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Default CD Projekt RED - Making a complex story more accessible

June 19th, 2012, 03:59
Gamasutra has an article titled From The Witcher to Cyberpunk: Making a complex story more accessible.
Polish developer CD Projekt RED has a distinct fondness for rich, complex game narratives. Its Witcher titles are well known for their morally ambiguous storylines and intricate character relationships, but while the games certainly found a loyal fan base, the team at CD Projekt now believes that their labyrinthine narratives likely scared some players away.
Speaking to Gamasutra in a recent interview, key members of CD Projekt RED explained that the studio learned some very important lessons after the release of latest blockbuster title, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. Most notably, it has realized that you can't expect players to readily embrace a complex game world — you have to ease them into it.
"We spent days discussing a general postmortem after we finished The Witcher 2," CD Projekt member of the board Adam Badowski explained. "What we learned from The Witcher series is that we need to attract people with a smoother learning curve when it comes to the storyline."
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June 19th, 2012, 03:59
you can't expect players to readily embrace a complex game world — you have to ease them into it.
"we need to attract people with a smoother learning curve when it comes to the storyline."
Very disappointing to see comments like these coming from CD Projekt. I understand their view from a business perspective, but I hope they don't go too far in trying to make Cyberpunk more accessible to the mainstream audience.
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June 19th, 2012, 05:03
Well, it *is* a new genre to most people. Even worse, many a gamer will casually dismiss it at first glance simply because it doesn't have orcs and faeries - it's part of the reason Torment suffered (that and abysmal marketing). I mean, take a look at that poll for an Obsidian Kickstarter with "fantasy" in the lead. Way too many people are complacent with their orcs, plate armor, and reality television.

Hopefully, CDProjekt can implement a good balance between learning curve and 'dumbification'.
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June 19th, 2012, 05:06
This is speaking to the story and, frankly, I agree to some extent. Perhaps I just have a bad memory but when I started TW2, I had no idea what was going on. The who did what? Why did they do that again? What king?

Don't fall into the trap of knew jerk responses because of the word "accessible".

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June 19th, 2012, 06:21
I have to agree that it's not such a bad idea. I thought Witcher 1 did a great job of introducing you to the story. It started simple and added more and more complexity until I was hooked. The story for Witcher 2 never came close to grabbing me as much, and I think lack of pacing was a big part of that.
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June 19th, 2012, 06:27
Originally Posted by Dhruin View Post
This is speaking to the story and, frankly, I agree to some extent. Perhaps I just have a bad memory but when I started TW2, I had no idea what was going on. The who did what? Why did they do that again? What king?

Don't fall into the trap of knew jerk responses because of the word "accessible".
I would agree, I think the tutorial they added to Witcher 2 following one of the patches was a great improvement.

Despite having played quite a lot of the first Witcher game, I had been playing Witcher 2 for six months before I even realized you could parry.
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June 19th, 2012, 07:06
Well the word accessible has ruined many games. Every time I hear It I cringe and weep for the game. Please don't ruin the game.

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June 19th, 2012, 07:08
Agree as well. I recently finished The Witcher 2 and one of my few points of criticism was the convoluted plot. It was really difficult at times with all of the different kingdoms (Kaedwen, Temeria, Redania, Aedirn, Mahakam etc.) to keep track of who wanted what of whom and why or who hated whose guts for what reasons and so on. There were so many interests at stake, so many characters involved… it was nigh impossible for a mere mortal like myself to, quite literally, stay on top of the game.

So I definitely sympathize with CDP's intention to make things a little more accessible and more transparent. Given their track record, I am quite convinced or at least positively hopeful that they are smart enough to not dumb it down full scale. I'm sure they'll manage, don't worry.
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June 19th, 2012, 07:54
I don't know, I kind of like when the story is just a bit convoluted. I seriously don't like when everything is clear-cut and easy to manage. It kind of gives the sensation of something more complex, even if you break it apart and it turns out its not as complex as it first seemed. I personally really liked the story in TW2, and I loved the talk you have with Merigold right after freeing her from prison. Everything just seemed to melt nicely.

I just hope they won't go into the other extreme of making it too simplified.
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June 19th, 2012, 08:04
Originally Posted by Dhruin View Post
Don't fall into the trap of knew jerk responses because of the word "accessible".
I get what you're saying, but at this day and age statements such as CD project just made sadden me. Often the term accessible stands for dumbing something down. I can't help to feel worried. For me part of the Witcher games' charm is that I as a player needed to pay my full attention to story details to understand the gameworld and characters. I don't want everything to be clear cut. Witcher 2 expects that the players are familiar with witcher 1 which is very refreshing when most sequels treat players like they never played the orginal.
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June 19th, 2012, 08:48
Originally Posted by danutz_plusplus View Post
I don't know, I kind of like when the story is just a bit convoluted. I seriously don't like when everything is clear-cut and easy to manage. It kind of gives the sensation of something more complex, even if you break it apart and it turns out its not as complex as it first seemed.
Exactly.

In literature, some things are often actually left vague and more inferred to than explained, in purpose, to create a sense of depth and of an existing world with a history vaster than could be detailed in the course of the narrative.

I do not think I would enjoy too much being sat down to a history lesson in the Witcher 2… In time you get all the necessary info to get a picture of what is going on on a political level (If you pay attention). More than is necessary to actually enjoy the game really. Politics are not supposed to be a witcher's main strength at any rate

Seriously though, maybe that is just me. Also having read Last wish and Blood of Elves may have had something to do with it…

And while this may indeed mean nothing bad (and may even signify an improvement on their narrative process, who knows), what makes me sad is this trend that generally seems to be a constant these days: The only obvious brainstorming result developers and publishers make when trying to determine what to do to improve the next iteration of their games is streamline and normalize…

Meanwhile, I am running out of games to like…

/rant
Last edited by JonNik; June 19th, 2012 at 09:22.
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June 19th, 2012, 09:38
Originally Posted by Dez View Post
Witcher 2 expects that the players are familiar with witcher 1 which is very refreshing when most sequels treat players like they never played the orginal.
Well, there isn´t a console version of The Witcher (at least yet) .
However, I didn´t get the impression that The Witcher 2 really expects familiarity with the predecessor - the first game surely helped with some background, but most of that was explained in TW2´s journal, and stories of both games were largely self contained. Having played the first game felt more like a bonus than a "required playing" to me in regards to TW2.

When it comes to "convolution", personally I appreciated the way TW2´s story was told.
The who did what, what king and so on feeling Dhruin noted was there, but this stuff was pretty much always elaborated on in the journal and I liked that for once the journal was quite an imortant part of the game and not just a bonus fluff.
Show, don´t tell and all that, but in this particular case the only viable solutions to make all facets of the story clear right away without reliance on the journal entries I see would be either making the story less intricate or cluttering it with loads of exposition (on top of the exposition that´s already present in the dialogues, that is).
Besides, when taking the journal out of the picture, stuff was usually clear enough by the time player´s decision was to be made.
Also, the relative impenetrability of all the intricacies in the story made the game more replayable, besides the branching elements I mean, because one is quite unlikely to remember all of the story´s finer points for long.
Finally, all the politicking kinda going over player´s head fit rather well with the main protagonist´s place in the story, I think.

In my book, the only major aspect of TW2´s story where CDProjekt dropped the ball
was Geralt´s personal development as told via flashbacks - these came all automatically (and sometimes felt rather randomly inserted into, at least seemingly, unrelated parts of the story), without player being able or required to take an active stance on, which effectively cut all possible roleplaying aspects out of it.
Mechanically, this was a vastly inferior version of Geralt´s Identity quest from the first game (where the quest´s development was shaped by player´s decisions in the game) and a missed opportunity.
That pretty much all the flashbacks alluded to happenings in the books didn´t help.
It may become more effective storytelling device in retrospect when and if The Witcher 3 is released, but when judging TW2 on its own I really don´t think it was a good way to go about it.


As for the article itself, "smoother learning curve when it comes to the storyline" doesn´t automatically mean a less complex story as a whole, it depends on how the smoothing is "implemented". Hopefully CDProjekt will find a way that won´t result in "dumbed down" story presentation, though I have to say that "players should be able to choose how deep they want to enter the story or the plot" does leave me worried a bit.
Last edited by DeepO; June 19th, 2012 at 10:36.
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June 19th, 2012, 10:19
Originally Posted by JonNik View Post
Exactly.


I do not think I would enjoy too much being sat down to a history lesson in the Witcher 2… In time you get all the necessary info to get a picture of what is going on on a political level (If you pay attention). More than is necessary to actually enjoy the game really. Politics are not supposed to be a witcher's main strength at any rate
If you pay attention. I dont know why players focus so much on story for video games when after all those years and investment, no recipes for narrative techniques have been established. When studios have good stories, they do not know how to deliver them.

I played TW1 just before playing TW2. I had the universe fresh in mind and got the general picture very fast.

TW2's story was a follow up to TW1's story, knowing the first story was a requirement to understanding TW2's story.

But contrary to books, or videos, if you miss points in the story, you dont want to replay the first one to have access to the bits of the story you are missing.

And when you miss points in a book told story, you do not change activity when you fetch a previous book and read the missing bits.

As action is so prevalent in gaming, starting to read in a video game is like starting to read how to drive on a highway. It diverts from the core.
All those extensive tutorial, hand held tutorials were introduced because reading a booklet interrupts badly a gameflow.

The only obvious brainstorming result developers and publishers make when trying to determine what to do to improve the next iteration of their games is streamline and normalize…
They have no other option. They are caught between a rock and a hard place. Players want complex stories to be delivered to them through a long saga but do not want to pay the price of it by paying attention to the content of the game and knowing well what happened in the previous episodes.
Foundations of the story have to be set over and over again in each new episode as writers can not capitalize on the certainty the previous stories are well known.

What they are heading for is episodes insulated one from another, stand alone standard, story streamlined enough to allow playing a game without having played any other (if you get more when you know of the previous stuff)

The focus on story should be dropped and gameplay should be given once again the first seat when assessing a game. Good stories cant be delivered with guarantee through video games. Better to give up on that.
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June 19th, 2012, 10:37
Originally Posted by ChienAboyeur View Post
They have no other option. They are caught between a rock and a hard place. Players want complex stories to be delivered to them through a long saga but do not want to pay the price of it by paying attention to the content of the game and knowing well what happened in the previous episodes.
Foundations of the story have to be set over and over again in each new episode as writers can not capitalize on the certainty the previous stories are well known.
That is their (and obviously yours) take on it, and transferring that way of thinking on other areas (to make everything instantly approachable and accessible on the spot), the basis of all that dumbing down that is happening right now in computer gaming.

I kinda disagree you see. I believe that gamers would indeed appreciate something deeper, persistent and reasonably polished and in striving to reach a sort of wide audience (that is not indeed interested in the kind of mature and/or complex game they profess to make) they actually bring down the overall quality of their offering (see Risen 2, I do actually not believe this is going to happen to CDPR anytime soon). They would probably be better off giving up and making a COD clone outright

Whatever the case, understandable or not, companies like that lost a customer here, no hard feelings or anything


Originally Posted by ChienAboyeur View Post
The focus on story should be dropped and gameplay should be given once again the first seat when assessing a game. Good stories cant be delivered with guarantee through video games. Better to give up on that.
I do not recall having indicated that I am particularly hang up in story heavy games to the exclusion of gameplay (I am a gothic fanboi after all )…

I do like them of course and I appreciate the better written ones (i.e. PST, Vampire and the Witchers for that matter), but I was more thinking that I would like to have heard from CDPR at this point, how they will add more depth to their overly streamlined character system and gameplay rather than how they are going to streamline their story instead….

At any rate a very good balance between good writing and decent gameplay is more than possible I would think… There was that fallout NV I played recently… Quite nice…
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June 19th, 2012, 11:11
Originally Posted by Dez View Post
Often the term accessible stands for dumbing something down.
It doesn't have to, and it doesn't always. So question is, from what you know of CDPR, do you think they'll get it right?

I agree with the other comments about the lore especially in TW2 - it was fine if you had read all the books, but even having played TW1 several times through, and read all the English translated books available (both of them..) there were gaps that could have been very nicely filled with a lore guide or time line. That wouldn't have been dumbing down, but enhancing the experience. I was very disappointed that the game guide that came with the game was a cheat book (which is more like dumbing down)…
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June 19th, 2012, 11:17
Originally Posted by JonNik View Post
but I was more thinking that I would like to have heard from CDPR at this point, how they will add more depth to their overly streamlined character system and gameplay rather than how they are going to streamline their story instead….
Yeah.
For now I´m just assuming that they consider The Witcher 2´s most widely recognized (and positively acclaimed) defining aspects to be the story and visuals and that´s the reason why they´re concentrating on these when trying to build the initial public awareness of the new title.
I hope that in reality they consider gameplay and character development systems to be the areas where they have the most room for improvement (and will act on it accordingly during the development process).
Last edited by DeepO; June 19th, 2012 at 11:28.
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June 19th, 2012, 13:25
As an author (unpublished) myself, I can say that there are exactly 2 ways to present a complex story :

- The complex way (Tolkien's annotations, anyone ?)
- The simple way. Clear, short remarks, simply explaining what is what and who is who.

To me, this is kind of related to pen & paper rules : You can have an overly complex combat system (my preferred example) like in TDE (because I personally hate the imho overly complex combat system of TDE BECAUSE of its complexity), and you can hve a simple system.

The way of thinking lays out how complex it will be. It's lik … As if you build a house on a rock of the earth, or on tree trunks in an area which is often overflowed by water. The building with the wooden trunks beneath them clearly require more complexity in the overall architecture, simple because the overall "system" of the building is more fragile.
The house mde of stone sitting on a gigantic rock just sits there, and cannot be moved. It's complexity is rather low.

You can even break down complex stories - or complex matters in general - into more simple parts which are much, much, much easier to explain, then.
this is similat to breaking down a long winding road story into chapeters.

But actually explaining complex matter broken down into something simple is an art.

And an art that only very, very few people matter, because they just think too complex.

Actually, I can do this to some extend, nd I have the suspicion that i can do it rather because of my ability to see patters.
I can then compare patterns and use them for explaining things.

My favourite example of this is how i explain computer operating systems : The hardware are the actual rails, the OS is the engine, and the waggions are programs/data, respectively.

In psychology, this doesn't work very well, though - if you want to present a rather psychologically oriented story to the reader, that is.

And at a last note : If you read the iliad and the Oddyssey : You'd be surprised at how much the text refers to implicite information (which is sometimes given elsewhere in the text) ! The word "yonder" is so much used to address people mentioned in the text that *modern* readers often don't know who is referred to.
Actually, both books require a whole lot more of "memory-juggling" than we are used to today. "Yonder" can refer to something mentioned at the very beginning of the books, and since then never mentioned again !

“ Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.“ (E.F.Schumacher, Economist, Source)
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June 19th, 2012, 15:21
This depends on exactly what they mean, and exactly how they will handle it.

If a game is high quality - and the story is well thought out, then I think a convoluted plot can enhance the experience, just as long as it makes sense in the end and you're not expected to go out of your way to understand how it ties together.

Well, that is to say that a rich and varied plot with a large cast of characters WILL, by nature, tend to be convoluted. So, it's not the complexity and opaque nature in itself that's "good", but merely a symptom of quality.

If you're just trying to confuse people by being overly complex or by obfuscating an otherwise simple plot structure - then that's just pretentious bullshit. Kinda like Prometheus and Lost

Seems to me that The Witcher 2 handled the plot quite well, and I didn't mind making an effort to understand how things tied together. I tend to get bored when things are served up to me - and I tend to prefer stories with plausible characters that have rich histories and motivational backgrounds.

Tolkien is a good example of what I consider top quality material, and that's not something you "grasp" linearly as you read it. You kinda have to reflect on a lot of things to really get at the whole thing, and then you're richly rewarded - because the person who wrote the story cared - with all of his heart - about everything in it.

So, I have to agree with JDR - that this sounds more like dumbing down when it's not going to actually make the game better - just make it sell better.
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June 19th, 2012, 15:26
Originally Posted by JonNik View Post
That is their (and obviously yours) take on it, and transferring that way of thinking on other areas (to make everything instantly approachable and accessible on the spot), the basis of all that dumbing down that is happening right now in computer gaming.
It is more an assessment of the situation and the constraints going with it than a take.
And that is not dumbing down because there is no alternative.
I kinda disagree you see. I believe that gamers would indeed appreciate something deeper, persistent and reasonably polished and in striving to reach a sort of wide audience
Players'demands are phony. Players do not want to live up to their expectations. This is what they show.

TW2 is a good study case. The studio came with a hard line like reviving the time when players read manuals, were able to figure things out by themselves, were ready to invest in discovering a complex story.
The studio delivered and the reception of the game showed that while players claimed they want this or that, it is better to say they love having the thought they want this or that because when it is delivered, they do not like it.

When it comes to conveying stories through video games, the main question is what the player knows of the story.

For a book or a movie, it is fairly easy to answer: the knowledge is proportional to what the reader/watch has read/watched. At that page, movie moment, the reader/watch knows everything that has happened before, according he or she watchs or reads everything before. This is indeed an ideal case but fairly common because there is no structural opposition to it.
If a reader behaves normally, he reads one page after another, a watcher watches minute after minute. The entirety of the information is conveyed to him. And through one activity: reading, watching.

For a video game, it is totally different. By structure, a player might know only 70 or 80 pc of the story content, even though the player plays normally.
Another point is that the story is conveyed through multiple media: reading, watching and playing the game itself. And players have a different approach to them: some read all the written content, others skip the cinematics etc…

At any moment in a video game, the question is how much of the story the player knows.

Even better, I remember an external link on here to a review of TW2 with the same blame: the story is not properly contextualized, he could not understand it, he could not get into it.

I could not understand it because I experienced very differently, the story was well contextualized and I knew enough of the intrigue to anticipate it. I was in active stance as it makes me want to progress through the story.

It happened the player had reviewed the TW1 and I read it to try to understand. The answer was there: he played 30 pc of TW1.

Lets rescale it on the ground that averagely, players are exposed to 80 pc of the story content.

In the end, he knew something like 20 25 pc of all the story content. And he demanded that TW2 story had to be accessible to it. How do you want to build a complex story line accessible to players like him?

Can it be imagined that in a book/movie trilogy, somebody who watched/read 20pc of the first movie/ book and say later he cant contextualize the story in 2 and therefore it is poorly done?

Not every player finishes games. How do you want to convey a story or more, a complex story when you dont know what the player knows of the story you are telling?

Even with disciplined players, the delivery through the video game medium comes with a loss.
With a movie, you know where you are with watchers who watch from start to end. Same for a book.
With a video game, even with a player who play from start to end, you know much less. You can force narrative go through points but you are left with a quantity of material that is similar to foot notes, side notes etc

In addition, you have to keep in mind that access to missing bits is hard in a video game.



I do not recall having indicated that I am particularly hang up in story heavy games to the exclusion of gameplay (I am a gothic fanboi after all )…
The quoted point does not address you specifically. It just states that delivering stories through video games is a pipe dream and therefore should be abandoned in favour of gameplay, which can be delivered.
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June 19th, 2012, 15:32
Originally Posted by Alrik Fassbauer View Post
As an author (unpublished) myself, I can say that there are exactly 2 ways to present a complex story :

- The complex way (Tolkien's annotations, anyone ?)
- The simple way. Clear, short remarks, simply explaining what is what and who is who.
The issue does not lie here. For litterature, movie directing etc, the narrative techniques are well established and they can be repeated.

You can easily separate the story and how to tell the story. The how to do is known.

For video games, there is no such thing and studios have so far failed to establish a corpus of narrative techniques that could work repeatedly.

And it is structural. It comes from the medium. Before even thinking of telling good stories or complex stories, the way to accomodate the medium to support story telling must be found.
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