Planning a Game Narrative

February 24, 2017

This week on the Robyn HUD game development front, I’ve been fleshing out the story for the game. The basic premise of the story – having a cat burglar in the form of Robyn and a computer hacker in the form of HUD who would go on together to be modern day Robin Hoods – started taking shape nearly a year ago. That’s a good premise for a story, but it’s only a premise. Questions of what challenges would the pair have to overcome, what locations would they visit, and what supporting characters would they interact with all needed to be solved.

As I did early work on the game, developing a prototype and completing other technical pre–production challenges, I was also working on developing the story. This was absolutely critical because as the needs of the story changed, the technical requirements of the game changed as well. Had I been solely focused on the technical side during pre–production it would have led to decisions being made that would then make it difficult if not impossible to tell parts of the story in a natural way. When the story becomes the servant of gameplay that’s when you get those weak gaming experiences where the story just feels bolted on.

By the time I entered production of the game, I had a nicely detailed outline. I knew the major plot points in the story, the overall relationships between the main characters, the locations the characters would be traveling to, and what the characters’ objectives were. As with the premise, that’s fine as far as it goes. However, there’s still a lot of work to go from a three page outline to an actual finished story.

The tricky thing with the story of Robyn HUD is that it’s actually multiple stories. Figuring out how to interweave the various threads in a balanced and satisfying way has been very challenging, especially since this is an interactive medium where the player may or may not choose to follow certain threads.

Without delving into spoiler territory, the story does have an antagonist whose plans must be thwarted by Robyn HUD. That’s one story thread. Another is that this is, in a way, the “origin story” of Robyn HUD. It covers the events that brought them together and the personal journey that they go on as they learn to work well together. Or not work well together, as the case may be, depending on the player’s choices.

Beyond the two main story threads the game has a number of ancillary story threads. Robyn HUD are recruited by a band of thieves who help prepare them for the tasks ahead. Each of these secondary supporting characters has a relationship with Robyn HUD and so require their own story thread to carry them through the game. The player can learn about these characters through direct interactions as would happen in any traditional storytelling medium like a novel or a movie. However, the player can also discover the “behind the scenes” story of these characters by hacking into various data systems throughout the game.

This ability to learn the “behind the scenes” stories of characters also carries over into the level designs as well. Each location that Robyn HUD travels to is distinct from the last. Each location is populated by its own group of characters living their own lives, with Robyn HUD entering almost as voyeuristic interlopers. As an example, it’s possible that during the course of a level Robyn, the cat burglar, may be caught with no opportunity to escape. In this case she’s hauled off to jail. As the player, in the role of HUD, hacks in to help free Robyn, various story bits about the jail and its occupants will present themselves. This is to make the jail a more real location rather than an empty, lifeless series of boxes to guide Robyn through. The player will be able to learn about events and characters at the jail. Later on in the game, if Robyn is again captured, she’ll again be returned to the jail. At this point the lives of the police officers there will have moved on and new story bits will be needed in the level to reflect that.

Finally, in the downtime between full missions in the game, the player will have the opportunity to practice their hacking abilities. They’ll be able to take small hacking contracts on the side. Each of these contracts requires its own mini story including who it is posting the contract and why.

The final game will have a multitude of storylines of various weight and complexity. The trick is to evenly distribute these threads throughout the game. Too many story threads at the beginning of the game will slow down getting into it and may make the latter portion of the game feel empty. Too many threads at the end of the game may bog down and distract from the climax. So it’s not enough to look at each story thread in isolation, they also have to be adjusted one against another to provide a satisfying tapestry.

To help with all of this planning I’ve turned to a low tech solution: yellow sticky notes. Behold!

[Planning with sticky notes and a bulletin board.]
Planning with sticky notes and a bulletin board.

The different levels of the game have all been pinned along the top of the bulletin board. The progression through the levels as well as the general thrust of each level is something I previously sorted out with the three page outline. This forms the basic timeline of the game. Understanding that timeline is key to weaving in the other threads of the story. Events of those other threads are represented by the yellow sticky notes. Each sticky note represents either a complete thread for the tertiary “bystander” characters encountered within levels, or an optional hacking contract between levels, or a key player training moment, or an important beat in the personal relationship story between Robyn and HUD or any of the secondary characters.

I find working on a large bulletin board for this type of planning easier than working on a computer. It’s not as cramped a space as a desktop monitor. It’s also very easy to pick up sticky notes and shift them around with relation to one another or to add more sticky notes in. As can be seen from the photo, the story development is still ongoing with much of the latter part of the story currently empty. This will change as I continue to refine things, but overall the end of the story will be somewhat sparser than the beginning. From my other writing experiences I’ve learned that there comes a point in the story where everything lines up and funnels into the final run towards the climax. Introducing additional threads past this point muddies and takes away from what the story is trying to accomplish.

Developing the story of a game, as with any other aspect of that game, is an iterative process. You keep revisiting the story to refine it and add more detail to it. From the simple one sentence premise, through rough story ideas, to a semi–solid outline, to the balancing of threads, to the individual scenes and dialog of the final product. It’s a hard thing to do in any medium but even more so in an interactive one. And it’s completely, completely fun and rewarding!