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Unfortunately, it’s also a difficult guideline.
Gameplay elements are rarely designed with narrative in mind. They’re limited in quantity and tend to be blunt instruments; the mechanics of walking and jumping can only go so far in conveying complex stories. Given this limited scope, it’s not surprising that gameplay is rarely used as the main vehicle for narrative.
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar had a pretty good go at it, though.
UIV is the story of the Stranger’s rise to embody eight virtues principal to the game’s setting: honesty, compassion, valor, justice, honor, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility. On the surface, it’s a typical CRPG of the era: there’s exploration, statistical progression, item management, NPC conversations, and combat. The twist is how these elements are cleverly subverted for storytelling purposes.
Fairly common RPG activities such as opening random treasure chests, running away from battle, and being a smart alack to NPC’s can lower various virtue-scores.
Conversely, overpaying for goods (instead of haggling down their prices), letting monsters escape from battle (and losing potential experience points), and destroying the most powerful artifact in the game (which makes combat a breeze), increase virtue. A full list of these virtue-altering actions can be found here.
UIV’s main quest involves traversing the world in order to recover 8 virtue stones and runes, learn the mantras corresponding to each virtue, max-out all 8 virtue-scores, meditate at 8 virtue shrines, obtain the 3-part key, and finally discover the the word of passage.
Once these tasks are complete, the Avatar can descend into the abyss and place the virtue stones at their respective altars. A short quiz follows where the player is questioned about the virtues, and each correct answer displays a part of the codex-symbol. When the codex is fully unveiled, the player (presumably) gets to bask in its glory and return to the real world with newly gained knowledge and experience.
It’s not an overly complex story, and its scant plot-points are almost entirely non-linear, but the narrative is closely coupled with the gameplay. UIV achieves this through various design choices.
First, the game gives a concrete role for the player to embody. It’s all fine and good to “roll” a teetotaler, pyromaniac dwarf, but it’s not nearly as much fun if this persona is restricted to the player’s imagination. Becoming the Avatar is UIV’s sole objective, so the entire gameworld naturally revolves around the player’s ability to fill the Avatar’s shoes. In addition, this is a perpetual task that encourages the player to stay in-character throughout the experience.
Secondly, UIV grafts virtue-fulfillment entirely onto existing systems. This makes the learning curve less harsh and presents interesting handicaps for familiar gameplay, e.g., avoiding hostile wildlife might not yield immediate rewards, but it aids in gradually achieving the larger goal of Avatar-hood. Since these systems are also granular, they encompass numerous ways in which the virtue scores can be affected.
Furthermore, the approach greatly reduces implementation costs. Every virtue-altering instance is not a custom, one-time cutscene, but rather an action that’s optional and repeatable. In turn, the player can actively participate in the story by partially steering where, when, and how the virtues are tested. Since many events in the game also impact more than one virtue, the overall progression is quite open-ended.
Finally, the virtue system allows the player to fail. Hints are still dispensed throughout the game — and can be actively sought out — but it’s not necessary to be aware of all the rules right from the start. There’s no game over screen if virtue is lost; no invisible wall, or awkward text prompt, or an automatic checkpoint reload. The event is simply recorded, and retributions can be made later down the road.
This makes the path to Avatar-hood a potentially bumpy (and a more interesting) tale, and prevents the game from clumsily asserting itself and its limitations.
Lots more could have been done to polish the virtue system and to make it a larger part of the gameworld, but UIV remains notable for the way it allows the player to collaborate with a pre-existing script. This is also done largely through gameplay, and, at least in part, is the reason why so many people keep playing it to this day.
JRPGs, and by extension SRPGs, have an unfortunate tendency to use text as filler. Even with numerous types of fast-forward buttons — something of a band aid solution — their dialogue sequences are often very lengthy.
Verbal diarrhea is never necessary, though, and with Trudy’s Mechanicals we’re taking multiple steps to avoid it:
- Dialogue sequences are often optional. If the player doesn’t want to listen to a character, he can simply choose not to initiate the conversation.
- Colourful tid-bits are non-blocking. This means that if an enemy or an NPC wants to deliver a bark-style one-liner, it simply fades in and out. The text itself is aesthetic and doesn’t hijack the player’s interface, leaving him free to navigate the UI or issue battle commands.
- Cutscenes are short and to the point. Characters don’t prattle on if they don’t have anything interesting to say, and the player never needs to wait too long before he’s back in the “driver’s seat”. A skip option is also implemented as it’s an expected standard for those who are not interested in the story or might be replaying the game.
This less-is-more approach means that our script is much, much smaller than that of a typical tactics game. As a result, we’re taking extra care to make sure the language itself feels unique and interesting.
Here are some examples:
Planescape: Torment is famous for its cant, Victorian slang that adds personality to its setting. Seeing as Steampunk has its roots in a romanticized Victorian era, we decided to take a similar approach with Trudy.
Although it’s tempting to go overboard with jargon, it doesn’t help if the script can’t be understood by most people. Consequently the use of slang is somewhat conservative and the words we picked often have current-day connotations.
Here are some examples:
- Barker – A gun. Not immediately obvious, but easily grasped given proper context.
- Nibbed – Arrested. As in nabbed, or kidnapped. The word doesn’t have a strict association with the police, but its sentiment is easily understood.
- Lushery – A public drinking den. Lush isn’t a common term for alcohol, but this one was just too amusing to pass up.
Naming characters in a fictional setting is a bit tricky. You typically want to steer clear of popular current-day names that might break the suspension of disbelief, e.g., Mike Smith or John Brown. On the other hand, something truly alien might prove too difficult to vocalize internally, while symbolic names like “Black Lightning” tend to come off awkward and hokey.
Of course we could’ve simply used Victorian era names, but I wanted to differentiate Trudy from typical Steampunk pulp.
Our solution was to use old Greek and Slavic names.
The result is not entirely alien, but it’s enough to stand out. Characters are given names such as Renatus, Tatjana, Darko, Milos, Daria, etc., which keeps the naming conventions consistent and adds a bit of flavour to the world.
Finally, proverbs are my favourite trick for imbuing a setting with a sense of culture and history.
Proverbs are usually quite short, but they convey words of wisdom that often speak volumes about an entire society. In keeping with our naming approach, I picked out a couple of Greek and Slavic proverbs suitable to our script:
“Gray hair is a sign of age, not wisdom.”
“As long as a child does not cry, it does not matter what pleases it.”
“Eat and drink with your relatives; do business with strangers.”
And it makes sense, too. People like stories, and stories are built on characters.
Despite this fairly natural desire for dialogue, games used to be pretty devoid of conversations. This struck me as particularly odd in RPGs where groups of people set out on a quest to save the world. After all, one would assume the journey would foster some banter and comradery.
Cutscenes eventually filled the void, but it took a while for another mechanism to catch on: letting the player manually choose to speak to his followers.
Planescape: Torment was one of the first titles to do this, and its discussions on the Circle of Zerthimon remain one of my favourite examples of player-initiated dialogue.
“No wonder my back hurts; there’s a damn novel written there.”
Planescape: Torment opens up with its scarred protagonist, The Nameless One (TNO), waking up in a morgue. A talking skull quickly floats by initiating a conversation.
We soon find out that Planescape: Torment is not afraid of being verbose. Dialogue is plentiful and it’s buffeted by descriptions, creating entire paragraphs that read like a novel. The Planescape cant — 19th Century British slang — adds further colour to the text.
Morte, the talking skull, informs us that TNO is effectively immortal as he resurrects each time he dies. The caveat is that he risks losing his memories whenever this happens, which is exactly how the game begins.
A Meeting at the Smoldering Corpse Bar
“Here? This is the Smoldering Corpse, though the person smoldering ain’t dead yet.”
TNO’s only clues to his past are rather vague; all he knows is that he’s missing a journal and should seek out a man named Pharod.
Sigil is a wondrous city, but in some ways it’s not that much different from a typical fantasy hub. To get a few quick answers, the easiest solution is to visit the local tavern.
The gruesome Smoldering Corpse bar is filled with all sorts of interesting characters, one of whom is noted to be observing TNO. His name is Dak’kon, and he’s a withered old githzerai who wields a shimmering glaive.
Talking to Dak’kon reveals that his weapon, a karach, is shaped and sharpened by his mind. The karach represents a zerth, a follower of Zerthimon, but Dak’kon’s blade is somewhat degraded due to a spiritual crisis. The githzerai dwell in the ethereal world of Limbo, forging their surroundings from clear thought, so this is a fairly significant issue.
Unfortunately Dak’kon cannot answer TNO’s immediate questions, but when the conversation ends, he offers to accompany us on our journey.
Getting to Know Dak’kon
“This is his gallery. He says that he *knows* you as his canvas. He shows respect to your strength with his admiration.” Dak’kon is silent for a moment. “Then he insults you by giving you his pity.”
The initial conversation options with Dak’kon are limited, but talking to other githzerai in his presence reveals more about him. We pick up on the fact that Dak’kon’s sullen disposition is a result of what’s seen as a terrible disgrace by his people.
What’s more, Dak’kon is purposefully hiding things from us.
In the Weeping Stone Catacombs, TNO comes across a severed arm that once belonged to his previous incarnation. The arm can be taken to Fell’s parlour to ask the Dabus about the tattoos that adorn it. If Dak’kon is chosen to translate Fell’s rebus dialogue, TNO can detect that the seemingly honourable gith is actually lying.
When confronted, Dak’kon states that he will not say any more in the parlour. The issue can be pursued later on, at which point we discover that Dak’kon has actually traveled with one of TNO’s previous incarnations. This revelation leads to the rather unique Xachariah subquest that sheds more light on TNO’s own past.
Learning the Circle
“*Know* that I am not a teacher in this, but *know* that I can serve as a guide.”
When TNO asks Dak’kon about his magic — the ‘Art’ — the gith replies that he does not know how it manifests itself in humans. However, if TNO were able to use it, he could learn more of it from Dak’kon.
This is achieved by completing Mebbeth’s sidequests and becoming a mage. While a mage, TNO can study under Dak’kon, and also switch classes by talking to him.
“To learn, you must *know* the People. To *know* the People, you must *know* the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon.”
The Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon is a device composed of a series of interlocking stone carvings. It’s a clockwork bible of sorts that Dak’kon carries with him wherever he goes.
Examining the Circle as a mage opens up a dialog box. Each level of the Circle tells a different tale of the githzerai race, its genesis, mass enslavement, and eventual rebellion. It reveals the rise of Zerthimon and the eons of suffering him and his people endured. The Circle teaches how the zerth came to learn and master themselves, and how enslavement became their greatest anathema.
“Endure. In enduring, grow strong.”
The full transcript of the Circle’s teachings can be found here, although it doesn’t contain Dak’kon’s and TNO’s commentaries.
Reading and learning the Circle comes across as a ritual; TNO must unlock each layer himself — as shown by Dak’kon — and talk to the gith after each session to discuss it. If TNO’s wisdom statistic is high enough, the proper lesson can be gleaned. This rewards the party with some experience, and a unique spell disk for TNO that magically slides out of the artifact without diminishing its weight or content.
This pattern goes on for six lessons until it’s revealed that Dak’kon himself does not *know* the full Circle.
Teaching the Circle
“You performed a great service for me. In so doing, you enslaved me.”
With with the sixth layer, both TNO and Dak’kon receive a new spell. To unlock the seventh and eighth layers, TNO’s intelligence must be high enough to work the mechanism, and his wisdom high enough to understand the lessons themselves.
This is a nice transition of student-to-teacher, and ultimately rewards Dak’kon with some permanent stat increases. These in turn affect the karach blade, empowering it with each increment.
The lessons of the Circle also lead to the truth behind Dak’kon’s and TNO’s past.
The ruthless “practical” incarnation originally found Dak’kon close to death in the world of Limbo. He desired the karach blade, so he ensnared the gith in a devious trap. By constructing the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon and speaking of its lessons, he showed Dak’kon a glimmer of hope to his spiritual ailment. In exchange, Dak’kon promised to follow TNO until his death, effectively becoming bound to the immortal for all time.
This enslavement constituted the greatest sacrilege for the zerth, yet it was the only salve for Dak’kon’s moribund soul. By completing the Circle, we finally brought him the resolution he so desperately craved.
“*Know* that there is now nothing left that I may surrender except my life.”
Although still bound to TNO, completing the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon allowed us to strengthen Dak’kon’s body, mind and spirit.
The process also facilitated character development and character progression. It was meaty, and deep, and unfolded gradually as the game progressed. It sparked numerous discussion that are still ongoing to this day, and it’s held up as a prime example of what made Planescape: Torment such a compelling title.
And it was all for a completely optional character.
These grunts, sighs, squeals and miscellaneous other vocalizations compose roughly 1/4 of the dialogues in the early hours of Final Fantasy XIII.
One one hand, they’re to be expected. Japan is known for its plethora of exclamations and onomatopoeiae. On the other — at least when translated literally — they make for a poor localization.
These sounds are often louder and longer than their English counterparts, or they simply have no equivalents. As such, they’re difficult to remove or replace and are usually left untouched. They’ve even become something of an accepted “quirk” among the more dedicated fans of Japanese media, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be handled in a more global-friendly fashion.
As things stand, vocalizations often come across as alien and awkward. They break the flow of conversation and the suspension of disbelief, and can leave a new audience feeling put off.
Sure, one can always argue for the purity and cultural authenticity of any given product, but that’s being a bit of a stick in the mud. Literal translations lack context and social nuances, and those fully familiar with them might as well experience the original versions. In order to make the products more palatable to a different audience, some things need to change. FF XIII in particular is a title Square Enix wanted to be a global blockbuster, not just a Japanese game released to a niche audience outside of its home country, so it stands to reason that they’d want to iron out these kinks.
So how can this be done?
A couple of points:
- If possible, simply remove the exclamations altogether. The ones that could easily be cut are left in to keep things consistent, but getting rid of them shouldn’t be an insurmountable issue.
- Use local equivalents of the vocalizations if available. For example, make a character surprised by a hand on his shoulder utter a short “Huh?” instead of the original, “Mwwwnnhaaa?”
- Use actual words or sentences for sounds that have no local counterparts. A character crying out “Gwahhhhhhhhhhhh!” for three seconds after witnessing a car crash could easily be replaced with a quick “Oh my god!”
- Meld the exclamations into the speech itself. I’m not an expert, but I noticed many of the vocalizations were isolated within the dialogue, whereas in English they’d part of it, e.g., “Mmmm, I don’t know about thaaaaaaaat.”
- Finally, keep these points in mind when developing the game, and provide the team(s) with the tools necessary to port it. Automated lip-synching is already widely used, but I’m sure other functionality or just the permission to alter the in-game cutscenes would be appreciated.
Of course there are more issues to consider as well — perhaps toning down on the dramatic, clenched-fist poses with characters uttering such phrases as “I’ll do my best!” — but those are a whole other topic…
Fiction writers usually despise lists such as “The top 50 character archetypes!” The reason for this is that even the most meticulously pre-planned stories begin in the magical land of the imagination and continue to evolve until they’re completed. Appending these tales with stock concepts doesn’t really enhance them, and the end results often resemble poorly written soap operas.
Also, for a more videogame-centric list of what keeps popping up in our medium, check out TVTropes’ videogame section.