Posted on February 28, 2014, Phil Owen Lost Planet 3: How To Build a Game About Characters
Lost Planet 3 may have arrived in August to lackluster review scores and negligible hype, but contrary to conventional wisdom, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.
Los Angeles developer Spark Unlimited was certainly fighting an uphill battle between creating a prequel within a marginal shooter franchise from Japan and its own rather unexciting list of games. But what it managed to produce was nonetheless remarkable because the studio’s overriding design philosophy — that of putting character development before action and plot to try to get you to actually care about what you’re doing — manages to shines through to the player.
“It was important for us to keep player goals emotionally motivated”
“It was important for us to keep player goals emotionally motivated,” said lead writer Richard Gaubert, now at Sony Santa Monica, in an email. “At the end of the day, we were still guilty of our share of literal lock & key goals, but the stakes behind those goals were still rooted in emotion.”
Lost Planet 3, which received a Writers Guild of America award nomination for games writing, opens with its lead character Jim landing on the frozen planet EDN-III as a contractor for a corporation called NEVEC. NEVEC is looking to exploit the planet for its unique resource, an energy source called T-energy, and Jim is there to ride his mech (or “rig”) around the wastes, mining and collecting that resource, as well as doing whatever else might need doing to keep the base running. And for the first several hours of the game, he roams the icy wastes planting T-energy posts, fixing machinery around the base with his rig and warding off the local wildlife.
He also makes friends with folks at the base, like the chatty mechanic Gale, prickly fellow merc LaRoche and edgy Dr. Roman. And let’s not forget why Jim is on EDN-III in the first place — he’s trying to support his wife Grace and their newborn son back on Earth, who we meet through some one-way video messages. All of this is set within a frame story in which Jim, as an old man, confesses his past mistakes to his granddaughter during a portion of the story that more closely precedes the events of the original Lost Planet.
Gaubert said letting the player in on the grind of Jim’s life on EDN-III and giving Lost Planet 3 a proper first act all serves an important purpose.
“The inciting incident in a story is more impactful if you’ve let audiences settle into the status quo a bit first,” he said.
But that willingness to let a story build, rather than leap straight into action sequences and fill in the story later, is something that seems pretty unusual in triple-A games.
“The inciting incident in a story is more impactful if you’ve let audiences settle into the status quo a bit first”
“The original outline for the game included an extended prologue sequence set in the modern part of the timeline (with Jim as an old man and Diana before they end up in the cave) that was filled with explosions and more of what you’d expect from the opening of a third-person shooter,” game director Matt Sophos elaborated further. “But, ultimately, we knew that if Lost Planet 3 was going to find an audience, it was going to be based on how much players liked Jim and cared about his family (both the one back home and the extended NEVEC crew). That meant going for a bit more of a ‘quiet’ open with a true first act.
“Now that’s not to say we don’t have action in the beginning — just that the action is still in the context of establishing our characters’ personalities, rather than simply gameplay-driven plot.”
And that is not exactly the norm. There are more examples of retail games that skip the character stuff to dive straight into the action while rarely coming up for air, than there are of games with proportional, drawn-out first acts. And there is a reason for that.
“Establishing a sense of Jim’s routine before disrupting it doesn’t sound like the most controversial design decision, but it really did seem polarizing, to read reactions to it,” co-writer Orion Walker explained. “Some called it a ‘space trucker simulation’ and got antsy for action, while the ones who embraced it and got ‘into character’ with Jim were really invested in his fate once the plot thickened.”
In contrast, we have Far Cry 3 — a game that spends 50 seconds with a group of American white people on vacation before revealing that they’ve all been captured by bad guys. From there, the game expects the player to care enough about the protagonist’s friends to save them, even though you probably can’t even connect their names with their faces. It’s a particularly egregious example of skipping character development in favor of “getting to the point,” but it is an emblem of a long-time trend in game stories, from Halo to Tomb Raider 2013 and beyond.
“We were naturally inclined to weigh the plot and action more equitably since it was our job to be advocates for both”
The reason to go for action at the expense of storytelling extends beyond player demands, as well. Game development tends to be more focused on creating “fun” than characters, with writing being subservient to that goal. Sophos said the team at Spark had to take it “on faith” that that he, Gaubert and Walker knew what they were doing, but he also said that publisher Capcom “understood what we wanted to do with the story and were very supportive” from the start.
But that doesn’t mean it was easy to build a game with this kind of dedication to an abnormal development philosophy, Gaubert said.
“Matt and I were the game director and lead designer, respectively, so we were naturally inclined to weigh the plot and action more equitably since it was our job to be advocates for both,” Gaubert said. “I mean, ideally, the plot and action are complementary rather than opposing forces, one dovetailing into the other organically. But, you know, easier said than done.”
But what ultimately brought those elements of Lost Planet 3 together and made the game what it turned out to be was an idea not of how to tell a story well in a game, but simply how to tell a story well, period.
“The bottom line is: to care about the story, you have to care first about the characters. Stories that grow organically out of character development are the ones that resonate with me,” Sophos said. “I think the trap a lot of video game stories fall into is in trying to communicate big plot, ideas and exposition first and foremost. Like, the world-destroying maguffin the protagonist has to beat is the most important thing, when in fact the protagonist’s reactions, thoughts, history, relationships and his personal stake is what I truly care about.”