Confluence News – A Crash Course in Narrative Design: Chris Bateman Interview

Posted by Justine Solomons on January 22, 2019, in News

Ahead of Confluence next month Chris Bateman talked to Alastair Horne about his session on Narrative Design.

Chris Bateman’s experience of narrative design is second to none. His consultancy International Hobo Ltd, which specialises in the subject, alongside game design and scriptwriting, celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. When I speak to him about his session at Confluence, entitled A Crash Course in Narrative Design, he suggests that it will offer ‘a very quick introduction to the challenges of narrative design and how a conventional narrative writer can use the skills they already have to great benefit’. He’s keen that such writers should become involved with games – ‘Video games need help from people who understand conventional narrative’ – but also wary of what can happen when they become involved: ‘the reactions they have tend to be coloured by their experience in the medium they’re coming from, and it doesn’t necessarily prepare them for what it’s like to work in a video game context’. If you’re a writer from traditional media who wants to work in games, he suggests: ‘You need to set aside everything that you understand about narrative structure and begin learning from scratch about narrative design, about the game design aspect of how games work.’

Challenges in narrative design:

‘we had to find a way to tell a story without worrying about the order of events’

Bateman’s recent work on The Persistence, the well-received VR game for PlayStation 4, offers some striking examples of the particular challenges involved in narrative design. The first problem came with creating the material that teaches the player about the game mechanics and their role in the story. Virtual reality, he suggests, has both increased the amount that the player needs to be taught – at least until ‘a common control mechanism gets agreed upon … and that doesn’t seem very likely at the moment’ – and reduced the length of time that such teaching can take: ‘since VR is trading on immersive presence, you really don’t want to break the player out of that experience if you can help it’. Often, he says, ‘the time you have to deliver information is the time it takes for the player to walk from where they are now to where they have to be next’. As a result, the onboarding content in The Persistence ‘went through more rounds of editing and cutting down dialogue – and particularly exposition – than I ever thought was possible.’

The second challenge resulted from the the decision to randomise the layout of the spaceship on which the game takes place each time it’s played. Bateman’s team needed not only to come up with narrative justifications for this – ‘there’s a malfunction on board the ship, which is designed to reconfigure itself for various useful scenarios, and now it’s randomly reconfiguring itself all the time’ – but also to ‘find a way to tell a story without worrying too much about the order of events, because the content’s not coming at the player in any particular order’. The solution, it turned out, was to borrow a model from what Bateman likes to call ‘the corpse-looting games, like System Shock and BioShock, where much of the storytelling proceeds by you finding dead bodies.’ The Persistence even works the multiple lives typically enjoyed in such games into its fictional world: the protagonist is already dead but has had their mind uploaded into a cloned body, which can be recreated as often as it is killed, but with increasingly damaging psychological effects: ‘It’s all the stuff that most video games brush under the carpet. “Game over” is usually treated as something that didn’t happen; you immediately rewind. In this game, each time you die, you remember it.’

Free-to-play and predatory practices:

‘the video games industry is not great about having these discussions’

The business has changed significantly over the twenty years Bateman has run International Hobo. The biggest challenge, he says, was ‘the free-to-play business model. So many of our clients didn’t survive, and it very nearly put us out of business. I did look at whether we could move into that space, but the bottom line is that those games are all minimal viable products; you’re trying to get the simplest game up as quickly as possible, so there was no role for us. Fortunately, it turned out that the free-to-play model was going to sit alongside the traditional business model.’

Though Bateman sees benefits to the free-to-play model – ‘for a lot of companies, it enables them to get an audience they could never get another way, because the cost of marketing is astronomical’ – he remains an outspoken critic of some of the more predatory practices used to make money from such games. Having long been convinced that the industry needed to self-regulate or face governmental intervention, Bateman seems unsurprised that the latter has now come to pass: ‘the video games industry is not great about having these discussions.’ His own attempts to encourage debate by proposing panels on the subject at industry events were met with reluctance: ‘they didn’t want to have the discussion in public, because it looked like a PR disaster, but not having the discussion was a much bigger disaster’. As countries pass their own legislation to deal with the problem, a largely common market for games – outside China – risks becoming more fragmented, to no-one’s benefit.

New opportunities for indie publishers:

‘Not since the 80s has it been this viable to make small-scale projects’

International Hobo has recently announced that it will soon be developing its own game projects in addition to working with clients. The impetus behind the move comes partly because of the broad range of skills brought to the team by the company’s most recent batch of interns, and partly by Bateman’s desire to have ‘one more crack at game development’ while he still has time. It’s also a good time to be making such a move, he thinks: ‘There are opportunities today that there haven’t been for quite a while. Not since the 80s has it been this viable to make small-scale projects that can still hope to make a good return. The distribution culture is in place; the fact that the games are now being distributed online changes the way that the publishing model works. In the 80s, it was cheap to make the games because they were small, and then you could record them onto an audio cassette and ship them to shops or via them mail-order.’ The move to CDs and cartridges brought higher costs, both in manufacture and the perceived obligation to fill the increased amounts of space available with content, but with the arrival of Steam, the digital online marketplace for games, along with the Apple and Google app stores, ‘it doesn’t matter what scale the project is any more; there’s a whole different set of economics now that allows for games targeting a viable niche audience.’

Bateman has opted to crowdfund the development of Silk, the first independent game from International Hobo, as an experiment, not because he thinks the route is the future of the business – ‘The heyday of the Kickstarter-funded video game is already over’ – but because the anticipated audience for the game, a retro tribute to the 1984 game The Lords of Midnight, is a good fit with ‘the sort of audiences which fund Kickstarter games’. Ultimately, though, a version for the Nintendo Switch is planned for release via a conventional publishing route.

Chris Bateman’s session at Confluence, ‘A crash course in narrative design’ takes place at The Beach at 15:45. Buy tickets for the event here.

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