Good Robot #45: Old Robot

By Rutskarn
on Mar 19, 2016
Filed under:
Good Robot


Some of you may not have gathered this from my last two posts, but I, Rutskarn, was hired to write the award-winning* script of Good Robot. What you might also have missed (because I never actually brought it up) was that I was hired to write the script by Shamus in 2013. Which was a very different time for gaming; the Oculus Rift was a potentially overhyped newcomer and had yet to revolutionize videogames forever, The Last Guardian was still in development, and gaming channels on YouTube grappled with the thankfully short-lived “Wild West Apocalypse” model of copyright claims and takedowns. Heady times.

But at least one thing in this crazy world has remained constant, and that’s my willingness to (under reasonable duress) actually write Good Robot. Which I did–all the way back in 2013. Now three years later one thing in gaming really has changed, and that’s Good Robot, because the old script is now completely useless. As in, nothing could be saved–not even the model of storytelling. The changes we’d made to the game meant a total rewrite was necessary.

Let’s talk about why.

This is actually the first of a two-part series, but you don’t need to read either one to understand the other. That’s important, because this post–and only this post–is absolutely one hundred percent farm-certified Spoiler Free. The next one will hint at the context of the new game without, I think, spoiling anything, but consider yourself warned. Now–let’s hop right in.

*Shamus has already guaranteed me a lock on this year’s Goldun Riter Awward, but I’m also gunning for the Horace Peasmasher Wrote Man’s Pennant, a prestigious prize granted thus far only to Wizards of Wor, CD Boggle (Sponsored by Kellog Cereals!), and Seasons of Mystery: The Cherry Blossom Murders. And even–dare I say it–a Writer’s Guild award, that I might join The Force Unleashed and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood as the premier storytelling achievements of the modern age.

The story of a game isn’t always important. How the story is told, however, is absolutely crucial. A game with good mechanics and no story can still get by; a game with a good story can be appealing; a game with a good story that doesn’t jive with the mechanics is awful, and I’m not just talking about your ludonarrative dissonances–I’m talking about cases where getting a narrative across crudely or inexpertly steps on players enjoying themselves. Let’s give an example.

I like Morrowind. I’m fascinated by Dunmer mysticism and politics at the game’s heart, and learning about them makes exploring and dungeon-crawling that much more fun. But at the end of the day, exploring and dungeon-crawling are what I’m there to do, and if getting that story meant the freedom to do those things was taken away from me, I’d have resented the intrusion.  Morrowind’s story and gameplay work because they’re both based on freedom to do what you want; you pick what topics you explore with NPCs, you pick what books you read, you pick what quests you do. Having the story happen in pre-scripted cutscenes or infolink conversations or what have you would break the flow of the gameplay, take away the player’s freedom, and do more to frustrate than entertain.

To contrast, this screenshot of a shotgun breaks up the text post by reminding you about the important things in life. Blam! Blam! Blamblamblam!

To contrast, this screenshot of a shotgun breaks up the text post by reminding you about the important things in life. Blam! Blam! Blamblamblam!

This brings us almost directly to Good Robot.

Even back then, approaching the game from Shamus’ rough story outline was a dicey proposition. The idea was to include a rough arc to the story–nothing too fancy, but something that would noticeably change how you see your character and the setting over time. It would introduce a conflict, introduce another perspective on that conflict, then resolve it via the final boss battle. So how do you tell that story through a twin-sticky shmup?

More than it could be about any idea or story, Good Robot is about:

  • Exploring, but only to gain enough power to proceed. You’re very much driven by the need to acquire power-ups and experience points rather than the urge to see new scenery.
  • Levels that are procedurally generated nonlinear mazes.
  • Blowing up robots. Something that requires a pitch-perfect awareness of all the chaotic action around you and no distractions.

So how to tell that story? Cutscenes are right out. We can’t use audio logs, because those will either distract players from robot sounds or–worse–will force the player to stop blowing up robots. That’s not really what they need from this game, and having large text dumps would make things even worse.

Furthermore, the only location where we know that a player is going to be on a linear straight-and-narrow channel is the exit and entrance areas of levels, right after the bossfights, and constraining all of the game’s story to those small areas (to make sure nothing important was missed or experienced out-of-order) would leave the game feeling a little lean story-wise–even though, in retrospect, that might have been the best way to approach that build of the game.

Link (YouTube)

The answer we ended up with was a compromise. All story would be delivered by floating nodes that can be willingly accessed, by a player, to deliver a short story punch. Since the levels are nonlinear, all the nodes within a level are nonlinear. The “real” story stuff appeared between levels and only rarely; if you read everything else, you’d ideally gain a little more perspective on what was going on, but it wasn’t required. These nodes would offer small opportunities for players to stop and recuperate not predicated on leveling up their character (which would have been a bad idea to tie to story progress for a whole bunch of other reasons). It wasn’t perfect, but it worked.

Time passed, Pyrodactyl came aboard, and the game changed tremendously. Now the player’s movement is even more liberated, the levels are even more chaotic, and the player’s need to stop and take an occasional breather is taken up by little terminals where you can modify your build–and the game is explicitly styled as a roguelike. The question was raised even more portentiously than before: how do you tell a story in a game this nonlinear?

You don’t. You absolutely don’t. The roguelike thing alone sinks it. If you make engaging with your story mandatory (cutscenes, dialogues, audio cues), players who die over and over will hate it because it’s an arc they’ve seen the first few feet of a dozen times and the first few inches of a hundred times, but never anything past that. Imagine it took skill to watch The Dark Knight and slipping up meant starting over from the beginning. Would people still like the clown robbery scene, or would they still vomit reflexively after hearing the first line of dialogue?

If you don’t make the roguelike’s story mandatory to engage, players will tend to seek it out on their first run through an area and then only very rarely after that–because doing so every time would be a willful hassle. So then when they do break through, they’re going to be frustrated because they don’t remember anything that happened in the first half (because a few text nodes don’t stand out too strongly in the memory against a million robot fights) and now they have no context for understanding the second. It’s a nightmare to write around.

All of that’s assuming players find the story as compelling as their own story of struggle and survival against the cold, unflinching AI. Which they won’t. Nobody talks about the Orb of Zot from Stone Soup Dungeon Crawl except when they’re talking about finding it.

All of this led to my decision to eschew any linear narrative in the game at all. When players visit terminals, they’re greeted with headlines from the colony’s news cycle. Taken together these paint a picture of what the colony was and suggest, rather than narrate, how it got to be what it is: an arena for endless robot duels. It’ll hopefully provide an interesting sense of texture and exploration without distracting the player, forcing them to revisit content, or relying on them to remember specifically what they’ve read before. Furthermore, it takes a backseat in every mechanical and narrative sense to the player’s own struggle. This might not have been the only way to do it, but I’m happy with how it turned out.

Next time: we’ll put on our Very Mild Spoiler Hats and talk about the plot of the last Good Robot build–and by ‘talk about,’ I mean ‘share completely.’

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201434 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.

From the Archives:

  1. Matt Downie says:

    I’ve never found audio logs distracting – not unless there’s text to read at the same time.

    • Viktor says:

      The problem is that audio cues are so important in a lot of games. I personally cannot listen to an extended dialogue and react to gunfire or an enemy rustling the bushes, even if I can technically hear everything. Funnily enough, if the audio logs are subtitled, I can read them while shooting accurately, even if it’s a fairly chaotic scene.

      • Andy_Panthro says:

        I definitely find audio logs distracting. If I try and listen to them while exploring, then I’ll either miss out on what the log is saying, or I’ll not be able to concentrate on what I’m doing. So in games like Bioshock, I would find a quiet spot to listen to the logs after all the shooting is done, which sometimes means getting information about the area I’m in after I’ve fully explored it.

        • Zekiel says:

          I find exactly the same. I’ve just been playing Dishonored and am so delighted that it uses audio recordings very sparingly – mixed with notes and books (functionally identical) which you can get through much more quickly. The Bioshock series’ approach of using audiologs for every single bit of information has become infuriating to me.

    • Grimwear says:

      The biggest issue I’ve found with audiologs and this is in games like Borderlands 2 (where you can’t relisten to any audiologs ever) and to a lesser extent bioshock or borderlands 1 is that you get trapped in a pattern where if you find an audiolog you are then forced to stop and listen to it. The reason for this happens to be because the way these games were made if you’re listening to an audiolog and cross a threshold where character dialog is supposed to be introduced, it overrides your audiolog and best case scenario you get to hunt through a menu to find the right one you were listening to or it makes it so you’ll never be able to listen to it again. Niether of these options are ideal since if you were 98% through an audiolog when it got overwritten you have no idea that was the case and you then need to relisten to it all just to hear that final sentence. While audiologs are designed to be something to listen to as you continue along forward it becomes an ordeal when suddenly you have to worry about if there’s any other real dialogue further up that could ruin it.

    • Nidokoenig says:

      Audio logs, or dialogue during fights in general, depends on a level of fluency in English you can’t depend on, or throwing serious amounts of money at localisation. Subtitles can be tolerable if the game is mission-based and a player can replay a segment while tanky enough to wait out the whole thing, but this isn’t ideal by any stretch of the imagination. Though you will still get complaints about sections where the subtitles are visually hard to read in that one section, which is only going to be harder to work with in a procedural game.

      There’s no easy answers here, so unless artistic vision depends on something being a certain way, separating gameplay and story is just more efficient in terms of man hours worked and audience lost.

  2. “All of this lead to my decision to eschew any linear narrative in the game at all.”


  3. MadTinkerer says:

    “All of this lead to my decision to eschew any linear narrative in the game at all.”

    Why not keep track of certain “story important” variables like whether certain robots were defeated, whether the player is spending or hoarding money, what kinds of upgrades the player is spending money on, and so on? Is there a stealth option? Can bad robots become afraid of specific weapons the player uses? Can you steal things?

    Can the bosses tell you why they are fighting? Or decided not to fight (unless you pick a fight)? Why not have the player be the source of the conflict, from the bad robots’ point of view, and have the other robots comment on exactly what the player has done to provoke the conflict (or not provoke the conflict)?

    “how do you tell a story in a game this nonlinear?” Have the game react to the story the player is creating. Simple. Hard. Rarely done, but some games do it competently. Think of it specifically as a second-person narrative that the player is telling to the game itself, and the game reacts as an audience.

    It’s probably too late to do any of this now, but maybe something to think about for the next game.

    • Viktor says:

      Because Ruts doesn’t actively hate Shamus? Seriously, some of that sounds like a decent chunk of extra work to hit the programmer with, for something a lot of players won’t notice at all.

      • A lot of that stuff are things a developer might want to track.
        Even if it’s just for statistics. But then you can also use it for gameplay.

        Also “next game”, unless Shamus wishes to do a Good Robot 2 once a few patches for Good Robot has been release my guess is he’ll want to work on something different.

        Myself I’m hoping Shamus will consider a slower paced RPG of some sort, coding a quest and dialog system that for example Rutskarn could use (or abuse).

        • If only there was someone who had already done that…

          • As far as I know Shamus has not made any RPGs before (correct me if I’m wrong).
            If you are referring to Rutskarn and Unrest then sure (although Shamus was not involved with that at all, or?).

            Or are you insinuating that since Unrest has been made then no other RPGs will be made by Pyrodactyl Games? (would be a shame as it seems Shamus and Rutskarn work well together with Pyrodactyl Games and I think awesome games can happen with that team)

            But my guess is that Shamus would want to create a different style of RPG (if he decided to make a RPG) so that should not be a conflict with Unrest (and it’s sales).

            Now I’ll assume you where being sarcastic so I’m responding in kind by being overly pedantic and taking your sentence to mean what it actually reads (aka take it at face value).

            • Nah, I didn’t mean anything of that sort. I was just making a funny comment, because the original comment said something like “consider making a slower RPG that Rutskarn would write”. There was a very obvious opening for me to say “oh, hello there”.

              The tone was meant to be lighthearted instead of serious (see Shamus, you should code a tone system for your blog).

              • A tone system. I like that. Personally I dislike smileys (I used to overuse them a lot a long time ago) as they tend to ruin the text by being overly noticeable.

                Of course a tone system means Shamus would have to obsess over tones (Playful, Serious, vs Neutral vs Thoughtful etc.)

                What I was hinting at was a RPG along the lines of Ultima VII.
                That would let Rutskarn do some writing, Shamus to do design/programming.
                It’s also possible that the Unrest engine could be re-used for it even.

                A procedural RPG with a Ultima VII look (overhead view); would lend itself well to procedural tile generation.

  4. Rack says:

    Rogue Legacy told a linear story like this, every time you came across a book it told you the next chapter in a diary, and it did so regardless of where you found it. You could find the final chapter in the first segment of the game.

    • Droid says:

      Sorry, but even though I liked nearly every other part of Rogue Legacy, that was one of the laziest ways you can narrate a story in a nonlinear game, and it broke my immersion every time I came across one of them. The story isn’t important in Rogue Legacy anyway (that does not mean it doesn’t try to be relevant by going heavy on the morale lessons), but it is just such a lazy way of telling it. The way Rutskarn mentioned that “how the story is told is crucial” made me immediately think of that, even before I saw it in the comments.

  5. DDO has adopted this “story nodes” thing for their wilderness areas and I think it works fairly well. The nodes give you a little voice-acted blurb (some of which are HILARIOUS) and a hit of xp and off you go. Works very well.

    I like their “DM” conceit, too. It adds some story and personality to the game without being painful and obnoxious.

  6. John says:

    Crypt of the NecroDancer is a Rogue-like with a story. To the extent that it works, it’s because the story takes place only in between-level cutscenes and the cutscenes are very, very short–perhaps 30 seconds long. Moreover, you only get a cutscene after every third level. The cutscenes exist mostly to explain why the characters Cadence, Melody, and Aria are dungeon crawling and to make boss fights against the titular NecroDancer seem appropriately dramatic. (There are at least half-a-dozen more playable characters with no cutscenes whatsoever.) I’m glad the cutscenes are there, but I would still enjoy the game without them. The game’s cutscenes are like salt on a fried egg. A little salt improves the egg’s flavor but isn’t really necessary . . . and I am so very, very hungry.

    • Echo Tango says:

      Problem with Necrodancer’s story, is that Aria’s section is a futhermucking brick wall cliff of difficulty increase. So, I got 2/3 of the story, but then I’m held hostage by the crazy difficulty. Better to just have the player in control of the story, or have a cheta mode or something.

  7. MikhailBorg says:

    Reminds me somewhat of the story in Marathon. The “You need to go here and do this to complete the level because reasons” was in terminals shoved in the player’s face, but the “Here’s the back story of where you are, who you are, why you are here, and why you are REALLY here” was scattered non-linearly through optional terminals you could skip or even miss completely.

  8. Charnel Mouse says:

    Hopping on the “this reminds of X” bandwagon, the focus on background mood rather than a specific plot reminds me most of the “story” elements from Atom Zombie Smasher, which I’m guessing is roughly the same level of seriousness as Rutskarn’s going for.

  9. Bryan says:

    and suggest, rather than narrate, how it got to be what it is: an arena for endless robot duels.

    Which reminds *me* (whee bandwagon :-) ) of the intro to UT’99.

    And now I can’t help but hear the music to that intro sequence, either. Funny how memory works. :-)

    • Majikkani_Hand says:

      Damn it, now an orphaned sound effect (I thought it was from the intro but it’s not–kind of a low humming/whirring) from the game is stuck on my head on repeat. Why?

      …seriously, why?!

      • Hermocrates says:

        Is it possible it’s from the opening level to Unreal? I recall that having some kind of computer/ventilation hum in the background.

        • Majikkani_Hand says:

          I was pretty sure it was from a cutscene-type thing, because it’s not continuous, but maybe I’ve just gone nuts. Clearly I need to go load the game up again and play for twenty hours to figure this out….oh well. Too bad.

  10. Primogenitor says:

    I wonder if you could procedurally generate a story somehow? Maybe a “choose your own adventure” where the choices are picked for you, and the network of story nodes is more shaped like a net than a tree. That way it solves the “repeat the first few steps” problem, though it wouldn’t really solve the interaction problem.

  11. ooli says:

    Didnt most Roguelike (Nethack, elona, TOME,… do it) tell their story with collectable item?
    You find a parchment (node), you read it (or not) and you can access your library (from various gameplay) in correct order at any time.

    And watching the trailer having a “good” robot only wanting to “kill” sound like a spec ops the line story.

    • Gilfareth says:

      ToME’s an interesting case because it has its main story–the arc and events your character goes through as you play–alongside two other sets of storytelling: dungeon-specific and world lore. The main story has the exact problem Rutskarn mentions in the post, where I just click through it without giving any of it a read because I’m focused on making a survivable and strong character to get through to the end of the game.

      But the dungeon-specific and lore sets are actually pretty interesting storytelling. None of it is important to the main plot, but it does add a bit of flavor and the ‘notes from historians’ world lore stuff does something interesting: it stays unlocked and available to you on that profile forever once you access it once on any character. It’s certainly an interesting addition and I think the game’s better for a lot of it (‘The Master’ in particular leaving notes for his undead servants cracks me up every time I go through that dungeon), but it’s also distinctly and intentionally separate from the story you’re actually experiencing as you play, so you couldn’t really call any of it part of the plot any more than you could call the songs and poems in Tolkien novels part of the plot.

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