Cutscenes And Haikus: Chris Dahlen On Designing Narratives

Part two of our chat with Chris Dahlen, Narrative Designer of Mark of the Ninja and founder of Kill Screen.

By: Yannick LeJacq

Filed Under: Feature Indie Industry Interview

Mark of the Ninja

And we’re back with part two of our expansive talk with Chris Dahlen, co-founder of Kill Screen Magazine and Narrative Designer for Klei Entertainment’s “Mark of the Ninja.” In this second part, Chris discussed his shift from critic and creator in much greater detail. We also talk a lot about words and all the myriad meanings they may come to have in gameplay and beyond. If you missed it, here’s part one.

I wanted to ask about Planescape in particular since I read before that it’s your favorite game. Was that an inspiration for the Mark of the Ninja story? Maybe I was bringing this in because I knew you wrote it, but I noticed a lot of parallels—the tragic character who’s constantly being reminded of his own fate, even the markings on his body telling part of the story.

I can’t cite Planescape as an inspiration. It’s actually hard to talk about the game right after talking about Planescape because…boy, the writing on that, you know?

The way it worked [writing Mark of the Ninja] was the team had come up with the premise and the story. So a lot of what you’re seeing there is fleshing that out to show the mood that we’re setting. And that definitely it is a tragic mood.

There are some parts, especially in World 2 when you’re in an Eastern European castle, and Ora keeps telling you, “You know these guys are gonna kill you,” and, “I don’t know that they really appreciate you that much,” or, “You’re letting them do this.” She’s sowing these seeds of doubt. And it’s raining, it’s dark, you end up in this bottomless chasm running around. It’s supposed to be super gloomy! He’s shouldn’t just feel like a badass.

From a gameplay standpoint, the Ninja is a glass cannon. That’s a term I just learned from working on this project—he’s very powerful, when he’s in his element he can do very deadly, powerful things. But he’s very vulnerable. If you get caught and someone starts shooting bullets at you, you’re done almost instantly.

So with that mechanic in mind, I think that fed into trying to make him this tragic character—a he has to just watch himself all the time, and then b has this unhappy fate he’s signed on for because he’s so loyal to his clan.

Does he ever speak in the game? 


Ok good, I was worried I’d miss it. He’s silent as character, and the game is a stealth game, so the fundamental conceit of the play itself is silence. How do you deal with writing dialogue for a game like that—where deception and silence would seem to be the most important quality? Or I guess, what are the constraints and possibilities in writing a story when you’re setting up that barrier, where the central character is silent both in terms of his voice and then in his gameplay itself?

I don’t remember exactly when we decided that he was going to be a silent protagonist, but I think I always imagined that he would be. And partly that was because I’m not sure what he would say.

I like silent protagonists because unless it’s a character who’s really…(long pause). I’m thinking of all these exceptions. I just finished Sleeping Dogs, and I enjoyed that quite a bit, the characters were all very likeable. That guy talks a lot, because you need that in the story for his state of mind. But with Ninja, we were able to communicate what we needed to tell you through Ora, and though his encounters with Azai the times they run into each other.  Ora is the way that we communicate his state of mind—maybe the doubt about what he’s gotten himself into, or his ambivalence about certain things.

She plays that role, in addition to a lot of other roles like the purely instructional one, telling players that if they use a smoke bomb, they will block lasers. Which, honestly, is eighty percent of it right there—making sure that that stuff is crystal clear to the player.

If he were talking in addition to them, the things he would say might sound a little trite. Like, “Boy it kinda sucks that they’re gonna tell me to kill myself!” It’s more compelling to have Ora whisper in your ear, “You know, this is kind of a raw deal that you’re getting.” Even if it’s obvious what she’s doing—she’s making you feel a certain way about it something—the fact that she’s the only telling it to you means that you can draw the conclusion. No matter how small the leap of understanding, you’re the one that gets to make it. You get to say, “Ok, I’m choosing to agree with her or I’m not.”

Do you feel you understand the process of games writing differently now than the way you thought about it when you were just approaching games from the outside as a writer and a critic?

Oh yeah, I understand the process a zillion times better than I ever did. I get obsessed with weird little details of things now—I’m playing “Enslaved” right now because I’m interested in how they deal with the relationship between the two characters. In that game, there are these little red orbs that you can collect. A lot of them are out of the way in places you don’t need to go, but you’re lead there by the orb just because you want to collect the orb. I don’t even know why I’m collecting them yet, but I feel this compulsion to do it. And it’s just bothering the hell out of me! That’s such a AAA game-ism, I’m running around collecting these stupid red orbs for no reason at all just because they felt like they needed to include that. I’m more aware of those things, and then I’m more irritated about them.

Going into writing the script, I wasn’t surprised by the amount of instructional text that needs to go into it, especially because it’s a complicated game. You need to teach players a lot of things.

I know with the whole “gamification” thing being so talked about I should have been more aware of this, but one then I realized after doing this is: earning points is a really compelling thing for people. If you add a score to something, they just get so much more interested. If you can do it in a way that really rewards an activity that they value, if they don’t just feel cheap, like they’re grinding for no reason, it’s a powerful mechanic!

We did these two text adventures as promotional material for the game. They were fun and easy to do, I think we put one together in a weekend basically. But so we were thinking about what to do for one of them. I wrote it, got the branching together for the different ways to win and to lose. And then Jamie had the idea that we should have a score on this. And when I added the score, it just made it so much more interesting. Because then even if you got a good outcome, you’d only scored 80 out of 100 points. And then you’re like, “wow, what am I missing?”

The challenge of writing about games—and I know I did this is a lot—is that you want to write about the thematic content, about the story. But the experience of the game itself is dictated so much by these kind of game mechanics. If you look at something like a scoring system; on the face of it, it feels manipulative. But if it is woven into the experience, it’s sort of like how a song usually has a beat. It’s something integral, something that directly contributes to the meaning and experience, and to the way that you are moved by the experience.

Sort of like how I talked about how you can choose to kill everybody or killing nobody, being sloppy or being effective. Your understanding of the character, your  engagement with the character, that’s what determines it. I mean, the script can frame that. We can set the mood. But you’re spending most of your time just making these decisions within this role of being a ninja. It sounds so pedestrian sometimes to say that killing people or not killing people is one of the most important parts of the game, but it really is!

The other thing that I probably didn’t understand was just how much all the pieces have to come together. The script, the words are definitely just one part of the texture of what the player experiences.

I remember listening to this interview with Tom Bissell on Brainy Gamer when he was still working on the original game writing contracts he got after writing “Extra Lives.” At one point he said very nakedly that writing for games was just really hard, or at least harder than he thought it would be. I wonder if the way that writers are built up in our culture, the ego we’re told to have about ourselves as writers so often, is subverted by games once you realize that story may not always be the most important thing. Some players may not even realize it at all. 

Writing a script for a game is never going to be as satisfying for a writer as writing a novel. You get your outlets; like, I was allowed to do the cut scenes and the haikus for the audio logs. That’s the most writerly part, right? And even that’s constrained by the game design.

So you get your opportunities, but what would be interesting is to see more of that role of narrative designer—where you’re the one on the table who’s focused on the story. Everyone else from art, design, production, is also interested in story, but you’re the biggest advocate for it. Where the storytelling is rich is when you think about the overall arc, when you think about what emotions am I trying to get from the player at every turn. And which of the many tools at my disposal am I going to use to achieve that.

It’s when you think of the symbols, which is something I want to work a lot more at—weaving symbols into a game. Because not a lot of games do this well. If you re-read Watchmen, the symbols in that like the smiley-face. If a game could come up with a symbol like that and use it as well as Watchmen did, that would be fucking amazing. I would rather achieve something like that than write pages of dialogue for a game. Because that would fit in in so many ways, and be so natural to what the medium can offer people.

When I think about “Planescape: Torment,” which is one of the best written games I’ve ever played, I think it has a similar proportion of spoken material compared to the actual amount of text scrolling through the game. I think it succeeds in creating these sorts of symbols by doing so, but the game almost feels like an interactive novel, since the fighting in the game didn’t feel very important.

Right, there was the one area built into the game for grinding. Like they just made a section of the dungeon and said “go fight some things!” Their heart wasn’t in it at all.

Yeah, and I got all the most “badass” abilities and spells right at the end of the game when I was walking into the final boss fight, but then the “boss fight” turned out to be this very bleak, existential conversation. Do you think the writer’s role in a game will just become less textual? If you think of the way people play games now, players may not want to cycle through that much text. But you still want to create those same profound, storied experiences.

I’m definitely not qualified to say where it would go, but yeah, I think that role of storyteller is definitely richer than just writing a script. It’s structuring the whole thing, getting the team together and saying, “This is the vision, this is the mood, this is what we’re doing.” It’s more than just the text.

And I think that’s fine! I’m a huge fan of the Studio Ghibli movies, and I was recently watching “The Secret World of Arrietty” with my kid. There’s a really moving scene in that movie where the girl and the boy finally talk. And line-by-line, that isn’t the most poetic dialogue that they exchange. It’s pretty much exposition, and it really doesn’t matter. I’m not saying it’s bad, but it’s not strikingly beautiful or strikingly clever. But it worked. The whole thing worked. And, you know, it’s a beautiful movie.

Like you were saying that there have been games that were very word and worked very well, but they’re a minority: I agree, you’re not gonna have games that just have tons and tons of lines of dialogue. But personally I find it interesting to work in really limited frameworks. Whether it’s having only snippets of text, or having to deliver it in an unusual way, or having to run a fictional character on Twitter. Having to be liquid, having to fit into any container, can be a really interesting challenge.

I would probably describe my job today as “working on the internet,” or I guess “writing for the internet.” It weirded me out when a boss first explained to me that part of my task was to, essentially, optimize my language for machines. Because as a journalist, you’d assume that your job is to reach out the human element of basically anything. A lot of that looks pretty ugly today when you think about search engine optimization, the things it can do to writing, when you see the amount of junk that gets produced on a daily basis. But there are a lot of interesting possibilities when you think about what actually happens to text once you feed it through a different system, one that has its own internal logic and obeys different rules than we do.

Right. Like, what if someone hired you to tell a story entirely in matchbooks? But, you know, part of the problem you just got to is that you still have to hook people to tell that story. There are ways to do that. I mean, there are headlines where you just have to read a headline! Something happens to a person when you see those six words, something has to happen to a story or a character that you just have to know better.

Well you also mentioned how certain things are just going to be riveting to players—racking up points, whether their red orbs or “badass points.” Do you ever feel like you’re just changing the window dressing on that? Or what do you think narrative can contribute beyond that? How can it transform it in a way that’s unique?

Sometimes it’s definitely going to be subordinate. Like, I worked on Carmen Sandiago for Facebook with two other writers. We weren’t very involved; I think we had one story meeting with the team. But that was never really the focus of our efforts. The focus was generating content—providing the clues for the player on missions. It didn’t feel like drudge work because you were trying to be creative, trying to hit a certain tone to fit in the game, but it was definitely not like writing a novel. You weren’t there to be captain clever, world’s greatest writer. You were there to do a job, 3,200 times in a row.

But what I’m saying is that even though you weren’t there to be a master storyteller, and instead serve a very specific function, it still had to be good, just like the art had to be good. You had to hit a tone, you could use your imagination. That’s what made it an engaging task rather than a horrible one: it wasn’t data entry, it wasn’t typing in phone numbers for the phone book.

Games with scripts can work really well. But you can’t have a great game that has terrible gameplay and a great script. I’m quoting someone there, but I can’t remember who that is. But when you put them together, the writing and the story give you something that stick to the ribs, make you remember it, make you fond of it, and make it a special experience.

And in a way, that’s what you’re aiming for. You read a novel, and it can be a really escapist thing in a lot of ways. But the way a game can stick with you the same way your own experiences stick with you, that’s half-way between the greatest hike you’ve ever taken, the greatest road trip you’ve ever taken, and the best novel you’ve ever read. It’s not quite as great as the novel or not as good as actually getting out there, but it can be a space in-between. That only really happens with storytelling.

One of my favorite songs is [Gustav] Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”—I’m not pronouncing that well at all (laughs). It’s a song cycle, so each of the different movements has a singer. The music would be gorgeous anyway, but the words add a lot. I was reading the translated lyrics, and part of what makes the vocals so powerful is those words. The soprano is singing the German word for “Endless, endless,” again and again as it trails off. It wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t have that.

I like an example like that, because there’s a part of me that has trouble buying that all this stuff is really as new as it’s cracked up to me—the advent of the internet, the proliferation of so many different types of computer software that we have before us right now. David Wojnarwicz is one of my favorite writers, but it’s difficult to read him with the expectation of getting anything as conceivable as a narrative. It ruptures the entire sense of narrative logic, narrative cohesion and all you really can do is experience it. I find that weird amalgam of text, partly divorced from its own meaning, as some of what you find when you approach literature in a game.

I’ve been downplaying this by saying that players have to understand things like the smoke bomb, but there are so many opportunities to put in words, to put in little snippets of meaning, because words are so powerful. In a game, there are just so many opportunities to use them. Lines on the wall, graffiti spray paint, little snippets of overheard stuff. You can take the story apart and just reveal little bits of it.

One of my favorite things in Half Life 2 is when you’re looking around and there’s a newspaper clipped to the wall. The headline reads, “Aliens Invade Earth, Humanity Surrenders Five Hours Later.” There’s not a lot of subtext to that, but it’s just so striking. You take away so much pain from reading that.

There are a lot of really powerful ways to use words. There are so many different shapes they can take. You have license, too, to give incomplete information, to give fragments of things in a way that you’d have to a framework for, or be a super experimental writer, to do in a book. In a game, it’s just de rigueur.

Filed Under: Feature Indie Industry Interview

About the Author:
Yannick LeJacq is a reporter for the International Business Times. His work has also appeared in Kill Screen, Salon, the Atlantic, and the Wall Street Journal.

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