Friday, 5 December 2008

Story Writing Updates

It is Friday again and thus BioWare has a new update up. This week it comes in the form of two articles about story writing. One talks about a general, high-level approach to writing stories within BioWare and the other talks about how they're bringing these stories to the player in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

The writing team for Star Wars™: The Old Republic™ faces an unusual set of challenges. It’s not enough to write a great story; it’s not even enough to write a great player-driven interactive story, or a great player-driven interactive story that fits within a massively multiplayer environment. On top of everything, every story in the game must be a great Star Wars story. If it’s not, it belongs somewhere else.

So how does the writing team approach a challenge like that? Here’s a look at some of the features that make a Star Wars story worth telling.

The Foundation

We can all list familiar elements from the Star Wars films: Jedi, Sith, the Force, droids, lightsabers and starships; themes of heroism, redemption, learning, friendship and oppression; a trilogy structure, pulp-inspired “episode” names, and so on.

These iconic elements are the basic tools the writing team uses to build uniquely Star Wars stories—stories that feel like they’re part of the same fictional universe as the films. Not every Star Wars story needs a cantina or a wise old mentor, of course, but the films are the foundation for everything we do. If you’re not using at least some of those iconic elements, your story probably isn’t about Star Wars at all.

The original Star Wars™: Knights of the Old Republic™ is a great example of a story that uses this foundation well. Even without characters like Luke and Leia, it’s clearly Star Wars—it’s a story about Jedi, Sith and redemption, taking place against a galactic backdrop of strange planets and alien species.

The Building Blocks

But we’re not restricted to the movies. The Star Wars Expanded Universe of novels, television and comic books provides a tremendous amount of material for us to draw upon (as does Knights of the Old Republic specifically). Without the Expanded Universe, we wouldn’t have Mandalorians, a Sith Empire or even our setting’s time period! We wouldn’t know anything about the temple where the rebels hid on Yavin 4 or the names of the alien species in Jabba’s palace.

So long as these building blocks don’t obscure the foundation, we’ll use them. We’re also not averse to creating new settings, species and technologies, expanding on old ones, or developing new themes. Contributing fresh ideas to the setting is one of the most exciting things about working in Star Wars—but those ideas always have to fit, which leads to…

Star Wars “Feel”

The flipside of straying from the films is that we need to be careful about what we introduce. It’s easy to accidentally ruin our Star Wars “feel” by writing a story that just doesn’t seem right.

Sometimes, identifying these ill-fitting elements isn’t hard—time travel and dimension-hopping are staples of science fiction, but they don’t work well in the Star Wars universe. Other times, it’s a matter of staying true to the mythology of the Force (especially when it comes to new powers) or figuring out “Would a Jedi really say that?”

It’s not uncommon for debates to spring up around the office as to whether a story idea is “Star Wars-y” enough, and sometimes there isn’t an easy answer. Maintaining a Star Wars feel is one of the most difficult things our writers do. We need to constantly edit ourselves and ask if what we’re doing is right for the grander story of the Star Wars universe.

Respecting the Continuity

There’s one last big challenge to writing a great Star Wars story. Even if the story grows organically from the setting, adds something exciting and new, and has an undeniable Star Wars feel, it still needs to work within thirty years of other Star Wars stories told in comics, novels and television.

Since Star Wars: The Old Republic takes place almost four millennia before the films, it removes a lot of potential for error, but it’s still not easy keeping track of when Species X was first discovered or when Technology Y was invented. We do our best to work within established continuity where we can, and adjust it gently where we can’t—even a long-forgotten issue of Marvel’s Star Wars comic series is something we’d rather not contradict.

We always try to respect the fact that we’re not the first or last writers to work in this universe. Yes, we want to leave a mark—we’d love to see other writers expanding on what we’ve done, years down the line—but not by hurting the continuity as a whole.

Alex Freed
Senior Writer and Managing Editor

“BioWare’s vision is to deliver the best story-driven games in the world.”
BioWare mission statement

“To create games that inspire, challenge and engage players.”
LucasArts philosophy

Creating great stories in video games is a hallmark for both BioWare and LucasArts. Star Wars: The Old Republic marks the beginning of a joint effort between these two companies to bring epic storytelling into a massively multiplayer online game. We believe that there are four pillars of the roleplaying experience: progression, exploration, combat, and story. Achieving a high degree of quality in each of these will create a rich, challenging, and emotional gameplay experience. Among massively-multiplayer online games, story hasn’t always received the same level of attention given to the other pillars. Star Wars: The Old Republic brings a new dimension to the MMO experience by putting story front and center.

What does this mean to you? When you play Star Wars: The Old Republic, you will experience a new level of immersion achieved through the following features:
  • Epic Star Wars™ environments and story arc
  • Class-specific storylines that evolve based on player choice
  • Companion characters with individual motivations and personalities that will change based on player interactions
In Star Wars: The Old Republic you will have an emotional attachment to your character and face decisions in the game which will guide the development of your character and determine the direction of the character’s storyline. Whatever your choices may be, you’ll still be the hero (or villain) of an epic storyline which gives extra meaning to the other gameplay pillars. Character advancement will be much more than coming up with efficient statistics. Exploration will be about experiencing new places, new people, and new stories. Finally, instead of just reaching for that next level, you will be engaging in visceral combat reminiscent of the Star Wars movies where you’re motivated to fight for more than just yourself – but also for a cause.

We believe that choice is the most gripping and crucial element of these stories. The team has left a lot open so that your decisions have a significant impact on the way the storylines and the characters develop. Because each storyline offers multiple paths, Star Wars: The Old Republic writers create much more content than you would expect from a linear game storyline. In fact, Star Wars: The Old Republic will contain more story content than all other BioWare games combined. As with the original Star Wars™: Knights of the Old Republic™, some stories intertwine, and some decisions may lead your character down a completely unexpected path. Smaller choices may yield small results, but on some occasions may later lead to larger consequences.

In Star Wars: The Old Republic, your class means more than just the amount of hit points your character has or how many skills you can choose. Each class has its own epic storyline that will drive the majority of your character’s journey. These storylines reflect the spirit of the class you chose, some more traditionally heroic, some more sinister. Class-specific content allows you to play through a tailored experience based on your choices.

Along your journey, you’ll come across a feature that made the original Star Wars™: Knights of the Old Republic™ series so immersive – companion characters. Companion characters are your non-player character (NPC) allies, each with their own personality, thoughts, and struggles. Companions will fight by your side and get caught up in your storyline. You might even get caught up in theirs as well. Because each of your companions has a mind of his or her own, they will react to the choices you make and may support or even turn against you.

With compelling choices, class-specific epic storylines, and fully developed companions characters, we are making a strong commitment to put the concept of story at the forefront of Star Wars: The Old Republic. By focusing on these story-driven features, our goal is that you will become immersed in your character and others around you, explore exciting environments, and in the end, get lost in your own Star Wars saga. Stay tuned to the official website for more updates and behind the scenes looks at Star Wars: The Old Republic.
Well, there you go. Still no word on how they're planning to provide longevity to the game, but they once again stress the fact that in their game story plays an incredibly major role.

And yes, it still feels like a massive single-player game you happen to play online to me. Not that that's a bad thing.

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