Originally posted on my game design blog on December 23, 2017.
[This article talks about Son of Nor, a third-person action-adventure game. Released on Steam in April 2015 for PC, Mac and Linux. Developed by Stillalive Studios.]
My good friend Estefano Palacios, the mastermind behind the incredible To Leave, once told me something I will never forget: “We have to paint a horizon if we want the player to be hooked narratively”, or at least something along those lines since we speak Spanish. This was over 6 years ago after I had joined him to establish what would be Freaky Creations, the first Ecuadorian Game Development team.
What he had meant with this, is that whenever we introduce the player into a fictional world we have to make it seem like it’s full of life and has a history. We have to convince the player that this world exists and has been there long before the player even thought of visiting it. This supports immersion and the suspension of disbelief.
I remember that Estefano had explained that “the horizon” is this place that you can see but not touch, makes the world look bigger and endless even if you can’t participate in it. As an example, He had cited games, like The Elder Scrolls, that have books lying around that the player can actually pick up and read. These books provide lore that enriches the narrative but at the same time, if the player chooses to ignore them, it wouldn’t affect the main gameplay and story. I don’t know if Estefano read about this concept or he thought about it himself, but it’s something that I took with me and had very present during the whole production of Son of Nor.
Son of Nor is a strange gem. It started somewhat as a physics demo that later turned into a PvP game but ended up being a co-op story-driven game. My job as the story writer was to take the basic lore that Julian, the leader at Stillalive Studios, created and expand it into a full-fledged story that would fit our gameplay needs (read a bit more about this and the tension graph of Son of Nor in this previous post). This meant creating characters, enemies, powers, cities, environments, maps, events and more that could be understood by all kinds of players, including the kind that skips cutscenes. In hindsight, the balance between the information that is given to the player and the information available for the player to seek out could have been better. But considering the time, tools and resources we had I think it ended up being quite decent.
Six years have passed since I first started to work on Son of Nor and three since it was released. These are my observations when looking back:
When the player starts the game, they are introduced to the lore of the world of Son of Nor via a motion graphics cutscene. I personally think that this cutscene is quite entertaining and well narrated, but it suffers from over exposition. It tries to explain the whole history of this world in two minutes; this includes the gods, the new races, an ancient race, the origins of magic, the slavery of men, the great war, another ancient race, humans being close to extinction, etc. We are asking the player to care and understand everything we throw at them right from the get-go, and it can be quite overwhelming.
I think that the best way to introduce a world really depends on the media and your audience. For example, Star Wars introduces their movies with text crawls that have elements the viewer might not fully understand; but the viewer is paying full attention because the medium it is being delivered in requires it. Nintendo introduces the world of Zelda Breath of the Wild in a very simple way, no complicated backstories, no huge cutscenes; it’s just Link waking up to Zelda telling him to come back and restore the world. No more is needed. There are exceptions like the Metal Gear games, but the series has a cult following and an AAA budget; while we were new, unknown and had very low production funds.
What I Would Improve
Noldric is a human from The Edge and the first Boss you encounter in the game. The player walks into Noldric when he’s acquiring the power from the Wind Temple thanks to The Shrouded Figure. Noldric immediately tries to explain that “it’s not what it looks like” (i.e.: committing treason), but The Shrouded Figure tells him not to leave any loose ends, thus turning his new powers against the player.
Noldric really feeling his oats. The Shrouded Figure watching awkwardly.
There are several things that the player needs to know for this “treason” to have a more powerful effect narratively.
- The player needs to think The Shrouded Figure is a Sarahul, number one enemy of the humans.
What we did: The Sarahul wear garbs that are red and have jagged, pointy details. Unfortunately, by the time the player sees The Shrouded Figure, they have only been exposed to very few Sarahul up close.
- The player needs to know Noldric personally so that his actions weigh more than just some random dude committing treason.
What we did: Noldric’s voice can be heard in the intro dream sequence when battling the invading Sarahul. Later, he’s standing close to the plaza of the human town; if you talk to him he will tell you how he thinks the human leader is not doing a proper job. This human leader, Tanath, also complains about how Noldric is missing from the battle when ambushing the incoming Sarahul.
- The player needs to have a sense of Noldric’s motivations so that his actions don’t fall under the “just because” category.
What We Did: When you talk to Noldric in the town’s plaza he shows disliking to the ways of the human leader, hinting at how he thinks he could make better decisions. There’s also a collectable in the game which is a letter from Noldric to his loved one; it explains how he and The Shrouded Figure got to meet and how he ended up in the losing side of a deal.
What we should have done
Noldric should have been a crucial part of the tutorial level, making him more prominent from the start. He should have also been an obligatory part of the level following the tutorial, so the player understands how important his role is in the sequence of events.
Emil is the ghostly lover of the Human Oracle that basically kick-starts all the events in the game. After the Oracle has a vision of the future where The Edge, the last human refuge, is attacked and destroyed by the Sarahul, she sends Emil to somehow alert the humans of the impending doom.
Emil channeling Jigsaw.
For players to understand Emil better, they have to know the following:
- Emil was a Son of Nor, a human mage, that died and remained as a ghost under control of Orare (the Oracle) thanks to her powers.
What we did: When Orare has the vision of The Edge being destroyed, she sends Emil to help. Then, when the player is about to meet Orare, she stops him from attacking the player, showing clear control over him. She also tries to explain the existence of his ghost, and all of the ghosts in the abandoned city where you find her.
- Emil died while protecting Orare from the attack of a Sarahul Mage. His traumatic death kept him in a limbo mindset where he replays his last moments before dying, making him not a 100% reliable.
What we did: Emil doesn’t make a direct approach to the player when trying to warn them. Emil is first mentioned as “a blue shine” when a Son of Nor reports about Sarahul Scouts to the leader of the humans. Later, after the Sarahul are dealt with, Tanath asks the player to regroup at the temple; here, Emil appears to give a warning, pointing at Noldric and The Shrouded Figure cracking the mountain open to head into the Wind Temple. Emil shows up once again after the player escapes the Essence Temple and the dragon within. He asks the player to follow him into the forgotten city of Quil, where Orare resides. Finally, the player meets Emil once more at the place where he was killed by the Sarahul mage, triggering his “moment of death” memories which makes him confuse the player for the enemy that killed him.
What we should have done
Emil should have had more screen time with more dialogue, especially regarding his death. Or, just remove the death trauma part completely and make his attack more of a playful challenge. I think there’s a bit of a disconnection between his first appearance before the Wind Temple and his second appearance after the Essence Temple. They are too far apart and it would have been better for the player to be guided towards the Oracle by him instead of by Vuushaar.
This is probably one of the most complex problems narratively and also the most important one since it deals with the main antagonist of the game. Be wary that I will be going through what would be considered spoilers, so if you plan to play the game, maybe skip this section.
Sho’rak first appears when you see Noldric going into the mountain to find the Wind Temple. In his dialogue, the player can tell that Sho’rak is up to no good without really knowing what his intentions are, and now that I think about it, maybe the player never gets to understand those intentions completely.
Sho'rak is really into surprises.
For the player to understand Sho’rak’s motivation and actions they would have to know the following:
- Sho’rak is an Aitharii that got stolen/kidnapped by the Sarahul before he hatched from his egg. He didn’t have a good childhood but eventually, he got to be the Sarahul Emperor’s puppetmaster.
What we did: The intro cutscene of the game makes it clear that the Aitharii race pulled out of any dealings with other races after they got caught in a crossfire between the humans and Sarahul. To explain Sho’rak’s involvement with the Sarahul, Orare sends the player to the past to destroy his egg in the Aitharii nest of Laang. Here, the player is attacked by a group of Sarahul warriors that intend to steal some eggs, unfortunately, this intention doesn’t come across clearly. Finally, when the player meets Sho’rak for the final battle, he gives an exposition speech which includes his disgust for the Sarahul Emperor, thus pointing at his lack of loyalty to the Sarahul Empire.
- Sho’rak doesn’t hate humans specifically, he just wants to meet his makers, the forerunner Annuviran race.
What we did: This one came off as a bit lacklustre, when our intention was to have a “hidden” narrative layer only for observant players. We know that Sho’rak is interested in the temples since he helps Noldric get into one. When it is revealed that Sho’rak is an Aitharii, the fact that he wasn’t taking any powers from the temples for himself made more sense, but only if the player paid attention to Vuushaar’s explanation about why Aitharii shouldn’t meddle with those powers. Sho’rak’s final speech reveals that his actions were not aimed at humans personally, most of it fell on his lap after the player decided to interfere. And, on his final moments, he also foreshadows “more to come”, providing a cliffhanger that connects to the Outro video of the game.
What we should have done
A key point missing is highlighting the fact that Sho’rak is fascinated by the Annuviran race and its temples. We should have shown the player the moment where Sho’rak discovered that the modern races came into existence thanks to the Annuviran and that it was there where he came into the realization that he would do anything to meet them.
Screenshot of the entrance to the Wind Temple. You can actually read all the writings found in the architecture of these levels. We even provided a translated “Annuviran” alphabet to our Kickstarter backers on the printed “Bible of Nor” book.
We had the intentions for the player to understand everything that was going on, that’s why we had created certain assistive narrative tools like the player’s diary, the story collectables, the ancient writings in the temples and the summaries of the story progress in the level select screen, as well as lore bits in the loading screen. But this required the player to purposely look at “the horizon” and read absolutely everything if they wanted to understand the full picture.
At the end, not everything went wrong. Some people understood and enjoyed the game’s story quite a lot. All the elements needed for a strong narrative are there, but they were too “hidden” for most players to effortlessly see. Thus, making the story look generally bland and superficial when in reality it’s very rich and fully thought out.
You can see how there are reviews that greatly differ about the story… and many other aspects of the game as well.
What other elements do you think needed further thought to improve the narrative experience? Leave a comment with your thoughts about this post, I would love to hear what you have to say.
If you are interested in playing Son of Nor, you can find it on Steam, compatible with PC, Mac and Linux, with Oculus Rift, Emotiv Epoc and Tobii EyeX support.