Mobilising storytelling: How Space Ape and Rhianna Pratchett are shaking up narrative in mobile games

When the creators of Samurai Seige decided to build Rival Kingdoms, the team wanted to balance gameplay with narrative depth – which is why acclaimed games writer Rhianna Pratchett took her pen to the project
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In the realm of mobile games, the use of narrative, lore and depth of character can sometimes feel like rare beasts.

While there have been narrative-led RPGs that have thrived on phones, along with a bounty of point and click adventures, the giants of mobile more typically treat storytelling as a seasoning for gameplay; something to add a little extra flavour to the mechanics rather than make up the meat of the dish.

The standard bearer for rudimentary 'narratives' etched on every Pong cabinet upon the game's release – 'avoid missing ball for high score' – is a little too lean by today's standards, admittedly, but many in mobile come close. The pigs stole the birds' eggs, and that was enough for a mobile gaming revolution.

Here in 2015, UK studio Space Ape has just released its mobile RTS Rival Kingdoms: Age of Ruin, and it wants to do things a little differently.

At a glance at the game it's hard not to consider Clash of Clans. But then at a glance at Clash of Clans, it's hard not to see the conventions of decades of fortress and settlement-building strategy games. And, insists Space Ape, this is a little different. It's a deep game, the team say, and, of course, it's actually an RTS.

But more importantly, it is a game where – if the developers have achieved their goals – an elaborate narrative is consistently and continuously inseparable from the gameplay.

The Write Stuff

For starters, to make sure Rival Kingdom's is as narratively robust as Space Ape plan, the team has got Rhianna Pratchett (left) on board to guide the game's lore; she of Tomb Raider, Mirror's Edge and Heavenly Sword fame.

"I think my official title is writer," says Pratchett, as she tells Develop about her role on the game. It may seem peculiar that there's uncertainty about her exact title, but then she's done plenty more than pen a script.

"What I did was worked out the 'why?' questions," Pratchett continues. "When I came to the project the world didn't have a name, and didn't really have a reason for being, in terms of joining the dots to say why things were happening, what the world was, why and where the characters were fitting in. There was art there, and ideas, but I came on board to write the storylines and flesh out the characters."

But before we consider the narrative any more, what of the game that it compliments? It's a classic RTS in a sense, with action and multiplayer leanings.

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And, says creative director Pedro Rabinovitch, it takes influence from a broad palette, including the original Doom, and even the Civilisation board game.

When I came to the project the world didn't have a name, and didn't really have a reason for being. There was art there, and ideas, but I came on board to write the storylines and flesh out the characters.

Rhianna Pratchett, writer

"Doom 2 was one of my staples when it was out," explains Rabinovitch, clearely filled with passion for the games that inspired him. "I made a save game editor for Doom 2. I mean, I was really, really into it. I loved the sense of choice and progression you had in the campaign, and the sense of identity you got when you select one of the houses.

"Those were formative experiences for me, and at Space Ape games we have a lot of people with a similar background to that, whether they were playing Doom 2, or the young ones were playing World of Warcraft. Something we really wanted to do at Space ape was bring some of those roots into play with the RTS genre.

"We wanted characters to be part of the game too; to bring interesting lore and interesting back stories into the game," he continues. "We wanted to let players express themselves and the way they play through characters, which is why we brought the Ancients into the game."

It's also why they brought Pratchett into the game's world. The Ancients are Rival Kingdoms' central cast, allowing players to adapt the experience they have through character selection, and Pratchett was tasked with bringing them to life. She started with some key concept art, and a good impression of the mechanics. But who these Ancients were remained undecided as the picked up the reins, meaning the writer had to develop the story, characters and background lore in tandem with the development and game design process.

"That process [of writing the game as it was developed] was back and forth really," offers Pratchett. "It was almost filling in the gaps. I knew it was a world where there was going to be a lot of fighting, and a world where something had happened in the past that turned out really badly, meaning relics of the past. And there needed to be a reason for all these different types of Ancients – the game's characters – that were gods, demons, spirits, almost aliens, monsters. They needed a reason to occur.

"And that's almost what games writing is really about. You're taking the elements that exist and the game mechanics, and trying to weave a story around that. That's the craft of writing stories for games, in a way."

Ancient Ambitions

For Rabinovitch (right), Pratchett's role was vital, not just in weaving a patchwork of gameplay elements together through lore crafting, but in defining the gameplay and making the experience what it hopes to be.

"We wanted those Ancient characters to bring together interesting gameplay choices, but we also wanted to bring the player aesthetic choices. That's what we want to bring to the genre," he says.

"Mobile is not just a matter of simplicity of gameplay. Not at all, and not anymore. It isn't about hardware either. It's about the way you give the player the ability to engage. But we believe that you shouldn't have to sacrifice gameplay for that. It shouldn't be about shallower gameplay. It should be about making a game that a player can engage with if they have 20 minutes on the couch. But they should also be able to play a game at the bus stop for a few minutes. And we don't want to dumb the game down for that, when you're playing for a short time. Choosing the Ancients lets you choose the way you play the game. They are really important to the gameplay."

For Rabinovitch, that meant moving away from design guided by gameplay.

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"As a creative director, I have many hats," he offers. "One of the most important is as games designer. That's the core one. And it's really interesting. If you look at just game design and game play, some defend the idea that 'gameplay is king'; that it is the one and only ruler, and that you could make Rival Kingdoms and totally replace the theme with cubes and spheres, and it would still be the same game."

That, says Rabinovitch, is a camp he is not in. While he recognises there are many great games where lore is intentionally and absolutely absent, instead realised in visuals purely abstract in form and unshackled by storyline, with Rival Kingdoms he and his team wanted to build something wherein narrative and gameplay were inseparable, in a way many do not associate with mobile games.

"For me, as a dungeon master from eight years old, I obviously love lore," Rabinovitch states. "I love world building and being immersed in stories, and creating characters and conflicts. I love the world we've created; I want to explore it more, to meander through its forests and its hidden temples and lakes, and to find things that nobody has found yet. Sure, games can work when gameplay is disassociated from the lore, but we don't want to make that game."

Mobile is not just a matter of simplicity of gameplay. Not at all, and not anymore. It isn't about hardware either. It's about the way you give the player the ability to engage. But we believe that you shouldn't have to sacrifice gameplay for that.

Pedro Rabinovitch, Space Ape Games

Lore, says the creative director, can serve as a guide; the ball of thread that lead Theseus through the Minotaur's labyrinth of Greek Mythology. Rabinovitch calls this the 'conductor thread' of Rival Kingdoms, and while he admits he is beguiled by titles that try to convey emotion purely through gameplay mechanics – spotlighting Rod Humble's experimental The Marriage by way of example – he always conceived Space Ape's creation as a way to deliver a narratively rich, lore-drenched title on mobile.

"As a creative director, my main task is not to come up with great ideas," insists Rabinovitch. "It's one of them, I should do that, and I work at it, but so does everybody in the company. They feed me stuff all the time, and I love them for it. There are all these great ideas coming in.

"When lore and mechanics go well together, it can be obvious; they can go well together. So it can be like putting a jigsaw together, although a jigsaw where several jigsaws have been jumbled together in the same box. And maybe some of the pieces are missing. Okay; I need to work on that jigsaw analogy, because it might be more like walking into a room full of drawers full of jigsaw pieces, and you have to hunt through them for the right pieces. But you have to stop hunting at some point, and assemble what you have. That's the hardest part in bringing together the gameplay and lore. Knowing where to stop is so hard."

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The Game's A Stage

Then Rabinovitch reveals another life once lived, as a theatre director and occasional actor. And, he asserts, when it comes to giving the audience a narrative experience, the creation of games and theatre is a somewhat similar process.

"You can go on trying to bring it together forever," he states. "But you have to stop and deliver a performance – or a game. You may feel things still aren't right. But it isn't about that. It's about what the audience or the player gets from the experience.

"When you play our game, it isn't what we think you should experience. It's what you feel you experience. Your interactions and interactions with other players, is what the game is in your universe. A game only exists, really, when people are playing it. That's what a game is really about, and we are really happy with what we have given them."

For Pratchett, delivering that experience was vastly rewarding, and confirmed to her that writing for mobile games can be every bit as demanding – or perhaps even more so – than in the realm of console and PC.

"Before Rival Kingdoms, I was already finding myself playing a lot of games on my iPad, because when I'm writing it's something there I can do in between writing," she says.

"I'm addicted to Hearthstone, for example. So I was really interested to see – having never written for a mobile game before – what could be done with the medium. I'd never seen something on mobile that was so involved narratively – and so character driven – as Rival Kingdoms.

"And it's been great. I'm basically doing the same kind of things I would on other games – coming up with characters and exploring the ways they interact with each other. And I really did it on a bigger scale here, with more of a cast. More than I'd done with previous projects, perhaps."

Mobile titles, then, perhaps can contain a great deal more story and depth of lore than some might think, meaning we might see more names like Pratchett turn their pen to games played on phones.

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