The appeal of the ball-point pen

David Cage talks about “Peter Pan Syndrome” in game production here. He states that we made great advances in eyecandy, but not in the quality of the stories we tell, and that most games still target an audience of kids and young adults while retelling all the same stories.

I think he has a point; I have long been thinking similar thoughts. I would like to think that David would like Scout’s Journey. The story I’m trying to tell with it is one of the oldest stories of mankind, yet it is buried under our so-called civilisation. It is the story of the shaman.

Scripting, not ‘scripting’

Most of you might not know it (and the Quake-minded among you couldn’t care less), but much of what I’ve done in the last two months for Scout’s Journey is writing the script. I’m not talking Kismet, triggers, monster closet type ‘scripting’; I mean I am writing an actual story, character bios, dialogues, scenes and so on, just like for a movie.

The script to Scout’s Journey is so far several thousand words long. It features more characters beside Scout, each of which has a dedicated background story including what makes that character tick. There is an entire history of the Herd faction, how it came to be, who founded it, and why. There is a detailed account of events and locations in the game from beginning to end, in nine parts. And there is much to say about Scout herself.

Someone real

Scout isn’t a silent avatar like the Doomguy used to be. She is a full fledged character, and the game allows you to accompany her on an adventure and make some choices for her. Scout is definitely going to talk during the game and comment on whatever she finds interesting or odd; she isn’t just an empty shell for the player to commandeer.

Scout’s biography fills three hand-written pages; there is another page with some key scenes and yet another with various remarks. The script says Scout is about 30 years old; this puts her well above the age of Faith in Mirror’s Edge, or young Lara Croft. It also puts her out of the age range of a young-adult target audience.

The script continues to line out how Scout (it’s her nickname btw) was a college dropout who joined the army out of lust for adventure and for lack of other perspectives. She is NOT a super-tough space marine, and she is NOT an Iraq war veteran. She is NOT a hip starlet with squishy boobs, she is NOT a rich English aristocrat archaeologist, she doesn’t have any academical titles, and she’s not a crackwhore stealth assassin ninja. She has faults. She secretly wishes she could live the quiet life in a little house and have a family. In other words, Scout is someone real – she has a patchwork biography, she works a boring job (at an army warehouse) and she dreams of better times.

Backbone of the tribe

An undercurrent in the script is that Scout is a morale booster; unlike stereotypical old-time FPS heroes she’s NOT a loner, but rather the team mom. She’s the soul of her department, she tries to help others where she can, and everyone comes away happier. To her, the glass is always half full. Without realizing it, Scout performs a function for the people around her; and this is a function not listed on her CV. She empowers others in unobvious ways.

As a result of her improvised lifestyle, Scout is exceedingly good at coping with unforeseen trouble.

So here we have, I hope, a true heroine in the making. She did not come with steel plated armour fresh from the press; she barely knows which end of a rifle is which; but she has tenaciousness, adaptability and optimism.

Scout has survivability.

Spoke in the wheel

Because of these things, Scout is the right person to thwart the unexpected Invasion of the militaristic, hierarchical (inflexible!) “Order” and influence the unhappy foot soldiers of the “Herd” to rise up and turn against their evil overlords. Bit by bit, piece by piece, simply by example. She is BORN to be the spoke in the wheel of oppression, and she is the prototype of a healer or a shaman because she can adapt, change, and rise to almost any task to aid and inspire her people.

Scout has a dream.

Travels the World Tree

The day before, Scout carried an exhausted recruit’s backpack as well as her own during a summer exercise to make it easier on the poor sod. She even gave away her drinking water. This morning after midsummer, Scout has been found unconscious and is now hospitalizedĀ  for heat exhaustion. Has she pushed herself over the edge? You can probably guess correctly now that the entire game plays out while Scout is physically unconscious.

In the dream, Scout journeys between the worlds. Scout travels to the realm of the dead and back to help her people. Scout meets the gods. Scout makes friends in unlikely places, and quickly makes it to #1 on the “Most Wanted” list of High Executioner Lord Voch and his inquisitors. The Order wants ‘the Intruder’ burned at the stake, while the Gods play a deadly game of checkers where black and white are almost indistinguishable.

Needless to say, combat is largely avoidable in Scout’s Journey should you so choose. Sure, there are going to be guns because let’s face it, blowing stuff up can be fun once in a while. But I’m tired of run-and-gun schemes. Prepare to tip the universal balance back to a healthier state in more creative ways. You can’t solve every problem with a gun. You’ve got to start with yourself and those around you, and it’s gonna be hard for some because as the Goddess would tell you, this is a leap of faith.

We Hunger

I find writing this script incredibly fulfilling. I wrote much of it on a couple of exhausting train rides, with a ball point pen on a college block. And you know what a lot of the people did during the train ride? They read books. It occurred to me how hungry we are for stories. People buy books like crazy, just ask Amazon. There is this insatiable appetite for stories.

I have always liked writing, and creating a script is a nice way to apply writing to game design. Sure, if you’re making an arena shooter, your game might not need that much of a script. But for something like Scout’s Journey, ie a single-player story-based roleplaying game, I believe having a full script to draw from will pay off in spades.

A nice checklist for writing game scripts can be found here.

Did you know that with perfect play, a game of checkers always ends in a draw?

2 responses to “The appeal of the ball-point pen

  • Mike_Tyson

    kneedeep, this is all amazing. I am following your progress on this blog and think it’s fantastic how you keep at this project. I am sure you will finish it, and can’t wait to play Scout when it’s done. (Though I don’t know if I will actually be able to run it on my laptop but that’s another story.)

    One thing I liked about the original Quake was that there was almost no story, or what story there was you could easily ignore, and there were to cutscences, not shopping system, no dialogue… the original Quake is still one of the most basic, pure action games in existence. It’s just about action and atmosphere, nothing else. I could identify perfectly with the Quake guy, exactly because he was basically undefined.

    This reminds me of something I read in a book called “Understanding comics: The invisible Art” by Scott McCloud (very good book btw): if a comic character is very basic, say just a typical smiley face, the reader can identify with it easily. But if the protagonist is drawn in a realistic style, it is very hard to identify with the character.

    So from the storytelling aspect, Scout sounds to me very different from the original Quake. I am not saying that’s a bad thing, there are reasons for both styles and it all depends on what you want to achieve. Just pointing out that for total immersion, I think the *less* story and background is *explicit* in the game, the better! For games as storytelling though, background and character must be defined explicitly and in great detail.

    • kneedeepinthedoomed

      The story is going to be noticed mainly by way of cutscenes, people talking to you (via headset or otherwise) while you’re playing, via dialogue that can be initiated by you, and via information you find that gets collected in your Journal where you can browse it anytime.

      Cutscenes will mostly occur after Scout goes through important plot twists (there is a major plot event around the midgame, and two more towards the end) or accomplishes something (such as blowing up the dam).

      In between these types of events, you can freely explore the game world, start fights and collect loot (and do stuff with that), and during these activities Scout will talk very little.

      So it is a mixture; during a cutscene Scout might “separate” from the player and act on her own more than the Quakeguy ever did, and you’re more of a witness, but during fights or exploration you should be able to “tune in” to Scout a lot more because there isn’t much talking then.

      You’ll be able to spend quite some time alone with Scout without too much story being pushed onto you. I made sure that Scout is a “rugged” character, ie she won’t be too touchy-feely during most of the game – she is a fit and durable char and you won’t find yourself constantly weeping or using bandages just to push Scout’s character on you. Quite the contrary, Scout is tough and intelligent so you might just find yourself with a lot of abilities such as disarming traps or sabotaging robots. In short, Scout should hopefully be likeable and bring some skills to the table, and the player will not have to babysit her.

      I do think the story is actually good and people will be able to take something away from it – I’m not saying the game has a message, although maybe it has. It depends how you want to interpret certain things. So it might not be too boring to watch those cutscenes after all.

      Rest assured it is not just an interactive movie. It is up to the player how much they want to explore on their own, the game world is big despite only having five levels (they are quite large), and the game is not on rails.

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