Story and Situation: The Basic Formula

The story is:

The player has a chance to explore the STATUS QUO, examining the problem therein. Keep in mind that although this is an “exploration,” it is *dynamic* — it is a series of interactive events which figure the problem in the status quo, and implicitly argue that it is not sustainable. 30 min.

The player has a choice to challenge or not challenge the status quo. 15 min.

If the player challenged it, the status quo fights back! If he didn’t, it rewards him. 30 min.

If the player is fighting the status quo, he has the opportunity to defeat it. If he didn’t, he must now surrender to the original problem or be destroyed. “Destruction” here means death, losing the cardinalship, being voted off the junior league team, or whatever. 15 min.

This makes for an hour-and-a-half game, which is about the length of a movie. Probably, you’ll go over budget here and there, and your player will waste more time than you expected trying to do something weird that never occurred to you, making for a two-hour Comp entry.

a small situation

In the status quo, there is a problem. The problem is important: it is emotionally significant in a way that captures the player’s attention. It must also be believable. Therefore, you should go for the least improbable situation you can think of that would convey the problem.

And this is an important rule of drama: the smaller a situation is, the more interesting it is. A story about a fourteen year old who is considering going for her first kiss will probably be met with more interest than one about saving the Universe from forces of cosmic evil.

You can also overlay differences of scale. For example, consider a story about a fourteen year old who must save the Universe to get her first kiss; or save it somehow *with* her first kiss — perhaps a parable on not chickening out; or indeed, choose between saving the Universe and kissing someone she’s had a crush on *all summer*. But in all of these cases, it is the little story that drives the interest.

Now, in this small situation, you have a big problem. You must introduce this problem quickly in a way that makes the player feel it. Then, you must develop it in a way that makes the player understand and feel it more. This happens during the “exploration” phase of the game.

You do this by establishing rules about consequences. Anything that convinces the player that a certain consequence will follow a certain PC behavior can be used to establish the central problem of the status quo. NPCs can make predictions, issuing advice, warnings, or threats. The PC can get miniature versions of the problem situation, with small preliminary efforts at making solutions causing small versions of the problem situation to arise: trying to leave the grounds of the mental hospital leads to disciplinary action; trying to reason with one’s wife sparks a fight; going to the police backfires. Finally, you can establish the central problem by simply informing the player of it in the game’s narrative voice, either having the game directly inform “you,” the player, or having the PC think it through “out loud.”

a bind

Creating the problem situation around the status quo means creating two sets of rules. We can call these the carrot and the stick.

The carrot is the reward the status quo offers the PC for “correct” behavior. If the PC complies with the pressures of the status quo, this is his reward. However, it must be an inadequate reward. Otherwise, you are writing a game where nothing will happen, and that’s not a story. There’s no conflict.

So, the carrot is rotten: the outcome of going with the status quo is unacceptable. (Alternatively, you could create a story where the status quo is good but *threatened* somehow. The PC’s job is then to *maintain* it. But that’s comparatively boring, and follows basically the same logic anyway.)

The stick is the punishment the status quo offers the PC for “incorrect” behavior. If the PC fights the status quo, this is how the status quo will fight back. It must be an apparently formidable punishment. Otherwise, you are writing a preachy game with cheap, easy heroism.

When the carrot is unacceptably rotten and the stick is intimidatingly painful, you have put the PC in a bind. That’s narrative conflict.

a reward

If a bind were the only thing we offered the player, then that’s a downer of a story. We also should offer the player a *real* reward that, unlike the rotten carrot that the status quo offers, is actually wholesome and attractive. It should be both — pleasurable and good for the PC.

This can be backgrounded. Usually heros in modern stories act heroic not for profit, but to escape some bind — to prevent some kind of calamity. Sometimes authors go too far with this: the romantic hero/ine shows no interest in the love interest until having vanquishing the villian, at which point the love interest throws him/her-self at the hero/ine.

There are other similar developments we know from stock fiction: after thwarting the alien invasion, the intrepid alien busters seize the flying saucer, which allows humanity to pirate the alien technology. And so on.

You can make the reward the goal. This just means the PC explicitly acknowledges the desirability of the reward, and the reward can’t be used as a zinger at the end.

In a bad ending, of course, the PC is deprived of the reward, and instead given the rotten carrot of the status quo. And this should be conspicuous deprivation, underlining the fact that the player screwed up.

a choice

With the carrot-stick contingencies laid out through the exploration section, the player ought now to understand thoroughly the stakes and the nature of choice about to confront him.

Therefore, when he is confronted with the choice, he ought to have developed an attitude toward the topic that tells him what the likely consequences will be. Also he should know which choice will give him a chance to win his goal, and which represents an abandonment of that goal.

The choice must happen in a particular situation, and a particular moment. This should be the moment of greatest tension — everything in the game has been leading up to the sense that This Is It, and everything that follows will have to do with the ramifications of this choice.

This happens halfway through the story. Usually, this isn’t done in IF. Instead, the choice is put at the end, and the consequence follows immediately. That’s not good storytelling: it’s lame. It’s lame like the lameness of CYOAs. It’s especially lame when one choice is followed by Instant Death and the other by Glorious Happiness.

An IF shouldn’t be a series of puzzles you play to get to a one-choice CYOA.

Instead, watching the consequences develop out of the decision will cause the player great joy. This will be the second half of your game.

The choice itself is a gate. (see the section on gates, below) In general, the most impressive to players will be a choice which is clearly marked out as a choice by the storytelling, but that has the same form as the other gates in your game. So, if you use a lot of simulator gates, then making the choice a simulator gate will be the most impressive. If you use a lot of NPC gates, making it an NPC gate will.

However you make the choice gate, the player must clearly understand through the storytelling that this is an important moment in the game, and that he is choosing between the carrot and the stick of the status quo.

& consequences

In traditional fiction, we have a character faced with Terrible Consequences if they don’t get something right. The probelm with IF in this regard is that you need to be able to put your money where your mouth is. If you set up terrible consequences, or a meaningful choice, then you need to be able to follow through if the player demands it.

This is really two problems: The problem of variety — the development that goes into putting together alternate story lines — and the problem of agency — making sure your reader doesn’t do something game-ending or calamitous without understanding what he’s doing.

the problem of variety

After the central narrative choice of the game, you need to have two different story lines. So if you’re writing a game that has two options in the central narrative conflict, it appears you have to write 1.5 games. Because you have two central-to-endpoint sections.

Luckily, you can cheat. Set up your story so that the choice has immediate effects that the player plays through, but then have the two story lines merge. Program in occasional reminders — NPCs respond to the player differently; he has different items; perhaps program an alternate scene.

Computers have memory. Use that memory to have the story lines again diverge a scene or two before the end of the game. If the player has chosen “correctly,” that choice now makes the game happily winnable. If he has chosen wrongly, the happy (or happiest) ending is no longer available.

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Published on March 20, 2010 at 9:05 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. [I’ve moved Matt’s comment from the original location.]

    Interesting stuff, Conrad. I haven’t read it all yet, but I wanted to highlight this:

    A story about a fourteen year old who is considering going for her first kiss will probably be met with more interest than one about saving the Universe from forces of cosmic evil.

    So true. And so not heeded by the mainstream writers of comic books, who seem to have decided that the way to make their works Big and Significant is to make every story line involve threats to the universe or at least the galaxy. (Or at least that’s the way it seems from everything I read about them, and from my attempt to read the Jack Kirby books that are supposed to be the Best Thing Ever from the Silver Age.)

    And — this is probably part of what you say about overlaying scale — one way to get a plot of Cosmic Significance is to have something that starts small-scale and opens into something big. That’s part of the point of the Good Morning Crono trope, and is something I think that comes across in MS Paint Adventures — admittedly completely ridiculous stories, but still, they wouldn’t work if they started with the universe-destroying attacks; they have to start off as being about a guy who wants to get out of his office, or a kid who wants to play a game and get the birthday present from his dad’s car, and unfold into The Fate of the Universe. Or, from IF, consider “Rover’s Day Out,” which starts out as a game about making breakfast but turns into something much different. Though a lot of people didn’t like having to make breakfast so often!

    About length, one point I’d make is that the game doesn’t have to be two hours. And if you’ve got puzzles in your game, it’ll take people radically different amounts of time to solve. But anyway, the Comp gives people a lot of games to play, and at least for me a game has to be pretty engaging to keep me going for two hours.

    –Matt Weiner


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