INLINGO
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INLINGO

How to Design a Game Narrative

Undungeon Case Study: tinyBuild Games and Inlingo

A good narrative is important to any video game project. This is the story that will come to life inside each player’s mind, and it’s exactly what plunges us into the game’s new and exciting world. In the summer of 2021, Inlingo designed the narrative for the game, Undungeon from tinyBuild Games. As we walk through the design process for this case, we’ll describe the challenges we faced and how our narrative designers stepped up to the task.

tinyBuild Games and Undungeon

TinyBuild Games was founded in 2011, specializing in the creation and publication of indie games. The company has been the force behind a number of popular projects, including the adventure horror game Hello Neighbor, about a mysterious man next door; Graveyard Keeper, a middle-aged graveyard simulator; SpeedRunners, a side-scrolling racing game; and Undungeon, the action role-playing experience that we’ll be discussing today. The game was designed for the Xbox Series X, Xbox One and PC.

The events in Undungeon take place after the so-called Great Shift. Several alternative versions of Earth have collided, destroying each other and shattering the fabric of space and time itself. The main character in the game is a Herald, who has been created by God to come down to the earth. The Herald belongs to a secret organization that aims to restore peace and remedy the catastrophic destruction from the Great Shift.

The interface and environment in Undungeon. Bottom: the health meter and part of the inventory. Right: the map and tasks.

As the Herald, player can develop their game persona by endowing their character with passive abilities and improving their fighting skills. The main character gains strength by implanting unique organs into his body and can fight in battles. Moreover, the game features a wide range of artifacts: gear, weapons, and supplies.

You can upgrade the Herald to improve his skills in battle.

Through his explorations of unknown lands, the Herald gets to know local inhabitants, fantastic creatures of all shapes and sizes. He is able to trade with them, sell items, or join fighting alliances. The main character’s decisions not only affect the creatures around him; they can actually change the fate of entire dimensions. In the breaks between quests, the Herald goes back to the Hub: a base in neutral territory, where he can heal his wounds and upgrade his equipment.

The work process

TinyBuild Games reached out to Inlingo in early June of 2021. At the time, the game narrative for Undungeon was only partially developed, with only the basic storylines confirmed. Based on these plot points, Inlingo was asked to create dialogue and in-game text. Five narrative designers worked on the project simultaneously.

When we started working on the project, we only had the basic storyline structure; plot points that players had to pass. For example, we knew that one of the characters would send the Herald a message on his communicator, and then, the two would have a conversation. From there, depending on the player’s dialogue choices, the plotline could unfold in several ways. We only had a broad overview of the conversation, covering the essence of the dialogue. Using this outline, our job was to create an intricate and engaging story.

Alexey Medov, Senior Narrative Designer

The Herald converses with other characters by sending and receiving messages on his communicator.

Narrative design often involves much communication with the game designers. After all, the storyline affects all aspects of the game: location, gameplay, and visuals. However, the work of the Undungeon team at Inlingo was slightly less far-reaching, and more akin to script creation. Since the overall storyline had already been prepared, the team simply had to flesh out the details.

Our work had very little impact on the location design or visual components of the game. However, since the art designers were completing their work at the same time as us, we did sometimes have an effect. In theory, we were supposed to write item descriptions based on ready-made art created by the designers, but we didn’t always receive the visuals in time. There were a few times when they told us, “Just write it how you imagine it”, so we knew that the artists were taking inspiration from our texts.

Evgenya Nekrashevich, Narrative Designer

The entire Undungeon world was alive in the heads of the game designers, but only revealed to the narrative design team in the form of short notes. As work continued on the project, the descriptions provided by tinyBuild became less and less detailed, and the studio wasn’t always able to share additional information. In these cases, we needed to hold additional meetings in order to ensure that the world we were creating matched what the creators have envisioned. Before working on a new location, the team would spend about 1–1.5 hours discussing every possible detail, and making sure that the complicated game lore remained perfectly preserved.

Although the overall philosophy of the in-game world had been well laid out, there was little information about the individual characters and their backstories. Our team faced significant challenges due to the lack of references and background information. We didn’t always know how much knowledge a certain NPC possessed, so it was sometimes difficult to determine what kind of information that character could pass along to the Herald.

Nevertheless, we got the job done. If there wasn’t time to discuss plot points with the client, we would simply write the story in the way that seemed most logical to us. Then, we would hold meetings to share our intermediate results, which really helped save time and meet strict deadlines.

— Alexey Medov, Senior Narrative Designer

The dialogue window: the player can choose between several response options to obtain information from an NPC or influence the story.

All of the in-game dialogue should follow a certain pattern: a welcome, a short story, questions, and several response options. However, this alone doesn’t guarantee that a story will be engaging. It’s far more important that the texts follow a uniform style, reflect the personality of the character, and follow the logic of the in-game universe. Luckily, our narrative designers at Inlingo took care of it all.

So, what kind of difficulties did we face?

Well, above all, narrative design is a creative challenge. The texts should reflect the peculiar characteristics of the game world. Moreover, every character has their own unique personality, manner of speech, and expertise. All of this should be evident through the storyline and language.

1. King Zabzazel

When writing dialogue and text about a character, it’s important to have appropriate references for how they look and move, as well as the kind of knowledge they possess. If there isn’t enough information about a character, semantic errors can occur, as was the case with King Zabzazel, the militant leader of a race of intelligent Girtu Beetles.

King Zabzazel, a fearsome beetle with two pairs of claws.

We described King Zabzazel as having two upper extremities. However, it turned out that he should have four (six in total), since he’s a beetle. When we received the visual references, we had to make some changes. For example, the original version described him “rubbing his hands joyfully”, but this had to be changed to “rubbing his second pair of claws”.

These character action descriptions were needed to help us both convey pragmatic information and reveal his character. According to game designers’ vision, King Zabzazel was not a very levelheaded character. As we were writing the texts, our main goal was to make the player feel uneasy when talking to him, and make them suspect that maybe he’s not the most trustworthy creature.

We came up with some behaviorisms and a manner of speaking that created this effect: Zabzazel has scars, that he gave himself and rubs compulsively. He laughs out of turn and believes himself to be great, while always belittling others.

Evgenya Nekrashevich, Narrative Designer

2. The Black Girtu Queen

This character’s personality is revealed through her behavior and speech. For Undungeon, it was important to use distinctive language in order to reveal the character’s different incarnations in alternate realities. Depending on the player’s previous choice, the Black Queen will take on one of two roles: a caring mother to her people or a cruel corporate leader. Although the contents of her quests are quite similar in both roles, her style of speaking differs: the queen mother is more gentle and polite, while the corporate queen uses dry, bureaucratic language. This reflects the different motivations that lie behind the same action depending on the alter-ego.

The Militant Black Girtu Queen.

There’s an episode in the game where the queen orders the death of Girtu who have been infected by madness. The maternal alter-ego regrets the necessary killings, but knows that she needs to protect her children and keep the rest of her people alive by ridding the land of disease.

In the same situation, the corporate queen is pragmatic and focused on expanding her company. As such, she complains about tight deadlines.

— Alexey Medov, Senior Narrative Designer

4. The Girtu Worker

In addition to their personality, a character’s way of speaking should also reflect their social status and backstory. This requires the use of additional artistic devices. For example, in the story, simple Girtu workers can’t speak. However, one of them has learned the language, and to reflect this, we needed to give him an uncertain way of speaking.

We came up with a few characteristics of speech for him. For example, he has trouble with pronouns and verb conjugations (“me hear”, “me thinks”, “nice meets you”). This method helped us create the image of a simpleminded worker and set a comic tone to the conversation that would make the player smile. However, it was important not to overdo this, as we wanted to ensure that the text remained readable and clear, and wasn’t too annoying.

— Evgenya Nekrashevich, Narrative Designer

5. The Torpid Leader

Several characters in Undungeon required more ingenuity from the narrative designers, so they could truly be brought to life. So, when writing dialogue for the Torpids (a race of highly developed technological beings), the Inlingo team played out their conversation over messenger to create more realistic emotions.

One of the characters from the line of Torpids, a race of highly developed beings.

Water Torpid is the leader of a clan of wise men and diplomats, while the Fire Torpid leads a clan of brave men and warriors. Each has their own personality and philosophy. The two of them initially have a dialogue in a cut scene, then they later talk to the main character. To reflect each of their personalities and speaking styles, we wrote their dialogue in a messenger. One person played the Fire Torpid, while the other played Water Torpid.

The Torpids value the art of rhetoric and avoid open conflict, which is why we had to choose our words and expressions carefully, while still maintaining an air of tension between the two leaders. When the pair is speaking with the main character, it was important to find a balance in the characters’ lines. This was needed to maintain the feeling that everyone was listening and reacting to what was being said.

— Alexey Medov, Senior Narrative Designer

6. Girtu King Lukrat

Undungeon characters possess their own complex inner worlds and unique worldview. As such, the narrative designers needed to have a knowledge of both philosophy and psychology. This was particularly important when writing dialogue between the Herald and Girtu King Lukrat. Their conversation covered “eternal” existential topics, such as life, fear of death, and free will.

Girtu King Lukrat’s hideoutreceiving one of the first quests.

King Lukrat asks the Herald for advice about how he should proceed. The Herald offers several options, and each of them serves as a starting point for Lukrat’s philosophical musings.

The Herald’s answers are all very different, and sometimes diametrically opposing. These lines of thought each required extensive research in order to understand which philosophical ideas would make the most sense for a given situation. However, the narrative designers also needed to be extremely creative when making each dialogue sound convincing and emotional.

— Alexey Medov, Senior Narrative Designer

Results

  • Although we started from scratch, we were able to create a special Undungeon team and develop inner work processes in record time.
  • We managed to communicate effectively with the game designers to develop and elaborate the storyline.
  • In just two months, we created more than 100 unique dialogues.
  • The team helped develop over 30 unique characters.

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