The History of the Story Design Challenge
About seven months ago, I began writing a weekly Story Design Column here in Gamasutra. The importance of the story designer is usually overlooked in gaming companies. Usually, either the story and assets are usually almost ready when the story designer/writer is brought into the picture or the story is handed down from above by those who probably don’t know how to tell a good story.
When this happens, it means that on the one hand, the game’s story is not as good as it could be. On the other, it’s understandable, because it’s hard to trust your entire game with someone who isn’t a master. My aim was in writing the column was to put a greater emphasis on story design, while at the same time to improve the overall technique of the story designers.
Over the past few months, we’ve covered the art of dialogue, the craft of world-building, the techniques for creating good surprises, comedy theory, the theory behind creating beautiful endings, and more.
As the column grew, more and more readers began to follow it regularly, and I received more and more responses. After six months, I decided to ask readers for questions and issues they’re having problems with. One reader’s question prompted the next natural step for Story Design Tips: the Story Design Challenge. The challenge was immediately picked up by GameCareerGuide.
Story Design Challenge #1: ‘Same Assets, Different Story’
This was the challenge:
Write a short scene that includes a player’s choice. After that choice, the plot will vary wildly. At the same time, you must use the same assets for both scenarios. You can use any scenario you want: you choose the plot, the characters, the story, the background, the genre, etc.
The winners will be the ones who have the widest variation between the forked plots with as little use of different assets as possible. So: The more different the plots, the better. The more you use the same assets in both, the better.
The point was not to write a script, but to give a very clear idea, in less than 1,500 words, of what the different paths would look like and how the same assets would be used.
The different entries were to be published in the comments to the original post.
The number of responses was okay, though relatively low, but easily what you would expect for our very first challenge. Hopefully, as we do more and more challenges, and with further exposure in Game Career Guide as well as, perhaps, other places, we’ll get more and more entries.
It’s important to note that I judged the entries based on their basic idea and potential rather than the way they were carried out, which required fine-tuning in all cases. These ideas were the point of the challenge, as they offer us creative alternatives to approach such tasks when designing future stories.
First Place: James Coote
In his entry, James proposed a wild idea: The player has a moral choice to make. Once he chooses the immoral side, he finds himself at odds with his NPC teammate. The choice influences everything that comes later, which is a function of that choice. On the other side of the fork, the player makes the moral choice. His NPC teammate then chooses to do the immoral choice.
So the bad choice is made in both scenarios. All dialogues and repercussions that happen later happen in exactly the same way, with one difference: The roles are changed. Where the dialogue is the same, the characters saying the dialogue are switched. Where the action in the game is the same, the characters performing these actions in the game are switched. If this is a third-person game rather than a first-person game, that’s doable.
There is much to refine in the way James wanted to carry out his idea, but the idea is great. And I’m sure the writers among you have sparks going off in your heads about how you would do this your own way. James gets first place.
Second Place: Devin Tasker
Devin proposed a scenario in which a team of good guys chases a siren. What he did was build his story in a way that intersperses cut-scenes between the action: cut-scene, action, cut-scene, action, cut-scene, etc. The differences in the cut-scenes (resulting from the player’s choices) give different meaning to the action that comes later.
Takin Devin’s idea to an extreme, we could create two stories or more with almost exactly the same assets. If you establish the background differently each time, the same actions could have context (story-wise as well as emotion-wise) that is quite different in each story.
I’ll give you an example. Imagine a man walking to the store to buy some bandages. Harmless, right? But if you knew his wife was being held hostage at home, and he was sent to get bandages to bandage his wife’s bullet wound in her arm. He mustn’t show the slightest sign that anything’s wrong, or they’ll kill his wife. The same harmless scene now seems completely different in the eyes of the player.
Now imagine there’s no hostage situation. But this man is our hero. He thinks the mission is over and the bad guys are defeated. But the bad guys have set up an ambush in the store, an ambush the player doesn’t know about. The same innocent walk to the store now gets a completely different context in the story with a new emotional charge.
If done right, taking care to create the right expositions before each scene, we could develop massively different stories with almost exactly the same assets.
Devin Tasker wins second place.
Third Place: Aaron Wilbers
Aaron’s scenario takes place during the famous McCarthy hearings, with the player’s character a refugee from the Soviet Union in the US. Aaron’s scenario is based on choices the player makes that eventually end up with the same results (being thrown in jail, for example) or almost the same results (being deported to this country or to that country).
The problem I had with Aaron’s entry is that to achieve a good plot in the way he proposes would require quite a bit of use of different assets. So though the idea is doable, he didn’t quite solve how to achieve it with as few assets as possible.
Good try. Third place goes to Aaron Wilbers.
All three winners get a free electronic copy of my SF book, Secret Thoughts.
Congratulations to the winners. And, hopefully, the challenge got some of your creative juices going. Even when we’re working with very little money, there are many imaginative ways to eke out many great things out of the same assets.
Next week, we’ll return to our regularly scheduled Story Design Tips column. And in a month or so, we’ll have our second Story Design Challenge.
A creative week to you all!