Game Design: Story

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Now listening to: Friends

Storytelling in games. FUCK YEAH! Zelda, Mass Effect, Minecraft.

A story is just a sequence of events. Nothing more. It’s pretty basic. The reason we get confused when trying to implement storytelling mechanisms is that we try to define stories in our own subjective terms of “good” or “bad”. The quality of a story is not for the storyteller to decide. That’s the purview of the audience and, whether you like it or not, they will come to their own conclusions.

That’s the problem with the “string of pearls” approach to storytelling in game design. It’s a half-baked approach, neither here nor there, as far as storytelling styles go. The ponds of “freedom” you are allowed to wade in every now and then feel ultimately inconsequential and dilute the experience as a whole.

It’s in human nature to find sense in a senseless world. Our mind needs these processes to survive. A story is just that. An emergent narrative from a series of events. A shield against pointlessness. Whether a story is good or bad is entirely up to the audience to decide.

Crusader Kings II: Duke of Mercia, first King of the Eire, Emperor of Britannia. After generations of careful eugenics by marrying my descendants to genetically favorable lowborn, the first Emperors-to-be turn out to be male twins; one the avatar of good, the other a rotten fucker. Bastard McShitfucker assassinates his brother, the rightful prince to the crown, and the whole realm descends into anarchy.

Minecraft: My friends kept fucking around with my Pyke project. I boobytrapped the islands with enough TNT to make Nagasaki and Hiroshima look like a warmup. Not only did the islands disappear, the explosion was large enough to punch a hole in the ocean floor, which caused some weird water physics effects.

Planetside: the story of the glorious 1%. One of many times in game development history where a bug caused a game to be better than it had originally been intended to be by design. Out of a bland experience an anecdote so memorable that veterans still talk about it.

#73 Story Machine

Game Design: Mechanics X

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Now listening to: rain

Now we’re getting somewhere. Interest curves are right up my alley as a Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master. They’re one of the hardest challenges to manage. Especially if you like coming up with your own stories and content. Which I guarantee 99% of D&D DMs do. If you think crafting interest curves for a regular experience is hard, try crafting them for a game with multiple players, no clear end and 100% freedom to do anything at any given time.


It’s taken me 10 years as a D&D DM to figure one simple truth. You never craft a story. A DM needs to craft a setting and let the story emerge on its own during gameplay. That is not to say you shouldn’t create a world, civilizations, events or NPCs. Those are vital. What I mean is that you shouldn’t shoehorn your own story into the game. D&D is a fun game only fully realized when collaborative storytelling is made manifest. Your creativity needs to respond to a player’s input. If not, actions will be perceived as meaningless, and the toy will be fundamentally broken.

Of course, fractal interest curves are hard to do, especially on the fly. In D&D the smallest iteration of an interest curve is the session. It is there you model the interest curves that will be replicated at the adventure level (multiple sessions) and, ultimately, at the campaign level (multiple adventures).

Start strong, scale back, build up and go out with a bang.

A series of events create a story arc. As Schell says, risk is more interesting than safety. Fancy is more interesting than plain. The unusual is more interesting than the ordinary. But risk, fancy and the unusual mean nothing without their counterparts, so your interest curve needs all six to work. Otherwise, there will be no contrast and without it, there’s no flavor.

There’s a final piece of the puzzle to tease out, and that’s the power of empathy in storytelling. Empathy allows for projection and the ability to get lost. Baggins, Skywalker, Potter. Modern media is lousy with access points into worlds. So much so that I feel the worlds are being emptied, their essence leaking out of the pathways left open to inhabit them.

There are other worlds than these.

#69 Interest Curve

#70 Inherent Interest

#71 Beauty

#72 Projection

Game Design: Mechanics IX

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Now listening to: silence in the streets after an argument between father and son

Although I remember nothing from reading about these two lenses, it did spark an idea about a game where you can jump between dimensions. I felt pleased about it until I remembered that The Legend of Zelda already beat me to it in the most spectacular manner. They could’ve pushed the concept a bit further but, considering the game’s critical acclaim, I won’t hold them to it.

If it looks like a duck, and talks like a duck, and fucks like a duck then it has to be a duck. It doesn’t matter if it’s actually a goose, or a swan, or a bipedal feathered robot with a bill. The audience expects the boon of familiarity.

“The Bacon of Familiarity”, by the way, sounds like a Douglas Adams book.

Yeah, testing is pretty important. In fact, it’s probably the most important thing of just about any project you may want to embark upon. With the possible exception of, say, suicide.

I have a note of a game about discovering an ancient civilization’s culture, and I cannot possibly imagine what could’ve prompted me to write down that snoozer as an avenue worthy of pursuit. TL;DR: bad idea. On the other hand, a game about creating memorable moments sounds like a great idea, and I think that’s what Dungeons & Dragons actually is.

Take Disney’s Splash Mountain. Splash Mountain is the undisputed shit. And I mean that in the best sense.

“So you’re looking for a laughing place, eh? We’ll show you a laughing place.”

A beautiful crescendo towards a satisfying finale. What a ride! There’s an interest curve. And I think I have discovered a key problem with Dungeons & Dragons. And it’s that it fails at something elemental! Something all too basic for a game about memorable experiences.

The story is only as good as the villain.

And Dungeons & Dragons, for all its worth, is terrible at creating fine villains. First off, to create a great villain you need to know what it’ll be a foil to. In other words, you need to know what your players and their characters will be all about.

A prophet from an ancient cabal shepherding the end of the world to its accelerated fruition is no good if players are only interested in local affairs and petty power struggles. But that’s not the players’ fault. It’s just a mismatch between your story and theirs in a collaborative storytelling environment.

The problem is that, for all the amazing tools Dungeons & Dragons’ books are canvased with, not one of them helps an up and coming DM beat out a good story outline. Without a proper villain, there’s nothing for your characters to face. Just disinterest, nihilism and inadequate challenges.

Imagine a game about crafting a grand finale. The Ring falls into the fiery maw of Mount Doom. Terminator sinks into the blazing pit with one final thumb up. The island volcano where the villain’s lair is explodes. I bet you can name every movie involving those finales. And I only used lava-themed climaxes which, I’ll admit, are pretty great but in the end something you’d normally consider a niche.

It’s moments. Great stories are pockmarked with moments. Without moments, your game isn’t memorable.

And if it’s not memorable, is it anything, really?

#66 Channels & Dimensions

#67 Modes

#68 Moments

Game Design: Mechanics VIII

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Now listening to: the gears of a clock, turning, ticking and clicking

Hitching a ride off of my previous post, transparency is the problem right now with most VR experiences. An underwater game where you can’t move. An FPS game where you can’t run. A martial arts game where none of your punches and kicks ever really do connect. A swordfighting game where either the sword, or your arm, goes right through your opponent’s parry. M.C. Escher could have a blast creating stuff for VR, though, right?

There’s feedback. Yada yada yada. Information flows from the player (intent) to the game (effect).

And juiciness. Oh, my Jesus. A juicy interface. What the fuck does that even mean? Is playing a game with a ripe melon juicy enough? Does it have to gush at a certain point?

Oh, wait. Fruit Ninja. Nevermind. I get it. Just look at that interface. Just slice across the screen and tell me if that’s not the juiciest feeling ever. Both literally and metaphorically. That’s just a great virtual interface with a heavily rewarding physicality. I mean it, Fruit Ninja. The sharp sound of the blade over the gushing of fruit as it is sliced. The burst of fruit juice and colored stars as your finger quickly crossed the screen. It’s a master class as far as juicy interfaces go.

And it does manage to appeal to our lizard brains in the simplest manner possible. Get juicy fruit, win. Hit falling bombs, lose.

#62 Transparency

#63 Feedback

#64 Juiciness

#65 Primality

Game Design: Mechanics VII

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Now listening to: my daughter’s breath while she sleeps

I swear to God, I have no idea what goes here. I’m guessing parallelism is all about how you can advance multiple goals while focusing on a certain task. Kind of like Sudoku, where a solving a particular number opens a myriad of possibilities. As far as the lenses of the pyramid and the puzzle go, I really, really have no idea. The pyramid is probably about challenges building into something greater. The puzzle is probably about having puzzles in the game.


Anyway, as far as control goes, VR’s what making waves right now. Superhot VR for the HTC Vive, in particular, is an excellent example. A game where time goes only as fast as you move while dodging bullets and fighting back with an assortment of firearms and melee weapons.


Cool, just not a lot of meat on them bones, when writing. There’s also talk of the interplay between the physical interface and the virtual interface. Rather dry, unless you start talking about Assassin’s Creed, Ghost in the Shell and The Matrix (again).

I’m kind of obsessed as to when VR will take the next leap forward and we’ll have a more robust interface. We have a proto-head and proto-hands! A full body suit that tracks our appendages and joints as they move is that far out there? I mean, movie studios already use the technology. How far away can we really be? Give me the missing parts already!

#56 Parallelism

#57 Pyramid

#58 Puzzle

#59 Control

#60 & #61 Physical Interface & Virtual Interface

Game Design: Mechanics VI

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Now listening to: a garbled Coldplay playback from a call to a corporate airline keeping my wife “on “hold”

And if that isn’t Sweet & Low culture, I don’t know what is. Fuck corporations, fuck low fidelity, fuck Coldplay. There’s no reason a crib reservation on a plane should take six hours.

Jenga is a great toy. Easy enough to set up, easy enough to tear down. A dexterity-focused strategy game deep enough to warrant the emergence of an alternate mode of play to the tried and true formula of dice in RPGs. In case you don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about, I’m talking about Dread. Designed by Epidiah Ravachol, Dread is an RPG system that uses a Jenga tower as a means of action resolution. Each challenge requires a player to pull one or more blocks from the tower.

If the tower falls, your character dies.

Considering the length of your average roleplaying session and the frequency with which a Jenga tower falls, Dread is usually best suited for the high body count horror genre. Not only that, the tension of a properly run horror campaign is a perfect match to the nerves generated by a Jenga pull, so there’s an amazing synergy going on there. Dread also requires only a couple of questions to flesh out a character so, as far as accessibility goes, that’s a whole lot better than dice and a spreadsheet chalk full of numbers.

Blah blah blah, it’s important to show visible progress, so Carcassonne is great!

As far as Dread goes, however, visible progress can be seen as the tower begins to quake. Again this is a perfect match with a core concept of the horror genre and the system’s namesake. The ominous sense of doom that seems to build-up towards a terrible conclusion.

I’ve been thinking about Carcassonne. Yeah, it’s fun, but I’ve always wondered about restricting tile placement a bit more. Nobody really seems to be investing anything into implementing jigsaw mechanics into games.

I mean, there’s a space between only one right answer and too many. In that sense, a jigsaw Carcassonne could allow for some deeper placement dynamics. Maybe start with separate mosaics and connect kingdoms between players only when road tiles link them.

There’s advantages and disadvantages to isolationism and cooperation.

Agricola gets visible progress exactly right. You start with a small two-room hovel and, if you play the game right, you can see your farm bloom and become productive right before your eyes. The wooden pieces just enhance the flavor of its visible progress aspect.

#54 Accessibility

#55 Visible Progress

Game Design: Mechanics V

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Now listening to: a bubbling coming from the wall(?!)

Walls should not bubble. That’s not a sound you want in your walls. Yet there it is. Glub glub glub flubba lubba glub burble lub. I like it, though. It reminds me of a story by H.P. Lovecraft. “The Rats in the Walls”. It reminds me that I recently ordered the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu. And I’m dying to try it out with my D&D crew.

Interesting thing, imagination. How it can spark a million ideas and trains of thought from a single station. Tarn Adams’ Dwarf Fortress makes solid use of a player’s imagination. How else can one explain people enjoying a game as stupid-fuckingly obtuse as Dwarf Fortress? And yeah, I lay it on thick there to get a reaction out of you. The game certainly fucking drips with character, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t elegant as hell as well!

It’ll be a classic.

It already is.

Balancing. Remember the jagged edges at the frontiers of structure? Who fucking cares about balancing, really? Balance doesn’t exist. Freeze the world at any one point in time and tell me it’s balanced. And in that sense, hacking away at your game with an axe or doubling it up like blackjack is not only fun, but the right way to balance?

Cry me a river. When has LoL ever been balanced? What good has perfect balance done for Starcraft II? You hear them bleat and bemoan with patch changes. At best, you can only hope to make a potion of your player base happy. But when a system is rebalanced, someone wins and someone loses.

I could talk about game economies but I find it so boring that I’d rather spare you my ramblings about things you have to deal with day in and day out as a gamer.

#51 Imagination

#52 Economy

#53 Balance

Game Design: Mechanics IV

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How do snowflakes form from something so simple as dirt, gravity and H2O?

There’s probably a beautiful algorithm for procedurally generated content hidden in there somewhere. Emergent complexity is a staple of every game considered a classic. Innate or rule-driven complexity, on the other hand, is perceived as a crass and contrived inevitability.

Crisis’ Dermot Mulroney, for my mother, has always been an example of striking the right balance between elegance and character. And I guess she has a point. Elegance without character is boring, and character without elegance is unappealing. Mulroney has that hard-to-achieve mix of rugged good looks. He wouldn’t be half as interesting without his trademark scar.

Same goes for Owen “My fucked-up nose is the stuff of legend” Wilson. Liv Tyler. Yada yada yada.

The problem with obsessive elegance is that it yields as little results as obsessive character. Water too clean holds as little fish as water too dirty. Actual charm lies somewhere in between and is never universal.

Game designers are often terrified to say “my game is this, and not that”.

#49 Elegance

#50 Character

Game Design: Rewards

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How many times have you paid attention to score in a fighting game?

Once? Twice? Most likely never, am I right?

Aren’t points a perfectly good reward in some games? In fighting games, however, points are next to meaningless. Yet, for some reason, many fighting games have a points tally stored away somewhere on the screen. Of course, points are a legacy artifact. A relic of a time where fighting games only existed in public venues like an arcade. A Mortal Kombat machine only had so many slots in a screen to rank its best players.


*the crowd cheers*


You did good. You should feel proud of yourself. You are up to the challenge. Here’s the metaphorical cookie of approval. And a pat on the head. That’ll do pig.



*a red flash blurs the screen*

“What’s the big idea, Fox?!”

You did bad. You should feel shame. You are not up to scratch.

#46 Reward

#47 Punishment

Game Design: Mechanics III

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A small one.

The antonym of synergy is antergy.

Synergy is: 2 + 2 = 5

Antergy is: 2 + 2 = 3

If a competitive game doesn’t work, try making it cooperative.

It also works the other way around.

#43 Competition

#44 Cooperation

#45 Competition vs. Cooperation