7 things that have to work together in a game story

April 29, 2013

Originally posted on Gamasutra

I’m sitting in the SeeThrough Studios office after a rather odd week. I’ve spent a rather large part of last week working on the story of Particulars, both in terms of its plotting and its execution. As a result, the actual design of the game hasn’t moved as far as I’d like (read: sorry alpha testers, no new build for you this week!).

I think that this week, more than ever, has taught me that getting your narrative right is about getting a tonne of things to line up properly. Most of what I worked on was getting a document which outlined what each episode and chapter contained, how it would move the story forward and how it all lined up.

It’s also taught me that house hunting in Sydney is painful, but that’s another story.

So out of this week, I’ve gotten a list of 7 different things that need to “fit together” in a game story. This is, by no means, an exhaustive list – I’d love to hear any extra things you might have to add.

1. The Gameplay Meaning

To me, this is the most important thing. No matter what else is happening, you want to make it so that the player’s actions are doing some of the heavy lifting. Is the player desperately trying to survive? If so, that should mean something in the context of the story. If the game is forgiving and/or slow-paced, maybe the story should be as well.

The gameplay of Particulars, for instance, can be looked at through a number of lenses. It’s all about relationships between people, the push and pull of those relationships and somewhat about codependence. It’s about complexity within simplicity (simple rules that create complexity, but also rules that seem complex because they aren’t what we’re accustomed to). It’s about opposites being both alluring and destructive. It’s about balance, both perfect and imperfect. And it’s about danger and mastery, and small failures spelling disaster.

2. The Gameplay Potential of concepts

I was going to call this one “introduction of new concepts”, but I think this fits better. The gameplay potential of a concept is how long (in levels, stages, etc.) a concept can be interesting for before you need to add a new one. For instance: the gameplay potential for up and down quarks that only utilise the EM force on a single screen is approximately 1 chapter (or 25 levels). Any longer, and I’d have to add more elements to the game to keep it interesting.

Ideally, a concept uses up the entirety of its gameplay potential before you add a new one. I’d generally err on the side of giving a gameplay element less time than more, however. This timing is important, as each new concept changes the gameplay meaning that you’re playing with. In Chapter 2 of Particulars, we’ll be adding some features that really expand the scope of the game. The game will automatically become more exploratory while giving the player more agency, and the story has to reflect this.

3. The Plot

This is essentially the things that happen in the story, both inside and outside gameplay. The two most important things about plot is that it has to keep moving, and it has to make sense. We’ve currently got a scene at the end of Chapter 5 where our protagonist (Alison) has to get out of a room. In the current iteration of the narrative, the method by which she does so doesn’t make that much sense (Saul’s comment on our google doc reads ‘seems unlikely’).

The nice thing about plot is that you can, at least at first, figure it out in broad strokes and fill in the gaps later. The aforementioned scene can likely be fixed just by adding in a frame or two to set the escape up – people can usually deal with something unusual if it has a simple, mundane explanation. It might, on the other hand, fundamentally change the scene. But the purpose of the scene in terms of the plot will likely stay the same.

4. The Emotional/Character Arc(s)

This is the heart of the game’s story. It’s the journey that the game characters go on, and how they change based on what they experience. If a character doesn’t change throughout your game, you’d better have a good reason for it. And the most important person to plot an arc for is the player. Part of that is figuring out what kind of range of experiences you want to allow for them: how changeable is this emotional arc?

In Particulars, we’re looking to delve into a single person’s psyche and to examine concepts of obsession, agency and emotional growth. There are other characters (well really only 1), but we’re making a concerted effort to ensure that they are more reflections of Alison (the words ‘spirit guide’ have been tossed around more than once).

Another way I like to think about the emotional arc is ‘aboutness’. What is the game, at the end of the day, about? What is the chapter about? What is this particular level about? One of the most important things I did in this outline was to explore what each chapter was about for Alison. If we had more characters with arcs, we’d likely have to do the same for them. For example: “Chapter 3 is concerned with the question of just how far Alison will go, and how deep her obsession will get”.

5. The Gameplay Style

The gameplay style is the way in which gameplay is presented: it’s the structure of levels, the specific goals and the progression mechanics. It puts the gameplay concepts and their meanings into context, and has a great impact on pacing and tension.

In Particulars, each chapter has 25 levels that you complete in order. Different levels have different objectives: this is designed so that there is always variety, so that you get to play with new concepts in a number of ways, and to give us more scope to surprise and challenge the player. At some points, however, we’re looking to change this formula. It no longer serves the arc, and it makes little sense in terms of the gameplay we’re introducing.

6. Sub-plots and climaxes

While you technically can have a single, overarching arc without any subplots, its usually not a good idea. You want to have a few moments of high tension throughout your story, and it’s usually good to have subplots that resolve themselves as the game progresses (this usually works very well with the normal level/mission structure of games).

Our plan for Particulars has 4 episodes, each of which has 3 chapters (note that we’ve hardly planned episodes 3 and 4 as their existence entirely depends on how well the game does, which is another reason why sub-plots are important – the first two need to stand alone). Each chapter has its own, quite simple arc, and each episode ends in a climax. Note that these climaxes can be very different in nature: in episode 1, the in-game climax is pretty epic, while episode 2 is more concerned with an exciting out of game climax that interferes with the game world.

7. The Delivery

The how. Do you have voice actors? Is everything in game? If so, is it using text? How are you going to keep the attention of the player? How much does the text move? How much do you use atmos and music? How sharply in focus are the sounds of the world around you?

What colour is the background?

All of these and a whole lot more questions come under Delivery. It’s in some ways the biggest aspect to keep track of: so much is wrapped up in the skills and timeline of your team. For instance, I snuck a little bit of voice acting into our game when I wrote the last outline. It made total sense to do so for the narrative arc. The question of whether we can actually add these things into the game is still up in the air, and so the voice acting is up in the air. If it has to be cut, it affects the emotional arc of the game… and so on.

8. Bonus Particulars Extra: The Science

If you’re making a game about something that’s ‘real’ in any way, this is the extra thing: that it’s gotta line up, at least in approximation. I’ve spent a fair chunk of time this week looking up CP-asymmetry in the Weak Force (for non-physicists: ‘rule-breaking in the force that makes nukes work’) to figure out how to integrate it into the game. The science is incredibly subtle, and I’ve gotta be really careful to design the game rules to ensure that the concepts are understandable and not too misleading (I’ve learnt that when it comes to science, the only thing that isn’t misleading is the base equations, and they’re really hard. You’d be surprised at how many times a physics lecturer will say the words “so remember this thing you learnt last year? Well it’s just an approximation, – here’s a better way to think about it”).

The fact is that particle physics is a very big field, and we could have chosen a very different aspect as the game’s central question (we’ll be exploring baryogenesis – why there are more particles than antiparticles in the universe). If we’d chosen a different direction (the Higg’s boson, for instance), the game would be a very different beast. At the end of the day, the choice of baryogenesis could be problematic (as the science is somewhat tricky and it’s an unsolved problem), but it is possible and fits with everything else so well that we’ll just have to work through it.

And that’s it! 7 (+1) things that I look at (often without thinking about it) when trying to work out story.