The Drakengard role-playing game series and its spinoff, Nier, could be considered unconventional titles by some; the games tackle fantasy topics with interesting twists, such as attacks that require collecting enemies' blood; sexual themes of subservience and incest; and violent, bloody deaths.
In his panel at GDC today, "Making Weird Games for Weird People," director Taro Yoko discussed his methods for telling "weird" stories that will elicit emotional responses from his audience and build a dedicated fan base. He began by telling the audience the conclusion to the panel: Story and gameplay are the not the most important things when building a game that can be considered eccentric. Moving players' emotions is the most important thing.
"I have one goal when it comes to making games," Yoko said. "[Story and gameplay] are no more than means or steps, and all I care about is heading for the goal. If I had to interpret it into words, that goal is 'view' or 'vision,' but that's not entirely it, either."
Yoko discussed how scripts were developed in games he worked on in the past, including Square Enix's Drakengard and Nier. Yoko said his games are considered "dark" and sometimes "insane," going down darker roads and tackling topics often untouched in fantasy games. Scriptwriting guides don't make sense to him, he said, even though he heavily researched how to write stories and game scripts. So he came up with his own techniques for creating game narratives, which he calls "backward scriptwriting" and "photo-thinking."
"Story and gameplay are no more than means or steps."
Backward scripting, he explained, is writing a story's conclusion first and then building out the narrative and world from there. Yoko explained that these kinds of stories have to be built within time and resource limitations, and those who have never built a game story before should look to games similar to what they are making first. If you're making a game like God of War, look at the events, pacing and flow of God of War and build the game out to match the volume of content. When building a script from the ending first, the next thing writers should consider is the story's emotional peak — the defining character-driven event or events that tug on players' heartstrings.
"This is the moment in which the game reaches your heart," he said. "In the story, these peaks represent these feelings we want to communicate to the player."
"This is the moment in which the game reaches your heart."
Yoko explained he adds experiences leading up to this emotional peak throughout the story, making sure each point builds on the experience directors want players to have. For example, to make players feel sadness at an event like a young girl's death, small details about the girl must be littered through the game, fed to players in bits and building up reasons for players to care for her. Yoko fills in all of these details after deciding what will happen — say, the girl will die — in order to flesh out a character for the sole purpose of eliciting an emotional reaction. Players will enter the game from the beginning and hopefully hit the emotional peak when they reach the intended event at the end.
Having numerous emotional peaks in a game demands its own stack of reasons in order to make sense. Building these batches of reasons together is the backbone for what will become the game's plot, said Yoko.
Photo-thinking is envisioning in your head the situation you want to develop, Yoko explained, imagining how the scene or setting will be when the emotional peak occurs. Yoko said he tries to visualize in his head what the scene will look like as he decides what the emotional peak will be; what is key is that creators compile all factors that support sadness, anger or whatever emotion developers want to convey.
This method is similar to one detailed in the ancient history book The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Yoko said. A memory palace is a technique in which players "place" items they wish to remember inside a palace within a creator's imagination. This method is also discussed and used in the titular character of the BBC's Sherlock television series; Sherlock pulls all his information from memory, storing them in a place he calls his "memory palace." It's an application of visual memory skills, allowing players to "generate" the scene in their mind and give them a template with which to build them out. Game creators can use their memory palace to store the scenes they want to develop.
"Visualization is an important technique because you can build on a story without destroying its structure," Yoko said. "But you have to be careful with over-visualizing things. Adding meaningless things along the way gets in the way of achieving that emotional peak.
"Adding meaningless things along the way gets in the way of achieving that emotional peak."
"Young writers will ask me about creating a setting, saying they can't get into it," he added. "I think they are seeing too many meaningless and extra things. If the emotional peak is the only thing you want to communicate, that is the only thing you should be visualizing. One of the important points of photo-thinking is to not visualize anything outside of these things."
Yoko reiterated that story and gameplay aren't the most important things when making a game — but nor is making lots of money on a game. For Yoko, it's all about having a dedicated emotional goal for players. Using photo-thinking and backward scriptwriting, Yoko creates games that he hopes will cause players to feel something.
"I design games and write stories, but my goal is to cause an emotional stir inside the player's brain," he said. "So the fundamental goal isn't inside the game sitting in its middle — it's the event sitting inside the player's brain. This is the goal we consider the most important."