GamesBeat: I like the line Elena says to Chloe when they meet the first time. “Hello. I’m last year’s model.”
Hennig: That’s one of my favorites, too. I love those characters.
GamesBeat: It had memorable dialogue.
Hennig: If you’re going to do it, do it as well as you can. That means taking the right amount of care and investment and approaching it in the right way. Maybe not all game developers do. Maybe story and character are afterthoughts sometimes. It takes a lot of nurturing.
Raymond: The difference between the first Assassin’s Creed and Assassin’s Creed II was basically that we added narrative. With the first one, we had a mandate from the head office – no cinematics, no scripted events, never take away camera control from the player. We were experimenting with a bunch of stuff. And then the difference between the first one, which was an 82, and the second one, a 90, was that we added more narrative. Everyone liked. It was a better, more polished experience.
Hennig: I get just as annoyed as anyone by cinematics if they’re bad. I’m tapping the button trying to get past it too. But if it’s a well-told story and I’m invested in the characters and why they’re doing what they’re doing, I feel like it’s a reward for the work I did to get to that cinematic.
We’re still figuring out ways to tell story in the most interactive way possible. But sometimes you need the craft of camera and close-ups and all the things that realtime gameplay fights.
GamesBeat: I’m not sure I like the ability to do so many open worlds now. You get your big open world in a level, and then you reach the little bottleneck at the end representing some kind of choice you make. You go through that story part and then you get to the next open world and you can do whatever you want until you get back to the story.
Batman: Arkham Knight did a lot of that. The commercial has the line about, “This is the night Batman died.” So I want to go straight there and find out about that. But then I hit all this open world stuff and I don’t know where to go to follow that main narrative.
Hennig: We hear that anecdotally a lot. It’s like what we said – different tastes for different players. Not everybody likes the same movies. Not everybody is going to like the same type of game. But I’m like you. I don’t get that much time to play games. When I do play them, I want to be able to finish them. I want to have that complete experience. A lot of my friends feel the same way. They’re older gamers too, with families and other responsibilities. They find themselves lost in these games as well. I have to think there’s a happy medium.
GamesBeat: All they have to do is flag the next mission. There can be 10 different paths to go down, but just make it clear which one is the main path.
Raymond: There is something magical when surprising systemic things happen. You can tell people, “Oh, I did this, and then this and that happened! What happened to you?” That’s amazing. It’s something we’re looking for as well. When you can package that up, you get the perfect balance of a surprising, unique experience alongside the narrative. That’s a magic combination.
I don’t think anyone has found the secret recipe, though. Like you said, some games are striving for 100 percent player agency, and you end up getting lost or missing the story entirely or off on random quests to fetch things. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you feel like you have no agency. You’re just doing quick time events, pressing buttons. Neither of those is the answer. But I think there’s a sweet spot, and that’s what excites me personally. We have to find out what the perfect interactive game can be.
There’s something fundamental about humans and story, since forever. One of the first things people would do together was sit around the fire and share stories. It’s part of our culture as humans. That’s how traditions were passed on. It’s incredibly important to us, living other people’s experiences through stories. When we’re doing training events, learning how to speak to a crowd, the number one thing is to always communicate what you’re trying to say in terms of a story. All of a sudden our brains light up and we pay attention to a story.
But again, what does it mean to our interactive medium? The author isn’t necessarily the developer. The author is the player as well. It’s a little like real life. If you walk down the street and happen to run into your friend, you didn’t author that. Something else was at work. It’s part of a story that happened to you and you didn’t decide it yourself. I don’t have total control over the stories that happen to me every day. But what’s the perfect marriage? We’re still figuring that out.
Hennig: I think that’s it, and it’s an answer to your question as well. People’s Let’s Play videos on YouTube should look the same in some ways. They’re going to hit the same pinch points. But how they get there should be their own version.
The games I’ve enjoyed most, I feel like it’s a collaboration between the director and me. They were spooling out the story, but it was mine to interpret and experience. That should be our highest goal. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t author something. It means we should engage the player and collaborate with the player.
GamesBeat: I liked Until Dawn, this summer, with the whole butterfly effect.
Hennig: Yeah, I liked that too.
GamesBeat: It must have been a giant pain for a designer or storyteller, though. You have to write a thousand stories.
Hennig: I can’t even imagine what that document must have looked like.
Raymond: Especially for a smaller developer.
GamesBeat: They said that there were 10,000 pages of dialogue across the two games they created because the original version got cancelled and they had to redo it.
Hennig: I haven’t finished it yet, but I’ve really been enjoying it. My family won’t let me play it unless they’re there, so it’s very slow going.
GamesBeat: I’ve played it three times. Doing a tips-and-tricks thing turned out to be my most popular story of the year – how to survive with all eight characters alive.
Hennig: I don’t think I’m doing that well. How’s the game doing?
GamesBeat: I think it’s done surprisingly well. But it’s a Sony exclusive, so it has a more limited market.
Raymond: Have you played Fallout?
GamesBeat: I just barely started. I’m in the first little town.
Raymond: I am too. It took me forever to install. All right, carved out an hour and a half to play this game, but—
Hennig: Between Fallout, Battlefront, and Tomb Raider, I don’t know—I’m going to have to take some vacation time.