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Red Thread Games' methods for story-centric game design

Red Thread Games creative director and co-founder Ragnar Tørnquist discussed the methods the company uses to make unique storytelling games.

Earlier this year Red Thread Games, the makers of Kickstarter success Dreamfall Chapters, released Draugen, a story-driven noir story that cemented the company's status as a storytelling studio. 

At Sweden Games Conference, Ragnar Tørnquist dropped by to share some of the fundamental frameworks that have enabled the studio to tell interesting stories with a small team. It was a mixture of logistical and creative techniques that can help developers of various sizes build a process for making narrative games. 

Tørnquist began by laying out a basic argument: making games with story (plot, setting, characters, etc) is a valid way to design games.

That's a slightly controversial statement in only so much as many story-driven games are not developed that way. Tørnquist didn't make games that way while working at Funcom, and he acknowledged that it took him a long time to figure out a sustainable set of practices to enable story-driven development. 

Part of the foundation of Red Thread's design is that there are two separate creative roles on the team: writers and narrative designers. Writers write, generating the game's research, story, plot, and creative foundations and narrative designers are "connective glue between the story and the game," helping implement the ideas the writers are coming up with. 

Tørnquist moved on to discuss the idea of "two boxes" to help developers evaluate their storytelling games. The first box is a customer-facing visualization of a developer's game vision. It combines the game's logo, logline, everything public-facing to help understand how people will visualize the game without any insight to what the game is. 

"The idea here is to distill the idea of what you're making--the story, the high-level story, into something that's easily readable and instantly appealing," said Tørnquist. This method is useful for pitching games to publishers, but it's a tool for developers to help make sure their story idea is working even among their collaborators. 

The second "box" is a box where you analyze the project limitations and boundaries. This is the space Red Thread determines what kind of story they can tell given the constraints they have. Once Tørnquist and his colleagues understand the boundaries, he says it becomes a space that "forces you to be more creative."

After using the "box" method to imagine Draugen, Red Thread began establishing creative goals to tell Draugen's story. Tørnquist stated that they first wanted players to never be alone, to be escorted by the in-game sidekick named Lissie.

Second, they wanted to ensure players had freedom to move and explore, but contained by plot and structure. Tørnquist said though they wanted to make sure the player wasn't just exploring "what happened in the past," but also living through a plot set in the present. 

The third creative challenge was that they wanted the player character to only be talking to other characters, rarely to himself. Both of these two examples that contrast other narrative games in the genre.

"These are all structural things," Tørnquist said, explaining that implementing these goals helped shape the script, the gameplay, etc. 

Tørnquist then showed off a greyboxing process that didn't just prototype how players would move through the world, but also start prototyping how the story would play out. When Red Thread greyboxed its levels, it also used a voice-generation service from Google to implement prototype dialogue, and start feeling out how that dialogue sounded in the world (even if it sounded like it came from a robot).

From there, Tørnquist said it became possible for the team to write and focus-test the story, implementing ideas and testing them before preparing final art and going into the recording studio to record actors. "To tell a good story, you need to be able to start with a terrible story, and slowly and slowly make it better."

"Story should be cheaper to iterate than all the other aspects of the game," he said. Tørnquist said the company iterated on Draugen's full story a total of two times. That sequence of two rewrites proved to be systemic for the company, as Tørnquist and his colleagues found that doing two passes on the writing helped improve the dialogue and allowed time for focus-testing. 

For budgeting for voiceovers, Tørnquist encouraged developers to do VO as early as possible, and build-in timing and money to record pick-up lines. If that's not possible, then developers should consider waiting until the final months of production to record. 

Tørnquist closed by sharing his perspective of having worked on shorter versus longer games. For making shorter games, he encouraged developers to really think about and focus on the game's ending, since more players are likely to see it. In longer games, he explained that developers should "think episodically," to help create memorable moments for players. 

"There should be satisfying in playing a piece of a story [in longer games]." he said. 

Gamasutra is a media partner of Sweden Games Conference, who provided travel and lodging to cover this event

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