I was about to complain publicly about people not providing transcripts of long videos, because I read much faster than people talk and I like to be able to come back to spots to read more closely, and then I realized I’d never done the same for *my* talk.
There. Now I won’t be entirely hypocritical.
Do note that this isn’t a perfect transcript, but it’s close enough.
(BOLD are topics; italics are new slides)
Introduction (SLIDE: Torment slide, name, title)
Hi. I’m Colin McComb, the creative lead for Torment: Tides of Numenera, and I’m here today to talk to you about storytelling, specifically the way we’re doing it for Torment, because that’s the way I know how to tell stories in games, and more specifically because that’s what I’ve been working on for the past two years and it’s where my head is.
If you don’t want to hear about this, this is your last chance to get out.
No? All right then. So, as I said, I’m the creative lead for Torment, which means that I’m responsible for the writing, the story, the characters, and – at least in part – bringing the setting to life. Of course, I’m not the only person working on this project, but I do get to take the credit for the story (and the blame, if necessary).
I’ve been told that I talk too fast sometimes, so I’m going to make an effort to slow it down. But if turns out that I somehow forget and start to speed up, never fear – our hosts are apparently recording everything so you can watch it later at your leisure. If I stop and stare, terrified and deer-like, at the camera on occasion, please forgive me.
I do plan to have a question and answer at the end of this talk, so if you have related questions, I’ll be delighted to answer them then. If they’re not related, I’ll be happy to answer them outside the panel.
Storytelling in Games
(slide title: Storytelling in Games)
Game storytelling is still in its infancy. As much as we want to tell ourselves that we’re at our peak, the truth is: we’re still developing our craft. Part of this is because:
Story is, for many games, a secondary consideration, a piece of fluff added for a little dramatic and narrative tension. I know a narrative designer who was once told, “What you do here is literally the least important part of this project.” In certain cases, that might be true. To the people on our team, that’s anathema.
Full-time narrative designers tend to come from backgrounds like novels, television, and film. Each of these imposes its own structure on storytelling, and sometimes it becomes difficult for traditional storytellers to adjust to this fledgling medium. But because it’s a relatively young medium, we’re learning anew how to develop stories for games. We have so very many ways to express ourselves.
For instance: Each of these tells a story in a very different fashion, but they all manage to get a point across elegantly and effectively.
Sometimes we are handed a story and need to flesh it out. Sometimes we develop our own. That’s what I’m here to talk about today.
(SLIDE: Baldur’s Gate and its descendants)
The style of game I’m talking about in particular is what we can call Infinity-Engine style, after the game engine developed by Bioware in the creation of Baldur’s Gate for Dungeons & Dragons-style role-playing games. If you haven’t played any of those titles, it provided a tremendous breadth and depth of storytelling possibility, with deeper choice and consequence than many earlier games. More specifically, Infinity Engine games tend to share these characteristics:
As I mentioned previously, I’m going to be talking about the way we’re creating Torment’s story in particular – not emergent stories, not sandbox, not purely environmental – but a strong narrative told through words and semi-traditional pacing choices. It’s not a game on rails, purely cinematic with cosmetic choices. It’s a deeply interactive story that changes based on your actions. We hope to make a replayable game with enough reactivity that it would be a significantly different experience on your following playthroughs.
That’s the kind of game we’re developing with Torment: Tides of Numenera. As a thematic sequel to Planescape: Torment, we’re targeting hundreds of thousands of words in the finished product.
Localization is going to be EXPENSIVE.
So what do we have to do if we’re going to live up to that promise? Well, here’s what we’ve done. When the game ships, we’ll find out how well our plan worked.
First, we needed to get our team together.
Our Starting Team
Torment started small – Brian Fargo, leader of inXile, asked me if I’d like to develop a new Torment game. After I talked myself off the ceiling, I said I’d be delighted to do it if I could bring along Adam Heine, now our Design Lead. Chris Avellone, lead designer of Planescape: Torment, suggested Brian hire our project lead Kevin Saunders. We added Thomas Beekers to help us manage the Kickstarter, and we were off. So where to start?
Our First Inspiration
Because we’re developing the thematic successor to this game, broadly considered to be one of the best narrative RPGs ever made, we needed to analyze what made it the experience it was. Before we launched the Kickstarter – hell, before we even decided on the world we were going to use – we needed to have a concrete grasp of what was so evocative about the first Torment, and what made it so beloved so many years later.
To that end, we built the Four Pillars. These guide us in the continuing development of our game.
(SLIDE Text) A Deep, Thematically Satisfying Story. The philosophical underpinnings of Torment drive the game, both mechanically and narratively. Your words, choices, and actions will be your primary weapons.
The themes we chose form an integral part of our story. Without them, we’d be another hack-n-slash dungeon crawler – not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not a Torment game. We wanted to explore deep questions, universal questions, and hold it against a backdrop of suffering. To that end, we chose these three themes.
Legacy: We ask: What does one life matter
Abandonment: We explore what it means to experience abandonment – whether of a person, place, or thing.
Mystery: Not every question gets an answer. Some aspects of the game will raise questions, and as with life, we’ll leave you wondering if there’s more. Sometimes Lore will reveal more to you, but in a world that has seen a billion years pass from now, some answers will never be revealed.
Every bit of the story echoes these themes. Every character, every situation, and every area carries their reflection. Some are more overt than others, but we look at every experience our players will have through the lens of these themes.
A note of caution: We don’t want to make this a bludgeon. We want to be subtle, to interleave these themes, without shouting them to the skies, but to make them an integral part of the story.
(SLIDE text) A World Unlike Any Other. The game has a fantastic, original setting, with awe-inspiring painterly visuals, imaginative locations, offbeat items, and massive feats of magic. (Though in Numenera, “magic” is something surprisingly different.)
As Adam and I began talking about Torment, my old friend and TSR coworker Monte Cook had just finished his Numenera Kickstarter. I’d been lucky enough to be involved in some of the playtests for this new world and system, and it was obvious that it held a rich narrative potential. Its fundamental principles still echo with all of us: we seek the future, we want to dream, and we want to know that we survive. Plus, I should add, it’s weird and imaginative as hell.
The impetus for the setting is Arthur C. Clarke’s famous third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
The setting is the Ninth World, Earth a billion years in the future. For context, that’s about the distance between us and the appearance of multicellular life. Great civilizations, not all of them human, have risen and fallen in that time. Some of them were star-lifters, able to shape whole solar systems. Some were able to twist time and space to explore new dimensions. One civilization made Earth the central hub of a galaxy-spanning empire. Some unlocked the basic codes of life, and one spilled a cloud of nano-machines across the world that persists to this days.
These civilizations are called the prior worlds by the humans who have recently reappeared on the planet. The humans of the Ninth World don’t know who these civilizations were, what they did, or why they disappeared. All the modern people know is that the prior worlds left behind markers of their civilization. Some of their technology still functions, filling the world with mysterious relics of ages past. To the humans, this technology is like magic – and it is so far removed from our abilities, it may very well be. New people live amid the dust of vanished empires, and the miraculous tools of the forgotten past wait among the ruins for enterprising wanderers to pick them up—or for the unwary to trigger their effects. These devices are known as the numenera.
SUNKEN MARKET SLIDE
They include items like memory ants, which you can spill across a page so that they devour the text. Carry them with you and throw them onto another page, and they’ll recreate the text. Or perhaps you might find a plasma propulsion module – but as a native of the Ninth World, you’d see it generates a jet of superheated power and mount it on the end of a spear to burn a hole through your enemy. If you’re a farmer, you might harness a still functioning automaton to your plow, and cross bridges of coherent light on your way to the market. You might find gravitics useful in constructing a home, or you might simply construct it of floatstone. And you might regard something as common as a telephone – a device that allows you to speak to people thousands of miles away via the datasphere – as a construct of pure witchcraft.
… I think we’ve got the world unlike any other covered. Drawing from the literary tradition of Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison, and many more, we explore the deep future… and did you notice how this world hits all our thematic goals, too? Legacy, abandonment, and mystery… it’s baked into the DNA of the setting.
(SLIDE TEXT) A Rich, Personal Narrative. The story is thoughtful and character-driven; epic in feel but a deeply personal narrative, with nontraditional characters and companions who have their own motivations and desires that drive them throughout the game.
You may have also noticed that I pointed out that the Numenera setting has a rich narrative potential, and it’s a good thing, because we need to have a rich, personal narrative for a Torment game. More than a dungeon-crawler, more than a hack-n-slash, more than an excuse to travel to beautiful new maps and kill monsters to take their treasure, we needed to provide a reason to do these things – a journey through which the player will want to travel … not out of a desire for ludic completion, but narrative curiosity and the necessity of a well-told story.
Part of the reason Planescape: Torment was such a success, I’m convinced, is that it was one of the first graphic video games with literary ambition. More than just a game, we wanted it to be a experience that would resonate with people long after they finished.
Our overarching goal with Torment is to tell a life story – not a hero’s journey, but the story of someone being born to the world, growing old, and dying. We move from Infancy to Old Age, and each step of the way, we try to craft the experience in a way that reflects an experience of life, so that we can be true to our human understanding.
In a nutshell, here’s our story:
A brilliant wizard/scientist, what Numenera calls “nanos”, sought a way to cheat death. He found a way to cast his entire consciousness into specially prepared shells, and in so doing leapt from body to body across the centuries. This knowledge earned him the sobriquet, “The Changing God.” But for all his genius, he didn’t know that the bodies he abandoned would gain a consciousness of their own, nor that each time he did so he created a disruption in a primeval force called the Tides. Perhaps most importantly, he never knew that his experiments would awaken a nightmare from a forgotten age: The Sorrow, a creature of unimaginable power and strength, which seeks to erase him, and all his children.
But he did eventually learn all of these things, and his mistakes have haunted him over the course of his life.
At the start of the game, the Sorrow has found him at last on his private moon, and it lays waste to his home. As part of his mad escape, he leaps into an escape pod… but the Sorrow strikes it, and he abandons his body for a new home.
And so you awaken, the Changing God’s last castoff, tumbling through the thermosphere, toward a destiny that you’ll shape over the course of the game.
Please understand that we’re not creating an epic. We don’t want to save the world, nor do we want to make the universe tremble with your footsteps. We want to join you as you help create a story that’s personalized to your choices.
(SLIDE text) Reactivity, Choice, and Real Consequences. The game emphasizes replayability and reactivity, and your choices will make a real difference. You can play the game with a different approach and discover entirely new pathways. Most important, we won’t tell you how to play. The “best” ending is the one that arises naturally from your actions throughout the game.
(slide image) – Artaglio at the Maw
One of the strengths of this style of game is that we can present the player with a number of different choices in dialogue, and can attach any number of variables and scripts to make those choices mean something. I’ll show an example of this later.
We start you with your choices right away. You awaken to consciousness, tumbling from an artificial moon high in Earth’s sky, and some of the actions you take during that fall will have consequences later in the game… assuming you survive the fall, that is. We’re not going to shy away from making the player pay for foolish choices, and perma-death (that is, reload-death, not “restart the game death”) is not only possible, it’s potentially frequent if you make those choices.
I don’t want to call any of these *wrong* choices, mind you. Each of them should be natural, and the game should respond to what you choose. When we’re talking about a game whose primary theme is legacy, we want choices to matter… just as for each of us, the choices we make in our everyday lives matter, and our small kindnesses or cruelties can have longer-lasting effects than we ever dreamed.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about our Four Pillars, but that’s because they really are the foundation for everything else we want to do with the story in this game. Without them, we could easily stray into making another game – something that might be cool, but that isn’t Torment.
What follows is important to us – and to anyone who wants to do storytelling in their games, obviously – but it’s our intent that these things be a natural outgrowth of the principles I’ve described, that they flow organically from them.
So! Now that we have our Four Pillars defined, we need to start in on some of the traditional dramatic necessities. These include characterization, tone, plot, conflict, pacing, and more. Though in games we’re freed from ordinary storytelling strictures, this is not to say that we can’t take tips from our predecessors – thousands of years of human storytelling has taught us a few tricks, and we’d be foolish to ignore the wisdom they bring to the table.
Developing believable, entertaining, and relatable characters is one of the crucial tasks to telling a story. Without these characters, you’ve created a plot-driven story, and the choices become more cerebral and less personal. On the other hand, if you develop characters to whom the player can form an attachment, the stakes become much, much higher.
So where do you start with creating characters? Other writers and narrative designers may have different methods, but I tend to start with a template based on a person I know, a character in a book, or a particularly lyrical piece of text. Then I start bending, twisting, and breaking, adding a little here and taking a little away there. Sometimes I do this with a scalpel. Sometimes I do it with an axe.
But I almost always start with a vision of the character in mind, and their stories and voices come from that.
For instance, this woman here is one of our companions. Her name is Matkina, and she’s an assassin. Her original inspiration was Angelina DiGriz, the utterly amoral mastermind who was the foil for Harry Harrison’s “Stainless Steel Rat” and later his wife. She was originally going to have a name that was evocative of the word “mask”, and this would have been a clue to her true identity. The storyline changed, and she no longer needed to fit the function of a betrayer, but her personality had stuck with me, and I began to wonder what was at the core of her character. Was she truly amoral, or had she buried the part of herself that cried out against the deeds she’d done? What brought her to that state? How could you help her redeem herself, and what would it mean to do so?
Answering these questions in the context of the overall story has made her character branch in some very interesting ways, such as… well, I don’t want to spoil it.
(SLIDE: Both male and female protagonists)
Developing a protagonist is both simple and maddeningly complex. You want someone who is a believable stand-in for the player, which means that you need to make a relatively broad canvas for the player to paint on. I’ll add that we made an explicit choice early on to ensure that we’d have both male and female choices for the player character. We want our players to feel like they’re valuable and welcomed in the game, and that we’re creating an actual *human* experience.
Now, to develop the character, you need to provide a backstory (which hopefully I have done previously).
(new slide: Text: Story synopsis: “Changing God. Castoffs. The Sorrow. Falls from moon. Awakens during fall.”)
Oh, right. Good.
You don’t want the canvas to be too blank, mind you. If you do that, you wind up with a character who’s little more than a collection of weapons and grunting noises.
You develop abilities for the character – more than just a collection of powers, one hopes, but something that sets this character apart from others in the world. In theory, this is more than a recitation of stats and becomes a part of the storytelling, part of the choice matrix that players make when advancing through the world. These abilities should flow naturally from the story, and they should serve to advance the story as well.
Of course, every good protagonist requires those who would work against him or her. The value of the protagonist is proven by the quality of the antagonists, and the better your antagonists, the more your protagonist has a chance to shine.
I believe strongly – very strongly – that an antagonist should not be a cackling, evil villain. Very, very few people wake up and decide that they’re going to be evil. Every antagonist should have a backstory, an inspiration, and a reason they oppose you. The best antagonists are the ones who are sympathetic, and who might even be able to tempt the protagonist to their side if you explain their story well enough.
Of course, this being Torment, we’re not content to make all our antagonists human or human-like beings.
Let me detour quickly and talk about the role of reference art in developing characters. As I mentioned before, sometimes a character idea comes through an image. This one, for instance. I should probably warn you that a bodily interior is about to appear, if you’re squeamish… in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
The Bloom inspiration
That’s a brain coral and an endoscopy of a stomach.
One of the benefits of this job is that I’m not only encouraged but required to hunt down interesting images and evocative pictures to show our artists, and over time I’ve found some… interesting pieces. This is inspiration for the Bloom, a hyperdimensional predator that’s the size of a small city. Its tendrils reach out through dimensions, and intrepid merchants and explorers travel these tendrils to find new worlds and bring back unique artifacts.
The Bloom actual
This is what Chang Yuan, one of our concept artists, created for us. This enormous crawls through a ravine near the city Sagus Cliffs, heading toward the ocean, centimeter by centimeter, over the course of the centuries. The nearby city above casts its refuse down here – both literal and human – and lost people, criminals, madmen, monsters, and runaways seek the tentative comfort of its walls. And if sometimes a few of them go missing, well, that’s the price they pay for its protection.
What does the Bloom want? It wants to feed. Particularly it feeds on certain kinds of mental energy, and if you discover what that is, you might find a way to bend it to your will – but if you choose to follow this path, you might find that perhaps it’s bending you to its.
But one way or another, you’ll travel through the Bloom in your quest, and whether or not you emerge alive depends entirely on your choices.
(SLIDE: Just black)
The Sorrow, who we once called the Angel of Entropy, is our overpowering, unstoppable death force. I’ll detour for a moment to say that we changed the name because we looked through my original story doc and realized that perhaps there was too much religious imagery in there – the Changing God, churches, cults, chapels, and now an Angel. Since Numenera has its small gods, and since religion is an important part of people’s everyday lives, we didn’t want to excise that influence altogether, but we decided that perhaps we could find another, more evocative name that would allow us to convey the same sort of sense of dread without inadvertently making the game a religious commentary. After some discussion, I suggested “Sorrow of the Lost Age”, and we shortened that to “The Sorrow.”
It’s difficult to talk about our antagonists, because they’re tightly wrapped through the thread of the storyline, and I am extraordinarily reluctant to give any spoilers. Suffice to say that the Sorrow is the primary antagonist. It stalks you from the moment of your awakening, and your birthright as a castoff of the Changing God is an inevitable encounter with the Sorrow and its rage.
The Sorrow is our overwhelming specter of death. It is an end that comes to all, and struggling against it is futile… though you can always try to find a way to cheat it just a little bit longer.
Of course, you can choose to be like your creator, the Changing God, and try to find ways to evade and outwit it as long as you can.
(image: Aligern progression)
One of the most important parts of this kind of game is the companions you can choose to join your quest. They are your mirrors on the world, the human touches that provide an instant reaction. If they’re tremendous jerks and they nod approvingly at your actions, you can be sure that you’ve just done something terrible.
In some senses, they require more careful planning than the protagonist. They must have believable motivations. They need to have utility for your adventure, or barring that, such an overwhelmingly cool story that you just have to see it through to the end. Ideally, they’ll have both.
But they also react to your choices. You can help them by completing their quests, by treating them well, by allying with them against their own enemies… or you can abuse them by ignoring their quests, destroying their hopes, and negating them as people. Sometimes you might need to abuse them in order to get ahead; other times you might find that helping them is bad for the world at large. Weighing choices for your companions is a crucial part of determining your legacy.
Still, you can’t have a believable world or a breathing one without a cast of supporting characters with unique personal voices. Though their dialogues are significantly smaller than the companions or the antagonists, in general they provide us with the life for the world.
This fellow onscreen here is Artaglio. He’s the leader of a band of mercenaries who fled a raging, endless battle led by your castoff siblings, and he’s afraid the Bloom wants to devour him. But despite his abuse at the hands of your kind, he’s still affable, friendly, and possessed of a mordant humor. Even after everything, he still tries to find a way to be the best person he can be, and if that means that he’s drunk all the time… so be it!
You might be able to take advantage of his good nature, but he’ll be just as happy to take advantage of yours.
You can’t ascribe emotions or feelings to the player. I find it cheap and degrading to have a game tell me how I feel when the game has no idea if I feel that way. It bothers me when the game hasn’t earned the pathos it’s telling me I feel, and so we want to avoid doing that to our players too.
Instead, we work to build that pathos through tone. What kind of tone are we looking for? Well, it’s a Torment game, so we’re looking at something that’s dark and adult. I don’t mean that we’re going RRRAAAAAGH GRIM DARK SUFFERING all the time, but we want to build on elements of horror, tragedy, and drama. We want the player to feel invested in the characters, and one of the best ways to do that is to put those characters in peril.
But the game can’t be all a single tone, just as a piece of music can’t be a single note. I mean it CAN, but it’s not going to be enjoyable. Instead, we want to interleave the tone with some light-hearted moments, much of which will come through companion interaction with both the PC and the NPCs you encounter.
For example, we have a pair of doctors in the Bloom who could best be described as mad scientists. They’re enthusiastic in their work, and because of their enthusiasm they’re perhaps a little less… ethical… than they should be. They’ll happily work on you and your companions, trying to dig out answers… with knives, hammers, and saws, if necessary. But they’re unflaggingly polite, cheerful, and dedicated to their work… even if they barely acknowledge that they’ve been exiled to one of the worst places in our game, even surrounded by the fruits of human suffering.
What I’m saying is that I laughed all the way through writing them, and I hope that when you encounter them, you’ll laugh all the way through that encounter too.
Kickstarter Writing Team
We added a few more writers during the campaign as stretch goals during the process or a bit later. Many of these writers have contributed their portion to the project already; some of them continue to be involved.
Some of these people contributed high-level ideas, area designs, companion designs, and character sketches. For instance, Chris Avellone contributed his considerable expertise to make our first companion, a suicidally brave warrior with a truly interesting twist.
These are all incredibly valuable things for us to have. Now, however, we’re focusing on creating conversations, and that’s an entirely different monster.
Our primary narrative team right now consists of Adam, George, Nathan, and me and Gavin Jurgens-Fhyrie will be joining us full time next month.
With such a large team, obviously we need to have some standards, and in order to make sure all our writers know how to use our conversation authoring tool, we’ve developed this document. This is actually only the first of three pages of the Table of Contents; it goes to about 64 pages. It’s kind of daunting, but its also an essential document for us to make sure that our many, many, many words conform to similar ideas and don’t break anything major. Nothing like reaching the release date and having people point out that something has gone so terribly awry.
This is actually the impetus for this entire talk. I mentioned before the importance of developing tone, but it goes beyond that. Part of developing that tone is accurate word choice. When writing, not only do we need to be incredibly evocative, we also need to consider, with every word, what the player experience is. There’s no use in having standards, tone, characters, and all those dramatic elements if we can’t string it together to create a coherent player experience. Part of that is setting expectations through judicious word choice, and that’s what happens in this very next slide.
NEW SLIDE HERE
I was writing the first dialogue for the game, and one of my player response choices was, “Look at my body.” On review, Adam wrote and said “Shouldn’t it be YOUR body?” After some back and forth, he dug out an example from PST, and I had to acknowledge that he was right. But I really, really didn’t want to make that narrative interjection at that point – saying “Look at your body” makes you instantly aware that there’s someone between you and the action. I chose instead, as you can see, “Look at *this* body.”
- Accidental, but telling.
- Signalling to the player
- Happy accidents
- (image of OEI/Falling conversation)
The important point I’m making in this is that we have extensive team review. Even as the creative lead for this project, I’m subject to the review process, and that’s as it should be. While I may be in charge of the overall creative vision for this game, it’s important that I keep my stories and dialogues coherent with the rest of the game, that my conversations are playable, that I’m living up to the standards.
Possibly the hardest part of this whole process is the endless iteration. The story that we have now is broadly similar to the game that we pitched on Kickstarter. However, I mean BROADLY. Important beats have moved, the pacing has changed, entire scenes have been eliminated, plot points have been trimmed and modified, and sometimes I don’t even remember some of the changes without looking them up in the hundreds of pages of documentation.
But throughout all of this iteration, we’re also creating real game content. The entire time, we have been building conversations, developing scenes, creating characters and quests, proving toolsets, and creating internally consistent and coherent rules, systems, and lore for our players.
Our first in-game conversations were written over 18 months ago. You may have seen some of that from our First Glimpse trailer. That work has been used, modified, updated, and twisted, and it wont necessarily appear in the final product as it does in the trailer, but the germ of it is all still there.
So let’s put all of this talk together.
We’re using Obsidian Entertainment’s dialogue editor (thank you, Obsidian) as well as some of their other technology. So let me show you how we put all this together
(Slide: Jont 1)
SLIDE: BIG CONVO
As you can see, these can grow to be pretty massive.
Game storytelling is still in its infancy. As much as we want to say that our art form is fully developed on its own merits, the fact is that we’re still struggling to find a voice and a common jargon to unite us. But I believe that we have a tremendous power and a tremendous opportunity to help shape the world, if we’re careful in our application.
I recently read a story on Reddit about someone who had gotten a Planescape Torment tattoo because it spoke to them about pain, about flesh remembering, about prevailing through toxic relationships and coming out the other side stronger, and better, and wiser.
One of the best things about this team is that no one on the project is here for personal aggrandizement in the context of the team. None of us have an ego when we talk to each other – or, hopefully, to anyone else. We want to make a great game, period, something that will be a worthy companion to Planescape: Torment, something that people will look back on in 20 years and say that it helped them to see the world in a new way. That it had helped them survive through difficult times.
What does one life matter? We’re not sure, but as storytellers, we can ask for nothing better than to make an impact like that.
Q AND A SLIDE