Postcards From The Clipping Plane
Conveniently ignoring the serious side of videogame development
One of my bosses of old once spent three weeks in Japan in an attempt to work out what they wanted from games developed in the west, and assigning blood types to every in-game character was pretty much the sum of everything he learned. I have no idea if this information was true, or was true once but isn’t now. I like the idea that for a brief period in the ’90s and 2000s all the Pacific Rim nations were obsessed by blood types, only for it to dwindle and be replaced by a fascination for something equally weird, like the shoe size of combatants in side-scrolling fighting games.
Technically, blood-type information comes under the banner of backstory. Backstory has often been the bane of my life. For some reason it’s not usually enough for a game to just start, explain what the player has to do, and just get on with it. People, it seems, want to know what the situation was before the game starts. If two factions are at war, the reasons why are always going to be important because it sorts out the goodies from the baddies, but do we need to know what was going on before the war even kicked off? Why is the land like it is? Have there been other conflicts? If so, were they resolved peacefully? And while we’re at it, what are the main crops of this world? Where does that river flow? How did those mountains form? You see how it can be never-ending.
The perception is that consumers are going to want all this info. They’re going to swamp the forums with questions about characters, locations and history; nobody is going to enjoy the game if they have a single unanswered query about it. In some respects it’s a compliment, indicating that the gamebuying public care about the title enough to think about it in detail. But I believe that not many of them do. In all likelihood, players just start, learn how to play, and then crash on until victory or boredom overcomes them. As developers, we’re just second-guessing what people want to know, and the fact that one vocal fan asks some vaguely pertinent questions on a Facebook page doesn’t mean everybody is clamouring for backstory and won’t sleep until they get it.
The thing is, I do rather enjoy fleshing out game worlds. I’ve always been fascinated by canon – where games, films or series of books have a set of known facts and truths, not all of which are relevant, but which all fit together to make a big, explorable universe one can immerse oneself in. Not long ago I worked on a fantasy game, and those are easily the best for backstory creation. For every item in the game there had to be a history, and every place had to have a tale of how it came to be. The characters – and there were lots – had family trees, and wherever possible links had to be made between them to provide intrigue and possibly plot points for the future. Making all this up was frankly glorious. And every so often there was the chance to connect things up in neat ways. For example, the tree from which a vital NPC gets hanged turns out to have grown from a staff thrust into the ground by the same character’s father. It’s not earthshattering stuff, but little connections like this are extremely satisfying to me.
Having created a tome of lore for this world, of course the team wanted to use it wherever possible. They proposed a whole load of flashbacks to show some of the clever little links we’d devised in the world. And this, of course, was where it could all have gone disastrously wrong. Backstory of this sort has no place being thrust into the faces of the players. First, as we’ve discussed, how many people really want to bother with it? And second, actively presenting it stops it from being backstory and makes it story. And anything presented to a player will be perceived as something they need to know in order to complete the game. Stumble across something in a game and you know that, while it might be helpful in some way, it won’t be vital. Be led to it by the nose, as in the case of these flashbacks, and you pay attention because you’re being told. And frankly, shoving the depth, consistency and history of a world into someone’s face is showing off. And it’s very annoying.
So the great interlocking world behind my fantasy game contained a treasure trove of nice but useless information and rich tales of characters and locations you’d never get to see. And the response of the three players who cared enough to explore it was not what I expected. I mean, they liked it, but decided among themselves that we’d done it cynically simply so that we could write a prequel. Which, come to think of it, would be amazing.