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We need a story! - Writing 'Salvaged'

An analysis of designing Salvaged's narrative mid-way through production, of how narrative defines a game experience and the value of creative restrictions.

Daniel Hunter Dowsing, Blogger

May 21, 2015

10 Min Read

My name is Daniel Dowsing and I am a writer-designer at Opposable Games. In this dev blog I will be discussing the narrative design process for our in-development sci-fi tactical shooter, Salvaged.

I first started working with Opposable Games as a freelance writer designing the narrative universe for Salvaged to fit into. My job was to create a cohesive sci-fi universe in which many stories (i.e. games) could be told in future projects. I was soon invited to join Opposable as a writer and designer.

When I joined Opposable, Salvaged as a game existed in some form. The story of the game, however, only existed in the context of an outline for the gaming experience: that of a commander of a salvaging crew recovering lost items from wrecked starships. As such there has been some degree of freedom as to what the actual story of this game is.

Firstly, as a game developer, I believe that gameplay is the most important aspect of a game. I remember once hearing someone talk about how you know if a song is a good song or not. In their opinion if you were to strip a song down to be performed on a single instrument it should be as affective as when you listen to it with a full band or orchestra. If you were to apply this logic to games then graphics, sound and story can theoretically be removed leaving only gameplay and a great game should still be a great game (a Street Fighter game could be just as effective if you were simply manoeuvring black and white stick figures). If I were asked to define a game I would say it is a challenge defined by gameplay rules; a football match is the challenge of scoring as many points in 90 minutes using a ball and only your feet, The Last of Us is simply a series of escort missions.

Games, however, are becoming bigger experiences than just their gameplay. Would Final Fantasy VII have the same impact if it were played out using blocks? Or Thomas Was Alone for that matter if it had no audio? Graphics, sound and story, in my opinion, come to justify and define a game as an experience rather than just a challenge defined by gameplay. Therefore, when approaching the story for Salvaged, I began by considering what would enhance the established gameplay.

As I mentioned before when I joined Opposable Salvaged as a game was pretty well formed in terms of the gameplay and game spaces (locations). Opposable Games is an indie studio and as such doesn’t have the time or financial budget to have a writer swoop in and say we need a whole new planet location to be created for the sake of story. In an ideal world a writer would be involved from the initial conception of a game (and I would be able to fly) but, hey-ho, the world isn’t ideal and to be honest great things are created when you’re challenged. The challenge in this case is to create a narrative for a sci-fi game with SWAT team-style gameplay and two locations – the main Command Room and the randomly generated starship levels. Bring it on!

Where to begin?

The main character of Salvaged is Alex Pieterson, commander of the Thaddeus. She has been the focus of the game’s promotional material and as such didn’t want to lose her from the narrative. When approaching Alex, however, I decided to make her a mute character. To explain this requires some explanation of the technical setup for Salvaged.

The entire experience takes place in the command room with the Player fixed in the commander’s chair. The Player views the action of their agents on monitor screens before them from a first person perspective. Other than the agents visible on screen the Player won’t interact with any other physical (i.e. modelled) characters. Because Alex/the Player is fixed to one spot I thought this would make for an interesting narrative angle. Adding muteness compliments the lack of movement (which I can’t reveal much about because spoilers, sweety). Moreover, however, because the game is played from first person and the Player is Alex it felt correct to not give her a voice. My logic being that, much like Half-Life, Portal or BioShock, doing so would put words into the mouth of the Player and thus infringe upon whatever degree of agency the game offers them. I might well be wrong with this approach, however, and I guess time will tell.

On the flip side of this, and continuing with Salvaged characters, Alex is accompanied in the command room by the Thaddeus AI who is fully voiced. From a game experience point of view Thaddeus plays to a science fiction fantasy of being able to converse with AI. He speaks directly to the Player and draws them into the context of the game. Because of the situation Alex is in it felt important to have a strong personality to fill the silence of the command room. As the main AI of the ship Thaddeus needed a strong sense of benevolence, as its duty is to maintain life systems on board. Within the lore of Salvaged AIs have evolved to develop complex personalities of their own and as such this gave me the freedom to, hopefully, create a character with enough shades of grey in their personality and motivation. Being an AI it was interesting to work his unique capabilities into his narrative; he can be afflicted in different ways to a human and can find emotion in things a human character might never consider. I believe when writing a non-human character it is important to consider the uniqueness of who they are and what that can add, or take away, from their stories.

Outside of Alex and Thaddeus when the Player accepts a contract (mission) they receive a written message from the contractor. These characters drop hints at some of the lore for Salvaged but are also developed characters in their own right. They have pasts and futures and are more than just talking heads. By working in personality and history into the contractors it helps to flesh out the wider universe of Salvaged.

The most prevalent of the contractors is a man called Figaro who will appear with some regularity. He is the third main character in the game linked to the situation Alex and Thaddeus find themselves in. It is interesting developing a character solely through text and a static portrait because there’s always the concern it might act as barrier to forming a connection. By having Figaro appear multiple times throughout the game, however, it allows for his personality and narrative to develop. Whilst Figaro is a dark character I didn’t want him to be all about darkness. A true character is about shades of grey and once again having him appear multiple times allows for these dimensions to form.

Outside of the main game I have also written a series of audio logs and a comic to be released as part of our marketing campaign for Salvaged. These are to be from Alex Pieterson’s perspective and are set before the events of the game.

Writing the audio logs was an interesting process. Firstly I began by working out the arc of the series. The difficulty of the audio logs is that they need to be both a contained story to be interesting and open-ended enough to feed into the main game’s story. The arc of the audio logs centres around a favourite enemy type we have in the game and so drew inspiration from them as to how they fit into the universal narrative of Salvaged. The climax of the audio logs was a struggle at first but when I took time to consider the limits of the game – i.e. the Player is locked in the command room – I found an interesting way to end the series. When writing for games, and especially if you join a games project late into development, it is always worth reflecting on the available mechanics and technology in the game. You’ll be surprised how it can actually inspire the direction of your narrative.

Because Alex is the sole voice through the audio logs it was a chance to develop her as a character whilst also further expanding the Salvaged universe. Writing what is basically a monologue for a character requires a degree of naturalness to it. A lot of characterisation can come from the manner in which a character speaks. Alex is a strong and professional commander yet as the audio logs continue we see moments of weakness, anger and child-like wonder. Whilst each audio log has a main subject to focus on there needs to be natural shifts in mood and tone to lend it some credibility. When a person discusses a subject they’re liable to digress and bring their emotions into the discussion. I believe it’s important to avoid melodrama in a realistic audio log. The internal drama a character might be experiencing – such as dealing with the loss of a friend whilst trying to maintain a degree of authority – comes through nuances in their language and tone rather than emotional gushing.

The comic is a prequel story set earlier in Alex’s career in which we see her as a young and brash salvager. Through a series of horrifying events that challenge her survival she develops into a character complete with weaknesses and strengths. Whilst I want people to think Alex is a cool character my main concern, as a writer, is to create a real character. Real characters aren’t solely strong and feisty or solely evil and cruel – they’re a spectrum of beliefs and actions.

In summary, joining the Salvaged project partway into its development created a unique set of challenges for me as a games writer. Having established the Salvaged universe prior to joining Opposable I had to create a narrative that would work effectively with the established technological set up in the game. The challenge, however, actually proved to be inspirational in developing the narrative of the game; limitations in technology can become justified in the narrative. In the future I hope to be involved as a writer from the start but, for now, I’m proud of the work I’ve achieved.

As I mentioned at the start of this piece story is, ultimately (and as much as it pains me to say it), an addition to a game but by appreciating the experience of the game it comes to elevate the game to something more. Using the context of the gaming world I was able to introduce a wide variety of characters to help flesh out the Salvaged universe and create a strong narrative experience. Salvaged now has narrative definition and I couldn’t be prouder.

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