Novel Approach: Kent Hudson
The Novelist writes a new chapter in game narratives.
Three years ago, Kent Hudson gave a talk at the Game Developers Conference on how the industry could theoretically strengthen player-driven storylines. This week, he’s returning to San Francisco with an indie game that proves how it can be done.
A former developer on projects including BioShock 2, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, Thief: Deadly Shadows, and Deus Ex: Invisible War, Hudson quit the AAA space shortly after his 2011 talk and began work on The Novelist, a game that bypasses the trappings of shoot ‘em up thrillers in favor of a family-centric narrative. Released in December, the game focuses on the challenges of balancing career, marriage, and family and has garnered significant press praise for its relatable themes and nuanced plot. Story and characters lie at the center of The Novelist, as does a desire to maximize the interactive possibilities gaming offers. After getting nominated as a finalist for the Gamer’s Voice Award at the South By Southwest Interactive Festival, The Novelist heads to this year’s Game Developers Conference, running from March 17 through the 21st.
Kent Hudson: I had gotten dissatisfied with the fact that a lot of video games were telling really linear stories where every player, no matter what you do in the game, was going to get the exact same story. We were copying Hollywood and doing these elaborate cut scenes and spending all this money on these linear stories. What’s unique about games is that we have a player. They’re interactive. The player should be able to be involved in the story. That’s a special thing to our medium and we, more and more, were just copying other mediums and trying to rip them off instead of doing something that was unique to what’s special about our medium.
… I pulled up an old pitch I had worked on where you’re a ghost in a house with six or eight people in the house. I started working on that version of the game and it was just too big. It was too nebulous and there was no emotion attached to it. It was more like a toy. It was more like The Sims than it was anything that was going to create a story. By process of elimination, I started shrinking that game down into what eventually became The Novelist. I got it down to three characters, which is basically the smallest number of characters whom are still interesting to interact with, and I changed it to be a family because that provides such a strong context. I didn’t have to explain a bunch of backstory. People kind of inherently know what’s a good marriage and a bad marriage and what’s a good father and a bad father. … If I put it into that recognizable context, then I could dive right into the story stuff without really having to do a lot of set up.
KH: The backbone of the game is the relationships of the three characters. In every chapter you’re making decisions that are either good for Dan’s career or good for the marriage or good for him being a good dad. From a narrative perspective, I wanted to make a game that asks you the same question, which is about your career versus family and what’s important. I wanted to ask that in nine different ways, so to have nine chapters that each had different scenarios to ask that question. It’s not that hard to have a game that asks you to make these decisions, but the challenge was how do I have those decisions turn themselves into an actual discernible story?
… In any chapter you’ll find a ghostly journal that has the characters’ reaction to the previous decision. If you read their thoughts, you’ll see those thoughts change over the course of the game as those relationships get better and worse. When you finish each act of the game, you get a separate wrap-up that tells you sort of at a macro level where those relationships are moving. … The real challenge was just you have to write all of the possible outcomes. So for all the chapters I had to write out this worked out for Tommy, this didn’t work out for Tommy. This worked out for Linda, this didn’t work out for Linda. Then there are a bunch of edge cases. If the player is really, really focusing on the relationship and the marriage and getting things really good between Dan and Linda, but ignoring Tommy, the son, and it gets to the point where Tommy’s relationship with his dad is really bad, it starts to not ring true if Linda, the mom and the wife, is sitting there saying, “Oh, my God. We’re so in love right now. This is the best man in the world.” She can’t be saying that about a guy who’s neglecting his kid. She needs to stick up for him. The same thing with Tommy. If he’s got the best dad in the world, but the parent’s marriage is on the rocks, he’s not going to be like, “Daddy, I love you so much.” [He’s going to be like] “Why are you hurting mommy’s feelings?” I had to start looking at sort of the edges of where the player could push those relationships and making sure the characters reacted to that.
KH: In a lot of games, you write a story, pick where the player needs to make decisions, pick where the choice points are, and you write a bunch of small linear stories that, at times, will branch, but mostly everyone gets the same story in the same direction. I wanted to try a different story structure with this game, so one of the things I did up front was put a rule on myself that every time you play the game, the chapters are going to come in a random order. When I’m working on the game, I don’t know if in the chapter with the art show, I don’t know if that’s going to be the second chapter. I don’t know if it’s going to be the seventh chapter. I don’t know what choices the player will have previously made. I don’t know what status the relationships are in when that chapter comes up. I had to write every single chapter as a stand-alone thing. … That constraint I put on myself is to keep the game fresh and force myself to stick to this weird dynamic structure and resist the urge of writing a traditional linear narrative.
… I use a tool called Scrivener. It’s a really great writing tool. It’s not really intended for games. … It’s used for writers of novels and screenplays and things like that, but it’s a really great organizational tool. I had a little bundle for each stand-alone chapter and had a template that I used for here’s Dan and Linda’s journals, here are the journals they would write if they did get their way, if they don’t get their way, those special cases I talked about. Here’s the text for getting their way or not as a chapter wrap-up scene and little cut scenes at the end that kind of describe the events.
KH: It’s almost impossible to say because the motivations in AAA are so different. … The good thing about indie games is that since the scale is so much smaller we can take these risks and be successful on a scale that AAA games just doesn’t care about. I’m one guy and I had some contributors who helped out with the game and I contracted the artwork, but I don’t have to sell 3 million copies of my game for this to be a profitable and life-sustaining exercise. I can make these games on a much smaller scale because, the fact of the matter is, the subject matter of this game and the weird narrative risks that I took, frankly, just alienates a large part of the core gaming audience. It’s not the people who really love Call of Duty and who just bought Titanfall and Dark Souls and these hardcore, big AAA games that just came out. They don’t want a quiet, small game about family life and difficult decisions.
I worked in AAA for 10 years. I’ve seen this at four different companies. When you’ve got a publicly traded company, they are looking for the maximum profit. They are looking at stock price. That’s why you see so many sequels and so many repeats and so many cloning games. They’ve got CEOs who half the time don’t even play games and are answering to shareholders and trying to maximize shareholder value. They’re always looking for what’s the hot trend, what’s the biggest bang for buck, what game has the chance to explode on the market and make, hopefully, that GTA-level of billions of dollars? No publisher is going to look at The Novelist or Gone Home and go, “Wow, we can sell 7 million copies of that” because the audience they’re going after just doesn’t want it. … It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since the people who make those decisions don’t think that will work, they never get a chance to work.
KH: When I announced my game and when I announced the release date, I started going to websites and looking for the contact information or asking my friends if they had any contact information for [gaming] sites and just, one by one, started writing emails. It’s a lot of grassroots stuff. Make sure you have a website. Make sure there’s a trailer that’s on the website so people can know what the game is if they find their way there. I tried to reach out to sites that aren’t as gaming focused. Obviously, if I reach out to Kotaku or Polygon, the audience there is going to be 100 percent gamers. That’s not where the 45-year-old person who’s never played a game but might be interested in my subject matter, that’s not where I’m going to find them. I did do some outreach to other sites. My game has been written up on The Huffington Post, The LA Times, got a mention in the New York Times and places like that that are not traditional gaming outlets.
KH: The best advice I can give [is] get it on the screen as fast as you can and let people play it and take the feedback. In the first versions of the game, the writing was atrocious. It was very, very bad and I am fortunate enough to have friends who are very, very good writers who are also comfortable giving me very critical feedback. Just writing a bad version of something and getting it to people and having them tell you why it’s bad so you can make it better each time. That’s ultimately how I got to where the game is.
Don’t have characters talk openly about how they feel. Don’t have them say, “I’m sad.” Describe an event where the player can infer that they’re sad or talk about events or talk about interactions between people that illustrate the way they’re feeling towards each other instead of having them just say, “I’m so mad at Dan right now.” Have them talk about an argument they had at dinner that illustrates it in a different way.
Leave some white space for the audience to fill in. If you hint at one thing with one character and then you hint at the same event from a different angle from a different character but don’t explicitly say exactly what happened, put enough there that the player starts to draw connections. That can be really powerful because then the player really feels like they’re part of that narrative experience. They feel like they’re filling it in for themselves and making connections. It draws them in and makes them pay attention and makes them more of an active participant as opposed to just sitting back and having everything explained to them.
The 2014 Game Developers Conference kicks off in San Francisco March 17th through 21st. Get In Media will have the latest from the front lines.
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