How We Approach Story

Posted by jill 2 months ago

Hi everyone,

Narrative Designer Jill here. As you know, we’re changing the story for Subnautica: Below Zero. I wanted to give you an idea of what goes into this process.

First, the basic requirements:

  • Our narrative since Subnautica has been delivered primarily by breaking the story into dozens of fragments and scattering them around the ocean floor.

 

A message in a bottle with an S.O.S tag.

 

  • In Subnautica: Below Zero, Robin is a speaking player protagonist with a lot to think and say compared to Ryley in Subnautica. In addition to a detailed personality and working inner-life, she needs a character arc that will develop as players play.
  • That implies some kind of linearity but only some. As a player, you need to be able to play the game in your own way, at your own pace. That means you’re going to make up a lot of your own story order.
  • So we need to figure out which ways players might be most likely to play and also what ways you can play if you’re determined enough. We want the story flow and outcomes to match play styles as much as possible, so you get an experience that makes sense to you. (Or not, if you were trying to play in a disjointed way.) We trust you to find your own new take on things that we didn’t think of. 

What you can count on (SPOILERS BE HERE!):

  • There’s a lot to love in everything that’s been made for Subnautica: Below Zero until now, and we want to make sure we respect that. So there are some familiar things you can count on seeing in the new story.
  • Robin. Some of her details may change, but you’ll recognize her character art, and play as her. She’s going to have more autonomy than in the previous iteration. We hope you’ll enjoy that.
  • Al-An. You’ll still meet the alien, download him to your mind, and help him find a body that’s not yours. We’re giving some attention to his personality, backstory and motivations, so there’s more to learn about him along the way. Having an alien IN YOUR BRAIN is a BIG DEAL so we want to let you focus on that.
  • Marg. It wouldn’t be Subnautica: Below Zero without her, as far as we’re concerned. We love her and she’s staying. We’re hoping to connect her to the story more. She’ll still be her wild self though. No plot can fully contain her.
  • The World and its creatures. Bases may come and go, or shift a few hundred meters in one direction or another, but the substance of the world in Subnautica: Below Zero will remain fundamentally the same. That means we need to work the new story around the twists and turns, dark caverns, and mischievous sea monkeys we already know. 

How does story come together?

Players sometimes say to me, “oh, so you’re the narrative person so you decide what the story is.” Not quite.

What I actually do when I arrive on a team where I’ve been asked to help evolve a new story out of the elements of an old one, is talk to everyone and find out things like:

  • What do players like about this game and its story?
  • How does the team feel about what they’ve made so far?
  • What are the deadlines and constraints?
  • What is the team actually going to build?

We do a lot of brainstorming– what could we do in this or that space. What if a given character behaved in way X instead of way Y? We don’t just do this internally. We reach out and gather expert input from outside the team.

From there, it’s a lot of meetings about every element of the game– each cinematic, the way different environments will change or be employed differently.

How can the various game mechanics be used to tell different parts of the story? What can we reflect back to the player about their choices, through the way things in the game work, and the way the world and other characters respond to them?

Then I begin to sketch out the story overview, and try to imagine how the narrative can be split into all those bits that get scattered around the sea. I make complex diagrams no one else will ever read, but they help me ask the right questions and plan the right plans.

 

An already-out-of-date-diagram indicating the complex relationships between world geography and story flow.

 

Most of this happens in a cycle. More discussions. More brainstorms. We come to a more refined understanding of what is possible. We revise, we cut, we add, we cut something different, we add again. I make a new set of diagrams.

When the meetings start to consist of less debate and more “so how do we do this?” that’s when we can really start setting both deadlines and story details in stone. 

Then (finally?!) the writing and casting and all of the production of story stuff you’ll be able to see and hear and read in the game begins for real. But I’ll have to tell you more about that another time. 

So what’s in this release?

The story updates you’ll notice in the upcoming release largely pertain to the way Subnautica: Below Zero begins:

  • Totally new intro cinematic
  • You’ll get to hear the new Robin and new Sam’s voices for the first time
  • New journal entries from Robin and calls between Robin and Al-An, in text

We’ve also had a chance to try things out that led us to understand how to do things better, and we’ve improved the narrative pipeline — how words actually get into the game is always more complex than anyone could hope.

We’ll have more to say about casting and how COVID-19 has impacted our recording process soon. We think it deserves its own post.

Thanks for reading, and if you have any questions, please ask in the comments. I’ll do my best to respond!