The use of supplemental materials in creating a video-game narrative

Discussion in 'Non-Maker Specific Tutorials' started by Canini, Jan 20, 2018.

  1. Canini

    Canini Veteran Veteran

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    Hello and welcome to my discussion of the uses of supplemental media (videos/animations and comics) in creating a videogame narrative. Although not that many of us can reasonably create huge amounts of supplemental material for our games it can still be worthwhile to study how it can be used, as well as the unique storytelling problems that writing for an ongoing videogame series provides. For the discussion I have choosen two games, Team Fortress 2 and Overwatch. My reason for choosing these two games is beacause Team Fortress 2 was one of the first games to use supplemental materials to add narrative to the game itself. Sure, games before may had a story in the manual, or even some sort of official comic or animated series. But these were not part of the official canon, or influenced the games in any way. Furthermore the era of Team Fortress 2 comics and videos can be divided into five clear and very different eras:

    1 The promotional Era
    2 Pastich of an era
    3 Update comics
    4 Searching for purpose
    5 The ongoing story

    Comparing the supplemental material of Team Fortress to Overwatch´s may seem a little bit unfair, since it has not been out for quite so long but in my opinion it is remarkable how the comics/animations of Overwatch corresponds to the different eras of Team Fortress´s material. Indeed, the year and a half that Overwatch has been out is almost like seeing the history of Team Fortress in extreme fast forward.

    In addition I will discuss the game I am working on right now (just as I did about my last-non maker specific tutorial about the use of the narrative curve in videogames). It too has supplemental material insofar as I have written out a full story set in the same world the game takes place in and I will post chapters as new versions of the game are put on my website.

    Let us begin the first installment of this series by looking how the three games handle the promotional era.

    Team Fortress 2

    Nine mercenaries have come together for a job. It's the middle-ish part of a century a lot like the one we just had. A simpler time. There are three TV stations, one phone company, and two holding corporations that secretly control every government on the planet. Each corporation administers its half of the world with a multi-disciplined army of paper pushers. For any problem lacking an obvious bureaucratic solution, mercenaries like these are contracted to address the situation through a massive application of force. Now's your chance to Meet the Team.

    As it started out Team Fortress had nothing but the above excuse plot meant to give a minmum of context to the maps the players fought over. As the developement changed from a fairly realistic shooter to a cartoony shooter with greater emphasis on the characters, the "Meet the Team" shorts were created. These short cartoons have no plot, just showing the characters in their natural habitat with a broad somewhat darkly comical sort of humor.


    There is also a promotional video, showing the ability of all classes. Note that while some weapons and abilities were changed the character relationships were already pretty set in stone. The game was released after nine years in development without any kind of open beta (this not yet being a way to promote a game yet).


    Overwatch


    The cinematic trailer of Overwatch establishes a bright and colorful world with the terrorist group Talon pitted against the two faces of Overwatch (Tracer and Winston) for the ownership of the infamous Doomfist´s gauntlet. Although it talks about the history of Overwatch the storyline set to run concurrent with the game has not yet started up. It feels more like the prototype of a map more than anything else. The focus is on the world, not the characters as a result of Blizzard focus on storytelling. There is also a gameplay trailer that is remarkably similar to the Team Fortress one, character abilities are showcased and a character “who beats who” is established.


    While Team Fortress undoubtely wanted to be worth the wait after nine years and make the game lasting, Blizzard immediately had their eyes set on the e-game scene. That meant that the open beta was almost only open to streamers. Blizzard also stated that the comis and animations are not canon or will influence the game in any way.

    Alex and Adva/ I´ve heard Norse (my game)

    My own game takes place in a Viking-esque called Bjarmaland with a written story taking place in the afterlife of the same. I currently have a prototype done with three main goals:
    1 Show the initial storyline and setting with a prologue
    2 Show the main gameplay by having the characters climb a mountain and use their abilities to traverse it.
    3 Showing specialized gameplay by having characters traverse a platforming section with some hidden areas and a boss

    The story has similar goals:
    1 Establish the setting and characters
    2 Showcasing the main theme of the story (the duty of the privileged to help those in need)
    3 Have a first “episode” of the main characters life in the underworld

    As you can see, the three points complement each other.

    Just like Blizzard I do not want the story to influence the game too much, but I do want the two to be canon to each other. Just like early Team Fortress updates (“Bidwells big Plan” being concurrent with the addition of the in-game store for example) I want the story and game to intersect at key points. A example is when a early sort of train built by dwarves crashes into the mountain, opening a hole to the underworld. The player now has to deal with a demon infestation and the souls of the dead (in the story) has to deal with rocks falling down from below to crush their dwellings.

    End notes on the promotional era

    As we can see Team Fortress and Overwatch, although both begins with promotional material sort of starts at opposite ends. Team fortress had no story except for the above excuse-plot, comics and media eventuelly swelling into an ongoing story. Overwatch immediately got a narrative, but the developers have stated that it will never influence the game at all. In the next part of this tutorial we are going to start and take a look at how the games finds their feet and refines the setting in what I call the pastisch era.
     
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  2. Canini

    Canini Veteran Veteran

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    The pastich Era

    Team Fortress 2

    The design philosophy of the storyline in Team Fortress 2 grew from the game and gameplay itself. The world and story of Overwatch was made from the ground up and thus have a bit of a "designed by commite" feel to it. It is more consistent than Team Fortress though, which wary in style and quality over the years. Today we are going to look at these two games and how they both pastish an era. Team Fortress, after their initial characters introductions detailed in my last post ended up gravitating towards a sixties cold war narrative.
    This was consistent with gameplay and the two teams fighting each other over spy bases and such. In order to create interest for updates to the game supplemental material during this era was often written in the style of comic book adverts or the "Men´s Reading" magazines of the time.

    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]
    Complete with chair-kicking action!

    Just another day as a reverse-quadruple-double agent.

    The storyline also ever so slightly started to solidify with references to the typical advanced supercity of Silver Age comics (except it is Australia) complete with "Radioactive materials fixes everything" except in the TF verse it is called Australium. This aspect ended up taking up the storyline completely, but that is for later on.
    If you are interested in using supplemental to enforce the feeling and style of the game I would consider reading up on a few points of interest in the era you are trying to capture. Exagarate them, give a new context to them. The reader/player will feel like taking part of a real breathing world and hopefully even see the original inspiration in a new way.

    More examples:
    http://www.teamfortress.com/bidwells_big_plan/
    Men doing manly things!
    http://www.teamfortress.com/loosecanon/09.html
    Unknown materials makes the world a better (?) place.

    Overwatch

    Coincidentally, Overwatch takes a lot of inspiration from the sixties as well! Overwatch isn´t really interested in the negativity of the time but rather the can-do attitude of the space race and Silver Age comics. Technology can solve everything and all bad guys work together in a legion of doom and can be defeated with heroes who show true fortitude and virtous human spirit. The main point of doing this, as detailed in the developer commentary, is to foster a friendly and welcoming community. Eveybody can become a hero!
    The main point to take away from comparing Team Fortress and Overwatch is if you want to play the attitude of the era straight or not. Both Overwatch and Team Fortress uses exaggaration as a tool but whereas Overwatch really do believe in the righteousness of that attitude Team Fortress subverts it and uses it for humor. It really depends on what kind of game you are trying to create!


    Heroes fighting bad guys.

    Inspirational role-call!

    Alex and Adva (my game)

    The supplemental material for my own game can be found in my signature. They have not ended up complementing each other as much as I had hoped, but I did get a prequel comic made for the game. A small sequence from it can be seen here:
    http://atspela.blogspot.se/2017/06/tymor-och-permeter-pa-vandringsfard-i.html
    Unfortunately, it is in Swedish. Also, warning for some nudity (no genitals or anything, though).

    End notes on the pastich era

    As the story of the two games grow we enter a sort of limbo state. Supplemental materials have grown beyond just using pastich to enforce a mood or make people interested in updates, but apart from a few vague references they have still not coalesced into a proper ongoing plot. The next part of this tutorial we are going to further study this limbo state and see how the games handle them. What works? What could have been made better? See you soon!
     
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  3. Canini

    Canini Veteran Veteran

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    We are now entering a sort of limbo-state, storywise, for both franchises. The early establishing of setting and personality of characters have been settled, so what to do when a update hits? The update era is an era in the middle of the two games developement where the story do not move forward at all but is rather closely connected to particular updates to the game. These kind of updates often have the sensation, some would say illusion, of forward momentum but in reality the story does not move forward. Also, theyoften have some kind of experimental gimmick to them. Studying this kind of writing can be useful for pure hype generation and making update pages more interesting. It can be likened to the instructions manuals of old that were often pure fluff, but also fondly remembered.

    Team Fortress 2:
    A good example of the things I have mentioned above for Team Fortress 2 is the engineer update, viewable here:
    http://www.teamfortress.com/engineerupdate/v00.php


    The background is that one hundred special golden wrenches were given out to random players all over the world during crafting of other items. For every 25 that was found a new part of the update was revealed. The page for the update started out as a collection of newspaper clippings about the established world and then replaced with the new weapons and maps of the updates.
    [​IMG]
    It does seem like a real breathing character is working here, right?
    [​IMG]
    Pure gameplay updates, but as they look like the clippings and blueprints from before they make sense from a character perspective.

    Yet another example I want to bring up is the uber updates, one of the largest and most beloved updates of the game (although hated by some; the game went free to play at the same time).
    http://www.teamfortress.com/uberupdate/day_01.html

    This update combines a mafia-themed weapon set with a update page full of mugshots and mafia-slang. It continues into arabian style equipment and finally a "rousing speech" from the soldier along with his new weapons. This is topped off with the meet the medic video. These themes have no internal relation to each other, and only the soldier update page is really in character. The meet the medic video also does not further the story but does give some background about how the medigun was created.

    Another comic example, and showcase of a few weapons and the Soldier´s demented personality.
    http://www.teamfortress.com/grordborts/comic/

    Overwatch

    The overwatch likewise starts getting comics and videos closely tied to particular updates.

    The video shows the first new character to be added to the game. It shows off her abilities and personality. Note in particular how the video takes place "in-game" both when it comes to the map and character models. This creates a greater sense of immersion.

    http://comic.playoverwatch.com/en-us/junkrat-junkenstein
    http://comic.playoverwatch.com/en-us/junkrat-the-return-of-junkenstein
    This one is more story-driven but is solely confined to the yearly halloween event, takes place in the distant past and is probably not canon. Neverthless, I feel that this one is the one that most captures the spirit of the update it belongs to. I always say that the true test of if a character is great or not is dependent on if they can be transplanted into another setting and still work. This halloween reinterpretation of some of the cast really works.

    Alex and Adva (my game)

    [​IMG]
    For my own game I have experimented with doing the absolute minimum when it comes to story with my updates. For example, when putting out a new patch for the demo I just put out the relevant info and some images with nothing else to go with it. Results where still positive, but audiences do crave that extra fluff and hype. As I am still not ready to commit to a larger overall story running alongside the game like I intended in the beginning. Instead I have settled down with a small incidental story about the characters for each patch. I think the update story model is the one for me, and indie-developers in general.

    ---

    Some of the things I have been argued here may seem like a critique, but you could equally argue that this is a golden era of game storytelling. Not too much story to hog down the gameplay but just enough to seem the world seem moret than "just" a game. Next we will take a look at what happens when the series start to branch out and look for a purpose. Yet they cannot really find it, and some strange narrative pratfalls are had. Hope you will join me then!


     
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  4. gstv87

    gstv87 Veteran Veteran

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    Valve's approach regarding the lore of the game was flawed.
    they kept adding a lot of content that mean absolutely nothing when the game crashes, freezes, or stops working in many different ways!

    they don't even have a 100% working, stable game!
    why would anyone bother looking at the content outside the game (which they can't even get to play), and even sometimes pay for it, is beyond me

    just make the game work 100% of the time, every time, the first time.
    *then* add to it.
     
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  5. Canini

    Canini Veteran Veteran

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    Thanks for commenting.
    This may be outside of the scope of this guide/analysis a bit, but I´d love to know for how long you have played Team Fortress? Because if you mean the game as it is totay I definately agree. It is super frustrating when a update hits and you cannot play it for 2-4 days because it does not plain work. The game is really buggy, but then again the game is over ten years old and from studying Valve´s corporate structure it is safe to say that there is not sufficient documentation of the code to make big changes without creating even more bugs. This game was never made to last 10 years, nor to be anything else but a casual shooter (hence random critz and unbalanced weapons). That they want to make a comp shooter out of TF2 now with their usual "one-update -every-1,5-years" schedule is laughably deluded.

    However, if you think that the original game was broken and that is should not have been added to at all I must disagree with you.
     
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  6. gstv87

    gstv87 Veteran Veteran

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    I've been playing since a little after it got F2P.
    I had played the original, but when the 2nd was announced, I couldn't get the release through Steam.

    but, the main problem I see between Overwatch and TF2, is that TF2 was never engineered the way Overwatch was.
    when Blizzard started building Overwatch, they went for the whole deal: from the name to the release platform, everything was engineered (they had to fight for the name Overwatch because it was owned by another company)
    TF2? it was just a multiplayer shooter.... there was no story whatsoever.
    Overwatch has done very little changes to their main story since it was released, mostly adding new things but still within the boundaries of the background lore.
    what they released as "teasers" or "story shorts" are nothing new released to complement anything new... they're all part of the same tech, narrative and art style.

    compare the quality of "meet the Heavy", with that of "meet the Medic", with the Two Cities update of MvM.
    there's a clear evolution there,... because they made the technology as they went along.
     
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  7. Canini

    Canini Veteran Veteran

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    While you are completely right about the Overwatch lore being more consistent I would also argue that one the whole it is a lot less interesting and definately less well-integrated into the game. Almost two years has passed and the story of Overwatch has not moved forward an inch, instead occupying itself with showing backstories we already know and endless scene-setting. Out of the yearly events only one has any kind of playable lore that actually changes the game and the characters. Two if you take the halloween events but as noted above it is probably not canon.

    Say what you will about Team Fortress 2, but at least the lore actually goes and have an influence on the game itself. The Sniper-Spy and Soldier-Demoman war is something hat actually happens in-game, the murder of the brothers who control the two teams segue into the man vs machine game mode etc.

    That said I do like the Overwatch setting and characters more and think they have more potential. Furthermore I do not like where Valve is heading as a company. At least Blizzard tries to communicate. They have focus and drive but lack know-how in game narrative. The story in Overwatch has room to grow almost indefinately. I do not know if you have been keeping up with the official team fortress comic but I really cannot foresee how the story will continue from there. The set-up for the last issue really has a sense of finality to it.
     
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  8. gstv87

    gstv87 Veteran Veteran

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    because the lore was developed as part of the promotional material for the game.
    as opposed to, being developed beforehand, but never implemented.
     
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  9. Canini

    Canini Veteran Veteran

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    As we enter the next "era" of supplemental material for Team Fortress and Overwatch, there is an almost tangible eagerness in the air from the writers. They have the audience, they have the setting and as long as the game keeps holding interest they will have a job. Yet they are writers and yearn to put their mark on the game, wether it is for pure experimentation with the medium (in the case of Valve) or because they have a story prepared and now demand for it has reached the breaking point (in the case of Blizzard) and so the writers are turning every stone in order to find where to place their focus from now on.

    Fail, and the story falls apart at a critical moment. Succeed, but create a story with a finite amount of things it can do and eventually the game will stand without a story. Let us look at the two companies, as well as my own effort and see how well they handle this great challenge.

    Team Fortress 2

    In many ways Team Fortress 2 is the Simpsons of the gaming world. It was revolutionary when it was first released, daring and experimental, a huge influence, now shambling along as a lifeless zombie because it makes to much money to cancel or update to a new engine or installment. A writing term taken straight from the Simpsons is Flanderization, which roughly mean making a character more and more into a caricature of themselves.

    [​IMG]
    Can YOU spot the subtle difference in characterization?

    With most of the updates during this time being holiday updates you can argue that the setting of Team Fortress has been flanderized into being more wacky instead of being simply a exaggareted spy drama. Merasmus the magician, a one-time joke character becomes a regular during this period. But the storyline of Team Fortress also makes its final transition into an ongoing story with the death of the Mann Brothers and the reveal of Grey Mann and the robot war. This divided the storyline of Team Fortress into two; the gravel war (which is the PvP experience) and Mann Vs Machine (which is the PvE one).

    [​IMG]
    Merasmus the magician reappears

    [​IMG]
    Fighting santa

    [​IMG]
    The three mann brothers

    Overwatch

    The Overwatch Writing Team, learning their lesson from the prolonged Sombra alternative reality game, is eager to finish up some of their loose plot thread. Torbjörns hatred of omnics is seemingly resolved when he find Bastion and protects them from the army (and as a swede it is hilarious to see the typical "RRRGH MR PRESIDENT WE MUST ATTACK NOW" guy transplanted into the swedish army). The chase after Sombra set up in the infiltration video is resolved by asking a local girl where Sombra does her grocery. No, really!

    Although it is not the most elegant of solutions, in many ways it is prefarable to the way a lot of stuff in Team Fortress is just dropped (most notable the two teams, amounting to eighteen characters).

    [​IMG]
    Torbjörn is suddenly friendly to omnics.


    [​IMG]
    Sombra the hyper-competent spy...captured by an ability she can easily escape in-game.

    Alex and Adva (my own game)

    The demo for my own game is almost ready for release and I have worked hard in incorporating supplemental material as best as I can. First, there is the following chapter of my story jackalopes taking place a short time before the game start. I am also doing a countdown on my blog where I each day present an item, a enemy, a character and a place from the demo, along with some hidden tips and links showing extra material such as sketches.
    https://www.wattpad.com/140237123-jackalopes-ray

    [​IMG]
    Working with blog posts and writing would be the equivalent of larger companies videos and comics, and obey the same rules. That is why I am writing these analyses, to put the spotlight on the difficulty of writing for a game.

    Next time we will take a look at the way supplemental material can be used to create an ongoing story seperate from the games. This will be the last installment of this tutorial series! See you all then.
     
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