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.
Gamereactor: One of the things you could say about nearly all of your games, especially the historical ones, is you are looking for those periods of conflict when countries and parts of the world are going through these transitions.
Pete Stewart: And Three Kingdoms China, like the end of the Han dynasty, is almost certainly that. I sound like a broken record to all the people I tell this too but, across the entire scope of it, 30 million people died. So, in terms of a game that is about war, and total war, you can see how that's perfect - it's terrible but it's perfect. As well, then, our characters all rising up creates this dynamic to drive for supremacy. Who's going to win? Who's going to be on top? So, I've already seen how on a very high level, it's sort of the perfect DNA for Total War.
Leif Walter: Then we had these two important sources, where the records would give us the historical facts and [that's] where economy and population, all this comes in. But then with Romance, that gave a lot of personal touches to the cold facts, basically helped to form the relationships system and it hammered down the point that characters are important, because these guys had a personal feud that had ripple effects through diplomacy and these two countries, or states or factions, eventually go to war because they didn't like each other from a personal standpoint. These were important things to get across and into the game.
GR: You mentioned Romance, you mentioned the historical record. You can play the campaign in two different ways. Can you tell us some of the differences players will experience if they opt for one or the other?
PS: The primary difference between the Records mode and the Romance mode is how the characters and heroes act. In battle, they will be these larger than life characters in Romance mode, but they are not entirely the driving force of a battle, but they have a much stronger impact on a very personal level. So, your armies are important when you've got to win a battle through manoeuvring and tactics, but ultimately you're duelling to get yourself an advantage in battle. They are using special abilities [and] can jump in and then start tearing through enemies. Whereas, in the Records mode, the classic mode, they are a bit squishier. They're like generals from other Total War titles; they have a bodyguard unit, they still have an influence on the battle, they are not insignificant at all, but you want to protect them, you don't want to send them off into duels and stuff like that. So, it's much more pared down, classical Total War as opposed to having a bit more romance, I suppose is probably the word to use, larger than life elements.
LW: This is strong ripple effects because on Romance, certain characters may be able to survive certain wounds in battle and they can all still die and will die of old age, but they are more resilient in that sense. Whereas in Record mode, it's more likely they will suffer from their wounds and they will die, so you will have to replace them, so you have a character who has a less lasting impact on your campaign as [they do] in romance. And then there is also a set of different events...
PS: Yeah, Romance events.
LW: Specific, I don't know, like some spiritual events and then Diaochan, which is just another historical thing that happened, you know this girl that essentially triggered the conflict, these are part of the Romance mode.
GR: So, when a player sits down if you could invisibly nudge them to click on one option or the other, would you say that the Romance is the definitive experience, the one that you want people to explore, or is really just down to personal taste?
LW: It's really down to personal taste and it's really these two facets of the same conflict, the same source material. There's no better or lesser experience here, it's more about, do you want to look at it from a romanticised view or more down-to-earth.
PS: Yeah, it's entirely up to the personal preference. If you've played enough Three Kingdoms themed games in the past and dealt with that sort of fantastical element, then maybe you want to keep that going, or maybe you want to be more pared down. It's ultimately just player choice really, which is what we are all about.
GR: Ok, so let's talk about the narrative pacing. Can you tell us about how you've introduced these events and how that side of things works?
LW: Well, so we basically the most important thing is that it is a sandbox where the player makes his own choices and it was really important that it's mainly about the game reacting to what the player does. So, if you execute someone in battle, [basically] his friends will comment on that as you load into the next battle, for example. This sort of emergent narrative from what you did in the campaign.
PS: In terms of the narrative, we start off with a historically authentic baseline as we can do, so it starts in 190CE and you've heard that the Han Dynasty is crumbling and Dong Zhuo is on the rise as the coalition against him has collapsed and everyone is sort of out for themselves. That's as it was, so we've created an authentic beginning or starting point with authentic friendships like Lui Bei and his sworn brothers. And people are in the right places and then the player just [click] and off they go. There were certain little, not quite nudges, but the victory condition might suggest what you should do or what happened in history or what could've happened in history if this person hadn't been killed before they got to that point. But ultimately, the [narrative systems] that we've put in place in the game are two lifestyles to reflect your choices. We're not forcing any player to make any choices, but we are sort of making sure they are very aware it has on the impact of the world as they progress.
GR: So presumably you're sprinkling little incidental bits and pieces of detail on the experience to add context.
PS: Yeah, for sure. The events are themed around what happened in China at the time and then there are sort of specific moments from the history and the Romance that we have peppered in. You'll suddenly find yourself in a constellation of circumstances where if you happen to trigger that exact same set of events, like something that actually happened in the Romance or in the history, you'll get the event the actually represents that.
LW: So, we mainly look at the Romance and check, what are cool moments, what are cool stories that are in the Romance and then we try to create systems that will basically enable players to relive that or version of it. So, if you have this cool thing about [one character] who was captured in battle multiple times by the same guy, and this created this sort of Stockholm Syndrome, where in the end he was like, "wow, you're so honourable that you keep sparing my life after capturing me, so please hire me." You have a gameplay mechanic in the game that enables you to do the same thing, maybe not with [the same characters] but with another person who values this kind of behaviour, and they might join you. So, it's about not necessarily getting all the actual Romance events in the game but rather enabling you to tell your own Romance story with the given base materials.
GR: I think that was an excellent way to end things. Thank you so much for your time.
Total War: Three Kingdoms is heading to PC on March 07, 2019. You can read more about it here.
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