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Long-Form Storytelling

Andy Collins Posted:
Developer Journals 0

In which Ian and Andy discuss how to keep gamers coming back for more delicious story nuggets over the course of hours or years.

ANDY: Ian and I have spent a lot of words talking about how we crafted the story of Moonrise, from world-building and our early thematic inspirations to setting the right tone and how we pace our quest progression. But none of those topics are actually the story. They’re just goals and fragments, the equivalent of having a pile of Lego bricks and the idea that you want to build a spaceship.

IAN: Or, for those of you under 30, they’re Minecraft blocks and you want to build, I don’t know, probably a floating castle with glass floors. Maybe a farm? I haven’t played in like five years.

ANDY: In my day, our building blocks doubled as caltrops, ensuring serious pain if you failed to properly clean up. Kids these days have it too easy!

In the 80s, this was cool. No, really. Stop laughing.

ANDY: Anyway... this week it’s time to discuss the how you fit all those elements together into something resembling an actual story.

We knew we wanted the story of Moonrise to play out over many hours. During those hours, the player would visit a variety of interesting locations and battle a range of fascinating creatures. And all of those dimensions would have to be easily expandable as we added new content over the game’s lifespan. We were in for a marathon, not a sprint.

There’s an existing model in modern media (say that ten times fast!) that adheres to this pattern: episodic television shows.

I’m not talking about old-school network TV, where each episode was typically its own self-contained story. Even the best of these shows rarely displayed anything like a season arc, and any character or story changes that occurred from season to season were more likely due to off-screen salary negotiations, career shifts, or biological realities (aging, pregnancy, death) than the writers actually progressing an overarching storyline.

IAN: There were, of course, soap operas before this, but soap operas emphasized SHOCKING CHANGES so aggressively that it fairly quickly became clear no ONE change could really matter. If everything is constantly in a state of flux (and regularly being returned to status quo through convoluted means) SHOCKING CHANGES stop having any impact, and even gradual, nuanced development has no chance of sticking around.

Also, if any of that sounded painfully familiar, I’m sorry. Being a DC Comics fan can be rough.

Moonrise: No crises infinite, final or otherwise.

ANDY: But in the 90s that started changing. Everybody points to The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as examples of shows that demonstrate storylines going beyond the individual episode, but even mainstream stuff like Friends and ER dipped their toes into the water of the extended story arc. That said, for a while this concept was mostly limited to genre stuff that existed outside the average viewer’s range of attention.

Then came The Sopranos, and Battlestar Galactica, and Lost... and suddenly EVERYBODY wanted their shows to have story arcs. Even formulaic procedurals started including storylines that stretched across one (or more) seasons, reasoning that the viewer would be more likely to come back for another episode in order to find out what happened to their favorite characters.

Translation: When CSI has season arcs, you know the concept’s gone mainstream.

Sorry, but putting on sunglasses...is NOT a character arc.

By using episode arcs, season arcs, and even series arcs, the modern wave of TV storytelling creates a constant drip-feed of progression and development that keeps the viewer coming back for more. It’s more than just pure serialization, it’s a multi-tiered approach that juggles short-term and long-term needs simultaneously.

And yes, I can hear the comic-book fans out there shouting that their medium has done this at least since the 60s, doubled down on the concept in the 80s with continuity-laden books such as Uncanny X-Men, and then tripled down with the rash of big events and crossovers during the last decade. Do you think it’s a coincidence that TV writers and producers who grew up with such entertainment have started to transfer its tropes to their medium?

IAN: So, this has been a pretty cool media studies chat, but what does any of it have to do with Moonrise?

ANDY: We’re building up to that. Gotta walk before you run, etc.

IAN: Moonrise is a game that we hope to continue advancing and developing the story, world, and gameplay for years to come. Knowing that up front, we knew we wanted a story with satisfying development and a regular sense of resolution, but we also wanted to be able to support longer story arcs, the kind of thing that can be slowly developed over multiple updates.

ANDY: In Moonrise, moments of story resolution commonly come...

  • at the end of an individual quest (like a single scene of a TV show),
  • at the end of a short series of quests on a single topic (like a single episode), or even
  • at the end of a long, multi-session series of quests (like a season arc).

This is what our white boards looked like for about a month.

IAN: A smaller arc might be something like helping someone clean up and renovate the Warden Museum in Gateway. Even better, players might find themselves trying to find some ancient piece of lore in a dungeon, which feeds into a larger arc where they research a mysterious Solari, which feeds into a larger arc about legendary Solari vanishing, which leads into the even larger arc about space aliens kidnapping all the cool Solari. Currently, we’re only planning on doing the museum arc, but you never know what the future will bring.

ANDY: In addition to those arcs, we also have longer, multi-chapter story arcs planned out, which you’ll discover as you play through the game. An off-hand reference in your fifth hour of gameplay might grow into a significant story element by Hour 10 or 20 (or 50).

Relax, it's only complicated for the writers.

IAN: One of the important things about how we plan to incorporate long terms arcs in Moonrise is that it’s NOT [i]Twin Peaks[/i]. You do not need to memorize and recall every little detail. We bring characters, events and themes forward, but we make sure any plot point that a future event is going to hinge on is mentioned at least a couple times in different contexts, and we find ways to say “hey, remember when X happened?” and if you did, great, you feel smart, and if you don’t, well, now you do.

ANDY: I love the deep-dive into a convoluted storyline as much as the next recovering Lost fan, but as hard as we’ve tried to stretch the season-arc metaphor, games aren’t TV shows. You’re not passively absorbing character and story details, you’re actively engaging in gameplay that happens to be tied to characters with personalities and storylines with progression. We have to respect the fact that your attention is on the game first, and the story second (not to mention the fact that you’re likely consuming the story in 5- to 20-minute increments over the course of weeks, months, or more).

IAN: The goal, really, is to take the lessons of long-form narrative. First, embrace character development. Besides your own character’s progress from recent graduate to mighty Warden...

ANDY: Uh, spoiler alert?

IAN: ...you also get to see your sidekicks Lois and Kumail blossom, as well as some fun arcs for NPCs you meet along the way.

ANDY: We also avoid relying on a core premise that must self-destruct. A long-form narrative about a murder needs to actually deliver a murderer and some resolution, or viewers feel cheated. Moonrise isn’t built around a single “solve this and everything’s fixed” premise, so we’re good there.

IAN: And always plant seeds for more to come, while remembering that players can check in and out of the story at random intervals. Important plot points need to be subtly reintroduced, and we can’t rely on a big reveal of a guy they met once two months ago to sell a dramatic moment. We should probably just let them have a really fun fight instead.

As Raymond Chandler said, "When in doubt, throw in a kitten fight."

ANDY: This is a topic that either of us could continue to talk about for longer than most of you would care to read, so we’ll wrap it up here. If you want to dive deeper into the topic, you might check out this or this.

See you again next week when we discuss the challenges of writing dialogue for people who don’t want to read it. Bye!


Andy Collins