Interactive Story Designer Edwin McRae focused his presentation on his work on Path of Exile, although he’s also worked for several NZ TV and game producers, some of whom were also presenting at NZGDC14.His description of what he does is “Jigsaw Storytelling”, also the title of the much more in-depth workshop session he had run the day before the conference. Getting exceptionally familiar with AUT, McRae had earlier in the week also presented at Documentary Edge’s DOCLab
Is being a Jigsaw Storyteller a real job?
Sure is, McRae reckons, and is work on productions for South Pacific Pictures (Shortland Street, Almighty Johnsons), Gibson Group (Paradise Cafe), and game studios including Ingame (Indie Music Manager), Runaway Play (Flutter), plus consultancy gigs and being Lead Narrative Designer for Grinding Gear Games’ Path of Exile suggests he’s right.
For PoE he wrote over 200 pages of dialogue, in-game text and lore as well as developing over 40 characters; playing characters (PC), non-playing characters (NPC) and historical characters (HC). It was largely around these types of characters that McRae hung his NZGDC presentation.
Games are, McRae reckoned, “the spiritual home of interactive, non-linear storytelling … Jigsaw storytelling is the piecing together of story elements within a video game”.
Playing a clip from the Tomb Raider game to illustrate how not to do it, McRae pointed out the things he (as a gamer) wanted from his experience of interacting with a game, the first of which was to play it.
The lengthy video introduction and regular cut scenes moved the story along – but without requiring any effort or creating any engagement between the player and the material. McRae’s take: “When am I going to get to play this game?”
To make the point crystal clear, he summed up, “I’m not interested in movies with clicky bits.”
PoE, by contrast, is all about story exploration not story telling. It rewards players who are prepared to put in time and effort (a notion that came up in plenty of other sessions during the day).
Without assuming any real knowledge of the game from the audience, McRae introduced Queen Atziri of the Vaal, using her as an example of how players acquired information about her and the Vaal civilisation.
The character formed part of an expansion to the game, Sacrifice of the Vaal, which required players to piece together various narrative elements to have an understanding of what would be needed to complete the quest. Perhaps unsurprisingly, what was necessary was to kill the character but the journey to that point was designed to be rewarding in itself.
McRae fed players information – in small dollops – through both playing characters and non-playing characters.
Often, he chose to give those characters very limited knowledge, for two reasons. Firstly, the player would become more knowledgeable about Atziri than the characters encountered in the game – a reward in itself. Secondly, some of that information offered could be rumour or opinion, allowing the player to make decisions: is the character offering information impartial or reliable?
The end result was that the player could work out what was required of them rather than being told, and feel good about themselves.
McRae also offered plenty of other pointers around other elements that could share snippets of information. Remnants of Vaal architecture and artefacts that survive (Inca-influenced in style) point to a society that was advanced – at least in its technical abilities.
PoE is item-heavy, so the new items players regularly com across can also reinforce aspects of character. Atziri’s jewelry, for example, suggests her vanity. Weapons play to her ruthlessness, bloodthirsty competence in battle and lack of humanity.
Rather than cut scenes, flashbacks or lectures from characters, gradually allowing the player to develop a feel for a culture was more satisfying. Revealing characters and worlds’ histories and lore slowly offers a richer experience for both creator and player.
In PoE the best way to experience many story elements, McRae admitted, was simply to fight them and kill them.
Why go to all this effort, when a cut scene or several will do the same job?
“You want to put some heart into the game,” McRae said. “You want it to mean something when you finally encounter [Queen Atziri]. It’s much more fun to kill someone you know than a stranger you don’t.”