Like a lot of creative endeavors, making games like Broken Age at Double Fine and The Last of Us at Naughty Dog is a series of happy accidents.
If one thing is clear from watching five prominent game desginers talk about story is that none of them are clear as to what the term "story" really means. At the inaugural PlayStation Experience in Las Vegas, most of the panel called "Storytelling in Games: An Ever-Evolving Model" was spent regaling the audience with small anecdotes about dealing with actors in motion capture studios. While interesting, especially to hear Neil Druckman talk about the performance of Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker in The Last of Us, the panel didn't really go into writing or story at all. Except for Tim Schafer that is.
"That story of Vella was in my head for eight years," he said. "I was watching King Kong with the woman tied up waiting for the monster to come and take her away. You can't help but think what you would do in that situation. I wondered what would happen if she would just kick him in the nose. What would happen if you were to be sacrificed, if you chose to fight the monster instead?"
Schafer allowed this concept to percolate in his extremely creative brain until it bumped up against another one. "I also love stories of being isolated with technology," he said. "Science fiction stories of people being alone on a spaceship, tended by robots. Then I kind of had a flash - these stories could support each other, enhance and interact with each other." And the result is Broken Age.
Making games is by no means an endeavor accomplished by a single auteur. Schafer was the first to respond to a question about why games like Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle were so funny that it had a lot to do with the collaborative nature of the medium. "Everybody adds something to it," he said. "You write something and you think it's funny but sometimes you struggle with it until the animators will add a little twitch to the face to make it funny or if it's a visual gag the artist will add something or sometimes it's just an audio touch.
"And obviously the actors will add subtlety to bring it to life and make it funnier," Schafer said.
The performance of the actors is something these game designers lean on to bring their stories ot life, sometimes in ways they didn't intend. Neil Druckman is known as the lead designer and writer of The Last of Us, and he showed a clip of actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson in the mo-cap studio performing a pivotal scene. The script was solid, but the performances felt stilted at first, and Neil said it wasn't until Johnson physically pushed Baker in the studio in an unscripted moment that the true emotion of the story was revealed.
"That shove. It wasn't in the script, and it brought new emotions to the scene so that it felt more honest," Druckman said. "The story took shape and some of the dialogue changed. How they acted the scene took it to this other place that worked much better than anything that was originally written."