Larger Than Life: Designing Fall of Cybertron's Set Piece Moments
Two competing storytelling philosophies exist in video games. One states that a game should be filled with a series of scripted cutscenes that narrate an overarching plot. The other believes a game should never take control away from a player, thereby creating a kind of simulated fiction where the player is mobile actor. In Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, developer High Moon is aiming for this second approach. It hopes to offer players some measure of control even during scripted sequences. But telling a story this way is no simple task.
Using interactive sequences and allowing players to discover the plot on their own is a lot more work than the traditional approach. “I feel like if you can tell a story in-game then that’s how you should do it,” says High Moon cinematics designer Neil Carter. “One of my favorite games is Out of This World. I loved how they seamlessly integrated cutscenes with gameplay. We’re trying to do more stuff like that in Fall of Cybertron.”
In video games, there is always tension between story and gameplay. Storytelling is traditionally a passive experience, while games are inherently interactive. To help smooth out the integration of these two disparate forms, High Moon starts by looking at the larger story beats and then builds levels around those concepts. “We look at what we absolutely need to tell in our story, and then there is a lot of back and forth between the teams,” Carter says. “Designers approach a game from a standpoint of 'what is fun,' but then we have to steer that back and make sure we’re getting our story across. Making a game is really a lot of back and forth.”
Designers spend a lot of time looking at references during these exchanges, drawing inspiration for how to shape a cohesive story that is also fun to play. “At the time that we started on the Grimlock level the Dead Space 2 demo had just come out, and I told everyone that they had to play the first level of the game,” Carter says. “Because it was scripted, it’s very cinematic, but at the same time they did a lot of things where you’d be walking down the hall and a character would jump out at you and then the camera would zoom around and showcase the animation and sound, but it was all seamless. The player didn’t feel pulled out of the game. That’s good storytelling for games.”
One example of how High Moon is integrating story with gameplay takes place when players are first introduced to Grimlock. The Dinobot leader has been captured by Shockwave, and the Decepticon’s experiments have given Grimlock his iconic Tyrannosaurus form. Before meeting Grimlock, however, players spend a level playing as Starscream. This level ends with Starscream entering Shockwave’s lab and taunting Grimlock. Understandably, Starscream’s verbal abuse drives the Dinobot into a fury. At this moment, the player’s control shifts from Starscream to Grimlock, and players wrestle free of Grimlock's bonds and throw Starscream against a nearby computer console. As Grimlock struggles free from his bonds, this miniature story sequence also serves as a tutorial for players on how to use Grimlock in melee combat.
“Originally, Starscream just flew out the window, and then the camera shifted over to Grimlock who then broke free of his bonds,” Carter explains. “But then we thought, ‘Hey we could tutorialize the melee combat, and teach players how to grab enemies and throw them.' So we sort of blocked out their exchange in the game and then layered in the dialogue between the two characters, which really helped flesh out the scene.”
To help further demonstrate how High Moon integrates story with gameplay, programmer Neil Carter gives us a behind-the-scenes look at how levels are laid out and how a player will trigger small scripted moments as they explore the environment below:
Be sure to check out the rest of our month long coverage for Fall of Cyberton at our Transformers hub.