Submerged though I am in the preliminary drafts of the next project, I’ve decided to come up for air once again to update this increasingly anemic blog. With all efforts at PulseTense geared towards the imminent release of De-Void, I wanted to talk a bit about our wild-west approach to narrative design in this exploration-driven game.
De-Void was a bit of a creative experiment. The game is intricately related to PulseTense’s first title, Solarix, but these connections, though not exactly concealed, are far from straightforward. Where Solarix was focused on telling a story, a gripping sci-fi/horror thriller, we went into De-Void with the intention of creating a world, an atmosphere, a sense of space imbued with emotion. The goal was to provide the player with an opportunity to wander a the lonely ruins of a once vibrant world, and to piece that world together through the clues left behind.
To accomplish this, I opted for one of my favorite methods of game storytelling, namely, not telling the story. Some of my favorite game universes are constructed this way: Half Life, Myst, and more recently Dark Souls are games that express their worlds through implication. These games provide a mechanical framework–Half Life is an FPS, Myst a point-and-click puzzler, Dark Souls a dungeoncrawling RPG–and then leave the player to determine how much context is gleaned. Perhaps you’ll read all the posters and newspaper clippings scattered around City 17, perhaps you’ll pore over Atrus’ journals of exploration, perhaps you’ll read the cryptic flavor text for every item in Lordran. Or perhaps you won’t. Each of these games are designed to be fun and playable even with minimal world-parsing. They’re full of combat, puzzles, or both to occupy the player. Everything else is just narrative fluff. Deep, gripping, atmospheric fluff, but fluff nonetheless. But could this sort of fragmentary storytelling, be placed at the core of a game?
De-Void is a walking simulator, pure and simple. There is no combat and puzzles are essentially absent. As the writer, I was challenged to think beyond mechanics. To this end, I began to think less of designing a game and more about designing a mystery. In a way, this is narrative design stripped to its most fundamental elements. The trick to this mystery was that it couldn’t simply be a linear rail-road through setup and discovery. We wanted to create a mystery that could unfold organically from any direction. The player had to be rewarded with a sense of discovery more than satisfaction. This meant that each revelation should lead to further questions, and encourage the player to formulate their own understanding of what’s going on.
The result is a sort of layered narration. Within the world of De-Void, there are a number of interrelated stories, of varying significance and immediacy, involving different characters. All of these stories hint at a larger plot without lapsing into exposition. Additionally, the player is thrust on their own trajectory, which can theoretically be pursued single-mindedly, with little regard for the background. However, even the main arc, minimalistic and abstract though it is, connects to the broader picture of the greater world.
Implication can be used in games in a way that is less effective in literature or film. The environment in which a player is immersed can do the heavy lifting where exposition would otherwise be used. Communications between other characters, letters, diaries, newspapers, are already accepted as inhabiting this environment, so the characters never have to discuss the plot or setting directly. They simply talk about their immediate involvement, the assumption being that anyone listening already inhabits this same world. This has the effect of bringing a level of realism to these overheard conversations and monologues, as well as empowering the player to interpret them independently, without some grand story arc aligning their discoveries for them.
This sense of exploration and discovery is the feeling that sucked me into the communities of Half-Life, Myst, and Dark Souls, and kept me coming back for more.