21 Aug 13

An Attempt At Game Stories

Narrative concerns in Desktop Dungeons have always been a little weird. Its short-session, rotating door of one-shot characters doesn’t lend itself to extended storylines. Its semi-linear nature makes it difficult to have a “main” storyline (we ended up dressing one tale out of several as the “campaign” because we needed a solid backbone for metagame progress). Its random nature means that it’s difficult to ensure that all parts of the story are heard at the right times.

In other words, conventional storytelling is out.

At some point, I became thoroughly gripped by Dark Souls and marvelled at its perfection of “fuzzy storytelling”. The game world was fully equipped with bits and pieces of information about what the hell was going on, and as you discovered more of these pieces you were able to start forming theories about where you were, what you were doing and why the world was so dark and messed up.

But you never got more than theories. The entire game spoke in hints and assumed knowledge, never confirming anything.

Puzzling out the mysteries of lore became a game itself. Better yet, players who weren’t particularly inspired by narrative could sail right over all of it and not feel too imposed upon. This felt like an accessible, yet effective, storytelling model.

Desktop Dungeons attempted to emulate this style, though I always wonder how much success that achieved. The care and elegance required for this kind of storytelling is rather demanding. Information needs to be dispensed along key avenues and those avenues only – it’s the art of minimalism, squeezing the most meaning out of the fewest gestures.

In experience, micro-adjustments to lore and individual subdungeon blurbs were frequent. I spent a lot of time wondering whether we were dispensing too little information, or too much. But I think I managed to make both mistakes at the same time in various ways. The whisper-light balance of mystery was never quite there in the way I was seeking to emulate.

For this reason, the storytelling in the Special Edition quests rapidly became a lot more deterministic and detailed as an experiment to see where the Desktop Dungeons narrative style could go. Until now, the only “fully determined” playable character available in a dungeon scenario was the male Thief known as Garrett (har har). In the Goat Glade quests, most characters were given gender-neutral names and back stories to meet this idea part of the way.

A lot more emphasis was placed on in-universe connectivity – most of the story follows the events depicted in the Bloodmage challenge pack, incorporates lots of lore references from the standard game and brings in a few recurring characters from seemingly throwaway scenarios (on a scale slightly more epic than the way we recycled Foyter as a novelty for Tinker challenges).

It became an exercise in storytelling through detail, which is decidedly not like the process I described at the beginning of this post.

There are still a lot of mysteries and easter eggs scattered through the subdungeons (and subtext, booyah) of Desktop Dungeons, and I still pride the game on being able to spread these little nuggets in a variety of locations. Some of them are accessed after fighting through new challenges. Others are found in subdungeons and exploratory ventures. A few others obviously rocked up for people who read the Codex (recently updated with more boss descriptions, by the way). I like the idea that getting some information in games is akin to searching for buried treasure, especially when it inspires community effort and – consequently – the exchange of speculation.

Sure, inspiring fan theories is one thing, but inspiring competing fan theories is much juicier and a lot more difficult to do. It’s the storytelling equivalent of the eternal game design challenge – balancing your game well enough for players to actually have active and detailed disagreements on the most effective way to approach a scenario (the forums get most interesting for us when literally any user is arguing with any other, ever). Stories with no clear “optimal route” – especially when couched in a gaming environment, of all things – can be interesting and rewarding compared to the non-game scenario of a clearly depicted tale.

In fact, overclarification is probably the single greatest crime that a game’s storyline can commit, especially when coming from indies. Games that are too wordy about their worlds and characters before the player has spent enough time with the aforementioned often risk bogging people down with information before they know why that info is interesting. For example, a recent push on the matter of writing and feedback in Desktop Dungeons involved trimming back the text load on earlier scenarios, right from the first pair of “Story Begins” panels. Badass micro-reductionisms ahoy!

Messing around with the storyline in Desktop Dungeons has been weird and experimental. Its bite-sized nature has allowed the game to explore many different paths of storytelling and even lets it switch up emotional register (there’s nothing quite like the occasional hint that this generally light-hearted experience is actually built on the back of disturbing attitudes, events and people in-game). It’s one of the project aspects that I’ve found the most amusing to work on – it was designed to fly slightly under the radar and has become more of a sandpit to mess about in while stuff like UI and game balance have been subject to much greater scrutiny.

It makes me wonder what will happen when the game finally gets presented to a broader audience, and how many Internet denizens will pass comment on the storytelling for better or worse.

Trump card, though – the game will always have at least some rad one-liners, and it’ll be nice to have more eyes on the little bits of text that get in the way of the next monster skull when the full release comes around. At the very least, there’s always one more audience member to say, “Hey guys, they put Super Meat Boy in there!”

Yeah, it’s cheap, but we’ll take our referential gags where we can.


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