Writer’s roundtable: the death of Irrational and the trouble with blockbuster videogame narrative

Many questions have arisen from the closure of Irrational this week, and most remain either unanswered or unanswerable at this stage. But we can certainly discuss what might have led to the studio’s closure with those in the industry with working knowledge of creating the kind of games Irrational was famed for: blockbusters with a strong focus on narrative. So, we invited three veterans of videogame storytelling to talk over the studio’s closure and what it means for the future of story-led triple-A games.

Rhianna Pratchett started out as a games journalist on PC Zone before moving into development, writing Heavenly Sword, Mirror’s Edge, the Overlord games and, most recently, Tomb Raider. Ragnar Tørnquist has been writing videogames for 20 years, his credits including The Longest Journey, Anarchy Online, The Secret World and Dreamfall. He is currently CEO and creative director of Red Thread Games, working on Dreamfall Chapters and firstperson horror game Draugen. Climax Studios game director Sam Barlow is a videogame writer of equal experience and renown, having written several Silent Hill games. They are all speaking at the Story Writing for Games panel hosted by Rab Florence on Monday at the Glasgow Film Festival – you can head through here for more details.

Here, they discuss the creative challenges – and huge expense – involved in creating the kind of games Irrational developed and why Ken Levine is more likely to fulfill his narrative ambitions working in his new, smaller team.

What do you think we’ve lost as a medium with the closure of Irrational?
Rhianna Pratchett:
I hope it’s not the case that the industry’s going to think: ‘oh well, narrative games aren’t successful’ and stop doing them.

There are multiple reasons Irrational closed. I not sure it was necessarily down to Bioshock Infinite not being profitable. There seems to be something happening at the moment with triple-A developers going back into the indie scene – I know a number of developers on the BioShock games that have gone back into smaller team development – Jordan Thomas, Steve Gaynor… there’s some great stuff happening in the indie scene and I think that’s where a lot of innovation is lying at the moment.

I think a lot of triple-A titles will be taking inspiration from there, or actively going back to that smaller studio space. I hope we’ll see the middle ground open up a bit as recently it’s either been your big Call Of Dutys, Bioshocks or GTAs and then tiny indies. The middle ground is sort of getting lost, so this could be an opportunity for more reasonably budgeted games to really prove themselves – someone like Telltale, for example.

Steve Gaynor left Irrational to set up The Fullbright Company and develop Gone Home – expect plenty more indies to emerge from Irrational’s closure.

Sam Barlow: Bioshock is an interesting one because even as far back as the first BioShock, it was used a rod to beat me with by some publishers – it was always highlighted as an ambitious mature game that never made money. So despite the critical acclaim it was never making the amount of money you would need to on that scale or project. I think people will look at it as having failed because of that ambition and it’s symptomatic of the way that large blockbuster games are funded and developed. What’s happening now is the knock-on from the last year and year and a half where people were really scared about new consoles and whether there was going to be a market there.

I saw a lot of bigger triple-A style games where suddenly people got cold feet. But there’s been a huge upswing in confidence now that the consoles are out there and they’re getting some traction, and there’s a general feeling that it’s going to be business as usual and we can start ramping up that sort of stuff again.

Ragnar Tørnquist: The end of Irrational doesn’t signal the end of triple-A narratives – quite the opposite. There are going to be fewer huge triple-A games going forward but all of them are going to be very narrative driven – it’s such a proven angle and audience. I’m sure Ken’s closing down Irrational is to do with both the soul-draining exercise of making triple-A games and the excitement in the indie space – of being able to tell stories with a smaller team.

I know, I’ve done it myself. I went from 250 people on The Secret World down to 15 people with Dreamfall Chapters and I feel so much more joy every day coming in and being able to sit and write a lot more and work directly with people, and I’m sure that’s part of why the decision was made. Together of course with the fact that it might not have made as much money as it needed to. But that definitely doesn’t mean that the narrative triple-A game is going away at all.

Tørnquist is currently working on Dreamfall Chapters with relatively small team, allowing him to retain greater direct control.

RP: Look at something like The Last Of Us – that was really the BioShock of last year in terms of the impact of the narrative. I don’t see Naughty Dog going anywhere.

I have to agree with Ragnar in that i’ve always had more fun on smaller teams as well – when people ask me what my favourite project to work on it was actually the Overlord games. You could have that interaction with people every day – I would work with level designers and we created a script that worked for them and worked for me in terms of story – everybody trusted each other because it was a small team. There weren’t so many levels of people to run things through, something you do get with a triple-A game and that can be frustrating.

SB: The difference between large triple-A teams and smaller teams is quite big when it comes to writing. By commercial necessity no-one’s going to pay someone to go away and write a videogame for a couple of years, create a spec script for a game and then build it from there. So there’s always a tension between having to lay the railroad tracks as you’re going – writing the game alongside actually developing it. The amount of stuff that’s built and then thrown away, and the expense of that, is knock-on of trying to be creative and having a story as well as trying to build everything around you. A lot of those constraints are just how games are funded and how people measure progress. So I think people going back to smaller teams gives you more of that ability to be creative without the huge knock-ons to the financing of the game.

RT: It’s very true that games have to be written as they’re made. They cannot be written beforehand – I’ve written scripts before to my games before that have changed completely once we are in production. It’s often a waste of time to spend too much time on the story until you start building it, and that’s the problem with triple-A games. Any change you make to the narrative has such huge consequences on budget and timelines.

I had that with The Secret World which was an MMO and on top of everything else it was narrative-driven. When we did make a lot of changes it set us back weeks, sometimes months. With indie, being able to make those quick changes and that quick turnaround means that you can invent and create narratives that are a lot more interesting than in triple-A, where you are locked down by all of these other concerns and necessities.

Making big narrative games like Beyond is a very time consuming and expensive process. Investing in their development is a risk for publishers, but as The Last Of Us has proven, sometimes it pays off.

RP: Especially with things like mo-cap and voice actors. That adds a huge cost as well. Look at something like Beyond – the mocap for that must have been one of the most expensive aspects, I would imagine.

SB: A lot of that is something that can be offset by the process. There’s no reason that you can’t backend that huge expense to the point where you have the game in a manageable form and have a sense of where the story’s going. BioWare do a very good job of this, where they will have the narrative sketched out in greybox form using placeholder voices and that allows them to get a feel for the scope and shape of the narrative.

RP: Story has a very large and long feedback loop from when you write it to when it’s in a game in a shippable form, because you have actually writing it, casting, rehearsals, mocap, the animation will have to be cleaned up and them there’s sound…it takes a very long time between writing and seeing it to judge it. BioWare has a good way of doing it and that’s probably something that more companies should implement but BioWare has a great understanding of story as well as game development.

RT: That’s the way we work here [at Red Thread] as well. Once you actually get the game mechanics in, things change and you still have to go back and tweak the narrative, you have to replace actors and tweak dialogue. It keep changing. What we’re doing is a huge challenge that doesn’t end until we ship the game.

Mass Effect 3

Our panel of writers consider BioWare to be the masters of executing grand videogame narrative. It’s a result of having a focus on story running from the top of the studio down and greyboxing its storylines from the outset.

So for big ambitious narrative games to really work, do you need an auteur-type figure at the top of a studio – a Levine or a Kojima, for example – who’s responsible for both the game’s design and its story?
RP: Well, it gives them hard power. I’m in a different situation because I’m a hired gun and I come in and help out different projects – I get to suggest and persuade and nudge and whisper but I don’t have the power on the team like a creative director would or a game director would, which does make it a kind of constant battle. I’m not like [Naughty Dog’s] Amy Henning or Neill Druckmann or [Double Fine’s] Tim Schafer who have genuine, hard power. I think it does help with the story if a writer has power and the vision to follow it though.

RT: I’m used to being a director, producer and writer on my games and of course it’s fantastic to have the power to push those narrative choices through and let that lead the rest of the game. But at the same time it can be kind of dangerous, where you let the narrative take over or you don’t have anybody challenging you to balance it against the other needs of the game. I’ve learned to listen more. It’s good to have somebody on the team who can challenge your decisions on the narrative or the writing and have a different take on it.

SB: I’ve been lucky in that i’ve essentially been the ‘Ken Levine’ on most of my games and it’s often really key because there isn’t a line between the design and the writing, especially if you’re doing a narrative-driven game. A lot of what you might call the game design is actually writing in a sense – writing isn’t just words, it’s creating the characters and the world and the actions that might make sense in that world.

Climax game director and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories writer Sam Barlow says smaller projects are a little easier to control – and in some ways, more time and money can be counterproductive.

In terms of that giving you the freedom, everything is a battle when you’re spending someone else’s money making a videogame. Let’s say it’s a three or four year development, you present your vision at the start and people come on board at different stages – you’re constantly having to make people feel confident that their money is being spent correctly and help them join the dots, explain the vision and help them see where the game’s going.

The best experience I had making a game was Shattered Memories, because we had time constraints and other constraints which meant we had to chop up the shooting of the mocap into a series of chunks and it made more sense to create those in chronological order. At the same time we’re building the game in chronological order, so we were able to do quite a lot of reacting to the actors and their performances and feed that back into the next session. There wasn’t enough time to re-do or re-think stuff, so there was always that element of that pressure that sometimes isn’t there if you have too much time or too much money.

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