I'm a few weeks late on this report from the Montreal International Game Summit, so let's see what we can do from memory only and no notes!
I found Ken Rolston's presentation to be accidentally highly self-referential. Before explaining that, let's look at his ridiculous summary of what is presentation was about:
The road to success as a narrative designer is long and arduous. But you don't want to hear that. So Ken Rolston, Internationally Celebrated Lead Designer of Oblivion, Morrowind, and other light classics, will reveal the carefully hoarded treasury of cheap tricks and short cuts that enable him to avoid Real Work. In this fast-paced and charming presentation, Rolston delivers the box of tools, lavishly illustrates their use in the production of Rolston's Great Works, and teaches you how to project a shallow but persuasive mastery of the craft of narrative game design.
I read that and thought, "wait, he's kidding right?" He avoids real work, he's charming, he's Internationally Celebrated with capital letters, and he will teach us to project a "shallow but persuasive mastery of the craft"? Ha!
I can't convey the actual content of his presentation because there was way too much. In fact, he started the presentation by explaining the "spew principle." If he spews so much information at us that we can't process it all, we'll have the warm feeling of discovery (of all the tools and principles he will spew), but no time to be critical. This will cause us to enjoy the talk and to like him, he said.
If you want a taste of the actual content, you can check out his terribly designed PowerPoint slides here. But I'd rather give you a sense of his tone. Ken mentions here and there how great he is, and we all know it's a joke (because we are not idiots from the internet, possibly?). He tells us how he manipulates his employees, players, and even us in the audience--and we laugh, but he's kind of not kidding. He's just on the edge of whether he's kidding or not, so you can't really be offended, but he sneaks in the sad truth.
The self-reference comes from these two pieces of advice Rolston gave us about narrative: 1) recognize that you have a distinctive voice, and that you should express it in game-narrative and 2) you probably want your world to be serious so it feels more real, but you also want to have the player and designer wink at each other, too.
I don't think it was really on purpose that Rolston's presentation embodied these two ideas: it's just how he is. He has a unique voice and he can't help but express it in a presentation. Also, his presentation is ultimately serious in that he explained many principles of narrative design, but he also seems to be delivering deadpan humor half the time, too. Take this example. Rolston explained that the type of game he makes involves having a big team of developers so a big part of his job is explaining his ideas to everyone. He showed a few simple techniques for this (making a clickable map of the game made of simple symbols, each location giving info from the point of view of the locals who live there), but he also had some management tips for us....
He said he brings a giant box of donuts to work in the morning. They are the most sugary ones he can find and filled with "bad chemicals." He says that people like bad chemicals, it really gets them going, so he wants to be the one providing the sugar high to everyone. This makes them like him and listen to him, he says. He said that later in the day, around 4pm, people are feeling low and often "combat in the office is imminent." For this, he has a giant bowl of trail mix in his office. He has trained the employees to come in, fill their little bowls with trail mix from his big bowl, and thank him. He says this establishes his dominance in the office and his supplicants are thankful for what scraps he provides for them and they learn their submissive role this way. It puts him in a kingly position.
Is he kidding? On the face of it, yes. But I kind of think he's not. It seems like this is an actual plan of his, but he explains it in an over-the-top way that makes us think it's a joke.
At one point he paused his lecture to sing us a folk-song (yes, really). I noticed that the song contained the idea that young people should listen to old people, that they should watch what old people do and learn from it. He wove this same idea into his lecture two other times here and there. Rolston is telling us to listen to him, and he's manipulating us to do it. Somehow, it's just jokey enough that we love him though, and are not put off by it one bit.
Things Should Look Old
Back to that point about how your world should be mostly serious. Rolston says that a good way to do this is to create the impression that your (fictional, virtual) world is really old. It has history. Major events have come and gone. He likes to include ruins, with backstory about what happened to that former civilization. He mentioned some book I forget the name of that is a about an archeologist from the future who is looking through the ruins OUR world and he delights in our culture and artifacts just as much as we would, even though he's only seeing the smallest left-over scraps of it. This is the position he likes to put the player in when they look at old stuff in his worlds.
I was surprised by how much time Rolston spent just on the topic how to make things look old. He talked about using the right fonts and using tricks of old English. He explained the trick of replacing all letter s's with those flourishy things that look like a letter f, but not if the letter s is the end of the word. He showed ways to make words look like they came from a long time ago. He explained that when coming up with names, he uses many different websites that auto-generate fantasy names, then deletes the ones that sound bad. He needs a truckload of names of things for his games, after all. And I laughed when he mentioned the idea of putting that old, grainy, torn type of filter on a video to make it look really old...when the video is showing something from medieval times. Ha! He said that kind of nonsense bothers only a few people and most people just read it as "old," which is what you want. Likewise, if you use tricks from the 18th century language to make your (much older!) world seem old, no one will notice that's out of place, either. Rolston doesn't care about accuracy here, just creating an, uh, "aura of oldness" however he can.
So why was I surprised at this topic? Because the very next hour, I would give my lecture called Every Click Counts, and in that lecture I would make a related point. I would say that in the game industry, we spend so much time and money on the systems inside the games, while often neglecting that critical game<->player boundary. For example, Resident Evil 5 has amazing technology--the look of the zombies, their movements, lighting system, even the tweaking of how dangerous or not they are to the player, all took tons of time and money. Yet when it comes to which clicks the player actually inputs to play, there are frightening oversights like the whole "5 clicks to reload" thing.
Then (in my lecture), I was planning to say that this wouldn't be a problem if we were all writers instead of game developers. If this were a writing conference, my Every Click Counts lecture would say that your story (be it fictional, news reporting, whatever) can't be your ONLY focus. You have to remember that readers have to look at a page of words to get that story in their heads, and that page better look good, or at least not terrible. You wouldn't slave over your novel or journalism story only to have someone read it in children's crayon writing, would you? I would then say that my lecture at this imaginary writing conference about choosing good fonts, layout, colors, and so on would not be needed in that industry because they've basically figured it out. The average magazine has way better layout than the average game has good interface.
But then here's Ken Rolston right in front of me, talking about conveying narrative, and most of what he's saying is about that exact game<->player boundary I'm talking about! Almost none of his lecture was about the story itself, but instead about how the surface of the story is presented. And he literally talked about fonts, layouts, and colors! This isn't a knock on him at all, quite the opposite. It was a great subject for him to share with us, I just didn't expect it.
Oh and speaking of slaving over a story then presenting it in children's crayon writing, he showed a screenshot of the game Jade Empire. That's a game about an ancient martial arts / fantasy world with Japanese themes. The screenshot showed a wooden sign near a temple or something, and the lettering on the sign looked like it was written in Helvetica Bold. Rolston's desire to /facepalm was palpable.