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Opinions on writing style

Hello there, I’m currently working on a game where the main protagonist is a dog, however I’m a bit torn on how to tell the narrative. It’s based on a true story about a dog who survives growing up in a puppy mill and then has to survive in the wilderness for a few months. I could either have a narrator type deal, where his thoughts are the narration (like how Ann Martin does in the book "A Dog’s Life,) or I could rely solely on cinematics and clever direction to convey the mood of the scene (more like a “show don’t tell” approach.) So what do y’all think? What would you personally like better? And why? Or is there maybe a third option I hadn’t considered? Please let me know your thoughts.

@apgames

Interesting question… Sounds like a friend’s dog I know. :stuck_out_tongue:

One commonly used option or a third approach, is to leverage the constant-companion… A friend for the Character-Doggy to ‘play off’. But you haven’t said if there is one, or even a few, in this game??? Returning to fundamentals: What are the in-game challenges for the doggy…??? What are their narrative needs / wants. Dog vs Weather, Dog versus Hunger, Dog versus Pack of Deadly chasing Dogs, Dog versus Farmer/Hunters with guns. Dog vs Dog-pound. How will the virtual Doggy respond to all that. Then ask, what are they looking for emotionally? The way the Dog responds even as an in-game character is hinted at by their specific anims and how these change over time: cowering / running away, attacking / fighting or charming playful reactions etc… It all hints at the Dog’s very personality. Showing some footage would take away some of the guesswork here, so if you’re ready to do that - please do…

In TV/Film you usually try different approaches over sample footage. Then form a small focus-group and take a short survey afterwards to verify. So to advise or pick one before any of that, seems unwise. However, Koola was working on Cat-centric game once. I wonder if looking at that would generate some creative workable ideas. In general, voice-over doesn’t work as well in games, precisely because the narrative isn’t fixed. For example the player can be off doing something unrelated in a corner of the map, that doesn’t ‘gel’ with what the game is trying to say or narrating about, or trying to steer the player towards. Which just kills the effect stone dead tbh.

A 4th option maybe, is for the Doggy to imagine his / her ‘human owner’ is accompanying them, either as a striking recurring memory, or a ghost or whatever. So its them that are actually narrating the story ‘to us the viewer’ about the dog. Anyway, in your shoes I think I’d watch a boatload of quality Film/TV animations over the weekend. Try some random Wallace & Gromit or the Secret Life Of Pets to get you started etc.

A fifth option similar to the last, is the emotional ‘pinch’ approach, using a memory of a friend-pal / brother-sister-parent or ENEMY that appears from time to time praising, guiding or goading. Nothing needs to be spoken or said, they can just appear above the character occasionally steering them or reminding them about something, a goal or mission within the game, or coercing them, or even teasing them - (could be the theme). The viewer will tend to remember an earlier emotional or painful or happy scene, if you use the 3 x Reminder-Rule. For example, the ‘pinch’ could be represented by an ‘evil character’ goading the Dog, the notion ‘that they can’t survive in a harsh world on their own’, or ‘without the safely of the herd’ etc… Which propels / compels the Doggy to do exactly the opposite and survive. So when the in-game Dog is now actually thinking of cowering, the reminder happens to spur them back into picking up their spirits instead, and their animation becomes braver, not weaker etc.

Some ideas in there maybe… Once you get stuck into this, a lot more will pop up, and then the challenge will be picking the right one (the strongest in emotion-eering terms) and sticking with it. And then finally, exploring every facet around that one little concept you started with… BTW: You can also watch masterclass works to get ideas: Toy-Story / Ice-Age / Kung-Fu-Panda / Shrek / Ratatouille and so on. The creators behind these are masters at creating strong emotional characters. The trick is to adapt that to game work. Not easy… I know, believe me! :stuck_out_tongue:

@apgames

Interesting question… Sounds like a friend’s dog I know. :stuck_out_tongue:

One commonly used option or a third approach, is to leverage the constant-companion… A friend for the Character-Doggy to ‘play off’. But you haven’t said if there is one, or even a few, in this game??? Returning to fundamentals: What are the in-game challenges for the doggy…??? What are their narrative needs / wants. Dog vs Weather, Dog versus Hunger, Dog versus Pack of Deadly chasing Dogs, Dog versus Farmer/Hunters with guns. Dog vs Dog-pound. How will the virtual Doggy respond to all that. Then ask, what are they looking for emotionally? The way the Dog responds even as an in-game character is hinted at by their specific anims and how these change over time: cowering / running away, attacking / fighting or charming playful reactions etc… It all hints at the Dog’s very personality. Showing some footage would take away some of the guesswork here, so if you’re ready to do that - please do…

In TV/Film you usually try different approaches over sample footage. Then form a small focus-group and take a short survey afterwards to verify. So to advise or pick one before any of that, seems unwise. However, Koola was working on Cat-centric game once. I wonder if looking at that would generate some creative workable ideas. In general, voice-over doesn’t work as well in games, precisely because the narrative isn’t fixed. For example the player can be off doing something unrelated in a corner of the map, that doesn’t ‘gel’ with what the game is trying to say or narrating about, or trying to steer the player towards. Which just kills the effect stone dead tbh.

A 4th option maybe, is for the Doggy to imagine his / her ‘human owner’ is accompanying them, either as a striking recurring memory, or a ghost or whatever. So its them that are actually narrating the story ‘to us the viewer’ about the dog. Anyway, in your shoes I think I’d watch a boatload of quality Film/TV animations over the weekend. Try some random Wallace & Gromit or the Secret Life Of Pets to get you started etc.

A fifth option similar to the last, is the emotional ‘pinch’ approach, using a memory of a friend-pal / brother-sister-parent or ENEMY that appears from time to time praising, guiding or goading. Nothing needs to be spoken or said, they can just appear above the character occasionally steering them or reminding them about something, a goal or mission within the game, or coercing them, or even teasing them - (could be the theme). The viewer will tend to remember an earlier emotional or painful or happy scene, if you use the 3 x Reminder-Rule. For example, the ‘pinch’ could be represented by an ‘evil character’ goading the Dog, the notion ‘that they can’t survive in a harsh world on their own’, or ‘without the safely of the herd’ etc… Which propels / compels the Doggy to do exactly the opposite and survive. So when the in-game Dog is now actually thinking of cowering, the reminder happens to spur them back into picking up their spirits instead, and their animations become braver, not weaker etc.

Some ideas in there maybe… Once you get stuck into this, a lot more will pop up, and then the challenge will be picking the right one (the strongest in emotion-eering terms) and sticking with it. And then finally, exploring every facet around that one little concept you started with… BTW: You can also watch masterclass works to get ideas: Toy-Story / Ice-Age / Kung-Fu-Panda / Shrek / Ratatouille and so on. The creators behind these are masters at creating strong emotional characters. The trick is to adapt that to game work. Not easy… I know, believe me! :stuck_out_tongue:

@apgames

Interesting question… Sounds like a friend’s dog I know. :stuck_out_tongue:

One commonly used option or a third approach, is to leverage the constant-companion… A friend for the Character-Doggy to ‘play off’. But you haven’t said if there is one, or even a few, in this game??? Returning to fundamentals: What are the in-game challenges for the doggy…??? What are their narrative needs / wants. Dog vs Weather, Dog versus Hunger, Dog versus Pack of Deadly chasing Dogs, Dog versus Farmer/Hunters with guns. Dog vs Dog-pound. How will the virtual Doggy respond to all that. Then ask, what are they looking for emotionally? The way the Dog responds even as an in-game character is hinted at by their specific anims and how these change over time: cowering / running away, attacking / fighting or charming playful reactions etc… It all hints at the Dog’s very personality. Showing some footage would take away some of the guesswork here, so if you’re ready to do that - please do…

In TV/Film you usually try different approaches over sample footage. Then form a small focus-group and take a short survey afterwards to verify. So to advise or pick one before any of that, seems unwise. However, Koola was working on Cat-centric game once. I wonder if looking at that would generate some creative workable ideas. In general, voice-over doesn’t work as well in games, precisely because the narrative isn’t fixed. For example the player can be off doing something unrelated in a corner of the map, that doesn’t ‘gel’ with what the game is trying to say or narrating about, or trying to steer the player towards. Which just kills the effect stone dead tbh.

A 4th option maybe, is for the Doggy to imagine his / her ‘human owner’ is accompanying them, either as a striking recurring memory, or a ghost or whatever. So its them that are actually narrating the story ‘to us the viewer’ about the dog. Anyway, in your shoes I think I’d watch a boatload of quality Film/TV animations over the weekend. Try some random Wallace & Gromit or the Secret Life Of Pets to get you started etc.

A fifth option similar to the last, is the emotional ‘pinch’ approach, using a memory of a friend-pal / brother-sister-parent or ENEMY that appears from time to time praising, guiding or goading. Nothing needs to be spoken or said, they can just appear above the character occasionally steering them or reminding them about something, a goal or mission within the game, or coercing them, or even teasing them - (could be the theme). The viewer will tend to remember an earlier emotional or painful or happy scene, if you use the 3 x Reminder-Rule. For example, the ‘pinch’ could be represented by an ‘evil character’ goading the Dog, the notion ‘that they can’t survive in a harsh world on their own’, or ‘without the safely of the herd’ etc… Which propels / compels the Doggy to do exactly the opposite and survive. So when the in-game Dog is now actually thinking of cowering, the reminder happens to spur them back into picking up their spirits instead, and their animations become braver, not weaker etc.

Some ideas in there maybe… Once you get stuck into this, a lot more will pop up, and then the challenge will be picking the right one (the strongest in emotion-eering terms) and sticking with it. And then finally, exploring every facet around that one little concept you started with… BTW: You can also watch masterclass works to get ideas: Toy-Story / Ice-Age / Kung-Fu-Panda / Shrek / Ratatouille and so on. The creators behind these are masters at creating strong emotional characters. The trick is to adapt that to game work. Not easy… I know, believe me! :stuck_out_tongue:

I remember having fun with this : Dog's Life - Wikipedia
It is still possible to play it with an emulator if you want, but there are also videos for inspiration (it can be hard and time consuming to set up emulator for some PS2 games).

I think it depends on how deep the story needs to be. You need to go over your concept to see if visual cues will be enough to make the average gamer understand what you are trying to tell them. How obvious do the cues need to be in order to get your point across, and do those cues interrupt (or hamper) gameplay in any way?

If the cues can be subtle enough but still tell the story in enough detail, then that’s the way to go. If those cues have the potential to not tell enough of the story, or could be interpreted incorrectly, some voice over may be necessary. That does not mean you need a constant narration, as an example you could use visual cues during gameplay and then have narration at the end of the level to summarize what occurred. That way you get the best of both worlds.

You know what comes to mind is the movie Wall-E by Pixar. Andrew Stanton directed it I think. Obviously you are dealing with dog(s), not robots. However in terms of telling a narrative, I’d say you might have some similarities on your hand. The robots merely squawked a word here and there and did not talk in full sentences. Granted, other characters did later on, but the main characters were driven through the narrative without talking. I’m assuming your dog won’t talk either. So in that sense you are faced with similar challenges. Even more I’d say.

Some things I learned from that movie that come to mind right away are:

  1. The animations basically revealed the emotional depth of the characters in any particular scene / moment. Consider how they positioned the shape of Wall-E’s eye throughout different scenes and in the movie in general. Also, when Wall-E was nervous he would often shuffles his fingers together between his two hands in combination with his tracks (legs) bending outward slightly.
  2. Andrew Stanton often used objects or points of interest in the movie to help drive the narrative. One example is the laser dot that appears near Wall-E. He sees it, and follows it with haste as it quickly slips away. That was a point of interest that drove the narrative in a certain “direction” (figuratively and literally). Also, he used a song from the movie “Hello Dolly”. You can almost say this is there theme song. In one scene early on in the narrative, Wall-E and Eve share a “moment” together in Wall-E’s truck when the song is playing. From that point on, when the song played, you unconsciously knew what emotions the directors were trying to imply through the scene. These emotions and intentions were all rooted to the song and that first scene mentioned earlier. So music itself can be a narrative tool. Of course, music is much harder for us indie developers to acquire unless you write your own or get rights.

So, you’re not making a narrative about robots…but what is the difference honestly? Dogs can’t speak, and have to rely on other means of engagement. By the way, dogs are ripe with emotional cues. I’m sure that is an obvious factor here. Perhaps you might find some other relative story telling concepts from this movie to help give you ideas. There is probably more to be said in terms of building a narrative from this movie, but that’s all I will say.

Oh, and one golden nugget that I’d like to throw in here now that we are talking about story telling is this; it’s far easier to develop your story if you start with the ending. That’s actually what Andrew Stanton said during the making of this movie. He started with the ending and built the story around it.

I thought of something else while I was away. The Tomb Raider series (New One) I thought did a fantastic job of narrating. To be more specific, they used series of old journals and manuscripts that Lara finds around the game world. Each journal was a piece of a sub narrative within the game. Revealing details about characters and plots as you went a long. You could also reread the journals at any point from the menu. Which I really enjoyed doing towards the end of the game where if you collected them all you could start piecing together the stories of each character.

Maybe you can do something similar…? I mean dogs can’t read so i dont know how that would make total sense. Than again, it’s your world in which to define the rules and boundaries. Hope that gives you some ideas.