Narrative and design insights from 80 Days' writing lead

At GDC 2015, Meg Jayanth, lead writer of acclaimed mobile adventure game 80 Days, shared insights into how the team at Inkle created a deeply narrative, highly nonlinear and satisfying story.

At GDC 2015, Meg Jayanth, lead writer of acclaimed mobile adventure game 80 Days, shared insights into how the team at Inkle created a deeply narrative, highly nonlinear and satisfying story -- and what you can do to improve your game's writing.

The title of her talk was "leading players astray," which Jayanth descirbed as "partly a joke about the writer's role in games, but partly serious."

"My job as a writer was to tempt players into making bad decisions," she said, because "a bad strategy decision might lead them to a more interesting story."

Why? "It's the near-misses, the catastrophes, the daring escapes that players remember and talk about," Jayanth said. "It's the adventures they weren't expecting to have that make a game memorable." This leads players to "explore, share and compare" their stories with each other.

And that meant creating a huge amount of content that "most players won't see, but we saw that as an advantage, an opportunity, rather than an inefficiency," Jayanth said.

The total word count for 80 Days is over 500,000 -- more than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but less than George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series (so far) by way of comparison.

She said that the team wanted to create a game that surprised and delighted players, but also discomfited them: one that tackled tough topics such as race, gender, 19th century colonialism, war, and politics -- but still remained fun to play.

"The alternate history we created in 80 Days is deliberately inclusive and politically charged," Jayanth said. It "deconstructs the classism and racism" of Jules Verne's original Around the World in 80 Days.

"80 Days has worldbuilding instead of plot," Jayanth said.

To drive a narrative with that goal, and one that players could sink their teeth into -- and one that spans the entire globe -- "we approached our worldbuilding in a systematic, way by being really clear about the kind of stories we wanted to tell the effects we wanted to achieve," Jayanth said. She herself did a tremendous amount of research, very little of which made it directly into the game but all of which informed the style, tone, and content of her writing.

"We asked ourselves what steampunk would look like outside of London, outside of New York... Haiti, Lebanon, the Middle East," Jayanth said. Whenever the team added a story event or a piece of technology to the world, "we asked ourselves what repercussions it would have in the region and more widely in the world... We followed through on the consequences of what we invented in the game and grounded our fantasy into the world."

Since the game is fully non-linear and player choice-driven, no two playthroughs are the same, and players will experience the events they do find in different orders.

"The uncertainty is engaging, it's thrilling and surprising," Jayanth said. "You never quite know what's important and what you might have missed. You have to let the world and characters lead you astray. The world turns, but it doesn't turn around you."

To do so, the team had to make sure "that every single playthrough told a good story." The game's story builds meaning over the long haul by "accretion" of events and situations.  "It's literally the journey, not the destination."

"Instead of trying to achieve a narrative structure through choke points or funnels," says Jayanth, different regions of the world have more in-depth stories in general, as players travel the world.

"The journeys in the Americas and West Africa... are deliberately more perilous and more risky, and more prone to breakdown, as the players reach their goal," she said. The story concepts are deeper and more complicated -- even weird -- because "players have already suspended their disbelief" by the time they are so deep into the game, too.

Another interesting idea is that instead of building a BioWare-style morality system, moral choices are simply reinforced by the plot itself. For example: If you want to travel quickly to a certain city, your only choice is a slave ship. But when you get there, the residents view you as a slaver -- and you're forced into a brutal slave-hunting quest, that shows the consequences of your association, because of your choice.

"The principle of ... thinking systematically about the world and the story should help you be able to think about how you want to shape the player experience of your story," Jayanth said.

"Agency isn't just about the actions a character can perform," she added. "It's in a character's thoughts, sensibilities." She urged the developers at the conference push forward more emotions besides power and mastery -- and said that when you surprise players, and make them "feel something they didn't expect a game to let them feel," that they "will forgive you for your sins" -- the weaknesses of your game in other areas -- as a developer.

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