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Danielle Riendeau

April 7, 2023

7 Min Read
Mexico 1921 a photographer staring at an evidence board

It's safe to say that the Game Developer editorial crew is a narrative-oriented bunch: which is evident in the number of narrative talks we covered during the show. Naturally, we can't cover every panel (here's where I link to GDC Vault), but here are a few of our favorites from GDC 2023, alongside interviews with Alt.Ctrl.GDC and IGF finalist creators.

How to create functional narrative outlines that your team will actually read

Speaking at GDC 2023, HeartMachine narrative director and Solar Ash writer Tyler Hutchison shared sage wisdom such as "verb your characters" and "emotional outlines are bullshit."

"Put as much thought and care into writing a longline as you would into making your entire scene–you're writing this little one or two sentence thing from people on your team so they can understand everything that's going on in your head."

How to give better feedback in game writing (and beyond)

Narrative designers Alexa Ray Corriea and Lis Moberly want to help you give better feedback to your creative collaborators.

But when you aren't given good feedback on those mistakes, there can be cascading consequences. Poor feedback, Moberly explained, can lead to developers being unsure of their status at the company, uncertainty about what goals they should be working toward, a sense that they lack autonomy, a lack of social connection to their coworkers, and a sense that things in the workplace are just unfair.

How Watch Dogs: Legion changed Ubisoft's narrative design

Ubisoft Toronto's Brendan Hennessy spoke at GDC 2023 about the narrative work that went into Watch Dogs: Legion, and how the game's Play as Anyone mechanic required changes to the narrative team's pipeline.

Hennessy was pretty upfront, saying that Legion was unlike anything the Ubisoft Toronto had ever done before, particularly the narrative team. The studio’s previous works, such as Far Cry 5 and Splinter Cell: Blacklist, were relatively straightforward. It was fun to figure out, he said, but also something of a logistical nightmare that it took the narrative team some time to truly figure out.

Photography as narrative design in Mexico, 1921: A deep slumber

Macula Interactive breaks down the photography mechanic that will allow players to explore post-revolutionary Mexico as photojournalist Juan Aguirre.

"In fact, a lot of the objects you can collect and interact with are part of the popular arts museum in Mexico City. We've modelled them into the game, and they comprise the clues that Juan needs to get from A to B. [...] You'll need to take pictures [of some of those things] as part of your photojournalism journey–crucially, you have to take good pictures because no bad pictures ever made the front page–and that's what pulls it all together. When you get your evidence, you'll complete your story."

a colorful character walks around a beach, with a sinking house in the distance

Queer Man Peering Into a Rock Pool.jpg explores the unreliability of memory

Queer Man Peering Into a Rock Pool.jpg sees a middle-aged man collecting sparkly memories in a broken world to furnish his house.

"We wanted to make a game that centered on an older queer character who didn’t fit any conventional mold or stereotype. We hope to make games that focus on unconventional people, on kooks and weirdoes. Which covers so many people, really, we just don’t see them depicted in games all that often. So, we hope they felt some care for Bong and Darl, and in doing so it brought them some warmth, too. And some silly joy."

Telling stories and creating character arcs in Far Cry 6's open world

Ubisoft Toronto's Heli Kennedy and Brendan Hennessy go into the narrative design of 2021's Far Cry 6 and its standalone expansion, Far Cry 6: Lost Between Worlds.

For Far Cry 6, Kennedy talked about how the main writing challenge was balancing the size of Yara (the game’s setting) with the arc of its protagonist, Dani Rojas. While Dani’s story was about the rise of a resistance leader, Yara itself had to tell a story of its own. The island is divided into multiple territories, and the aim was for each of them to have their own distinct theme and purpose that fed into Yara's history as a whole. As noted in Kennedy’s slides: "Yara is filled with people fighting their own revolutions. [...] 'Revolution' had to be present in every facet of a country that was hundreds of years old."

a popup book game controller with piano interface

Blossom explores childhood memories with a pop-up book controller

Blossom is an exploration of childhood and labels through five life stages, all told through an interactive pop-up book controller.

"Blossom was inspired by the concept of being labeled as you grow up. Specifically, how we internalize and respond to these labels. Although a lot of the story behind Blossom is taken from my own childhood, I think a lot of people can relate to the experience of being told you are something that you know deep down you aren’t."

Childhood friends come together to make a dream video game. What could go wrong? According to its narrative lead, nearly everything.

With more levity in the project, Parkes also discovered an opportunity to reset the entire script and come to terms with his own impostor syndrome. He finally admitted that he'd put pressure on himself to write a script that would be as original and groundbreaking as Hellwarth's compelling mechanical premise had seemed to him so many years ago. He got back to reflecting on his youth—and on shared childhood experiences with his coworkers. A new weekly regimen left Parkes able to work on the script in isolation, then return to his friends to talk about the writing and plot directions he'd come up with. They became excited that the new script let them render real-life locations from their childhood in the game.

Here are more details on Ubisoft's Ghostwriter AI tool from GDC 2023

Ubisoft showed off more details about its new narrative generative AI tools at GDC 2023. Here's what we saw.

Swanson kicked off his talk by joking that the title was a bit misleading. The talk was called "Natural Language Generation for Games Writing." He said he'd have preferred to call it "Effectively integrating large language models into scriptwriting workflows for authoring bark trees."

He said that Ubisoft has decided that its Ghostwriter tool is best-used to support the process of writing different kinds of barks, background lines, and text for user interface.

NORCO and capturing the spirit of Louisiana through sci-fi storytelling

NORCO takes players to a futuristic vision of Norco, Louisiana, digging deep into the look, sound, and feel of the place as it tells a story of a missing sibling.

"I wanted the sci-fi elements to be a little banal and to reflect a kind of exhaustion with acceleration and the increasing ubiquity of social media, algorithms, and AI. I also wanted it to capture both the alienation of those technologies and their potential for forming new kinds of communities."

Adding narrative texture to the people and places of Horizon Forbidden West

Guerrilla Games' lead living world designer Espen Sogn explains how the team worked to make each tribe in Forbidden West feel unique, and crucially, persistent.

"If you can't get an idea about who these people are by walking around and observing them, I don't think we'd have done a good job," explains Sogn. An example of one of those interactions is how sub-faction of NPCs in the Tenakth tribe will draw their knife from a different place, subtly emphasizing their status as warriors.

Teenage Exocolonist two characters in red outfits

I Was a Teenage Exocolonist turns life experiences into a card game

I Was a Teenage Exocolonist sees players living as teens on a strange alien world, turning their unique lived experiences and decisions into a card game.

Weaving all the threads of possibility together was pretty epic! The nearly-600,000 word narrative in I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is peppered with dynamic variables tracking hundreds of possible game states, including the death (or continued existence) of several major characters. My co-writer Lindsay Ishihiro and I had a heck of a time keeping it all in our heads, and we just lived in that world for a couple years to make it happen.

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About the Author(s)

Danielle Riendeau

Editor-in-Chief, GameDeveloper.com

Danielle is the editor-in-chief of Game Developer, with previous editorial posts at Fanbyte, VICE, and Polygon. She’s also a lecturer in game design at the Berklee College of Music, and a hobbyist game developer in her spare time.

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