Every so often we interview past Structo authors, to see what they’ve been up to since first appearing in our pages. The latest in this series features John Björling, lead narrative designer at the Swedish video game studio Ubisoft Massive, where he is currently working on one of the most highly anticipated games of the year: Tom Clancy’s The Division.
What led you to your job at Ubisoft Massive?
I joined Massive eight years ago to work on the in-house marketing team for the strategy game World in Conflict, and since then it was a pretty fast journey into actual game development. Before that, I studied literature and worked part time as a game journalist, so I guess you could say that I’ve always been interested in both games and writing and was lucky enough to get an opportunity to work with them professionally. I never really saw myself working with games at all. It wasn’t a profession I ever really considered. I just got the opportunity and seized it!
Your job title is ‘lead narrative designer’. What does that involve?
It’s basically overseeing the relationship between writing and gameplay. A lot of game development is about creating systems, mechanics and rule sets, and that goes for the storytelling as well. The storytelling in games will typically come from a number of different systems, and all of those need to be balanced and maintained to ensure that the end result is enjoyable. As a narrative designer, I’m kind of trying to work on the bridge between storytelling and gameplay, even though there are typically also a lot of other people who are focused entirely on design or writing. So narrative design involves a little bit of everything that results in story experiences in games.
What can you tell us about Tom Clancy’s The Division? I’m guessing not a whole amount! But writing for an MMO must present some interesting challenges.
Tom Clancy’s The Division is an upcoming online RPG that puts the player in the shoes of an elite agent in the middle of a global pandemic. New York has been decimated by a virus and is on the brink of collapse, and as the specially trained agent you’re tasked with going deep into the harshest areas of the city to take back New York by any means necessary.
Working on the narrative for a game of this size and with this complex of a framework is challenging, absolutely, and I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by talented narrative designers, writers, and other developers, who make things come together. The story production is really one big puzzle, full of dependencies and cross-disciplinary work, and it takes a lot of effort to make sure the pieces all come together. It can involve everything from writing thousands of one-off combat barks to having long discussions about why a certain bucket should be blue instead of red. It’s quite different from writing short stories!
How do you view the storytelling possibilities in games compared to more traditional forms? Titles like Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line have recently done some pretty interesting things with player agency and narrative.
The way I see it, we’ve really only scratched the surface of what games are capable of. Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line are definitely two examples of part conventional game and part using interactivity in interesting ways, to make the player’s actions have pretty severe implications. I guess they were both even going a bit meta, in a way. But I think that’s the really interesting component – interactivity, and figuring out new ways to make that impact the narrative. Player choices, player perspectives, player involvement. All that stuff. Linear narrative experiences are of course a lot easier and cheaper to produce, but as technology gets more advanced and there are a lot more free tools and engines available, I think we’ll see a pretty rapid increase of the more interactive kinds of narrative experiences.
Aside of that, I think we’re starting to see some really cool things in how multiplayer and social gaming can be used as components in the narrative. But as always, with AAA games being so expensive to make, we’re seeing slow evolutions on the big budget titles, and some pretty crazy smaller revolutions on indie titles.
And lastly, I’m personally pretty stoked about Virtual Reality and what that can mean for the immersion.
Oculus Rift, Sony Morpheus and HTC Vive all seem to be signs that there’s something really cool on the horizon.
As someone who’s very interested in games as storytelling means, it’s a great time to be playing and working on games!
Which other games, past or present, do you rate for their storytelling?
I have a weak spot for Valve’s games, mainly because how they used the silent first-person protagonist in Half-Life and Portal, and how they left a lot of the narrative to the environments around the player. I guess I find that kind of stuff more interesting than well-written cutscenes. It’s a great marriage of gameplay and storytelling without getting hamfisted or losing the pacing too much. Also, Red Dead Redemption’s final hour was something that I’ll remember for quite a while, especially the ‘true’ ending. In more recent years, I think the indie game Gone Home did a lot with very little resources. It really showed how games with a smaller budget can achieve greatness with artistic vision and a feeling for storytelling.
Does your day job influence your other writing?
Yeah, I think so to a certain extent. There are a lot of take-aways from my day job, in how narrative works, what makes for good dialogue, and a bunch of research around New York and all of the typical technothriller elements from the Tom Clancy novels. So New York has become something of a darling setting to me, and all the technothriller research we’ve done has definitely made me more interested in both reading and writing those kinds of stories. But at the end of the day, it’s also nice to take a break from everything and explore completely different genres.