Thursday, September 14, 2006

TA-ncient History #2: The Non-Story Story

What the hell?!? Did Duke Nukem and Vanilla Ice have a love child?

Total Annihilation was well received for it's gameplay and design innovations, but there was some criticism for its lack of a deep, engaging story. The heavy hitters in the RTS genre all had swell movies, choc full of the best cut scenes 3D animators and B-list actors could provide.

We started the project firmly convinced we could somehow pull together long, ambitious, jaw-dropping cinematics. During the first couple months, Chris Taylor and I laughed ourselves silly with random ideas for a premise. If we ended up snorting teriyaki and Diet Coke out our noses, we'd put it in the story.

We were leaning toward an extremely, violent, comedic style that would be familiar to fans of the Venture Brothers today. We knew we had a central figure in the Commander. We had a limited budget, so we figured he would be the only real character in the intro movie. The idea was that the Commanders were identical clones who were at war over the shape of the glassware in which they were spawned.

Yes, I'm serious.

One had a regular test tube as part of his insignia. The other had an Erlenmeyer flask. I went home one weekend and whipped up a storyboard for a long, drawn out space battle between two gigantic starships, ending with both Commanders crashing on a desolate alien world. There, they would duke it out to the death. Hot n' spicy... Total A style.

Here are some excerpts from the insanely long storyboard...

Don't worry. We came to our senses. It soon dawned on us that we could have no such thing in the game. We thought the ideas were a hoot, but they would have cost more than the game's whole budget to make. Keep in mind that Total Annihilation was made for a very modest 1.2 million bucks. Game developers spend more than that on Red Vines and spa treatments these days. We scaled back to simple mission briefings with static graphics and settled for a short intro sequence, and a couple of short movies for the end of each mission series.

A while later, we came up with the names of the sides. Chris and I batted names back and forth like "The Syndicate," and "The Corporation" for our villains. Chris shortened that to simply "the Core." Unit artist Clayton Corbisier came up with "the Arm" for our so-called good guys. He just liked the sound. We did too. Chris then asked me to go home and come up with a simple backstory one evening. He said, "Just some good guys, some bad guys and some reason they're fighting. That's it."

I came back the next day with a document outlining the war between the Arm and the Core, along with some history and possible story arcs for the game. Here is an excerpt:

"Once, the galaxy was united and whole — ruled with scientific precision by the Core. Their citizens lacked nothing. At the zenith of their civilization, the ultimate dream was realized: immortality.

"Those receiving this awesome gift were selected by Core Central. Their minds were carefully recorded as an advanced digital simulation. Weak and fallible human flesh was cast aside and a perfect, artificial body of dreadful abilities housed the remaining consciousness. This guaranteed that the best and brightest minds could be of use to society indefinitely.

"This practice made certain factions uneasy — most notably the best and brightest minds in the galaxy. Not every promising leader looked forward to this “immortality”. Gradually, this faction united and chose to live where the influence of the Core was weakest: in a remote spiral arm of the galaxy. As their numbers grew they became known simply as the Arm.

"This war of ideas became a war in fact. Uneasy with an increasingly vocal opposition, the Core decided to squelch this provincial backwater.

"At first, the Core had a clear advantage. Most of the population and resources of the galaxy were still theirs. But the Arm had a certain resourcefulness that stopped the Core’s best attempts to eradicate them. The Arm learned something new with each encounter, eventually building a war complex to rival that of the Core. What started as a minor skirmish soon blossomed into a vast conflict which would last for thousands of years."

This was later spruced up by veteran game writer, Dave Grossman for the now-familiar (and much catchier) intro sequence to Total Annihilation:

"What began as a conflict over the transfer of consciousness from flesh to machines escalated into a war which has decimated a million worlds. The Core and the Arm have all but exhausted the resources of a galaxy in their struggle for domination. Both sides, now crippled beyond repair. The remnants of their armies continue to battle on ravaged planets; their hatred fueled by over four thousand years of total war. This is a fight to the death. For each side the only acceptable outcome is the complete elimination of the other."

Ah... That's better. Above is my rough storyboard that served as the framework for the intro cinematic to Total Annihilation. Proper units and many more shots were dropped in later, though the Arm Commander didn't change that much.

It's pretty basic stuff, but there are some influences I can cite. I had been reading books with vivid portrayals of what might become of humanity if digitized simluation of human consciousness were a reality. The first was Feersum Endjinn by Iain Banks. The second was Permutation City by Greg Egan. Banks deals with a fantastic distant future where the dead live on in a digitized afterlife using a vast computer built into the crust of a planet. Egan portrays early attempts at digitizing a human mind using a more contemporary setting. Both are great reads, by the way, and influenced my thinking when I went home to cook up that skinny premise for TA.

The inclusion of nanotech was for pure convenience. This was about the time we were trying to figure out how to portray construction in the game. It would have been too complex and time consuming to have little guys with hammers and scaffolds every time something was built in the game. It also wasn't futuristic enough. We needed something like magic, but with a thin veneer of science around it. Nanotechnology to the rescue! Two other books influenced my thinking here - Queen of Angels by Greg Bear and Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. The former has a great segment describing the formation of a building inside what amounted to a gigantic glass jello mold. I thought something like that might fit our super cool futuristic war pretty well. Diamond Age vividly portrays nanotech used in both fabrication and warfare. I proposed the "nanolathe" as the basis for our construction technology. One of the programmers came up with a particle effect (sort of like futuristic space pee) and we were set.

For all that, it's still not much of a story. We were about to enter the Great Real Time Strategy Bloodbath of 1997 and we had a plot you could sum up in one paragraph. Were we crazy?!?

Yes and no.

The lack of story might have turned off a wider audience, but it left plenty of room for all sorts of great expansion and extrapolation. There was room for players to project their own imagination into the story. After I handed off that doc, I didn't write another word about the TA universe. That was okay. Everybody else ran with it. The mission designers added a ton of ideas and all sorts of interesting plot twists. Fan fiction has taken the saga of the Arm and the Core to a whole new level. The Core is no longer a two dimensional villain, and the Arm isn't just a bunch of pouting malcontents. A real, vibrant universe now hangs on the bones of Total Annihilation's spartan backstory.

I wouldn't have it any other way. Not for all the test tubes in the world.



Anonymous said...

I love the buttons. "Wargasm"? XD I guess I should expect it from the same guy who brought us Voodoo Vince.

Anonymous said...

The only thing that really saved you guys was the really awesome narrating voice and the epic music (but mostly the voice :p). Better bring it back on SupCom ;)

Would've loved to see them fighting over test tubes tho :D

It's just a matter of time untill someone makes a mod that replaces nanolathe with space-pee and D-gun with wargasm... XD

Anonymous said...

someone (Gnome) actually did :D

Clayton Kauzlaric said...

"Wargasm" is from a book of military slang that Chris bought when the project was getting underway.

Clayton Kauzlaric said...

Thanks, deltablast. That's pretty damn funny. I kinda wish we'd put it in the game now.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, and like you said, the fanfiction community for TA has really taken off. Even as we speak, I'm writing a 150-page novella on the game, and it's only part three of a series. :D <-- very old draft

Anonymous said...

Some nice story ideas there, but I can see why you went away from test tubes :D

Maulmachine, aren't you meant to be working on the TA:Reloaded Story? An idea of mine to carry the TA story on by adding level 3. May get round to finishing that eventually. Got to add the Wargasm to The Darkstar superweapon :D


Anonymous said...

The War Stories Board was what got me into the TA community. My mom and I actually met several of the people from those days in person. In fact, we published a novel by AMRAAM (under the pen name J.D. Isaacs) called The MacPherson Criticality.

Anonymous said...

It's amazing to see how this evolved, it would have been so, so wrong to stay with the cartoony storyboard.

The movies and lack of any in-depth story actually add an air of mystery and leave it all up to the imagination.

The intro movie I could watch over and over again.

Molloy said...

There was a PC action game called Wargasm that came out in 1998ish wasn't there? Remember reading about it in a magazine.

To tell a good story in videogames you have to do it through the gameplay. In Mario you can see the castle in the background when you're on the 3rd last stage. Then on the 2nd last stage you're outside it. Last stage you're in the castle jumping over lava. There's no need to tell you at the start that the princess is kidnapped, or some baddie has stolen your chaos emeralds or whatever.

Problem with most modern game stories is they're too plot heavy. And they have to use loads of dialogue and cutscenes to fill in all the exposition. And in an interactive artform you're losing people when you do that.

Better to leave lots of gaps, and let the player fill in the rest with their imagination.

I'm surprised how close the concept drawings look to Jim and Bert. Damn, I sure wish I could draw properly.

Jeannette said...

Had Total Annihilation started with more than an intriguing premise, I would not have written a TA fanfic. I will not write a fanfic for SupCom, for example, in spite of what looks like a great setup, because its characters are established. Not for free, anyway.


Anonymous said...

Then, clearly, AMRAAM, we have vastly differing tastes and clientele.:P

Johan said...

Most interesting.

Interesting because one of the (very) few things I never really liked was the uniqueness of the faction gameplay-mechanics. It seemed almost coincidental. The story of the warring clones kinda answers this. As if you guys designed the units, factions and gameplay-mechanics before coming up with the final lore outline.

I have always been in awe of Starcraft and Warcraft3(though not a big fan), and how they had such different, yet balanced, factions. This didn't really apply to TA. Both factions where so alike in so many ways (except lore of course).

To my eyes, it looks like you guys designed the units before you designed the lore. There's nothing about the design (both looks and mechanics) that really reflects their role in the history, in my honest opinion.

So I just have to ask this: why did you make the gameplay mechanics and the units of the factions so alike?

Clayton Kauzlaric said...

For much of TA's development, we just didn't care about the back story. Our outlook was that gameplay came first. We actually went through a short phase where Chris and I decided to have NO story whatsoever in the game. Ron Gilbert convinced us otherwise, so I had to whip up our thin excuse for a universe. We probably only had a quarter or one third of the units built at that point, but we were already pretty well set on building (mostly) equivalent sides for TA.

We didn't have the time or money to create the clone story, so the "One Type of Robot Hates the Other Type of Robot" premise had to suffice + a glorified slide show + narration.

As for the similarity of the factions in TA, again, time and resources limited our ability to create, tune and balance completely diverse factions. We figured if the sides were basically identical, but the choice of units pretty immense, then players could still surprise each other, and devise interesting strategies from that heap of units.

Chris and I joked that chess works out pretty well as a strategy game with completely mirrored sides. We knew that was a facile comparison, given how RTS differs from a turn based board game, but we were confident we'd made the right call, especially given our options and what our engine could do.

Johan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johan said...

First of all, thanks for answering. As an old time fan of TA, getting a direct answer from a central developer about a question that has been bugging me for a while - is quite awesome.

I gotta say though, the lore part never really bothered me. The intro to TA is like one of those things in my life that has left a great great impression on me. I can still remember when I watched it over and over and over again with my friend. I remember we loved the scene with the peewee and the bomber especially. How the scout viechle in the beginning dodges the obstacles. And all of this coupled with an awesomely poetic intro speech (really, its like the best ever. If you meet up with this Grossman dude again, give him a pat on the back), and an even more awesome sountrack. It kicked ass, basically. The lore had this kind of aesthetic simplicity to it.

It's interesting to hear that at one point, there wheren't no lore at ALL.

Thanks for clarifying though. I totally understand the argument about "many units equals many outcomes", though. Not to mention how easy it is to mod it. :) Another gripe in that department was how some units could make others useless at times. But that was never such a big a deal for my sake. It actually became a lot more apparent in SupCom.

Oh and the chess argument kinda makes sense, doesn't it?

Anyways, thanks again for answering, and keep on posting TA related articles!

Thomas Prewitt said...

I liked your story better since it made sense. They fled to the outer arm of the galaxy.

Changing that to the insanely ridiculous "millions of worlds" being decimated, is unfortunate. It'd take time to use up all the resources of just one entire planet, but millions of planets, makes no sense at all.