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Defining Resistance 3
Resistance 3's lead writer Jon Paquette discusses the creative process behind the third installment of Insomniac's shooter franchise, and how being on staff and working collaboratively leads to the best story possibilities in games.
September 5, 2011
10 Min Read
There's a fair amount of debate on whether stories should intrude in shooters at all. Of course, the creative team needs to devise a compelling world setting for the game, and needs to create a storyline to provide motivation for the player, but beyond that... How do things work?
Insomniac lead writer Jon Paquette here discusses the process he used at the studio to bring forth the best from Resistance 3. New to the series, he worked on absorbing the canon before charging forward with a mission for the developers.
In this interview, he discusses how he collaborates with the art and design teams at Insomniac, how much story is too much for a shooter, and the way in which he integrates subtler moments into a game where players are more worried about "trying to find the next head shot."
I feel that being a writer in-house is a real benefit. Writers are so low on the totem pole in certain arenas, that other developers are more likely to listen to what you're saying.
Jon Paquette: Yeah, it's interesting, because I don't feel like there's really a totem pole per se. I think a writer on a game, you start off and you say, "Okay, this is the vision, and this is kind of the story that we have in mind."
But then, at some point, you turn into an implementation monkey -- where the designers are saying, "This is my setup, and I need this line of dialogue, and this line of dialogue, and you have to write that." You're working for the game designer at some point.
"I need this many in this spreadsheet."
JP: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I mean, the writerly part of the development process, where you get to kind of think about the grand scheme of the vision that you want -- but there's the kind of grunt work that you need to do as the game is being made. Like everybody else on the team, you need to do the work to have it be seen and heard.
And that's why I think that it's good to have someone in-house. Because a lot of folks that have tried to do the Hollywood thing, like hire a guy that has written X, Y, or Z movie, then you've got a guy who only wants to write a script and leave it alone.
JP: Yeah, and I've been a designer on teams, where we've had writers who just kind of come in every few weeks and say, "Okay, this is what's going on," and the results aren't that great. You end up getting people on the team actually writing the dialogue or the scenario for different things, because the game moves faster than you think it does. So if you're not with the team every day, you're not going to keep up with the game.
Coming from having not worked on the first two Resistance games to working on the third, how do you pick up the mantle and go, "Okay, there's canon here, but there are things I want to do"? How do you reconcile that?
JP: Well, there's a lot of canon. The first few weeks on the project, I just spent reading documents. There is so much story that is not shown in Resistance 1 or 2, but there's explanations for everything. But it's hard to, in a game, bring all that out.
So my first order of business was understanding what happened in Resistance 1 and Resistance 2, and all the back story to all that. And then working with the existing team and saying, "Okay, where do we want to take Resistance 3?"
And then my personal strategy was to keep it simple. I think that in games, if you try to have a complicated story...
You're going to fail. That's my opinion.
JP: No, it's my opinion as well. Because a game is not consumed the same way as a movie. A movie, you sit down and you say, "I'm going to watch this from beginning to end." A game you sit down and you play 30 minutes, or five minutes, or whatever, and then you're like, "Okay, I've got to do the laundry. I've got to take my dog for a walk" -- whatever -- and you lose it.
So if you don't have a simple story, and know what the simple goal is for the player, the story itself is going to be fragmented, and eventually you're going to be shooting people, or doing whatever you do in the game, and you're going to be like, "I don't know why I'm doing this, but the game wants me to do it, so that's why I'm doing it."
I feel like there's a resistance to stories that are more than just kind of "survive, shoot the bad guys" -- with some new twist on that. Ultimately, that's what they all boil down to. But I don't actually think that's a bad thing... that's what people want, so why not just embrace it?
JP: Well, so my goal in games, as a designer, or a writer, or whoever, whatever role I am, we need to make sure that the player knows who they are, where they are, sometimes when they are -- if it's past or whatever -- and most importantly why they're doing what they're doing.
So if I'm shooting these aliens, I want to know why I'm shooting the aliens. It needs to be satisfying to shoot the aliens, believe me, but if I know why, then the experience itself is going to be so much better, and I think that's what the best games do.
Like, when you play through the best games, you know where you're trying to go, and why you're doing what you're doing, and every action for the player has a meaning.
Context and goals are super important, but they're also very hard to communicate in this medium, without being cheap about it.
Though sometimes you have to be.
JP: Yeah, and you know, you shouldn't shy away from the cheap. If it works, it works.
Like, "X goal, 20 meters ahead." On the one hand, that's kind of a copout, on the other hand it's like, "Well, now I know where I'm supposed to go, so that's good."
JP: Exactly, exactly. If you know where you're supposed to go, and what you're supposed to do, then the experience is going to be better -- and the goal is to have a great experience.
In a game like this, where it's very much about the survival of the human race, is there any room for subtlety? Writers, in general, enjoy inserting that sort of thing. Have you found places where you can do that?
JP: Yes and no. So subtlety, okay, I'm going to go off on tangent here. Have you seen Jerry McGuire?
No, all I know is "show me the money."
JP: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, there's this scene in Jerry McGuire at the start of the movie where he writes this statement, this thing that he brings to his agency, and he's like, "Okay, this is my mission statement. This is how I want to change the world." And of course, he gets booted because of it. You know, whatever -- but I've done that, I think, on every game that I've worked on.
I've had that moment where I've stayed up all night and I've said, "I have a mission statement. I need to write this down and share it with everybody." And on one of the games I wrote about subtlety, and how it doesn't work in games, because the audience doesn't really care at some point. There are moments where you can achieve subtlety, but in a first person shooter, in the middle of action, that's not going to work.
So in Resistance 3, I tried to keep subtlety out of the action as much as possible. But there are moments where you're interfacing with these survivors, these people who are trying to survive against the Chimera, that do have some subtlety in there if the player wants to find it.
That's what I focused on -- those moments where the player isn't actively shooting enemies, that's where you can insert subtlety, but when the player is engaged in gameplay and shooting enemies, you can't get subtlety across to the player because they're just trying to find the next head shot.
I feel like environmental storytelling is where subtlety can come across.
If one can be deeply entrenched in the team and know what's going on, there's the ability to put those kinds of moments in.
JP: Yeah, I agree. I agree completely. And going back to environmental storytelling, you know, I'm a firm believer that everybody on the team is a storyteller. So the background artist that makes that texture that goes on that wall, they have the opportunity to be a storyteller.
If they understand what the story is, if I communicate the story to the team well enough so that they understand what's going on, they can create something that I didn't think of, but that they thought of, that's really cool. And they can put that on the wall, and it's like, "Damn, that's awesome."
And I think that's when I feel the best as a writer -- when other people come up with great story ideas and put them into the game, that match the overall vision. It's great.
As long as everyone's focusing on the vision. I mean I doubt that Valve, for all their intelligence, knew that "the cake is a lie" was going to be the story throughline of Portal.
But it was because they created these opportunities for you to see behind the curtain, and that wound up being so significant. And in Left 4 Dead, that happens as well. That kind of stuff winds up becoming the story, and the thing that you pay attention to, if you want to pay attention to that stuff.
JP: Yeah and I think Valve is staffed by a bunch of geniuses. I love their games. But, you know, I bet that they played that game a lot during development. And that story kind of organically came up from all the time they spent playing, all the feedback that they got from the people that played, and they were like, "Okay, this is something that would surprise the player, but would totally make sense in this universe." And that's why -- going back to why writers need to be on staff -- having somebody there that can take all this feedback, and rewrite something, and present it. It's very important.
And there's something to be said for being able to walk around and look at what everyone is doing. You may not always have the chance to do that, because everyone is kind of head down in what they're doing, but when you can, it's really definitely valuable.
JP: Well, Insomniac has a great kitchen, so we always get together in the kitchen to talk over coffee or whatever.
That's a good place to do it.
JP: Yes, it is.
Developers often talk about how ideas that germinate in random discussions between a couple people wind up being features that get implemented.
JP: Totally, and we're often talking about other games. Other games that we've played, and we're like, "Oh yeah, how did they do that? That one thing? Were they spawning their guys off-screen and then bringing them in there?" And we're like, "Well, we should try that."
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