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Setting the Tone

Andy Collins Posted:
Developer Journals 0

Andy: Hello again, and welcome to another episode of “Ian and Andy talk about the story of Moonrise!”

For those of you joining us for the first time, Moonrise is a new game from Undead Labs and Kabam where you play a Warden tasked with protecting folks from savage creatures called Lunari.

Today we’re discussing the tone of our game’s story.

Ian: Tone is one of the hardest things to define for a game, especially before you start writing. Everyone can sit down, talk about touchstones, and agree on a target, but at the end of the day, tone is something that develops during the creation process, not something you just decide to do in advance.

Andy: Agreed.  Several tone goals were set during the early world-building process, which I discussed in the first article of this series. We wanted something that felt fun and friendly rather than dark and scary, so right away we had an idea of where we might be headed.

And of course, tone comes up again when you talk about inspirations, like we did a couple of weeks ago. It’s not necessarily true that your inspirations line up tonally with the direction of your game, but there’s usually a correlation there. For example, Legend of Korra’s tone lines up pretty well with the direction we wanted for Moonrise, so it definitely became a touchstone for us to keep in mind as we wrote.

Ian: The thing about tone goals, though, is that they’re the finish line. We know what we WANT, but we don’t know how we’re going to get there.

Andy: And it’s never quite as easy as the old joke about starting with a block of marble and chipping away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. It turns out you simply can’t carve a computer into the shape of a game...trust me on this one.

Ian: There are things we can do to help reach that finish line. Concept art makes a huge difference, and it’s usually an important part of defining tone early on.

There’s also a ton of value in defining who your audience is, and who it isn’t. Moonrise, for example, is definitely not being designed as a kid’s game—we make games we want to play—but we’re working hard to make sure it doesn’t alienate younger audiences. This is a struggle, but when someone walks the line successfully (The Incredibles, as just one example), the rewards are huge.

Andy: It’s also important to recognize that you communicate your game’s tone through a LOT of different elements.

  • What your character is expected to do (missions)
  • What the various characters say (dialogue)
  • The obstacles you face (monsters, bosses, challenges)
  • The feel of the various people, objects, and environments you encounter (art and sound)
  • The stakes of success or failure

When these elements are in harmony, players can’t help but understand the tone of your game because you’ve immersed them in it. They might not consciously realize what your tone is, but I guarantee you that if you presented them with an element that DIDN’T match your tone, they’d find that element discordant and unwelcome.

Ian: Let’s use humor as an example. We knew we wanted Moonrise to have a sense of humor. It’s not a full-on comedy by any means, but we knew this was a world where people can be happy and laugh, even when things are serious.

But what does that mean? Where does the humor come from? Does being funny mean your characters are telling a series of jokes? It’s really important to understand here, saying a joke and saying something funny are not the same. Joking implies the character is knowingly and intentionally cracking wise. What they’re saying is funny, and it’s funny in the world.

Andy: And then you have some comedic characters make jokes that break the fourth wall. Here, the character knows they’re being funny, but instead of it being funny in their world, it’s supposed to be funny in ours. When Deadpool cracks a joke about the continuity of Marvel Comics, he’s speaking directly to the reader — nobody inside the world created by that comic book’s story could possibly understand the gag.

Ian: What if you don’t want your characters to tell jokes — where does your humor come from? Are they absurd characters? Are they reasonable characters in an absurd situation? Do they comment on the idiosyncrasies of a video game world, not technically making a joke, but still bringing the player into the fold with a knowing wink?

Andy: A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat! Know what I mean? Say no more!

Ian: Andy has helpfully illustrated the “just quote Monty Python” option which…you may want to avoid.

Andy: Particularly if you find yourself at my D&D table...but that’s another conversation entirely.

Ian: Otherwise though, none of these styles are, necessarily, right or wrong. These are all valid ways to introduce some levity to your game. But doing them randomly or inconsistently winds up being grating, and means none of the styles works as well as it should.

For Moonrise, we’re going for a world and and a tone that we want you to take seriously, so our world is played straight, and our characters are intended to have concerns and priorities that are simultaneously important to them and relatable to you. We’re not writing a sitcom, so while our characters can make a joke here and there, they aren’t just spouting one-liners left and right. As much as possible, the comedy rises from taking our characters, defining them well, and then being able to watch what happens when different people with different opinions and motivations interact in tense situations. Believe it or not, this is a really solid recipe for laughs.

Andy: To do this, you need to craft characters with edges that can grate and grind against one another to get those moments. In a drama, those edges might create, well, dramatic conflict. But they can just as easily create humorous conflict as well.

Say, for example, that one of your supporting characters is a young, smart, trusting, well-read collegiate sort...for argument’s sake, we’ll call him Kumail. Put that character in the same scene as a naturally credulous investigator whose life experience comes primarily from real-world interactions with other average folks (let’s call her Lois) and you have two great ingredients for your comedic recipe.

(You’ll meet Kumail and Lois in a later article in this series.)

We also occasionally use humor to subtly point out oddities that are germane to the type of game we’re making. These aren’t entirely meta-jokes — the character doesn’t entirely break the fourth wall — but we definitely make a couple of those “knowing winks” that Ian referred to earlier. If you’ve watched anything written by Joss Whedon, you’re familiar with this type of humor.

Ian: This article has to end sooner or later, so we can’t go point-by-point through every aspect of the tone in Moonrise, but I hope this gave you an idea of how seriously we take this stuff. We asked similar questions for things like violence, romance, danger, and, I mean, we even have standards for things like vocabulary and idiom. 

Andy: We’re both kinda word nerds, as it turns out.

Ian: There are a lot of people working on this game, and there are even two of us writing it. Making sure we’re all on the same page, and being open to both giving and receiving criticism, even when it’s something as vague as “it doesn’t feel right,” is essential to our success in finding the right tone. You can’t just leave this to chance.

Andy: Ian and I are constantly commenting on and editing each other’s writing on Moonrise, to the point where it’s becoming difficult to know who’s responsible for any given line of text.

In fact, that sounds like a pretty good topic for next week’s article. Ian, you up for tackling “collaborative storytelling” next time?

Ian: Well, it’s on our schedule, so, yeah, I don’t see why not.

Andy: That’s the spirit. See you next week, folks!


Andy Collins