Tag Archives: Game Design

The Beat – Interactive Storytelling Series Part I

It starts with a beat.

In screenwriting, a beat is the smallest unit of story. It can be an action that propels the plot, a twist that alters the story’s direction, a shot that establishes tone, mood, theme; or dialog that reveals characters. Beats are the bricks in which the story is build, and it is how the audience experiences the story.

One of the steps of screenwriting involves writing out the beat sheet*, a list of all the story elements that can be assembled into the actual story. When seen this way, we can see how each beat effects one another; and when properly ordered, how the story unfolds. It’s a basic framework in which writers use to grow stories, adding details, shading and depth as needed to create a deeper resonant experience for the audience.

Then John Mehdi disagrees, and rips out the Dean's heart screaming, "NO ONE LIES TO ME"

Then John Mehdi disagrees, and rips out the Dean’s heart screaming, “NO ONE LIES TO ME”

 

I like to think the beat sheet is a good framework to use when designing a game that wants to tell stories through its systems, mechanics and world, a game that provides players the tools, and vocabulary to craft his own experience and create his own story. A game where any meaningful action the player takes becomes a beat in their story.

I scrounged the wreckage for what food and materials I could find. A nearby fireaxe became the key in which I hacked scattered luggage for what treasures they held. When darkness descended, that same fireaxe bore me the gift of firewood. Then dried leaves, and a lick of flame from a liberated lighter birth me a flame to last me through the night, hopefully. Tomorrow, I had to see what else I could do.”

The Forest

First I’ll chop the tree, then I’ll chop that creepy figure standing in the distance there.

 

Of course the game has to respond in kind. Good games are build on strong player feedback, and these feedback range from cheerful celebrations of color and sound, impressive animated sequences, to digital loot that triggers that endorphin drip in your brain. These can be the beats of the story as well. “I got this fantastic sword from surviving an epic battle with the dungeon’s final demon.”

But it can’t just be a list of cool things happening next to one another.

Here, I’ll let Film Crit Hulk explain it.

“Stories are defined by cause and effect. Perpetually. Constantly. Vividly. Stories are built on that simplest of mechanisms. This causes that and that causes this and so on and so forth. It’s about setups and payoffs. It’s about action and reaction. It’s about information followed by dramatic consequence. Cause and effect lend meaning to events. They link scenes together. They give wholeness to seemingly separate ideas. Cause and effect are the linking of your chain. They make a story a story”*

hulk_reading_header__index

HULK READ! because hulk think that stories are the connection has with other human not-hulks.

 

So when the game responds to the player’s action with a beat of its own that moves the story forward, or reveal part of its world, it contributes to the players overall experience of his story. And when the response isn’t entirely predictable, it can become this constant back and forth, between player and system, between character and world, to create a story that’s unique to the player’s decision.

That’s what games can do that the other mediums can’t. Where their story has to be ordered as some point; filmed, written, animated and told, a game’s story can unfold as long as the player has meaningful actions to take, and the game has the responses to return in kind.

Or course, all this works under a certain context, and context is key in the telling of stories.

Hopefully, I’ll get to that idea next week.

Stray Thoughts

* – Another good example of this idea is Trey Stone’s and Matt Parker’s “But” and “Therefore” talk. Where they essential explain the idea of how each beat affect the following beat into order to create the story.

– I was trying to work the phrase “Player actions are the verbs of the game” somewhere up there, but it didn’t work. But I like it as a phrase, because it essentially sums up what I’m trying to do in thinking of game mechanics and features as vocabulary in telling a story.

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Craft work.

There’s a craft to storytelling.

The storyteller does not invent story; the storyteller utilized craft to invoke story. Images, music, vocabulary, style are all in the service of imparting ideas, emotions and characters in their audience’s mind.

There are tons on books on the craft of screenwriting, easily as many essays and thoughts on the process of novel writing. Poetry, song, painting have had years of studies devoted to the –ology of their particular type of storytelling.

Yet there is no similar craft for the kind of stories games can tell.

Early games borrowed a lot from traditional pen and paper RPGs, with tons of texts and the occasional image to prop them up. Later on, it borrowed the language of cinema, and brought it with it the cinematic experience, but also the unskippable cutscene.

 

Also include deep ruminations on the nature of war.

Also includes deep ruminations on the nature of war.

These days, both styles are wielded with immense skill and experience to give us the rollercoaster thrill ride of the Call of Duty series, the expansive, the lore filled text heavy Skyrim, or a deft combination of the two in Mass Effect. Yet these are all examples of games still appropriating other storytelling techniques in service to the story that the designers want to tell. Don’t get me wrong, they’re fantastic, and highly enjoyable but I don’t think they are all great examples of just how different game stories can be told.

It’s in the player experience; that should be key to the story that the game is trying to tell.

I'm a survivor!

I’m a survivor!

Games are interactive, the actions the player takes, the decisions that they have to make, the situation that the game places them in; these are tools in which games can invoke a kind of story to the player, making the experience a part of the greater story.

But we have no craft for that.

We do have terminology; phrases and concepts unique to the problem of telling stories in games. The most popular being “ludonarrative dissonance.” We’re throwing buzzwords like “player-authored”, or story generation around more as well, to achieve the holy grail of “procedural storytelling”. Granted, some of these are useful, but only up to a point of arguing about the merits of particular design.

More often than not though, we’re still in service of the game being fun, and the story of the game being secondary to that fun, that trying to tell a meaningful story with those mechanics is a lot like the story paragraph game: Entertaining,, but ultimately meaningless.

Obviously, I’m stumbling my way to some sort of a point here, in that I’d like to understand more about the kind of craft that games can employ in order to tell the kind of stories in can tell. What vocabulary can games employ in their use of mechanics, systems and other tools it has at its disposal to craft the kind of story for their players that resonate.

I have some ideas.

Let’s see if I actually manage to write them.

frustrated-writer-2

One of them has my bank code!

 


Swamp Things

1.5 The Liar, the Witch and the War God.

There really isn’t a War God in this section, but the phrasing was too good not to write down. Perhaps I’ll use it for another story idea somewhere in the future.

There is however, a witch, and she lives in the swamp. Original, I know, but sometimes you just run with the RPG conventions you have and don’t strain you brain coming up with something fantastically new. Either way, since the point of the game is not to go on a magical adventure of wonder and beauty, a dirty, mucky swamp is called for. Especially a swamp crawling with barely literate lizard men, swamp creatures and other fairly low level enemies for you to hack through. Also, flowers and other sundries that might help in side quests from the village. The witch on the other hand, does have a point.

Zzeribah was the tribal’s wisdom chief prior to the arrival of Father Tully, and she held that esteemed position until a major kerfuffle with the wandering missionary. I’d write kerfuffle, but in truth, it was a brutal battle of magical might. She has since retired to the swamps and is suspected of abducting tribals for use in her strange necromantic shamanistic magic. Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to venture forth and kill her. And it is a choice, because you can actually not kill her, because when you do run into her in the middle of the swamp. She’ll invite in for tea.

Zzeribah, as it turns out, denies any responsibilities for the missing tribals. She’s a witch, so she must be lying right. So you have a choice; Kill her, or join her for tea. Killing her is simple, just select the “Your evil must be stopped” Option from the dialogue and proceed to wail on her with your limited abilities as a low level character. She’ll put up a fight but if you’re good enough, you’ll manage to stab her to the happiness of Chief Hariman and Father Tully. Shyean will have a conversation where you’ll discuss why you did what you did* and then you can head back to the village for the next part in the story.

Join her for tea instead and she will tell you a story.

The story includes an abandoned tomb nearby, the tomb of a dead god. He could be a war god, but more accurately, he’s a forgotten god. She tells you that he is an evil power and he is possibly responsible for the missing tribals. Personally, she has no truck with dead gods, because as she thinks, you can’t trust them. They dead for reason, if people stopped believing in a dead god, there must be a reason they had to do so. But he could be responsible, she had heard rumblings of his power for sometime now. She then tell you that Father Tully is not to be trusted and that he’s the titular liar. Either way, she offers you no harm and directs you to investigate the ruins of the dead god if you wish to find out more about the missing tribals. She would join you, but her old bones are not made for spelunking. She also asks how Hariman is, and displays a fondness for the chief, saying that she did not wish to abandon her tribe when they need her most, but fear her life is in danger from Father Tully and his influence.

So after all this talk. You can still kill her*, of you can head down to the ruins and check it out.

*The Shyaen conversation will have you attempt to justify why you felt the need to kill her. Usually, these conversation would pop up at major dramatic moments of the story. Killing a witch in cold blood on the say so of a bunch of strangers is one such example. Examining the missing tribals situation further will spark a short dialogue, but ideally, you will only discuss the “ethics” of your actions to Shyaen when a major chapter has been closed in terms of the story.

So if you kill Zzeribah before going to the ruins, Shyaen will ask whether it was necessary and that she did not seem harmful. The response would include:

1> “Evil Doers are always liars and you cannot trust them simply on appearance. Do let them talk, less their serpentine tongue sway your righteous path”  This of course leads adds to Shyaen invisible morality counter the need for righteous might and Deontological ethics.

2> “Father Tully and Chief Hariman gave us permission and we need to do this to move forward. No sense wasting time here in listening to the ramblings of a crazy old witch.” Which leads to chaos and Utilitarian principals.

Either way. Heading back to the village to report the deed to Chief Hariman and Father Tully will move you forward in the storyline.

Next Up: Something Dead this way comes.


Lost

1.4 The Village of Lost things.

After the Kobolds have been dealt with,  Rroak will lead you to his village. It’s a tribal little thing made up of a couple of little huts. There aren’t any shops here, though one of the tribals will trade you for stuff he found on the beach. For gold no less, but this is one of the RPG conventions I don’t intend to muck about with. You need a shop, game design needs you to have a shop, you have a shop, and a flimsy story excuse on why it’s there. But he’s not the important guy in this story so let’s move on.

Rroak will introduce you to Chief Hariman, the tribal leader. The first thing you’ll realize is that Chief Hariman and his tribe are pretty civilized for primitives. They, like Rroak can converse roughly in your language, (a game convetion I did intend to highlight) and they’re pretty kindly towards strangers. Though, you helping them kill a bunch of Kobolds probably swung them into favour. The real reason for their civilized ways of course, is Father Admonton Tully.

Father Admonton Tully is a missionary for Llamos the Lost, a minor deity in this world.* Llamos is the god of lost things, or more appropiately, he’s the god of travel. His power, and thus Father’s Tully charge is derived from travelling to lost tribal villages and preaching about the existence (not really benevolence) of Llamos, as well as protecting travellers in the far flung reaches of civilization.

Father Tully himself seems like your typical cleric. A kindly man, of indeterminate age. He tells you his story. He arrived at the village around 3 years ago. Clerics under his order travel to villages such as these and educate them on civilization and culture in order to provide safe havens to travllers around the world. He himself, has served this capacity for over 15 years, converting and educating at least 4 villages world wide.

So perhaps it’s fortutious that you stumble onto him; he might be able to help you return to the mainland and Shyaen’s home.

Unfortunately, Father Tully can be of no help here. The boat that he came here on has been destroyed. Chief Hariman and Father Tully then tell you of the missing tribals and the witch Zzeribah. Apparently, apart of Kobolds, this little village has been suffering from a series of missing persons. Both Chief Hariman Father Tully suspects the witch, who holds a special grudge against him for usurping her position as village cleric and is known to dabble in more necromantic shamanistic magic. They suspects she’s been abducting the villages for some purpose unknown to them.

Father Tully promises you aid, since that is what his God does, if you agree to investigate the missing persons and kill the Witch.

There are several other side quests around the village if you choose to explore**, but the main one above is the one that will advance the story. You can ask around the village about the history of Father Tully and Zzeribah and you’ll learn that Zzeribah was once considered the village elder because of her magic. She left after a fight with Father Tully, the details of which, most people don’t remember. 

So the course of your next action is clear. Time to muck about a swamp. 

* I have little to no familiarity with whatever pantheon DnD has nor am I interested. This is set neither in Faerun, Eberron or whatever else worlds there could possibly be. I really am making this up as I go along, or made this up as I went along.

** I never really actually designed any side quests here but thought that it had potential for a couple. These include gathering herbs from the swamp, helping find some stuff from the beach, going back to acquire stuff from your shipwreck to givethe trader and maybe killing a bunch of wolves. They’re the stuff of standard sidequests, meant to flesh the tribal village out a little.


The good, the Bad, and the Uncertain.

1.3 – Shyaen and the Moral system.

A brief digression into the central game idea here.

The DnD ruleset has an alignment system. I’m not here to discuss the minutiae of how it actually works. There are more than enough nerds on the internet to do that, but I did think it would have been an interesting system to play with in terms of a game of influence and character growth. I wanna retroactively say that this idea was borne out of trying to figure out how to write a good character arc into a game with a decent game-play idea tied to it, but I forgot how exactly the idea came about. Either way, the idea is that we take a character who’s original alignment is Neutral, and we change that in the course of the story. Obviously, that character could not be the player character, since people want some form of choice in their RPGs and come with their own predisposed alignment already. So I had to write a second character.

That character is Shyaen.

After the Kobold quest, Shyaen will initiate a conversation with you in which she questions the result of the actions you have taken. Since the quests really only ends in one way, (you kill the Kobold Chief and almost all the Kobolds), the conversation becomes a discussion on why you did what you had to do. Depending on how you completed the quest, and whether you actually tried to help the Kobolds by stealing the Giant Ruby, the conversation can go in 4 different ways.

1> The kobolds had to be killed. They’re evil creatures and that’s the only way to deal with evil creatures. No mention of Rroak’s tribes or the necessity of action. (Leads to Lawful, self-righteous judgment, Deontological Ethics.)
2> We were helping Rroak who would in turn help us, also; the Kobolds were trying to kill us as well. There’s little need for moralizing when lives are at stake. (Leads to Chaotic, survival instincts, Utilitarian Philosophy)

If you had tried to reason with the Kobold Chief and even managed to retrieve the Giant Ruby from the Spider Cave.

3> We had tried reason, and we were betrayed. Sometimes, there are few courses of action as necessitates the slaughter of  Kobolds. (Leads to Lawful Evil, cynical resignation, consequentialism ethics.)
4> We had tried reason, and we were betrayed. The important thing is that we tried. We can’t let the evilness of other creatures affect that. (Leads to Good, establishment of principals, Virtue Ethics.)

Yeah, the game is a more fun version of an ethics class.

At this point, Shyaen essentially does not have a world view. Her backstory is also somewhat muddied for you as the player because she refuses to talk about it. You do know that she comes from a noble family in a large city, and that she has suffered a large amount of abuse and trauma before this point. Her character isn’t so much innocent as having have had her old world-view shattered before her. Your job, and thus the crux of the game, is to influence the formation the world view she will eventually have. This will, in theory, lead to a thrilling and emotional climax for her character arc. That’s was the story idea anyway. The rest of game is moving through a series of circumstances and events as you accompany Shyaen back to her city. These events will spark discussions with Shyaen about the nature of the world and will eventually help shape her world view and the final act of the game.

I’ll deal with each of these circumstances as it comes up, but for now, the Kobold village was a primer for this and as far as ethical conundrums go, is a relatively simple one.

Next Up: Voodoo Tribes and Lost Gods.


To Kobold or not to Kobold.

1.2 – The Kobold Village

The Kobold village is the first major obstacle in the story and technically, the introductory dungeon. It’s a fairly simple quest arc, with Rroak filling you in on most of the details. There’s a Kobold village on the island; they are raiding Rroak’s village; they have a chief and you have to stop them. 

There are several ways to go about this, but first, a brief description of the area in which the Kobold village would have been situated. The map would have been patches of wilderness with the Kobld Village on one side. The wilderness will have Kobold scouts and a few wildlife, trees and such. Technically, you can skirt pass the Kobold village and ignore the quest entirely but you’ll be skipping out on early experience and the setup for some of the story. Also, Rroak will get annoyed that you don’t help. You can complete the Kobold quests later though, since you’ll have to in order to progress through the main Island story quest. The village itself isn’t very large, but it is full of Kobolds and one Kobold chief. It also has a central gathering area in which there’s a large pot of stew. 

Rroak will encroach you to help him get rid of the Kobolds. His plan is to charge in and kill every single one of them until you get to the chief. At which point, you’ll kill him also. It’s a good plan, he insists, hefting his waraxe. You certainly can do this at this point. Kobold are relatively easy fights and you have a barbarian and sorceress in your party. Of course, it won’t be too easy since it’ll just be a huge combat sequence and the Chief Kobold is a pretty high level Shaman. You probably want to even the odds a little.

So the other thing you can do is sneak into the camp by slowly taking out the scouts on the side and finding a back entrance into the tent. You’ll notice the Kobolds in the camp occasionally going up to the pot of stew in the middle and taking their dinner. Occasionally, other Kobolds will come and add stuff in and the stew will go on cooking. So, a quick discussion with Rroak later, you decide you can poison the stew and perhaps take out a bunch of Kobolds. This is obviously for the more roguish characters to deal with.

At this point, Shyaen will also ask if there isn’t another way to deal with the Kobold menace, since she thinks killing all of them might be a little excessive. So the third option you have is to sneak into the Chief’s tent and convince him to stop raiding against the human tribes. This would take a whole bunch of Charisma skill checks as well as possibly doing a quest for him, getting a giant ruby from a nearby cave guarded by giant spiders. The Kobolds don’t like giant spiders. However, even after doing this quest, the Kobold Chieftain will betray you and attempt to kill you.

The truth is, this whole quest line can only end in one way. You kill the entire Kobold tribe, either by poisoning them, defeating all of them in combat or by killing the Chieftain and then battling your way out. Rroak will cheer and lead you to his tribal village and Shyaen will bring up a conversation about the genocide you just commited. The conversation will discuss whether the genocide was justified, if there weren’t other ways of resolving the situation and touch on general worldview philosophy a little. This here, is the game’s central idea of which I wrapped the story around though I’m inching away from the word “philosophy” to describe the level of moral discussion that plays a part in Shyaen’s development as a character.

 The basics of which is this. Shyaen starts off as a True Neutral character. She is wholly ignorant of the grim realities of the world around her, despite suffering horror on the ship. Her mind is still trying to process the situation of the world and while she is internally dealing with the consequences of her capture, she will start to regard every major storyline quest in terms of how the world is really set up. Between good and evil, if I were to facilely describe, but mostly between the choices and consequences of what your  character chooses to do. The conversation thus hinges on how you respond to her questions regarding each situation. The Kobold village massacre is just an introduction to this system, apart from being the standard first dungeon to level up your characters.

More on the conversation game in a bit.


The Neverwinter Campaign that Never was.

About a couple of years ago, I had a story idea for a Neverwinter Nights campaign.

I wrote up a bunch of notes, made a few short plot points and scrawled a basic game design document before I realized I had neither the skill nor the talent to actually go about making a full fledged, complex RPG out of the editor at the time. I sought a bit of help on the internet but as chaotic collaborative projects are bound to go; nothing came out of it. 

Either way, I liked the story a lot and I liked the game idea I had tied to it. I don’t know if it was really going to be a good game idea or if the story was worth anything. I mean, as much as I am influenced by the Chris Avellone school of cause and consequence, I’ve never actually written anything like that before and have yet to write anything like that since. So as an exercise, I’m going to re-write the entirety of the story/game design on this blog.

The game had the working title of “Tortured Hearts.” Please don’t judge it based on that, it was a crappy title and I never got around to thinking of a better one. Maybe one will come to be at the end of this exercise.

Onwards

ACT I – The Island.

1.1 – Shyaen and Rroak.

After a brief cutscene, or cut-prose as I’m calling them now, of which you’re introduced to the setup, you find yourself shipwrecked on an island. Alongside you is Shyaen, the red-headed “princess?” that you rescued on the ship. After a brief discussion about your circumstance, where you also find out Shyaen has some budding sorcerous abilities, the two of you set off on a quest to find out where you are, and how to get home. Specifically, Shyaen’s home.

It’s a little bit cliche, but I thought it best if Shyaen suffered a mild form of amnesia at this point. partly due to the abuse that she suffered over the last couple of months, partly due to the trial of the shipwreck. That, and she’s reticient to talk about her past to you, the player. The way she was characterized is that she’s been horribly scarred by recent events and yet still retains a measure of naive innocence. She has no idea about the world in general or the spectrum of moralities that play a part in it. She was simply a victim of a crime and her mind is still trying to process the nature and horror of it. The story as it stands so far, for the player at least, is to find out who she is, where she comes from and return her.

The theory behind that was that I just thought that a “save the princess” plot should be subverted a little by having you actually save the princess at the start of the game, but not knowing who the princess is, or what the real story behind why she needed to be saved in the first place.

So you start shipwrecked on an island and the first order of business is to explore pass the shore to get your bearings and hopefully, some direction as to where this game and this story is headed.

A little exploration later, you meet a primitive barbarian Rroak. He’s a tribesman of the island with limited communication skills. Anyway, he’ll threaten you at the start and you can either beat him into submission, or reason with him. (Here I am trying to put a conversation / dialogue system to use), but the end of that little meeting is when Rroak tells you about a Kobold village nearby that he’s trying to infiltrate and wipe out. Apparently, the Kobold village has been raiding his nearby tribes village and they haven’t had much luck doing anything about it.

Rroak takes it upon himself to infiltrate the village and kill every last Kobold, thereby stopping the invasion. Have I mentioned that Rroak isn’t very bright? Anyway, at this point, Rroak can be your second companion if you join him in his quest. He’ll offer to take you to his village to find a boat if you do. And if you don’t, well, you can still attempt to head towards Rroak’s village, but you’re going to have to wade through a Kobold village and some wilderness before you do. Sides, having a barbarian fighter in your party to complement the sorceress is a good idea, no matter what class you started out with.

So now you have 3.