Author Topic: GTD The Importance of History  (Read 4422 times)

Ginny

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GTD The Importance of History
« on: 21 Aug 2004, 01:39 »
Ok, this started out as a little idea that was resparked by playing Apprentice 2, and I'm posting it here to get opinions and discuss! :)

What I'd like to discuss is the importance and role of history and/or backstory in a character and in the dialog involving that character, aswell as in a game world. I'll write this out similarly to a GTD, though this subject is pretty tied into the GTD about character personality.

What is history?
Perhaps I should explain what I refer to as history. I am talking about two kinds of history, one that has happened before the game starts (in the writer's imagination) and one that happens during the game.
A history for a character could include his family tree, his childhood, his highschool years, his jobs, etc. depending on his age of course. This would most likely be part of the pre-game history, while any adventures he has during the game are in-game history. Both kinds of history would include people/other beings he meets, places he visits and investigates, even items he collects, to some extent, if they are of a higher importance than to solve a single problem. Artifacts and ancient books would be an example of this.

Who or What needs history?
First of all, we need to ask ourselves if we need history for anything at all. Obviously I think we do, otehrwise I wouldn't have started this discussion, but if anyone disagrees, please state so, and explain why.

Now, supposing we need it, what should history be applied to?

I'd say history is very important for develping interesting and 3-dimensional character personalities, as was mentioned in the character personality GTD. History gives them a motive and reason for their behaviour, and makes them seem much more real to the player. Character's backstory may also cause players to sympathise with the characters more.
I also believe that as long as the game isn't meant to be a joke or a mostly humourous game, if it's set in a world other than our own, it needs history, and sometimes even if it's set in our own world. A history for a fantasy world of demons and fairies would enhance it's believabillity, perhaps even making the player doubt their own reality. Games that take place in a different time usually rely on history to explain the current advances in technology, current culture, etc. This could be taken from real sources (for a game set in the past) or made up (usually for a game set in the future).

Now I come to actual meat of this discussion, which is more methodic:

How?

First of all, should history be written down at all, or should it be made up while writing the dialogs that express it? As I said here, I've pondered a few ways of incorporating history into games. Where should history be used in the game? dialog references? in-game reading material? diaries, monologues, books, introductions, newspapers/news, character behaviour (as Goldmund said then), other characters reflecting on one character (such as family members), visual means and sounds, etc.

A few examples (both existing and made up):

"That sign looks just like a hat my great-uncle Jerald used to wear for parties."
I made this up as a simple example realted to family history and/or a family tree. This basically tells up the main character has an uncle named Jerald who sometimes wears a hat of a certain shape (probably a strange one, if it resembles the sign). This also uses visual means to describe the uncle, as the sign isn't actually described in the comment, but the players can see it on screen.

"It's the commemorative poster from the annual Willowbean soup contest."
"Master won the blue ribbon with his cucumber-oregano-chese recipe."
(Apprentice 2)
Of course, I have to mention Apprentice, as this post started partially because of noticing these things in the game. I didn't want to bring a very long example, and I think this one demonstrates it quite well. It tells us that Willowbean has an annual soup contest, revealing some local history, that the master won it that year, and also references the player's experiences in the first game, where he
Add spoiler tag for Hidden:
made that soup :P.

... "Mean to animals?"
"Oh no, I love animals! Once, when I was volunteering in an animal shelter..." ...
(Grim Fandango)
A game theory discussion thraed by me would be incomplete without at least one mention of Grim Fandango, preferrably more :D. I am going to fully admit my bias towards this game. But I also believe that even someone objective will agree that this dialog tells us a lot about Meche's life, something which is unique in itself since she is a skeleton in the 8th underworld. We find out that she was a good person, who volunteered for many things, has probably never done anything wrong, and in this particular snippet, we learn of her love to animals.
I'll take this chance to mention that good, expressive voice acting can show a character's personality aswell, though it probably doesn't have much to do with history. However in this dialog, the strength of the voice acting enhances the meaning of the written text by far.

The Library in The Longest Journey contained many books and many things to research that tell us about Arcadia, Stark, and everything in between. I found them a very interesting read, and they made the whole fantasy world appear much more believable.

Here are a few theories I had as to ways character and world history is implemented in dialogs:

One theory I have is that developers add it on the fly, making a note of the idea possibly, for future use, but in truth just inventint that great-uncle Jerald while writing the conversation. This can be tricky cause it's a bit random, and you may never get the idea of adding that in. This is a quick way to give characters some depth though, in my opinion. For example, that off-the-top-of-my-head comment (a response to looking at a sign) could be very good at convincing the player that the main character has always had that great-uncle, and makes it seem like the character has a history. This way works better for humourous games than it does for serious ones, though it can probably be adapted to a serious game aswell.

The other theory I had for doing this was actually writing out a (relatively) complete history for (almost) every character, in this case with a family tree full of all sorts of quirky characters, and try to reference them in the game. Of course, I doubt you would think of a great-uncle who wears hats the shape of french fries or something absurd like that, so fitting it to your needs can be done. In more serious games however, having a solid history to shape personality and comments etc might be a good idea. Plus it must be fun, and probably encouraging, to have a document/biography of a character to read, or even to add with the game as an extra (only if there won't be sequels though, cause that could slightly ruin some of the tension or surprise). This goes more for history related to the game world than characters, since this may be more interesting to write and to read. Some people didn't like reading lots of documents and books and the diary in The Longest Journey, but I found it highly enjoyable, and would love to have the option to read a long imaginary history book about an adventure game world. It can be so much better than real history :D
I think Dave Gilbert said that he was spending more time fleshing out characters's family history in his game (Bestowers of Eternity?).

So, to the point, this thread is here to make you TALK! Share your opinons, ideas, theories and thoughts. I haven't been able to give as many examples as I wanted to, so please give any examples you think are relevant to the topic. Thanks for reading all that :D

Sub-Topic:
A rose by any other name...
...would smell as sweet, according to Shakespeare, but I think names in adventure games have more importance than they seem. This isn't entirely related to history, but it's something I've wanted to discuss, and doesn't really warrant a seperate thread. Names are supposedly given to characters by their parents, so in more serious games, but humorous games aswell, we may want to consider what kind of name the parents would give their child, and that has a lot to do with his family history. In truth though, it's the developer who names the character, and sometimes the name is just meant to be catchy, interesting, unusual (Guybrush anyone?), or may have come from the paint program the artist used if desperate (again, Guy(.)brush). The name Manny Calavera says something about the culture the game is based on, aswell as having a meaning (a calavera is a papier-mache skull used on the Day of Dead in mexican culture, if I recall correctly).

So, consider this, if you will, a sub-topic to the whole history issue.
Sorry for possibe overuse of the word 'history'. ;)
« Last Edit: 21 Aug 2004, 11:18 by Ginny »
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DGMacphee

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Re: GTD? The Importance of History
« Reply #1 on: 21 Aug 2004, 02:19 »
What you refer to as 'history' is part of what I refer to as 'depth', which also includes stuff like character quirks, relationships with others, etc (stuff that the personality thread focused on). I think it's very crucial when making a game, mainly because they explain character traits. Not all history is always explained within the game however, but the history is still there to give a sense of realism to characters.

I like a game like Day of the Tentacle. It requires no knowledge of Maniac Mansion, but it does allude to the previous game just enough to give the player a sense of the history (Plus, MM is included if one feels the need to play the 'history').
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Gregjazz

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Re: GTD? The Importance of History
« Reply #2 on: 21 Aug 2004, 06:43 »
Not only history is important, but culture, language, etc. These are the key to developing a game/movie/book that is very believable and immersing. I have in mind The Lord of The Rings series, in which the surface of the world Tolkien crafted is barely even scratched. In many ways it's better to leave some things untold, unexplained, and undetailed. It's like good art or photography -- what you leave out is just as important (if not more) than what you leave in. That's what adds the feel of depth and realism. Besides, nobody wants to play a game in which every miniscule detail is excruciatingly explained. You don't want to overload the player with details.

Referring to something can also make great humor. In this case I have in mind the scene in Sam & Max when you attempt to walk up the stairs outside of Sam & Max's office and Sam says, "We don't go up stairs." A brief pause, and then Max adds, "Not since the accident." What accident? Did some comical incident take place in the near past? We can only imagine...

So any way of adding depth to your game/movie/book is always a good idea. Just design a big world and cut out a small window of it to use for your game/movie/book. Then you can refer to events, characters, and whatnot outside of that window.

But I'm sure you already know all this. :)
« Last Edit: 21 Aug 2004, 06:47 by Geoffkhan »

Mats Berglinn

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Re: GTD The Importance of History
« Reply #3 on: 21 Aug 2004, 15:11 »
Quote
Referring to something can also make great humor. In this case I have in mind the scene in Sam & Max when you attempt to walk up the stairs outside of Sam & Max's office and Sam says, "We don't go up stairs." A brief pause, and then Max adds, "Not since the accident." What accident? Did some comical incident take place in the near past? We can only imagine...

Not to mention in Curse of Monkey Island, the first time you try to pick up/use any trinklets, vases and other stuff that is made from procelaine (What in the world is porcelaine anyway apart from it's somekind of china?) and Guybrush says "Ahh! I hate porcelaine!! It's a long story, I tell you later.". He never tell us about it, not even in MI4 (which is a bit disappointing because I really want to know why porcelaine frightens Guybrush). Now there's some kind of history.

Ginny

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Re: GTD The Importance of History
« Reply #4 on: 21 Aug 2004, 15:32 »
Yes, those are good examples of history teasing the player but never revealing more. What I wonder is wether the developers themselves know why Guybrush hates porcelaine or what incident occured upstairs with Sam and Max. It is quite likely they don't know, and just used that as some funny dialog, but it gives us players the illusion that it's real. :)
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Re: GTD The Importance of History
« Reply #5 on: 21 Aug 2004, 20:51 »
Well, actually it's more like a piece of history that they can always explain later. For example, the "porcelain" thing -- perhaps even the designers do not know what it's about, and are saving it for a future sequel, where they will invent an explanation.

Ginny

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Re: GTD The Importance of History
« Reply #6 on: 22 Aug 2004, 13:39 »
Yes, indeed they could invent the explenation. I suppose that's yet another way to go abou it :).

*Ginny waits for more opinions and huge posts*
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Re: GTD The Importance of History
« Reply #7 on: 23 Aug 2004, 11:03 »
Uh, I can't really promise a huge post, but I can offer my 2 cents at least ;)

I think maybe we should distinguish between plot-important backstory and descriptive backstory. In a lot of games, especially in the detective genre, you spend a lot of time revealing the past, and often the backstory is more important than the current events.

In games like Colonel's Bequest, Phantasmagoria and Gabriel Knight the history of the characters is the turning-point of the plot. In Shadowplay, my own take on the mystery-genre, most of the story is told as recounted history (some in dialog, some in - partly playable - flashback). This is very important information, that makes a difference to the basic plot of the game. Although it's not really part of the game events themselves, the history change the player's perception of what's going on in the game (and are often needed to make sense of it). Another example is the ending of 7 Days A Skeptic. although it doesn't affect gameplay.

But what's more interesting are the subtle hints at a backstory, which the player might or might not pick up on. Usually, in games where you can read the player character's diary (The Longest Journey and The X-Files come to mind), the information doesn't deal with the plot of the game at all (the exception being the diary that comes with Dreamweb). In The X-Files, the player character's divorce, the short-story he wrote, his interest in the civil war (which is part of a puzzle though), or his collection of Ramones record covers has nothing to do with the disappearance of Mulder and Scully. But it does expand his character and let us see past his Special Agent facade.

If these things are really important for the character (it makes a difference whether he's divorced, and what the reasons for this is), they should be written in advance, as part of the character description in you design doc. But this is for your eyes only. The player need only hints at this, such as a message from his ex-wife on an answering machine (in X-Files they even put the papers from his divorce-proceedings on his couch - that's a bit on-the-nose in my opinion). Other things, like his colleagues obsession with old radios, can be made up on the fly, when doing the room art and adding som 30's adverts for radios in his office.
But these things should only be hinted at. I think reading dozens of letters and diary-pages of stuff that is not important for the plot detracts from the main story (remember the player doesn't know that it won't be important, and reads it all in case there might be a clue in the text). Personally, I'd hide these kind of things in object descriptions ("That's the only thing I took with me, when I left home") or in dialog ("Long time no see. How's Suzy?" "I don't know. We're not seeing eachother anymore. Last I heard, she'd moved up north." "Sorry to hear that").

The trick, and the challenge to us as designers, is to make these references to game world and character history as effective as possible - I know some of you love reading page up and page down of world history, but couldn't it be told better and more efficiently?

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Re: GTD The Importance of History
« Reply #8 on: 08 Sep 2004, 13:38 »
Not to mention in Curse of Monkey Island, the first time you try to pick up/use any trinklets, vases and other stuff that is made from procelaine (What in the world is porcelaine anyway apart from it's somekind of china?) and Guybrush says "Ahh! I hate porcelaine!! It's a long story, I tell you later.". He never tell us about it, not even in MI4 (which is a bit disappointing because I really want to know why porcelaine frightens Guybrush). Now there's some kind of history.

Believe it or not, the porcelain "joke" is a reference to MI1, where Guybrush uses a porcelain vase for something. It was in the governor's mansion I believe. The game developers said that they thought that this reference was obvious. (I read this from a mixnmojo interview. Or was it scummbar?)