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Backwards Narrative Mission Design

May 8, 2008

What this post is not about: a guy named Aristotle. He wrote a great piece called The Poetics, and I recommend you read it. It’s a slog at first, but once it gets rolling and you get into the pattern of his writing, it will change how you feel about game design, story design and mission design in particular. Seriously.

His way to do it is one way to do it. Here’s what I do sometimes when I get stuck: I design backwards.

To make a mission, start with your goal. Then, keep asking, “What’s stopping the player from getting it right now?” The answers you receive will help you to establish your mission and also allow you to brainstorm the overall gamespace.

The goal can be worded exactly like you’d expect to see something written in your player’s mission log or journal.

Goal: Find out the location of the boss of the Irish mob.

Q: Why can’t I just ask someone about it?
A: Only a few people know. There was a hit on him a few weeks ago, and he’s really careful revealing his whereabouts.

I just made that up while writing, obviously. I don’t know if or how it could fit into the ultimate narrative, but if you know your overall space well (because you’ve been paying attention to things like Aristotle, Campbell and so on), it usually works out well.

Doing these missions involves a whole lot of brainstorming. Just go with it. You can change it later. If you come up with something that just doesn’t seem to fit, go with your intuition and don’t use it.

Q: Who are these “few people” that know the location of the boss?
A: ?

At this point, I’m hung up, actually. I can think of a few people, but how would my character know this unless I cheat narrative-wise and include something lame like, “It’s rumored that he visits Paddy’s Pub every Tuesday night to pick up a shipment of whiskey from Ireland.” That might be true, but it robs the player of an opportunity to find that out for themselves.

If this situation happens to you, you might be looking at too big a picture. In this case, I’m assuming that the player knows nothing, and starting with that, it’s going to be challenging for me or my character to go forward, particularly toward an end-game situation like the one I have set up. It’s also possible that you’re not asking the right questions in the “backward mission.”

I will assume that the player knows about the hit and knows the Boss has gone into hiding. I’ll also assume that the player has learned the various locations in the game. If I decide to keep these particular components, I will have to work them into my overall story arc in some way.

Q: Who might know about the location of the boss?
A: His three top guys, his brother (a prof), possibly his arch rival, and possibly the cops.

Again, I am just making this up on the fly. If I choose to integrate this mission into the game, I need to insure that the player has become aware of these people and their whereabouts before this particular moment. Also, trust the player – trust that your story is done well enough that they will recall this information. If they don’t, and testing would reveal that, you’ve done something wrong. You don’t need to force information out of a player or slam it down their throats. In fact, bar none, one of my most painful experiences in the industry involved a producer that insisted that all facts must be present just in case the player forgot them. So, as a result, all NPCs in the game were made to pander to you and provide you with information that quite often made you feel stupid. It may have been simpler to have the NPCs say, “Hey idiot. Since you’re clearly not capable of solving this puzzle, I’ve done it for you. Here’s your prize.” I digress.

It’s up to the player to recall these five people individually, and then figure out a way to get that information out. Making the connections is a form of reward for the player, and one of the valuable we as designers offer. This also sets up five potential play paths to get the information, each with a different level of risk. Ultimately, the player may only need to remember one of them. Think back to games you’ve played where they drop such heavy hints that you feel robbed of the reward of solving the puzzle.

Q: Can I just get the information from the cops?
A: No, they’re not going to tell you. It’s none of your business, for one, and for two, they’re being paid off by the mob to keep that information from you.

At this point, I am going to assume that the player doesn’t know that the mob is paying off the cops. Again, here’s another story thread I’ve created in going backwards. A lot of mission brainstorming does this, and it’s really helpful to generate ideas about your game.

Q: Are there other ways I can get the information from the cops?
A: You could get a job at the police department or…

I’m still branching out more at this point. Because it’s early in the process, I am comfortable letting all these possibilities float out there. Were I to develop a game like this, I might end up closing some of these avenues off in the interest of time or quality. There have to be at least 20 ways you could get his location out of the police, and of those, I can choose the ones I like.

If you have trouble coming up with steps for your mission, it might be because the mission itself isn’t working or the goal isn’t really goal-worthy. In this case, don’t try to force it. In game design, mercy killing is the law.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2008 10:17 am

    “In fact, bar none, one of my most painful experiences in the industry involved a producer that insisted that all facts must be present just in case the player forgot them. So, as a result, all NPCs in the game were made to pander to you and provide you with information that quite often made you feel stupid. ”

    Surely it’s more a matter of presentation than a problem with making previously revealed information available to the player? It’s not fair to expect players to remember every detail revealed in the past, especially since players may be returning to the game after a long absence.

    The player should have some way to review what he’s already supposed to know.

  2. May 12, 2008 6:35 am

    Adrian, I should have made that more clear. Making the info available is one thing, and yeah, I’m all for that. It’s necessarily, in fact, since the player may have let a summer pass before returning to pick up their saved game.

    What I was referring to here was making it all available within the initial message itself. It resulted in some dialog weirdness:

    “If you hope for entry into our group, then you must have visited the X, gotten items X, Y and Z and also…”

  3. May 14, 2008 1:41 am

    Never quite thought to pick apart a story or a level in this particular way. I really like it. I have a few issues with the story I am working with right now and am going to try to use this on a high level to see if it reveals anything interesting.

    As for the whole revealing info to a player, I really loved Psychonauts’ use of the bacon hint system. I could use it when I felt stuck and couldn’t solve a puzzle. Then again, might it just be bad design that I can’t intuitively figure out a puzzle…even if I pick it up a year later?

    Well, the bacon is a good crutch, but a better design would be more ideal.

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