Alexander Swords - Inside ACMI X
Stories & Ideas

Tue 08 Mar 2022

Episode 3: Narrative Design in Videogames with Alexander Swords – Inside ACMI X

ACMI X Industry Inside ACMI X podcast Interview Videogames
Amber Gibson

ACMI X Community Coordinator

The writer and narrative designer's work explores emotional games, games for change and adapting stories for new mediums.


Amber Gibson: Welcome to Inside ACMI X: a series where we discuss TV, film, videogames, virtual, augmented, and mixed reality with the residents who work at ACMI's screen-focused coworking space: ACMI X. I'm Amber Gibson, the Community Coordinator. Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners; the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung people of the Kulin Nation, on whose land we meet, share and record this podcast, here in Melbourne. It always was and always will be Aboriginal land. This week we're talking to writer and narrative designer Alexander Swords about his work and how he's moved from writing for film to writing for videogames. Welcome, Alex.

Alexander Swords: Thank you.

AG: To get started, are you able to explain what narrative design actually is?

AS: Sure. So writing is, you know, what you would expect writing still to be, and it comes from the filmmaking tradition of dialogue and descriptions for things; that player-facing kind of text. Narrative design came along because, I'm not even sure how it started, but basically studios just realised that the only way games are gonna go forward with meaning and for players to really understand why they're doing the play that they're doing, was to make sure that stories integrated as early as possible in the entire process. Most of that is that connection between the story and how players need to be the ones to move forward in that. So it's about understanding game design, level design, dialogue recording, animations, economies, and all that stuff that works behind the scenes to make the gameplay function. It's a way of understanding how the story impacts all of those and how they feed back into the story as well. And part of that is because there's a bit of a natural kind of obstruction going both ways between story and play. Play in its purest form needs to be voluntary. That's when people have the most fun. The problem with that though is story requires certain things to happen in certain ways at certain times to elicit that meaning or that emotional kind of response we want from people. So (for) narrative designers, it's their job to balance between story and gameplay.

AG: Was there a pivotal moment that made you move towards writing for games over film?

AS: Yeah, I think it was just because that was a place that I always wanted to be. There is huge potential (for) interactivity in stories. I was always happy playing in the film space but it never really satisfied me in the same way that games writing does. Also - I think just before we moved over to Berlin, I played a game called Borderlands 2. What I actually loved about that game was even though it's a first-person shooter, there is actually a lot of heart in that story and there's something about the interaction between the interactivity and the story in that game that actually made the whole thing sing in a way that I never experienced before in film.

The exact moment for me when games won my heart again is - it's not embarrassing, it's fine to talk about crying. (There is) this extra content to Borderlands 2, which is about a character called Tiny Tina running a DnD game in their universe. But it's actually about her processing the grief of a character that dies in the original game. And even though it's in this weird, violent environment of Borderlands, there was a tenderness to it that was absolutely heartbreaking. I'll spoil it a little bit; at the end, obviously, she has to come to grips with the grief, but it's a really nice moment. There are other characters there that support her, but what really makes it sing - and I won't spoil this - is that there is a moment afterwards where there is more gameplay and you actually get to play out the catharsis of that experience that she's having afterwards. I was playing this moment through tears at the end and I just went; "wow, this is surprising in a way that story is very rarely surprising and there is something magical about being in the driving suite". I felt connected to that character in a way that I've never felt connected to any other character. That was one of those moments where I'm like; "I wanna write stories like this. I wanna be able to create a story like this and to put people in that moment".

AG: What are the major differences between writing for games and film?

AS: It's definitely a case of - especially if you're a writer who wants to move into games - it's always gonna be a matter of trying to find the right game to work on, less so than whether you have the specific skills or not. If you know how to write for film, generally speaking, you're going to be able to at least begin the process of working in games. If there's one difference between my job and - say - a film writer and the pre-production process or the writing process, it is that I have to find out from the game and its designers: where is the actual opportunity to tell a story? What are the mechanisms that I have? Because some games will have dialogue, some games won't have dialogue, some games will have environments where I can drop down story content into the environment for the player to read there. Also, what's interactable? Sometimes an environment is interactable, sometimes it's not. So it is a bit of an element that can be quite different to film but I would also say it's not too far away from what film writers might have to consider as well.

(Film writers) do also have their own limitations in terms of what genre they're working in (and) what audience they're working in. The other issue though is just the sheer production process and how things start can be quite different. With film, a writer working with a producer might have an idea and go from there, and then it's a process of designing the entire narrative at a time and then writing drafts and then seeing where it can go. Then it's a matter of finding money and a director and then making all that come together. You put story at the very centre of that entire process.

Games at the moment - for the most part - (still have) some kind of mechanic, which is the beginning: the kernel of the idea. When I say 'mechanic', (I mean) anything that's kind of interactable in games; what we call verbs essentially. We'll start with a designer wanting to explore a driving game and they'll just start coming up with a car and it won't even be a car, it'll be a grey box. The process (is) literally called grey boxing. Then it's about getting those interactions feeling good and then maybe story content will almost accidentally get added to that as that iteration process goes through where more details get added. So it's literally; "okay, great. I'm driving. The driving feels really good across the flat surface, let's add some hills". The design is not really thinking about what implication hills have to the story, but now there are hills. Long story short: things get added and added and more detail gets added to a point where inevitably someone will go: "but why are we driving?" And that's when a writer in some form or another will come on board, or a narrative designer.

AG: Just to clarify; the game's designer would essentially build the world and then the narrative designer comes in and gives an understanding of why that world has been built and how the character moves through that world.

AS: For sure. It'd be the same as a director and a production designer getting together and going; "we just wanna create a cool thing that investigates this kind of thing and I'm gonna have this set and it's gonna be these people, and maybe they'll even get the actors on board to play with who the characters are, but not necessarily understand what that is in the wider context. It's a reality at the moment, still, that games can basically be built, seen and played all the way through before someone thinks about the story and why people might be wanting this kind of experience. If you're a film writer, we have the dramatic question - which is a wonderful tool for film writing: does the character achieve the goal that they've set themselves to achieve? And that's fine for non-interactive (storytelling) because the audience is just watching and they for the most part are willing to suspend disbelief, knowing that the author or writer will take them down the route and provide them with the answer.

Unfortunately in games, the player is your protagonist and they don't necessarily know what their goal is. We've created this world for them to play in and it's the most important question we're constantly asking ourselves in life: why are we here? So you need to be able to tell them that. They also need to know; what can they do in this world? What are their verbs? What is their point of contact with being the trigger for moving the story forward? What resources do they have? What can they rely on? What are they managing? Sometimes that's tangible in the sense of literal money, inventory or whatever. Sometimes it's intangible as well, right? It's relationships, time and all that good stuff that makes film stories work so well. That's all interactive for us. We need to manage that for storytellers.

AG: You're currently writing for a game called Totem Teller. Can you talk about how you are creating that narrative-driven experience for players?

AS: Yeah, it's interesting. Totem Teller is a really good example of how games can be very different from any other type of storytelling, the least of which is because the game itself is actually about the exploration of storytelling. So I find a lot of the process then is actually just about understanding what level of story I'm writing at any particular moment. To give a top overview I guess; games in particular - and Totem Teller quite specifically - basically just start with an intention. Whereas in film, you might have a very specific pitch about a specific story and then you'll end up with a draft of that story that you might be able to start shopping around. In Totem Teller - and games in general - you kind of just start with a very general idea and that could be as simple as; "I want to create a game where we have to inspire a character, based on some story experiences or some story exploration". Then we start to kind of craft (based) on; "well what does that experience look like for the player?" The other real difference between most modes of storytelling is often your player/your protagonist You need to understand what that experience is like and then how to craft that experience so that they (the audience) actually understand what it is that they're doing and that they feel like they've got a sense of purpose and then hopefully, that they're actually achieving that purpose.

AG: Are screenwriters seen as desirable talent when applying for games-writing jobs?

AS: Yes, absolutely. It's very common now - especially for the bigger studios - to actually say that they want people with (experience in) screenplay writing, that they're very comfortable with screenplay writing and that they'll take screenplay examples to apply for some of those jobs. The games industry is very good at recognising people for doing 'the thing', so it's less about degrees and more about; "have you actually done the thing before?" So any kind of even low-level experience that you can get - the games industry is generally really good at recognising that. There's also, to be honest, the shortage of skilled writers working in the game space at the moment. So that's forced studios to be more open-minded about who they will take on board, in terms of who they want for narrative.

AG: We've spoken about the crossover between writing for film and games. Are you able to speak to other opportunities that might be arising across both industries?

AS: That's also something really exciting. Obviously we have game engines, and now they're kind of taking over some of the production stuff in terms of what would normally be traditional film and television processes; and that's everything from architecture, through to making ads for cars, or even car design. All that kind of wonderful stuff. The opportunity there then is: if we're all using the same tools, we can come together and get the best of both worlds. In games, you have people who are level designers and it's their job to understand how to make sure that any geography in the game maximises the potential for play. But there isn't much of a focus yet on how that 3D environment can impact the story or help lift the entire experience. That's where I'd like to see our DOPs and our production designers coming into that space in a greater way, because they understand that it's not just about shapes and light, it is about meaning as well.

(Considering) things (such as the fact that) now we have amazing tools to mimic different lenses and gameplay spaces - we have virtual production to thank for that. A lot of the tools that we have (that are used) for games to look as beautiful as they (do) today have come from the film industry demanding more from these kinds of tools. So in a lot of ways, James Cameron has been kind of pivotal in pushing for that with all that virtual production stuff that he's done and demanding how tools be better to encapsulate all that, because he understands how important all those things are. The great thing now is that those tools are not just in the domain of James Cameron - they are available to everyone now.

Literally anyone with a laptop can download anything on Reel this afternoon and start learning how to (use it) and it'll come with a lot of those tools to make those kinds of spaces. There is a huge opportunity there for those who want to be in this space to just spend a little bit of time understanding these tools. Not even necessarily (with the intention of) knowing how to use it themselves, but at least understanding how to communicate, how to use the language, who you might need to talk to to get these visions across to make some really amazing and beautiful stuff. The advantage of that too, in particular, is there is efficiency there. If everything is in one tool in one 3D space, then everything can be used for multiple reasons. So I know there are some projects floating around where, from the very beginning, they didn't write a screenplay for a film to be made or (they just) come up with some narrative design for a game to be made that was from the beginning understood to be a story that would be told in different parts across different mediums. They're using the same assets to create the linear film, which are also making the interactive experience for the game, and they've also got a process to basically capture stills to produce a comic that can then be printed out of the whole thing as well. So there's an efficiency there, because it's all the same assets; it's just a matter of deciding then how it's going to be presented. We can really now get to that point where we can understand; "what kind of story do we want to tell? What medium would be the best to tell it?", and then leverage a whole bunch of opportunities off of that.

AG: Can you provide the audience with a next step that you would suggest if they want to learn more about this space?

AS: Absolutely. My first response to that always - for writers in particular - is to look at tools like Twine. There's another one called Ink. (Look at) any of those very simple interactive tools, just to get your interactive literacy up. They are very accessible and they can be used to get projects up to go for jobs and that type of thing. In terms of everyone else in production: virtual production is your gateway drug and you should consume all things virtual production. The advantage of that is that it spans across both spaces. They use language from both industries. Both Unreal and Unity are the main engines in this space at the moment. If you go to their website or if you search on Google for Unreal virtual production, you will get their resources on virtual production and they will break things down into as much detail as you need to really understand where those things do intersect. I think it's a smart thing for film people to be doing anyway, because even if they're not interested in games, (the future of virtual production) is still going to be an important part of the toolset. Going from there, you can then see what catches your eye in terms of virtual production and talk to people. I'm here Melbourne and very active in this space as well. People are welcome to reach out to me on Twitter at @swordsnarrative - I'm always up for a good conversation about where people can go.

AG: Thanks so much, Alex. To learn more about ACMI X: our website and Twitter are listed in the show notes alongside information about each of our guests.

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