I’ve been reading a lot about storytelling recently. Besides rereading “Characters and Viewpoint” by Orson Scott Card, the most recent ones I’ve read have been the “Save the Cat” books, by Blake Snyder (great reads, if you’re at all interested in screenwriting).
Snyder proposes a very analytical breakdown of the plots in movies. He has a list of 15 beats that appear in all popular movies (and they do… it’s almost scary) as well as a list of unconventional “genres” — essentially the different types of stories that movies tell. Within each genre, he further breaks down common elements and pieces of structure shared by all the best of them.
For example, one of the genres is “Monster in the House.” Essentially, this is the type of movie like Aliens, Jaws, or Fatal Attraction. Films that fall into the Monster in the House genre have, according to Snyder: A “monster” (the Aliens, Jaws, or Glenn Close), a “house” (a remote colony, a small town, or a family unit), and a “sin” that is committed (greed, more greed, or adultery).
The reason I’m reading these things, like pretty much everything I do, is to see what I can relate back to games. While reading Snyder’s books, it occurred to me that perhaps his breakdowns can be turned into a game in themselves.
So, for example, lets say I wanted to make a video game that seems like a slasher flick. How could I use Mr. Snyder’s analysis to structure the game and make it feel like a well structured “Monster in the House” story, but still give the player agency (essentially interesting choices and ability to change what’s happening)?
Here are my thoughts:
First off, we know that the genre is about a House, a Monster, and a Sin. I’d pick one of those three to be the hinge for the player’s agency.
We could allow the player to make choices about the “house,” for example. Lets say the events were happening at a small summer camp. The player can explore the camp and look for weapons to fight the monster, barricade himself inside a building, etc…
If we wanted the monster to be our hinge, perhaps we can create a monster dynamically based on the player’s interaction with the other characters. Perhaps a huge part of the game is trying to discover who the murderer is, or who you can trust.
Having the sin as our hinge is an interesting idea to me. Perhaps we could allow the player to interact with the NPCs for a while and see what kind of choices he makes in the dialogue trees. We can set up interesting scenes where the player can discover and interact with various sins, and based on the player’s interaction with these various plot devices we can change the monster, the big set-pieces of the game, facts about the “house” etc — to better play off the sin that the player identifies as most interesting through his interaction with the game.
I think our decision on this matter will have a lot to do with what kind of game we end up making.
Once we’ve decided that, we can get into the 15 beats and see how we can execute those. Lets say we’re talking about a game set in a small summer camp, the monster is a human murderer, and the sin is our hinge (I’ve somewhat arbitrarily decided this is a conversation-heavy RPG, but it could be anything really):
- Opening Image – We’ll want this to be reflected in our final image, so we should set this up very carefully to be flexible enough. Lets say its a pan over the summer camp, showing various NPCs and set-piece locations.
- Theme Stated – Once we know what “sin” the player has chosen (though his interactions with the NPCs), this is an easy beat for us to nail. We need to play some kind of cutscene where someone states the theme (we have one for each possible sin you can pick). So, for example, if the “sin” choices are “Promiscuity,” “Greed,” and “Infidelity” the possible themes of the game are centered around those. If the player picks “Greed” for example, we can have a scene where the player overhears that the owners of the camp are planning on selling the land to people who will turn it into a strip mall. The owner can say “Well, dammit Bob! I’m not running a charity here! What’s in it for me to leave the place a campground!” And the theme is “selfishness VS selflessness.”
- Set-Up: After figuring out and stating the theme, we spend some time setting up the “before” state of the campground. Establish the people who are sinful and make sure to highlight the chosen sin. These will be the first to die. Introduce all the villains and victims, and show the player who his character is (and what lesson his hero needs to learn over the course of the game).
- An interesting idea here would be for us to have multiple possibilities for who the main character is, based on who would be the best fit for the “sin.” In the example above “of greed” maybe the player character IS the owner of the campground, and he’s the one who has the most to learn about selflessness.
- We could also pick the murderer based on the “sin” chosen. Who is most like the hero (a dark mirror)? Who has to learn what our hero has to learn, but can’t learn it for some reason?
- This is also where we’ll teach the hero all his basic skills. A good idea here would be for us to base the skills the player needs to know on the “sin” he’s chosen. So if the sin is “greed” for example, the skills can be based around dealing with the in-game economy or around manipulating people via the conversation system.
- Catalyst: A murder! Someone (probably the owner, in the greed scenario) is killed horribly.
- Debate: The camp has to be closed, people want to leave.
- Break into Act Two: Something nasty is preventing the people from leaving the camp. No gas, slashed tires, phone lines are out, etc… There are more murders.
- Intro the B Story: The B story is the “internal” story, where we explore the theme. At this point we introduce characters who can touch on the discussion of the chosen theme, and through whom the hero will learn what he needs to do to win. If the chosen sin is greed, maybe we meet a camper who is a poor kid that needs to come to this camp every year to get away from his abusive family and have him make friends with the hero.
- Fun and Games: More murders! Lots of running, screaming, lots of people die who deserve to die. Here we start teaching the player more skills he’ll need to know. These skills should also be chosen based on the sin that we picked.
- Midpoint: Here we raise the stakes and there is either a false victory or a false defeat. Since this is interactive, we can allow the player to decide which it is. Perhaps the murderer-in-disguise is cast off a cliff and we think he’s dead! Perhaps a plan they’ve worked out fails and things look dire. Either way, this is important because beat #11 will be the opposite of this, and we can determine what happens there based on what happens here. This is also a good point for the A and B stories to cross, so whatever happens we bring in the B story character for it. This is a good point to further hit the theme.
- Bad Guys Close In: The remaining survivors “circle the wagons” and try to survive. No one knows who the killer is, though, so suspicions rage. Scary scary.
- All is lost: This is the reverse of the midpoint. If we had a false victory there, now it is time to have a defeat. If we had a false defeat there, now it is time to have a false victory. So, if we thought we killed the bad guy at the midpoint (for example), this is when he easily comes back and kills someone important (like the B-story character) and everything goes to hell. If their plan failed at the midpoint, perhaps the one now appears to succeed and all looks like it will end well.
- Dark Night of the Soul: At this point, everything is as bad as it can possibly get. The hero is probably separated from the rest of the group, or everyone else is dead. Whatever it is, the hero is worse off than when the game started.
- Break into act Three: This is where the hero pulls out his last, best hope and tries to take all the things he learned in act two and combine them with the things he knew from act 1. Because this is a game, we can do this almost literally — with gameplay we’ve taught him through those two acts. The A and B stories can cross again, here — where the hero can take what he’s learned and use it to defeat the bad guy. Since this is a game, we can take skills the player has learned and reveal the twist that will allow the player to use those skills to win.
- Finale: The final boss fight. This is where the hero goes through and fucks the bad guy UP. The scene after the fight shows how our hero has learned what he needed to learn to kill the bad guy.
- Final Image: Our final cutscene should be a twisted reflection of the first one. Whatever our opening image was, now it’s been affected by the theme and what’s gone on in Act 2. To use our example of “selfishness VS selflessness” perhaps the camp is now a non-profit organization, and children like our B-story character can come and learn and grow.
This doesn’t give me a ton of information about what the moment-to-moment gameplay will be like in this game, but it sure gives me enough of a picture that I can start working on those details as a next step.
The interesting thing is I can now visualize this game. The choices I make regarding mechanics can be made with all this stuff in mind. My choice of “levels” or locations is informed, as well. It has a much better chance of “feeling” like a horror movie.
We also get a feeling for how expensive it will be to make this game and what kind of technology we’ll need. We know we’ll have to do alternate story paths, which will be expensive, but we know the location will be contained (a small campground) so the square-footage of the game could be rather small which might help balance that out. It tells us we’ll probably need to do a lot of area re-use, which can be cheaper, but if we need to have lots of changes to it (buildings burning down, etc) that could be more expensive. We’ll probably need streaming so there’s no loads while walking around the campground, which will inform our art style and engine choices.
At any rate, I don’t know how useful this would be in practice — but the next time I start designing a game from scratch, I’m going to work through this exercise and see what I come up with.