Even at a studio like Obsidian Entertainment, which has a pretty narrow band of genres it operates in, game writers or designers might find themselves working on projects that require analogous-but-still-different narrative skills.
During an Ask-Me-Anything session at GDC Showcase (disclaimer: which the author of this piece moderated) narrative designer and game director Carrie Patel broke down how her writing process changed in shifting from work on the Pillars of Eternity series to The Outer Worlds.
Both games are RPGs, but the shift in design and player perspective had a lot more to do with changing writing styles than the switch in genre.
Patel broke down differences like this: at the top-level, Pillars of Eternity’s top-down camera (and occasional tableau scenes) afforded much more reliance on prose and third-person descriptions to carry the mood of a scene. In Pillars, Patel and her colleagues wrote not just dialogue, but brief character descriptions that captured their reactions, and what they might physically do in a small bubble around them.
When working on The Outer Worlds, Patel said she “really miss that ability to write descriptive prose and let that do some of the storytelling and heavy lifting, and handle the emotional beats of someone who is saying one thing but emoting another.”
The Outer Worlds relies on a first-person camera and (mostly) fully-voiced dialogue. That changed her descriptive tools from raw prose to gestures and facial animations created by Obsidian’s animation team. She said that inability to use contrasting descriptions, and instead rely on character animations, proved to be a challenge to adapt to, especially without the aid of an actor doing performance capture.
Another huge difference in writing the two games was what role the player fulfilled in the story. In The Pillars of Eternity, players take the role of a character known as “The Watcher,” who has unique in-game abilities separate from the class system, and the ability to perceive extra information as a consequence of the narrative.
It’s a character structure built on a reliance of tabletop game formula, meant to accommodate the kind of role-playing, stat-driven character creation you’d find in Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder. The Watcher’s abilities are
“Trying to follow that tabletop formula, we have a variety of dispositions and a variety of skills. We want to make sure that however you're building yourself accordingly, you feel you can express that character,” Patel explained.
In The Outer Worlds however, the player character does not have any unique roles or abilities, except that they’re “an outsider” to the Halcyon system. “They don't actually have a role like "The Watcher" that gives them a really unique skillset except that they are an outsider to a world they can sort of see the absurdity of it, because they are not of it,” said Patel.
That led the team to lean on some familiar pop fiction characters to pin down what dialogue options would be appropriate for the player---in particular, Patel said that Firefly lead character Mal Reynolds (as played by Nathan Fillion) was a helpful template, trying to let players embody someone who could exist in a wide moral bandwidth. Patel said she and her colleagues were writing “someone who's not a saint, not a villain, someone with a morally grey spectrum who can embody either end or some range in between as the player wants to.”
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