This is an overview of techniques I employed during the development of the award winning strategy game “Company of Heroes Opposing Fronts”. Publisher THQ’s first venture into narrative design, “Opposing Fronts” had to overcome interesting challenges and opportunities presented by storytelling in the Real Time Strategy game type and the COH franchise. This article will examine the writing techniques in the context of a mission based non-linear sandbox narrative bookended by a linear story. Writing for RTS tends
to be divided into system responses (MP) and storyline (SP). MP
speech consists of non-linear lines of speech which is associated with
structures and units. It is meant primarily for tactical communication
to the VUP, but
also as a means of creating narrative flavor. SP speech consists of all
campaign related speech, that is, linear scripted moments of dialog for
tutorial or story purposes.
The Storyline: Singleplayer Campaigns
singleplayer campaign writing has more to do with tightly interweaving
a story with the gameplay content more than with voices for particular
units. It’s here that the epic story arcs commonly associated with the RTS game type are created. The rise and falls of nations, races, worlds, and empires seems to be the focus for RTS, not to say more couldn’t be done. The sky is the limit; in the broadest sense RTS is about simulation, tactics and eye candy, many stories could be applied.
The SP format is more akin to traditional screenplay writing due to
its’ more linear nature. The writing format chosen is as diverse as
there are RTS games and RTS writers
without a doubt. Traditional screenwriting formats and related
supporting software should suffice. The script usually exists in two
parts, Non-interactive sequences (NIS), and gameplay. NIS act
as traditional linear story moments that return the player to 3rd
person. In these sequences the Viewer/User/Player (VUP) is rarely
addressed, though some RTS games do suggest the VUP is a commander of sorts. Either ascribing some avatar character to the VUP, as Prince Arthas of “Warcraft III” (see clip below), or using the 2nd person, as the video driven NIS of “Command and Conquer”.
Game Screenplay Sample 1: COH Opposing Fronts British Campaign Mission 1
cut-scenes must then in some way transition the player to a certain
perspective for interactive sequences, or gameplay. The question is,
what perspective is appropriate for the game design? Is this a moment
in the game for 3rd person omnipotent god-like powers or a limited 2nd
person control? In some cases the VUP is
corralled into a smaller perspective by design, letting them control
individual hero characters, like “Frodo” in “The Battle for Middle
Earth”, or squads, like “The Royal Scots Engineers” in “Company of
Heroes: Opposing Fronts”, for effect during particular missions. The
writing must facilitate this transition in voice and tone. NIS are meant to connect both story and gameplay in a meaningful moment before, or after, the VUP is
called to tactical or strategic action. While they might have the
support of “in-game” narrative events, these linear moments are where
primary characters, whether on or off the battlefield, are made.
Non-player Character (NPC), and Player Character (PC) avatars are used within RTS like any other game story as a means to communicate with the player and create drama. Due to the unique circumstances found in RTS, i.e.
rampant virtual death, the use of representational protagonists wasn’t
seen until the hero characters (HC) of 3rd generation RTS.
The introduction of HC inevitably brought a 3rd person role-playing
game (RPG) “lite” experience along with it. HC “level-up” and provide a
traditional central character, or protagonist (primary competitor)
around which to construct a story. The problem is they tend to die, and
in ways developers can’t easily predict. Needless to say, the death of
a primary protagonist can prove a big problem for a story. To overcome
recurrent death on the battlefield explanations had to be created. In
the case of “Warcraft III“,
temples where woven into the tapestry of the command structures and
used to “summon” heroes back to the battlefield during the event of
“death”. It is for this reason that in Company of Heroes, and other RTS games
that primary antagonist and protagonists take center stage in
non-interactive sequences and during gameplay fade into the
“background”, living perhaps only in speech, in an effort to maintain
the suspension of disbelief.
Script Sample 1:
Nonlinear Interactive Dialog, or “MP” speech, which some may call
“barks”, is the substance of multi-dimensional arrays, the MP Scripts
(see Illustration 2) are long lists of lines that refer to the state of
the NPC, vehicle,
or unit on the battlefield. For each unit there is a separate script.
Depending on the expected use of that unit during gameplay, it receives
its line-count. The speech here is a multidimensional array navigated
buy the user based on actions and unit states. How will a VUP know the voice of NPCX vs. NPCy?
Sure well cast voice-acting helps, but a good writer should maximize
the potency of their writing by working to create character continuity
through literary voice. The lines as written can be remixed in almost
countless orders, hence creating affinity or contrast, in literary
voice, is essential to maintaining character continuity and
differentiation. It helps inform the VUP of whom they are listening to or hearing from.
MP line counts can add up really quickly, for Opposing Fronts we had
over 50,000 lines of speech. Think of it as a larger palette of speech
that is navigation by the player based on their actions in-game.
Production and Audio can decide how much record time is needed or
allotted, in which case editing for the best lines prior to the record
session never hurt. Also be aware that lines often come back from
record with unexpected reads, and unless the good fortune is had by the
writer to be on-site for the record. Everything needs to be in the
script. The format shown in Script Sample 1 above is a bare-bones version of a typical MP
Putting it all together
writer’s final deliverables are the campaign screenplay, individual
singleplayer mission scripts, and system speech scripts. The campaign
screenplay is a readable version of the campaign, with gameplay
segments written in brief. The mission script resembles the MP script,
in that it contains a list of events (see Illustration 2 above). The
events in mission scripts are linear. The event blocks contain trigger
descriptions that indicate how and where a line, or set of lines, is to
be played. Here it is necessary for the writer to work hand and hand
with the individual mission designers to insure the palette of audio
provided satisfies the needs of their design. Good writing is almost
transparent; it lives contained within the works of audio and gameplay
designers. It is there from the primordial stew that is RTS development rises a game the world, however niche, has come to love.
Key to integrating cut-scenes or, NIS , with gameplay
lies in well executed audio and visual transitional elements (see clip
above). NIS must be used in fluid balance with interactive sequences. Some may call for the death of NIS, or
cut-scenes, as if we could just throw them out due to their
non-interactive nature. The argument is to be had that they are
out-dated, but in RTS games exposition has always been a key player in indoctrinating the VUP to the universe as authored. The writer needs to work closely with the lead designer to make sure the NIS, or
segmented screenplay, integrates tightly with the vision of the game as
played. Good writing can make these narrative transitions even more
fluid and almost seamless to the VUP.
The final scripts, as delivered, should contain all of the gameplay and
individual storytelling elements themselves with indicated transitions.
Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games are a compelling game type, one
that requires custom writing solutions. Providing those solutions in an
acute manner requires an understanding of the interactive system, or RTS game,
as a whole. From an SP campaign script to arrays MP scripts, each piece, each narreme,
must tightly interweave in a narrative concinnity to create a rich sense of story. Like all
things today, RTS evolves at an almost exponential rate; the game type is ripe for innovation. As 4th generation RTS comes
to be defined, excellent writing will prove to be an increasingly
valuable asset in creating believable battlefields, and continually
epic drama, for what is conflict without character?