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Campo Santo's Sean Vanaman spoke at GDC 2014’s Narrative Summit about how designers can create immersive narratives by designing games with an eye towards helping players suspend their disbelief.

Alex Wawro, Contributor

March 17, 2014

6 Min Read

Sean Vanaman, co-founder of Campo Santo and lead writer on The Walking Dead Season One during his time at Telltale Games, seems to have spent a lot of time thinking about narrative in games. Vanaman closed out the first day of GDC 2014’s Narrative Summit with a late afternoon talk on Monday titled “Pursuing Interactive Suspension of Disbelief.” Though the talk’s remit was game narrative design, Vanaman wound up talking at length about the nuts and bolts of Campo Santo’s work creating Firewatch -- and why game designers should court their players, rather than simply expecting them to willfully suspend their disbelief. Vanaman claims to have found a common thread in his work on Telltale games like Puzzle Agent, Poker Night at the Inventory, and the like — they all focus on a core set of storytelling techniques: believable dialogue, discrete stories that players can discover and explore, and recognition of the choices your player has made. The goal, of course, is to draw the player in and make them feel like they’re having a meaningful experience, even if it’s just for a few minutes. “If you’re trying to make a piece of fiction about people, the suspension of disbelief is one of the most important things to consider in your approach to design,” said Vanaman. He ran down a few notable examples from older forms of media — the work of poet-philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, was predicated on affording readers meaningful experiences by coloring real stories about real people with supernatural elements like ghosts and gods. Vanaman believes that readers were able to suspend their disbelief and allow themselves to be affected by the themes evoked by the supernatural elements because the stories themselves featured real, believable people that readers could easily empathize with. Vanaman contrasted Coleridge’s approach to writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner with contemporary media’s approach to narrative design, pointing out that many films — and many games — ask the audience to ignore the artifice of the medium when seeking a meaningful narrative. “I’m with Coleridge,” said Vanaman. “I reject the notion that the player should have to ignore certain aspects of the experience to find value in the narrative, or connect to the story. If you’re going to makes games where the narrative matters, it’s [your] job to communicate to the player through design.”

Take your player somewhere special

To hear Vanaman tell it, Gabe Newell’s public statement that game design is best approached as a dance with your players is spot on — the trick is to pay attention to your audience, know when to guide them and when to respond to them. It’s an analogy that Vanaman and his fellow Campo Santo co-founder Jake Rodkin have spent some time thinking about, and today Vanaman offered his own spin on it: game design should be like going on a date with your player. “The player is at the table with you, and for the date to go really well you have to listen to what that person is saying, what that person is expressing, and then respond in a mix of comfortably predictable and excitingly surprising ways.” Vanaman turned to the first season of Telltale’s Walking Dead game, and pointed out that he and his fellow developers strove to strip away traditional game mechanics that empower the player and instead focus on a limited set of interaction systems that forced the player to engage with the game like a human being. The successes, says Vanaman, were the game’s dynamic dialog systems and lifelike responses. The failures, according to Vanaman, were moments in The Walking Dead when the developers could have put more work into designing responsive dialog that made the player feel like they were involved in helping to tell a story, rather than just watch one play out. He also expressed remorse over the number of quick time events in the game, though he suggested that developers shouldn’t dismiss quick time events as a storytelling tool out of hand. “We used quick time events when you’re supposed to fail…and I think that’s really emotionally effective,” said Vanaman. “We’re doing our best, within the systems of the game, to share with the player Lee’s ever-increasing lack of power.”

Suspending disbelief without subverting player agency

But Walking Dead was a narrative game with a cast of characters; the protagonist of Campo Santo’s upcoming Firewatch is a man named Henry, a lone character who’s taken refuge from a troubled life to work as a fire scout in an isolated area of Wyoming. Throughout the course of the game Henry builds a relationship with Delilah, his supervisor, via a handheld radio, and Vanaman’s goal is to build a game that helps players feel as though they’re having real conversations with Delilah through the radio. Of course, Campo Santo is still early in the Firewatch development process, and Vanaman acknowledged that in his talk. The goal of his session was simply to lay out how Campo Santo hopes to create an immersive game, and how they could stumble — by writing bad dialog, for example, or having a low density of things to find and interact with within the world. “Some of these things are solved, not just through writing, but in execution — how we write,” said Vanaman. who went on to share some of the design lessons learned from his work at Telltale. The most valuable thing you can to do make your game's narrative more meaningful, it seems, is to make it interactive rather than static. “If you let the player make a choice to deliver a particularly well-written line, we’re often told the writing is ‘really good’”, claimed Vanaman. “That line, the exact same line, tucked into an expertly crafted 90-second cutscene, gets completely dismissed, because the player feels like they aren’t moving forward.” “It’s the writing’s job to either not infringe on gameplay, or actually be the gameplay,” said Vanaman. “If Henry and Delilah are talking about a windstorm that happened last night, and Henry discovers like, a necklace of human fingers* on the ground, he ought to say ‘whoa, there’s like some finger jewelry here!’ and stop talking about the wind,” said Vanaman. His point seemed to be that, as a writer, he had to adapt his approach to narrative design in order to accommodate the player’s agency — he has to write dialog that’s short, has plenty of break points that sound like natural pauses, and so on. The game’s design essentially dictates Vanaman’s approach to writing Firewatch, as it might for many narrative game developers, and he claims that diverging from those dictates jeopardizes the player’s suspension of disbelief -- which would seem to defeat the purpose of creating a narrative-focused game. * Vanaman took pains to say that there are no necklaces of human fingers in Campo Santo’s next game. It was just an example of a weird thing that someone might find.

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