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8 things I learned making Extrasolar

How do you do compelling, believable storytelling when you're dealing with non-continuous gameplay? In this post, narrative consultant Lucas Johnson discusses his work on award-winning game Extrasolar.

Lucas Johnson, Blogger

May 5, 2015

19 Min Read

This post was originally published on the new site for Memory Insufficient, a magazine for game design history and digital culture. The essays we publish encourage players and creatives alike to hone a sharper critical lens, building the literacy needed for cutting-edge craft to thrive. Read our latest news to learn more about Memory Insufficient.

When I started working on the science fiction game Extrasolar over three years ago, it was only the second game-related project I'd ever worked on. I was only a year out of school with a degree in creative writing, and had never imagined I'd actually be making videogames for a living. And Extrasolar promised to be something really interesting: a cross between an Alternate Reality Game and a more traditional casual free-to-play game. Created (and self-funded) by Lazy 8 Studios, which had already seen success in gaming and ARGs, it was an amazing opportunity, and I was confident the game would do well.

Whether it actually ended up doing well depends on your metrics. It was a finalist for many awards, including the IGF Nuovo Award and IndieCade 2013; it won Best Desktop Game at the 2014 Indie Prize Showcase. It didn't make any money. But I did learn a metric tonne about game writing, design, and giving your audience a sense of personal ownership of their actions in a fictional world.

1: Constraints make for creativity

The premise of Extrasolar is that the player controls a rover on an alien world 10 light years away, much like NASA engineers control Curiosity on Mars: one move at a time. In the game, the player tells their rover to move and then to take a picture, and then comes back several real-world hours later to see what they took a picture of and study it.

It was a cool premise, a topical one, and one that would allow us to integrate typical free-to-play monetization—if you give us some money, you won't have to wait as long between moves. But the premise actually came from a technical constraint. The main creator of the game, Rob Jagnow, comes from a background in computer graphics, and wanted a way to create and deliver extremely high-quality, photorealistic graphics in a casual videogame.

The problem was, each frame would take at least fifteen seconds to render in the cloud. You can't get sixty frames per second with that kind of quality. And so the premise was actually a solution: rover travel time and communications lag would mean we wouldn't have to render more than one frame per player per couple of hours.

This, of course, made for a very unusual game to design, because now we had the challenge of making interesting gameplay, and an interesting story, that happens a couple moves a day over (on average) a month of play. This wasn't going to be immersive in the same way as World of Warcraft or Candy Crush, games which are very mentally absorbing because of the moment-to-moment repetitive tasks you are carrying out.

The compulsion to keep playing over the course of weeks had to come from what the player discovers as they explore what is an alien world with alien lifeforms (plantlike 'photobionts' mostly). “What's over that next ridge?” needed to be a question our players were eager to answer, and would wait expectantly for several hours before they could. And that meant needing really compelling content. Part of that came from the breathtaking landscape photography and intriguing alien designs. Part of it was to come from me—from the story.

2: Story delivery with unrelated mechanics

Among my challenges for creating and telling a story in Extrasolar was the game mechanic itself. The main thing that a player can do in the game—really the only thing—is move their rover, take a picture, and then tag things in that picture. There was no other way to interact with the environment—no 'Examine' or 'Interact' mechanic, no dialogue trees with in-game characters, certainly no guns (despite the number of people who asked, during early development, “So can you shoot other rovers?”). It was purely exploratory. How do I tell a story with those mechanics?

The story is delivered in two main ways. First are messages from the characters that the player works with (the lead scientist on the Extrasolar project, and a hacker, primarily). As they explore and find things in the environment, characters send them messages in response. “I notice you found a new type of photobiont...” “What could that object be?” And they give the player new missions. “See if you can find more.” “Our satellites have picked up something similar in the north; go check it out.” That way, the story is told directly in response to the player's actions—it only unfolds as they find interesting things and complete missions—but without needing any additional actions from them. “Now that we have three examples of that thing, we can determine that...” “I talked to my boss, and I think there's something strange going on.”

Secondly, some of the story—which ends up involving conspiracies, of course—unfolds through old documents that characters dig up. “I found this letter buried in the company archive.” While the player isn't the one digging up the clues they need, they're delivered to them based on how the story is unfolding, and they get insight into the backstory of the company, the program, and the characters. These are different from direct communications: the player accesses the narrative second-hand, piecing history together from primary sources.

The story needed to unfold without a lot of the player's direct interference—so we needed characters on all sides of the conflict, acting with their own agency. At the same time, the player's actions on the alien world had to matter—the player needed to bring new information to light, and trigger actions taken by other characters, based entirely on what they found in their explorations.

How do you create a sense of agency from the mere act of observing things in photographs?

3: Character interaction without character interaction

Part of that challenge was creating the illusion of a player's interaction with in-game characters. After all, all of that story content was being delivered one-way: characters sending the player messages. We had no way for players to send messages back without breaking the fiction.

We were trying to create a game in which it felt like the players themselves were the character, the protagonist—rather than playing an avatar, a fictional character. The interface we gave them  to play the game was the interface that the fictional company they worked for, XRI, was giving to the real life public to control rovers on another planet. Messages are sent to the player as emails within that interface, or video tutorials and messages from actors.

In real life, people communicate back and forth in actual text or voice calls (not, for instance, dialogue trees). But we couldn't very well allow players to send messages in-game that they compose themselves, not without incredibly sophisticated AI or forcing us to respond live to every email we receive from players—an impossible ask. Anything less than that, like some kind of dialogue tree, would make the system we’d created feel less real, less relatable to the ordinary email systems that players use in their everyday lives.

The fictional characters could only respond to the in-game actions of the player, the things they discovered on the alien planet. This could be direct reactions (“What's that thing?”) or merely a reaction to an amount of time passed since a previous event, based on how much the player has done. With very specific goals laid out in the game (“Find 5 of those things”) we could carefully control the rate at which the story played out.

Aside from a couple of additional minor mechanics that allowed the player to take some action in the story (typing in passwords to access secret documents) the only other way we had for the player to “respond” to characters was whether or not they did what the characters asked them to—or how quickly. In one case, we planned to have two characters give the player somewhat opposing instructions, and the one that the player chose to do first would affect how those characters reacted to the player.

Beyond that, though, our only other solution was to greatly restrict how branching the story could become.

4: Branching can be hard

As a writer of interactive narrative, branching choices are my core plaything, my game mechanic, the main tool in my toolbox. Of course the narrative has to branch. We have to give the player choice, and we have to acknowledge that choice.

Working on Extrasolar taught me that branching in videogames can be hard. I mean, I already knew that you had to be careful about scope: giving the player too many options to completely change the story results in a choice tree with an impossible number of results to write, program, and manage. But even a few small options, especially in what is essentially an open-world sandbox game (there's not a lot to stop you from exploring wherever you want on the island) can complicate things greatly.

Even if you put a mission objective directly in the path of the rover, there's theoretically no guarantee that the player will photograph and tag it before moving on. So for a lot of the story delivery, we couldn't assume that players had seen everything, or even completed previous missions. What if they decided they wanted to explore the entire island before doing any of the story content? Wasn't that a perfectly legitimate play decision?

When I first wrote a lot of the scripts of our 150-page story, I tried to include a lot of if/then statements as a way to work around this. If they haven't seen this thing yet, tell them this instead. But we discovered that that gets complicated quickly. What if they've seen a, b, and d, but not c? Hold on, are we sure they definitely have to have received that message before they might get this one? Plus every if/then statement was a lot of extra programming on the part of the developers.

Even with the most basic branching options, even cognizant of the potential scope creep of choice trees, branching narratives can get out of hand very, very quickly—and when you're trying to keep your budget to a minimum, it's the first thing to go.

5: Linearity can work

As we explored solutions to the branching narrative problem, we decided that a much more linear storyline could actually work, and work quite well. We weren't making a sprawling RPG like Mass Effect; the important thing was not to let the player feel like they were 'on rails,' but that didn't mean we had to give them the ability to do anything. After all, we were already creating a story in which they couldn't exactly respond to other characters at all.

Step 1: Write messages that don't depend on prior knowledge. If we couldn't be sure when the message would be sent, write it in a way that would make sense regardless of what previous messages had been received. Eliminate almost all if/then statements.

Step 2: A couple invisible walls. Yes, we cheated a little bit, after seeing some player behaviours in testing, by forcing players to explore one part of the island before they could explore the rest. The rough path we forced was one that was already encouraged by the story and existing missions—if the player was trying to complete them efficiently, they would never know there was an invisible wall forcing them to—but it helped solve problems from outliers.

Step 3: Give the illusion of agency. We weren't giving players the option of actually changing the course of the story by their actions; they couldn't respond to in-game characters, and ultimately would explore the whole island, so the story could actually be extremely linear. However, by having a lot of it unfold in response to the player's actions—messages sent when they tag specific objects, for instance—it still feels like they're an important part of the story. Furthermore, invisible walls aside, it's still a fairly open-world game; players can move wherever they want and take pictures of whatever they want, even ignoring the story for extended periods of time. That means that even though the story is the same for everyone, everyone's experience of it will be unique.

And that's something I don't think gets enough credit in games (and something we played with in Silverstring's original game, Glitchhikers): it doesn't matter whether players get completely different endings to a game based on their choices; a player's experience of the game can still be emergent and unique based only on how they move through the game and what context they bring to it, and that's arguably the more interesting thing. The challenge is to make a game that embraces the possibility for multiple perspectives on the same events.

6: Interactive narratives allow different emotional beats

This is something taught to me by transmedia writer and designer Andrea Phillips (Andrea Phillips (2012) A Creator's Guide to Transmedia Storytelling). Movies and novels can make you happy, sad, excited, fearful, tense; games can too. But interactive narratives like games can create additional emotions in the player that novels cannot, because the audience is an active participant in the story. Therefore we could theoretically create emotions like envyguilt, or a desire for vengeance.

Especially since Extrasolar followed a traditional ARG concept that the player wasn't “acting as a character” but was in fact themselves participating in the story—you're not a specific fictional character; you're you—we wanted to play with this element of interactive storytelling as a way to really bring the player deeper into the story. Even if they had limited choices, it can still feel like the player's fault when bad things happen.

The immersion we created in Extrasolar is not about being mentally absorbed in a task, and it isn’t just about how the interface created a sense that this is all really happening. It was about giving the player a deeper emotional investment in the story. Because they feel responsible, they are an inextricable part of the narrative, and they have a stake in how it all turns out.

7: People really do like engaging story (no really)

As a writer for everything from Alternate Reality Games to videogames to other interactive media, my job is often convincing potential clients that Story Is Important. Among people who do what I do, we often see it touted as the thing that really grabs players and gets them invested in the game. But it feels like a losing battle when you look at so many casual games, so many AAA games, so many indie games, just so many games that have little to no story at all and are still wildly successful, and it becomes a harder sell. Plus a lot of creators think they can adequately execute a story on their own—they don't need a dedicated writer, do they?

Extrasolar gives me the evidence I need, however. 80% of people who signed up for the game made it through the initial authentication process to start the story, and then 26% of those completed the story, coming back to the game regularly for a month to do so. 12% of players paid at some point for the upgrade from free to premium. Those are retention and conversion rates any free-to-play game would be envious of.

Certainly, different people play for different reasons; some may simply enjoy the exploratory and scientific aspects of the game, and we wanted to make sure such players could still enjoy the experience. However, exploration alone doesn't account for 26% of authenticated players finishing the story. We also received many comments about the ways the story surprised them, from the very first hook that draws them in to how it all works out.

We really strove to create a fiction that would pull the player in and make them invested in the outcome, from the company they “work for” to the real science brought to them by our (actual, real-life) biologist, to creating stakes that were immediate and placed them in the middle. I truly don't believe we would have had the kinds of numbers we did without a strong narrative. It can make all the difference.

Overall, the narrative design of Extrasolar became an intrinsic part of its game design, and was core to the creation of an immersive aesthetic that runs counter to the status quo in the games industry as a whole.

8: You don't always get to do the sequel

When we designed the story for Extrasolar, we knew that we wanted to do more. It's the curse of the writer, I think; we always have a sequel in mind. We wanted to take the characters farther, and we had so much more for players to discover on the alien world, things we foreshadowed in the existing game. But sometimes you don't get to do the sequel.

What we created was to be, to some extent, a proof of concept. That after the success it had, we'd be able to afford to do more, new areas to explore, great new stories to tell. But while we've had our share of critical success, Extrasolar was never the financial success it needed to be; while retention and ARPU numbers were exceptional, we couldn't attract enough users to make it viable. Even our attempted Kickstarter to fund “season 2” failed to reach its goal.

And that means that, unless something pretty drastic happens, there may never be an Extrasolar Season 2, or Season 3. We may never get to finish the story arcs we planned, reveal the secrets we hinted at. We may never be able to return to the characters we created, to show how they change, or show that there's more to them than we were able to show in Season 1. That's perhaps my greatest regret, that the “villain” of the game we created comes across as fairly one-dimensional, when we had plans to show more of his depth, to create new villains, to make everyone more complex. We just didn't have time.

And that's a hard lesson to learn. I think it's always good to plan for future content, to foreshadow and seed new stories; but you have to know that you may never get to tell them

Visit Memory Insufficient for more excellent essays on game design history and craft.

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