Narrative: Part 6 – The final countdown


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Well this is it folks; if you’ve been following this guide up until now, you should have in front of you a workable story to use as the basis for the game you’ve had working in your head. If not, well, at least you have the basic toolset to get started whenever you feel the need. But now it’s time to wrap things up, trim those hedges and spit and polish that which we have created!

Introduction

It’s important to realize that even though you’ve sorted out all the different components of your story, what you have can still be formed and changed to be something spectacular – in this, the final part of this narrative guide, we’re going to take a look at story genres; which includes themes and styles, as well as looking at few things you should try to avoid and take note of.

Story Genres

Story Genres relate to HOW a story is being told

Remember way back at the start of the guide I spoke about genres? The message was that you shouldn’t use a game’s genre to determine the type of story you have as that would confine your imagination too much; a message which still stands! However, this isn’t about game genres (First-Person Shooter; RPG etc) but rather about story genres.

Okay, obvious things first – what is a story genre?

The quickest way to explain it would be as such: horror, comedy, tragedy, romance, action, thriller etc; but as with everything else, it goes a little deeper – it’s the culmination of the underlying message(s) being told within the story (or the themes) and the way in which these things are brought across throughout the story (the styles) using the fundamental components we’ve covered already.

Note that story genres are very abstract, and are applicable to ANY level of narrative.

Themes

On the surface, themes are the messages your stories give. Life and death; revenge; fighting for liberation; love – it’s a concept behind the story. It needs to be pointed out that there can be many different themes, and that they’re not always explicitly on display – in fact, more often than not, the theme is never explicitly laid out for the player and is often left unknown, leaving the player to flesh it out themselves.

For instance; playing a game of Mario Bros. what would you say the underlying theme is? Is there a theme? Or is it merely a collection of random events and characters tied together in an obscure fantasy world? The truth is we don’t really know – being a lower level narrative, theme isn’t expected to be predominant feature, which leaves it open to interpretation.

Looking at Fallout 3, however, we’re faced with more prevalent themes: from the more obvious themes of causality (cause and effect) and sacrifice for the greater good (if you so choose); to perhaps deeper and personal themes of testing the player’s conscience – are you a good person or a bad person? Being a high-level narrative, it’s almost expected that at the outcome of the story, we’re aware of the path that we walked and what it really means in terms of the greater picture (and it really helps having Ron Perlman explain it to us in the end anyway).

Does a game need to have a theme? Well, no, not really – but chances are even if you mesh together a bunch of random ideas, there’s some sort of reasoning behind it; so in the end, you’re putting in a theme even though it’s not intentionally. And even though themes are part of story genres, they don’t necessarily determine the genre itself, that’s a job for…

Styles

As the great Eddie Izzard once said, “All that people care about is the look. 90% per cent is how you sound, 10% per cent is what you say.” Although we’re not delving into ‘looks’ here, the message is pretty clear: what you’re saying is a tiny part compared to the delivery; and that’s where style comes in.

Style is the way you use your world, characters and dialogues to forge a genre using the theme. Let’s say that the theme of your game (intended or not) is that of love, just because it’s pretty common in stories. Using different styles, you can easily shift the theme from very different genres. With open colourful characters, and light dialogue set in a peaceful world, you can easily weave a story of romance – on the opposite end, with dark characters and conflicted dialogue in a cruel world, you can tell a story of tragic love.

Style is the paint you use to colour in the lines drawn by the theme, and to get the effect you want, there are many tools to use:

Humour
We’re not talking about stand-up comedy here, but for a lighter style, use of clever humour serves in making things ‘happy’. It doesn’t even have to be that clever, as slap-stick humour is found in many games (like Leisure Suit Larry), as well as laughs bordering on the nonsensical (like Monkey Island). Laughs put the player at ease – but don’t forget, there’s also dark humour, where funny is coupled with themes that aren’t so jolly to create something completely different (like Portal).

Irony
Irony in this sense is a stylistic tool used to create an opposite effect to that which is expected – like dark humour mentioned before. You can flip a theme on its head completely by making use of irony. An excellent example of this is Braid – where after spending the entire game trying to save the princess, you find out that you’ve actually been stalking her the whole time and the ‘evil knight’ is actually saving her from you. As with humour, irony can be used to both ends, making your theme lighter or darker depending on how you use it.

    Braid

    Non-Literary Style tools

    Because this guide deals with game design, it’s important to mention these tools as well, even though working exclusively with a narrative story (as in a book), they’re not applicable. In a novel, all of these moods and atmospheres would need to be described to the reader in order to get the themes across – with gaming; luckily we have eyes and ears to do the job for us!

    Visuals
    From wallpapers to environments, lighting and setting, everything we see creates the atmosphere which helps us grasp the styles and themes in the story. These cues are vital to creating story genres.

      Soundtrack
      Nothing sets the mood quite like music – and the soundtrack to the game is really one of the fundamental components in depicting the style and tone of what’s going on in the story.

        This guide is squarely focused on narrative, so we won’t go into great depth with these tools, but we might at a future time.

        PLEASE NOTE: Even though this is the final section of the guide, it doesn’t necessarily mean that story genre is determined at the end. Due its abstract nature, it’s actually something that is developed from the beginning. From the minute you thought “once upon a time” the ideas and themes and tones have already been there – this is just here to help you understand it a bit better.

        Everything in a very tight nutshell

        Here’s everything we’ve spoken about in this guide, in a very brief summary:

        Writing a Narrative is like baking a cake.

        Before you do anything, you need to know how many layers your cake is going to have and from there you bring out your ingredients.

        Flour – World

        Sugar, Salt – Story

        Baking Powder – Characters

        Eggs, Oil – Dialogue

        Cocoa, berries, vanilla, etc – Theme/Style

        The world is the base of a narrative, with the story taking place in it giving it flavour; the characters make sure that the story doesn’t fall flat – and the dialogue makes sure that everything melds together. The theme is going to determine the taste, but remember, some tastes can work together, and others not – but that doesn’t mean you can’t try!

        Mix it all together, and place in the oven. What’s the metaphorical oven? Well, it does take a bit of time to create all this…

        Remember the non-literary stylistic tools? Well, once the cake is out of the oven, this is where they shine. Icing the cake, adding the little hundreds and thousands or whatever and making it look (and, er, sound?) appealing is a job usually left until the end (even though you’ve had the picture in your head all along). And remember…a chocolate cake doesn’t have to look like a chocolate cake (wink wink).

        Cake!

        And there you have it! A completed ca- er Narrative!

        The reason the cake metaphor works so well is because it’s a whole. If you eat each ingredient of a cake, it doesn’t taste like a cake at all – but when it’s completed as a whole, it’s delicious!

        Ok I’ll stop with the cake metaphor now.

        And FINALLY – Things to note

        It took a loooooooong time to get here, but this is honestly the last part of this guide. We’re going to look at a few things to be wary of while writing or conceptualizing a narrative.

        Clichés
        You might have picked up on the very very clichéd nature of the level 3 Dev.Mag Heroes story that was created. Well, that was the whole idea – from warriors battling some alien force to save the world, to deities who hold the key to stopping said forces; these are all concepts that have literally been done in games hundreds of times.
        While being completely original 100% of the time is impossible (and the people who attempt to do so often get criticized for it), it is a fine line to tread. There is nothing wrong with doing something that’s been done before – but it comes greatly recommended that you try to add your own flair to it at the very least.
        One of the reasons I support genre blending is that it allows story tellers and game makers to take tried and true components, and mix them up to create something entirely new.
        Continuity
        A big error people tend to make is overloading themselves with information to the point that they struggle to manage it effectively. In movies, characters can jump from shot to shot having minor changes in their appearance. In stories, items or places get mentioned that seemingly have some sort of relevance, but ultimately disappear into obscurity; names change (“trawls”/”trowls”) and indeed, if a game is cinematic, the movie-type continuity errors also occur.
        The big tip here is to keep all your facts checked, and noted, so that you don’t get lost in your own world.

          Consistency
          If a character is surly and keeps to himself for 90% of the story, without proper character development, he’s not going to suddenly change his tune and pick flowers with a broad smile on his face. If a town was attacked by monsters a day ago, chances are they wouldn’t have been able to repair everything overnight. People do not recover from bullet wounds in a matter of hours. And for all that is holy, unless alluded to in your story based in the “real world” – DO NOT introduce “magic” or “super natural” qualities right at the end (I’m looking at YOU, Fahrenheit [Or Indigo Prophecy, for our North American audience {do you guys exist? Say hi!}]) – see Deus ex Machina later on.
          Be very careful that you’re consistent in the tales you weave – inconsistency in your story will lead to players feeling detached from it.Fahrenheit

            Twists
            DUN DUN DUNNNNN! – What a twist! Twists are a great way to create that “Whoa!” factor in stories, and really, there’s usually at least one in all kinds. But be warned! Use this plot device sparingly, because too many twists will leave the player disorientated and confused (*stares at Metal Gear Solid*). If you really want to make an impact with a twist, try finding a way to twist something the player would never expect – because there’s rarely something more disappointing than an obvious twist.Mario

              Deus ex Machina
              Possibly the biggest thing to avoid in any story is deus ex machina. What does it mean? Well, it translates to “God in the machine” and what it means in terms of story telling, is basically that you were too Goddamned lazy to make sure all the loose ends tied up together neatly to create a cohesive conclusion, so you introduce something magical right at the end of the tale that totally resolves all the problems. It’s a major cop-out from a narrative perspective and should really be avoided at all costs.Harry Potter
              Plot Holes
              Remember in the last Lord of the Rings movie when Gandalf came flying over Mordor on a large eagle to rescue Sam and Frodo? Remember sitting there thinking “Why the hell didn’t he just do that in the first place and throw the ring into the volcano and save me from watching 9 hours of homosexual tension between two hairy midgets?” No? Well, you should have. Do your best to make sure your story makes complete sense, and doesn’t leave itself open with gaping holes for players to prod their fingers into.
              And accept the fact that if your tale involves any form of time travel, you’re screwed with this one anyway.

                The Lord of the Rings

                Dear readers, that brings us to the end of the Narrative guide, I hope you got something out of it. It’s difficult to set any real form of structure to it as, really, there are no boundaries. Anything can work if you have the skill, and imagination, to do so.

                And as always I leave you with this message:

                REMEMBER YOUR NARRATIVE LEVEL!

                It’s the core of your entire journey!

                Dev.Mag apologises profusely for any endings spoiled, lives ruined, kittens murdered and divorces induced by the publishing of this page. We hide under the ‘old news’ amnesty banner on this one.


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                About Quinton Bronkhorst

                Quinton is a designer and random rambler that really likes referring to himself in the third person. That should make you wonder: is it Quinton writing this, or perhaps some objective third party? You will never know. In unrelated news: Quinton is awesome and attractive and everyone wants to marry him. Facts. [Articles]