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-Work in Progress: Gameplay-
Scroll down for the narrative design details
Technical Designer / Writer / Voice Actor || FPS Puzzle-Platformer || Unreal 4.8 || 13 developers || 5 months
The Narrative, including the Narrators, Story, Script, and Voice Recordings, was entirely created during the last two months of the project. I took charge over the Narratve Design of Gravitas, and handled nearly every aspect on my own. I however had a huge help from Henry Dai, Taylor Pate, and Jorge Montonlio-Conde in developing/implementing the Narration system and creating the script.
Up until the Vertical Slice (VS) milestone, roughly 2/3rds through the project, Gravitas had very little direction or identity. The game was simply a series of disconnected puzzles with no context or narrative. Throughout the first half of the project, I had advocated fervently for any sort of story or potential Narration, offering to handle everything involved myself. However, this was a large time commitment and the Team Leads were no where near comfortable giving narrative the green light when our core gameplay mechanics and loop were not completely finalized.
The Narrative Catalyst
After a poorly received Proof of Concept: Gameplay milestone where the Executive Producers commented on our lack of overall direction and context, I was tasked with creating a basic narrative and writing script to help guide the aesthetics and gameplay towards a more unified identity. However, both the Executive Producers and Team Leads believed that attempting to add any form of story that late in the project was severely out of scoped, and I was tasked with getting any form of narrative into the game in a convincingly "shippable" state by VS to prove its viability. Essentially, I had about three weeks to prove that our game could ship with a narrative.
One week before the VS milestone presentation, I finally received pemission from the Team Lead to implement a basic Narrator into our existing VS level. I worked with two other team members,
Taylor Pate and Henry Dai, to create the first iteration of The Curator and our game's script for that level. Taylor modeled a basic Curator Robot and Henry wrote a basic framework for scripted spline movement and Look At functionality. Using both of these assets and a first draft of a short script, I integrated The Curator into the VS level and did some first-pass voice acting.
--Original concept by Taylor Pate
Luckily, the hard work paid off. During our VS presentation, The Curator was very well received, and all of the Faculty playtesters commented on how the narration finally gave the game a sense of context and personality. As such, I became responsible for all narrative and narration in Gravitas, and worked extremely hard for the duration of the project to create a well-written script and believable Narrators.
The Script and Characters
The Script and Characters
During the initial prototyping phase, the only thing I knew about the 'Artist' character (SHI did not exist at this point) was that they were quirky and just the right charming mixture of egotistical and insane. I had never done any writing or voice recording work before, and was unsure if I would realistically be able to create good characters in just a few short months. However, the prototype script, which was only one page long and contained narration for a single level, was fairly well received by every reader. I sought out fellow students with writing experience to get their feedback, and while they had suggestions here and there, they all found many of the existing jokes and witticisms to be surprisingly good. I quickly 'finilized' the proto-script and reserved a small viewing room in the Guildhall's Usability Lab and borrowed a high-quality microphone from one of the programmers on my team.
The initial recordings were rough due to my inexperience with Voice Acting, but the madness and ego of the character came through very naturally. I used Audacity to modify the recordings to sound like they were being passed through a small speaker to help sell the narration delivery method. After acquiring all of the assets, I used Henry Dai's original basic Robot Behavior system and Robot Splines to have the Artist follow the player throughout the level and comment on their performance. There was very little reactionary narration at this point, and in retrospect far too much talking for how short the level was. However, the initial showcase for the Vertical Slice milestone surprised both the Executive Producers and my entire team. The 'Artist' brought the game the much needed personality and direction our team had been seeking for months. The narrator as a concept was immediately greenlight unanimously, and I began writing a full script and updating Henry's original system to meet my ever-expanding Robot Behavior needs.
SHI came to exist shortly after the full script began to form. I knew I wanted some sort of a system announcement voice, leaning a little more towards a 'System A.I.' character, but the details were still fuzzy. I wrote some basic 'gallery announcement' lines and dialogue with The Curator for one of the later levels, and brought in Taylor Pate, one of my team's artists to record her voice. Taylor had prior Voice Acting experience on my past Guildhall projects, and I directed her during recording sessions to get the best possible recordings with the right inflections. Taylor actually ended up playing a large role in the development of both The Curator and SHI's characters. She had a lot of great feedback on the script itself, and after discussing both the overall writing and my current ideas for the 'System AI' character, she and I decided that it would be far more humorous if her character was simply a voice construct without any original thought or opinions. That way, the lines were easier to both write and record and The Curator could be arguing with a fake person treating their responses as real. This sold the 'madness' element of his character very well, and allowed SHI to say very snarky things in a very 'standard system response' way, making the player wonder if she actually has opinions throughout the game. During every recording session we had for the rest of development, Taylor and I set aside time to discuss the characters and tighten the script.
The final version of the script wasn't completed until two weeks before we shipped, since the original ending sequence received a lot of criticism from the Executive Producers for being too abruptly action-oriented and insense (it started as a run through a hallway filling with lasers as the gallery exploded). The new ending, in combination with a recent pass to fine-tune the details of The Curator's character, focused on his struggles with playtesting and his discovery of the Agile Development Methodology for rapid iteration on his gallery pieces. These are both software and game-developer oriented jokes, but they are indirect enough that the lines are still funny to the average player. The final script was 16 pages long and just over 6,000 words.
This being my first attempt at Voice Acting, it took awhile to find the Curator's voice and the rhythm his lines needed to work with the gameplay without making the Player feel impatient. Taylor had previous voice acting experience, so we ended up frequently working together to tighten the lines and redo recordings with better vocal flow. I ended up directing the actual recording sessions, helping her with SHI's inflections and talking without a personality (which I was good at, for some reason).
The Voice Acting
The Voice Acting
Below are some recording samples, both original and edited for both narrators:
Curator Sample: OriginalAlex Shilts
Curator Sample: EditedAlex Shilts
The Curator needed to sound arrogant, yet welcoming, a combination commonly found in British narrators (like the Stanley Parable). As such, I began attempting a subtle posh semi-British accent that was detectable but not overwhelming, which ended up sounding fairly convincing. It took awhile, but eventually the accent came fairly naturally, and I started inflecting it to sound egotistical and narcasistic. This accent ended up being perfect for the tone of the game, as the voice pattern rhythm made comedic timing easy to hit.
For the sound edits, I wanted the Curators voice to sound like it was coming out of a small speaker without sounding like a poor quality recording. After much experimentation, I found a good compination of sound modifications in Audacity. I took an initial loud and clear recording, ran it through a combination of upper-frequency equalization and high-pass filters, and added a small amount of reverb to help the voice have presence in the world. All of these combined created the Curator's iconic voice.
Despite being of surprisingly good quality, my team disliked my initial voice recordings. They liked what I was going for, but felt that some unknown aspect was off. It wasn't until I started raising my voice pitch by 5% that the team started to enjoy the recordings, since it no longer sounded exactly like me. T'was quite the interesting phenomenon.
SHI Sample: OriginalTaylor Pate
SHI Sample: EditedTaylor Pate
SHI, being a simple voice construct with no personality, was oddly easy to voice but difficult to write. She needed to sound both comforting and empty, but in a way that could bounce off the Curator in a comedic way. The largest plus to the voice acting side was the fact that I designed SHI's character with Taylor's voice in mind, so finding a vocal balance between tender and annoyed came very naturally. She developed SHI's voice quickly, and the robotic yet judgemental inflections became a second language.
As far as SHI's voice editing went, I had to do very little. The series of filters I used for the Curator sounded wrong when applied to her voice, and ultimately I found that having her voice be a sort of omni-present echoing blanket of misguided helpfulness worked best. As such, I simply added appropriate reverb to Taylor's recordings depending on the size of the room it originated from, and scripted it to play concurrently with the Curators recordings during gameplay.
For this being my first exposure to Voice Acting and Voice Directing, I was very pleased with the results. Taylor and I did a lot of good work, and found really good voices for fun characters that both worked well together and enhanced the Player experience. Ultimately, the script that I wrote would have been completely worthless if we hadn't been able to pull these characters off.
About halfway into implementing the Narrators, I stumbled upon an interesting aspect of The Curator's behavior. When creating the tutorial section where the player acquires and learns how to use the Gravity Glove, playtesters felt a dissonance in his character when the narrations seemed like 'uniform' or 'stock' responses to a broad chain of possible player actions. Since I was completely new at writing, some of The Curator's narration was fairly specific commentary that only worked for a limited set of situations. However, in the same area, players adored the few unexpected pieces of special narration that triggered when they performed actions that games usually ignore.
For instance, there is a pit in the tutorial room barrs passage to the next area until the player acquires the glove. From the moment they enter the room, they can jump in the pit at any point. If they choose to do so without the glove, they have literally no method of escape, and The Curator mocks them and leaves them down there for a few seconds of 'Private Pit Time' to think about their actions. This aspect of the narration made players want to experiment and see how the narrator would react, somewhat similar to The Stanley Parable, and added a lot to The Curator's character.
Since players enjoyed the special reactionary narration, I decided that, rather than make more of The Curator's lines more broad to fit more outcomes, I would write a special piece of narration for each unique action in every level. Most levels only had one or two places this was actually applicable, but it ended up being worth the work. Nearly every player that tried our shipped game complemented our team on the writing and reactionary narration.
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