Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Short Story Design


Today's blog will be a break from game design and instead talk about short story design.

A cinematic short, or a trailer, is an art form of its own. Two minutes is the standard length, like how songs are around three minutes - any longer, or any shorter, and it feels awkward.

There is a truism that short stories are harder to write than novels, because you have to accomplish the same thing in 10% of the words. The same is true of cinematic shorts- you have to tell an entire story - have a beginning, middle, climax, and resolution - in a two minute sequence.

I will use the Starcraft 2 Trailer to talk about the structure of trailers, and later compare the trailers from DOTA2, LOL and The Dark Knight Rises.

Tools of the trade

Film-makers have two very strong tools to manipulate the emotional state of the audience - the music track, and speed of the cuts (scene transitions). Slow and calm music puts the audience in a relaxed and pliable state - fast and dynamic music builds a sense of excitement. Slower cuts and transitions, versus faster harder cuts, achieve the same effect.

I will describe the four parts of a story or narrative, and how they're each given completely different music tracks and cuts to achieve this.

1) The Setup

Starcraft 2 trailer setup: Jim in depression over Kerrigan

We always start by introducing the characters and world to the audience. The tone and pace is relaxed - you want to ease them in. You need some sense of normalcy in order for the audience to connect emotionally - it's a narrative tool called anchoring - where you connect the audience to the starting point of the movie, and then use that starting to bring them to wherever you need the story to go. This is not necessarily a happy or peaceful setting - it's just setting up the initial state of the world, it could be a dystopia or a person in depression.

You use simple, raw emotions, common situations everyone can relate to. This isn't where you get artsy, this isn't where you puzzle the audience by making them ask questions, or reveal some mystery. If the audience is confused, they can't "sync" with the story and build that emotional attachment. If the audience isn't "synced" whatever conflict or tension you introduce later - danger, zombies, disasters - will have no effect, since they were never on board with you in the first place.

The music here is slow paced, maybe piano tracks and haunting strings. Cuts are slow and low energy.

2) The Conflict

Starcraft 2 trailer conflict: Jim joins the rebellion to get revenge on Mengsk

Now that you've built up the sense of normalcy and invited the viewer to share in it, it's time to introduce the conflict, sometimes with a bang, sometimes with a line of foreboding dialogue. This is where you disrupt the feeling of normalcy you just built in the first 30 seconds. You should reveal conflict, but keep it ambiguous. Hint at larger schemes within schemes. Mystery keeps the viewer interested, hungry for more. This sequence is kicked off here when Jim resolves to join the rebellion and get his revenge on Mengsk - he picks up his badge and holsters his weapons.

The music here changes quite clearly. It's common to use faster tempo strings to build tension and anticipation.

3) The Climax 

Starcraft 2 trailer climax: Jim fights open war with Mengsk and the Zerg

At its heart, a story takes the audience on an emotional journey. You've shown them normalcy, and you've broken it by introducing conflict and creating tension. Now you escalate the tension into the full blown exhilaration of some kind of hinted resolution - usually a massive showdown or war. (In romantic trailers this is where the couples are running into each others arms or kissing). This is where your most awesome scenes and set pieces are revealed - characters at their most powerful, emotions at their highest, and the music built to a strong climax. In the Starcraft 2 trailer, the climax sequence starts from the point Mengsk tells Jim "You're in way over your head," and Jim replies "We'll see about that."

The music here changes quite clearly. It's common to add choral elements (very exciting!) and increase the amount of drums and cymbals. The cuts get even faster and more frenetic as the music draws to a climax - see how fast the cuts are right at the end, barely half a second each.

4) The Stinger

Starcraft 2 trailer stinger: Jim reloading his sniper gun after sniping a hydralisk

After the climax and fade to black, it's common to add an "extra" moment or scene as a resolution. The stinger here is Jim reloading his sniper gun after killing a Hydralisk and letting the heavy bullet casing slam into the ground. In a subtle way it signifies the "end" of the fight, mirroring the feeling of the "end" of the trailer. Having a stinger as a book-end makes the short cinematic feel complete - it's strange to end the cinematic on the climax - there needs to be a resolution or release to the scene, either with humour or finality.

These are all completely normal narrative techniques, common to all media - novels, short stories, songs, even games - just compressed down to a 2 minute cinematic short.

Again, DOTA2 vs LOL...

Now that you've gotten an overview of short story composition, watch the latest cinematics of both games, and compare them. Neither game has any kind of story element whatsoever - how will their makers design a two minute cinematic short?

DOTA2 BETA launch cinematic "What does a hero truly need?"

League of Legends cinematic: "A Twist of Fate".

DOTA2 BETA Launch cinematic

The setup - you see a blacksmith of some sort, in his shop, working on his wares, and he's talking directly to you. You've presumably asked him for advice, and he's saying, ah, I get this question all the time... and clearly he's trying to sell you something. He talks about different heroes having different needs. Immediately this establishes a whole bunch of things.

1) The player - you - are a hero. And this is an RPG, where choice matters.
2) The game involves buying items to become stronger.
3) There are three types of heroes - those that rely on Speed, on Strength, and on Wisdom.

The conflict - the music immediately changes (you hear the faster tempo strings?). The first scene shows the Drow Ranger - a hero - possibly you! - fighting some creeps. The tension is increased in the second scene, where Axe fights the Bloodseeker. This establishes that there is going to be PVP.

The shopkeeper's narrative keeps you firmly anchored in the present (in his shop) throughout the trailer, making it clear the montages of battles you're being shown are possible futures, or maybe tales of past valor. The cinematic climax sequence starts when the camera zooms out and you see the entire field of battle, the music ramps up further with choral elements, you see armies battling across a river crossing. The knight jumps off a cliff, transforms into a dragon and soars into the sky, locking claws with the green drake and they fall to earth - boom! - then fade to black.

The shopkeeper drags you back to the present, and then delivers the stinger - "and that, is for you to decide..." before ending on the title screen.

The trailer is made entirely from in-game art assets - all the hero models are just eye level shots of the actual DOTA2 characters, so by watching the trailer, you can get a good idea of the art style and values the game will have. I guess it would have cost very little to make. The graphics are pretty mediocre (you can see how inferior it is compared to the proper CGI trailers before and after this even in these tiny screenshots) but it gets the job done.

LOL Cinematic - A Twist of Fate

A big caveat here - Riot have explicitly not called this cinematic a trailer. It's a marketing cinematic, perhaps, and a thank you to their fans, made to bring the game to life. But yet the fans - and also people who have never played LOL before - haven't had the most positive reaction to it - and they should, given the sheer quality of the CG and animation - and I've been trying to analyze why.

There is no anchoring scene at the start. Immediately you see Twisted Fate with his playing cards, waiting at a grave yard. He looks at a city in the distance, then fights a supernatural scarecrow (Fiddlesticks). Very cool and amazing fight scene.

This establishes very little, and only raises questions and confuses the audience, exactly what you don't want to do at the start. Did they arrange for a duel? Or was he ambushed? What is that city? Is he trying to protect it, or attack it? Wait, it doesn't matter, because we don't see Twisted Fate, or Fiddlesticks, or that city again in this cinematic.

The cut to the second fight scene - and the third - is extremely jarring. There is no sense of anchoring or continuity at all - not in location (totally different environment) not in time (it goes from night to day instantly) and not in faction (they don't seem like they're allied or connected in any way). There's no narrative to tie them together - it's just sequence of fight scenes devoid of context or meaning. By the third fight scene most people are getting bored, feeling - when is something going to happen? When is the story going to start?

There is no gradual build up of tension or pacing - the story doesn't move the audience emotionally from one place to another. All fight scenes are equally fast paced - arguably, the first fight scene was the strongest and most dynamic, and the last fight scene the least (Annie, summoning the fiery teddy bear). There isn't even a climax sequence - Baron Nashor gets revealed at the end, but they don't actually fight it. He roars at the champions and the screen fades to black. The ending felt very weak for multiple reasons - lack of proper climax sequence, music score was weak (it does build up, but not as effectively as the other examples on this article), at least partially because the opening was so action packed that it didn't allow any possibility of "build up" and also, because it lacked a stinger - there was no feeling of resolution.

This is akin to a song, which has no soft, or loud parts. No verse, chorus, or bridge, to create contrast. No real beginning or ending. It's just maximum volume all the way.

This cinematic is more than twice as long as the DOTA2 trailer, yet by the end of it, someone new to the game still isn't quite sure what sort of game this is. It could be an MMO - a raid boss appears at the end - this is quite a common format for an MMO cinematic. It could be something like Street Fighter or Soul Calibur - we see a LOT of individual 1v1 duels, but nothing indicating this is a full 5v5 team combat game. The cinematic is fully CGI with no resemblance to the art assets or even art style within the game. Dodging falling rocks isn't part of the game in any way (Ryze, lol).

The LOL cinematic displayed some spectacular fight choreography and great graphics, but the design and narrative aspect of it was very disappointing. It also breaks the rule on cinematic length - people get fidgety and start feeling "it's going on too long" at about exactly the two minute mark. Even if it's designed "only for the fans" and not for newcomers, breaking virtually every rule of storytelling and narrative is a bad idea, and it really shows. I'm not actually sure fans (such as me) watching it are getting a much better experience than newcomers.

Movie Trailers

Movie trailers also follow the same rules. The Dark Knight Rises trailer is a good one.

This trailer makes exaggerated use of soundtrack to achieve the transition changes.

The setup (1) is drawn out, a shot of the city and a dispirited looking Bruce Wayne, with a wistful piano track. The tension is hinted at in the words "A storm is coming, Mr. Wayne." The trailer continues with scenes of destruction and hopelessness. Then (2) the coming conflict is hinted at - the kid asks "Do you think he's coming back?" and gets the reply "I don't know." The question is significant, and the music track changes here to include strings (building tension) and the trailer moves into the territory of Batman rising again. The trailer moves into the climax sequence (3) when Catwoman says "You've given them everything." and Bruce replies "Not everything. Not yet." The music score now incorporates choral elements, and the cuts get faster and faster. After the climax and title screen, the movie delivers the stinger (4) where Catwoman says "My mother warned me not to get into cars with strange men," and Batman replies "This isn't a car."