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Deep Dive: Narrative mapping and simultaneous storytelling in Wayward Strand

How Ghost Pattern negotiated player agency with the multiple branching narratives of Wayward Strand.

Jason Bakker, Blogger

September 15, 2022

11 Min Read

Game Developer Deep Dives are an ongoing series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren’t really that simple at all.

Earlier installments cover topics such as the technical design of impossible spaces in the M.C. Escher-inspired game Mind Palace, the transition from digital illustration to indie development with comic book writer and artist Meredith Gran of Perfect Tides, and designing and implementing controls for the mobile port of PC and console title Descenders.

In this edition, Jason Bakker, a writer on Wayward Strand, discusses the game's narrative conceit and how the team designed around, and for, the challenges of simultaneous storytelling.

Hi, I’m Jason Bakker, a member of the team making Wayward Strand, a heartfelt narrative game set on an airborne hospital, in which you play as Casey, a teenage girl exploring the hospital and getting to know the patients and staff on board.

Inspired by interactive theater productions like Sleep No More, and classic adventure games like The Last Express, in Wayward Strand we tell multiple, simultaneous stories that overlap with each other across the course of three in-game days.

For Wayward Strand, I contributed to several elements, including writing, narrative design, game design, and programming--each of these alongside other team members. I’ll go into some of the unique tools we’ve built to enable this mode of storytelling, as well as how it’s affected our design processes and what the outcomes have been.

Setting Out to Sea

When our indie team, based in Melbourne Australia, set out to make Wayward Strand in 2016, we knew that this style of storytelling had been attempted several times before, by games like Smoking Car Production’s The Last Express, or thought about in concepts like Warren Spector’s ‘One City Block RPG’. We knew we needed to decide on some smart design constraints, which would hopefully make the concept achievable by a small team. These constraints ended up being quite counterintuitive to the normal process of game design, which I think partially might come from the fact that, as a team, we don’t approach game design in a conventional way.

The Team On A Research Trip

The most critical constraint we decided on was around player agency. If we were going to make a game of this scope as a small team, we’d have to take the focus away from empowering the player within the story, or making the game be about choices within the story that the player can make. Over the course of making Wayward Strand this has grown and solidified into a design philosophy of our team, but initially, it felt quite radical. Many designers of story-focused games seem to focus on player choice within an interactive story being foundational: it’s what makes games unique, it’s what games can bring to the table when looking at storytelling media as a whole.

Our theory was that by limiting player agency and not allowing the player to have a big impact on the stories, that would open up design space within the world itself; we’d be able to create interesting, overlapping stories that are reactive to the player, while not requiring an impossible amount of branching that takes into account the player making choices that cause sweeping changes to the stories.

This is a big reason why the player plays as Casey--a teenage girl visiting the hospital who is asked to spend time with the patients by her mum, the head nurse. You’ve got a reason to be anywhere and everywhere, but the setting and character suggest to the player that they wouldn’t be capable of fundamentally changing what’s happening within each non-player character’s life (and daily schedule). Within that constraint, we explore how Casey can affect people’s lives, in ways that might be subtle but are still emotionally significant, and can resonate through those characters’ other interactions.

A Game Schedule On The Wall

For the non-player characters, we began the process by mapping out each character’s core storyline(s) and figured out how these would be organized across the three days of the game. In those early stages, and then throughout the process of making the game, we’d continually look for additional ways for characters to interact with each other and with each others’ stories. We ended up with what feels like several ‘layers’ of story for each character: layers for particular storylines, layers of interaction with other characters’ stories, then layers for the functional day-to-day life within an aged care facility.

Implementing the Itinerary

We decided fairly early on that we’d use Unity, which I’d gotten comfortable with as the lead developer on Armello, along with the ink scripting language, which myself and Russell Dilley, Wayward Strand’s tech director, had done a game jam with. We really enjoyed its fundamental structures and inherent momentum, as compared to other storytelling tools available at the time. We began to build out our prototypes using a mix of Unity, the ink runtime (we’re using it in a bit of a weird way, where we run multiple instances of the runtime at once, one for each ‘scene’ that is concurrently playing throughout the ship), and a custom tool we built in WPF that is (mis)named the ‘WaywardScripter’. (It’d be more accurate to call it the ‘WaywardScheduler’, I think.)

The Wayward Strand Scheduling Tool

In 2017, when Unity released the Timeline package, we switched our janky custom Unity ‘direction tools’ across to use Timeline as a basis, and this settled into the fundamental structure of how Wayward Strand works internally. The logic of each scene lives within ink story files; Timeline is used to direct the characters within the scenes (each line of each ink scene has its own timeline; meaning we have over 20,000 timeline assets in the project); our custom ‘WaywardScripter’ tool defines when scenes play throughout each in-game day, and how each characters’ day is structured; and then within Unity, we have tons of logic that helps characters get to their scenes, and also decides when to play “dynamic” scenes (scenes that occur between Casey and other characters within specific windows of time, based on certain requirements).

This meant that myself and Georgia Symons, the other main writer, would write all of our scenes based on the plotted-out narrative structure that we developed with the rest of the game’s directors, as well as fill out dynamic scenes as required. There was significant back-and-forth in this process, as scene writing affected the narrative structure, requiring new scenes to be added or existing scenes to be modified, but as we continued this process, smaller and smaller changes were required, until it all (pretty much) settled into place. I probably shouldn’t undersell how long this took--Wayward Strand releases on September 15th, and this process was ongoing from 2016 all the way through to right before our VO recording sessions started, in February of this year.

The Team Brainstorming On Narratives in Wayward Strand

A funny thing about this structure is that the whole game, and all of its scheduled scenes, play out regardless of where the player is, or what they’re doing, at any one time. This has had ramifications across several other creative areas, but I think the area that might’ve been affected most is audio. Maize Wallin, our composer and sound designer, had to create a soundscape that is reactive to the player’s decisions about where to be and what to be doing at any time, within a world where things are constantly happening that might be totally unrelated to the player on this particular playthrough, but still need to ‘happen’, so that the world is in the right state when the player does move to that space, or interact with those characters.

Writing for Simultaneity

In terms of style, our scenes started out very linearly; we were inspired by theater, and were interested in limiting player agency as much as possible, to see what gains we would get from that. This was fine in scenes between non-player characters, but what we found in scenes that involved conversations between the player character and NPCs was that there was little to gain from the conversations feeling one-sided. Thus, one of the significant phases of editing on the project was to take all the conversations that Casey was having with other characters and turn them from linear conversations to conversations where the player could co-direct where the conversation was going.

This still just felt fundamentally better for the player--getting to choose where a conversation goes gives you the feeling of being an active participant, rather than watching an interaction play out between two other people.

Main Character Casey Gossiping At The Nurse Station

Fortunately, in ink it’s very easy to take a conversation where Casey has a back-and-forward with a character and turn several of the moments where Casey speaks into options that now move the conversation in a particular direction. We were able to do this to a greater or lesser degree based on the context of the moment, who you’re speaking to, etc., and this makes the conversations throughout the game feel varied and ‘life-like’: sometimes you’re in control; at others, the other interlocutor takes the reins, and leads you down a totally unexpected path.

On the narrative design side, we also developed a ‘core arc’ between Casey and her mother Ruth, the head nurse, that plays out primarily in what we call ‘bookends’--special scenes that occur between Casey and Ruth at the start and end of each day, as they ride the shuttle to/from the airship. While the player is free to roam throughout each day, we now know that they have an anchoring narrative throughout the course of the game, alongside what they are discovering or participating in in any of the other stories that are happening around them. Developing the interplay between this anchoring narrative and all of the dynamic stories has been complicated but also really fun to figure out.

Casey Speaks With Ted

In terms of the stories that play out when Casey is free-roaming--the vast majority of the game--that’s been something where we’ve just committed to the reality that the player may have no idea what’s going on when they arrive in a particular room, at a particular moment. They might catch the trailing end of a conversation; they might enter a room just as another character is leaving; they might never hear a critical bit of information on a particular playthrough that gives them an understanding of what’s going on in any one of our major storylines.

We’ve partly just accepted this because, with a total playtime of between 3-4 hours, a player can just play Wayward Strand again (and again) to discover more about what’s going on within the stories. But also, we’ve tried to ensure that, regardless of if you know why a particular character is annoyed at another character, or trying to get them to do something or whatever, the scenes are still inherently engaging, interesting interactions.

It’s a ‘disadvantage’ that turns into an advantage; in most other forms of storytelling, a confusing moment in a story feels either intentional, that confusion being put there for an explicit storytelling purpose by the creator; or sloppy, revealing the creator’s inability to empathize with their audience. But within our world, where stories are constantly happening around you, you can be confused by what’s going on at a particular moment, and that’s just… fine. It’s just a fact of existence within our world, just like the real world, and it makes each discovery, or realization, or connecting of the dots, feel like your own.

Mooring the Craft

So with all of this work that’s gone into the project, how has the experiment turned out? Well, we’ll find out what the audience response is within the next few weeks, but as far as I can tell it’s a super interesting thing to experience. When following a particular character for a while, you see their perspective of everything that’s going on--as they interact with other characters, you see how they come into the interaction, what their motivations are, what they’re thinking about. Then you can play it again, follow another character into that same interaction, and see how their thoughts and recent experiences feed into how they perceive the other person, and interact with them.

Listening to Esthers Secrets

It feels like it adds a fascinating dimension of storytelling; so much more can be left unsaid within any scene, because meaning can exist simply because two moments are juxtaposed in time next to each other; you can only fully comprehend the meaning of their interaction within the context of each character’s life by following each character’s story.

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