Rhythm games are rarely known for their complex or even existent stories. Though some titles have tried to incorporate a tale – including the recent leak of what Harmonix’s Guitar Hero III could have been – gameplay often rules king. And though Harmonix is looking to stick with the same gameplay in Dance Central 3 that the series has included since the beginning, the developer is hoping to infuse a narrative with the dancing title. Speaking with writer and longtime Harmonix staple Eric Pope, the story will not be a quick addition to the franchise but rather a bizarrely hilarious tale of secret organizations, time travel and, naturally, Jurassic Park.
First, Mr. Pope described the narrative crux of the game, which takes players through multiple decades of dance. At the outset, the player is recruited by the underground agency known as the DCI, the Dance Central Intelligence, to take down the menacing Dr. Tan. A returning factor in the series, Dr. Tan is a “dance fascist” according to Mr. Pope, hoping to make everyone in the world dance in the same manner using older dance moves.
The DCI, refusing to let dance lose its individuality, sends the player back in time to master these moves and prevent Dr. Tan from using them for nefarious purposes. The story will be told generation by generation, and each writer of the title was given a different decade to cover. Though Mr. Pope loved being able to work within a specific period, he enjoyed even more what the story mechanics allowed him to write.
In particular, he found writing for Dr. Tan a true highlight. Mr. Pope described him as this “ ridiculous old man” who they can “really amp up the evil” with to mine as much comedy as possible. Dr. Tan “wants to be cool but can’t” and combined with the wealth of pop culture references at the writers’ hands, there are plenty of opportunities to demonstrate Dr. Tan’s square persona.
Of course, the time travel element also proved a favorite of Mr. Pope’s, citing films like Back to the Future as obvious influences. If anything the vast amount of time-hopping narratives out there allowed the Harmonix team to create its own rules, as Mr. Pope and the other writes could develop, as he so succinctly put it, their own “bullshit” time-travel rules. Mr. Pope loved incorporating a host of film and older cultural allusions into the tale, though he lamented how little Jurassic Park he weaved in, which can likely only mean a dinosaur-themed fourth outing in the series.
On a more serious note, Mr. Pope discussed the difficulties of writing in a title where gameplay is such an important factor. As a far different venture for the company, Mr. Pope mentioned how he and the other writers would need to rewrite scenes to justify a song addition or removal. Design is such a key aspect of the Harmonix offices Mr. Pope explained that deferring to them was key in the development cycle.
Another challenge involved with game writing Mr. Pope experienced was having to be “economical” with his words. As he mentioned, “It takes time to program everything I write,” and it became important to not waste a single word or moment of development time for those programming the title. He learned to say less with more, realizing that how much he may want to throw in one more “Welcome to Jurassic Park” nod. It is a challenge for a writer in any medium to learn how to avoid being verbose, but when it actually costs time and manpower (as it does in Mr. Pope’s case), the pressure rises. But if recent trailers and story explanations are any indication, Mr. Pope and the other writers have learned to tell an effective tale without inflating the budget.
Through the entire process, whether dealing with how many pop culture mentions would be considered overload or making sure the story fit what content the designers implemented, Mr. Pope had one goal in mind: make the story fun. He strived “to show how fun the game was to make,” and he believed that needed to come across in the final product. If you have ever seen the Harmonix team at a community or demoing event of one of the company’s titles, it becomes clear just how much fun and dedication is put into these products.
And while the game’s fun factor may be easily evident in the dance routines, it becomes more difficult to carry that over to what occurs in between the moves. If my discussion with Mr. Pope was any indication, expect to be just as entertained when the characters speak as when they dance.