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Alpha Protocol Narrative Process Backslash Ramble

Posted by Chris Avellone , 28 November 2009 · 4293 views

This isnít really a developer blog as much as just a braindump on Alpha Protocol and the narrative process. It describes how some of the narrative roles were assigned, kudos to the voice actors, and some thoughts on the iterative process. Also, Thanksgiving is a time for thanking folks, so there's a lot of thanking going on in here.

At Obsidian, we take narrative design and the game mechanics associated with the plot seriously, and we donít consider the two to be separate entities. Narrative designers at Obsidian usually luck out - they get to start on a project from square one and carry through to the end, but this isnít always the case on all our projects, and it wasnít the case on Alpha Protocol. In fact, the narrative in Alpha Protocol went through three story iterations to get the final structure in place. This isnít atypical in the industry, but what is rare is that you get a chance to iterate on story and cohesion, especially considering the cost of voice recording. The great thing is the development process with SEGA not only allowed for this, but encouraged it.

The gameís narrative history began with the pitch document - Feargus, our CEO had a pretty clear direction from the outset. Our creative lead, Brian Mitsoda, did two more passes built on that, then three designers (Travis "Dark Sun" Stout, Matt "M1lflover/Kaji" MacLean, and myself) took over the narrative and did another pass on the plot, characters, and related elements with direction from the level designers. We're pretty happy with the end result. It's a big change from the initial pitch concept (which we can throw up in a later blog, perhaps), but change like that comes naturally when playing the game again and again and also through refinement of the other gameís mechanics and level flow over the years.

Begin credits: Before jumping into a rundown of the rest of the Alpha Protocol process, to give credit where credit is due: the first and second draft of the character concepts and a chunk of the tone direction for those characters were done before I started on the project - they were done by Brian Mitsoda (Brian also developed the concept of the real-time dialogue system, and Dan Spitzley implemented it, although parts of it have been... touchedÖ in inappropriate ways by the programming team) and Annie Carlson did writing for a number of the characters. Some of Brian's dialogues are intact (Scarlet Lake), not so sure about Annie's before she moved over to NWN2: Storm of Zehir to finish that up. Brian Menze (Fallout, Knights of the Old Republic II, Fallout New Vegas) is responsible for the look of the characters as well, including some characters he and the art department were given free rein with (Championchik). Brian and Annie were also instrumental in establishing some of the pipelines for the project, templating, and they also were a big proponent of getting table reads in place for the dialogues as well, which was a plus. Brian also put us in contact with Womb who had handled Vampire Bloodlines, and Margaret (Mina?) Tang, our voice director, was a huge help throughout the whole process. So anyway, thanks to all of those fine folks. End credits.


The final draft of Alpha Protocol began about a year and a half ago, and it occurred because of two iterative questions - the first was, "what if you don't kill the 'bad guy' at the end of Saudi Arabia and just talk to him instead?" And then we asked the same question in Moscow with a slightly different bent - what if you had more choices on how that end sequence played out? Then we started asking if we could switch around handlers on missions more often since there were some characters we thought would be cool giving you mission advice. And then we started asking if you could choose a lot more of the missions you wanted to take, rather than most of them. And then what if...

...well, there was a lot of "what if." And then implementing the "what if" and "that means then..." for the different paths. After those initial rounds, reactivity in the game grew, and it was fun to run down the branches of what could happen depending on your choices.


Also about a year and a half ago, we decided it'd be in best interests of the title if we started a design hierarchy with the two most important aspects of the game - the first and most important tier was the actual moment-to-moment systems, combat/stealth/tech, and character building (in the capable hands of Matt MacLean with assistance from Chris Parker). The second tier was level design, which answered to systems to provide context for the game mechanics (level design was in the hands of Lead Level Designer Tyson Christensen). The narrative designers were on the third tier (Travis, Matt, and I), giving the existing levels purpose with the characters and script with assistance from the level designers, and the level designers would often assist with banter and dialogue requests for their levels - a number of the LDs were good writers in their own right, so we used some of their dialogue exactly as they had written it. We didnít have a sub-lead for Narrative Design, we simply divided up the chunks of the narrative where it made sense among the three of us then set about implementing it.

The three tiers did see some bleeding into each other. In the final draft of the game, for example, more of the narrative elements moved up into the game systems category, so it became part of gameplay and not just branching narrative, which was a plus.

After we had iterated on the narrative until we were satisfied with it, we devoted a cinematics designer (Joseph Bulock) solely to coordinating and setting the visual narrative themes and perspective with the cinematics department (led by Shon Stewart). So if you see cool dramatic moments, shower those guys with praise, not the design department.

For the narrative part of the process, Travis, Matt, and I did take on the existing characters and levels, wrote a new story using a portion of the already-made locations and relationship chains (where it made sense), and then rewrote the script and in-game emails to account for the story changes. We also added a lot more "what if the player did this" moments, took some of the plot elements and characters that were formerly untouchable and exposed them to kryptonite, and also accounted for the new reactivity mechanics and giving the player more choice and interactions in the missions. We also changed a lot of the motivations and focus of the storyline as well, as well as allowing the protagonist to have more choices with his background in character creation, which was a plus (Mike formerly had one role in the Agency, and one outlook on the greater good, so we decided to let the player choose their beginning and ending over the course of the game instead).

There was also recasting some of the voice actors. Some of the news bits were untouched, other large chunks Travis rewrote for the title. Some elements (locales, models, conversations) we left, others changed drastically - and we built a brand-new plot on top of existing assets. Levels that had been built often remained as they were, but their purpose in the grand scheme of things would change (and often, the player was no longer required to go through them to get to their objective, they could pick and choose).


But back to the process... so when we began the final draft, we realized we could start fresh with the character models and locales we had already done and iterate on those.

Some goals in mind were moving the concept of the Alpha Protocol rogue agent more to the forefront, increasing the reactivity, cutting down the length of conversations (but not the branching) and adding more game systems to them, and freeing the main character to branch out beyond the template for him (and let the player play more of a role in establishing the protagonist). We also included more opportunities to talk to side characters when we could (and in-missions), and then use them to help solve missions, diplomacy-style. And sometimes byÖ coercing... them with dossier information youíd researched.

We also wanted to give the player more choice in how the actual scenarios played out, especially the endgame (which still makes me dizzy) and this meant no individual in the game was sacred - we would allow the player to backstab, assassinate, join forces with, or totally miss certain individuals and then see the reactivity based on that. Where once someone was totally an enemy, they became more of a reactive element depending on the player's actions... either an asset, a neutral, or the adversary they were initially set out to be. And being able to turn these individuals on each other was also a fun narrative challenge, and it just makes the player feel more like a deceptive smooth-talking badass, Miller's Crossing style.

Much as with the level designers, we broke down the narrative sections into email (95% Matt MacLean) and set Travis Stout loose on the news and at one Hub (Taipei) as well as periphery characters in some of the other locales (Rome). Whenever possible, we set up the narrative team so each designer was married to a specific character (Travis = Stephen Heck, Hong Shi, Omen Deng, for example, and I got most everyone else, plus the dossier and banter for levels). Then once the assignments had been made, that designer would design the interactions for those characters over the course of the game. If I had an Omen question, I'd go to Travis, and if Travis had a question about a handler or SIE, he'd come talk to me. It was also good because it gave Travis a chance to write and contribute to the narrative (which shows in the Heck Taipei phone calls as just one example) and stretch his skills there.


Alpha Protocol had nowhere near as much text (or timeframe to write it) as other titles I've worked on, but even so, the voice acting constraints were a challenge. In the revisions, we had to scrap a lot of work except for four to five interactions and some old story connections (a lot of the Scarlet Lake dialogue in the original storyline was good thanks to Brian, and segments of some of the supporting cast that Travis Stout worked on, notably Steven Heck and some Rome characters, leverages the original dialogue). Some character looks were "retired" and others were resurrected from old discarded concepts that ended up working out better in the final draft.

The studio was a challenging process in terms of line count and tracking (the game has about 120 hours of dialogue, easy, although a playerís only likely to hear and see about 23-33% of that in one playthrough), but the voice actors helped a great deal. We also let a chunk of the voice actors improv (and improve) lines... especially Konstantin Brayko's voice actor (Matt King), who delivered some of the best lines in the game, and also Michael Bell (who does Alan Parker, senior intelligence analyst). And many thanks to Josh Gilman, who was able to rotate through Thorton's emotions like switching chambers in a six shooter, and to voice director Margaret Tang, who was able to dodge and redirect the bullets.


So we had all this in place, now came communicating the new iteration to the team. To do this, we did Power Point presentations on the narrative for the final draft to explain the cast, their motivations, and how they fit together - as an example, we did a lot of emotion chart tracking and made sure we did ones for the factions and for the romance options as well. We actually ended up doing the narrative presentation for the whole company (not just the Alpha Protocol team) explaining the cast, the plotline, the theme, and the narrative systems with Power Point, and that ended up being a good thing. We also did a company-wide Power Point presentation for the game systems as well (MacLean), and this helped explain some revisions and philosophical system choices that were made and why.


So when the dust settled, we added a lot more "what if" into the storyline, switched handlers across the missions (and gave the players more choices over which handlers they wanted to use), and after repeated requests for romances for certain women in the game from our producer all the way down to individual developers (while not a fan of romances, I do think a lot of the intimacy moments we scripted, both love and hate, turned out well will make for good YouTube footage thanks to our animators... especially the angry ones). We changed some of the romance options, too, for which all who requested them may burn in the fires of narrative hell.

Now came time to test all the content. SEGA was extremely supportive of the story iteration, but to make things even better, they also enacted cohesion strike teams and actual quality assurance teams dedicated to the RPG reactivity and story cohesion to make sure all the reactivity was correct, that there werenít any plot holes depending on the paths you chose, and that the variable tracking was working as intended.

In our narrative story presentations to the company, we also made it clear to the developers and quality assurance that story and voice-acted lines can have just as many bugs concerning delivery, content, and that these incidents should be written up as bugs in the bug tracker (if QA is commonly making fun of a particular line or mocking a certain sequence because of its presentation or the delivery of a certain line, it should be filed as a bug and pick-ups of that line done or the sequence removed). There have been times in the past where story seems to be considered more a question of aesthetics in terms of whatís flawed about it, but my opinion has always been that if a line sounds odd, if you catch yourself going ďhuh?Ē at a sequence, or if your stance choice delivery doesnít match your expectation, write that **** up in bug tracker.

So as an epilogue to this rambling Ė the ability to do a branching narrative from scratch with little or no constraints is pretty rare in the industry, and it's more challenging to take a set of models, level specs, and in some cases, already cast voice actors and try to figure out what to do next. But it's still fun, as confusing as that may seem. Narrative iteration is just as important as iteration on other systems in the game, and to see it made a priority on Alpha Protocol was a nice morale boost.

Hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving.

Hombre Gato
Nov 30 2009 06:51 PM
Along with the trailer music for The Last Guardian, it's funny how games are giving Miller's Crossing its due.

This was a great read. I always appreciate the "our philosophy on gaming" articles and interviews but understanding the process is every bit as exciting to me, and "giving credit where it's due" paints a clearer picture of what different people bring to a project. Too often I see the end credits for a game and with all those names scrolling up for many minutes, I still find myself walking away from it pretending that company figureheads like Chris Avellone and Josh Sawyer did everything by themselves.
chris was wondering if you had some tipes to becomming a video game designer for an upcomming one if you have the time.
chris was wondering if you had some tipes to becomming a video game designer for an upcomming one if you have the time.
Hombre Gato
Dec 03 2009 04:24 PM
Chris gives some good advice in the blog post about KOTOR2. Only scratches the surface but worth the reminder even if yer already keen to it.

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