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GDC 2012: 'Contrastive juxtaposition' is BioWare's key to telling engaging stories

Wondering what BioWare's secret is for producing emotionally engaging games? The company's Jonathan Perry explains the principle of "contrastive juxtaposition" and how it guides the development process.
BioWare cinematic lead Jonathan Perry introduced the concept of "contrastive juxtaposition" in a GDC 2012 talk on Thursday, summed up most succinctly by Butthead from Beavis and Butthead, of all people:

"Well, Beavis, if they didn't have a part of the song that sucked, then like, the other part wouldn't be as cool."
Perry began by showing the introduction sequence from Mass Effect 2, in which Commander Shepard dies saving the crew of the Normandy, as an example of contrastive juxtaposition. "This scene was a really powerful and emotional moment for me in the game, partially because I lost a character but also because of the contrast in the scene itself," Perry said. "Contrast" referred to an entire range of cinematic techniques, including the sharp audiovisual contrast between the loud, bright explosions and jittery camera while the Normandy explodes to the muted color and eerie silence as Commander Shepard loses oxygen and eventually vanishes. Contrastive juxtaposition: Polarity and context The first central element of contrastive juxtaposition is polarity, Perry explained. "I like to think of contrast in terms of polarity. We have positive and negative polarities that we're all familiar with--good vs. evil, light vs. dark. But they don't have to be good and evil--up and down, for example," Perry said. "Polarity lets us see how a character is changing over the course of a story, shifting in polarities over time. As players in a game, we like to be the one that's driving that change." Mass Effect 2's Paragon/Renegade system is perhaps the most obvious example. The second key element is the context within which the game's various polarized relationships are depicted. Perry presented an explanation from Alfred Hitchcock about how an audience's opinion of a character can be manipulated with a few key images. Hitchcock's example depicted an older man with a neutral expression, then a clip of a young woman playing with a baby, then back to a shot of the older man smiling, which gave the audience a "kind old man" character, but when the second shot was swapped out with one of a young woman in a bikini, the old man became a "dirty old man." "We do this a lot in BioWare games, and the image we swap out is determined by your decisions as a player. We can manipulate the order, the context of events to enhance meaning or create meaning where it would not have been otherwise," Perry said. Building a story around creative juxtaposition Perry identified a few key elements in the creative process that lets BioWare build their story around creative juxtaposition. "First, we try to identify the theme of the game. What do we want it to mean? What story do we want to tell? This can be hard, but it's important to establish them early because they can influence design decisions down the line," Perry said, "Once you've established the major players, what does each side represent? In Mass Effect, humans represent innocence, free will, and chaos, against the Reapers' authority, determinism, and order." With those polarities in mind, Perry walked the audience through a Mass Effect 3 trailer: "This is a boy playing with a toy ship, but it's more than that. It's the only child we've seen in the Mass Effect universe. We want this boy to represent humanity. He's young and innocent. Then we come to Shepard watching, and she smiles. She loves humanity. She wants to protect it. This boy represents everything you're fighting for in the game." Polarity played into the actual conversation game mechanic, too. Perry noted that the traditional Mass Effect dialogue options had been reworked to give the player fewer opportunities to shy away from hard choices in Mass Effect 3. "We're not going to let you sit on the fence and let someone figure out for you," Perry said, "We want to give you a hard choice. We want you to choose between shades of gray." Perry explained how BioWare used a narrative map graph--essentially a sine wave fluctuating between Paragon and Renegade on the Y axis over the course of a sequence of events leading to a significant game decision. Each point along the wave denoted a moment in the sequence where the player would be led to sympathize with the Paragon or Renegade decision. By the time the event concluded, the player would be forced to choose between two genuinely compelling paths. But Perry cautioned that establishing contrast, whether through cinematic techniques or game design, wasn't about going full bore all the time: "You can't necessarily crank it up to 11 and leave it. It's the contrast that grabs your attention. And to do that, you need to identify the story elements that you want to highlight. If that's your key moment, how do you make it stand out? How do you make the lows lower and the highs higher?"

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