Designing the boat level for Resistance 3 was an interesting challenge in many ways. It’s a short traversal on-rails level (well, sort of on-rails) wedged between two high-action core-combat parts of a first person shooter. Thus, our goal was for it to be a break in the pacing of the whole game that focused more on emotional and visual storytelling. We needed to make sure that the whole level team was on the same page about the player experience we would be attempting to create when we started full production on the level.
At this stage in the project I had the level roughed out as far as the order of things the player would encounter on his boat ride, but setups were very roughly mocked up, most of the art was graybox, there was no music, minimal sound, and the team was focused on solving some tricky technical challenges with the traveling-on-a-moving-platform element of the level. Basically, you had to stretch your imagination REALLY far to feel the emotional beats we were envisioning.
My lead designer, Drew Murray, suggested an experiment. He wanted me to make an “experience movie,” composed of references of movies that I thought would convey the emotional beats of the level to the rest of the team. Apparently this is a somewhat common practice in TV/film production, but I hadn’t heard of the idea before. It turned out to be a very handy tool!
What Goes Into an Experience Movie
First, I made a little pacing map for the level, figuring out where the high points and low points were going to be, making sure I had a good flow, and deciding what I wanted the player to be feeling at each beat (not all of these beats were combat or gameplay related, some of them were just “boat-drives-by-a-scenic-area-that-has-some-visual-storytelling-context” moments).
Next, I scoured my memory thinking about movies, looking for scenes that I felt matched the feeling I wanted the player to have at these moments. I visited with my teammates and brainstormed scenes from movies that conveyed this feeling or that. This was helpful as there were many times when I knew that there was some movie out there with a scene where something happened or felt a particular way, but curses if I could remember what it was!
Now that you have some ideas, here’s what you need to make the movie:
- Footage! We were lucky in that it was early on in the project, and our Community and Marketing team had the resources to help us by capturing movie scenes for us, and we had some captured footage already for other references (effects and such).
- Some video editing software. For editing, I happened to use Quicktime Pro because we had a license available for it. But if you had to fall back on, say, Windows Movie Maker, no one would hold it against you. This is just for making an internal communication tool, afterall, you aren’t going to be posting it on the internet for the world to critique.
Armed with these tools, I chopped up the scenes and edited them together into a short movie (the level is only maybe 15 minutes long, so I was able to match up the scenes to the level beats in somewhat of a real-time fashion). I ended up with a string of scenes that were completely unrelated in context, visuals, or story, but which conveyed the entire emotional experience I was shooting for when designing the level. These were the sorts of things I was hoping to convey:
- this part should make you feel like there is something strange and mysterious out there and you are uncertain about whether it is a threat or not.
- this part should make you feel like you are trapped, panicky, and at the whims of something unreliable as your means of escape.
- this part should make you feel like you are experiencing something familiar, but in a twisted, sad sort of way.
What an Experience Movie is NOT
Here’s where I had to be careful to make the distinction to my team about the reference movie’s function. Even though several of the shots in my experience movie featured boats (we referenced a lot of mood from Jaws and Apocalypse Now), they were not the majority, nor was the intent to capture as many movies with boats as possible to convey “being on a boat”. When making your movie, sometimes you may find a scene that matches up pretty well with what is happening in the level (a scene from The Mist when a giant creature walks over the car definitely had a great parallel feeling for what we wanted for our Goliath stepping over the bridge segment), but that doesn’t have to always be the case.
Scene from The Mist
Goliath scene from the level
This clip from Children of Men, for example, has nothing to do with boats, aliens, or zombies, but it does a great job of conveying feelings of fear, of being trapped, of lacking control, etc.
Your team must understand that you aren’t pointing at visuals here saying “the level should look like this.” Nor is it about the individual stories that the scenes tell. You are purely trying to get across “this is how the player should feel at this point.” I did specify this clearly before showing the experience movie to anyone, but I don’t think anybody was confused about what it was for. Since the clips were from such vastly different scenes, visually and story-wise, it would be hard (though not impossible!) to mistake them for visual or storytelling reference.
The process of making the movie gave me some insights about my design plan, and I ended up rearranging some parts of my pacing chart after I’d seen the emotional beats “in motion,” so to speak. So I ended up doing a bit of back-and-forth iteration with written plan and how I was editing the experience movie.
After sharing the movie with my team, I realized that it was a surprisingly helpful communication tool. Everyone was suddenly on the same page about the emotional player experience we wanted to create as a whole with the level. I won’t say that people frequently went back to reference the movie when they were working, my pacing charts were the more useful tool for that, but the movie was the first sense of realizing the whole experience all at once. Something clicked for my team when they watched it, and when art started going in and effects started being made and the music was composed, it all felt unified as far as the emotional story of the level. When the team got together to solve problems or go over implementation ideas or give feedback, we felt confident that our goals were the same. I think the experience movie was the first step in achieving that state.
Though an experience movie was particularly handy for the Resistance 3 boat level, which is an on-rails linear experience, I think they could also be used to communicate emotional intent in a more open game. You could try creating one based on the beats of one possible player narrative, or several! If anyone tries this tool for a non-linear game experience, I’d be curious to hear the results. Anyway, the next time you are designing a segment of gameplay that has a heavy focus on emotion, mood, player experience, and visual storytelling, consider creating an experience movie to get your team thinking in the same direction quickly and early.