At Develop:Brighton earlier this week, Flavourworks’ creative director and co-founder Jack Attridge gave a fascinating talk on Designing for Interactive Narrative and Live Action based on his experience working on upcoming PlayLink live-action FMV title Erica (which can be played with a smartphone or a DualShock 4 controller).
Looking back at the roots of the game, he explained that the studio wanted to “bring interactive live action into the 21st century” as he reckons that devs have been “developing games in a bubble.” Codes and conventions are always the same, he explained, with the player needing to have been educated to these codes before being able to play most current gen titles. Live-action FMV gives an opportunity to break those codes, if you can manage to make two industries (games and film) work together successfully and get the best of both worlds.
In order to do just that, Attridge listed preconceptions about games that are barriers to entry for players and that Flavourworks tried to challenge when building the studio – and Erica:
– Time investment
– Demands ‘education’
– Jarring difficulty
– Limited subject matter or audience
– Cartoony or ‘not real’
– Misconception that games are not important
“How do we tackle these problems and solve them in our own way?,” Attridge asked. “Well the first thing we did is to keep it short and concentrated.”
Having a very small team accentuates that need to keep the game small and focused, Attridge continued, and as a result: “Every moment on screen is important.”
He continued: “Another way to remove the barrier to entry is intuitive input, always based on a model from the real world.” He later added: “If you know how your phone works, you know how [Erica] works.”
Film language is another factor: “Films have a very specific kind of structure and conventions and it’s something that everyone is ingrained to understand.
“Then it’s all about emotional drive not skill: get players on board through characters and the story,” he said, after having previously highlighted that, in game, there’s often a conflict between emotional drive vs what the game wants you to do, with Attridge taking the example of his mum playing Godus (which he co-created): having never really played games before, she didn’t care about the game’s goal, she just wanted to create a nice village.
A conventional thriller/drama structure, cinematic live action and a mature or artistic tone are three other factors to take into consideration when designing for interactive live action.
Having established these solutions to the typical misconceptions about games, Attridge addressed FMV’s own challenges that Flavourworks wanted to champion: controls are limited to buttons on top of a flat video, no interaction with the world itself, long period of passivity, limited player impact on story, player/character dissonance. “This can lead to both a compromised film and a compromised game, and you end up not serving any audience,” he commented.
Attridge said that there were four key things that allowed Flavourworks to make sure they could tackle this idea differently: “First was a ruthless design philosophy: we had to think about a new way of filming and what kind of story we could tell, reinventing our way of filming. On top of this, that old school method of getting started with your mechanics and bring UI at the last minute to tidy your game with cutscenes, we couldn’t do that of course. We had to start with the writing as we were designing. So for us there’s a blur between the two,” he explained, with integrated story development being at the core of Erica’s development. “On top of that, we looked at the technology on the market, which was brilliant but they weren’t focused on video because why would they be? And what we wanted to do was lots of interaction in the world even though it’s 100% filmed. So we built technology from the ground up for video and we had an in-house editor called Cookbook.”
Last but not least, on top of this bespoke in-house technology, Flavourworks had a mix-media production workflow, between games and film.
If you’re a small studio and you think that’s a lot to think about, keep in mind that Flavourworks was only two people at the start, then four for a year or so when Sony came onboard as publisher, and now about 10+ for the end of the project.
Finally, Attridge talked Erica’s branching narrative, taking the example of Netflix hit Bandersnatch… And not following it.
“The idea of a branching story is something we wanted to explore, but not restricted to binary choices,” he explained. “The UI feels spatial as a result (see screenshot above). Our rules were that you have to be interacting every 15 to 20 seconds, and Erica would only speak if you choose her to speak,” as it makes the player and the character closer together, Attridge said. “Every decision Erica makes should be the player’s choice. The point of branching is that it gives different perspectives on the story.”
On top of the branching story it was also important for Flavourworks to be able to interact with objects in the world (which is especially intuitive if you play on a smartphone as you can use the touchscreen) and interacting with the surfaces (like wiping condensation from a mirror for instance). “These are ways to feel like it’s a living world for the player,” Attridge said.