Ninja Theory: Enslaved To The Story

Ninja Theory told us how screenwriter Alex Garland altered their approach to storytelling in their upcoming title, Enslaved.

Gameplay alone will get a game recognised, but a quality story can keep you entranced long after you’ve tired of repetitive combat animations. Tameem Antoniades, creative director and co-founder of Ninja Theory, the studio behind Heavenly Sword, is an ardent believer that story is a game’s most important feature.

The studio’s third game, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, is about as close as the medium has come to the roots of storytelling. It’s based on Journey to the West, an ancient Chinese novel chronicling the travels of the god-like Monkey and monk Tripitaka on their journey to enlightenment, and is considered to be one of the first true adventure stories. You may have come across the 1980s serial, Monkey, or the recent opera interpretation from Gorillaz’ creators, Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett.

Building on such a renowned story, one might think Ninja Theory had all they needed to turn this literature into a modern video game. Perhaps, but Ninja Theory are serious about their craft, so they convinced screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine) to pen the script and help progress their narrative skills.

“It’s not an interactive drama, it’s supposed to give you that blockbuster feel,” enthuses Antoniades, speaking at Develop in Brighton. Ninja Theory ploughed hours into their cutscenes on Heavenly Sword – a technical marvel that touched the uncanny valley, yet received a lukewarm reception. In Enslaved, there’s more to the drama than just what characters are saying: “It’s about being able to see faces and see the intent behind what’s going on.”

Story is integral to the whole experience. That’s something Antoniades wanted to communicate when he met Garland one-on-one two years ago. He said it’s “overwhelming” to meet “someone who’s already successful and doesn’t need to be involved in your project.” But Antoniades and Garland quickly discovered they shared common interests, and the writer agreed to assist, creating a 10-page thesis on Enslaved even before the contracts had been laid out between their stakeholders.

Antoniades said Garland wrote strangely reductive dialogue that seemed short on the page, but took on a new energy with an actor’s performance behind them. “Early on it became clear that we couldn’t separate the design from the story,” said Antoniades. Garland’s input went beyond writing for cutscenes. He taught the team how design and gameplay should intrinsically serve the story. Starting with the cutscenes, which are directed by Andy Serkis who also plays Monkey.

Enslaved uses performance capture technology to capture motions and expressions that are then digitally mapped onto the game’s photorealistic characters. Garland explained that the job of a director is to make sure where you leave off, where you pick up, and where you’re going, all sync up. He introduced the idea of ‘one scene, one purpose’, keeping things simple for charity and leaving cutscenes for drama and gameplay for exposition. These changes allowed the development team to condense the cutscenes from two hours to a much slimmer 80 minutes.

Letting characters breathe and keeping them consistent was another direction from Garland, who told Antoniades the biggest problem in films is getting audiences to understand character. To illustrate the point, Antoniades showed a clip of Trip acting coy when Monkey questioned her about the character Pigsy. Garland told Antoniades the scene was unclear as it was difficult to understand Trip’s reason for being vague, especially as it led nowhere in plot terms. Antoniades said this led to video re-edits and a drama review of the entire game – like Trip’s idle pose, altered to make her body language change at different points in the story.

Garland’s constructive criticism of the story left Antoniades taken aback, yet he stressed that they both had to compromise. “He was worried all the knowledge and experience he has making movies wouldn’t work in games,” said Antoniades.

Not quite, as Garland made suggestions on how to add drama to the gameplay too. Garland pointed out that the camera itself should be treated as a story aid. For combat, the development team adjusted camera angles, swooping in on the action for cinematic effect, and they also gave Monkey signature finishing moves for each enemy. Although initially reluctant, Antoniades eventually scanned through the entire game and made a list of camera corrections to improve its structure and pace.

Similar to Stanislavski’s social realism, Garland explained to the development team that there should be a reason for the existence of every setting in the game. It wasn’t enough just to invent a path to the next area, they should know the history behind it. By way of example, Antoniades showed a brief gameplay clip, in which Monkey fought some robots before lowering a drawbridge. Garland realised the fight had no tension, so prepared a scene where lowering the drawbridge alerts the robots to Monkey’s presence, thus making the fight a more meaningful payoff to you actions.

Antoniades recalled Garland saying: “What you do in a movie is create a fantasy, and anything you don’t answer breaks that fantasy.” Ninja Theory’s creative director now said it’s not enough for them to fall back on saying ‘it’s just a game’, if there’s something that will break the suspension of disbelief they have to fix it. The result of Garland’s input is more coherent story in Enslaved. And the experience has been just as enlightening for Antoniades: “I’ve learned more from Alex in the last two years than I probably have in the last eight.”

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