How to get great drama and performances in video games

by danhon

How to get great drama and performances in video games
Georg Backer – Lionhead Studios

Welcome – thanks for taking the time. First a few things about me. Audio producer at Lionhead Studios – look after voiceover and audio production. Complete audio coverage in our games. But also because we’ve got the drama properly sorted out in games. I’ve been working there for 10 years, all the titles I’ve been involved with in one way or another. Fable 2 I took over video and continued that for Fable 3.

The first thing I want to talk about is non-interactive versus interactive drama, especially now with both industries trying to cross over. Films trying to be like games and vice versa. Although there’s a big difference between two categories.

On the left – the passive, non-interactive. On the right the interactive department. The non-interactive drama, you can call it traditional storytelling. You tell it there’s no active audience involvement, you listen, you read, you watch, the whole experience is pre-canned and process on your own, you have no way of interacting with it. With the interactive department, you have experiencing – you don’t get told it, you get to experience it. The storytelling comes afterwards when you talk to your friends about the game , what happened. Passive – over time, established languages to convey emotions and motivations.

When you talk to films, tv and books – writers – who think that it’s quite amazing videogames having all that freedom. It’s quite an irony. For films, tv, books, you have full control of everything. Protagonist, antagonist, tell it how you want, structure. That’s great if you want to do videogames, but you can’t control the protagonist, you’re not really allowed to tell them what to do. You can say it’s about a space marine who goes into space and that’s about it – you can set it up, but what you have to do is define an environment, get the player to progres sthrough a story without them thinking that they’re being hand-held here. That’s a key difference. Interactive is very young compared to books and films, no real established language yet.

Films, music, books – they have an emotional delivery language that’s established. We all know films, we may not know the rules, camera angles, editing, sound design, we may not know the techincal names, but we know when something works and doesn’t work. We all know it. You know when there’s a horror film when something’s going to go wrong, when something’s going to be cheesy. You know, camera cuts and angles, you don’t get confused as an audience when things go back and forth. That’s something you’ve subconciously learned over the years watching films. The same for books and storytelling. In the games industry, we’re young in that edge, we’re trying to, we’re getting there, we’re borrowing a lot from other industries, and we’re trying to take it over rather than adapt it.

The other interesting thing is that when you watch a movie, the way it evokes emotions is through a third person – a hero journey, you’re feeling for him, but you don’t feel – you don’t invoke the same as if you’re directly involved. So in what – passive emotions versus active emotions. That lets videogames evoke different sets of emotions – remorse, regret, guilt, everything is direct, it’s not through a third person, it’s geared toward you. It’s at least a concept. In films, it’s often the case – the best riend gets hurt, to die – that’s the point where you are, in videogames, that is as well, if ther’es another person ivnolved who’s not the player, then you share the same set of emotions, the passive set.

The immersion on non-interactive title is non-participation level. You don’t have to, the main thing, the protagonist, he has to believe his surroundings in a movie. You might not like the environment there, btu you can accept that this is something the author has conceived and wants to execute. In videogames, it’s key, it keeps you in the world, that keeps that makes sure you want to progress, go through the story, the game, the game mechanics. Immersion is a different take in both medias. The ROI on games versus movies or books is that you’ve got a finite amount of time in those media, 90 minutes in a movie, 42 minutes in a tv series, you can plan when you have to get the first results to keep the audience hooked so they don’t go off, but at the same time you’ve got 40 minutes. You know that the ROI will be pretty soon. It’s harder in a game, you have to explain setup, mechanics, let the player do it, feel immersed without being handheld, it’s very different, more active, but probably more interestingly rewarding in a different way.

The other thing, drama in traditional media is breaking rules and patterns – if everything is fine there’s no story. Videogames are based on rules and patterns. If you strip down a game, you end up excel sheet and balance data. Those are the differences between the two medias.

Another interesting comparison is linear and finite in a traditional storytelling way. 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 to 5 to 6. High points and low points to make it dramatic and engaging. Videogames may look like this – [squiggle] – the key elements are there, but in between are an infinite amount of time only based by how many quests or how big your game is. The blue dots are optional quests or things not part of the core experience. So it can go a bit more manic. The problem there is if you have af inite amount of time, in al inear story, you can plan the dramatic exposure. You can plan how you hit the audience, the lighting, the cuts, the right amount of drama is in the right moment. In the experiencing, in the interactive games, it can be much more difficult. If the player doesn’t do anything, then there’s nothing happening.

Creative interactive immersive drmatic experiences. I found this thing on the internet. Take a look of the things here. It’s Guitar Hero 5. It loks great, you’ve got music, sounds, it’s participation, it’s full immersive experience. Now imagine what would happen if it had been developed in 1981. Text adventure. The ruleset is the same. The fun’s gone (Press red button / you see a blue circle / press blue button) etc.

How can you best approach the whole thing of creating – there’s three categories. The right approach, the right people, the right process.

The approach is, from drama to gameplay to drama to gameplay to drama etc. That’s the traditional approach. It’s compartment and separated. Luckily the game industry does the right steps to get away from that, where you combine eveything and combine everything. SEverything sort of happens like seamlessly.

The way we did it Lionhead is we first wanted to understand the languages together. We worked with people from the film industry, the sound industry, musicians, artists. Just to understand how they work and what the language of their preferred media is. It’s quite itneresting if you talk to a film editor all the tricks and treats you get. Also I got to talk to someone who told me that Porsche has a sound designer, they want to make sure that their door sounds like a door. There’s a lot of, so the language of the media slips over into the world of into the real world of the sound designs. Or also starts to reel into the video games world. I also had a discussion with a sound designer, they used to be more realism in the games, real guns, and go to real um fighters, and t then what we did is we talked to people who do the sounds for films and they told us a different story and they don’t record real guns, they want to make a sound meatier, bigger, and explosions in film it’s big and meaty and not in real life.

The other interesting thing I found about the different talking to the different people is the they had a lot of time to establish language. Films, music have been there for ever. We are a young industry, we’re trying to catch up now.

We understood and deconstructed traditional drama. We got a swordmaster in, and got him to teach us how film fights work, how they look cool. You guys don’t care, make us look cool. And it was quite interesting the different things he showed us, things that looked cool on screen. Same for film and directors. And then we took all of that and started to apply it to certain types of the game – the combat system, externally of the game, camera cuts, sound effects, so that and the game mechanic so it feels complete so you’re not thrown out. TSo the camera cuts aren’t confusing you. And we sort of like then we readapated it and put it into the game.

The interesting thing about story experiencing is that it doesn’t only happen one level, it happens on all the levels. You take all the elements. The obvious thing is story and character and writing. Setting, art, animation, audio, levels/environmetns and game mechanic. A good one is coherent. One of the ones I love is Bioshock. The art style, the setting, the audio. Even the game mechanics are part of the core story. Adam, the powers, is not just plugged in as a meta thing, it’s part of the story. I thought it was just brilliant.

Portal is one of my favourite games, the story – it’s a strategy game, it doesn’t need a story experience, it would work without it, it makes it better with it. They had one voice and clever level design. It’s sometimes misunderstood and just facilitates mechanics but not immersion and experience. Bioshock did that well. You’d walk through a level and you’d walk in a living room, there’s a fridge, a tv, a family on a couch, and the floor would be a poison pills and on the table there’d be food. You can make up your own mind what the hell happened there. Another scene where you walk into a toilet and you see a dead woman and a guy who shot himself and I’m Sorry on the wall. This makes for huge experience dramatic.

The other thing is imagine if you can tune game mechanics to your favour. The way a weapon works – you shoot it, you hit a enemy, you deduct a hit point, if the hit points if health hits zero enemy dies. Consistent rule. Bullets. Bullets run out. So but now what if you could create an environment, a big one. Five minutes, middle of the fight. All big super guns gone. You know that’s thing gone. Got more health than you can do with. And then you in desperation you charge toward it and shoot shoot shoot and with last bullet enemy falls down. That relief feeling, I love in games. As a game designer, we can cheat our rules, we can say – the last round of ammunition does 10x more power or damage.

So the other interesting thing about creating immersive drama also often not fully explored is character design. 2 examples, one from Fable 2. Banshee. I love the banshee because we took coders, animators, AI designers, a lot of writing. What it would do, it would comment on what you’d done in the game. It would try to aggravate you. [clip].

The game would check what you’d done so far and depending on that, the banshee would say different things. ‘Could you do nothing to save your sister? Rose would’ve done anything to protect you. She even gave her life. And what have you done about it? Nothing. Nothing at all. Your poor son cried out for you in that dark cave. Wondering when you’d come. His last thought as he died was this. Was it because I wasn’t a good boy? All those people you killed. Just to get your family back. Don’t you think they had families too. And are you sure it was your family that was brought back?’

They were unprocessed files. What you heard was depending on how you played the game, different set of stories. Lots of involvement to get that character right. Then you get another character. This is the Companion Cube – a box with a heart on it. By only using 4-5 lines. He doesn’t even speak. It’s by GlaDOS. When you first see “This weighted companion cube will accompany you through the test chamber. Please take care of it.”

[And then the cube dialogue as you have to burn it]

There are other cubes, they don’t have the heart. Suddenly you feel really attached. Portal is really evil. You have to do it. You have to incinerate it.

‘You neutralised your companion cube more quickly than any other test subject on record. Congratulations’

Then: ‘I invited your best friend the companion cube. Of course he couldn’t come because you murdered him.’


There are clips of people of how to save the cube. An exapmle of different character design.

So the next thing is the right approach. Game mechanics, and in Fable 3. Apart from story and quests and game mechanic and combat, we also have great AI systems. Our AI is the biggest chunk of our dialogue. 30-35k lines are purely for AI. We have AI, the gossip lines, where the AI talks to each other and you about stuff that happens in the game. You might hear villagers talking to each other. You hear that in passing, but it gives you an idea of what you can do. It does common and regular things. The whole AI was designed to marry the idea of the core quests and the game simulation together, to create a coherent simulation.

Even for marriage lines, we have over 1.5k marriage lines. Variation. We don’t want a different sentence 3-4 times in a row. AI types speaking. Different styles. Behaviours etc. Always movement and not just idle. The interesting thing is the core story is dark, the optionals are funny, so they try to marry them.

The other thing is the GUI room. Has been shown at E3. And the reason why I picked it is it’s not just a system we slapped on, we carefully planned and chose and integrated into core story. For that, I have a clip. The first time you meet the guru.

You enter with Sir Walter, your guide and teacher, Jasper, the butler.

Tried to get rid of 2D GUi and pull it into the game. This sanctuary. Change clothes, Jasper’s there, etc. You can change weapons. You can pop in instantly. We wanted to make sure it’s introduced properly.

So the right the next – the right people:

Designer, writer, art, animation, audio, production, VOI production partner, VO director, spcialised sound designer, music, consulting and outsourcing.

So Kate Saxon, our director. Met her through voice partner. She’s a theatre director, lots of experience, mocap direction. Has a lot of theatre plays that have done well in reviews. It was amazing. Worked with us, we got stunning performances, completey understood what we’re trying to do. Without – with understanding with action, carrying out someone else’s vision. She never went in there to take it away from us. Also understood limitations. Mark Hill and Rich Bryant – writers – completely understands. Rich Bryant is from TV world, wrote for Spin City, but huge gamer. Fully understands difference. Carrying out someone else’s vision. Then the other person is Josh Atkins, lead designer. He also understands immersive experiences. 4 people most involved when audio, VO and music production.

And there’s this other guy, Peter Molyneux, who controls, big inspirator. He gives us the freedom and direction we need.

Another type of process is staging. Using all the elements in a videogame, art, game mechanics, visuals, audio, etc. Creating a coherent immersive experieence that evokes emotional and motivational connection and fuels his desire to progress through the game. E.g. getting amulet from the forest. We want to make sure you’re creeped out. We take the music down. Pull the sound effects up. Then go on and pop up in background, stuff that – glowing eyes, etc. Not attacking you. Then go on and footsteps. Turn round, no footsteps there. Go further on and get to this place, you get someone running, screaming desperately for help, desperately for help. She runs away, is gone. Go into this place, graveyard, and you go lightning strike, and you see this huge creature, then it’s not there. Then alleyway, then a tomb, then you’re creeped out by then. And then only do we start with game mechanic elements and spawn monsters. Even then we’d use the right ones. You’re staging the scene.

The most painful thing is the painful process of iteration. Imagine ahead and iterate forward, not to the left or right. You have to be able to see that all the time without startint go change things around. Play your quest, game mechanic works but the dialogue is wrong. It doesn’t do anything to you. Or you think – the text is wrong? It still doesn’t work. Redesign the quest. Rather than iterating to the right and left, iterating forward.

One thing we also do – a staging workshop. In order to figure out, what we do is we had the director, Peter, the lead writer, animator, into stage, let them work on scenes. That’s for non-interactive and interactive elements. We let them play out those scenesz. then we’ll do freestyle. One of the actors plays the hero. He can break the scene. We’ll deduce what live assets, etc. Little clip.

Directing, not motion capturing, but have got game there as well.

The last chapter I want to go into is casting and recording. Fable 3 dialogue: over 80 actors. Fable 2 was 50ish. IT’s a great cast. John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Zoe Wanamaker, real experienced people. 460k+ recorded words, 47 hours final speech. Dedciated combat and vocal foley for most characters. About 64 episodes of the West Wing in one game. Three writers. Lots of meetings with director. Little clip from scene in game.

You’ve got the actor, the writing, lead animator, designer, constant collaboration.

Casting and recording. Casting is interesting. Once we’ve done staging workshop. Casting committee. We lok at tings that we fill that role.
Work with casting, etc. 5 suggestions for main characters. Then we meet with Peter and we hope that – we’re clear that we like the 5, whatever Peter picks we don’t have a problem with. And then we start putting packages together. That’s 6/70. That’s where we give all the information about the game to the production partner, Kate’s worked with us for a while, she’llhave input for casting. Hopefully their timing with our schedule, our VO partner, we can get them to record. The recording run – many months – ther are certain things we do. We prep, artwork in studio, game design documents, where possible a build in the studio. Kate always preps everything beforehand. She knows scenes inside out, game mechancis, so she can trust. No more than 4 peopl ein a recording studio. Writer, director, actor, engineer, me.

Content divided up. Funny, core, simulation. We allow time. Lines we’ve recorded we can feed back as soon as they walk into a door.

Most important thing is trust.

A director isn’t just someone who gets performance, but also someone who also understands how to talk to them, an individual basis.