A blog post by Samuel Jensen, Lead Designer of Majestic Nights…
Majestic Nights is a game about dialogue and story. And Aliens. And shadowy pseudo-government organisations. And the Military-Industrial Complex. And drug-induced Mind-Control programs. And totally rad 80s-inspired music.
But heaps of it is about dialogue. Also heaps about story.
Basically, we here at Epiphany Games have a Plan. This Plan is to make, one far-off day, a Big Game. An MMO, to be precise. It’s a lofty goal; some may say a foolhardy and possibly ridiculous goal, but it is a goal nonetheless, and it is our goal. We’re ambitious, you could say. Of the many, many things we need; the vast, whirling, distant planets that must precisely align for us to achieve our insanely ambitious goal, we need to develop systems. Building a game as large as a ‘proper’ MMO requires a lot of money and a lot of time, and a lot a lot (not a typo) of systems.
As we don’t have the money (yet), but do have the time (for now), we have set out to start on developing the systems, one by one. Then, once we have developed most, or all, of the systems we need, and have the required money…
… WE WILL THEN FORM VOLTRON. (With those systems, not literally make a giant robot made of other smaller, but still pretty huge, robots. That comes later.)
Where this comes in for Majestic Nights, is that Majestic Nights is our game where we develop our dialogue and story systems. See – I, personally, have written – and I’m going to get technical here – A buttload of fiction for our games thus far. However, it is really challenging to get those conventional short-story words from the page into a game in a satisfying way. What we wanted to do with Majestic was to teach ourselves how to do that – as some of the more astute of you may have noticed, while similar in certain respects, a game is not a film, nor is a game a book. A game is a game, and as such, requires its own special method of conveying story to its playeraudiencereader.
Basically, we reduced this to a few steps. Firstly, myself and our other writer for Majestic, the lovely and talented Daniel McMahon (of L.A. Noire fame, among other projects), wrote several drafts of some conventional short stories of around ten thousand words in length each.
Well, actually no, the first step was some maniacal, unstoppable, twisted ravings about the concept and setting from Morgan Lean, the Game Director, but then Daniel and I wrote all of the things. While we were doing this, Morgan put together a basic script-template.
Daniel and I then took our stories and rendered them into the script – which was much like a film script, in many ways – but with specific cues for dialogue trees, for in-world chatter, for ‘thought bubble’ text (that are generally game-play tips and clues for the player, rather than story exposition), for objectives, and all of the ancillary pieces that come together to form a game that aren’t really storytelling, as such, but are totally necessary for effectively telling a story within a game.
Once in this script format, we put it into the game. And like pretty much every document that seems to come into contact with development, those scripts changed, heavily. Branching trees of dialogue branched wider, and found new forms on the script page. Output keys, from which necessary gameplay elements are hung, were added, and step by step our system evolved.
So our path of conceptualisation to conventional storytelling to script to game, which then lead to a more ad-hoc process of iteration. At the end of it, we’ve come to a point where we can now replicate that for subsequent games.
So I guess that’s the helpful – sort of – point here: that for most elements of development, there is no process or system that’s going to ‘work’ 100%. Our dialogue and story system is a process that, like many, works to a point, and then becomes less systematic and more iterative, the deeper into development we get.