Plot-shaped Level Design

Periodically I find myself giving the same advice to new story-game designers, and I’ve been repeating it a good bit lately, so I’m writing it down here, though I’m sure many of my readers are already familiar with it:

Your job is to make it as hard as possible for the player to finish your game without understanding your story.

I don’t say “make it impossible” because you cannot control for a player who, say, is not completely fluent in the language of your story playing it on a glitchy mobile device three vodkas into a transatlantic flight. It’s possible for anything to be misunderstood. But the aim is for a person playing in good faith and with full capacity to be guaranteed a complete story.

This means that the player must encounter, and ideally make use of, every critical piece of information in the story. “Encounter” might mean “read on screen” or “hear in dialogue” or “see in a cut scene,” but encountering information is much less valuable in an interactive context than using information. So it’s best if the player needs to act on each of those critical beats.

To design for this, start by identifying critical beats. What are the facts the reader has to know in order to understand this story?

This is a subset, probably a very small subset, of all the facts the reader could know. Many world-building details and secondary character motivations can probably be omitted without ruining the experience. But if your story’s impact depends on the player learning the protagonist’s secret motives, then that information is vital.

If there are two (or more) possible endings to the story, each ending might require a different set of plot beats to work fully. (It’s long in the tooth now, but my 2006 game Floatpoint lets the player make an important diplomatic decision that can turn out any of a number of ways; however, in order to get the puzzle materials required to communicate a particular choice, the player has to experience vignettes that are relevant to that outcome. This was an attempt to guarantee that each ending hit all of its critical beats.)

Figure out which information is vital. Make a list. Be honest with yourself and keep the list as short as possible.

You might find yourself getting bogged down in minutiae that have nothing to do with your major themes and characters. (“I’ve worked out this really clever escape for the killer and there are 9 different fiddly things the player needs to understand in order to get it…”) If you find yourself in that situation, you need to streamline, find some emotional reason why those beats are interesting, or — if the whole fun of the thing really is an enormous logic puzzle — structure your game/story so it’s just that one puzzle. That can totally work — see Toby’s Nose, Oxygen, Orevore Courier, Rematch, and arguably Her Story. But don’t get precious. If something isn’t working, save it for next time.

Once you have your list of vital data, figure out dependencies. Which facts depend on other facts to make sense? Which facts have the greatest impact if they come after other facts? If learning the protagonist’s secret motive is more effective after we see them commit a crime, that provides a motivation for ordering. Turn your list into a dependency chart.

Next: this chart you made that looks strangely like a classic puzzle dependency chart or level design chart? It is one! Assign puzzles, geographical barriers, stat dependencies, or choice flows that match the shape of the plot chart. Theme accordingly. If your story requires the player to see the crime before learning the motive, gate the reveal of the motive with a puzzle that can only be solved with information from the crime, or place it in a room that can only be reached by passing through the space where the crime is committed.

This method still applies to choice-based narrative. For a nodal choice game, you have a lot more control over how the player moves through your story than you would in an open world game, for instance, but some of the same points apply when it comes to focusing player attention. If you have a key story beat, don’t just narrate it and move on. Players skim in interactive stories, especially in choice-based stories where they know they’ll be able to keep moving forward regardless of how well they learned the establishing details.

If you need the player to remember something, give them a choice about that thing. If you can’t let them choose whether the thing happens, you can still let them choose how it happens, or how the protagonist feels about it, or what they’re able to salvage from it.


14 thoughts on “Plot-shaped Level Design”

  1. Pingback: Story in Space

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