The Narrative Design Exploratorium™
A publication dedicated to exploring interactive storytelling.
As part of the Narrative Designer’s Network and it’s mission to explore share and grow our craft, I am creating a series of interviews for our publication “Narrator” probing the depths of our ranks to find what it means to truly be a narrative designer. Today’s narrative designer is Lead Cinematic Designer Armando Troisi of EA’s Bioware and member of the Narrative Designer’s Network. He sits on the bleeding edge of interactive machinima, creating solutions for complex creative conundrums. He is here to share his thoughts on on our burgeoning craft, both philosophically and as an analysis of interactive narrative implementation in a world-class studio environment.
Stephen E. Dinehart: Can you tell me a little about yourself and your interest in interactive narrative?
Armando Troisi: I’ve always wanted to tell stories, but found the process frustrating in my early career. I bounced around radio, television and film for quite a while but none of these gave me enough control to tell the stories I wanted to tell.
When I was hired onto the Mass Effect 1 cinematic design team I knew I’d found my sweet spot. BioWare’s games were among my all-time favorites and getting an opportunity to be part of a company that’s so committed to the ‘art’ of games was a dream job.
When I joined the department, it was little more than a group of technical designers who needed to solve narrative issues the writers had never anticipated. This was done with cheap, in-engine cutscenes and later grew into making interactive conversations more engaging. I was hired as part of the design department’s effort to augment this capability with professional filmmakers.
Since then I’ve worked on a number of projects here at BioWare, helping the department recruit and train the best and brightest machinima minds in the world to work on our games. Building this team and developing the unique discipline of cinematic design has been an amazing opportunity and continues to be my focus here at BioWare.
Can you describe your current role as Lead Cinematic Designer?
AT: Big picture – I oversee the ‘how’ of interactive filmmaking, developing the systems and tools that allow us to generate a massive amount of story content efficiently and at a high level of quality.
Some of the more prominent aspects of my role include designing the digital acting and the conversation systems. BioWare invests quite heavily in this portion of their games and the cinematic design department is charged with coordinating and implementing content from groups like writing, audio and animation into a cohesive vision. As lead cinematic designer, I need to be an expert in every aspect of the story creation process so as to ensure the smooth production of 35+ hours of interactive narrative content.
It’s also my job to work with the core leadership group on story and general narrative design. During development, I take on the role of interactive film director, shaping the narrative into cinematic content with the input of the lead designer, creative director and principle writer.
What do your daily duties consist of?
AT: Narrative design here at BioWare covers a broad cross section of people and departments. As with any large group, errors in communication can (and will) occur. So, in partnership with the lead writer, it’s my job to be a primary point of contact for story implementation and narrative production. This is a huge area that covers everything from writing and voice production to motion capture and localization pipelines.
But I also produce content for the games. I think it’s important to always be in the trenches with the crew and, quite honestly, it’s a lot more fun than management.
Can you describe your development process?
AT:The primary philosophy in our development process is ‘waste is good’. Without waste, innovation suffers, so we try to build content is a way that allows us to iterate heaviest when costs are cheapest. On these story rich projects, we accept the fact that narrative change will happen all the way up to the end of the project, so guiding the narrative process in a way that allows us to make the right decisions at the right time is my primary focus.
To accomplish this on Mass Effect 2, our narrative design process is broken up into phases called script, narrative playable, white box, orange box, hardening and final. During the script process we start with a single sentence to describe the level. When everyone agrees on the sentence the writer develops a paragraph. When the paragraph is approved they move to a one sheet. This process continues until a full script is developed.
The next step is the narrative playable – a simple working version of the script in-game. This is the first chance anyone has to play the narrative and see how it feels. Level designers use pop-ups describing narrative plot points along with combat and level events. At this point we decide whether to continue with the level or blow it up and start again. Most levels do not make it past this point.
If the narrative playable is approved, we move into white box. During this development phase, we drill down into the content, adding simple interactive conversations that describe motivations, as well as adding placeholder pop-ups for cutscenes. At this time we look at the story arc of the level and adjust the spacing, pacing and information flow. During white box art also makes a pass on the level, adding collision and basic geometry. Once again, the senior leadership team makes a call on whether to pass the level to the next phase, blow it up, or continue with iteration. If a level’s white box is been approved it’s now on its way to becoming an actual level in the game.
The next phase is called orange box, which is the most important phase as 80% of the work that ships with the game is done here. Writers now make second and third passes on the level dialogs, filling out the details and refining the voice of the characters. At this point, Cinematic Design converts the in-game dialog to text-to-speech, updating it every night as the new writing comes in. With temporary VO in place, conversation and cutscene production starts. This stage represents our heaviest churn cycle as writers and cinematic designers go back and forth on scenes, shaping the final narrative design. At the end of this phase, the scenes are entirely playable with robot voice and a final pass is made on the writing to ensure that plot states and interactivity are as bug free as possible.
The next phase, called hardening, starts by getting voice talent. As the VO comes in, we begin the adjustment pass for the story, tightening up the writing and visuals for the final game. There is also a lot of churn and waste here as we try different actors and story ideas. Changes here are expensive, but generally well worth it as story problems are most likely to be exposed in this phase as the levels start to come together.
From Hardening we enter the bug fixing and polish stage where we put the final touches on all the scenes before shipping.
Here is a clip from GDC 09 that a colleague of mine presented on level creation. It’s not entirely accurate to our current process but should give you a good idea.
How do you define the craft of Interactive Narrative Design?
AT: I think that any piece of art that tells a story which allows audience participation is Interactive Narrative. I also believe that, until we get a better definition of the craft as it relates to human computer interaction, those of us working in games need to include other forms of this discipline as well.
For example, if you watch the Rocky Horror Picture Show by yourself, it’s just a bad movie. But if you go to a screening of the film, it changes and morphs into something completely different as a result of audience interaction. People throw things at the screen, dress up, and respond to the actors and film using an interactive script. Dialog and cinematography take on an alternate meaning. There are no computers of consoles involved here but the art of narrative design here is present and unmistakable.
What in your memory is the finest cinematic and/or gameplay moment you’ve help craft?
AT: You’ll have to wait for Mass Effect 2, street-dated for January 26th, 2010. It’s my finest effort to date. Overall this title propels the cinematic design from ME1 forward an entire generation and I’m excited to see the reactions from the public.
What it the difference between videogame cinematography and traditional cinematography?
AT: To me, the difference lies in the technique. In terms of art, I don’t think they differ much because the language of perspective is a constant. The way people understand the basics of how the rules of cinema apply is the same whether in a game or a painting. To me, the fundamental difference lies in understanding the behavior of the medium and how it needs to be controlled.
Two of the biggest differences I find are lenses and frame rate. For in-game lenses, I find the lack of diagonal and vertical fields of view to be a major difference as most game engines don’t support these when rendering. So with games, I rarely go above 50 FOV and keep the lenses long when possible. I do this to hide the lack of distortion a viewer would expect from a physical lens. It’s sometimes described as the uncanny camera, when you go wide – something just isn’t right.
As for frame rate, I find that in traditional film, choosing a frame rate is a wholly artistic decision, while in games it’s a balance of visuals vs. smoothness of the image. For example, in console games we often benchmark the frame rate at 30 FPS, a frame rate which produces a smooth image. But sometimes, a shot that’s heavy in visual effects can slow the frame rate to 20 FPS. In order to hide the lower frame rate, I often stop or slow the camera’s movement, masking the effect and lessening the impact of the rendering speed change. In this example, the camera is being motivated not to move by the limits of the technology, as opposed to the will of the filmmaker. If I remove the visual effects I can once again move the camera freely. As you can see, it’s a delicate balance.
What can you tell me about your new project?
AT: I’m continuing on the Mass Effect franchise currently overseeing prototyping for ME3 and to DLC support for the ME2 product. I’m also consulting on the MMO down in Austin as well as with projects in the Montreal studio. All that business aside, I’m super excited about prototyping for ME3. I find it’s the most creative part of the process.
What kinds of stories do games need to tell? That is, what would be your dream subject for a game?
AT: I think it would be interesting to do a game where the player is vulnerable and flawed in an uncomfortable way. I’d like to develop a niche episodic platform to tell some very mature oriented entertainment. I don’t know if XBL is ready for something like that yet, though, but I hope it will be soon.
What do you imagine for the future of interactive narrative design?
AT: It’s all about accessibility and achieving the mainstream status that films and television enjoy today. I believe in the next ten years we’ll see interactive narrative entertainment grow exponentially and separate from games. Soap Operas on the Xbox are not that far off; I think the audience will be looking for an alternative choice for their consoles experiences and storytelling based products are as safe a bet as any.
Are modern video games, by no large stretch of the imagination, interactive films? Should they be?
AT: There is no denying that the design philosophy of cinematic gaming resonates with the public and is something that’s being embraced. Just looking at the design and presentation of top tier AAA titles, the cinematic presentation is amazing and the stories are on par with the best Hollywood has to offer. That’s why it’s not surprising to me that game IPs are now influencing film production more than films are influencing games. The Price of Persia movie is a great example of that. I think it’s a natural step for narrative design to develop in the cinematic space. This discipline needs to explore this hybrid and find out what works and what should be thrown away, just like any adaptation of an art form. This is the only way to mature our discipline before we move onto the next iteration whatever that may be. ‘Interactive movie’ no longer needs to be seen as a negative bullet point.
Armando stands as a fine example of the kind of talent that is innovating interactive narrative in real-world production enviornments. His games warm the hearts of many and are the stepping stones on which our craft is being made. Thank you for reading, I hope you have learned as much as I have. For the NDN Narrator I’m Stephen E. Dinehart.
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