Friday, September 27, 2013

IGDA Toronto 2013 Keynote

Remember how two weeks ago I attended that Getty Images event that was decidedly so-so? Well, last week I went to an event that was the polar opposite: a fantastic keynote run by the International Game Developers Association. The featured speaker was Neil Druckmann, Creative Director and writer from the game studio Naughty Dog

Edit: a video of the full session is now available on YouTube. To view it, click here.

Why is this event something I'm mentioning on a blog that focuses on L&D work? Because Naughty Dog and Neil Druckmann are responsible for creating one of the best examples of storytelling in video games thus far: The Last of Us. The emotional impact of this game, as well as its immersive storytelling, is something that I think people in our industry could learn a great deal from. We know that well-crafted stories help content stick and increase emotional engagement. That said, L&D departments don't always use storytelling as well as they could.

So, in the interest of learning more about writing great stories, I spent my whopping $5 to buy a ticket (yes, I still can't believe it was that cheap) and went to this event hoping to live tweet the whole thing and share it with all of you. That plan was quickly thwarted by the fact that the keynote was being held in the basement of the Royal Ontario Museum, which is possibly the only place in Toronto where you can't get a decent wi-fi connection OR a cellphone signal. Yup. No live tweeting for me. They also turned the room lights off for the presentation, keeping me from even taking notes (well, keeping me from taking notes if I cared about not distracting the audience with the bright glare of iPad screen... which I did, in fact, care about... because I'm not a jerk).

The event ended, I loved it, and I intended to blog about what I learned... and then The Verge beat me to it with this excellent article. Warning: do not click that link unless you've played the game or have no intention of ever playing the game, because it is chock full of spoilers.

For those of you who either want to dodge spoilers or just want a quick synopsis, here are the three key things I learned about storytelling from this event.

1) You may have to wade through a ton of lousy versions of your story before you get to the one that actually works

Druckmann didn't have the plot for The Last of Us spring fully formed from his head magically. The story was actually the result of years of playing with several core story elements in a number of different ways. His initial attempt at the story, a game idea he proposed back when he was a student, just didn't have that much depth. However, there was a nugget of a good concept in amongst that unsuccessful game proposal, which he clearly recognized since he spent years reworking the ideas over and over again throughout numerous (and drastically different) iterations. In a clear example of why it's important not to just give up if a story doesn't work right away, after many years of experimenting he finally hit on the combination that worked.

2) That said, sometimes you have to just let go of the parts of your story you can't manage to make work

In the midst of all this reworking, Druckmann had a number of ideas he got attached to that were actually holding his story back. He admitted that, while at the time he was rather enamored of these plot points, on looking back these story elements only got in the way of character building and innovative storytelling. Letting go of them was difficult, but necessary. 

The hard part of storytelling can often be differentiating the ideas that aren't working now but could work eventually from the ideas that aren't working now because they aren't ever going to work.

3) Your life experiences will change who you are as a storyteller

While The Last of Us was in development something happened that deeply affected Druckmann's perspective: he became a father for the first time. All of a sudden the story he was telling about a man who becomes a father-figure to a young girl became that much more connected to his real-life experience. This event made him think differently about what that kind of relationship was, as well as how to make video game characters (in particular, nuanced female characters) that his daughter could some day grow up to respect.

It's not to say that you have to experience an event in order to write about it well. It's more that the more you open yourself up to new experiences, the more of a pool of knowledge you'll have to draw from to craft creative and innovative stories that ring true to your audience.

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