Revealed just before PAX Australia 2019, Broken Roads is an old school CRPG set in a post-apocalyptic Australia with obvious Fallout vibes. There is the radiation, raiders and the scavenging you’d expect for the genre, but the setting looks uniquely Australian and is shaping up to be something special for CRPG fans in 2021.
This is a stand-out ambitious project from Melbourne based development team Drop Bear Bytes, who have grown in size thanks to recent funding from Film Victoria to include Alexander Swords as Lead Writer. Alexander has worked on Dead Static Drive, Totem Teller and an unannounced project from Mountains, the team behind the award-winning Florence.
As well as joining the team at Drop Bear Bytes to work on Broken Roads, Alexander has recently self-published Forest Paths Method For Narrative Design which serves as a way for developers to boil down their narrative design and discuss and collaborate in a new way as a team. Alexander will also be presenting ‘The Forest Paths Method for Accessible Narrative Design’ at GDC 2020 next month.
Recently I got the chance to discuss Forest Paths Method, narrative design and joining the Broken Roads project with Alexander. I attempted to get more information about Broken Roads’ characters, story, and the world, but Alexander explained there’s still a lot in flux at the moment with recent additions to the team.
“I can’t get into any real specifics at the moment, but that’s partly because of the abundance of riches I currently have – a team of diverse writers, and now Colin McComb joining us means instead of tying them down to a specific plot we can open things up to be a bit more emergent.”
Colin McComb is another recent addition to the growing team working on Broken Roads. His previous work includes Fallout 2, Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera. The pedigree and talent of writers at Drop Bear Bytes working on Broken Roads should open many eyes.
“We’re creating a world full of interesting communities and people facing interesting moral challenges at almost every level of existence, so we’re aiming to empower the player to be an adventurer in ideas on top of the usual joys found in this type of game. Things are far from settled in our world and, like in all times of upheaval, humans are trying all sorts of things to adapt. The moral compass is at the core of this experience and we’re expecting a lot of discussion about how it plays out set against the narratives we’re creating.”
Broken Roads will feature a unique and interesting morality compass that will directly affect the dialogue options you can make in-game. The compass is made up of four areas: Utilitarianism, Nihilism, Machiavellianism, and Existentialism. Your decisions and dialogue choices will affect your position and leaning on the compass and thus affect the choices you can make going forward. There are no ‘good’ and ‘bad’ choices laid out for you, instead, everything you do will be weighted towards the four elements of moral philosophy.
Although I wondered if it was the size of the project that excited him initially, he explained that although Broken Roads is definitely ambitious, he was drawn to the project’s Australian setting and the fact it doesn’t fall neatly into the post-apocalyptic genre.
“Our world is still in flux. Everyone is trying their best around new systems and rituals, and that it’s set in Australia gives us new territory to explore.”
Alexander notes that although he hasn’t worked professionally on a project like Broken Roads before, his many years of running tabletop RPG campaigns certainly helps with Broken Roads.
“I just wish I’d kept my material from the Shadowrun sessions I ran in an alternative Brisbane while I was still at uni.”
After reading through the Forest Paths Method I had a basic understanding of how Alexander’s system could be utilized but wondered if it would be harder to implement when joining a story-focused game like Broken Roads, already deep into development. Alexander explained that until recently he’s never been a part of a project from its inception, so it’s a non-factor and a lot of his process is about being able to efficiently capture all the information he needs no matter how far into development the project.
“Broken Roads has been one of the easier ones because there’s been a pretty strong vision from the beginning. A lot of the initial job was just identifying the gaps and ways to creatively fill them that maximise that vision. The other part was looking after my writing team to make sure they’re empowered to do their best work. My experience out of games helped a lot here in understanding that the first audience for all content is always the team you’re working with. We can have the best writing team in the world, but if those ideas can’t be successfully communicated to the rest of the team while also taking onboard their input then we’re in trouble.”
Alexander’s tactics for narrative design are outlined with easy to understand examples for several genres of games including horror and RPG’s in Forest Paths Method For Narrative Design.
“A lot of the focus has been on the narrative design patterns we’re generating on a whole-of-game level as well as for each story and quest line. As a flowchart that can also display narrative intention it’s a lot easier and quicker to understand than reading chunks of a story bible or a treatment and because it shows the dramatic relationship between every aspect of the game. If the narrative design pattern looks like a mess and the team can’t understand it, then there’s buckley’s chance a player will.”
When reading Forest Paths Method I couldn’t help but wonder what Alexander’s thoughts were on The Hero’s Journey. It’s often the default method for narrative structure in movies, books, and video games and often, noticeably so. Even if you aren’t aware of the structure it’s being used in a lot of your favourite games including, of course, Zelda, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid and more.
Alexander explained that although he thinks The Hero’s Journey is good in many ways, he finds it concerning that it’s the default structure that many narrative designers start with by default.
“The structure itself is incredibly rigid – certain things have to happen in certain ways at certain times to land the dramatic effect it’s good at. This can directly counter the idea of play – voluntary action for fun.”
The most famous modern example of The Hero’s Journey is Star Wars. A cinematic feat for its time and now considered a masterpiece. But when it comes to using the narrative structure in games, it’s often antithetical to what developers may be wanting to achieve. Video games are, of course, a completely different medium than film. Although there are games that want to tell movie-like epic adventures, and developers like Naughty Dog have proven success in doing that, games focused on play-based story-telling doesn’t fall under any typical narrative structures. The ‘walking simulator’ genre is often the biggest example of the difference between film and games as the narrative is often told through the players own mind as they piece together elements while exploring an area.
As Alexander explains, the narrative structure that The Hero’s Journey offers can force you into certain aspects that can be detrimental.
“It means that everything needs to be defined by conflict which limits the ideas that can be included in the story as so much of play is not about conflict. Trying to see all things game design through that lens damages creativity and ultimately damages games culture. It also specifically excludes any aesthetic goals that developers might have in designing their experience. I think this is why a lot of people struggle to understand the success of walking simulators. […] The Hero’s Journey can’t explain how the aesthetic interventions of Japanese storytelling work, nor the living history of Australian Indigenous People’s stories, but with a crowded market of games that increasingly tell the same story, these are just a couple of the inspirations we should be looking for and narrative designers need a framework to understand them.”
When it comes to Broken Roads, Alexander explains that The Hero’s Journey simply wouldn’t work with the moral compass.
“This doesn’t mean the player can’t be a hero, it just means they’ll get to choose their own journey to get there – like all narrative designers should be doing with their own work.”
Broken Roads is currently scheduled to release sometime in 2021 for PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. Alexander Swords will be at GDC 2020 next month and you can buy Forest Paths Method For Narrative Design now.
About The Author
[He/Him] Founder & Content Manager of Explosion Network. Currently on a mission to get Rhea Seehorn an Emmy.
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