How We Build The Story In The Sinking City
A popular Russian website, DTF.ru, sat down with our lead narrative designer, Sergey Ten, to talk about The Sinking City and his love for all kinds of role playing games.
It’s no surprise Ukrainian game dev Frogwares is well-versed in the Victorian era, considering the eight Sherlock Holmes games they have released in the past. But now it is time they stepped away from their traditional theme, with their upcoming game, The Sinking City, being inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. The American author’s horrors are something Frogwares is also quite familiar with. They already explored the Cthulhu Mythos in one of their previous games, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened.
The Sinking City seems to be way more complex than the series about the famous British detective. It will feature a full-scale open world with numerous side quests and a captivating story. We decided to talk about the latter with the writing team, working on the project.
Our questions are answered by Sergey Ten, a narrative designer at Frogwares, who is also an avid fan of both live action and tabletop roleplaying games. We discussed The Sinking City, the involvement of players in the development process and the fundamental principles of creating a good Lovecraft-based game.
Sergey, let’s talk about your participation in live action roleplaying games first. As far as I know you have a lot of experience here, I saw your photos from the Neverwinter RPG event. What was your role? How was the game?
I’ve actively participated in live action roleplaying games since 2010. The Neverwinter 2016 event was the one I had taken the most time to prepare for. We went there as the embassy of the Kingdom of Thay. I assumed the role of a Red mage and the head of the embassy.
It was an old dream of mine to go there. I even shaved my head to better fit the character. Lore says the Red mages are not allowed to have hair on their heads. They are some of the most powerful sorcerers in the Forgotten Realms, the universe where Neverwinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale take place. I’m in nostalgic love with The Forgotten Realms, this was the world that helped me get into roleplaying games.
The event itself was standard: 200 players and 50 organizers first took a year to prepare, then they spent another week finalizing things, then they drove their trucks into the forest and took another week to build some sort of Elven paradise with castles in the woods.
All of that was done so that we could show off our beautiful costumes and run around in the forest pretending to be Drow Rangers and Dwarves, shoot at real people with our bows and beat each other with soft sticks. It was more fun than I could ever describe.
Can live action RPG experience help in game development? I’m sure it can, but how exactly?
Preparing for a live action RPG is basically the same as preparing for a game development. Everything starts with the people.
First, you need a capable team. You give them the vision, the promise of something amazing, the motivation. Than you assign responsibilities.
Here’s an example. Before the game, we fully prepared the design of our location, worked out the details of our lore and culture to make the roleplaying more authentic. We also created our own rules of magic, less functional but way more impressive visually. During the preparation stage, we created early prototypes, shared our sketches, ideas which took A LOT of time, money and efforts. That’s the same for an actual game release.
Meticulous preparation before the take-off can help you understand the principles of game development and team organizing.
On your social media, I saw a great video on live action RPGs. There was an idea I found interesting, that you should establish the rules and then trust the people to tell their stories in a more interesting way that you could. I think that’s something important for a narrative designer – the ability to set the boundaries, and then let players do their things. Is this something that can work with video games?
It’s not just an important quality, it’s a goal for a narrative designer – to create a game, which will let the player expand on it. This concept is called ‘emergent narrative’. Games like Minecraft, EVE Online use it, the 4X strategies like Stellaris and the rogue-like genre too. Players develop a strong emotional bond with these stories, because they are the ones who have created and lived them.
I know two effective approaches here:
- The interaction of gaming systems, that generate unique events the players can first influence and then observe the consequences. We can see this approach in multiplayer games, where a person’s story is partially formed by other players. I wouldn’t call that ‘boundaries’, but rather rules that define the interaction.
An example of that would be this great article which retells one game session in Stellaris.
- Innuendo – when the game asks more questions than gives answers to the player. In this way it motivates the player to find their own answers through guessing and imagination.
I will give you two examples of this approach.
The first is the uncertain moral choice. The moments when we put off our gamepads or mouses and start thinking: ‘What the hell is going to happen when I choose this option?’ It’s in the moments like this our brain starts working: trying to predict the consequences and foresee how the story might unfold, because we don’t know the answer beforehand. This is how games like The Walking Dead or Life Is Strange work.
Another example of innuendo are story-driven secrets. One of the best examples I know, is the curse of the Finch family (from What Remains of Edith Finch) that is somehow linked to the family’s old mansion. While playing the game, I kept thinking about what it was, and it turned out in the end that [spoilers].
And who is the boy in the red sweater in Inside? What happened to his world? I don’t know the answer, but I really want to make my own guess, and I still can’t get it out of my head, even though the game is long completed.
Yeah, I call it ‘gameplay in the head’. You finish The Evil Within and go to bed feeling dumbfounded and ‘continue to play’ it in your sleep. Then you wake up, drink a coffee and suddenly you realize something new about the game. You continue to play it ‘in your head’ for another week or so, trying to solve the puzzle and understand what the hell that was. But what about The Sinking City? Do you use any techniques like this one? And how does one even create A Big Mystery, which would be interesting to unravel even after the walkthrough?
I’m gonna use a metaphor here. Imagine that story is a vast fabric. Developers can see it all, they see the reasons, the consequences, the motivations. Players can only see a part of it, and they use the game as a flashlight to ‘obtain’ the rest. And if this rest has strict logic and structure, then the player will inevitably want to complete the picture in their heads themselves.
I think Hideo Kojima has been very good at it. With each new trailer of his Death Stranding, he manages to stir a huge storm of fan theories and guesses, without giving them any factual information at all.
The difficulty of the fabric is often overestimated. Some inexperienced writers think like that: “I’ll create a storyline with ten plot twists, a hundred characters, indirect timeline and the breaking of the 4th wall, and it’ll be a GOTY’. But this only leads to a trap, set by your own ambitions. A plain story with a clear and strong idea would have far more chances to become successful.
These are the principles that we use in the Sinking City. During each playtest we examine the reaction of people who play through our quests to understand how deep their understanding of the events is. At the end of the playtest we ask THE question: ‘What did you understand? Tell us’. This is how we gradually balance the information that players receive in our game. The playtests take place every day, and this is how often we add something to our quests or rework them.
You created an interesting tool for The Sinking City – a city generator. I believe your game will have a powerful location and scenario editor. In other words, you define the boundaries and let players create. Can you elaborate on this idea?
These aren’t boundaries, they are tools. The idea is, we give players the opportunity to surprise us.
It’s tightly linked to how we at Frogwares solved the problem of transition from linear quest design to open world. In the very beginning we realized, that an open world game is not something we can do by simply pouring enough human resources into the task. That’s why we decided to move away from older management systems and tools: for example, we switched from the ‘Waterfall’ methodology to ‘Scrum’. We also created a set of tools, and their main purpose is ‘spend as little time on routine as possible, use the rest to create’. In practice, it allows us to automatize every process that doesn’t require human attention. We have tons of prepared elements and presets which we can use to easily and quickly create something that we need – a city district, an interior or a character model.
In the end, we think the tools turned out to be so useful and powerful, that we decided to give them to players.
What does user-generated content mean to you? How does one make it so that players can create and feel happy about it, without getting too far with their creations?
It’s an amazing feeling to see that someone can use your tools better than you, and sometimes in a way you never knew was possible. It’s like a teacher watching their student eclipse them. Also, user-made content improves the image of a company and its game. Look at the Elder Scrolls series for example. The mods are almost more popular that the games themselves.
From a player’s perspective, a toolkit is an opportunity to make a game truly theirs, and get something way more useful than a simple playthrough can provide.
I don’t believe that ‘creation can get too far’. To make a wrong turn and create something bad or offensive, yeah, that can happen. But this can be fixed through active moderation and ratings. Creative work as we know it has no conventional limits, and that’s what make it so great. On the other hand, you need to set your own internal boundaries, choose your direction. Without it, it’s not possible to create something.
Earlier you mentioned lack of resources. I think it’s great! I think limitations can make you twirl, encourage creative work. It was thanks to the limitations, that we have the visual style of the characters in Journey. How do these limitations impact The Sinking City? Were you forced to create something interesting, that wouldn’t have existed otherwise, if you’d had more resources?
Limitations are the best friends of a game developer. They force us to find interesting solutions. Thanks to the limitations we now have all our tools. Had we just had more people – each of them would have had to work far harder.
You know, there used to be a time when I had to spend two days to write a sizable branching dialogue and insert it into the engine. Due to technical reasons, we wrote our dialogues in Excel, and you can hardly find a less suitable editor for creative work. Nowadays, though, I can do the same amount of work in an hour. Thanks to visual logic scripting I can do branches of dialogues no matter the complexity. I write my texts in a special interface where nothing distracts me from the writing. The dialogue then goes directly into the engine along with facial animation and voices, generated automatically. Furthermore, I can edit my texts in real time, without closing the engine.
Another example. When we started working on the economy system in our game, we quickly realized that there will probably not be any stores or purchase menu. However, we still want to implement some sort of economy, for instance, we want to have the option to bribe a cop to gain access to secret information. We decided to leave money out of our game. Dollars just lost their purpose as a currency. But we know for sure there’s going to ammunition in our game. We made our economy dependent on bullets, which has a logical explanation. In the end, there’s been a flood, the city is in crisis, and people have moved to barter. This can probably change in the future, and we will need to think up something new. Wouldn’t be the first time, though.
I talked with Alphyna, a narrative designer at Ice-Pick Lodge. Tell me, what exactly is your job as a narrative designer at Frogwares? Do you have the same duties as she does, or there’s a difference?
In the interview, Alphyna said one very significant thing: ‘Narrative designer is a supporting unit’. This makes our roles very similar to each other. It’s true we provide support to all other departments in the company. First and foremost, to quest designers that we work with in pairs.
We also consult city designers, tell them about its history and inhabitants. There is a lot of lore in Oakmont (the city where the game takes place). We researched urbanism and city planning, created a timescale of how the city evolved and expanded, which districts were built first, what lies behind important areas and buildings. We advise all other teams in the same manner: from concept artists with whom we discuss the visuals of almost every elements in the game, to programmers who create our tools.
The job of a narrative designer at Frogwares is to make sure there is logic and reason behind each part of the game.
And with this interview, I’m helping our community manager as well (laughing).
How is your studio organized when working on the game? Who provides ideas, who implements them? I’m talking not only about narration, but also everything else. In the end, a game is a wholesome product.
In our company, we use ‘units’. A unit is a team of specialists from different departments that have only one job: make their part of the game as good as possible and close to the final quality. For instance, we have a unit which works on the combat system. It consists of game designers, programmers, concept artists, modelers, animation specialists and sound designers. Each unit has a moderator, which actually only manages its work, rather than gives commands. There’s no micromanagement from above: only consultations and checking playtest results. Doing well? Awesome. Having trouble? Let’s take a look what is wrong and how we can fix it.
Literally any person can propose an idea and many of them have been implemented in the game. For example, we have our own channel in Slack and everybody can contact us on there. We get the most ideas from cinematics. Why them? Who knows?
I take it you hadn’t worked on Sherlock Holmes games, and joined Frogwares for The Sinking City. Can you bring up any narration techniques in Sherlock that you like most?
I think our best Sherlock Holmes game is Crimes & Punishments. It features one technique that I mentioned before – an often uncertain moral choice. It was implemented through a separate game mechanic, called deduction board or Mind Palace.
Deduction board is why I like the game so much. It gave me the freedom to make my own choices. Who do I accuse? What really happened? Did I miss anything? It works really well toward narration and immersion in the shoes of the brilliant detective. Furthermore, the game deliberately keeps the players in the dark about whether or not they found every clue and if they made the right final decision in Deduction Board. If you want though, you can spoil yourself on these mysteries after each mission.
And this worked. I kept thinking about it, made different conclusions in Deduction Board, went this way, than that way, made mistakes. Replayed the missions to get the good ending. And yeah, couldn’t help but look at the spoilers.
We have brought this concept into The Sinking City, but what’s different is our ‘open investigation’ approach. The game won’t put markers on the map to tell players where to go, it’ll be up to them to mark the areas they want to visit. The game also won’t indicate if there’s any clue left. The player will have to reach a conclusion in the Mind Palace, make a decision and live with the consequences.
The Sinking City was born out of the Lovecraft Mythos, right? Remind me, why did you decide to create your own universe? Is there anything left from your old plans?
We didn’t create our own universe. Oakmont exists as a part of Lovecraft and his followers’ world. The city is located in the state of Massachusetts, close to Arkham, Innsmouth, Dunwich and all the other gloomy towns, created by Lovecraft. Certain canonical events, like the Innsmouth raid, are canon to us as well. The Great Old Ones and The Elder Gods do exist in our setting.
So we expand on the canon, rather than create our own. Flame worshippers in Oakmont coexist with the good ol’ esoteric order of Dagon. Hybrids of human and apes wage racial wars against the Lovecraftian Deep Ones. Having our own city gives freedom for maneuvers and our personal interpretations.
Waaaaait, this changes everything! When does the game take place? Who should we expect from the pantheon? Yig? Yog-Sothoth? What about Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle?
The game takes place in the 1920s. The Roaring Twenties, prohibition, gangsters and the Great War veterans, struggling to settle down in a post-conflict world. Regarding everything else I’m just going to smile mysteriously and stay silent.
I’d like to know how you work with the source. Because Lovecraft wrote in a very complicated and ambiguous way. Even his description of creatures were quite vague, let alone everything else. How does one relay his message without messing up?
Well, you gotta know the source. It’s one of the key requirements for a narrative designer position. But that’s not enough. We study other sources too, Wikipedia, blogs, magazines, critics etc. There’s a book I consider to be quite useful, H.P.Lovecraft: Against the world, against life by Michel Houellebecq.
Besides, we also have a secret source I’m not allowed to reveal.
If somebody asked you to write a short description of your game on Steam, what would you say?
Mom, look, I’m on Steam!
Heh. By the way, I saw you have some pretty creepy sculptures in your office, meant to se the right atmosphere or something. Mutated sharks and even shapeless creatures, remotely resembling parts of insects, very fascinating. Tell me, is this how you find the right mood for creation? Are there any other ways?
Yeah, we have those sculptures, most of them live in the kitchen though. I can say they encourage us to eat. Everybody loves them, but I got my own favorite – a full-scale replica of the Thompson submachine gun. When you hold it in your hands, you can immediately feel the weight of a fedora on your head, and the taste of a cigar in the mouth. It’s so stylish.
You can find something cool all over the office. For example, we recently found a real diving helmet and replaced the glass in it. It’s there by the entrance for everyone to observe. Along with the Thompson.
Recently, you held a special event – Letters from Oakmont – where you offered people to write a letter on behalf of a city resident. Care to tell how many letters you received and how many will end up being in the game? Some of them pushed you toward an interesting idea, perhaps?
We got more than 200 letters and picked the best nine, which will be in the game. We might write a side quest for some of them, but that’s not certain.
What’s the community role in the development? Is there any chance an average player could contribute to the process? Maybe they could give you a nice idea or something?
We are all for getting people involved in the development. The Letters contest was our first attempt, there’s more to come. Follow our Facebook page to learn more.
We often read and reply to comments on the social media channels. It’s true that we can pick up some good ideas, why not? We also read all the letters we receive, so anybody can write to us. If you don’t like writing to our official mail address – I’m a friendly person and you can send me a message with your ideas on my personal Facebook page.
That’s really cool, I wish everybody did this. So, maybe we can make something quick right now? Let our readers share their ideas below this interview. Is there any topic you are interested in, in particular?
I can get behind this. If you can write a good side quest introduction, do it in the comment section. It should be a mysterious and, at first glance, unexplainable occurrence which could happen in Oakmont, followed by an explanation why that happened and who’s to blame. I’ll give you bonus points if you can squeeze it into two or three sentences.
Seems obvious that The Sinking City will feature bigger locations than Sherlock Holmes games. Your website says you have created more than 4,000 buildings. The problem of open world games is that the player often feel compelled to explore them, rather than pay attention to the story, and narration can feel ‘raggedy’ as a result. How do you handle this? Is there any techniques to keep the player’s attention?
I wouldn’t call that ‘a problem’ exactly. It’s okay and even good that players want to explore the world, to find something peculiar, go investigate and run into an interesting situation or complete a side quest.
Exploration is in our nature, it’s pointless to fight it. That’s why we use it to our advantage. If the player gets distracted from main story and delves into the world, we give them the opportunity to find interesting information about a quest from optional sources or even complete a side quest, connected to main plot. This comes as something very natural for the players, who just walk around in the city. Nobody points them to optional content, and when they find it they feel encouraged and smart.
But when it comes to the point when it’s important that the players pay attention, we use certain narration methods. For instance, investigation should start with a ‘hook’ – a strange or unexplainable event which would make the player wonder: ‘What happened here?’ It’s a challenge for the players: will they be able to unearth the truth? If the hook is good, we can be sure the players will complete the quest without really distracting too much.
But yet there is something that even the best narration cannot solve – people’s memory limits. That’s why there is the casebook interface and the mind palace. In it, we keep all the clues that are relevant to each particular quest. In the Mind Palace, there is a short retelling of main story episodes and the player’s findings, linked logically to each other. They should help you quickly recall the course of investigation. Not every quest requires that, only the biggest, the ones that can easily confuse people. For most side quests, descriptions of evidence are more than enough.
Do you keep things documented in your company? Something like a heap of papers with flowcharts, depicting all plot twists etc? Could you perhaps show me something, meant for internal purposes only?
We do keep things documented. Every approved detail is stored on our internal wiki-like webpage (similar to Confluence, but less advanced). In the development process, we use Google Docs, so everybody can work on the same document simultaneously. We rarely work alone. When it comes to narrative design, team work and an outside-in perspective are a must.
We use MS Visio and draw.io to create flowcharts, which also let everyone work on one same flowchart. Nobody likes walls of text, they cause rejection and the feeling that the author does not respect the reader’s time. The shorter and more concise the text is, the better it is presented – the more likely it will be understood correctly.
Well, and the most popular and effective way is to gather everyone around a big table for brainstorming, writing the best ideas on sticky notes.
Okay, so I’m not a tech-savvy person, but I have a ton of ideas and can write in a concise way. Could I become a narrative designer? What do I need to do to make this happen?
Good writing skills are not enough. You need to know the subject, and there’s no such thing as useless knowledge: you need to be able to work with the engine, understand level design, video direction and a hundred of other thing. I can give you universal advice: don’t shut yourself in your tiny room of texts and papers, but always try to learn something new about every aspect of the development process.
Here are some fundamental skills which any narrative designer should have
- Good command of the project language
- Personal experience and broad horizon: it’s good if you know a lot about video games, movies, books, TV shows etc
- Ability to search for relevant visual references
- Concise writing
- Dialogue writing
- Work with flowcharts
The rest depends on the project you want to work on.
Alphyna spoke about the importance of tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons&Dragons, and I totally agree with her. They paved the way for me as a game designer, and I continue to be an active player today. Each game session is like a tiny release with real players and real feedback. It’s a very useful exercise and a proving ground for new ideas.
There’s something else I can tell all game designers in general.
The first characteristic of a good game designer is to withstand the blows of fortune. Game dev is a serious and arduous business, where vile criticism and failed projects can put you in the state of depression mixed with strong desire to tell everything to eff off. You need to be able to get up after each hit and lift your broken hands up to remove the shards of pink-tainted glasses from your eyes.
Another good skill a game designer must master is the ability to google things
Last but not least: learn to shut up at the right moment, hear and listen and then get back to work. Silently.