Just the other day we shared our thoughts on Total War: Three Kingdoms, the next game in CA's series of historical wargames, and while we were there senior designer Leif Walter and narrative designer Pete Stewart sat down with us and told us all about the studio's exploration of Chinese history, how they've been looking to work more story and personality in the campaign, and the differences between the more traditional campaign and its more romantic counterpart.
Gamereactor: There's a lot going on in Total War: Three Kingdoms, and first I'd like to know what you think is the most significant departure in terms of the evolution of historical Total War?
Leif Walter: Well I think definitely the character focus of the game and the fact that characters can move around freely in the world. I think that, basically, impacts various systems in the world like diplomacy and politics which feed into everything but, basically characters are no longer bound to a faction but can move around. If you capture someone in battle you might be able to hire him, one of your friends in your faction might suddenly leave to join another faction. There is an interconnectedness in that sense, which is a very strong change and that feeds into a lot of the systems.
Pete Stewart: Leif has stolen my answer!
GR: Well, I've got a follow-up question that's more directed at you; can you tell me how that affects your work as a narrative designer? Is it a blessing or a curse having all these moving pieces on the board... does that give you more freedom or have you had to work in different systems to take advantage of that?
PS: Honestly, it's probably been the most professionally rewarding for me because of the way we've moved into dealing with narrative in a stronger sense than we had previously. So the characters, like Leif was talking about, the way they move around, like the way they form relationships with one another; that has to be reflected in the game somehow. And so we use dialogue systems to reflect how characters are interacting with each other so if you make friends with someone and then you go into battle and they have a chat before the battle they will talk about how they are friends. Or if you encounter someone that you've fought before and defeated you will chat to each other about how that happened or you will chat about how you lost and will have your revenge and that kind of stuff. From a narrative dialogue perspective, you can see how you can have a lot of fun representing a player's campaign as it continues and develops and evolves. So yeah, a lot of the way we're reflecting character narrative and player narrative is by showing you what you've done... which is something Total War has never really done before. It's like, this is how your campaign is progressing, you're having an effect on the world and it's being reflected back at you rather than you just saying "I conquered that territory or that territory", that's not your Total War story anymore. So, if you've conquered all these territories but at the same time you've really annoyed someone, and that comes back to bite you...
LW: This type of emergent narrative as you always say... these dynamic systems that are more challenged now because there are more variables if you will. But, we're helping them create these memorable moments. We looked a lot at the Romance novel to get inspiration for what other cool situations we want our dynamic systems to recreate without scripting it in a sense that it's always this "this will happen" but it can happen or it can happen slightly differently.
PS: So that was also a challenge, as professionally rewarding as it has been, there's a challenge in actually designing how the systems will reflect these dynamic, pieced together conversations, and how they have to sound natural... they have to sound like they're really talking to each other and also there has to be enough of them so it doesn't sound repetitive. So from a challenging point of view, there is a lot more work we had to do on this project compared to previous Total War projects.
GR: How did you bring the personality of those characters onto the battlefield? That must be a completely different challenge to integrating them into the campaign.
LW: Yes, we looked at what are archetypes of personalities... you know, you have the cowardly ones who might retreat and run away in battle more readily, or you have the aggressive generals who would really never hold back and always go forward. So, we tried to take some of these personalities and then you can meet these in battle and we have a little system where basically your generals comment on the personality of the enemy so, "Okay, he is a cowardly guy so he will hide on this hill" basically, you have to go there [to find him].
PS: Yeah, each character has that kind of thing. The way that a character is represented outside of the main characters which we've welcome back is also that they tie into the Wu Xing system, where each character is tied to an element, and each element represents its archetype so someone who is aligned to fire is more of a warmonger. So some of your more generic, non-famous characters, say a fire general... his dialogue set will be very aggressive, so in battle his gameplay will be very aggressive with his abilities that will cause damage and when he's talking to other people he will be shouting them down rather than trying to be witty or clever or sort of philosophical, which some of the other ones like the water or an earth general might be. So, you can see how the dynamic might shift then. For the big characters like Liu Bei and Cao Cao and those kinds of characters, we represented them in doing a lot of research into how they are represented in not only in the Romance and the records but throughout popular culture, so in movies, comic books, books, all these kind of things to see how we can best capture them and go from there essentially.
GR: So let's dive down into the research process because this is a huge game and in a way, it's continuing on from Rome 2 in terms of that sense of scale with this huge land mass that you've got to try and paint your own colour. Did you look at the various changes that you've made and then find the theme? Or did you settle on Three Kingdoms early and then through that research start piecing together the way that you wanted to evolve Total War?
LW: I think it's definitely the latter, where we looked at the resource material that we had, basically the content, mainly the records and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and then that informed heavily what is going to be important in the game, which characters are going to be the core of the gameplay, and what other interesting mechanics there are going to be in the game; okay, we will need population because that was really significant at the time, we will need food, all of these things were informed by looking at the high-level picture.
PS: It's definitely setting first, then gameplay, the detail of the game, later. Three Kingdoms jumped out at us like "look at all these opportunities" and when we'd settled on it we were like "Three Kingdoms! Yeah, we can do this, this and this and this." Then, we started doing real research and how all this would piece together.