Above: Downward Spiral: Horus Station
After working on triple-A blockbuster games, virtual reality experiences, blockbuster VFX films, digital TV, and feature animation, I wanted to share what I’ve learnt along the way. In particular three elements I think great stories all have and tools to use in your stories. With that though, people often say games, movies, animation, TV, and VR are opposing mediums. I’d argue they’re all same — bar the audience’s participation with each medium. Here’s how they’re similar, and how they’re different.
My perspective started in Sydney, Australia, where I joined the animation teams for Zack Snyder’s Legend of the Guardians: Owls of Gahoole and George Miller’s Happy Feet 2. On both feature animations, the story was paramount, driving entire departments and productions of hundreds of talented artists and technical directors. Shots were prevized, reviewed, updated, and tweaked endlessly to capture the storytelling beats. After learning this in Sydney, I moved to London, England and joined Prometheus, World War Z briefly, and Gravity’s VFX teams, and all of these films had a huge attention to detail and once again focus on storytelling.
After London, I moved to Helsinki, Finland, where story in my particular became even more critical as I joined Quantum Break, eventually rising to senior narrative designer, and now leading my latest project Downward Spiral: Horus Station, a VR optional zero-gravity thriller. All projects had their ups and downs, but the goal has always been the same: to tell a great story and make the constraints of the medium the advantages. Whether a project is a huge blockbuster or a smaller scope production, there’s always a budget and timeline which provides focus and a deadline to tell that story within.
The challenges of VR
A key challenge from going from a third-person triple-A story to a VR story is the fact that in VR the player is in the world, not a character in the world. In games, particularly third person games, you push the player through the world whether it’s Jack Joyce, Lara Croft or Nathan Drake. In VR, the character is the player, not a fictional construct that they control. Players are teleported into the world and bring themselves into the world.
In my experience, designing for VR feels more like designing a ride a theme park or immersive theater where the participant is anonymous than designing a traditional triple-A game. As a storyteller, knowing this is critical to ensure players feel connected, immersed, and hooked into the game. It’s a very different trend from traditional triple-A games, however I feel it’s a critical lesson and learning for great design and storytelling.
Connecting to this if in animation/film it’s “show don’t tell,” in games/VR it’s “play, don’t show.” During my stint on Quantum Break I learnt how important the story is to making a great and memorable experience. Whether it’s in the game or created by the game. Graphics fade, gameplay becomes outdated but the story, emergence, music, and atmosphere stay forever. It lasts forever because they all make you feel something and allow to connect with the experience whereas graphics and gameplay are more like fashion which evolve. A feeling is a feeling and it’s something you remember.
Whenever I helped plan any moment, it was always a question of: can the player play this? My earliest role at QB was helping to design the entire opening level at Riverport University. It could have been a cinematic cut scene, however I truly feel the game is better from having the player discover the space and world before the action gameplay begins. From my experience the best stories are experienced, and worlds are immaculately created and allowed to be explored.
Designing Horus Station
On top of this, I’ve also learned that the best stories are discovered, not told. At 3rd Eye Studios, we’re pushing this to the extreme, which means no cinematics, no audio diaries, no NPC telling players what to do. We’re a very small core team of five developers, but we have a great story we want to tell. For this project I’ve written a screenplay, which guides the level and production design, but it will never serve another purpose. We all felt the stories are not known for exposition, they’re known for interpretation. So once again story has driven this project and I feel it once again connects with connection and interpretation means an emotional response and challenge, not a passive listen.
Finally, the last lesson I’d like to share is what I feel are three things I feel every great story has. A world, a message and a question. Every story I tell ahead I hope will have all of these elements. My favorite literature, art, music, poems, games, and VR all have these components. If a story doesn’t leave you thinking, create or show an amazing world or have a strong message it could be stronger. It’s something that I feel is independent of medium and important for any great story.
So in the end whether you’re working on the next triple-A blockbuster, movie, TV show, or a VR story experience, my advice is tell a great story. To do that look at your constraints, make them advantages and present the audience a great world, a message, and, of course, a question. Simple, right?