Recently a local student and RIFT player reached out to ask for a little bit of information about game writing and world building to use in a school project. Captain Cursor, our resident lore expert (with an unusual job title) graciously agreed to answer their questions. When we got a chance to read over his answers, we realized this provided an excellent behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to write lore for RIFT!
When you’re 6’6, you get to use whatever picture you like in articles about you
To get started, what’s your role on the RIFT Team?
What do I do as part of the RIFT team?
I touch a lot of parts of the game. There’s brainstorming up new concepts in the game: where are we going next, who are we fighting next, what will the next adventure bring? Other times I act as a resource to other members of the team who want to ground what they are doing in the lore of the game. I help the dungeon team connect their maddening fights with the lore of the game, which is especially challenging when they are working in parallel with the development of the lore. I write most of the short stories about the class lore which gets used for marketing the classes as well as with abilities and items related to the class.
I’m also on hand to help brainstorm plots and vignettes with designers or answer cultural questions with the artists. And then every so often Daglar locks me in a room with the MTX team and won’t open the door until we name all the promotions. I’m also on the team that is working on the expansion to the Plane of Water, so there are quests to make, monologues to write, vignettes to stage, scenes to name, and mobs to place. I’ll also occasionally get grabbed into the recording booth to voice some of the NPCs (MEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAD!) or help direct the much more professional voice actors.
Also there are puppet shows. Occasionally I get to make puppet shows.
How long have you been on the RIFT Team?
I joined Trion in 2008, back when RIFT was the “Heroes of Telara” team.
Why did you join the RIFT Team? Was it just a job or did something draw you to it?
When I joined the project the story of the game was drastically different. At the time I had been working on console games and had wanted to work with MMOs. I was involved with a modding project for Neverwinter Nights and was running a server where I had built out a custom world. I liked the long-term interaction with a community and the sense of creating a virtual space where people would live. This type of storytelling really interested me and I wanted to do more along those lines rather than the short-term cycles that I had been working on in console games.
How does creating a world for a game differ from a printed piece?
A work of written fiction is a creation of a singular vision. It’s just the writer and the page (and often a really good editor behind the scenes making the writer look good). A game is a giant collaboration between multiple artists, engineers, designers, musicians, actors, and other specialized craftsmen that are needed to bring the game to fruition. They are all part of the conversation. And that will help steer the game towards completion.
Games also have different goals than just the story. When I started the game was called Heroes of Telara and it was very different than it is today. After we worked at for a few years we found that one aspect of the game we thought would be fun, the dynamic content, wasn’t. The rifts were born out of the necessity of redoing the way we inserted dynamic content into the game. The dynamic content was better when it was highlighted, when it stood out from the rest of the world, and when it became a focus of the player’s activity. So that changed what the story requirements needed to be. We had six types of elemental rifts, so we needed six villains for the story. We reused a lot of the monsters that would appear in the rift, so we needed reasons why the monsters were invading from the planes and also in the world. We had different designers writing their stories for their zones, quests and dungeons and we needed them to all fit while still giving people a chance to explore and be creative, so we created the cults that had different story themes.
In the last class lore stories, I wrote “The Tenebrean living construct appeared to be an immense obelisk supported by spidery, buttress like limbs.” I hoped to create an image of a giant opponent bigger than the walls that tried to stand against it. That sentence took me a few seconds to write. The Volan fight, which is about where I’m imagining the scale of this monster, took several months of iteration back and forth between designers, artists and engineers. So while writing I don’t need to concern myself with things like draw calls, scale, limitations on physics, I just have to write an engaging tale (though I don’t mean to minimize the difficulty of achieving that). For writing the game I set creative direction for various groups, and then tie everything up once the teams have all put their own stamp on it.
Where do you start when creating a new world or zone? Physical space or culture?
First step is figuring out the requirements of what you need to accomplish. What is this new zone for? Endgame? Leveling? A raid? Is it an interesting backdrop for rifts to be placed? Are we using it to showcase a new gameplay mechanic? Who are we creating it for? New players? Experienced fans? Are we going to be publishing to other countries? Do they have different cultural expectations or taboos that we should be aware of? What is our production budget? How many artists do we have? Is there enough to make all-new assets or do we have to reuse some from earlier places? What kind of player is going to playing it? New? Veteran? Returning?
Then we put forth some really broad concepts to see how it resonates with people. These aren’t always very detailed, mostly they deal with the emotional feeling of a zone, or the setting for the type of story you want to tell. “A jungle filled with lost temples of an ancient civilization,” “a stormy zone where you invade the beaches through a hostile army,” or “a foggy swamp where the dead walk and the keeper of souls hunts,” something that provides the start of a conversation about what it will take to create.
This also allows us to get a big picture of what we want to be doing, and it allows us to kill ideas before too much work has gone into the production. When so much work by so many people goes into each zone, it’s better to kill them off earlier rather than later. As you move into production, then you fill in more and more of the story points and bring things together. Many of the needs come directly from the story. Who is the villain? Who are the player’s allies? What do they want to accomplish? How do they live?
And then you generally have some story ideas or experiences that have been kicking around in your brain for a while that you want to try to represent in the game, so after you get all the requirements set you fill it with your ideas that fit all the goals. Is this the zone for a whimsical town of talking animals, or is it more appropriate for that stormy beach that you fight your way inland. The combination of the needs of the game, the demands of the story and the ideas that you have been dying to see realized shapes what forms in the final zone of the game. It’s rarely exactly what you were thinking it would be at the start, but that is what is so interesting about the collaborative aspect of working on games.
Why did you choose to pit the two ideals of the Guardians (religious faction) against the Defiant (magic & tech)? Did this come from history?
There still is this tension here in the present I’d say.
We needed to have an ideological difference between the factions and didn’t want it to be a clear-cut good versus evil, especially because we needed both sides to be trying to save the world against the same threats and use similar abilities to combat them. We didn’t have much of a geographic divide between where the factions lived, and the physical differences weren’t so pronounced that it would fall among species lines. In many ways I think we ended up with the iconic fantasy faction (Guardians) and the modern fantasy/sci-fi faction (the Defiant). This divide would be one that would resonate with players, yet not be so insurmountable as to prevent them from trying the other faction.
How do you think the story or world in RIFT would differ if the game were a single-player game?
The differences would be huge because the requirements of what the story needs to convey are huge. Much of the story of RIFT is designed to support many players playing together in a shared space. Even within a single-player game there are huge differences that shape the story. Is it a very linear game like Bioshock where you can build a complex, large story, or is it a game more about exploration like Skyrim, where there are many, smaller stories that add up to something? Will the player have companions that persist and help out on the adventure or will they just encounter people at various points in between combat?
How the game plays out shapes the demands of the story. Even if we were to try to tell the same narrative of an Ascended hero who was fighting against a planar invasion of their world, the demands of a single-player game would necessarily change the story, or at least the focus. We’d be able to delve into much more detail – from the personalities of various NPCs to the player character and his/her arcs.
Do the mechanics come from story, story come from mechanics, or do you work completely independently?
It’s always a back and forth. The story is used to tie together and reinforce the mechanics and goals of the game, and the mechanics and gameplay draw from the story. Generally, in the beginning, it’s the rough sketches of the story that start conversations off, and then as the game moves forward finding the fun in the mechanics creates unique demands as to what the story has to tie together. But really the story should never try to be telling something that can’t be represented in the mechanics of the game, and the mechanics work to set you in the world that the story has defined. Both exist to tell you the same tale.
Where do you start when coming up for a quest?
Like with everything, we approach it with a few passes. We’ll sketch out a broad story of the zone, enough to get the art and engineering requests done. Then when we return to it we’ll go down with some finer detail based on what actions you are doing. We want to keep an eye on pacing so that the player isn’t always doing the same actions over and over. Here is when we’ll try to make sure that we do broad, zone-wide storytelling: introduce the villain, introduce the player’s allies, show the threat to the zone, get you to the place where the player can resolve the threat. Then we’ll return to produce the quest – at this point the zone terrain is in a more playable, though not final, state. Here is where the fun factor and the usability of the quests are tested, and focus given to what goes on for the quest itself. Finally when that is all done and playable we’ll take a writing pass on the quests and stich together all the individual experiences into a greater whole.
What are your favorite things to reference when creating content? Books, movies, music?
Hopefully we don’t dive too deep in references. But when I do, I like to start with a mythological or historical basis. Often this will be a germ of an idea to get started, and by the end will be so drastically different it is unrecognizable. The story of the Dendrome certainly doesn’t look much like the twelve heroic labors of Hercules, but that’s where I started thinking about what needed to happen. Then there are places where you reference aspects of history, like how we wanted Pelladane to feel like France in World War II. Or we will draw from our own lives; I do the voice for Atrophinius so I wanted to have him go through some parenting drama because that is something I’m very familiar with.
But drawing from other sources should be a starting point, a way of kicking off your creativity, rather than an end goal. Making straight-out pop culture references is something we try to avoid. Or at least we channel it into achievements and artifacts. It is often easier to use these tropes to communicate larger concepts, and that kind of reference does make its way though. If we do our job right it reads as iconic – it’s only when we don’t that it reads as cliché.
What’s your favorite piece of lore in RIFT?
I’m very curious as to what is going to happen to Tasuil, the dragon that hatched in the Dendrome. When we started RIFT, we wanted to draw very clear lines between the two player factions, and the villains they both opposed. As the Ascended have grown in power, they have dealt with the threats to Telara, and the dragons are no longer in command. It’ll be interesting to see how the dragons that arise after the Bloodstorm work themselves into the story.
Okay – my actual favorite bit of lore is some stuff that got cut out of Storm Legion due to production reasons. But I really liked some of those ideas and have been trying to weave them back into the game. We’ll start to see more of that hinted at in 3.0.