Adventure Architect: Part Two
Choosing an adventure game setting
So there I was, sitting at my desk late at night with the lights turned low, facing off against the dreaded blank page and wondering how to begin designing my first adventure game. A mere sixty seconds after the euphoria of discovering that Adventure Game Studio gave me the means to create any adventure game I could possibly imagine, and already I was stumped on the very first question: What kind of game do I want to make?
I decided to focus on the game’s tone. What mood did I want the story to evoke? Simple enough. I wanted a story that really said adventure, something reminiscent of the classic Saturday afternoon movie serials and '40s-style cliffhangers where danger lurks around every corner. But I also wanted to capture the off-beat humor of games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Grim Fandango. Essentially, I wanted an adventure yarn with a sense of humor—but not with humor as the main focus.
There’s a brainstorming technique called mind mapping, in which you write a word or two at the top of the page and then begin writing everything you associate with that word beneath it. I decided to try this with a few different settings to see if I could find the right fit for the kind of game I had in mind. The idea that intrigued me the most when I'd finished was the Wild West, partly because I was surprised at how quickly my ideas flowed for it. There they were, hundreds of words full of potential scrawled all over a page and a half of loose-leaf notebook paper: Dusty desert towns. Train robberies. The Gold Rush. High noon. Six-shooters. Red Rock canyons. Dynamite. Gun Powder. Gallows. Treasure maps. Indian legends. Spanish gold. Rattle snakes. Coal mines. Skeletons. Vultures. Jail cells. Outlaws.
It was a big jumble of ideas, sure, and it needed to be fleshed out, but I could see a story beginning to take shape. I grabbed more scrap paper and began to scrawl out a rough story arc. What if the main character was a down-on-his-luck cowboy with a penchant for finding trouble? Suppose he stumbles upon a piece of a tattered old treasure map that he’s not supposed to find. Suddenly he’s being pursued by people he’s never met—people who are dangerous, and bent on finding him before he finds whatever lies at the end of the treasure trail.
OK, good start. What next? I start to think about things that haven't been explored in the traditional Cowboy and Indian mythology. What about the thousands of years of civilization leading up to the American westward expansion? Surely there must be legends to draw from there. I go online and research the history of the Anasazi Indians, their colossal cities carved into the sides of cliffs, the first mention of them to the Spanish explorers in the 1500s…and the story begins to write itself for me.
I furiously try to keep up, circling bits and pieces of my writing here and there, crossing out others when they don’t fit my needs. Now I’m drawing lines to and from different pages of my notebook, tying everything together, and writing a secret history of the Southwest that’s never been imagined before. Suddenly I have a cowboy story, a treasure hunt, and a sprawling conspiracy all rolled into one. It’s a strange mix that I never would have imagined before I'd started. But it feels like there's a story in there, so I keep working on it.
Days pass. Every night I rush home from work and scrawl down more ideas, or go jogging at lunchtime and work out the kinks of something that bugged me the night before. I begin to get a general feeling for where the game is going. At this point, I don't know all of the characters, nor do I know exactly how the story ends. And I have only a vague idea of the treasure that everyone is pursuing. But I have some starting points.
Logic would suggest that I should continue to hammer out the plot before going any further, but my mind is spinning in several different directions, so I decide to proceed on a couple of fronts. I'll continue to tweak the overall story until I have a definitive beginning, middle, and end, but at the same time I want to let my imagination wander, so I'll start to think about puzzles and game locations. I'll also start to sketch out some preliminary artwork. By working on several aspects at once, I'm hoping that my mind will put together ideas in ways that it would otherwise miss. I also hope that it will keep me from getting stumped in any one area.
Things I want to consider as I ponder the overall storyline: What is the hero really like? What’s the right mix of humor and seriousness? How does the end of the story complete the character arc as well as the quest? Is the resolution worthy of the build up? What surprises can I throw into the story to keep the player on his toes? Even with so many questions, though, I've never been more excited about a project.
And I'm just getting started.
Next: Giving the game a beginning, middle, and ending