Storytelling in Games

I’ve enjoyed playing World of Warcraft for many years. Released in 2004, the gameplay and graphics have gone through several improvements. But perhaps the most dramatic leap is with their story telling and cinematics. With the latest Blizzcon (convention where Blizzard fans meet up), I saw some new cinematics which gave me the idea for this blog.

First, a little background. World of Warcraft sprang from Warcraft: Orcs & Humans and its sequels, which were Horde vs Alliance real time strategy games. When Blizzard put out the massively multiplayer game, World of Warcraft, it already had a large back story from its predecessors. Each race has a unique culture and belief system and lives in different areas from forests or mountains to an underground steampunk-like city. The attention to detail is on par with anything you’d read in epic fantasy, including a timeline that spans several thousand years.

Early on, the quests were simple, the non-player characters (NPCs) didn’t have voice overs, and not all the quests were connected to anything remotely interesting beyond that NPC’s need to get bear steaks. They were a means to level up your character and not usually much beyond that. There were a few detailed quest chains, but they were rare. And while I defintely geeked out on the epic Onyxia quest chain, especially the NPC walking through Stormwind, there wasn’t a lot of meat to the story telling that would intrigue an author.

Today, the technology to tell a story in the game has improved to the point where we have voice over for many characters, animated cutscenes to show you what is happening, and movie-quality cinematics for special occasions. This also gave rise to an added level of quality in the story telling. I think it also helps that they now have authors like Christie Golden contributing to the team.

Here’s what a quest chain is like today in WoW:

And for completeness sake, here’s the Horde side:

It’s almost like being a participant in a choose your own adventure story (remember those?) Except most games are still pretty linear and don’t allow you to play sides unless you are a Bioware game which has good and evil decision trees. I do remember quite fondly playing Knights of the Old Republic (KoTOR) and finding out I’d been duped. I went from a goodie-two-shoes Jedi to raging Sith Lord in under three seconds which wound up thoroughly crashing my save file. I had to limp along to the finish line and never did get to see my ending ceremony… not that I’m bitter at all… no, really… ok, maybe there’s still some agitation! But can you blame me? I poured over sixty hours of my life into that game in only a few days time because story immersion is very addictive and I’m very susceptible. Anyway, back to WoW…

In stories, every action has an associated reaction. Just think if you came from a culture of honor in battle and you had an unwilling part in burning innocents. A picture is worth a thousand words, but this video is worth several thousand.

You don’t need to know anything about these people to feel their pain. It’s spelled out quite clearly in their words and actions. This is a pretty deep character development piece for a video game. I instantly wanted to create a troll because he rocked. I also have a crush on Saurfang ever since several expansions back when he was nice to me as a Horde character while the current leader of the Horde was a complete ass.

Now we get to the actual battle which is another impressive piece of CGI work. I really want Blizzard to do a CGI movie. Heck, we almost have a movie here with all these cutscenes and cinematics and quests.

And speaking of quests, the continuation of this story takes place by questing in the game. This is over twenty minutes of story telling that I’d compare pretty favorably to any of the battles in HBO’s Game of Thrones. You’ll notice the in-game cutscenes aren’t as highly detailed as the movie-quality cinematics. That’s because they use in-game rendering to make everything. It not only shortens the time it takes to make them so gamers can enjoy more of them, it saves on disk space and download speed.

I don’t expect you to watch everything, but it’s very useful as an author to study how story like this is presented. It only takes a few words to evoke passion and immerse the participant in what’s going on. Also, I’m going through there (I played both factions) on my character, casting spells (I’m a mage) and taking damage from that green poison while trying to rescue allies. That makes it even easier to hook the participant into the story.

And there’s this big cliffhanger at the end of all that which was left unresolved until Blizzcon finally revealed what happened with Saurfang (yay!!). Even in games I don’t like cliffies! Here goes:

As writers, we have our work cut out for us in trying to generate such emotion since we don’t have the benefit of body language. With a single table toss, you got that Saurfang was pissed. That’s harder to do with only words, but doable. My current protagonist slammed his hands against the table and stood so fast the chair scraped against the metal flooring. It gets the point across well enough.

However, music is far more potent, which is why movies use it. A soundtrack can eviscerate the heart with a few carefully crafted notes.

The voice actor for Jaina Proudmoore, Laura Bailey, sang the following song live at Blizzcon. This is a haunting song that kills me every time I hear it, but to see the emotion in her eyes while she sang it… yeah… anyone have a tissue or three? It was especially interesting because Laura said she uses her fear and vulnerability when singing in front of an audience to evoke that quiver in her voice. Also, another person on the panel talked about how the Russian version used real sailors for the male voices.

And finally, I include a cinematic about an enemy to both the Horde and Alliance because this is so creepy and another excellent work. Plus, it was mentioned in the Blizzcon discussion panel on cinematics. The person on that panel who was involved, got excited when she learned it was going to be horror. I hope you enjoy!