In a room at Insomniac Games, Jon Paquette has taken over a wall. The writer of Resistance 3 has covered the surface in sticky notes: one colour to indicate what happens where, another colour highlighting the major beats of the game, and another pinpointing precisely what he wants the player to feel at each point.
From here he’ll work with designers, artists and programmers to construct the survival epic that is Resistance 3, going back and forth, writing and re-writing, diving into new narratives, hitting new walls, tearing down sticky-notes and plastering fresh ideas over stale ones. It’s a complicated and, at times, frustrating process, but for a man dealing with a task as finicky as crafting the player’s experience, Paquette’s mantra almost seems contradictory: keep it simple.
For Paquette, simplicity has nothing to do with stupidity. He is not in the business of dumbing things down. Instead, he believes that work needs to be done on the developer’s end to ensure that the player has a sense of purpose and always knows what they’re doing.
“Sometimes in a game you’ll be going along and you have no idea where you are or what you have to do. That’s a cardinal sin for me in storytelling,” says Paquette.
“Simplicity is really just about the basics: the player always needs to know who they are, where they are, what they’re supposed to do and why they’re doing what they’re doing, especially in a shooter when people just want to run around and shoot things. If they know why they’re shooting something, the experience has more meaning.”
So does this mean that players need to be told what to do? Do situations and stories need to be blatantly explained to them to ensure that they know what’s going on? Not quite. According to Paquette, a narrative can be told in much more subtle ways – ways that don’t involve stopping the game and pulling players out of the interactive experience.
“The way that I approach game stories is this: I think the story in the game is really the player experience, so you have different tools at your disposal,” he says.
“Animation is one tool, sound design is another tool, the textures on the walls are also a tool. These are all tools for storytelling in games because, like I said, it’s the experience that you want the player to achieve.”
“For me, it’s really about working with the team to have a cohesive idea of what we’re trying to do – as long as everyone understands what the experience for the player is supposed to be, then I think it works out well. It’s when you have that disparity between gameplay and story that you’re left feeling unsatisfied with the experience.”
Paquette gives an example from three quarters of the way into Resistance 3. The player comes across a community in western Pennsylvania that has been infested with feral chimera. Walls have been built around the town to protect the inhabitants but the chimera keep breaking it down. Everyone is huddled in an old school house. As the player walks through the town the story of its people unfolds without the need for cut-scenes or blatant explanations. The player sees people praying; a man in a corner plays a chimera skull flute, in another corner a group of children cry over their mother who is covered in a bloodied sheet, and elsewhere a man picks up a piece of leper parts and makes leper soup.
Paquette says that these are all things the player can walk past and ignore and proceed to shoot things, but if they stop to take in the environment then they can get a sense of the desperation of the community and how they’re living and surviving.
“I think using all the tools is much more effective than stopping the game and telling the player ‘Okay, this is what happened, this is the situation,” he says.
“Subtlety is hard to do when people are focused on shooting something, which is why I think it’s important to have good ups and downs in the pacing of the experience.”
Paquette is referring to the moments when the player isn’t submerged in shooting action: when the player is travelling, visiting towns, talking to people, and exploring the chimera-ravaged world.
“I play a lot of shooters and they’re great when they start off at 11, but if they stay at 11 for the whole experience then you kind of become deaf,” he says.
“You need those down moments, and I think that in a shooter, that’s when you can capture those subtleties, that’s when you can take the player through an environment so they can learn what has happened. Subtlety is hard to do in shooters, but you can do it when you capture it in those lower moments.”
In keeping it simple, Paquette believes that he can achieve greater depth in storytelling than if the story were so complex that cut-scenes had to be employed to constantly remind the player what he or she is meant to be doing. Resistance 3 has a character with complex emotions – the game deals with a man haunted by what he did to the lead character of Resistance 2, who now has a family he wants to protect but who also has leave them behind in order to help them survive – simplicity has not resulted in the player getting a cushy storyline with a two-dimensional character.
As a writer, Paquette sees his role as setting up the parameters and letting the player know who they are and what they have to do, but his goal is for the player to be able to immerse themselves in the game and connect not only with the story but the game itself.
“The goal is you’re not thinking about the story, you’re not thinking about the gameplay; you’re thinking ‘I’m in this place, this is what I have to so, and I’m going to do it’. You want to sit on the couch and have a fantasy, and if we’re able to tie into that core emotion that people have then I think we’ve succeeded.”