Here in the WILA posts, I oscillate between picking out a single game mechanic and elaborating on its many design benefits, and highlighting a single theme or goal of a game’s design and picking out the design choices which serve that theme or goal in the game. For Dragon’s Crown, I’d like to do more of the latter and talk about how the game packs itself full of story (of the flavorful characters, locations and histories kind) without stopping the action.
But first, a generally non-controversial assertion: players like playing.
Game and Story at Odds
In an action-oriented game like a Beat ‘em-up (and probably for all games, really) the less enforced downtime, during which the player is not doing stuff, the better. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be ebbs and flows of pace, but stretches of time during which the player is just sitting watching some in-game animations, a movie or scrolling some text are generally best kept to a minimum.
Dragon’s Crown, however, combines its action with fantasy adventure and RPG-esque elements. The game clearly wants to deliver a story to you, from the intentionally minimalist main quest-line and the characters that populate the world to tales of the setting and exploits of the players themselves. To keep the action moving, the game simply cannot afford hours of exposition across what should otherwise be a rather streamlined experience.
Zen and the Art of Game Design
There are several ways in which Dragon’s Crown resolves this conflict between delivering content and letting the player play. First and foremost, the developers made the basic decision to let playing the game take precedence. While this sounds obvious, plenty of games think they are doing this, but then go on a little too long, a little too often, because there is just one more line that is ‘crucial’ for the story.
Here, there is no text that can’t be skipped, no cutscene longer than a minute. If the player avoids all story exposition, the narrator still swoops in afterwards to remind the player where they should be headed to next.
As I mentioned, the main quest-line of the game is intentionally minimalist, and side quests are accompanied by a few paragraphs of story, or a one-line goal. Often the stories aim only to give light context to your actions and evoke fantasy adventure stereotypes like political intrigue and delving for lost treasure, in order to invite the player to fill in the rest. There is enough detail to make the player feel like there is a whole kingdom on the other side of the screen, but not so much that the player is kept from playing in it.
Moreover, I talked about Vanillaware’s expertise last time: the visuals. I don’t have much to add here except to confirm that they really bring the world to life through the use of striking character design (top-heavy female discussions aside), elaborate setting detail, and consistently varied enemies and locales.
The Difference between Reading and Hearing
The use of audio narration itself is a strong tool for content delivery. I first noticed this myself in The Last Story: the game consistently develops relationships between the main characters through dialogue in the middle of combat sequences. It made the entire game feel alive, dynamic, and meant that the characters could be developed while I played. If all of that had been delivered just through text, it would have distracted from the action, or been missed entirely.
Dragon’s Crown uses audio narration in a similar way. Rather than add a chunk of text to every area, the heroes’ entries and exits are narrated, often giving flavourful tidbits about the setting while the player happily gets on with playing the game. Whenever the developers wanted to give indirect instruction or add weight to a feature or scene, the narrator is again used.
This is becoming the standard in games recently, but it’s important to note how it qualitatively has an effect on the feel of the game, allowing for more content delivery without the ‘cost’ of interrupting the pace of the game. It’s not just adding production value for the sake of it.
The Player’s Story
Besides the story of the world within the game, there is the story of the player, and this is best told through the gameplay. All the art and narration could easily go to waste if the player is just mashing the same buttons to beat the same kinds of enemies and meandering on from left to right over and over.
Even here, I feel Dragon’s Crown does a good job. The game invites you to pay attention to and use the scenery, whether it is unveiling a secret passage in the background, transforming runes on the walls into beneficial effects, throwing a boulder at enemies or magically channeling a puddle of water into a fierce jet. Each time, it brings a piece of the world to life in a way that an image or simple exposition could not.
Then there is the form the adventure itself takes. Sometimes the players are wandering through ruins, but sometimes they are riding a magic carpet and escaping a wall of lava, or frantically avoiding a rain of fire in a fortress siege, or defending a ship from the tentacles of a kraken, or… well, you get the picture. In each case, it’s not just a change in scenery or a line of text, it is a change in what the player is doing, how the player uses the mechanics of the game, and in turn what story the player feels like he or she is playing.
In addition, each boss battle feels different – as if you are using the same set of tools to play a slightly different game every time. They can be big or small, solo threats or hordes of enemies. Sometimes the player is defending something precious, sometimes the player is assisting other NPCs in their efforts. On occasion, the player may duck out of a battle for a breather in a nearby temple, or he or she must close a magical gate while fighting to survive. Once again, each one tells a different story, not just in its image and the narration, but in the actions the player takes to triumph.
Overall, the game introduces slightly new actions or uses the established actions in new ways for each of the examples above, thus not just making it a ‘change in skin’ but actually a change in the player’s own story of what they are doing.
End of This Story
Dragon’s Crown balances engaging the player through action with delivering a flavourful story in a setting that at times leaps straight out of the screen. There are basic design decisions which go into this, like how much text is really necessary and how can the goals be summarised for the player. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with including extra text which your player can opt into or out of, in case they feel like a good read, though excessive reliance on this is dangerous territory.
For example, there were many criticisms of FF13’s overuse of optional disassociated text. They went to the extreme, with lots of text about each aspect of the world, each enemy, and then shoved it away in menus. Now certainly that’s better than forcing the player to read it all, but often it didn’t get read even by the people who might have enjoyed it because there was too much and it was completely un-integrated from the rest of the game (the menu navigation being a bit subpar didn’t help).
Then there is the difference between reading text, and hearing it as the player continues playing. Even smaller independent games should consider voice acting as a valuable tool to be deployed where appropriate (Thomas Was Alone comes to mind off the top of my head, though it might be ambitious for most indie productions to try to get Danny Wallace to narrate the entire game).
Finally, there is the story told by the players through the mechanics. Every designer should always be asking themselves what the player is actually ‘doing’, and how that feels. Is it the same for the last several hours? Then maybe it’s time for a change, although hopefully a change that feels natural and ties in with everything else the game is conveying.
And with that, I leave the discussion to you. What did you like about Dragon’s Crown? Did you feel, as I did, that the world was brought to life by its design? What other techniques or games have done this well for you?
Thanks for reading.