Sim storytelling, tools and methods.

Since the single-player episodes were announced, I started thinking about the problem that the combination of the genre with the episodic format. Episodic content that keeps bringing the players back has certain requirements that have to be addressed. Simulators haven’t been structured in the past in a way that can fulfill them.

The usual flow simulators have had in the past is simple enough: Cinematic -> Briefing -> Hangar -> Game -> Debriefing. The tasks the player carries out in each of those stages is specific focused on the Game task. The challenge here is to insert the story content in such a way that this flow is preserved.

The Episodic Format

Stories told in an episodic format rely heavily on their characters; the emotional bond that the audience develops with the cast is one of the essential motivators that compel them to return to the tale for the next installment. In order to form those bonds, in order to involve the players in the tale the game is trying to tell, the player has to be immersed in the world as well as amongst the characters.

However, games of the simulation genre have to focus narrowly on the experience they’re trying to depict. While franchises like Wing Commander and Heavy Gear may tell stories, their narrative isn’t part of the main experience. If you were to break those games into an episodic format, the story would have no cogent structure. And while the discrete structure of the missions would fit neatly into the format, the unmoored storyline would result in a less compelling experience.

However, given the necessarily narrow focus that the game needs to have on the experience they’re trying to depict, simply shoe-horning the story and its structure into the game can be disruptive. The end result of a story interrupting or breaking the simulation will lead to, again, a weaker game.

How can the story to reinforce the appeal of a game in episodic format co-exist with the strict simulation that should be the true focus of the game?


Off-the-field interaction, such as what the bar was for in Wing Commander could be an answer. However, placing the story in its own container makes it a sidecar to the game, and is also detrimental to the emotional bond the episodic format needs. The story has to be an integral part of the game, engaging the players in a narrative that will bring them back when the next episode is released. The relationship that the player builds with the characters has to be front and center, rather than constrained to its own area and to non-interactive FMVs.

However, there are ways where this type of emphasis on the storyline and its characters can be made into an asset to the game’s flow rather than an interruption the mech simulation. Now that the mission briefings, gear bay and other areas that used to be menus can be part of the simulated environment, we can bring the story into the simulation in ways that were not possible before.

Manipulating the environment has been done before, but the impact with today’s tools can be much greater. Rather than simple background changes, the game’s Briefing/Hangar/Debriefing stages can exist with the simulated world. As such, they can contextualize the action by placing the player in the simulation from the moment they load the game.

This allows the player to exist in the simulated world to a greater degree than a menu-driven interface.

Pushing this idea to the extreme, it would be possible to interrupt the player while they’re in one of the other stages of the game’s flow. For example, a player could be in the hangar modifying their machine when something crashes through the far wall, making the simulation intrude into the other task and forcing the player to respond to it.

Meanwhile, the story has a much more flexible stage on which to occur, making the cast a much more tangible entity in the story.

The Cast

While working on planning missions or modifying vehicles, the other characters can wander about the player, talk about relevant subjects to the task at hand. The characters could share their stories with the player indirectly by talking to one another, or directly, if the player chooses to approach them. The work this particular type of content requires grows exponentially, according to the degree of interaction we would give the player. If, for instance, the player would be able to talk back to the characters, choosing what to say or ask, the work required to make it work grows. However, if done well, this type of content can return a huge payoff in player involvement. Well-written dialogue can prompt a player to play a genre they normally wouldn’t in order to get more dialogue and advance the story.

Dialogue is the most direct way to support an episodic format, but it’s highly dependent on design, and it can be constraining. Do you allow the game to kill the characters you’re developing? Do you save them in order to use them in scripted events throughout the campaign, either by breaking the rules of the simulation to protect them, by making their death a failure state, or by merely stating that they “ejected” or “returned to base” if their vehicle is disabled?

This isn’t a unique problem to HGA, or even computer games. The most notable example of a similar problem can be seen in the T.V. series Band of Brothers, where the emphasis to depict the horrors of war was in harmony with, and reinforced by, the story and the characters. Some of the characters out there were meant to die in the same episode in which they were introduced. This includes minor one-episode characters and hundreds of extras that may not have had a single line. With that example in mind, along with the unique advantage that the simulation focuses on the vehicles rather than on the people, there is a solution.

The main characters of the story wouldn’t have to be depicted directly; rather, they exist as part of a pool of ‘possible’ pilots for every machine that also includes all the minor characters and extras. The game can decide who was piloting a vehicle that is destroyed according to the needs of a particular episode. If the story calls for a specific character to die during the course of a mission, they will be amongst the first casualties. Otherwise, the pool of extras is tapped for fodder. This doesn’t mean that scripted events have to be discarded. Rather, they can be used sparingly so they have the most impact when they are used. The more tools the designers and writers have available to them, the better.

Determining the limits of what the player can do as far as interacting with the NPCs of the world would be a top priority as well.


Another fundamental and oft-used tool would be general pieces of text. Text can be journal entries, battle reports, letters, or news stories. All these can be accessible to the player from the main work area. If the player is interested, they can pick one of those pieces of paper and read them. The ideal approach would be to have voice-overs reading the text the player glances at; reducing the level of effort needed for the players to engage increases the likelihood they will do so, as well as the impact of the material. It’s also the easiest and least time-consuming method to develop the world and plot of the game. However, it isn’t the most compelling, or the most accessible. And, since a majority of the players ignore such material, critical aspects of the story can’t be hidden in it.

The presence of these random pieces of text does serve to hook the players who do look for that sort of material into the world. From them, the game and the franchise can gain new followers. Given the relatively low investment it takes to place these in the world, especially without voiceovers, they can be an asset used to “flesh out” the experience.

The art of writing for games.

I just wanted to point at this post over at It’s quite educational about how to (successfully) write for a game. Being interested in doing that myself, I found it to be a rich little treasure-trove of tidbits for any aspiring storyteller. However, he also shines a light, obliquely as it were, at the problems involved in writing for videogames: misconceptions, limitations, conflicting requirements, etc.. Viewing the writer as a specialized perhaps the best way to approach the problem, but that isn’t something the writers themselves can do; they can merely encourage his clients to view him as an integral part of the team, rather than an apocryphal element. As the media continues to develop, and the relationship between story, place, character, sound and visuals is explored deeper, the role of the game writer will come to stand out.

There have been more and more games as of late that lean heavily on their narrative to be engaging, such as Alan Wake, but the craft of writing for videogames lags far behind the other disciplines involved in this media. People like the author of the post I linked above will push that aspect of videogame production forward. What remains to be seen is just how well the rest of the industry will listen to them.

The Silmarillion Model

Master J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings series and putative father of modern fantasy, created and populated his world with a rich tapestry that, aside from striking the reader with its majesty, also felt alive. The Lord of the Rings, as a series and as a world, is the result of a lifetime’s work. The Silmarillion, as we know it today, is a reflection of Tolkien’s work, outside of the trilogy and The Hobbit, to create a world that had its own myths and legends. These myths included the Ainulindalë, the tale of how all things came to being. In that particular tale, we are privy to the moment of divine creation, where Eru, the One, convenes the Ainur, his divine servants, to sing the world into being. By doing so, Tolkien established what I’ll call the Silmarillion model, which is a schema for the creation of worlds in the fantasy genre.

When Eru created the world with the help of the Ainur, his divine choir, Melkor, who was the strongest amongst them tried to influence the act of creation itself. Melkor’s influence brought chaos to the world in his attempt to influence the shaping of things, and he did so out of pride. This story might be familiar to biblical scholars and mythologists of any caliber, given that this is the pattern of Lucifer’s fall. The scholastic debate regarding the details aside, this biblical story’s pattern is mirrored in the Ainulindalë. The greatest of the Creator’s servants believes himself His equal, and so rises to oppose him with his own creation. The Creator, meanwhile, either allows or wills this to happen, and makes his servant an outcast. Then, the Creator declares to the rest of his servants that this will lead to a greater beauty than they themselves could understand. And so, creation carries on, with the divine host dividing itself between those who follow the Creator and those who are cast out for following the rebel. The world, then, comes into being, shaped by the warring influences of the two sides.

The Silmarillion model goes beyond creating the geography of the world. The creatures, the history, the legends are all influenced, if not dictated outright by the conflict that it, the model, places at the core of the universe it creates. This pattern is founded on three things: conflict amongst the divine host that is tasked with shaping his creation, the unknowable mind of a Creator, and a prophecy that alludes to how this conflict will determine the fate of the world. That instability is the driving force behind the universe, even when (such as is the case in The Lord of the Rings) the story does not address that overarching conflict directly. It is the axis, so to speak, around which the world turns, even if the story being told happens at the periphery. The other two elements, the impenetrable will of the creator and the prophecy are there to provide uncertainty as to how the conflict will be resolved, and to distance the omnipotent Creator from the events that unfold.

I will continue to explore this concept as time goes on.

How monsters are made.

This is a document I’ll be continuously updating as I put down my own theories on the matter. Every time I do so, it’ll keep on popping up here to the top of the pile. Things I still have to cover:

The medieval creation of symbolic creatures and the implications therein regarding reality.

The shift in perspective with the dawning of the age of reason and insanity.

Modern monsters in some further fashion.

Continue reading → How monsters are made.

At Sea

The bow of the ship rode the waves confidently, sped along by the power of twenty four broad-shouldered men from the frozen North. Their ship, with the dragon’s head rising at the prow, wasn’t one of the elegant vessels that plied from one coast to the other of the Mediterranean. No, cured by the frigid weather of the Atlantic, gouged in battle, it was much like its crew, rustic, scarred and indomitable. A man with long braids of red and blond hair hung onto the rigging on the prow, with one booted foot on the edge and his scowl focused on the crowded horizon of the Persian city. It gleamed in the distance.

“Merchant!”, he growled over his shoulder. A much shorter man, dressed in robes that must’ve once been expensive, though they were now weather-worn, shot onto his feet from the stern.

Walking briskly along the spine of the ship, he replied with a thick accent. “Yes, Captain?”, he said, hanging onto the rigging. Though he wasn’t a Viking, he was comfortable at sea.

“Is this the place? Where riches overflow and fortune beckons?”, the Viking asked, reciting that last verse with incredulity. Each new claim the merchant made about the city he had led them to was punctuated with that reprieve.

The Italian merchant grinned. “Yes. Al Khalid is where a pauper can stow away to and return home a banker. By my mother’s eyes, I’ve seen it more than once.”

“And all those other stories were true as well, I expect?”, the captain inquired sarcastically, “Animals that predict the death of men, men with the heads of dogs and spices worth twice their weight in gold?”

A voice rose from the rowers. “Don’t forget the women! Sweet as honey, eager like flowers for Spring!” Laughter boomed across the ship, loud enough to startle fishermen on boats they were passing by. Those tales were popular during long weeks of travel.

“Yes!”, bellowed the Italian merchant, grinning widely. “All of them true, Captain. Here, the Sultan will enlist your men, heap you with as much wealth as your strong shoulders can carry, for no more than a few trifling chores”.

The Captain was still young, as was his crew. It was at their goading that he’d had agreed to listen to their captive, a trader they swept up in a raid on a coastal town in the North of France. Quick-witted, the venetian traveler spun tales of these faraway places to the ambitious young men, who, trusting the strength of their sword arms and the stoutness of their shields, set out further than they had ever intended. Giacomo, as the merchant had introduced himself when they held an axe to his throat, claimed that he already had secured employment for him and his men doing what they did naturally. Messages had crisscrossed while they made their journey South to the pass into the Mediterranean.

“All of that, just because we would be unusual?”, the Captain asked again, just to make sure he fully understood. He wasn’t a fool by any means, but the posturing of royalty still perplexed him.

“Like lions pulling the chariot of Charlemagne!”, Giacomo exclaimed. The crew laughed again, roaring like the beasts in the tales told around the fires of their childhood. “You will be a prize for him as his personal guard”, Giacomo added, “living testament to his wealth and limitless kingdom. Savage men from the North! I dare say the lot of you will make a fine spectacle by merely being yourselves.”

Somehow, the Captain’s pride didn’t agree with the idea of being a trophy, a thing to display like those jeweled swords that’d shatter with the first swing. The scowl came back. Greed could only go so far, even less for someone who doesn’t crave gold, but glory.

Giacomo, as a haggler, could read that expression, and though he was not much older than his captors, he was one for gold. He sidled in closer. “Captain”, he said in a half-whisper, “I must admit that, though this is an opportunity for you to fill the coffers of the house of your father, I would fear for you.”

The Captain looked down at Giacomo. Somehow, through storms at sea and opportunistic night-time assaults on lonely manors along the coast, the man had been able to keep the cap he wore the day they took him. Even now it sat atop Giacomo’s black curls. His eyes gleamed with mirthful treachery, as if he was about to laughingly reveal a close ally’s secret. He knew no one sang songs about palace guards.

“Being who you are, Captain, you might get an audience with the princess…”, Giacomo confided. “I’m certain the name Thane Sversson has rang far and wide already! King of his people, leader of warriors; they’ll want your allegiance, your obedience! Yes, they’ll surely give you an audience with her, and you’ll be forced into tender servitude.”

“Beautiful, is she? Armies dare not march when faced with the radiance of her face or somesuch?”, Thane asked, accustomed to Giacomo’s storytelling flair. He listened, nevertheless.

“Mock me and my tales all you wish”, Giacomo scoffed. “But you’d be a fool to underestimate the power of her beauty. Why, when we were aground near Genoa, one of my cousin’s business partners told me, upon discovering that we were travelling to Al Khaled, that the crown prince of Mur had thrown himself off a cliff in her name!”

After glancing over his shoulder towards the crew, Giacomo cupped a hand next to his mouth. “Prince Muhammad of Mur had come to Al Khaled to declare war, Captain! Tribute or strife, it was rumored he was planning to tell the Sultan. However, as he marched with his honor guard to the palace, he came across the Princess’ palanquin in the market, he was struck to be as stiff as a granite statue. It is said that she was visiting her goldsmiths in regards to a dress fashioned entirely from gold thread, and that at that very moment, she was pointing out the window, with two delicate fingers…” Giacomo rolled up his sleeve, gesturing caricaturesquely with his calloused money-counting hands. “…And that was what Prince Muhammad of Mur saw. It was all, my cousin’s partner assures me, that he had to see in order to lose his mind for her.”

Giacomo pulled down his sleeve and, as he had done all those nights for the Vikings over the fire, gripped an imaginary sword in both hands, and slashing away theatrically. Sea snakes, thieves and giants fell before the very same strokes. This time, it was a prince’s honor guard.

“Immediately, he set about killing his own men before they had a chance to even blink! Then, he threw himself on his knees next to her hand, still dripping in the blood of his own servants, and held up his sword to her, crying out in the tongue of devils, ‘Mistress, I’ve killed men who wished your kingdom harm! Accept their deaths as a gift, as proof of my devotion. All I ask is the boon of a glimpse of your face.’ She refused him”, Giacomo hissed. “I don’t know whether she did it out of cruelty or horror, but she did, and he was inconsolably heartbroken on the spot… So, he rode to one of the cliffs facing the sea on the outskirts of the city, carved a love poem to her name, and he threw himself to be swallowed by the waves.”

Thane grunted. “At least he left a poem”, he said. And yet, despite himself, Thane was intrigued. They were well within view of the city now, and the busy rows of ships coming and going suggested that there was a grain of truth to Giacomo’s exaggerations of gold and fortune. So, it followed that there might be a grain of truth to this latest story as well. Surely, Thane thought, even Giacomo’s stories only scratches the surface.

Thane hung on to the rope, watching the triangle-shaped sails get out of their way, parting to let the city shine in all of its life and bustle.

“Merchant”, Thane said. “What is her name?”

Giacomo smiled.

More to come