Nadal is head of developer Eden Games and creative director on the next Alone in the Dark, due for 360 and PS3, which is devised as a game to be delivered via retail on a disc, but structured like a TV show.
Speaking to Develop, he explained that this episodic structure has presented some challenges – specifically impacting the timing of the game’s release – but exposed the flaws in many other games.
"Most games follow movie structure – but this means many developers end up thinking that narrative isn’t that important," Nadal said.
"Movies are two to three hours – but the narration in a game covers ten to 15 hours. So what happens is that games creators have diluted the structure of movies. By the end you’ve forgotten what you’re doing. ‘Hmm… oh, yeah, I’m supposed to rescue the princess.’"
It was this problem that lead the team to construct its game in smaller, 45-minute ‘episodes’: "We analysed narrative structures and realised that TV was the best – 24, Lost, Prison Break, we were all chatting together and realised that we loved these shows, but you never speak about movies like that."
Eden has hired an as-yet-unnamed high profile television writer to help exploit the possible games/TV overlap – but before then the team already knew that the "key device to use was cliffhangers".
Such dramatic breaks seem to be at odds with the way games are traditionally composed, says Nadal, but shows how badly composed most other games are: "Cliffhangers exist because they want you to come back after the commercials – it’s all about the commercials – yet this is the opposite way how we used to work on video games. And now I know why it’s the opposite – because it’s really difficult for the level designers. When you look at most games, the first hour of the game has to be amazing. After that it’s full of hot air. You might have a few peaks after about five hours, then another at the end. But most of the time it’s the same elements but repeated. Only about 10 per cent of people finish a game – my goal is the give them the appetite to stay with the sequence."
AITD’s structuring hasn’t come without it’s own problems, however. Eden has had to rethink how development is scheduled, working through the narrative chronologically; the game’s 100-strong team has been divided into six groups, making the first six episodes in parallel, then taking it in turns on the next instalments as they finish.
This actually means Eden has finished a chunk of the game already. "We’re actually ready to release the first few episodes if we wanted," explains Nadal, adding that while it is tempting to start sending out the episodes via digital distribution he’d rather wait until the first ‘season’ was finished and then gradually put the second wave of episodes online. However this has impacted the timing of the game’s release.
He explained: "We thought it would be out at the start of the 2007 but now we’re looking at the second half of the year. It’s difficult, as there are new elements to discover and more problems than we are used to. My team was asking why we were so focused on narration, but it’s because you have to build a story at the same time as the game – the game has to fit the story and the story the game. That’s why we’ve taken so long.
"We’ve worked almost three years on this – when I first pitched it to Atari in 2003 and said we are going to do an episodic game and they looked at me wide-eyed like I was crazy. But to make episodic content you need to start with it in mind, otherwise you can’t do it. You can’t adapt or you have to rewrite everything."
Nadal discusses the issue of games narrative, and using professional writers, in Develop’s latest issue which is available for download here.