This is the first series for the NDN Narrator, “The Narrator Dialogs”; with it we seek to put a face on those who are making interactive narrative design a force to be reckoned with. Today’s dialog is with Raphael van Lierop, Narrative Design Lead on an unannounced project at Ubisoft Montreal. Raphael comes to our field with a rich background in AAA game development, he tracks his thoughts on blogspot.com. Today he has come to share his perspective on interactive narrative design with the Narrative Designer’s Network.
Stephen E. Dinehart: Can you tell be me about yourself?
Raphael van Lierop: I’ve been working in the games industry since 2001, and have held positions as a producer, creative director, designer, and writer on several projects. I’ve worked for Relic Entertainment (on Dawn of War and Company of Heroes), at Radar (on Earth No More, Incarnate, and Prey 2, as well as some other unannounced original IPs), and now at Ubisoft Montreal. I currently live in Montreal with my wife and two young children, and I’ve been a gamer for about 25 years now.
Can you describe to me your current role @ Ubisoft Montreal?
RvL: Sure! I’m currently leading the creation of all the story content and narrative gameplay systems for a triple-A action game at Ubisoft’s Montreal studio. As a member of the ‘core team’ on the project, I focus on the development of the setting, storyline, characters, etc., — as well as the game systems that allow the player to directly engage in these elements — and work with the various sub-groups within our development team to ensure this content and these systems are well represented in the game.
Because Ubisoft is forward-thinking and focused on the creation of successful character-rich brands, they recognize the value of placing someone at the director-level who oversees the development of all narrative content. My work is a close collaboration with the creative director and producer, but also the other directors on the project and people in key positions at Ubisoft Editorial, to ensure the game we are making delivers on its potential as an entertainment property.
I also work extensively with external talent to develop these areas of the project, and finally — last but not least — I manage an internal team of narrative-focused designers whose sole responsibility is to create content in the game that deliver the story as a playable experience.
How would you define the craft of Interactive Narrative Design?
RvL: I think that increasingly, the lines between the content that is purely ‘story’, and what is purely ‘gameplay’ are being blurred, and I think this is a very good thing. Narrative design is about working towards a model of player experience that emphasizes ways in which gameplay systems can be used to allow the player to interact with a story space, and where the narrative content in a particular game can respond to actions made by the player.
There are games that explore this territory thematically (ex. Bioshock), those that explore it systemically (ex. Far Cry 2), those that are pioneering new hybrids (ex. L4D, Portal, Braid, etc.), but still the vast majority of games don’t really explore this territory at all. That makes it an undiscovered country for the most part.
What is it about narrative design that compels you?
RvL: As game developers, we work in a vibrant, exciting entertainment medium that’s very young relative to other modes of storytelling such as film or the novel. Within that, narrative design is a relatively young craft. It’s great to be working on the forefront of a discipline and tackling the unique challenges therein. There’s a pioneering aspect to the work we’re doing that’s very compelling to me, personally. I look forward to the day where it’s not frowned upon to consider video games as an effective way for people to engage in a narrative experience.
As a professional storyteller, gamemaker and producer how do you feel the craft of narrative design relates to game writing and game design?
RvL: I believe that in order to be successful as a narrative designer, you have to have a strong sensibility for game design, and also understand story design and the craft of storytelling in general. In my view (and everyone probably defines this differently), there are three major areas of focus for a narrative designer:
* Story design is an architectural pursuit — the construction of a narrative framework that is true to the inherent rules of story and one which has strong potential to resonate with the player (or reader, or viewer, etc.). This is the nuts and bolts of story creation, but is separate from pure ‘writing’ (i.e. it is possible to be very conversant in the rules of story design but not necessarily be a strong writer).
* Game writing is more about populating an existing architecture with content, and this work clearly requires having some talent and skill as a writer, emphasizing the creation of dialogue but also, often, world-building and character development.
* Game design, obviously, is about creating rules, controls, interfaces, and systems that allow players to manipulate a system to their advantage. To make a story a ‘playable’ experience, you need to have a strong understanding of the game systems you have to work with, and which have the most potential to express narrative content to the player.
So, I think narrative design is in many ways combines these various skills into a single hybrid role that is entirely unique to our medium. I think it’s fair to say that many people holding narrative designer or game writing roles in the industry are wearing many hats and focused on all these roles, while others may specialize in only certain aspects of the narrative design discipline as a whole. But, looking at it in a holistic fashion, I think the above three categories are a good way to encapsulate narrative design as a discrete development focus in the industry.
What are your day-to-day duties as a narrative design lead?
RvL: I split by day between content-creation, communication, and management duties.
For content creation, I try to make sure I write something every day — whether it’s world-building docs to build the fiction of our game, script for voice recording, working to spec out the narrative backbone for a mission, working through story problems with my external writing team, or working with the narrative design team to develop the various means we use to deliver story content to the player.
I’m also always touching base with the creative director and producer, as well as the other discipline directors, to make sure we’re all working towards the same goals and are keeping the big picture in mind. Those discussions can vary widely — from collaborating with the art director on how the characters should look, talking with the animation director about how various personality traits of the characters can be expressed in motion, working with the audio director to figure out how we’re going to present great dialogue in the game, and talking to the technical director to make sure we have the tools and technology we need to deliver a memorable story experience to the player. Everyone on the team is fully engaged with delivering a powerful story so I don’t spend much time evangelizing the need for story — I spend most of my time working with others to make sure the story is living up to our own high expectations.
For management, there are the typical ‘overhead’ duties of working with the other project directors and leads to work through process/structure issues, resource planning and prioritization, working with external talent to ensure the content they are creating dovetails seamlessly with our needs internally, and last but not least, I try to sit down with the narrative design team and work with them through the various challenges they face every day. Fortunately for me, they are very autonomous and run well on their own.
What can you tell me about your current project?
RvL: Can’t reveal any details about my current project as it is unannounced.. But, narrative will play a big role in it, so I feel very luck to be a part of it. Maybe when the project is announced we can talk about some of the specifics.
You come to narrative design with experience in creative direction, production, and writing for AAA games. How does your new role compare to the old, in that, how do those skill-sets help you be a better narrative designer?
RvL: Yeah, I’ve been fortunate to be able to see development from a bunch of different angles. I’ve worked the trenches in both a production and design capacity, and also held more externally-focused roles where I was providing high-level direction for the development of IP/franchises. I like my current role best in that it’s a good hybrid of the two worlds.
I think my experience as a producer has really served me well, in that it’s given me some good foundational skills (communication, planning, leadership) but also helped me a gain a sense of development constraints and helped remind me to keep a ‘big picture’ view and to try not to get too lost in the details. I think that’s really critical, and especially important for someone working on narrative, as it’s implicated in so many areas of a game’s development.
Working in creative direction taught me to focus on the ‘big picture’ of a game concept — clarifying the IP pillars, finding ways to unite the gameplay ambitions with ways to express what’s cool about a concept in non-interactive media, and helping teams to really refine and communicate their goals effectively, both internally and externally. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with some really talented people in developing multiple original IPs, and finding ways to provide good ‘hooks’ for those IPs to work well not just as games, but as movies, graphic novels, etc..
So, I feel really lucky to be able to come to my current role with this background, because everything I’ve done in the past helps me in my day to day work in some meaningful way. I also think it helps me to avoid being marginalized as purely a ‘story guy’, which unfortunately can be constraining in terms of what you can accomplish.
What is the most dramatic gameplay experience you’ve ever had?
RvL: I’ve had many, so it’s hard to pick one as being the ‘most dramatic’. I’m very focused on the fiction and characters of the games I’m playing, so I think my tendency is to become very engaged in those elements provided the game doesn’t do something to throw me out of the experience.
To pick a few examples (SPOILER ALERT):
– Some of the sequences from Half-Life 2: Episode 2, namely the event where Alyx is mortally wounded, and later on when her father is killed. I felt like in Ep2, Valve had really mastered their interactive storytelling techniques, but they also gave themselves a bit of a break and allowed themselves to occasionally deliver dramatic content within a more constrained set-up. I found those two sequences to be very dramatic. The defense of White Forest at the end of the game is a very tense, dramatic piece of pure gameplay, in that you bring to it all the emotion and urgency that has built up in the previous 2 games. Powerful stuff.
– Some of the choices in Mass Effect, and in particular, the choice of which of the love interest characters you were going to pursue. I felt BioWare did a very good job presenting each of these core characters and giving me opportunities to learn about them and see them each as interesting individuals. I actually felt that I had built up some kind of emotional investment in them, and because I knew (based on human social conventions) that I’d have to choose one over the other, I understood the very clear consequences of my decision. Because I was making a choice about a relationship to pursue, this for some reason felt a lot more compelling than many of the other choices presented by the game — it was a choice based on my emotions as a player (real feelings) vs. what I thought my version of Shepherd would choose (a role).
There are several other good examples, from games you’d expect (Deus Ex, Fallout 3, Bioshock, Halo, etc.) and perhaps from some games you wouldn’t expect (Stalker), but those are some prominent instances of dramatic play from my own experiences.
Did you experience catharsis? And if not have you ever experienced catharsis via games? How and why?
RvL: I’m not sure I’d categorize my feelings as cathartic, but there was certainly a strong compulsion to continue “living in those worlds” because I had become so engaged in the fiction and felt I played a real role in the events of their lives. Even though they were clearly virtual constructs, I was able to see beyond their (often flimsy) illusions and ‘gamey-ness’, and invest my emotions in the characters and their particular challenges.
The other day I read an interview with a Buddhist Monk where he suggested playing video games was an effective way for him to release tensions in his life. I thought that was particularly ironic – someone who’s an expert in meditation and being ‘zen’ saying he used video games as a catalyst for catharsis.
I guess I don’t subscribe to the belief that we should use virtual worlds as a way to process issues we have in the ‘real world’. I hope we can move towards a model where we can have meaningful experiences in games that help us understand something about the real world — such as what a well-crafted novel or movie can do – except in a more powerful, more immediate way.
A truly noble aspiration. What do you imagine for the future of interactive narrative design?
RvL: I imagine narrative design, as a discipline, will continue to evolve just as game design will, although I don’t expect there to be significant strides forward until we’re able to model more complex character behaviours, and begin tackling more serious, deeper themes. Once we can dramatize things like human interaction and wrap compelling gameplay and player choices around that – and I mean beyond what we see in games like Mass Effect, which have done a great job of advancing the interface, but less so the interactions – then we’ll have entered a whole new world of possibilities.
Expressing more believable AI-driven characters is a big part of this. The people at Valve set the bar with Alyx in Half-Life 2 and the Episodes, and in my opinion this bar has yet to be exceeded. As we become able to model more believable behaviours, we’ll realize that it’s a lot more interesting to model, let’s say, a relationship, as a gameplay construct, than it is to necessarily run around shooting everything that moves. That will still be fun, but we’ll be able to deliver something more compelling when you aren’t doing that. To be successful in this, we need to be able to deliver true performances through our digital characters, so there’s a whole massive layer of technology required to pull that off effectively.
So, in addition to the standards of ‘action’, ‘exploration’, ‘puzzle solving’, there will be more meaningful ‘interactions’ that are about a lot more than simply delivering new mission content to the player. Players will start to have a real emotional attachment to the people in the game worlds, and therefore we’ll be able to justify using them as a much deeper part of delivering a specifically character-driven experience.
I think we’ll continue to find ways to involve players more in the experience of game story, often as authors – which seems to be the primary thrust of exploration right now – but not exclusively as authors. We’ll continue to find more ways to unify our narrative content in the ‘transmedia’ experience, and we’ll have to shift our thinking from purely creating game content to creating entertainment properties. User-generated content and machinima will still be an interesting avenue of exploration, but more as a means for individual expression than for driving a distinctly authored narrative experience.
But I see the biggest advancement in narrative design not coming from narrative design at all – I simply think players will start asking for more depth to the story experience and more breadth of content (topics and themes), and as they expect more (and hopefully reward those who deliver it), we’ll all have to take our respective crafts up a notch to deliver on this. And this will probably be partially driven by this global strategy that’s in vogue right now for delivering more unified transmedia content, because we’ll realize that it hurts our character brands as game constructs when we can push story content so much more effectively in the linear space than the interactive space. Despite the advantages of our medium, we still have a long way to go to reach the level of emotional impact that can be communicated through (ironically) a medium far more passive than our own. If we want games to drive the future of content, we need to smash through this barrier in a big way, and soon.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to our network Raphael. You’ve provided some insightful answers and new perspectives. I look forward to playing your creations from Ubisoft.
Raphael is clear evidence of the renaissance which is infecting large AAA development studios. Here he has provided us insight into the fringe of gamemaking we call interactive narrative design; you can find out more about Raphael @ particleghost.blogspot.com. Thank you for reading, I hope you have learned as much as I have. For the NDN Narrator I’m Stephen E. Dinehart.