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    glorious caesar
  Tue Jun 21, 2011 11:05 am
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STORY STRUCTURE IN GAME DESIGN

It's time for me to talk about one of my favorite things: story structure! And i'm not being sarcastic, either—I was all about creative writing in college and I always got a huge hardon for story structure. the cool thing about it is that it's everywhere! Every book you read, every movie you watch, every play you see on the stage—no matter how different these stories are, they all have one thing that HOLDS IT TOGETHER, and that's a solid structure.

So last night I was thinking about making games, and I opened up an old document of mine, and saw how I had my game's story outline all plotted out. It was outlined using this traditional structural formula: the formula that is used in nearly every commercial novel or movie that gets produced. Now, don't misunderstand: i'm not saying that YOU MUST DO THIS for a good story. In fact, it's the opposite. Good stories HAVE THESE STRUCTURAL ELEMENTS, and it works across the board in any kind of medium.

It got me wondering: do game developers have an understanding of structure? Hopefully your projects contain these elements, and then my job is to just help you recognize them for what they are and what they do in your game's story.

So lets get into it then!

Plot Points
Every story has four primary plot points. Once you know what these are, what they do, and where they are usually located, it's easy to find them. Watch a movie or read a book with an understanding of these and they will jump out at you. These plot points are the moment in your story that create STRUCTURAL ANCHORS. everything in your story either BUILDS UP TO or is a REACTION TO one or more of the following plot points. I'm going to introduce them here and go into more detail later on.
  • The Hook is the first one we come across, though it doesn't hold the same kind of anchoring weight as the other to. The hook should be immediate. Unlike the other plot points, it usually has little bearing on the main storyline. It's just something to draw the player into the game's world and the life of the protagonist. Use the hook to introduce conflict right off the bat to engage the player.
  • The First Plot Point/The Inciting Incident is THE MOST IMPORTANT plot point in the structure of your story. It acts as the foundation of your structure. Why? Because the inciting incident is where your story really starts. The inciting incident is where the antagonist gets his big introduction and the player learns what he's after. He does something to involve us in the main quest of the game.
  • The Midpoint is where everything changes. Up until now, the hero has been reacting to the antagonist. After this point, the hero goes on the attack. The midpoint is very often a "now it's personal" moment that forces the hero to UP HIS GAME.
  • The Second Plot Point/Point of No Return is when the final information is revealed that allows for the climax to happen. Usually it's a "all the pieces have fallen into place" kind of moment. It's very often coupled with a moment of helplessness or an "all is lost" moment for the hero. Notably, after this point, no new information can be brought into the story (else you'll get a deus ex machina and those are generally not good).

You'll notice that there's no plot point defined for the ending. And that's because the ending is totally up to you.

These points exist in every story and you should pay a lot of attention to them in yours. The Inciting Incident especially sets the tone for everything that comes after. You probably have these points in mind (or in your outline or w/e) already but might not even realize the importance that these points have structurally. Every bit of your game's story (note that I am talking about a linear main story not sidequests and backstory) should be connected to these moments in one way or another. It keeps the player grounded in your main conflict and keeps him motivated to play.

Okay so now that I've outlined those briefly, let's talk about how they work with a bit more detail. Specifically, we're MAKING GAMES here, not writing books. The fundamentals of story structure are going to be the same, but since we're working in an interactive environment, the pacing can be a LOT more flexible. For example, since we're working with games, the midpoint doesn't really have to be in the middle at all. The important point is that all of the elements appear in the proper order—that way the story has a natural buildup of conflict and pacing.

So from here on out I'm going to lay out the basic fundamental structure of a story, using those plot points as the major anchors. I'll use The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time as the example since it's a game that everybody's played a bunch of times and it also has a very very simple storyline that's perfect for this kind of thing.

(i also did one for Twilight: New Moon a little further down on this page. :cookie: )

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The Hook
the hook doesn't have to tie into the main conflict right away, but it's important to present some kind of conflict to give the hero a reason to do something.
  • In OoT, the hook is that the Deku Tree has summoned the boy without a fairy. Gameplay-wise, the hero is introduced to the game by interacting with the Kokiri as you gather the sword and buy the shield. We are drawn into the fantasy world of the game right away. This is also followed by the Deku Tree—both as a dungeon (which is a hook of sorts to entice us to the game's dungeons) and the tree's death as a character, and he sends us off on our quest.

Setup
the setup is the area of story that connects the hook to the inciting incident. structurally, the purpose of this is to continue establishing the hero's normal life before it all gets shattered at the inciting incident. here we care about the hero and we learn and empathize with what he WANTS.
  • In OoT, I would argue that while the setup is certainly made up of everything up until the inciting incident, the big "i want" moment is when Link first sees hyrule field and is introduced to the game as a large world. running across the field and exploring on your way to the castle gives the player a real sense of the size of the game so we know what is going to be ahead of us to conquer as well as what is AT STAKE.

Inciting Incident
so like i said before the inciting incident is the moment where the player learns what the antagonist wants (which should be in contradiction to what our hero wants). it gives the hero the primary conflict and drives the player towards a goal.
  • In OoT, I believe that this moment occurs in the first meeting with Zelda in the castle courtyard. We are introduced to Ganondorf for the first time, by the young princess, and we are set out on our quest. Pretty straightforward, but it's a key scene: we are introduced to the BIG BAD and we know that somewhere down the line we're gonna have to take on this motherfucker ourselves.

Response
the response is chunky bit of story that happens after the Inciting Incident, and it's exactly what it sounds like: the hero's response to the inciting incident. typically this involves gathering allies, uncovering information, developing skills, etc. if the hero tries to go after the badguy here, he's got to fail, because he's not ready yet.
  • In OoT, this is the other two spiritual stone dungeons and the time Link spends as a kid. Here you become familiar with the world and the characters, locations and items in it. link meets characters who will be much more important later on.

Midpoint
the easiest description of the midpoint is that everything changes which alters the course of the story and motivates the hero to get on the attack. the midpoint moment may be very subtle or it could be a massive "selling-point" twist. either way, this is where i talk about how the player-controlled pacing of an interactive medium like an RPG would be different than something like a book. when you're making a GAME, the midpoint doesn't have to be in the MIDDLE at all. in the Oot example, my choice for the midpoint comes somewhat early in the game. But the key to remember is that it's the midpoint for the game's story, and that the response and attack chunks of storytime can be squashed and stretched to account for game action.
  • In OoT, the story's midpoint occurs when Link returns the three spiritual stones but gets sealed away for seven years before being released into "adult hyrule". it should be clear why this is a huge turning point in the game's story: ganondorf has WON and now it's your job to TAKE HIM DOWN. it's actually a really smart thing to do and the timetravel element is one of the coolest things about the game.

Attack
easy enough: now that the midpoint has changed everything, we want to hurt the badguy. he did something to piss off our hero, and we're gonna go after that fucker. this is usually where all those allies, skills and knowledge we dug up during the response comes in handy. along the way we are getting stronger with the increasingly heavy knowledge that we will be facing the villain.
  • In OoT, this period of time makes up the most of the gameplay. that's primarily all the adult dungeons while link is going after the medallions and the sages. along the way we see a lot of what ganondorf has done to ruin the beautiful land of hyrule and we prepare to go after the man himself.

Second Plot Point
something is revealed that allows for—or motivates—the hero to finally go after the badguy. after this moment, nothing new can come into the story. in other words, everything after this moment is "endgame".
  • In OoT, this is the revelation of Shiek as Zelda and then getting herself kidnapped by Ganondorf. We learn zelda's whereabouts—the final piece of the puzzle(remember we're going after the triforce pieces), but then ganondorf takes her which forces us to go take the plunge into his big scary finaldungeony castle.

Climax
the climax is usually described as something like THE HEIGHT OF EMOTIONAL TENSION WHERE THE CONFLICT MUST BE RESOLVED and sure that works. in the context of a videogame, though, i imagine the climax being a series of endgame trials (like a final dungeon) that forces the player into the ultimate test of all the skills he's spent the game developing
  • In OoT, i would say that the GAMEPLAY's climax is the entire final dungeon (ganon's castle including the final fights), but the climax of the story would happen after the tower falls, during the confrontation with final form ganon. notice how they are pretty much overlapping each other. i think that it's important to match the structure of your gameplay to the structure of your story for a more cohesive whole.

Ending
the ending can be whatever the fuck you want. but remember your player has worked their asses off and put hours into this thing. make it worth their time and effort. the ending has to be rewarding


Last edited by glorious caesar on Sun Jul 31, 2011 3:42 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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    Toams
  Tue Jun 21, 2011 1:25 pm
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(this is pretty good)

I really don't have anything to discuss here, so I'll just keep it to that, and say that this also applies to my own project at the moment. If you're unsure about your story, you can check this to see what you can add/what you're missing. Also yeah, your story doesn't neccesarily HAVE to go through these points to be interesting or to make a game out of it, but these points make clear how certain events could fit in the story.

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    RavenTDA
  Tue Jun 21, 2011 4:47 pm
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Very nice.

I was just about to go through my writing books to refresh my memory for stuff like this and you pretty much summed everything up. d:o

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    Gubid
  Tue Jun 21, 2011 6:28 pm
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Very nice work on this. Just goes to show, even the simplest of stories all have some thought to them. Complex ones are the same as well, but there are more plot twist to keep things interesting.

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    Perihelion
  Wed Jun 22, 2011 8:18 pm
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This is a good article! I use exactly the same structure for my work. Where did you get this? I read it in an ebook.

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    glorious caesar
  Thu Jun 23, 2011 8:18 am
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Warnings: 1
i think i FIRST read about it in a screenwriting book or something like that a few years ago but i've spent a LOT of time over the past year reading a lot of writing blogs and stuff (for like any medium) and these kind of story structure fundamentals are largely universal and that's something that really interested me. i wrote this because i was thinking about how the structure applies to stories in games.


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    Pokémaniac
  Thu Jun 23, 2011 11:29 am
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This is a pretty good structure. I hadn't actually heard it in these words, but my game pretty much follows it(although, the inciting incident is the hook, and as it's a volcano, not a character, there's no epic showdown. You do spend 10 minutes mopping up the first bit of damage it's done though, so I guess that counts in a way.)


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    dadevvtsvre
  Sun Jul 17, 2011 3:47 am
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I'm sort of curious what you think about the Monomyth (Hero's Journey). I find it a really interesting framework and it's pretty fun seeing how many movies/books follow it closely! I'm working on writing a novel as well and have explored using the monomyth as a basic skeleton for the plot, without relying on it too much. I love getting people's opinions on it.

The monomyth follows traditional story structure closely (inciting force, climax, etc.) but I find the inclusion of thresholds and mentor(s) very interesting.


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    Juan J. Sánchez
  Sun Jul 17, 2011 5:22 am
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This is one great piece of advice. I've been having trouble writing my story, but this will surely help.


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    LaDestitute
  Sun Jul 17, 2011 5:31 am
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This is a really great article Noise. I have most of my storyline written out but I'll use to this pinpoint what I need to improve and add. Thanks.


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    glorious caesar
  Mon Jul 18, 2011 5:33 am
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Warnings: 1
dadevster wrote:
I'm sort of curious what you think about the Monomyth (Hero's Journey). I find it a really interesting framework and it's pretty fun seeing how many movies/books follow it closely! I'm working on writing a novel as well and have explored using the monomyth as a basic skeleton for the plot, without relying on it too much. I love getting people's opinions on it.

The monomyth follows traditional story structure closely (inciting force, climax, etc.) but I find the inclusion of thresholds and mentor(s) very interesting.


the cool thing about the monomyth (and pretty much any other story strutcture archetypes you come accross) is that they all fit into each other pretty nicely. in other words they are all essentially the same universal structure but with a different perspective or focus. the monomyth is really focused on the physical (also emotional and developmental but whenever people use the monomyth or examples its easier to visualize as the physical conflict) action of the hero in the story. it's definitely useful to know and BE AWARE OF IT but all of the elements of it are REPRESENTATIVE rather than DIRECT (i mean you don't need a BLATANT MENTOR but rather ANYTHING that serves a similar purpose and really it can be incredibly subtle).


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    Twirly
  Tue Jul 26, 2011 5:33 pm
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This is a good article :thumb:


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    glorious caesar
  Sun Jul 31, 2011 3:26 pm
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Warnings: 1
In the twilight sagA: new moon

hook
bella's birthday party. bella gets accidentally cut and jasper goes for her blood.
purpose: draws reader into the fiction of the world with a mundane event turned supernaturally dangerous. establish stakes by defining bella's mortality vs the immortality of the cullens.

inciting incident:
edward breaks up with bella and the cullens move away.
purpose: introduces bella's antagonist: the absense of edward. bella wants edward, so the antagonist obviously is directly in opposition of that, which creates bella's driving conflict for the story.

midpoint:
laurent arrives, tries to kill bella, and is fought off by jake and the wolves.
purpose: bella is forced into action against the antagonist. laurent becomes a physical manifestation of the conflict: bella can't defend herself from a vampire without edward.
at the same time, jacob is introduced as supernatural himself. the idea that jacob can defend her physically gives him the ability to solve bella's conflict (edward's absense could potentially be solved if she settles down with jake). what does this do? this creates an emotional choice (a choice that created the whole team jacob vs team edward phenomenon) which builds stronger multilayered conflict for the protagonist and other main players.

second plot point:
bella learns that edward's made the desicion to commit suicide.
purpose: the purpose of the spp is to reveal the final piece to the story's puzzle so that the resolution can come together. when bella learns (from alice :fap: ) that edward has made the decision to commit suicide by volturi (upon hearing information that led him to believe that bella herself was dead), she is given a reason (reassurance that he still loves her, but also she loves him and he's in mortal( :specs: ) danger).
so she is forced into action to race to save him, which leads to the endgame chase and resolution in volterra.

resolution:
bella saves edward from the volturi.
resolves:
bella makes it to edward and gets him out of the shit he's gotten into. they're reunited and he returns home with her and promises never to leave again. yay. the main conflict is solved because bella has what she wants: edward.

and at the same time, the ending resolves the jake vs edward CHOICE (for this book, giving it a self-contained story in addition to its location in the overall twilight mythos) when bella leaves jake to go save edward. at that time, the conflict of bella's physical danger was tossed aside (its resolution being jacob and his wolves) because edward's suicide plan was a more immediate threat to the primary conflict and thus bella's solution was forced to take that route. (leaving jake to fall in love with bella and edward's daughter in book four which is wo ew wrong wrogn ew i hated that book 4 shat all over the others with that kind of shitty love triangle happy ending shit)

the book ends with both main protagonists' WANTS being resolved: bella and edward WANT each other; bella and edward are now back together. but tertiary characters still leave their plots hanging around for future books: jacob still WANTS bella, victoria still WANTS to kill bella.

on top of that there is a shitload of SAGAWIDE development going on that helps drive the emotion and direction of the story and influence the characters' actions. (i'd say that the primary conflict of the twilight saga is in bella wanting to become a vampire (and the midpoint of the four stories comes at the end of New Moon when edward proposes to bella, and all of that jacob as an alternative solution stuff is relevant here too)) i would love to dive into and i might do that when the fourth movie(s) comes out.

"and since its on topic"


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    glorious caesar
  Sun Jul 31, 2011 6:16 pm
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Warnings: 1
im thinking i might do one of these every time i watch a good movi.


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