How a movie screenwriter helped save Enslaved’s story

Gamers sometimes criticize games for playing too much like movies. But as Ninja Theory Designer Tameem Antoniades explained at a Develop Conference session this week, bringing in screenwriting veteran Alex Garland to consult on their upcoming game Enslaved: Odyssey to the West made their game more movie-like is some very beneficial ways.

As the writer behind movies like Sunshine and 28 Days Later, Garland had a feel for how to get the most drama out of Enslaved’s story scenes, Antoniades said. Garland would write scenes with very simple, reductive dialogue that looked thin on the page, Antoniades said, but gained more “meat” with an actor’s performance behind them.

Indeed, the short story clips shown at the conference were notable for how much they relied on body language and vocal cues to convey information without words. Antoniades said they ended up cutting the game’s cutscenes down from two hours of dialogue to a lean 80 minutes, with less focus on exposition and more on drama. “If you have too much dialogue, it doesn’t work,” Antoniades said. “Alex changed my view of what writing meant,” Antoniades said. “I felt like a schoolboy so many times talking to Alex.”

Antoniades said Garland ended up suggesting a variety of touches to increase the story’s clarity, such as taking camera control away briefly so a player will notice an important enemy or plot point. The development team fought the idea, saying it would break the flow, but in the end Antonaides said it actually helped keep things exciting. “It’s only when you do it badly, when they’re cutscenes you don’t care about, that you wish the cutscenes didn’t exist,” Antoniades said.

But Garland’s changes ended up applying to more than just the story scenes. He suggested small changes to camera angles and positions during battle scenes to make the fights feel more impactful, and even adjusted details as small as a main character’s idle pose. “If she were an actress and this were a movie, I’d tell her to look more inhibited, less confident,” Antoniades recalled Garland saying. The change isn’t immediately noticeable, Antoniades said, but it does make a difference you can subconsciously pick up on.

Perhaps the most important thing Garland brought to the project, Antoniades said, was an insistence that everything in the game world be explainable and consistent. He questioned seemingly inconsequential environmental elements like forest paths or powered doors, demanding to know how they made sense in the game’s world. “We were tripping over everywhere, [but we had to] come up with something. The world has to be believable. Anything that breaks that fantasy can ruin the whole game.”

By way of example, Antoniades described one point in the game where the designers had thrown in a few robot enemies because they “felt it was time for a fight.” Garland noticed that the fight scene had no tension, and wrote a short story scene where the main characters accidentally attract the mechs’ attention by loudly lowering a drawbridge. The tiny addition makes the fight itself “a payoff for something else” and gives it “a narrative flow [that] makes it a little story in itself,” Antoniades said.

“If anyone says ‘its just a game,’ you know you have a big problem,” he said. “You can’t justify stuff like that. You can’t just leave it. You have to fix it.”

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