When I started work on The Last Shore, I was bringing along a lot of inspiration from beautifully narrated video games. Thomas Was Alone, Aquaria, Dear Esther… all of those games left heavy marks on me. One of the taglines I used early on in the project was “Zelda meets Thomas Was Alone”. Yet as it is now, The Last Shore is almost completely free of words. There are zero spoken words in the game, and even written words are limited to the menu and a few chapter titles.
So, what happened?
I Can Write
I would consider myself a decent writer – not great, but good enough to write something coherent. My first job in the industry was as a mission designer on The Matrix Online. To be clear, we weren’t writing any lyrical masterpieces for those missions; but we did get grilled on the basics of writing for games. The number one item we kept coming back to: brevity. Even people who say they want to read text don’t want to read nearly as much text as an eager game writer is willing to churn out.
Keep it brief; focus down to the core of what you want to say.
So as I started writing intro narration for The Last Shore, I felt pretty confident. I could come up with something brief but focused; something to bring this character to life in the mind of the player.
I wanted to introduce players to this girl, growing up on an island with her grandmother. A happy but somewhat lonely childhood, safe and warm, but not particularly exciting.
I typed… and it was garbage.
Writing Are Hard
Okay maybe not garbage, but everything careened off in a different direction than I intended. First she sounded like a bored, angsty teenager. Then much too wise and corny, like the voiceover to some cheesy fantasy movie. The ideas I wanted to bring across were so simple, so why were they so hard to convey in words?
Around this time, Ori and the Blind Forest was released. If you’ve played it, you’re familiar with the character introduction – in my opinion, some of the most effective emotional work I’ve ever seen in a game. I’m not ashamed to say it had me in tears. Okay, maybe a little ashamed.
There is some narration to that introduction, but the most compelling moments are completely wordless. The body language of the characters, the music, the setting; these are so powerful! I was just watching it while researching this article and I teared up a little bit.
Show, Don’t Tell
This sounds like a cliché and it should be an overused one in this industry; but in fact, I think lots of games forget this.
There are places where text is absolutely appropriate: I can’t imagine a visual novel or an RPG without a decent amount of text in it. For the kind of game I’m making, using text to tell a story runs a distinct risk.
Show the player a scene, and then tell them what it represents, and you can really disrupt their immersion. Just a single “that’s not what I had in mind”, and the player is yanked directly out of the scene into an argument about the scene.
So, I’m taking the opposite tack (that’s my first sailing reference right there) with The Last Shore. Presented with images and music, the player is left to their own devices to create exactly what the story is saying.
My intent was for the girl to be living with her grandmother on the island. People who have played the game have come up with all sorts of alternatives – often it’s an old man or a magician. And that’s perfectly okay. Whatever your story is, it’s the right one for you.
So, does it work? Here are the first few minutes of the game – you can watch and decide for yourself:
If this kind of storytelling appeals to you, please visit the Kickstarter campaign, pledge, and help spread the word.