Story and Plot Design
- by demagogue
Dark Mod FMs, like the long tradition of Thief FMs before them (which we should all take notes from), allow for a much bigger role for story and plot than other first person genres, and most players expect a good story to come as part of their experience playing FMs. It's not really sufficient anymore to build a mission first and try to throw together some plot or story to fit it without putting a little thought into what makes for good storytelling in an FM first, and ideally designing the mission's architecture, objectives, gameplay, AI pathing, plot, and story all as a coherent whole from the beginning. One story that inspires me is that, as is well known, Terry Pratchett (the famous fantasy writer) was a long-time player of our FMs and would often post questions and comments (like all of us), and *he* said that *our* FMs were among the best story-telling going on in all video gamedom! High praise from a master, and something we should all strive to live up to!
The purpose of this wiki entry is to give a mapper some good methods and things to think about when working out the story and plot-progression of their FM. It's about the mechanical side of how to construct a plot that works in terms of gameplay to tell a story, as opposed to giving story ideas per se. It will walk through a number of ideas mappers can think about when plotting their FMs, although of course since storytelling is a creative thought process, there is no universally "right" way to design a good story and plot. But hopefully some of these ideas can inspire your own thoughts on the issue.
It is worth saying at the outset that some mappers may have the perception that storytelling is some magic thing, and they may shy away from "artificial devices" because they seem too mechanical or manipulative or transparent to actually work. But I think that not only are "artificial" plot devices okay, they are usually essential for carrying a good plot. I think of it like the mechanical steps for turning an empty wall brush into an interesting facade, like adding windows, good borderwork, and texture variety. It may all seem mechanical while you're doing it, but when a player goes through it, the story comes alive. Also note that players are already predisposed, even eager, to go where the author takes them, as long as it's not too hammy or heavy handed and clumsy. But not using techniques to take them somewhere at all can leave your FM stale.
NB, This may be a work in progress for a long time to come, but what's already here can still be useful.
- 1 Introduction: Plot, Story, and "Making Progress" in FMs
- 2 Spreading Story out in Time and Space & Connecting Real Space and "Narrative Space"
- 3 Methods for Story Writing and Plot Design
- 4 Connecting Gameplay Flow and Story Flow through Plotting
- 5 Plot Dependence Relations
- 6 Linear, Semi-Linear, and Non-Linear Plot Flows
- 7 Balancing Open Gameplay and Directed Storytelling
- 8 Cues and Communicating Plot Flow
- 9 Modus Operandi
- 10 The Role of Objectives in Guiding Plot
- 11 Problems vs. Puzzles
- 12 Creating a Story Arc: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends
- 13 Plot and Scope: FM Size and Single-Missions vs Campaigns
- 14 More Detail on Story-Telling Elements
- 15 Specific Techniques and Story-Types FMs have Used
- 16 Common Problems and Things to Avoid in Plotting
- 17 Further Discussion of Narrative Design
Introduction: Plot, Story, and "Making Progress" in FMs
"Plot", in the context of an FM, really means two things that are interconnected and work together:
(1) The gameplay plot, the progress and logic of the gameplay from the start of the mission to fulfilling all the objectives and winning the FM. E.g., sneaking past guards-A & B allows you to get into room-A, that gets you key-1 ... etc ... until you finally reach your goal, fulfilling objective-1; etc. The purpose of each step has meaning insofar as it makes progress towards your ultimate goal of meeting your objectives; and
(2) The narrative plot, the progress and logic of the FMs storytelling from the briefing, to story details the player gathers as he explores the FM, to finally the "narrative climax" of the FM. E.g., if you had a FM with 10 rooms, various rooms will contain storytelling elements (readables, overheard conversations, visual-storytelling elements, etc), which the player will see or hear in the order he or she explores those rooms. The "narrative plot" would be the progress and logic of how those story-elements reach the player, e.g., the player reads readable-A before readable-B because the room with readable-B requires a key you found under readable-A, whereas readable-C is in an open room and could be read at any time, and altogether A, B, & C dole out the story to the player in an interesting way that carries the player in a "narrative flow" through the story, start to end, etc (this time A->B->C, another time A->C->B). The purpose of each storytelling element has meaning insofar as it contributes towards making progress in a narrative flow towards the ultimate goal of the narrative climax (which is the engine of the flow; the player can feel that "all this is going somewhere", and they feel a sense of gratification when they get there).
The two are interconnected, as one could guess from those descriptions, insofar as (1) the progress of the storytelling will flow primarily from the progress of the gameplay as the player explores the FM and opens up new areas (in contrast to the author-mandated progression in books and movies), and (2) in turn the "storytelling" directs gameplay by giving directions and cues to players what to do next or how to get past some gameplay barrier they face (cf. affordance theory: story opens up or communicates more "affordances" for gameplay, i.e., new possibilities for interaction). [Footnote: If the story does not connect with the gameplay, by the way, it's possible and sometimes a good idea, but then it can feel like dead storytelling if there's too much of it, like relaying facts that have "nothing to do with the game".] Both sides of the story-gameplay coin are driven ultimately by the player's core MO (modus operandi, i.e., "basic motivation") to engage with gameplay events and narrative information to get closer to fulfilling the objectives/narrative-climax(es) of the FM. Story and gameplay are connected at the hip and often there isn't a clear distinction between the gameplay and narrative plot, and we capture both ideas in the shared concept of "making progress" in the mission closer to the objectives/story-fulfillment. [in contrast to story & gameplay that does not make progress. NB, "story & gameplay" is not the same as "narrative-plot & game-plot". The former are mechanics, not inherently 'directed' towards anything unless constructed that way; the latter are the structure of the mechanics to create a flow for the player from setup to climax as they are given the pieces over time.
Spreading Story out in Time and Space & Connecting Real Space and "Narrative Space"
Now let's get very concrete. Both gameplay and narrative plot for an FM are ultimately about structuring the flow of plot-advancing information and physical "progress-ability" (shadows, keys, hints, etc to advance past AI, doors, puzzles, etc) to the player in the space of the FM as he moves through it, understanding that sometimes the author may want very controlled releases of these according to a carefully planned script, and other times she may allow uncontrolled and random releases at the player's or AI's own pace, or sometimes some semi-controlled variation in between.
In this respect, it is very useful to think of your FM in terms of "rooms" (not necessarily always a literal room), with most rooms carrying some storytelling or progress-granting elements, or interaction opportunities that reward (correct) interaction with those elements. Then we can think about structuring the flow of information and progressability as ultimately about populating the player's path through space and "time" (as events occur) with story and progress-elements to structure their further path (advancement to new rooms, or old rooms in new circumstances with plot developments). For the gameplay plot, this is very intuitive stuff we are familiar with from the FMs we have played. We understand the basic idea of scattering AI paths, lights, keys, open windows, climbable walls, hints in readables, and object-interaction opportunities to reward player exploration and engagement with the gameplay-intersecting plot with further physical progress in the FM space & time, so I don't think I need to spend much time talking about that.
The concept I want to talk more about here is how story-telling and making progress in the narrative-plot follows a similar idea. And that idea is, carrying a narrative-plot in an FM is largely about literally spreading the story, not in time like a movie or novel, but into the space of the FM, in its "rooms" (or "time" to the extent that story events can be triggered in-game) so that the story is doled out to players over their own time as they explore the FM space. Thus, to make progress in the physical space is to make progress into the narrative-space of the (narrative) plot.
Controlling the flow of Information and gameplay progress.
Unlike a movie or novel where the author has absolute control over all information releases to the viewer, narrative plotting has graded levels of control of information-releases. Some things the mapper can strictly enforce (like you MUST read this book), some aspects the mapper can direct or nudge (putting things in earlier rooms makes it more likely they'll be read early on), and some aspects the mapper has little or no control over whether or how or when the player gets the info, which can be a good thing in the right circumstances.
Methods for Story Writing and Plot Design
Before we get more into that last idea, I want to cover very practical things mappers can do to help actually scripting out a good story and FM plot.
- It's always good to start off getting inspiration. Do a Google Image search for your setting. Then do some classic brainstorming where you just write down a bunch of ideas as fast as you can think of them, and any time an idea comes to you, write it on a notepad.
- I think it's good to start with some solid concept, or theme, or a few connected concepts, and build from that, like exploring some defining character feature or MO of an NPC, or the inevitable, tragic intersection of NPCs MOs with each other or in some interesting situation -- like classic MOs like revenge, jealousy, ambition, greed, or postmodern ones like madness or mixed feelings; or social situations like discoveries, constructions, wars and conflicts, love affairs, etc. Naturally stealing something valuable is a common theme for a thieving game, but bringing in other MOs and situations in can make the story a little deeper than just another night on the job. When thinking about the details of your mission, you can think about how it contributes towards giving life to that concept, and have the pieces working together towards it. I think it gives the plot more punch.
- After coming up with an interesting setup (the situation established by the briefing) I often brainstorm the kind of story I want by thinking backwards. I start with a good idea for the climax or climactic scene, then I piece my way backwards to the start. And I start with a general atmosphere or mood I want to convey, then parse it into details, like the ambients, lighting, etc. Then it's like the player follows the story from all the details I crafted to arrive at the core story, climax, and mood I wanted to set as they add up. That is, the author goes from general themes to details, so the player goes from details to general themes.
- As for actually plotting the story, I like to start from the poles, the set-up (through the briefing and information in the first few rooms) and the climax. Then draw line(s) between the two and have nodes which connect the set-up to the climax. This is the plot-line. (Later we will talk about the fact that in games the line is not always a single linear line, but can be more like a spider web where you can travel across the nodes in different orders from start to finish.) You can think about each node is a plot-progressing event.
The number of nodes you draw depends on how long your FM is. For a small contest-sized FM, you'll want maybe 5-10 nodes. For a very large campaign-sized FM, you might want 20 or more. A basic rule of thumb I use is think about one node per major room or scene (like a building in a city) in the FM. So if your FM has 10 "rooms", you can think about 10 nodes, and then add or subtract a few. Or to put it another way, as the mapper imagines the player walking through their map, it should be designed so every new room they visit adds a new piece to the story or plot, even if small. If a room does not add anything, it might be worth cutting it for reasons of economy, unless there are good gameplay reasons to have it. I'm not talking about literal readables everywhere, but also things like mood setting and atmosphere. You can have a lot of rooms and long hallways without any readables or conversations, but they can definitely set a tone or mood that you want to set up with the scenery that's just as important to the storytelling.
Another technique I personally like is to look at each room and think about how that room relates to other rooms in the map, and making a few explicit connections, like adding a bit to the readable in this room that explicitly connects to a readable or scene in another room. Then I go room by room connecting something in it to at least one another room, so by the end there is a very dense tangled web of connections throughout the rooms. A similar technique I like is to create a relationship between one NPC with another NPC that their room uncovers or sheds new light on, until every NPC is connected to every other one in a dense and complex tangled web of NPC relationships. (Lady Rowena is good about this, and generally giving every AI a name and a little backstory no matter how small, even guards.)
- More generally, when you're actually drawing your map and populating it with AI paths, lights, readables, etc, and again when you're actually building it, try to think holistically or how elements work with or build on each other and what's their role in the larger plot or atmosphere, and you can let your map guide your thinking on the plot as you explicitly think about what to do with different spaces.
Connecting Gameplay Flow and Story Flow through Plotting
Thinking about controlling plot flow is pretty intuitive, so the main task of this section is just to make it explicit. At its core, it involves the mapper literally looking down at their map and imagining the different routes players might arbitrarily take, and then parceling out information and plot-progressing elements in ways that make for an interesting plot flow as they go about their path, and ideally even structuring the map to work with the plot development, e.g., with critical rooms in the map associated with critical nodes in the storytelling, and the challenges to get there connected to the anticipation they build up story-wise. Critical nodes can be things like confronting an important NPC or some story element directly in a room, or some dramatic moment that gives flow to the story, like a kick to the plot to put it in a higher gear as you get closer to the climax.
The idea of "plotting" in this respect means putting some structure to how these plot elements come to the player, while still (ideally) keeping the map rather non-linear and allowing the player some free reign to engage with the plot at their own pace and even in their own order and not being too heavy handed, but not too open that a player can just go straight to the climax first and see anticipation elements later or entirely avoid them, which can deflate the plot flow. There is a sweet spot here. Some players feel deflated if the map is way too closed at the start (like every door is locked and unpickable), but at the same time they can feel deflated if the map is way too open, like every door is openable and the player can just fly through the mission, not read anything, and skip straight to the end and beat the FM. The feel of "flow" in this sense is charting a middle course, keeping the mission just closed and challenging enough so the player has to really engage with the game to make progress, but not too closed or hard so they get frustrated with some barrier they can't figure out, but not too open and easy they are never forced to really engage with the plot, or they are just running in senseless circles and they get bored.
By "connecting gameplay flow and story flow", I am referring to the idea I mentioned before, that making progress in the gameplay plot also doles out progress in the narrative plot, so the mapper can, e.g., control the story plot by making sure readable-B is read after readable-A because the player has to get a key nearby readable-A to open up the room to read readable-B. This is a way to enforce that readable-B is not read before readable-A, allowing the mapper to "set up" B with A, so that e.g. B is a revelation or development on to A, and it develops a flow from A to B in the player's experience. Thinking about this in terms of the development of the whole FMs story from start to finish is what I mean by plotting, and using this mechanic as the main tool for plotting. Of course the development in B can't just be 'any' new information over A to be interesting or create a flow, but really has to be something interesting that really carries the story to a new place. (Something I'll talk more about below.) The term I'm going to use for how this mechanic works is "dependence relations".
Plot Dependence Relations
A "dependence relation" is a kind of technical term (from logic) that in this context refers to some pieces of story information requiring that previous pieces of information are accessed first before they are accessible. If your FM is set up so that readable-A should (or must) be read before readable-B can be read, then we can say readable-B is in a dependence relation with (or depends on) readable-A. In terms of the plot-flow diagram I gave a screenshot to above, the dependence relations of a node would be the previous lines the player had to follow to get to that node.
The typical tool of dependence relations in games is the "key" mechanic (not always a literal key), which just means some gizmo or clue you find in one room allows you to get access to new rooms, thus the later rooms depend on the earlier ones. But it could also be a simple as having to physically pass through one room to get to a second room, because that's the only open way into the 2nd room. This is one way for the author to police or enforce the release of story information in a set order. But note that there are other ways to enforce or nudge the order of information or progressability as well, such as putting key things closer to the starting point ensures that it's more likely the player will see it before things placed much farther away in the map, although that order is not literally "enforced" by a mechanic, so they're not strictly in a necessary dependence relation, just more likely than not.
Why it's useful to think in terms of dependence relations is that the author should really get in the habit of thinking about their bits of information getting released in any arbitrary order as the player arbitrarily wanders the map. If you watch FM playthroughs, you should know that every player is different. A dependence relation is just a way to say, whatever order the player goes in to get information, at least I know (e.g., with this "key" mechanic) that A will always precede B, or more concretely e.g. this area of the mansion doesn't get opened until the player has read this readable to set it up, etc. That way B can refer to and build on information given in A to create a progressive flow from A to B.
[Gradations of dependence and enforcement (or policing, guiding, cuing, nudging, etc.)] A necessary dependence relation would be "A must be read before B", like the room B is in doesn't open up unless A is read (either reading the readable triggers an objective & script that opens up the new area, or it literally gives the player a key, etc.) A strong but not necessary dependence relation would be "A should be read before B", which is like putting the key next to readable-A, so that the player could technically grab the key without reading A and run off to read B, but it's very unlikely. You can see how the strength of the dependence could vary according to the situation. If the key is on the other side of the room, it's more likely the player might miss the readable.
In any event, I think most (if not all) players are in the habit of reading any readable at the time that they find them (so in the order they find them). So that makes the author's job easier.
But dependence can still be relevant. Good FMs are not long linear hallways, but should be open spaces that allow the player to freely explore the space in any order they want. ...
I will get to what this means for plot flow in the next section.
Linear, Semi-Linear, and Non-Linear Plot Flows
As for the variety of structures of plot flows, the terms linear, semi-linear, and non-linear I think are pretty intuitive. A linear plot flow is when the story is doled out to the player in a direct linear sequence, A, B, C, D... A very non linear plot flow would be something like a completely open urban space -- streets and buildings, with each building as equally enter-able as any other, and each building containing some plot information. Then the player can visit the buildings in any arbitrary order they please. A semi-linear plot flow would be technically open, but there are some built in biases so the player is still likely to go through certain blocs of the space/story in a certain order, but with some fuzziness on the edges too so a few things along the way they may see in a different order. E.g., a building or even a long hallway with rooms containing progressive story bits is semi-linear since the player is free to run to the last room first, but chances are they'll explore the rooms sequentially down the hallway, allowing the mapper to develop a little mini-story progression down the hallway as they go.
This last example also introduces the idea that plot flow can happen at multiple levels of scale, at a more global level in terms of large scale advancement in the map (entire regions) and much more local levels such as the path down a single hallway, or even a single room as a player looks around it (probably starting near the door and exploring progressively inward).
That's the image in terms of physical layout. In terms of the mapper drawing out the storyline, the image is more like the image I gave in the first section about writing the story in the first place, as a line stretching from a starting scenario to a finale with plot-developing nodes along the way. In terms of that image, a linear plot flow is a straight line with all the nodes lined up. A very non-linear plot flow is like a spider web where many of the nodes have lines going to all the other nodes, and the player starts on the outside and can choose any line they want to go down to go towards the center, but they have to "touch" all the nodes before the center opens up if the mapper wants to ensure the player sees them all (or there can be layered nests like an onion, as progressively inner-layers in the web are opened up after the player "touches" all the nodes in the outer layer.) Then a semi-linear plot flow is like the spider web image, but some areas of the web locally have lines either cut or privileged, so the player is either directed or more likely to go down a certain path locally through that plot area, but other areas are more non-linear, or the player is free (on a more global level) to choose which local linear path they'll go down (more locally), more like a hub & spokes model (which is a very common game design).
Thinking about these lines and plot-advancing nodes is also useful as the image for "gameplay" space generally, and the idea that the player "advances" in the plot as they advance through the gameplay space. In terms of linear plots (or locally linear plot threads), this is in terms of literally making progress along the line. In terms of the non-linear web image, this is in terms of the player making their way towards the web center as they meander their way around the web touching nodes.
I don't think a mapper always has to literally draw a web like that, but it's an image they can have in their mind looking at their map and gameplay design.
- An Example & Case for Non-Linear over Linear Plot Flow
My revelation about non-linear plot design came by happy accident in plotting my own FM. In my FM (sorry that this will be a spoiler), a player has to visit both Room-A and Room-B to get the two widgets that meet the FM's objective. Room-A gives information that the antagonist has hired a murderer to collect bodies for his experiments, and then in room-B an NPC gives information that the murderer is hiding in his warehouse, and a key to get in there and confront him. In my original design, I intended for Room-A to always come before Room-B, so that the player knew who this murderer was before learning where he was. But in betatesting it turned out that some players could reach Room-B before Room-A, and they described their experience of the story a little differently. They learned where this murderer was and could actually even confront him, but only later did they find out who he was, and *that* was a big revelation for them and an interesting plot development. Then it dawned on me that these were really two separate plot flows. In the end, both threads led to the same "global story" being told for both players, but the local threads each player went down carried the plot flow in different local directions. After I realized that, I realized it was better to allow the player to see Room-A or Room-B in either order they wanted, so I took away the enforcement of requiring Room-A coming first, and I actually re-wrote the readables in Room-B to be more understandable for a player visiting it first, and to make it feel like an interesting development when they later visit Room-A (as they have to) and for the player to even feel that that development was the intended one (it helped that there was a very dramatic moment scripted into Room-A as well), while of course maintaining my original plot flow of A->B for players that continued to go that way. (I later realized this was essentially a hub-and-spokes plot model with two spokes.)
But the general lesson I took away from that experience was that the best kinds of stories for FMs would have all kinds of plot-developing nodes the player could visit in any order, so that while all the players would end up with the same global story being told in the end, their path through the narrative space could be much different, and their feeling of the plot flow would be tailored to their path. One practical way to do this is like I mentioned above. Pretend you're a player that goes through the rooms in different orders, and then try to write the readables and present story information so that getting the new information of later rooms, after seeing this information first, would be an interesting revelation and plot-development.
One way is to make sure that each room or readable has enough information so the player knows what is going on if they visited it first. But on reflection, it occurred to me that this is not always a necessary requirement. Sometimes it is interesting to allow gaps where the player doesn't know what's going on, but later information fills in those gaps. In my FM, if a player did confront the murderer first, they would find a small coffin but have no idea what it meant, until later they visit Room-A and realize who the coffin is probably for. While I meant for the coffin to be a shocking revelation on top of the story of events in Room-A, for players that went to Room-B first, for them to have the "shocking revelation" come first and then later read the backstory that set it up led to Room-A being a chilling plot development for them in its own right.
This is sort of like the non-linear plot flow of Pulp Fiction where earlier scenes actually have their set up explained in later scenes, so the viewer just holds the earlier story in a suspension until the later information resolves it. That too is an interesting approach to plotting that non-linear mapping and information releases allow for, even encourage.
A related insight I had regarded the meaning of "plot turn" and "climax" (that I hadn't thought of before). In my original plotting idea, the dramatic moment in Room-A (the visual image of the antagonist's evil plans) served as the major plot turn, and the dramatic moment in the warehouse (via Room-B, confronting the murderer) served as the climax. But for people that went the B-route first, I realized the dramatic moment in the warehouse served as the plot turn, and the dramatic moment in Room-A served as the climax as far as they understood it. Then I realized they were not wrong to understand it that way, and a clever plot design might take that into account by developing several dramatic turns in their FM (possibly attached to individual objectives, in a rough hub-and-spokes model), each of which could serve as a plot turn or climax depending on the order the player met them. A good plot designer could structure each so that its role as a climax or plot turn would make sense and feel appropriately "dramatic" for the occasion.
Balancing Open Gameplay and Directed Storytelling
For most FMs, very open gameplay will be a core part of their design, and telling a good story is something they can fit into that with some readables and civilian AI. So I think a lot of map design will come down to making the gameplay interesting for the player, hallways for sneaking down, branching paths to allow the player multiple ways to advance, rooms for hiding in, open spaces and bottleneck points, etc. So of course not every room needs a story element if it's contributing to the gameplay, but each room does open up an opportunity to contribute to the story as well.
The idea I would add in this section is to think about how gameplay flow and story flow can work together, but also not feeling bad about letting open gameplay have free reign in some areas, and for other areas letting storytelling have a larger hand. This is a little like a scaled down version of the Deus Ex concept of gameplay levels with hostile AI and storytelling levels without non-hostile AI, except for Dark Mod maps being regions of the map instead of entire levels.
Cues and Communicating Plot Flow
Cues and communication are important to the feeling of storytelling flow in the sense that it's important to highlight or cue plot-important information so that the player doesn't miss it, and they recognize when the plot has advanced. Creating anticipation plays a role by sending the message that they can expect "something" coming that carries the situation they're in forward, although they may not know what, and then when they arrive at that something, it's good if there is some cue or communication that this is the thing that's carrying the situation forward.
Since the player is in control of their own movement through the game space, though, the task of populating that space with cues and communicating plot flow to the player is even more important than the static storytelling in novels and cinema. For dynamic and interactive storytelling, cues and communication are also important in directing the player or giving them cues about what they should try next to advance the plot. (The culture of "hinting" ... want to communicate ways to advance, but not so obvious that the interactive of dynamic element is taken away and the player feels on rails.)
Another important type of communication is letting the player feel they've made progress when they've actually made it, so it doesn't just fall flat, but the game or setting itself lets you know something special just happened. Of course when you fulfill an objective the game itself gives a jingle -- and I'll talk about using the objectives to connect to the plot in a later section -- but for many plot developments, there doesn't have to be a jingle, but it's nice to send a message to the player (that's believable within the world).
Two types of techniques other than using objectives I can think of are:
(1) Opening new areas of the map, especially that the player has been curious about for a while, (which curiosity the mapper has developed by maybe giving tidbits of information about interesting things in there, or glimpses through cracks and windows to cue their MO to go there, etc). And then when the player gets to the new area, the mapper can make that feeling even greater by using some special and interesting geometry, gameplay, and revelations that communicate they've arrived someplace special. The closer the player gets to the climax, the more the mapper can communicate that they are getting to progressively more and more special areas, where even the rooms themselves communicate how special it is. (This reminds me of the design of Egyptian temples in stages, with the massive "common" outside area, then progressively smaller and "intimate" areas that are more exclusive and require work to get into, until you arrive at the holy of holies, a room where only one person may enter, and every part of which speaks of its specialness. That kind of architectural design is communicating its meaning to the observer each stage along the way. I like that model for FM level design too; reward player progress with special areas.)
(2) Use loot. Loot is more than meeting an objective. It's the consummate way the author communicates game flow with the player. When the player has successfully made their way through some tough gameplay, reward them with some loot that they could only have gotten by navigating that gameplay. I'll talk about motivation more in the next section, but the absolute key to player motivation is risk and reward. If there isn't an observable reward that comes out of a risk (and remember, the key isn't just what's merely present in the game, but what happens & is communicated to the player through the game), then the player will wonder why they just went through all that risk. But with a little loot, the player feels the gratification of taking the risk to reach that room, and the author communicates to the player that they did something good or are on the right track. It works the other way as well, where catching glimpses of loot or hints about it in readables cues the player to look for new rooms or gives them a motivation to take on some risk to try to reach it.
Another aspect of this is that the reward should usually be proportional to the risk. For taking big risks or arriving at important rooms, if the player receives a lot of loot it communicates to the player that they've arrived somewhere important. But even taking on a little risk should be rewarded with a little loot. And the map can be populated with many of these little mini sub-games at different levels on the risk-reward scale.
The punchline here is just to try to always have a little loot payoff for the player taking risk, think about proportionality, and use it to communicate that the player has made progress in the plot or that a room is special in some way.
Modus Operandi, or MO, is an important concept that's been implicit in everything I've said above, but it's time to make it explicit. The short definition of an MO is the core motivation of a character that drives their behavior in a story, particularly in plot-advancing ways. An MO, or a clash of MOs or of an MO against nature, is usually the main engine of a plot. Probably in reality human motivations are fickle diffuse things that come and go, but in good storytelling MOs are more of a mechanic or device that pushes a plot forward, or a character through a plot, in a natural and compelling way that players can intuitively understand. So it's sometimes better to think of an MO in this mechanical way, as a plot device, than as *merely* human motivation per se, much less some random motivation like wanting to eat which may be very compelling in reality but not very good for carrying a plot or drama like an MO of survival or love or revenge can, MOs with some strong emotional component.
The basic advice of this section is just to look at your player character (PC) and NPCs and think about the MO of each one, then write your story in ways that are authentic to those MOs, or anyway not totally unbelievable. Also think about how the PC & NPCs would react as they get new information in terms of the MO. You don't have to make characters 1-dimensional mirrors of some character-trait, but letting their words and actions express their MO, or how it operates, is a handy way to communicate what NPCs & the PC are thinking to players. (Cf. The "Hamlet-Ophelia" technique where the author scripts NPCs to say things not 100% naturally, but to be received by an audience, e.g., by communicating inner thoughts that might be implicit to them if they'd be speaking in real life.)
While an MO is important in any kind of storytelling, and the MO of NPCs in a game will work like the MOs of characters in books and movies (since game NPCs are scripted, except that NPC scripting can allow for a little more freedom than a book character), the MO of the player character in a game is very special because it's not just about the motivation of the player-character itself, it's also about the motivation of the literal player playing him. So special care has to be taken with constructing and engaging the MO of the PC.
Another thing special about a PC MO is that it's an "active" MO. That is, the MO of the player is usually connected to the goal or objective of the gameplay, so a PC MO in a game has a formal role in the mechanics of the game itself. That is, the mapper can create or modulate the player's MO through the objectives, and also the MO will push the player to behave in certain ways in the game that the mapper can (and should) expect and account for in their mission design. [...]
The most common and compelling MO for a Dark Mod FM is of course "the job". Of course, some jobs are more motivating than others. Stealing a random widget to make a little money is one thing, stealing [X to save the world] is more compelling. [That said, it can be off-putting to have an MO that's so fantastic it breaks immersion.]
Some other MOs include survival gameplay (probably the most compelling MO), helping NPCs, ...
It should be emphasized that the flow of a plot is (in my experience) proportional to the strength of the player's MO. The more compelling the player's MO in a game, the more the player will really be caught up in the compelling flow of events engaging with that MO.
[To give one example I read recently, the MO of the player in Halflife 1 was very compelling, you are trapped in a compound when all hell breaks loose and you need to survive and escape, and every game scene reinforces the desperation of the player in that MO. In contrast, the basic MO of Halflife 2 is to do some chores for some NPCs that until the very end do not seem to make much difference to what's happening in the world anyway, and definitely not at the local level of individual game scenes. So it's often been said that the MO for HL2 is a puddle compared to the flooding compulsion of the player's MO in HL1. While players could tolerate still "playing through" HL2, many of them didn't care about what they were doing and were just playing through for its own sake, whereas most players cared about what they were doing all the way through HL1, because the MO kept pulling them through scene after scene.]
Objectives are the main game mechanic that directs and makes an MO. [...]
A very important contribution to the MO is how the briefing and setup is designed. This is an important point because sometimes mappers drop the ball on this and unnaturally thrust the player into an improbable MO, which is a good way to alienate the player from the story altogether. The example I recall is the briefing for Equilibrium, otherwise an awesome FM in its gameplay, but storywise the mapper made the mistake of starting the player off with an entirely arbitrary MO to visit the Keeper compound for no good reason, and then as soon as the player entered it, a gate came down trapping the player inside for no good reason, giving him the completely arbitrary MO to escape a compound he never really had any good reason to enter in the first place. Great gameplay; not very good MO and storytelling.
MO isn't necessarily a monolithic thing, but the player can have multiple MOs, and at various levels of scale. A high-level MO is something like fulfilling the ultimate objective of the FM; a low-level MO is something like finding the key to open a door, or negotiating a trap puzzle to get to a chest that looks important. What I thought was interesting is the insight that the highlevel and lowlevel MOs usually connect. Of course the high level MO gives the player lowlevel MOs to make progress towards it through each area, but also lowlevel MOs and mechanics also give content to the highlevel MO as well. How the player wants to approach the global goal of fulfilling their objective will depend first and most concretely on the actual low level challenges and obstacles they face locally. The punchline for design is that it's worth the mapper spending a few seconds looking at each area or obstacle and thinking about, can the player feel a sense of motivation here, and is there an opportunity to connect the highlevel MO of the objective to the lowlevel MO of dealing with this room? One way to make such a connection is periodically reminding the player, as they're caught up in local challenges, what they're doing all this for by dropping suggestive and enticing tidbits about their ultimate goal, and in any event not allowing the gameplay to drift so far into tangential & arbitrary tasks that it starts to derail from its drive to its actual final goal. The player should still have a feeling that this local challenge is a credible part of what a player could be doing in making their way to their final goal.
The Role of Objectives in Guiding Plot
Problems vs. Puzzles
In the long history of game-storytelling, particularly in interactive fiction and adventure games but also RPGs and storytelling FPSs, the received wisdom that has come down to us is that "puzzles" (no matter how clever) are problematic as gameplay devices, but "problems" with multiple ways to pass are a better way to structure gameplay flow, and lead players to have a greater sense of accomplishment and fun. They also tend to be better for storytelling, since puzzles often distract *away* from the story (why is *this* here?? except as a puzzle?), whereas problems usually deal with storytelling elements directly (e.g., very angry AI, or things like locked doors or flooded cellars).
The general idea is that puzzles are largely about the author coming up with something clever to pass an obstacle, and she wants the player to read her mind or perform her elaborate ritual (something like a big jumping puzzle), which doesn't leave much for the player to do except try to figure out the one answer the author is looking for or do the thing like the author wants. A "problem" is some practical barrier like AI or a physical obstacle, with practical ways in world simulation to get around it, the more the better (tempting the AI to move, finding other paths around the obstacle, with different costs & benefits to each method). The mapper would do well to have at least two ways to make progress past most problems, but even better is when it's left as part of world simulation, where the player can do many things in the world to make progress, whatever they can think of. The good AI & world-simulation of TDM leaves lots of room open for this kind of thing, and it's something we're all familiar with playing many FMs.
The general lesson for mappers here is just try to think about obstacles in the gameplay from the player's perspective, what might be fun for them to engage with and feel accomplished doing, rather than about something clever you (the author) thought of and you want the player to read your mind or perform your ritual. Try to think of problems with multiple solutions before puzzles with one solution. Let your gameplay empower the player. You can save your cleverness for good readables and conversations. Like all "rules" there can be exceptions though, if you have an awesome puzzle idea that opens up the story, or some challenging jumps you might expect in the real world (without needing an entire elaborate jumping-puzzle area), but this lesson comes from long experience of many people making and playing a lot of storytelling games over a very long time. Of course there's a whole sub-genre of "puzzle FMs" where they are *intended* to be all puzzles -- which is great, I like them -- but they don't usually mix very well with good storytelling.
Creating a Story Arc: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends
Plot Stages: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, and the "Developments" That Move the Story Through Them, Story arcs. [TBD]
There are surely better tutorials by actual professionals out there to help you think about plotting a story. I will just give my quick 2 cent version. I like to think in terms of a classic three-stage arc to a plot.
(1) You start with some kind of set up with the briefing and the first few rooms that gives them some kind of horizon -- the basic job they're doing -- that hopefully has some kind of hook that draws the player into the story, and then usually something right near the start that puts a twist on the whole setup so it's clear why it's a "story" and not just another boring day at the job. In my FM, right at the start there's a notice about a murderer on the lose, which does double duty of providing a cool setup to develop a story on and to explain why the guards are out, then the first few readables describe how he's affected the neighborhood. You don't know what he has to do with the "story", if anything yet, but you know there's a wildcard in the plot now that makes it something more than a simple get-in & grab.
(2) The middle stages of a story are to develop plot threads out of the setup. [...]
(3) And of course the end-game part of the story is what is classically supposed to "tie the threads together" (or the modern or postmodern approach of letting them hang but still tying "something" up). [...]
Plot and Scope: FM Size and Single-Missions vs Campaigns
This is another intuitive point worth making explicit. Larger FMs have more space, which means the player spends more time in them and sees a greater variety of things, so of course they allow for more ambitious plots and storytelling than a smaller contest-sized FM. And of course campaigns with multiple FMs allow for even greater storytelling arcs.
Even in single-mission FMs, it can be useful to visually break up "chapters" in the story-arc with different regions in the FM. An old example is something like the OM Assassins, where the first half was about following your assassins through the city streets, which led to Ramirez's mansion and the second half of going after Ramirez for revenge. The FM Willow Island made an impression in my memory on this, as it was literally broken into three successive chapters/regions as the player made progress on the island, displaying "title cards" when the player reached a new area with a title for the chapter that area contained.
More Detail on Story-Telling Elements
Before getting to the actual plotting part, I think it's worth a brief look at the typical elements that go into FM storytelling.
Journals, letters, books, etc, readables do storytelling obliquely. They don't usually narrate directly "X"; they are the writings of an NPC in the game-world thinking about "X" (unless that NPC himself is narrating something he saw). I think all of us have played enough FMs to know how readables work to get out the story and plot elements.
One thing I want to mention about them, though: A common criticism with FM readables are that they are "too long" or have irrelevant information. What I think this criticism really boils down to is exactly what I was talking about above. I don't think it's the length per se that's the issue. I think the feeling of "making progress" in the mission (or its lack) also applies when a player reads a readable. ...
- Conversations and Scripted NPC Events
Conversations happen when NPCs speak and act and the player is in proximity to listen and watch, usually either 2+ NPCs talking to each other, or an NPC and the player talking. The nice thing about conversations over readables is you can add some action, gestures, have the AI walk around a little or perform some action, and also it's a part of action live right in front of the player, so it's imminently relevant to the world & gameplay. The downside is the conversation can get interrupted or the player can wander off, so they're harder for the mapper to enforce. Some mappers freeze the player or trap him in a room, or have the voice "follow" the player (through magic; the equivalent of the radio for military & scifi genre), or they just script it so the plot moves on even if the player doesn't catch the full conversation.
- esp take advantage of sneaking gameplay (eavesdropping, events acted out around the player)
- Visual Storytelling
Visual storytelling is any method of conveying narrative elements without using words, in effect, showing the player rather than telling. A classic example is finding an NPC body in a room. The player knows something dramatic happened that's probably relevant to the story he's wrapped up in.
- Setting and Atmosphere
Mise-en-scène is a term referring to how scenes are visually presented to help with the storytelling. The concept was developed in cinema -- where it largely refers to the layout and blocking of items in a scene, and how they are framed with certain angles and zooms of the camera -- but it has a natural application to game design as well, although the idea has to be adjusted to context. It is a little different from the way I was talking about visual-storytelling above, which was about certain visual elements that contribute to the story itself. The mise-en-scene is more about constructing visual presentation itself.
Since the mapper cannot literally control the camera in a game -- the player is in direct control of the camera -- in the context of gaming mise-en-scene is more about directing the eye of the player, and then framing the scene the player sees as they move and look around. A good example from an FM is the way Saturnine framed the mansion facade in Rose Cottage as the player entered the mansion grounds, making an awesome visual impact as the player entered, which he was able to do with a conscious and thoughtful design of the scene's geometry. Mise-en-scene fits with visual storytelling insofar as the mapper often wants to put some visual accent on important storytelling elements that not only directs the player's view to it, but also sends a visual cue to the player that this is something important to the story, not just an arbitrary set piece. Placing key items in the center of a room or scene, or lighting it in a certain way, or placing other objects around in ways that highlight it are all ways to put a visual accent on it. Or even burying important items among a pile of red herrings could send its own message that contributes to the story. This is all part of thinking about a good mise-en-scene design for your FM.
Another very simple but effective thing to pay attention to is dramatic lighting. A scene comes alive with point-source lights and an interesting mix of light and shadow, whereas it can be dulled by washed out area lighting and few shadows.
- Sound Effects and Ambients
This is very intuitive. Good use of sound effects and ambients add greatly to the atmosphere and tension of an FM, and work for the storytelling. A well placed cued "tension" ambient at a certain location can bring the tension of the scene alive for the player, and a good droning ambient can saturate an entire area with a thick atmosphere evoking whatever emotion the author wants to instill in the player, from increasing dread to excitement. And again it's a communication device, telling the player they're making progress to more important areas. Many maps do not take advantage of good ambients and soundscapes as they should; don't be one of them!
- Narrative Economy
Narrative Economy is about the ratio between your map taxing the player's attention and communicating story information. To put it plainly, when you have something special that grabs the player's attention, if it carries some story information along with it, then your story will have a bigger impact, or signal-to-noise ratio. Conversely if you have a lot of random fluff, then the story can get diffused and lost in the noise.
One classic rule of thumb is the Chekov's shotgun approach, which is if the author draws the player's attention to a shotgun on a mantle in an early scene, by the end of the story somebody should use the shotgun, or in someway it should be relevant. Another classic approach is, after you've gotten the first full draft of your story complete, to go scene by scene and cut the fat to carve out a harder-hitting storytelling punch with what remains. Look at each readable or room and ask how hard it hits the player as they're going through. A really strong and compelling storytelling FM is going to pack hard punch after punch on the player room after room.
Anticipation is about building expectations in the player's mind that "something" is coming, which is good both for building suspense for its own sake, and so that when that something finally does come it has a bigger impact. This is another good reason to have a Chekov's shotgun approach, to cue the player's mind about certain directions the story may go, which then allows the mapper to manipulate those expectations... The player can get an idea that "somebody is going to use that shotgun", but you can develop multiple potential-narrative threads that open up the possibility that this NPC might use it for this reason, and this other NPC for some other reason, and the uncertainty and puzzle of it gets the player engaged in the drama of it.
At its core, storytelling is mostly about the controlled (or uncontrolled, as the case may be) release of information in a structured way, where later pieces of information contribute to a narrative flow on top of the previous pieces in a directed way towards the goal or climax of the story, which lets the player feel like they're getting caught up in a dramatic flow and they can have a sense of making progress, and a sense of accomplishment when they arrive at the conclusion after a well-delivered build-up. (As we all recall from playing FMs with great stories, even if it's somewhat smoke & mirrors, it's a real feeling of fun when we're in a world we don't understand at first and we feel pieces start coming together in really interesting ways, and we want to push onwards to see what they're leading to; even if we can guess, we still feel that drive to discover more. Good plotting sparks that feeling.)
Essential to this picture are two things, (1) all the information pieces add up to an interesting and dramatic story when put together and (2) the player doesn't have access to all the information at the start, but they are revealed over time, and the new pieces must be important revelations or discoveries about the plot to really count as progressing the plot.
Now people sometimes complain that "plot twists" are cliche, or "I could see the end coming a mile away", and I think as a reaction that sometimes makes some mappers shrink from really writing in dramatic revelations into their plot and you get the opposite problem of a watery story where not much really happens at all.
- Plot Twists
TTLG's own Digital Nightfall asks these questions to decide if your plot twist is worth it.
- Does your story still work if the plot twist is revealed at the start of the story rather than at the critical twisty moment? (I.e. the spoiler test.) If not, cut the twist.
- Does your story still work if the plot twist is never revealed at all? If so, cut the twist. [edit: It seems we're not sure about this one, so this one is subject to further review.]
- Does your entire story revolve around there being a plot twist? If so, cut the story.
- Are you just doing a plot twist as an attempt to outsmart the audience? If so, cut the story.
If the answers are Yes, Yes, No, No, then yay, cool plot twist! :)
- Hiding and Releasing Information, NPC Knowledge, and Occasional Misunderstandings
One common technique involving plot revelations is the meta-level technique of information about the revelation being parceled out to different characters at different times, and the characters not knowing what other characters know (although the player knows).
This mechanic is behind so many Shakespeare and Three's Company plots where a character is in another room and overhears other characters talk (without them realizing it). So their later interaction will be interesting. Sometimes there's an added twist that the off-stage character doesn't get the full context of the information so has a misunderstanding.
- World or Character State Changes (or Apparent Changes)
The nice thing about storytelling in a game is that player interaction can actually change the state of the world they are exploring. Scripted events can be cued, but also more functional state changes can occur.
- Symbolism, Symbolic Interaction, McGuffins (and active McGuffins), and Rituals
Symbolism is of course a storytelling technique where a plot concept of theme is reified into an object ("reify" means "to turn into an object"), then the object can stand in as a metaphor for that concept. The fact that the object is in a game opens up the further possibility of symbolic interaction, where player interaction with the symbol-object can represent some kind of engagement or confrontation of the player character with that concept. [...]
A McGuffin is one kind of use of symbolism. The classic definition of a McGuffin is the object that serves as the engine of a story or plot, while the object itself is inert, like the Maltese Falcon or the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark (except at the end where the Ark actually does affect the plot). It has a natural place in Dark Mod FMs because, of course, the engine most TDM FM plots is the task to steal some prized object, which object drives the plot but usually isn't much of an active part in it (because finding and taking it is usually the end of the story for most FMs.)
A ritual is another approach towards symbolism in FMs that is I think unique to gaming (in contrast to novels and movies). The idea is that often a mapper will have the player engage in some kind of sequence of actions (usually interactive with some objects or in space) that advances the story or serves as some kind of symbolic engagement with the story. In stealth gaming of course the most famous ritual was from Thief (this is a spoiler) passing the fake Eye to the Trickster in his ceremony. Common rituals in FMs are things like gathering McGuffins to open doors, gathering ingredients or items and then making potions and spells out of them, pulling levers and pushing buttons in a set order, ritualistically playing McGuffins in special slots, etc. If the ritual ties in with the story and world around it, all the better.
Like a lot of games, it's sometimes useful to distinguish functionary AI (like guards) who are mostly there for gameplay reasons, and NPC AI, who play a role in the FM's story, although of course an AI can play both roles or switch between them.
Specific Techniques and Story-Types FMs have Used
- Jobs & Events
- Reconstructing Past Events and Leading them to the Present
- NPC-Relationship Webs
- Private Spaces in Proximity: Storytelling in City & Mansion FMs
Common Problems and Things to Avoid in Plotting
- Does the plot make sense? Does it pass the sanity or straight-face test?
- Is your plot breakable? (And is that so bad?). Can specific game mechanics screw up the plot flow?
- Is there a good balance between free gameplay and directed plotting?
- One plotting problem I encountered in my FM. In order to get the player to see an important event in one room, the mission design led him away from the path that continued the mission, requiring them to backtrack to get back on the "main path" of the plot flow. In retrospect this was a design mistake. ...
- Be wary of game-y puzzles and gameplay (which isn't to say you can't have fun). Game-y is when you leave the goal of gameplay moving the plot forward and move into the territory of just having the player do crap because it sounds cool on paper.
- Avoid "premonition" puzzles, avoid situations that bust or kill the player without fair warning (especially for ghosters), or require lots of reloads
- Never leave your player stuck without a way to win.
- Cuing. Try to let the player always have an idea something to try next. Use cues. Consider graduated levels of hints (so a puzzle is found early on and open throughout the FM, early things give loose hints, as you open up more areas conventionally other rooms can give increasingly detailed hints). If the puzzle has multiple states, use the failure states to give hints about the success state. Something somewhere should be obvious the way through. It should be possible to complete an FM without having to post a question. Avoid cultural or language puzzles (or math puzzles). Remember that a large number of our players are not native English speakers. Be sensitive.
Further Discussion of Narrative Design
(addition by Petike)
Story, Plot and Narrative Design Discussion Thread - To seek further advice and discussion on plotting, story and narrative, you can also visit this discussion thread. It's open to all, at any time, always. Whenever one has "writer's block" while designing a mission's narrative and how it'll fit into gameplay, he/she should feel free to visit the discussion.