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Feature: 'Towards More Meaningful Games: A Multidisciplinary Approach'

In this thought-provoking design piece, writer Sande Chen (The Witcher) takes a look at how to ratchet up emotional intensity - through narrative design,

Eric Caoili, Blogger

July 22, 2008

3 Min Read

In this thought-provoking design piece, writer Sande Chen (The Witcher) takes a look at how to ratchet up emotional intensity - through narrative design, visuals, and music - to create more meaningful games. According to game designer and production consultant Sheri Graner Ray, building games with a compelling narrative requires interdisciplinary teams with writers or narrative designers brought into the design process early enough so that they can add more depth to the title. Using themes and other storytelling tools, narrative designers can help incorporate a "meaningful experience" throughout the game: "Themes, like an emotional heartbeat, enable stories to deliver a universal message, yet also resonate with players at a personal level. Thematic expression can surface in the narrative, art direction, game systems, sound design, and music. As such, the role of the narrative designer is inherently multidisciplinary. Themes also are likened to the game's or author's point of view. 'Even in games,' says narrative designer Stephen E. Dinehart, 'we seek to communicate a message.' The theme gives the reason why this particular story should be told. Often, to find these meaningful themes, writers soul-searchingly delve into a personal credo to discover where their passions lie - because to convey passion, one should be passionate about the underlying message. Because themes are best felt at the subconscious level, a writer must be careful not to be preachy and instead, let the theme flow from the situations presented in the story. The integration of themes is what elevates a film to cinematic art. Developers of video games can adapt the very same techniques used in film to create more meaningful games. Just as films have stirred passions, evoked emotions, and even encouraged real-world action, so too can games." Soma CEO and Real-Time Cinematography for Games author Brian Hawkins proposes that writers can provide dramatic gameplay by embedding scripted sequences to the narrative forward. Instead of relying on regular minutes-long cutscenes, however, he suggests utilizing infrequent pre-scripted moves for key story moments. Designers can get around player complaints about sequences that take control away from their hands by incorporating the sequences in such a way that players won't even notice that they're no longer controlling their character: "In his book, Hawkins describes the creation of a jump sequence for dramatic purposes. Normally, in this hypothetical game, the player jumps from ledge to ledge, but if during a chase, the player slips and almost misses a ledge, this is a matter of chance. The player may recall later, 'I barely pulled myself up by the fingers!' Instead of leaving it to chance, the scripted sequence recreates this moment at a time when it would make the most dramatic sense for the story. The player is still in control of the jump and if the player begins the jump within the confines of a predetermined jump zone, then the player always lands with fingers on the ledge. Outside the jump zone, the player would fall in the chasm as usual. Of course, this jump sequence could only be used once or twice because overuse would reduce the dramatic effect." You can read the full feature on creating meaningful games, which offers several ways designers can add emotional intensity to their games through visual structure and music techniques (no registration required, please feel free to link to this feature from external websites).

About the Author(s)

Eric Caoili


Eric Caoili currently serves as a news editor for Gamasutra, and has helmed numerous other UBM Techweb Game Network sites all now long-dead, including GameSetWatch. He is also co-editor for beloved handheld gaming blog Tiny Cartridge, and has contributed to Joystiq, Winamp, GamePro, and 4 Color Rebellion.

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