When it comes to storytelling in games, there are no absolutes. Every developer approaches this hugely important aspect of development differently. So, a little disclaimer before you continue reading: this article isn’t trying to tell the whole story. Instead, a couple of developers from completely different studios and genres let us in on their quest for the ultimate story.

Our story begins in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. At Guerrilla Games we’re discussing Killzone 3. A game of many qualities, though strong storytelling is not one them. But that’s exactly what’s making Guerrilla’s case so interesting. Especially since the Helghast creators set out to make the story stand out this time around.

Right after a release, Guerrilla Games reads every single review they can get their hands on. It’s somebody’s day job to filter out all the positive and negative points and put those into one giant spreadsheet. After a couple of weeks, with one click the developer knows exactly what the world considers the weakest features in their latest release.

And here’s the trick: Guerrilla isn’t just taking notice, it wants their next game to excel in these exact areas. It worked pretty well in the past. Killzone 1 was criticized for it’s meagre multiplayer. In Killzone 2 that problem was not only addressed, according to many reviewers multiplayer was now Killzone’s strongest feature.

No wonder the Amsterdam based studio placed the emphasis on storytelling for Killzone 3, since reviews had identified it as the weakest link in their PlayStation 3 debut game. Following the logic of the Guerrilla-method, Killzone 3 would have had a great story. Sadly, it didn’t. The premise was great: After invading the planet of Helghan, earth forces found themselves outgunned and outnumbered by the Helghan army. The fight for freedom turned into a struggle for survival. The actual story quickly went south because of stereotypical characters and clunky dialogue.

Guerrilla Games’ Studio Art Director Jan-Bart van Beek

Guerrilla’s Art Director and 10 year Killzone veteran Jan-Bart van Beek knows what went wrong: “We treated storytelling as a software problem. We thought we could just fix it by identifying the variables that influence the story and the way it’s told and then simply crank it all the way up, like the volume on your stereo.”

“The story in a game consists of elements like the script, actors and cinematic cut scenes. True to our method we needed the best for all these elements. Better writer, better actors and a better director. We were very serious about that. We spent over a year looking for a writer with extensive experience in the games industry, who would also fit the team. We needed a writer in-house. Someone that would sit down with the design team and actively help with development of the characters and the story. Finally we found our man, John McLean, who worked on Black & White and Splinter Cell.”

“We were quite taken by the cinematics of Resident Evil 5 when it was released. So we got Jim Sonzero, the director responsible for that. And for the actors… Well, we felt we needed some star power. Brian Cox did a hell of a job on Killzone 2, but we killed of his character Visari at the end of part 2. It took some time before we found the cast we felt comfortable with, maybe there’s just not enough talent in Europe. In the end, some Hollywood casting agencies helped us out and suggested Malcolm McDowell. He’s is such a great actor.”

“So we cranked up everything as much as possible and addressed most of the weak points. We had a better script writer, a better… well, better everything really. Everything should play out nicely now, right? Wrong! It’s not just a matter of getting ‘better’ people. It’s how you can play to the strengths of them. To be honest, we still don’t know exactly how to do that. For them, a script is leading. For us, gameplay is. Those two elements are hard to mix. Gameplay and level design are the most important ingredients of the player’s experience. They should never be restricted by the story. Just like everything else in game development, the story takes a lot of time to get right. It means you’re working on it right until the very last day. Fine tuning the script, the voices and the cut scenes.”

So ‘cranking up’ the variables in the story department didn’t result in a great story. On the contrary, many reviewers expressed their disappointment with the the lack of a coherent story and the one dimensional characters. “We learned a valuable lesson. Story is not a software problem. It’s an integrated part of development and it should be treated as such. Including extensive testing throughout.”

Guerrilla Games has made some changes to the development process. “We are constantly looking for ways to improve ourselves and the way we do things. We are looking to other industries as well for inspiration. A couple of guys from Pixar came by to tell us how they tackle storytelling. It’s great to learn from the absolute best.” Guerrilla Games keeps looking for the best way to marry great gameplay with an equal great story.

This article is part of a series

[simple_series title=”Storytelling”]