game, game. repeat.

On I'mmersion And Tron 2.0

Sun 30 November 2003

I just finished Tron 2.0 and prior to that by a few days I had watched the Two Towers, extended version and its appendices. I find the making of the LOTR movies and Peter Jackson as a supreme inspiration–and it reminds me of what I’m looking for in game production. I want to help bottle the awe and joy of those moments I’ve found in books and on screen and bring them to games.

Every time I’ve been asked about which game genre I like the most I’ve answered that I’m not a genre specific person–I want to experience and create immersion. I want to become part of a story world and live the compelling story of a main character within a plot of consequence and wonders. I’ve found that sense of complete immersion in FPS, RTS, and some other games that dont fit that well into any conventional genre.

The I’mmersion Guy

I’ve started to wonder whose job it is to work on the immersion factor. It seems like it would be a director in a film and perhaps a producer in the world of games, but I need to learn more about the creative process behind games and how they evolve from the seed of an idea to a concept, to a funded project, to a design, to a prototype and on through to the complete project. I’ve got some impression of the outline process and it seems rather project and studio dependent to me, but I really want to learn more about it.

I think it would be a really fun job to be the guy that works on taking a game like Tron 2.0 from a Metacritic 80s to a Metacritic 90s game. Sorta the ‘good to great’ guy–maybe called the creative director/editor, or the game-play writer (like a screenplay). Maybe that would be a good game designer practice project–take a game that has already been made and redo the levels, characters, and stories through modding to create a new single-player game that fixes where you think the game should have been made differently from a story perspective. Tron 2.0 suffered from a common problem I find in a lot of games–its excellent on all the technical points but the story is flat and the elements that might have immerse the player in Tron’s world failed to come together. I’m thinking maybe I could dodge a lot of technical rework and focus on recutting the story and sound and come up with a much better game in a reasonable amount of time (say, 500 hours).

How About Game Writing?

Maybe what I would really like to be is a game writer. I imagine a game writer would share more in common with D&D module writers than film writers while sharing elements of each. On the one hand writing for games is like module writing inasmuch as you must create a story and story world that can accommodate, incorporate, and react to player actions. On the other hand, since you dont have a live GM there to roleplay on behalf of the NPCs and the world, you have to build a script for the major events and characters that is ultimately linear. The unique task of the game writer is to bring those two elements together in a manner that hides the true nature of the game from the player such that they never reach the edge of the world–they never feel constrained in their action to some linear plot while not being left unmotivated or marginalized from the main storyline(s).

It seems to me that game writing is too often being short changed–perhaps being handled by producers with too many other things to do and little writing talent or training (if any) to draw upon. Perhaps they outline the major plot line and describe the characters and then jump right into making a game engine and some artwork. But leaving the backstory, the story, the world, and the character to the end or to non-writers renders them flat. Writing and world building are difficult and important skills that can really make or break a game–I wish it were treated more seriously than it seems to be. And no, I’m not talking about RPGs here. I’m talking about games like Tron 2.0 and Homeworld 2.0 that missed out on being great games because, IMHO, they didnt get the writing right. I dont have any writing training or experience myself but the more I think about what role Id like to eventually play the more I think I really need to start studying creative writing.

Ideas for Tron 2.1

So, if I were to rewrite Tron 2.0s story, leaving its engine the way it is, what would I do? A couple things, I think…

  1. Start in the game–forget the initial cut scene. The starting cut scene is sorta like reading a manual…I think most people would enjoy diving right in, though they may be a little disoriented at first. I liked how Morrowind starts out with you in character and I though the prologue-type gameplay at the beginning of Fatal Frame was a great idea. Half-Life started that way too–you are just a normal guy going to work at an unusual place for what you expect is a normal work day and then the shit hits the fan. You dont really do much, but you are in character and you do get a chance to walk around and check things out a bit. I like the idea of getting the player in the game quickly just as you would in a movie. Maybe even a Bond style prologue packed with action to draw the player in right off the bat.
  2. Take out saved games. Well, maybe. ;) I think saving and loading games does a lot to remove one from the immersive feel of a game. I was pretty scared when I played through Fatal Frame, but the die-reload-die-reload cycles took me out of the game-world and hurt the game. On the other hand, a writer must respect the player expectations for form within the game or risk losing the audience. I mean, I get pissed when I cant save a game for a long time. Its disorienting and frustrating, especially if I die and have to replay a long segment–at least in part because its repetitive. I like the idea of integrating incapacitation into game play like Prince of Persia: Sand of Time sorta does. What I would do is have it so that each time you die, it affects the plot in some way and you recover somewhere else. It cant be a punishment or the player will get frustrated–it has to be interesting and fun…and it cant be repetitive if the player dies more than once. In fact, maybe we could remove the difficulty selection entirely and have the game adjust itself based upon how well you are doing. I also like the idea of taking out the health bar and replacing it with indicators of the damage. Like sparks coming off your lega limp, trouble throwing your disc, blurry vision, etc. Things that add to you immersion and subtract from how many things you need to keep track of.
  3. Dont auto-popup the help files–find another way to integrate tutorial-like material into the gameplay. The help-files interrupt the flow of the game and slow things down. I think Tron 2.0 and games in general could learn a lesson or two in pacing from film editors.
  4. Different story. I just didnt dig the story they came up with–seemed a bit kitch to me. I thought it should be a bit more subtle–less cartoony, maybe a bit grittier, a bit darker. It felt like Batman 3 rather than Batman 1, and that was a bad thing. This, however, is very easy to say and very hard to do. This is where most of the work needs to be done–I’m going to think about this some more and see if I can come up with a module outline that I like.

Updated on October 6th, 2013

Some of the links were broken. I replaced them with working links to pages with the same or similar content as before.