Ryan Jones is the Narrative Designer on Remnant, as well as the Systems Designer and secondary coder on the project.
When our team first decided to create a game set in space, the idea of building a universe’s worth of story was both an exciting and a frightening prospect. Space is a blank canvas, but one which comes with certain expectations and history. There were a great many questions demanding answers: how can we create a take on spacefaring science fiction that hasn’t been seen before? How can we make it fit the game we have in our heads? And how can we convey a strong story in such a short experience?
When I sat down to answer these questions, I decided to take a hard look at the gameplay experience we were setting out to make. The idea of commanding a large fleet of drones- all of which could be called in to transform into larger, more powerful ships- led me to make an association with one of the mottos of the United States, “E pluribus unum” or, “Out of many, one.” The parallels between America – an association of semi-autonomous states united under a central governing body – and our player ship, the Ambassador, were quite strong.
From that single spark, the floodgates opened and the entire story and history of our universe began to tumble forth and take shape. The design and function of the Ambassador was such that it could take on any form and fulfill any function, which is bombastic and impressive, but also hugely inefficient and nebulous in purpose. Who better to fund such a ship than an American government of the near future, its massive bureaucracy demanding unmatched form while being undecided about function?
From this history, I extrapolated forward and looked at what the universe would look like after being colonized by what we’ve been calling “Space Americans”. I realized that, after twelve thousand years, very little would remain of the original colonizers except the remnants of their once-great empire. (Hey, that’s the name of the game!) Just as very little is known about our own ancestors from over ten thousand years ago, so too is very little remembered about the ancestors of these future settlers, except for what has been passed down in myth.
If there were hundreds of thousands of people onboard the Ambassador, a ship capable of breaking apart into autonomous parts at a moment’s notice, then there must also have been dozens of small mutinies that turned into full-fledged emigrations from the ship itself. Suddenly, I had answered two questions with one answer: how did humanity splinter into so many smaller, autonomous factions and how did the Ambassador’s parts come to rest on such a huge variety of planets?
Finally, once the Ambassador had been completely abandoned, it was left forgotten in a desert, until events were set in motion within the timeline of our game… You can read the entirety of my initial history of the Ambassador here.
Once this history was created, the antagonists began to take shape, and were a lot of fun to create. After thousands of years on a dying Earth, the humans who were “left behind” waited for the Ambassador to return to rescue humanity and deliver them all to the stars. Of course, the Ambassador never returned. Society crumbled, as it is wont to do, and rebuilt around the deification of the Ambassador ship and its position as the Saviour of Humanity. And when you’ve discovered that your god has been left to rot in a desert, thousands of light years away, you’re likely to be more than a bit angry. And so the “Forefathers”, as they began to style themselves, set off on a campaign of vengeance, searching for their God-Ship.
A ship which, when the player takes control, is used to destroy its own worshippers. Exquisite.
For the player character, I wanted to create a fun ‘buddy cop’ dynamic between the ship and its pilot because I knew it would be a blast to write. The ship’s AI core, ABBY, has unimaginable knowledge and a (rather understandable) God complex, but must follow her single, infuriating direction: obey the commands of her human pilot.
Her pilot, an engineer named Edmund Casey, is bright but homespun, with a carefree outlook on life and a great deal of humility. When he crash lands near the Ambassador and uses it as his ticket off of a desert planet, he gets more than he bargains for, setting off the events of the game itself…
Creating Story Moments
I don’t want to spoil a great deal about Remnant’s story itself, except to say that celestial objects will blow up, impossible odds will be faced, and Casey and ABBY will get on each other’s nerves.
When it came to conveying story information, I had a number of priorities to consider:
- Brevity: Can I get the necessary information to the player without unnecessary wordiness?
- Clarity: Can the player understand the thrust of the story, even if they aren’t paying attention to the minutiae?
- Style: Taking the above to priorities into consideration, how can I still make the dialogue engaging and unique?
- Suggestion: Even though I’m saying very little, can I suggest a great deal more about the characters and their world?
Conveying backstory was a bit more challenging. I didn’t want to saddle the player with mandatory history lessons, which break the flow of the experience and are the enemy of fun. Instead, I decided to intersperse backstory into moments of down time, such as when the player is travelling from one objective to the next. Because these conversations were “lower priority”, they would be automatically interrupted once important objective-related information was reached (wait for Part Two for more info on the actual mechanics of the dialogue system!) Because of this, I had to front-load the most important backstory information while still making the conversation sound natural. Take this conversation between Casey and ABBY, for example:
Casey: So if you've been stuck in that desert for such a good long time, how do you know so much about... so much?
ABBY: Our constituents send us a constant stream of data from all parts of colonized space.
Casey: These “constituents”…
ABBY: You want to know they came to rest on so many worlds.
Casey: It has puzzled a historian or two.
ABBY: It’s quite simple, Mister Casey. Your people flew them there.
Casey: Not sure I quite understand.
ABBY: That is shocking to me.
A conversation like this one works because it covers all of its bases: it’s brief enough to occur between objectives, the key information (in this case, the source of ABBY’s vast knowledge) is clearly stated up front, it maintains the adversarial style of these characters’ relationship, and it suggests a lot more that what is spoken.
Here’s another similar example. ABBY frequently refers to herself as “we”, and Casey’s curiosity finally gets the better of him:
Casey: You keep saying "we.”
ABBY: I suppose you should know: I control forty-nine other Artificial Intelligence profiles.
Casey: What kind of moron puts fifty AIs in charge of one ship?
ABBY: The ship's AI was to be modeled after a great figure in its builder's history. And when you are built by a massive bureaucracy, it can be difficult to decide on just one.
Casey: So they threw in all of them.
ABBY: (under her breath) No, John Quincy, that's a terrible idea! ... (to Casey) You try keeping fifty conflicting minds in check.
Casey: Lady, you got more loose screws than a Calderon whorehouse.
In Part Two, I’ll talk a bit more about how all of this dialogue and story actually made it from conception to end product.