Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Careful Plotting

Every game these days seems to have a plot. No matter the genre, no matter the difficulty, and no matter the target audience, a game will have a plot. You may be matching colored blocks, but I’ll be damned if you aren’t doing it to stop an evil, block-hating wizard. Why is this happening? Why do all of these companies add plots to games that could just as easily survive without them? That, I cannot say. It is a question best left to the video game philosophers and conspiracy theorists. What we know at Johnny Outlaw studios is that a game with cowboys better have a plot about cowboys. And the first step is to understand what a plot really is.

A plot is basically a map which you either build your game around or piece together from what already exists. It has a start, a destination, and some charming detours along the way. But this map is actually not a map; it is a linear series of sentences. And each sentence is made up of words, and each word is made up of letters. A plot, when viewed as a whole, is complex, multidimensional, and appears structured. A plot, at its most basic, atomic level, is in fact something mechanical and even chaotic.

What we have to do is craft each of these individual letters and string them together to form the story itself: the dialogues, sentences, soliloquies, and so on. And we have to do this all while building them around this plot framework. This is a delicate, if not dangerous, process which requires precision, dexterity, and, above all, experience. A beginner with a tight budget might try to take on this task himself, but here at Johnny Outlaw studios, we do not compromise when it comes to quality. We hire professional, accredited wordsmiths.

Wordsmithery is a time-honored profession, and if you are debating using words of any caliber, I recommend you contact your local guild. But who are these wordsmiths? Well, you see, during the Renaissance many blacksmiths turned away from their mother craft and started using their forges to erect words and sentences. While both of these crafts make use of iron and fire, the end product is very different. Blacksmiths create handy objects; the wordsmiths lay out wire frameworks for plots and solder letters together. Without them, there would be no modern literature. And here’s an interesting fact for you: the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword” is actually Renaissance era propaganda by the wordsmiths during their attempt to wrest control of the guilds from their blacksmith brethren. Fascinating, I know.

But you can’t just jump in and hire some wordsmiths. The problem is, while wordsmiths are blue-collar workers, skilled with the hands, they will only build the words from a preexisting plot, they will not create their own. And so, we must first write out that “map”. And this is where things really get tricky.

See, a traditional plot is all about motivations. What is motivating these characters to do what they do? Why is this hero risking his life? Why does the bandit want me dead? As we explain these things and as their motivations change, as they are forced to adapt to new circumstances, the basis for a great story emerges.

This makes sense with the plot of a novel, but a video game is not a novel. There’s the rub. A bandit attacks the hero not because of a “plot”, but because of his AI! He will not attack because some author has preordained it, he must decide for himself if, and why, he will attack. His motivations are purely his own! In the end, any story I write could simply be discarded by the AI. And if you have programmed uncouth, bibliophobic Wild West outlaws, how will you ever get them to appreciate a good story? This presents quite the problem, with only two clear solutions. Your options are to either destroy the very free will of your AI so that he acts as you ordain, or to pen a story so beautiful that even the most illiterate of enemies will willingly act his part, as if in a play.

Now, you might be thinking about taking the easy way out and just rigging your AI. You might be thinking that you lack the ability to compose a story so thoroughly engaging, so intellectually satisfying, that a mechanized mind would willingly sacrifice itself for the sake of telling that story. And you’d be right.

This is the problem I faced. I lacked the skill to write such a story, but I could not in good conscience deny my AI the power of free will. What could I do? Nothing. But I’ll tell you what I did. I turned to the source of all truly great literature. I turned to the bard himself: William Shakespeare. If anyone could write a story for Johnny Outlaw, it would be Shakespeare.

What I did not realize at the time was that Shakespeare had stopped taking commissions ever since his death centuries earlier. Shaken, but not deterred, we assembled the greatest think tank known to man, procuring thespians, historians, Shakespeare impersonators, and literary critics. Their task: a second Renaissance – the Rebirth of Shakespeare. Together we crafted a new, powerful AI which would operate autonomously of the Johnny Outlaw enemies. This AI would be the Shakespeare of the Johnny Outlaw world, a cowboy Shakespeare. He would write plays for them, the beautiful plays that I could never write, and the enemies would act them out. Each play a new level, each sonnet a new minigame.

It worked. As he wrote, the wordsmiths toiled. When the sentences were tempered and cooled, the enemies listened. Enthralled by the words of our Shakespeare they took their places. Their delivery was a tad dry at first, but it was a start. At last I had the plot I desired, the motivations I craved. All in glorious, heat-treated iambic pentameter.

Here, at last, you can see the Johnny Outlaw troupe performing a dramatic scene from Johnny Outlaw - Gun for Hire. The sets and costumes aren't ready, but the passion is.

Of course, this is all a lot of work for your average independent developer, but don’t be glum! Not every story needs to be written by cowboy Shakespeare. Heck, some games don’t bother with a plot at all; just look at Final Fantasy XIII.

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