:30 PM - 2:30 PM
Work with narrative designer on the design for a new companion centered exclusively on maximizing companion's potential to be spun off into a line of toys. Huge adorable eyes, soft plush fur, impressive physique, ability to transform into racecar, check, check, check and check.
2:30 PM - 4:30 PM
Passing off subordinates' ideas as your own. Crushing their spirit.
4:30 PM - 5:00 PM
Brainstorm barbarian clan names.
- The Large and in Charge Clan
- Clan Pizzaface
- The One-Man Clan
- The Passive-Aggressors
- The Doughmen
5:00 PM -7:00 PM
I may have taken a few liberties, but some of that is really a snapshot as to what my role is.
Day-to-day, I spend a fair amount of time coordinating the efforts of narrative designers with level designers, so for example I really did have a meeting this morning to figure out how on Earth we could have a quest with some monster combat in a populated, more-or-less oblivious urban district without the monsters there feeling absurdly out of place. The game needs to be fun, first and foremost, with or without a story. It's ultimately my responsibility to make sure that the fun things our designers come up with have a cohesive narrative wrapped around them. Sometimes it's an easy fit, sometimes it's a puzzle to be solved. Fortunately I am backed up by some very talented designers whose ideas I can steal liberally - that part was all true, too.
It's also on me to try and make sure the story is being told properly in-game, so there was in fact a meeting with a storyboard artist to look through one of our game's introductory cutscenes. Our concept artists' stick figures look better than the most realistic human portrait I could ever draw.
And I have to curate lore, though that's a responsibility I share with Josh Sawyer, our project lead. In general I prefer this to be a decentralized process where designers come up with things that make their quests and areas and subplots cool, and then we find ways together to work them into the overall scheme. But there was also a good amount of up-front central planning, dating back to before I was on the project. In this case, today I did have a long conversation with a couple of our level guys about the names and personalities of a set of barbarian-ish tribes.
What's missing from the above is that on some days, when I am fortunate, I get to do some writing for the project, which is really fun. If you are a narrative lead you get to claim all the choicest dialogues for yourself. It's a great privilege, which is one reason why so many narrative leads are murdered by the narrative designer who is next-in-line.
Companions may be my favorite things about RPGs. Long after you've finished the game, looking back, if they're done well, they feel like old friends. Lately we have been ramping up our companion writing. (We really did have a discussion about one of those designs today, and did some iteration on it.) As such, I've been giving a lot of thought of late as to what our goals should be in creating the companions for Pillars of Eternity, and I thought they'd be worth sharing with the people we're designing them for. These are a few of the benchmarks I want us to try to hit:
It's common in most types of fiction for major characters (or the protagonist at the very least) to follow an arc, in which their character begins a certain way and ends up being changed by the events of the story, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. But for a video game, that's not really taking advantage of the medium. This is a story about the player's character, told by the player's actions. It stands to reason that the ways in which a companion would change should be dependent on what the player does.
So we have an arc for each of our companions, but each arc has multiple potential endpoints, in just the same way that the plot has multiple endings. Which endpoint the arc ends up at will be, in one way or another, determined by what the player does - whether it's something they say or an action they take or some other choice they make. This was an approach we last took in Fallout: New Vegas and I thought it was something to definitely keep.
Unique, Varied, Relatable Ambassadors
Chris Avellone touched on this in a previous update, and it remains a core goal for us. Pillars of Eternity takes place in a brand new setting. Most players won't know their boreal dwarf chanters from their hearth orlan ciphers. Getting to know companions that run the gamut of races, classes, and cultures will help the setting come alive and hopefully become a place players will find themselves wanting to stay awhile. Each companion, in a sense, becomes an ambassador for his or her race, culture, and class.
And we only have so many companions. So they can't all be snarky elves (or can they?) - they need different characterizations, different voices, different struggles. As a designer, you never know what's going to strike a nerve with a given player. Rarely for our games is there a universal favorite companion - almost always there seems to be an even distribution for how many players like each character. In some ways that's maddening, because how do you adjust for that, but it's also one of the best things about writing companions - as long as you write a character that is authentic in its humanity, somewhere, somebody is going to identify with it, and that will be the character they enjoyed spending time with the most. By varying widely the particulars of each companion's persona and struggles, the hope is that while not everybody will necessarily love every companion, most will find at least one that means something to them.
Lanterns to the Themes
"Why should the player care?" is a question we try to ask ourselves for all aspects of the narrative. When it comes to plot, the question is answered by its themes - they make the plot about something more than a physical struggle.
But again, our narrative is interactive. The themes shouldn't be predetermined morals. There should be many facets to them, and it should fall to the player, not the designer, to decide what his or her perspective winds up being on the theme. To take a well-worn example, if the theme is about the struggle of good vs. evil (don't worry, it's not), the ending shouldn't simply assert that good always triumphs over evil. It should ask the player what he or she believes, given everything they've learned on their journey. Maybe they even surprise themselves with their choice.
That's where companions come in. If we're designing them well, their struggles should tie into the themes on some level. And the resolution they come to, which, because of the interactive dynamism discussed above, is influenced by the player, gives them a distinct perspective on the theme. The goal is that in the process of helping the companions resolve their conflicts, we give the player something to think about for what that might mean in the context of his or her own character, and in the long run, that gives the themes personal meaning when it comes time to resolve them for the player character.
I'd be interested to hear, what do all of you think? Not so much specific characterizations, but more, what are the abstract qualities that make you enjoy and remember a companion? (e.g. They made you laugh, they seemed like a real person, their quest was engrossing, etc.)
Here, Have Some Lore
Compensation for being subjected to the rest of this update.
All my best ideas are stolen. This one I ripped off from our lead level designer, Bobby Null. It is about the undead.
Male and female darguls.
One of the strengths of the Eternity setting, in my opinion, is its ability to put a new spin on the familiar. Let's be honest, you've seen undead before in a video game or two. I bet you've had a virtual conflict with a skeleton or perhaps even a zombie. But no matter how many times we see them, they're fantasy RPG staples - it'd be weird not to have them, and many people would really miss them were they omitted.
So we did some thinking as to how we could have undead but have them be our own special brand of undead that makes sense in this world.
This is How Undead Work
Let's say you are a wealthy noble who would like to cheat death. There are a variety of options at your disposal, but this offer from a shady animancer sounds the most painless. All he is going to do is bind your soul to your body, so that way when you die, your soul stays put and you still retain all your motor control.
Sign me up, you say. Suck on this, death! The animancer sets up some bizarre tools and machines, has you hold onto some copper wires, and before you know it the whole thing is over. He leaves and takes his fee. A few years later you die in a horrific skiing accident. Not to worry! Your soul isn't going anywhere. You are living large, my friend. But here's the thing. Your soul isn't going anywhere, but your body is. It starts to decompose. Slowly at first. A maggot here, a maggot there. And you are starting to get weird cravings, kind of like a pregnant woman, but instead of peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches, you could really go for some human flesh.
So you eat some guys. And lo and behold, the decomposition stops! You're cured! Except that after a while, you start to rot again. Over time, you find that eating folks and absorbing the essence from their flesh is the only way to stop decomposition. But after a while you run out of neighbor kids and it gets harder and harder to track down a meal. Flesh is dropping off in chunks. And it feels like your IQ has fallen a few points, like that time you used to live next to that industrial solvent factory. In time, your mind goes as well as your body. You become feral, then near-vegetative, then purely mechanical - your body nothing more than a fleshless marionette.
Revenant bestiary concepts.
What you have just done is experienced the full continuum of undeath. Corporeal undead in this world all suffer from the same malady, and are merely in different stages of decomposition. How do you get this condition? It's usually something that you would get by commissioning an unscrupulous animancer to help you live forever, or by volunteering for a "harmless clinical trial." These ladies and gentlemen have been studying a certain banned piece of literature known as the Theorems of Padgram and are trying to develop a true path to immortality. But there are supposedly other ways - certain alchemical tinctures, ancient architecturally-embedded machinery, self-pleasure (according to some disapproving Dyrwoodan moms), etc.
- You start as a fampyr. (And these names are not different-for-the-sake-of-different - they're just following location-appropriate linguistic rules.) By appearances, you're basically a normal person who is going through a bit of a cannibal phase.
- Allow yourself to decompose for a while, and you start to lose control of your urges, and your memory begins to slip away. Your self-consciousness is flimsy. You are now what's called a dargul.
- Much more decomposition, and you become bestial. Your hair is gone (if it wasn't already), the flesh sags on your bones, and you live only to feed your hunger. You are a gul, but you don't give it much thought at this point. You just think you are hungry.
- Then your mind gets really pretty thoroughly rotted, like what happens if you play a lot of FPSes, and you're only running at the basest level of instinct. You have no memory. You, my friend, are a revenant, and you are not very fun at parties.
- After the last bit of flesh falls away, and the last mildly complicated neural synaptic path fires for the final time, you're running on pure reflex. You're not even hungry anymore (no stomach!). Your body is a murderous automaton. You are a skeleton, and your next step is dust.
It's a fun time for the project. Amazing new level art and some of what I think are our best quests yet are being added every day, and I'm very excited for what's ahead. I personally want to express my appreciation for the thing all of you made happen by backing us, and I want to do everything I can to make sure you guys are suitably rewarded for your efforts.
Thanks for reading and don't forget to fill out your backer surveys. Those of you who have surveys will find them on your account page on the backer portal under the Surveys tab. You have until March 31st before they become as worthless as that Myspace page I had in college with all the animated gifs on it, so get those suckers in. Huge thanks to those who've filled theirs out - the team is already putting that content into the game and it's coming out pretty slick.
Last Lastly... reddit /r/Games AMA
Hey, everyone. This is Brandon. One last note, the Eternity team will be taking part in a reddit AMA in /r/Games. This is scheduled for today at 5:30 PM PST, so be on the lookout.