80 Days developer inkle has always focused on games experienced through stories. Will Freeman investigates how inkle is taking its work with narrative design one stage further with its next release
Inkle is a studio founded on the notion that players should be involved in every beat of a game’s story. From the team’s most famed work in mobile narrative adventure 80 Days, to its fantasy epic Sorcery!, inkle’s games excel through letting the player participate actively in their narratives.
That’s not set to change, but the way inkle is building story-driven games is undergoing a considered shift, at least for its next release. Where 80 Days and Sorcery! focused on text-based gameplay, the as-yet- unnamed new title moves boldly into three-dimensions, offering a tantalising way for players to toy with narrative and plot. It’s giving the team a chance to reconsider how stories can be built into games. Or more accurately, how games can be built from stories.
“This is our first truly 3D game,” says inkle’s co-founder and art and code director Joseph Humfrey, on introducing the concept of the coming release. “Sorcery! May have had subtle 3D effects on the map, and 80 Days had a 3D globe, but beyond that, there wasn’t really any fine-grained exploration of a truly 3D environment,” he continues.
Ink is inkle’s own open source scripting language, powering both 80 Days and Sorcery!, and currently available to other developers. The team believes the platform has the power to truly push the boundaries of what is expected from a story in the game development process.
The script-first approach is our core design philosophy
Joseph Humfrey, inkle
NARRATIVES WITH SHAPE
The new game from Inkle spans three dimensions and will be much more committed to that space than any previous releases from the studio. “Shifting the perspective changes everything,” offers Jon Ingold, narrative director at inkle. The player is suddenly inside the world. It’s all around them, all of the time. That means the world-building and description is moved out of the text, but the action is as well.
And there is the distinction. Inkle’s in-development creation doesn’t simply place a text adventure within a 3D framework; that would be just another adventure game. Instead, it attempts to bring dialog and stage direction into game design in a way quite distinct from narrative games that have come before it.
“The prose style of our previous games allowed us incredible range – from inside a character’s heads, to piloting a rocket to the moon. Now everything in the story has to be something we can build, and something we can frame with a camera, and something which the player can interact with,” explains Ingold. “For the first time, we are bridging uncanny valleys on a daily basis. But it also means every moment is more real. The game can be more beautiful, easier to sink into and lose yourself within.”
“The philosophy and technology behind the writing is the same - we are still using ink, our custom scripting language,” adds Humfrey. “But the prose of Sorcery! and 80 Days has gone, replaced by dialogue lines and stage directions. The result is something much more like a film script – the unseen blueprint of the movie. The game is then the director and cinematographer, bringing that?script to life.”
Things become clearer when you give more thought to inkle’s ‘script-first’ approach, which sees the script itself as the core of both game and design process, with everything else being built on that foundation. Just as in Hollywood, here the script is the founding document, inspiring almost everything else that becomes part of what a game is.
“The script-first approach is our core development philosophy,” Humfrey elaborates. “We take the story, characters and scenario as a starting point, and develop mechanics out of those. Obviously, there’s a back and forth; the most important thing is to be flexible and agile about the holistic design. But we don’t add mechanics – however fun – if they fight the narrative or feel out of character.”
The player should always be doing what the protagonist is doing, Humfrey explains, and it is as simple as that.
“And script-first is also about our practical methodology,” he continues. “Our core technology is ink – our narrative scripting language that forms the spine of the game. It tracks everything that’s relevant to the story, including everything that the player has ever done, and it directs the narrative based on their choices.”
The advantages to that approach, inkle believes, are manifold. For starters, it assures that any story- driven game really is powered by its script, meaning that to play the game is to play the story. That’s what inkle games do best. Equally, subscribing to the script-first methodology can give the production and design process focus and direction – as well as room to evolve organically
“By taking the script as the spine of the game, it ensures that we’re never reducing the narrative to make way for anything else,” Ingold asserts. “Technical and design compromises are always necessary, and by making sure that the script is strong first, the other design decisions trickle down from there.
“The technical implications are interesting – it’s important that we’re able to iterate on the script and the level design simultaneously, so it’s essential that the interface between the two is both flexible and robust.”
That means that, through using ink and a script-first model, inkle can implement technical narrative systems that make conversations that are specific to a location – or re-usable across multiple locations – easily definable. At the same time, camera angles in the game world can be highly-specific, or adaptive to circumstance.
By making sure that the script is strong first, the other design decisions tricle down from there
Jon Ingold, inkle
It is easy to name games without narratives, or where narrative is a trivial concern, but games without gameplay? They largely exist only on the medium’s far fringes, where experimental developers push the very definition of what games are.
The script-first method could be argued to be prioritising the wrong thing. ‘Gameplay above all else’ is a more typical design rule of thumb.
“But when your story is your top priority, and when your genre is adventure games, that mantra needs to be taken apart and rebuilt,” says Humfrey. “What constitutes the gameplay, and how do you make sure it’s strong?”
He makes a convincing point. When the narrative is your gameplay, using the script as the foundation of a game’s design can equate to going gameplay-first.
“It’s really hard,” Ingold adds. “Games are naturally based around loops and systems and narratives?are not - they’re based on surprises, mysteries and sudden reveals. So?how do you write a narrative which doesn’t make the gameplay attached to it feel arbitrary and unfair - or worse still, irrelevant?”
Taking the script-first approach, Ingold suggests, means turning one’s back on established game tropes. “Combat, for instance, can’t be un-punishing,” Ingold asserts. “Enemies can’t be generic; upgrade trees can’t be experience-point-based; the list goes on. So – what’s left? What gameplay can you make which, when you reflect it directly back into the narrative content, makes sense?”
The answer to that question will ultimately come with the full reveal of inkle’s next project. Based on the studio’s previous output, there’s a bounty of non-traditional, narrative- based gameplay to explore.
If other developers adopt the script- first approach, where tropes of gameplay design are relegated to the subs bench, it might be the perfect storm for innovation in one of the most ancient art forms there is: spinning a good yarn.