Creating a scene without the cutscene: the balance of narration and gameplay

At a PAX panel, Portal writer Erik Wolpaw and Double Fine president Tim Schafer discussed the idea of "plot vs. play."

When writing video games, there's a challenge in keeping the narrative in line with the gameplay. Writers have to guess what players will—or in many cases, won't—do. Games are by design full of boundaries, but if your write your story well enough, no one will ever know.

At a PAX panel, Portal writer Erik Wolpaw and Double Fine president Tim Schafer discussed the idea of "plot vs. play." It gets tricky. You could go the Metal Gear Solid route, à la film-worthy cutscenes, or use a tongue-in-cheek interactive method, like Portal. Wolpaw called it an uneasy balance, joking that sometimes adding a potted plant to throw around gives people something to do.

"Ideally, there would be no downtime at all," said Wolpaw. "It would just all be game." Gamer boredom during interactive cutscenes can be painfully apparent, whether they're using their freedom to jump around the room or yes, throwing plants around. But even the "pseudo-interactive" approach isn't always preferable.

"The best solution would be to communicate everything without slowing the game down at all," said Wolpaw.

Think Portal's final boss: the game has you tossing parts into an incinerator, but weren't you taught how to do that? A certain cube would probably say yes.

Well-written games have the same narrative-driven gameplay as everyone else—they just hide it better.

"It's kind of like when you talk about movies and the three-act structure," said Schafer. "With the formula, you can predict what's gonna happen because of the three-act structure...you can take a three-act structure and make the most amazing movie ever, or the most formulaic movie ever. It's really just a bare boned skeleton on which to hang your ideas."

"If you do it really well, the player is so wrapped up in the fantasy, the suspension of disbelief, that they never see those kind of workings and those trappings."

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