Limitations

Narrative Analysis: Advanced Topics

Intro

In a perfect world, writing stories would be as easy as tapping a keyboard or pressing pen to paper. In reality, writers face a variety of limitations at every point in the process. Regardless of the medium, writers are limited on how many hours they have to work and how much they have to spend on tools. They’re also constrained by the number of people on their project and their familiarity with the tools. Industry regulations can also form their own barriers, and even the savviest creators can be caught off-guard by unforeseen catastrophes. Together, these limitations regularly force writers to reconsider the content and scope of their stories, thus shaping the final form of their creations. 

Video game developers are no strangers to the limitations creators face on a daily basis. Developing a piece of interactive software is a long and complicated process, and every step can have ramifications for the story. Game developers can begin a project with one narrative formed in their heads, only to run into limitations that force that narrative in a different direction. Deadlines, budgets, staffing issues, technological hurdles, and regulations all play a role in the development process, and regional or global catastrophes can strike without warning at any time. To survive this daunting gauntlet, creators must know what limitations they’re up against, how those limitations might affect their projects, and how to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. Experienced developers may find that working against limitations gets easier with time, but developers who are planning their first games aren’t doomed to fail. To succeed, they can look to the past and learn about overcoming limitations from the creators who came before.

Limitations in Game Writing

Games Discussed: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Nintendo, 1999), Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (Crystal Dynamics, 1999), E.T. The Extraterrestrial (Atari, Inc, 1982)

Time

The developers of Majora’s Mask were working on a tight schedule, so they wrote a story that let them reuse assets from Ocarina of Time, as seen in the screenshot above.

Whether you’re watching the microwave, running a marathon, or conducting an orchestra, chances are good that you’re paying close attention to the passage of time. Seasons change, years pass, and people age, which means time is a finite source. People have many basic needs to meet with that time, too, so they only have so many hours to devote to creative projects. To make the most of these hours, creators across every industry set deadlines, either for themselves or others, and these deadlines can limit the kinds of stories we’re able to tell. Just as a two-hour movie will likely take longer to write than a two-minute YouTube short, a 100,000-word novel will probably take longer than a 100-word piece of flash fiction. While a variety of factors dictate the scope of a project, it’s fair to say that bigger projects require longer deadlines. Writers who try to squeeze massive projects into tight schedules often end up cutting corners and compromising quality, resulting in slap-dash stories that either feel unfinished or fall apart under scrutiny. 

Like most of us, video game developers are all too familiar with the limitations of time. Financial backers need to know when they can expect a return on their investment, marketing departments want to schedule ad campaigns, and audiences like to know when they can finally sit down with the most hotly-anticipated games. To meet these intersecting needs, game developers establish production schedules with various deadlines, and those deadlines dictate the scope of the game and its story. One famous example of scheduling determining story is The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (Nintendo, 1999), which was developed in a remarkably short timeframe. According to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time director Eiji Aonuma, he was challenged by series creator Shigeru Miyamoto to create an Ocarina sequel in under a year so that the studio wouldn’t have to release a rehash of Ocarina.⁠1 To meet this deadline, Aonuma and his team decided to tell a story about a world that mirrored Ocarina’s, which allowed them to save time by reusing audio-visual assets. The result was Majora’s Mask, a divisive title that some diehard Zelda fans consider their favorite to this day. 

The developers of Soul Reaver had to end the title with a ‘To Be Continued…’ to ship the game on time.

Tight deadlines can sometimes inspire creators to write brilliant stories, but schedules can only be compacted so much before the creators have to make serious compromises. One such compromise occurred during the development of Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, the 1999 action-adventure game from Crystal Dynamics that went over its deadlines late in the process. According to game director Amy Hennig, the game’s development had gone on so long that they had to make a difficult decision: continually delay the game’s release, or split the game into two titles.⁠2 We realized a while back that we had essentially over-designed the game,” Hennig said in a 2000 GameSpot interview, “and that the epic story we wanted to convey was too ambitious for a single product. Once we came to terms with this realization, we had a difficult decision to make — should we further delay the game’s release, or should we bite the bullet and leave Soul Reaver with a cliffhanger ending, to be resolved in the (already-planned) sequel?” While the truncated title ended up reviewing well, fans were disappointed by the anti-climactic ending and thought the story deserved better than it got. 

Although Soul Reaver left players satisfied despite its compromises, not all games made in a short timeframe turn out so well. An infamous example of a botched game with a limited deadline is E.T. The Extraterrestrial (Atari, Inc, 1982). At the time of E.T.’s development, console gaming technology was still in its infancy, but Atari developer Howard Scott Warshaw believed he could capture the feeling of the E.T. movie in a console game.⁠3 Securing the license took longer than expected, but the producers wanted the game to launch in time for the holiday season, so Warshaw was given five weeks to complete the project.⁠4 The resulting game was so poorly received that it contributed to an industry-wide contraction (The Video Game Crash of 1983, also known as the Atari Shock) that lasted until the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1995. Had Warshaw been given more time to realize his ambitions, or scaled back the scope of his designs, the landscape of video game development as we know it might be totally different.

Money

Games Discussed: E.T. The Extraterrestrial (Atari, Inc, 1982), Lair (Factor 5, 2007)

The E.T. license cost Atari $22 million in 1982. Its subsequent failure to perform devastated the entire industry.

For all their differences, writers across the industries have at least one thing in common: they all need to eat. They also need clothes and shelter, all of which cost money. Likewise, every writer needs money to pay for tools, whether they’re working in television or on the stage. Even the stereotypical solitary novelist needs to buy pens and paper, along with any additional resources they might need to distribute their work. In other words, every story costs money to make, and the amount in the budget usually dictates the story’s scope. When creators don’t have enough cash to finance a project themselves (which they usually don’t), they need to attract investors, and those investors sometimes have their own opinions about how a game’s story should go. Even if the investors rubber-stamp everything creative wants, there’s always the threat of going over budget, thanks to scope-creep. Scope-creep occurs any time a project goes strays from the initial design specifications, whether by a little or a lot. In storytelling, scope-creep can take the form of additional characters, increased setting complexity, longer scenes, new subplots, or any combination thereof. Even a few features beyond the scope can chew through a project’s budget at top speed, but adding too many too fast is a great way to guarantee the money runs out before the project is done. 

Video game budgets have grown a lot since the days of solo developers defining the field in their garages, but bigger budgets come with similarly staggering expenses. Like traffic increasing to fill new lanes on a highway, the scope of a project has a funny way of expanding to consume all available cash, no matter how much the company has on hand. The ill-fated Atari version of E.T. is a classic example of how big budgets can still run out in a hurry. To produce a game based on E.T., Atari first had to pay the intellectual property owner for the license: in this case, director Steven Spielberg. According to Warshaw, the license cost them approximately $22 million—over $66 million in 2022 dollars.⁠5 This lavish expense meant that no matter how much Warshaw spent making the game, he’d have to make something that could bring in at least $22 million in revenue to break even. Needless to say, E.T. fell a touch short of that goal, resulting in the multi-year industry collapse that severely limited the number of game stories being told. 

The developers at Factor 5 had grand ideas for Lair’s story, but pressure from their publisher forced them to change course.

E.T.’s financial woes may have spelled doom for the game stories that came after it, but sometimes, the money troubles begin right at the start. This was the case with Lair (Factor 5, 2007), the Playstation 3-exclusive action-adventure game that sold so poorly that the studio never recovered. In a post-mortem with Polygon writer Matt Paprocki, Factor 5 co-founder Julian Eggebrecht revealed how his original plans for the story were changed by the financing process. In the earliest plans for the game, codenamed Dragon Knight, Eggebrecht intended to draw from current events to inspire the story. “Essentially it was a war between two religious factions, slightly based on the idea of what’s been going on in the Middle East,” he said to Polygon. “It was after 9/11. George Bush was calling for this war. It was very much this ‘either you’re with us or against us’ kind of thing. ‘We can tell a story that has meaning and depth and says something.’ We took that to heart. We really tried to make an anti-war story.” The publisher, Sony, wasn’t receptive to Eggebrecht’s vision, however, and the team ended up overhauling the story to meet Sony’s needs. “The open world went away. It had to be a linear game. It had to have the traditional hero’s journey, and quite frankly, at that point in time — which was relatively early within the first half year — I lost half of my interest in the game.” While that lack of interest was just one of the many problems that damned the final product, it certainly didn’t help. By the time the reviews rolled, even Eggebrecht wasn’t surprised the result: the magazines and fans were as uninterested in the game as he was, and the studio was never the same. 

To learn more about other limitations writers face, come back next week for Part 2 of our study on Limitations in Game Writing!

Narrative Analysis:
Three-Act Structure

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.

footnotes

Remo, Chris. “Aonuma: Zelda: Majora’s Mask Made In One Year After Miyamoto’s Challenge.” Game Developer, 2009. 

2 Johnston, Chris. “Soul Reaver Response.” GameSpot, 2000. 

3 Stilphen, Scott. “DP Interviews Howard Scott Warshaw.” Digit Press, 2022.

4 Phipps, Keith. “Howard Scott Warshaw.” The A.V. Club, 2005. 

5 “US Inflation Calculator.” 

* Reference Footage (The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask): ZorZelda. Zelda Majora’s Mask 3DS 100% HD – No Commentary. YouTube, 2020.

** Reference Footage (Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver): World of Longplays. “PC Longplay [882] Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver.” YouTube, 2018. 

*** Reference Footage (E.T. the Extraterrestrial): World of Longplays. “Atari 2600 Longplay [001] E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” YouTube, 2011. 

**** Reference Footage (Lair): Full Playthroughs. “Lair | PS3 HD | Full Game Playthrough Walkthrough | No Commentary.” YouTube, 2016.