Friday, April 11, 2014

How To Develop An Interactive Story Idea In Three Steps

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This article aims to provide some guidelines and techniques storytellers can use to either find the best story for their needs, or give their existing one a dose of ludonarrative pizazz. The process proposed here is what I call the “Lunar Method”, Lunar being a combination of the words Ludo and Narrative. This method is meant to aid in the forming of interactive stories rather than typical games. The primary approach we'll be looking at is a series of questions that storytellers can ask themselves to help create story ideas, interesting scenarios, player characters, and all that humus.

no relation


Step One: This step rules

If you want your game to truly shine as an interactive story, it must take advantage of the medium it operates in. To get started on the right path, you first have to learn the rules. The laws. The things writers go to jail for not abiding by. Well maybe it's not that serious, but it can help immensely by putting you in the right mindset for developing a Lunar work. There is actually only one loose rule of the Lunar Method: Story Priority.

To get the best results, you gotta start with the story. It sounds like common sense to start with gameplay, but if you do you will drastically limit your storytelling options. You risk creating a box that has little room to share for certain plots, characters, themes, and player interactions you may want to explore as you further develop your story. If your story already invites traditional gameisms, challenge, and competition for the sake of fun, then that's great. You're good to go. But if you don't have a story yet and start with that mechanical restriction, then you're stuck in the box.

If you treat the story as a secondary element - inevitably relegating it into passive skippable movie clips or barely interactive in-game set pieces - you won't end up with a game that is a story, just a game that has a story, if that makes sense.

Storytellers tend not to focus on their medium's specific delivery method until they have material to adapt it to. Filmmakers don't sequence shots until there is a story to fill the frame with. Authors don't worry about prose until they have a story to tell it through. The fat lady doesn't sing until she has a story to give her the words. You get the idea. You simply do not need to know your “game” quite yet. As your story evolves, keep the player in mind, and it will come about naturally.


Step Two: Understand the meaning of Play in the Lunar Method

Warning: Stuff being taken way too seriously in 3...2...1...

The goal of a Lunar work is to provide the player a series of interesting choices that reflect who they are. Choice does not mean “choice moment” necessarily. The player is constantly making decisions of all sizes and importance throughout the story. Every action the player takes has an inherent value that the story can either ignore or take of advantage of: The player's input is an expression of themselves within the game world.

In a passive story like a book or film, the output - which is an impression of the artist - is interpreted by the viewer, and meaning is derived from that interpretation. In a Lunar story, the output is shaped by the player's input. The player's personality, ideals, morals, opinions, etc all contribute to their input. Thus, the output is a mirror held in front of the player, showing them a different perspective of who they are. The player interprets an impression not of someone else, but of themselves.

In a passive story you observe a character living their life, and in a Lunar story you get to wear their shoes yourself. Stepping into someone else's shoes to simply try out a different perspective of life can be a powerful experience. Don't waste that opportunity on yet another power fantasy. Our feet are tired of wearing soldier's boots and zombie stompers. Aim to provide players with a character who facilitates an engaging dialogue between the player and the game world; one that invites real personal input and begets meaningful output.


Step Three: The three questions

Here are three questions that writers can ask themselves to help get started on or continue developing their story:

1. What If

Many successful stories come from a strong “what if” scenario. When finding an idea either from the start or during the writing process, you can ask, “what if”, to get a better handle on what might be interesting. It is very simple, but serves to establish a base concept for your story that not only sparks inspiration for the writer, but also intrigue in audiences. It is a question that gives you the opportunity to provide creative answers, while giving potential audiences something to wonder about. If you want to write a story about a subject you are passionate about, but don't know where to start, use What if to help create a base concept for a story that can talk about that subject.

Some examples:

What if...

  • there was a theme park that had real dinosaurs
  • two teens from violently feuding families fell in love with each other
  • a death row inmate could heal the sick
  • an FBI agent had to work with a dangerous cannibal to solve a case
  • a white attorney had to defend a black man in court in a racist town
  • a boy was stranded in the middle of the ocean in a life boat
  • a mermaid fell in love with a human
  • there was a serial killer who only targeted other killers
  • toys came to life when people weren't around
  • somebody had to relive the same day every time they woke up
  • someone fell in love with an ai.
  • there was a school that taught kids wizardry
  • a 13 year old girl turned 30 overnight
  • there was a police mole in a crime syndicate, while the syndicate had a mole in the force

Forming a story concept with a question allows you to provide different answers. Let's use E.T.'s concept (just the concept, not the whole thing) as an example of how giving different answers yields potential stories:

Story Concept – What if a group of kids discovered an alien in their backyard?

Idea 1 – What if ET wasn't an invader, but an abandoned astronaut? :D

Idea 2 – What if the government was on the pursuit of ET? :D

Idea 3 – What if ET looked like a human? :[

Notice Idea 3. That sounds like a bad idea, right? Let's say you answered that question with a big fat no. You decided that ET will look very clearly like an alien. You made a creative decision, and hopefully it pays off. Now, you'd think we made the right choice, since the real E.T. is such a memorable little alien, but really there is no right choice. What if we said yes to that and no to the others? Let's do that. In fact, let's add another yes question: What if the kids were a husband and wife instead?

So now our concept is: What if a couple found a human-like alien? We just changed E.T. to Superman in two steps.

Some more:

What if instead of the government, other aliens were pursuing ET? Boom, now it's Lilo & Stitch.

What if instead of kids, the government found the alien? Hello there, The Day The Earth Stood Still.

What if the alien was a robot? A wholesome dose of The Iron Giant coming right up.

Granted, all those stories have a lot more going on than changing a single element of E.T.'s concept, but the point is that when you tinker with your What if's - mixing and matching different questions and answers - you never know what might happen even with the smallest of changes. Experiment! But remember, the question does not stop at the concept. It will become your best friend all the way to the end. During the writing process you can keeping asking the question to help make things more interesting at every step.

Some examples:

What if...

  • there was a theme park that had real dinosaurs... what if all the power and safety systems went out
  • an FBI agent had to work with a convicted cannibal to solve a case... what if the cannibal escaped his confinement
  • a boy was stranded in the middle of the ocean in a life boat... what if there was a tiger on the boat
  • there was a serial killer who only targeted other killers... what if he worked for the police

When you are wondering what should happen next, ask yourself what would happen if X, Y, or Z, and then provide multiple answers for each of them. You'll eventually hit one that works best and makes the most sense for what you want.

This isn't a magical story creation tool that works wonders every time, mind you. Not all writers use this method and not every story sounds interesting this way. Many great stories sound quite boring when described so simply. I chose those specific examples because they embody the “I want to know more” sense of appeal, which your story doesn't have to do.

you could also just find yourself a What If Machine

2. What if you were

This step of the process is where we start looking at the story as an interactive piece. A variant of what if, this question can help keep you focused on the most important aspect of your story, the player. This is where you figure out who your player character is. Many factors contribute to this decision, and you may find yourself switching PC's way down the line. Right now though, you can use this to discover your potential protagonist by finding out which perspective offers the best storytelling possibilities. If you already have a concept, the best player character may look like a no-brainer, but you never know until you examine your other options.

So let's say you already have an interesting story concept (we'll use E.T. again):

What if...

  • a group of kids discovered a stranded alien in their backyard, and the government was after it

There are three different perspectives in this story: The kids, the government, and the alien. Examine each as if you were the player, using this question to see which would offer the best storytelling possibilities.

What if you were...

  • a kid who finds an alien in the backyard
  • a government agent tasked to find the location of an alien on Earth
  • an astronaut who was left behind on a strange planet and stumbles upon some members of an indigenous intelligent race

Each of those can be very different games. We know how the first one can turn out, and that setup sounds like a terrific game. Developing a relationship with a mysterious creature of another species reminds me of The Last Guardian.

The second one could be a detective-like game of cat and mouse. Interviewing people, finding clues, and following traces. You may assume the alien is dangerous, and it very well could be or turn out to be gentle like ET. It could even end up with the player finding it, capturing it, and then developing a bond with it (like what happens with Booker and Liz in Bioshock Infinite). You still have the objective of turning it in, but you can try getting it back home instead or something. That could be quite the conundrum. The kids who found it could get involved as well. Who knows, it would be up to the writer. There are many ways this story and relationship could play out based on the player's actions.

This is almost exactly the same as Steven Spielberg's game LMNO, so at least we know the concept is appealing and rich with potential (so much potential in fact, that EA would cancel it with haste, like they did with LMNO, heh).

The third one is the most interesting, at least to me. What if a human was in ET's position? The player character could have crashed, been accidentally (or purposely) left behind like ET, or been sent to complete some objective. Either way it could be an emotional adventure of dialogue-less communication between the player and indigenous characters, set in a vast alien landscape filled with wonders and potential stories to partake in. Like Journey meets Dances With Wolves meets Planet of the Apes meets Avatar. Or, it could be as simple as a survival story set on an alien world. It could even have you be in ET's position on Earth, where you interact with humans as an alien. Who knows!

Either way, the basic concept remains intact, but the way the player experiences it changes. You can end up with wildly different stories that you never expected to think of. And don't forget, you can always have multiple player characters on all sides, if you can make it work.

The previous example is derived from a story concept that has already been realized by asking What if, but you may find yourself starting with the characters rather than the actual story or plot. Some players may also find the prospect of playing as a certain character inherently more appealing than the proposed story. If you choose to, starting with your player character is a legitimate way to begin realizing your game.

You can skip What if and go right to What if you were, and this is arguably the best way to start, because storytelling is usually about characters more than anything else. You can use this question to form a protagonist from the perspective of a player. This helps you keep interactivity in mind when you start building the world and story that the character inhabits.

Remember, when players see your player character, they end up asking themselves the question automatically. You can bet players already know what it's like to be a space marine, assassin, criminal, or whatever type of violent individual most games throw at us. All the more reason to ask a question that potential players don't know their answer to yet, a question that they want to answer, which they can only do by playing the game.

What if you were...
  • a homeless teenager
  • a war photographer
  • an elderly person who is developing Alzheimer's
  • part of a love triangle
  • a cop facing the blue wall after witnessing corruption
  • an android trying to figure out what it means to be human
  • a stage actor preparing for a once-in-a-lifetime role
  • a Syrian refugee attempting to flee the country with your family
  • mentally or physically handicapped in a family known for intelligence or athleticism
  • one of the new black kids at a previously all white school in 50's America
  • an orphan on the search for your biological parents
  • an astronaut that got knocked into free orbit
  • a lawyer who couldn't tell a lie
  • a puppet given life
  • the Human-Na'vi ambassador
  • a fat comedian juggling an awkward social life and single fatherhood
  • a peppy privileged woman who finds herself going to prison
  • the Ring Bearer
  • a Nicaraguan farmer who was kidnapped by an eyepatch-wearing mercenary and forced to fight in his private army
  • a ruthless politician on her way up the ladder to bring down the corrupt societal structure of an underwater “utopia”
  • a teenage girl struggling with her identity and sexuality under a Christian household in the 90's
  • the one who was asked, “Papers, please”

Think of interesting people; their troubles, their joys, their successes, their failures, their life experience. Someone with a lot to show and more to give. Someone (or multiple people) who's shoes are worth wearing. What can becoming that person, and experiencing a portion of their life reveal to players about their own lives? Your player character isn't just a vessel to enjoy the story through, they are also a vessel that allows the player to explore themselves in a dramatization of life.

3. What would you do

Now you have your story (What if this happened) and your player character (What if you were this person). The third question continues the process by providing a way to develop scenarios that are interesting to play (What would you do in this situation).

Use the question to help drum up a story that is ripe with compelling action. Not action as in action game, but rather action as in doing stuff. Stuff has to happen. And not just any stuff. The good stuff. None of this meaningless kill the hours of respawning goons business or arbitrary puzzle walls. Odds are you've seen a good movie or read a good book in your life, so you know that good stories aren't cluttered by quantity-based filler nonsense. The actions of the player should range from incidental to meaningful while not being pointless or saturated to the point of mind-numbing routine. They shouldn't be narratively pointless, emotionally/ intellectually useless, structurally intrusive, overall dull exercises in game mechanics.

People are defined by their actions, and the same applies to characters, and those actions are what drive the story and plot. To give the player good stuff to do for those important story moments, come up with scenarios that are ripe with potential answers to the question, "What would you do?".

Players already know what they would do if a bunch of faceless thugs/zombies/aliens/whatever ran towards their floating gun. They already know what they would do if you ask them to either kill little girls for bad ending or save them for good ending. They already know what they would do if an objective marker tells them to do the only thing they are allowed to do. They already know what they would do if they can't do anything. Don't be predictable and typical, it's boring.

If you write your story while frequently asking the question, you stay in the mindset that the player is a participant in the story and not just the game. Great stories are full of choices and judgments made by characters. Players shouldn't be treated as idiots who need to be spoonfed the story by watching their player character make all the important decisions and mistakes for them, while all they get to do is walk or climb from one combat space to another. They deserve to be given the same responsibilities and agency as the character - with all the joys as well as the woes - allowing them to absorb an arc that has more personal value and meaning than it otherwise would. Compelling situations where choices are made spark self reflection and player-driven catharsis.

Every story-based game asks the player this question before they even play it. When you look at the cover or read a synopsis, you wonder in the back of your mind how you will go about playing the game, how you would act as that character, what you would do in that story and the situations therein. Most of the time our answers are, at best, meaningless by way of strict scripting, and at worst, denied even the slightest consideration by way of cutscene-based storytelling.


Case Study

Let's say you have a concept and answered all three questions already. You also have a treatment of the story done, so you know what the set pieces are. We'll use The Last of Us an example of what your concept could be:

What if...
  • a violent, disgruntled man and a scrappy teenage girl trekked across the United States together in a zombie apocalypse to find a cure

What if you were...
  • an underground criminal that gets stuck looking after a teenager he doesn't initially like for a job he doesn't want to do

What would you do...

  • if you were tasked to protect a young girl in a post-apocalyptic land
  • if she was the reason your best friend died
  • if she kept pandering you for a gun
  • if you drove into an ambush
  • if the girl saved you from being drowned
  • if you came across a friendly duo of survivors
  • if that duo left you to die
  • if one of your new companions turned
  • if one of them was suicidal
  • if the girl had to die for the cure to be developed
  • and so on
end spoilers

The concept is fully formed, and you can clearly see a good game shaping up from it. You have a story based on characters, you have a working player character, and you have some interesting scenarios for the player to participate in. It looks like Step One is accounted for and Step Two is applicable to the setup. That's exactly what you're looking for.

Unfortunately, the actual game wasn't made to be an interactive story as much as a fun game that merely has a story, which is a fine thing to be. For the sake of the example however, let's just say you made TLoU with the intention of it being a Lunar game. This way we can examine what it looks like when the Lunar Method is used poorly.

Experimentation is a key element of the process, and TLoU is an example of a game that goes right to the "default" answer for every question. It also does not follow steps one and two. Here is what happens when your game takes that route:

What if

Another zombie apocalypse story is the last thing this world needs. It's right up there with modern warfare and space marine business. It's not a problem, but it doesn't stand out one bit, which means the other elements have to work harder to justify the flaccid setup. The main duo does give it a bit of welcomed flavor though.

What if you were

Joel sounds interesting on his own, but what we end up with as players is another uber-gritty, violent, brooding white man with a dark past and "few moral lines left to cross". It is basically, what if you were Video Game Charactertm? Like the above question, the answer isn't bad, but extremely tired and predictable.

When it comes to how we play as him and what we actually get to do in the game, we don't play as Joel the character, we play as Joel the weapon. You hardly ever play as Joel in a context besides traversal and combat. A more accurate question would be, what if you were a walking pair of fists? We don't get to interact with the world and characters through Joel like we do through someone such as Lee Everett.

What would you do

You should try not to completely exclude the whole point of your story (in this case, Joel and Ellie's relationship) from Play. Almost every pivotal character-based interaction between the two is in cutscene form. We never get to feel the responsibility or participate in the drama of the relationship (like we do in The Walking Dead, Journey, Mass Effect, Brothers, or Papers Please). The player doesn't get to answer the game's most interesting questions.

We don't have to care for her, worry about her, or actively protect her because she is invisible and inaudible to enemies. We don't have to deal with her needs and wants, or argue with her suggestions, and we never get to bond through action, or in any way guide her as a person because the story is based in cutscenes. For a lot of the game Joel is constantly annoyed by her and sees her as a burden, but she is the most entertaining character and only ever helps the player, never hinders, because the mechanics see her as a tool and not a character. Their relationship has ups and downs, but the player only gets to experience combat-related ups.

That list under what would you do, with all those tantalizing dramatic questions, is just a bit of what Joel goes through in the story, and almost all of it is off limits to the player. The only answers the player gets to provide in the game, are how they will behave in encounters. Players don't really get to wear Joel's shoes because the player has no relationship with Ellie, other characters, the narrative, or the world. There is no interaction beyond traversal/ combat mechanics and the occasional triangle prompt.

So what can we do to fix this? Well, we go back to the questions. But what exactly should we change? Experimentation is big part of the Lunar Method, but in The Last of Us' case, there is quite literally only one change needed to solve every problem: Ellie being the player character.

What if you were

The initial improvement is the obvious change in perspective. Ellie isn't as generic an avatar as Joel, and playing as the partner with something to prove can be a lot more interesting than the death machine in charge. Even without any story malleability, the player can wear her shoes and be one with her character. I've already went bonkers explaining this in Player's Delight's inaugural essay, so if you want a deeper analysis of Ellie as the player character you can take a gander over yonder. In short, the linear story provided by the actual game (with the exception of the quarantine chapter) can remain unchanged and still have as much player/character synergy as games like The Walking Dead or Journey.

What would you do

Luckily, Ellie being the player character does all the heavy lifting for us. You can easily turn The Last of Us into a deeply malleable story on a micro level (where the whole plot doesn't need to change or anything like that) just by examining the sea of possibilities left by the concept.

Joel harbors an insanely negative attitude toward Ellie for much of the game, and is a very dangerous criminal. He is a constant threat, and regularly shows his disdain for having to babysit you. But he is also your protection and sole companion on the journey. From the outset of Joel and Ellie's relationship, the player can put a whole lot of themselves into her because her setup asks the player so many great questions:
  • How will you act and react in this relationship?
  • Will you attempt to get to know this stranger or keep your distance?
  • How do you converse with him? Do you tell him about yourself? Do you try getting him to talk about himself?
  • What are his secrets? What are his motives? Why is he so angry? Is the bear worth poking to get those answers?
  • Are you inclined to follow orders, assert independence, or call for teamwork?
  • When in a dangerous encounter will you try to help out to get on his good side, which comes with the risk of making things worse thus damaging your relationship? Or will you hide and let him do his job, at the risk of making you seem weak, or worse, not being there when he needs help?
  • What are you willing to ask of him, and what are you willing to do for him? Should you keep pleading for the gun or will you try changing his mind through action?
  • Should you strive for a warmer relationship or play it safe and keep things professional?
  • Is there a gentle soul under his hardened exterior, or is there an even darker person underneath? Are you prepared to find out?
  • How determined are you to get him to sing you a song?

If this was your concept, your What if you were would be handing you a ton of What would you do's on a silver platter. All these questions apply no matter the situation, and they aren't even specific enough to be spoilers; they are variables which can be affected at virtually any time. That's a golden opportunity. When fiddling with your story's three questions, try to find a goldmine like this. The right player character in the right place makes all the difference. Oh, and this is in addition to all of the scenarios that already appear in the story, such as the ones listed under Joel's What would you do list above.

Whether you like the idea of playing as Ellie or not, this is still a good example of how one different answer to one question can change the player's experience so drastically.


Now what

You can start the process at any step, as there is no rule that says you need to have a story first or character first, etc. Uncharted and The Last of Us started with story. Ico, Brothers, and Beyond: Two Souls started with character. Papers Please, Heavy Rain, and The Walking Dead started with scenario. Some, like Grand Theft Auto and Gone Home, even begin with setting. You get the idea.

Whether you use this method or not, you are always going to end up with all three questions anyway. You'll have a story (what if), a player character (what if you were), and situations the player gets into (what would you do). The Lunar Method is simply one way to pinpoint the best answers for each one. I hope you find it useful!

If you have any questions, suggestions, or criticisms of the Lunar Method, please let me know in the comments.


Thank you for reading! I'll try to make new posts more frequently, since this maybe-once-a-month baloney is getting ridiculous.


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