Röki is an excellent modern adventure game with a surprising amount of emotional weight behind it. One thing that stood out to me was its level of cohesion, its ‘resonance’, where both gameplay and narrative contributed to an overall meaning larger than the sum of its parts. So I decided to have a sit down with my friend Danny Salfield Wadeson, who did writing and narrative design on the game and has now moved onto a post as senior narrative designer at Sony’s Firesprite studio, to discuss how the team at Polygon Treehouse pulled it off and see what broader learning we might gain from their approach.
OK, straight into the deep end: what was the process for designing the story?
It was informal on such a small team. We started off with ‘what’s the big picture?’, [looking for] a structure that would allow us to take the player in a psycho-spatial manner where we wanted to take them. We already knew we wanted four biomes, not a ton of characters, and to get all the folklore in there. So early on we arrived at this concept of the ‘trials’, which are semi-Freudian delvings into the repressed memories that [the protagonist] Töve has, and link slightly magically to the themes of the respective jotun. It was in designing those trials that the themes came out, because we really wanted to make sure that the game design meshed fully with the narrative, as, y’know, a good game should. That’s not always the case going in, but we did have that goal early on, which was great. A lot of the work then was thinking, ‘OK, roughly what shape will the trial be? What are the key cornerstones of this family story? What would it make sense that Töve has actually repressed?’. The things you’re uncovering in those sections, where the themes come out the most, had to be capable of telling that whole story between them as a connected through line.
It sounds like the themes and the big picture spread outward from those trial sections, but what was the actual process like? As in, what documents changed hands, did you use a whiteboard, etc.?
It was pretty low-tech. There was a big overlap while I was living in Cambridge, where they were based, so we had brainstorming meetings, catch-ups, and narrative sessions in the nice little pubs and cafés of Cambridge. We’d try to hash out at a high level what a scene needed to be. We’d start with gameplay aspiration, talk through the general vibe, and often focus a lot on the puzzles. Then I’d go off and Alex and Tom (the co-directors) would write me a mini brief stating ‘this is what we need to have happen in the scene, and this is what we need to know backstory-wise’. It started off with the trials, then sometimes we zoomed out and abstracted it, like ‘what’s the relationship and contrast between these four jotuns?’, or ‘what exactly is the family dynamic?’. Then I would go away and write up a high-level treatment focused on the emotions, the psychology, and as much as possible, I was trying to say, ‘here’s how we can actually convey these emotions and concepts; here’s how a set of puzzles or items can help tell this story’. I treated them as narrative design proposals/story treatment docs, and they were per gameplay area or per theme.
So you kind of built a house out of these individual treatments, and presumably, you discovered things along the way?
Yeah, there was a fair bit of revision, and in hindsight, we could have definitely done it better, but by and large, the approach was pretty good. We tackled things from the right direction, as in we started high level and we drilled down, rather than the mistake a lot of people make of starting with the specifics. What those people end up with is a bunch of ‘darlings’, essentially, which they think they love, then they try and fit everything else in between them, which is just a really clumsy way to work. But we got that part right, I think, by focusing on the relationships, the themes, getting that stuff straight, and then using that as a lens to look at the gameplay and puzzle design through.
We’ve all walked onto a project in that situation in the past, where there’s details and darlings everywhere…
It’s incredibly prevalent. It’s fascinating how people always trend towards that kind of system; they think having a specific is like an anchor point, but actually, it’s the complete opposite. You need a North Star; you need your pillars, your guiding principles, because once you have them, that is the blueprint. Any other decision in [making] the game, especially any narrative decision, you now can easily find out if that’s a good decision by asking, ‘does it hit each of these guiding principles?’ If yes, then it’s fine. If no, you’re going to end up with continuity problems or with woolly themes. It’s a constant battle of re-education with people, I find.
WHAT ELSE WENT WELL?
“We had a long-running debate about the level of obliqueness the backstory should have. I was always on the side of ‘More oblique!’, while Alex and Tom were always arguing ‘Less oblique!’. In hindsight they had the right idea. Maybe they pushed it a little bit too far, but overall, a player is going to be much less frustrated if something is slightly too obvious than if they can’t figure it out at all, and then you risk them missing the point completely. So ultimately, they made the right call.”