Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 10, 2013
Someone told me last week that J. K. Rowling said that her secret to success in writing the Harry Potter series was to make up a bunch of details in the early books and then try and figure out what they were about when incorporating them into the later ones. I can’t verify that quote, but sometimes I think that was also what J. Michael Staczyynski did when writing for Babylon 5 as well. I’m relatively certain that when Obi Wan tossed around comments about Luke’s father and the clone wars in the original Star Wars, George Lucas did not have anything but the vaguest concept of what would eventually become the second trilogy. I’m actually relatively certain that Darth Vader was not even Luke’s dad at that point in his mind.
Nevertheless, these extended stories worked really, really well. Why? Because even if the details might have been a little vague and fuzzy and even subject to a little creative retconning, the creators had a very solid understanding of their fictional worlds. They knew ‘em, knew how they worked, knew the major players well enough that on a subconscious level the worlds and people took on a life of their own. This gives the stories a powerful authenticity – in part, I think, because this artificial reality (ooh, I’m co-opting an overused 90’s term and giving it new meaning!) that transfers to the mind of the audience, allowing them to build their own expectations and “fill in the gaps” in the narrative or setting with their own imagination.
This is extremely powerful.
In gaming, this approach was adopted by Origin Systems in their motto – “We Create Worlds.” (Which I heard at one point as part of a more complete statement, “others write software, we create worlds.”).
That should be something all RPG designers aspire to. While this should be RPG design 101 (or really, game design 101, if you are creating any game heavy on narrative), I feel it bears reiteration. While it’s hardly limited to indies, it IS something I find lacking in too many indie titles. While perhaps this can simply be chalked up to me simply not playing the games far enough, or the inexperience of the developer, it does sometimes feel like the worlds are cobbled together from borrowed bits & pieces with only a little original thought to pull the pieces together. That, or there’s simply too little narrative structure to explain what’s really going on.
On the flip-side, there’s a similar problem where developers go too far and throw in far too much exposition – particularly during those crucial first few minutes of gameplay. When a world really is well thought-out, well understood by the creators, it doesn’t take that much to let it shine through. Walls of text or other forms of long exposition should be kept to a minimum. “Show, don’t tell” is an important mantra in media that applies equally to games. The creator should have an intimate knowledge and ‘feel’ for his world, but if they do (and are skilled at their medium), it can be revealed and explained organically 90% of the time.
Okay, spoiler alert here – if you haven’t completed Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon yet but wish to remain unsullied by anything resembling spoilers, stop reading here. It’s hard to talk about the story (even in vague, backstory terms) of the sequel without using the original as context. But I’ll try and avoid specifics.
While I worry about holding my own game as an example – because I’m well aware that I handled this clumsily in some places – for the entire Frayed Knights series, the back-story of the Wizard War and Nepharides (the token Ancient Evil) are quite important, though perhaps not for the traditional reasons. What I didn’t want to do was to start the game with a scroll of text explaining what the wizard war was, how long ago it took place, what happened, how bad it was, how it ended, and all that other stuff. Besides being boring as hell AND meaningless to you when you first start the game, there are parts of that story that really are supposed to be a mystery that becomes revealed later in the series. But as you play through the game, there are references to the war and its devastation throughout, hopefully not to the point where the player feels like I clubbed them over the head with it.
But while I’ve got a whole mess o’ details, names of heroes, secrets, locations, current political structure, factions doing their thing, and a conspiracy only barely revealed at the end of Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, the player is only forced to know the parts of that back-story that affect him or her: There was a massive war a few hundred years ago that nearly wiped out all of civilization, plunged the world into a dark age that they are still recovering from. That is the source of many of these ruins adventurers love to plunder. The bad guy leading the forces of destruction was an arch-lich named Nepharides who had a ‘herald’ named Moonshadow. The name of Nepharides is still invoked as a boogeyman in a way that the name “Adolph Hitler” is used today.
And yeah, because of the devastation of the Wizard War and lack of accurate records, people today aren’t really sure exactly what happened. Or how Nepharides was defeated. Or if he was destroyed. Or if there’s a chance he – as an arch-lich – might be able to return.
Now, if that was where I left it, as a designer, it would ring pretty hollow in the actual gameplay. There’s not much meat on those bones. Plus, as backstory goes, it’s fairly generic. That was intentional. The fun is in the details, and in how this applies to the audience – the player. At least, that’s what I hope, and I hope I’m doing a good enough job of it, or I’m really screwing up.
In The Skull of S’makh-Daon, the player learns that the “mort rate” for adventurers have gone way up recently, and that it’s no accident: adventurers are being set up. In fact, the Frayed Knights themselves were targeted. And that this may have something to do with someone running around calling themselves “Moonshadow” – the herald of Nepharides – again. The conclusion is that adventurers may be the only ones capable / likely to stop… whatever plans are in motion.
In Frayed Knights 2, the game begins (except for a flashback sequence I am playing with) only a few weeks after the end of Skull. The Frayed Knights find themselves stuck in the middle of nowhere – effectively “put out to pasture” where they can be safe. Of course, this doesn’t sit very well with them, and they don’t stay out of trouble very long.
In the intervening weeks – backstory again (for those who care) with deliberate vagueness to avoid spoilers for the new game – things have not been idle. Bad things are happening, and the revelation of a conspiracy has only caused timetables to accelerate. This gets revealed slowly at first, as the party is (deliberately) stuck way on the periphery and – like the player – will only be marginally interested in things that don’t appear to affect them. So, again, mounds of exposition – pages and pages of “while you were away” storyline – are uncalled for. And would bore the crap out of me, as a player.
My choice to stick the player out in the middle of nowhere where this stuff can be revealed later in the game, and organically, as he or she becomes embroiled in the plot – was a deliberate narrative choice as well. Kinda for the same reasons that each Harry Potter book started with Harry back at the Dursley house, out of contact with friends and news of what’s been going on in the world of magic. It gives me a way to ease the player into the main story arc (possibly for the first time, if they never played the original) by revealing it directly via in-game events rather than having to provide long summaries of what they may have missed or forgotten from the first game.
One of the cool things about diving into the sequel is that the world is a lot more familiar to me this time around. While it is often comical (that’s sort of the foundation of the game), and plays around with traditional fantasy tropes a lot, it’s got a serious side too. With the sequel (and indeed, the latter half of the original), the serious side gets explored quite a bit more. Not that there won’t still be plenty of goofing around and situation / character-based comedy. And Rats of Nom. I find that comedy is funnier in contrast with a serious story than when everything is just over-the-top silly. But now that the world has been established in the first game, I’m glad to take the opportunity to do more with it.
It’s fun being able to tromp around in an area that is both new and familiar. The world, main characters, and backstory are all old hat for me now (though I find some parts still need some ‘fleshing out’), but there’s a whole new location to explore and new characters to meet, and new – weird – situations to stick the player in. That’s a lot of fun for me, as a designer. I hope you’ll have even more fun playing in it.
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