Giving the game a beginning, middle, and end
Adventure Game Design Journal—Day 57. Nearly two months of work has led me to write the following paragraph in my notebook:
Players will take on the role of a down-on-his-luck cowboy as he stumbles across an old treasure map scrawled with strange symbols. With nothing to lose, and hounded by the law, he sifts through ancient Indian legends, tracks down the skeletal remains of a 300-year-old Franciscan missionary, navigates an underground river, and attempts to avoid the clutches of a mysterious secret society bent on finding the treasure before he does!
I've taken all of my ideas about ancient conspiracies, mythical treasures, ghost towns, abandoned mines, hidden Indian villages, and on and on, and condensed them into the above paragraph. Now I need to turn that paragraph into a story with a definitive beginning, middle, and end.
For the past few weeks, my days and nights have been filled with thoughts of hidden treasures and vast conspiracies. I’ve been working out all of the details of the game’s back-story, and the final results are this: The treasure is an artifact related to the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola, which were first revealed to the Spanish explorers by a Franciscan missionary named Fray Marcos de Niza in the 16th century. The secret society in pursuit of Cibola goes by the name of the Brotherhood of the Hidden Sun, and they have roots stretching as far back as the Crusaders.
(And as an aside, when I talk about vast conspiracies and legendary treasures, I subscribe to the school of thought that says that facts are meaningless—except when they help to embellish something I’ve already made up, of course. So be warned: This game will not be historically accurate, unless you’re inclined to believe the ravings of a 16th century missionary.)
With a general story in mind, and two months worth of notes in hand, I look to see if any of the ideas I’ve jotted down in the past might be a good starting point for the opening scene. A few words jump out at me: Abandoned gold mine. Ghost town. Treasure map. I jot these down at the top of a new page and decide to come back to them later. Next I scratch a few more words on another page: Strange rock formations. Indian legends. Franciscan abbey. Bandits. Train robbery. Jail cell. Ghost stories. Old hermit.
These are the story elements that seem to be the most fleshed out in my notes. I put the two pages side by side and try to figure out how all of these locations and ideas might come together. Could they all be connected somehow? If I could relate the Indian legends to the treasure, and the treasure to the gold mine, and the gold mine to the town—then the town itself might be important to the hunt for Cibola. And on and on it goes, like a never-ending game of connect the dots.
Into all this, I plunge the cowboy who I’ve chosen to be the hero of the story. I decide that the game should open with some kind of discovery that will create a sense of mystery. The abandoned gold mine seems like the perfect place for it, if I can just figure out what the cowboy is doing on the outskirts of a nearly abandoned town swirling with mystery.
I stop and think for a moment about how I might open the game, and then I write:
'Rattlesnake' Jake Dawson finds himself in the hills above a dusty desert town called Old Sierra, staring at a cheap-looking treasure map that he won in a game of poker. The map is clearly a fake—a copy of a copy, at the very least—but he's got nothing to lose, so he’s set off to see what lies at the end of the trail. It's just Jake, his horse, his trusty six-shooter—and this nagging feeling that someone is following him.
Next I try to put together some of the mishmash of ideas relating to the town and the treasure:
Old Sierra was a boomtown a few years back, built up during the Gold Rush and all but deserted in its aftermath. Some folks still believe that there's gold up in the hills, but most say the area ran dry a decade ago. There's even an abandoned gold mine just outside of town, but it's been locked up and avoided for years—most of the town says it’s haunted.
Of course, everyone's got a story to tell about the weird happenings around Old Sierra, what with the Indian ghost stories about the Sacred Valley, and the weird hermit who's lived in the hills for longer than anyone can remember. And with a gang of bandits on the outskirts and a crooked sheriff running honest folks out of town, Old Sierra’s sure seen better days...
Now I'm getting a feel for how a lot of different threads might relate to each other, and things are starting to make sense. With a few more ideas floating just out of reach, I begin to outline how the opening scene might play out.
Jake stands at an overlook near a cave entrance. A trail leads winds off-screen from the overlook before returning near the outskirts of town. There's a second cave hole looming high above, but he can't reach it—yet. And not too far away is the blocked entrance to the abandoned mine. Does his map lead him to some kind of secret backdoor into the mine?
From here, I play around with a few ideas for how to draw Jake into the mystery surrounding the gold mine, the treasure map, and the Indian legends. What will he find in the cave? Who's following him? How does it involve the secret society? And what's the origin of this cheap-looking treasure map he's gotten a hold of?
I draw a circle in my notebook and write the words "Old Sierra" inside it. This represents the town. Next to the circle I begin to draw little boxes representing the locations that Jake can visit just outside of town: The gold mine, an Indian village hidden at the bottom of a canyon, a strange rock formation, and so forth. Now I start to draw other circles in different places on the page, representing additional locations I've thought of for later in the game. For each one, I ask myself: Does this make sense based on what I've established so far? Why would the main character go here? What might he be looking for? What sort of obstacles can I put in his way?
One of my goals here is to figure out the linear story elements—that is, the events that must happen in a certain order, and the facts that I want to reveal at a particular time and place in the story—with the many interchangeable sub-quests that allow flexibility of movement and discovery. I want to take the player on a story that follows a very specific flow without ever intruding on the freedom to explore at his own pace. That’s why I like the idea of tying together a number of distinct locations at the beginning of the game. It gives the player some freedom of movement to explore a large area with a collective back-story that all fits together, and then serves as a launching pad for what I envision as a more linear sprint toward the finish line once the treasure hunt leaves the Old Sierra area.
So now I have the makings of an opening sequence. I repeat the same process for the endgame—drawing a circle and labeling it with the name of the game's final location, and I create a second flowchart that helps me establish the requirements leading up to this final scene. (Extra credit to anyone who guessed that yes, the endgame takes place inside the lost city of Cibola!) I ask myself what the hero has to have experienced up to this point. Which parts of the story are "extra," and which parts are critical to ensuring that everything that needs to happen has actually happened? And then I begin to create a bit of a logic puzzle of the "If A, then B must be true" variety to make sure everything fits.
Finally, I take what I know of the beginning and the ending, and I try to figure out how to connect the two. The middle of the game is kind of like an accordion that can stretch or shrink based on the level of my ambitions. My strategy is to take every single idea I have—every possible location, every character, every sub-quest and visual gag, every puzzle idea, everything that absolutely must happen to advance the story—and throw them up against a wall to see what sticks.
When I've finished outlining the story, I have a design document that amounts to a macrocosm of the entire game. Before I begin work on a single animation or line of code, I’ll need to hammer out the details in microcosm form. But right now, the macro-design stage is pivotal for making sure that the overall game is cohesive and well paced.
And so, slowly but surely, everything seems to be coming together.
Next: The pre-production phase—puzzles, locations, and concept art