Limitations, Part Two
Narrative Analysis: Advanced Topics
Beyond Time and Money
Time and money are the most well-known obstacles in storytelling (and in life), but they’re not the only hurdles writers have to overcome to bring their stories into the world. Individuals and teams are limited by the manpower and technology available for the project, as well as the regulations governing their region and craft. Unpredictable catastrophes can also cause substantial setbacks, the kind no amount of preparation can avert. Writers should keep these additional limitations in mind when crafting their stories, as they may run into problems that even time and money can’t solve.
Games Discussed: Stardew Valley (ConcernedApe, 2016), Indivisible (Lab Zero, 2019)
Imagine you’re a novelist with a completed manuscript in hand. You want your story to be the best it can be, but to do that, you’ll need a editor. There’s just one problem: you can’t find an editor willing to touch your work. Now, in a different scenario, imagine you’re the director of a major Hollywood film. You’re in the middle of filming, and everything’s going great, but then a scandal rocks the production, and everyone walks off the set. In a final scenario, imagine you’re a ballerina with a world-famous dance studio. You’re all set to perform at a spectacular venue that night, but then a terrible bout of food poisoning sweeps through the group, and no one can perform. On the surface, these three scenarios have very little in common, but they’re linked by their primary limitation: manpower. In each situation, you need other people to help you share your art, but those people either can’t or won’t help you. Depending upon the situation, you may be able to pique their interest with flexible deadlines and a healthy paycheck, but there are some staffing situations that no amount of time and money can solve.
Manpower problems show up constantly in video game development, regardless of the size of the studio. Just as a massive studio project can be torn apart by scandals, a solo developer’s game can be derailed for months or years by sickness. Development teams of all sizes are also limited by the collective knowledge and skill of their staff, and even the best games can have flaws that the team either didn’t identify or couldn’t fix. Larger teams also require management, sometimes across multiple departments and layers, and poor communication either within the hierarchy or between departments can ruin games made by otherwise competent people. There are upsides and downsides to every size team, but they all require a certain amount of human effort, and that effort can be limited by a variety of factors.
Larger teams can keep projects on schedule while insulating them from the impacts of sudden staffing losses, but there are no guarantees in game development. Sufficiently large problems can drive entire teams away, as was the case with indie game studio Lab Zero. In 2020, little more than a year after the release of the role-playing game Indivisible, Lab Zero was rocked by accusations of abuse against studio owner Mike Zaimont.3 In response, several staff members left the team, including key members of the creative and art departments.4 The departures ultimately led to the collapse of the studio, ending any further development on Indivisible’s promised downloadable content. While Lab Zero’s other well-known property, Skullgirls, has since been revitalized by current owner Autumn Games, the collapse of Lab Zero makes it unlikely that Indivisible’s story will ever continue.
Games Discussed: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Nintendo, 1991) and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo, 1998), Trespasser (Dreamworks Interactive, 1998), Lair (Factor 5, 2007)
The creative process couldn’t exist without people, but creators also need tools to bring their stories into the world. Luckily, thousands of years of technological advancements have given us a multitude of tools to work with. Even the simplest tools take years of training to master, however; just ask any child who’s learning how to hold a pen. Newer, more advanced forms of technology allow us to tell stories in ways that can set them apart from the competition, but relying on untested or unfamiliar tools can also backfire spectacularly. Teams that try to learn new skills mid-projects may waste time and money that they could have saved with familiar tech, which limits resources for other parts of the project. Conversely, relying on tech that only a few people know can severely reduce your hiring pool, and you may end up hiring people who aren’t the best fit for the team. Worse yet, you may not be able to find anyone who meets your qualifications, and your project will stall out before it gets off the ground. The key is to know the limits of your other resources—time, money, and manpower—so you can figure out how ambitious you’re able to be with tools and technology. Otherwise, you may find that your project won’t come together, no matter how much time, money, and manpower you devote to it.
At their most basic, video games are simply interactive stories, but most games also contain original controls, mechanics, visuals, and audio. Each of these sub-disciplines requires its own tools and technology, and that technology is ever-changing. The timespan between The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Nintendo, 1991) and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo, 1998) was less than a decade, but those intervening years brought so many technological advancements that every department had to master new programs and skills to bridge the gap. While the technological leaps have slowed somewhat since the breakneck pace of the mid-1990s, new advancements still occur across disciplines, and developers who don’t stay ahead of the curse will invariably fall behind. Countless games have either failed to launch or failed post-launch launch because developers failed to recognize the limitations of current technology.
In the 1990s, one of the hottest properties in Hollywood was Jurassic Park. Naturally, the property owners wanted to make money on the property outside of theaters, so they attempted to bring Jurassic Park to life through video games. One such attempt resulted in Trespasser (Dreamworks Interactive), a 1998 action-adventure game designed to make the most of the cutting-edge technology of the day. “The pie-in-the-sky concept for Trespasser was an outdoor engine with no levels, a complete rigid-body physics simulation, and behaviorally-simulated and physics-modeled dinosaurs,” said designer Richard Wyckoff in a post-mortem with Game Developer.5 As exciting as these concepts were, the team struggled to make them a reality with the technology they had on hand. Their rendering software, level designs, artificial intelligence systems, and physics engines all caused the team problems. The final result was received so poorly that GameSpot proclaimed it ‘The Worst Game of 1998.’6 In detailing the teams’ troubles to Game Developer, Wyckoff summed it up thusly: “…there is a difference between having a plan and successfully executing it, and the product that we eventually shipped was as disappointing to us as it was to the great majority of game players and game critics.”7
Trespasser is a familiar example of a game that fought against technological limitations and lost, but it isn’t the only game in that category. Thousands of other game developers have struggled in the face of similar obstacles, including the Factor 5 team behind Lair. Lair’s development was rife with problems (see Part One for more details), and many of those problems stemmed from their issues with emerging technology. Lair was one of the first projects developed for Sony’s Playstation 3 console, and as a result, the staff at Factor 5 had to learn how to develop for the new console on the fly. That process turned out to be far harder than anticipated. According to designer Seppo Helava, the team was confident that they could mimic the stunning graphics seen in the earliest trailers for the consoles, but “…then you got to the PS3 and shockingly beautiful became so expensive and so complicated. The things you needed to do to support a game that had that level of fidelity — the problems became exponentially more difficult.” As if those troubles weren’t enough, Sony reportedly added further pressure by insisting that the game use the latest motion controls. “All of the designers were unanimous that we didn’t like [the motion controls] and it wasn’t how the game was meant to be played,” said designer Joe Spataro. “We ended up shipping it that way and none of us were happy.“8 Reviewers weren’t happy, either; the game was so troubled on launch that Sony actually sent reviewers instructions on how to play the game,9 which did nothing to improve the game’s middling reviews. Had Sony and Factor 5 been more aware of the technological limitations of the time, Lair might have been a very different game—one remembered more fondly than it is today.
One of the earliest known structures, Three-Act Structure divides stories into beginning, middle, and ending.
Narrative Analysis: Subplots and Side Stories
Subplots and side stories add depth to narratives by expanding the world while emphasizing themes and playing with tone.
StoryScan: Final Fantasy XIV and Subplots
Final Fantasy XIV’s Dark Knight job quest-line adds depth to the main narrative by developing the characters, the setting, and the themes.
1,2 Baker, Chris. “The 4 years of self-imposed crunch that went into Stardew Valley.” Game Developer, 2016.
3 Walker, Ian. “Indivisible Development Stops After Lab Zero Fallout.” Kotaku, 2020.
4 Walker, Ian. “Workers Leave Skullgirls Developer Over Studio Head’s Behavior.” Kotaku, 2020.
5 Wyckoff, Richard. “Postmortem: DreamWorks Interactive’s Trespasser.” Game Developer, 1999.
6 “Worst Game of the Year.” IGN, 1998.
7 Wyckoff, Richard. “Postmortem: DreamWorks Interactive’s Trespasser.” Game Developer, 1999.
8 Paprocki, Matt. “Lair: What Went Wrong.” Polygon, 2018.
9 Sterling, Jim. “Sony tells reviewers HOW to review Lair … this just gets better.” Destructoid, 2007.
* Reference Footage (Indivisible): AMHarbinger. “Indivisible Complete Walkthrough.” YouTube, 2019.
** Reference Footage (Stardew Valley): HillHome. “Rustic Ridge Farms Episode #1: A far cry from the City Life (Let’s Play Stardew Valley 1.5).” YouTube, 2021.
*** Reference Footage (Trespasser): Joshua Caudill. “Jurassic Park trespasser T-Rex FINAL SHOWDOWN.” YouTube, 2015.
**** Reference Footage (Ocarina of Time): ZorZelda. Zelda Ocarina of Time 3D 100% Walkthrough 1080p HD. YouTube, 2017.