22/4/12

The Thornbow

Sense. Videogames need to make sense. Videogames must be sensible.

"What about videogames set in magical worlds of fairies and wizards?"

Okay, let me restate that. Videogames need to be consistent.

The good thing about videogames, like in any other form of storytelling, is that the context is yours to play with. The games I like the most are, indeed, those situated in fantastic worlds. Medieval magic, victorian steampunk, intergalactic future...

But no matter how good you are at inventing concepts, we humans quickly associate that if some aspect of the world isn't explained, then it must work the same as in the normal world.

For instance, you can tell that humans are naturally magic, and then if an enemy suddenly pops up throwing fireballs at you, the player will think "Oh right, humans can use magic, that's to be expected". However if the same enemy pops up, takes a metal egg out of his hand, opens it and a phoenix comes blazing out of it attacking you, the player might be caught off guard, thinking "Since when are Pokémon included in this game?!"

I'm not saying that you should reveal everything about the world, of course. I'm simply pointing out another thing to keep in mind when writing how the story advances in your game design. For example, when Barbas the dog comes to talk to us in Skyrim, and we've seen other non-speaking dogs in the game, we're (comically) surprised and immediately know something's special about him.

"Skyrim is now host to giant, flying lizards and two-legged cat-men,
and you're surprised by me? Yes. I just talked. And am continuing to do so."
It all boils down to how much do you want the player to know. It's also a recommended practice to not directly tell all the details to the player, but rather follow the path of suggestion and implicitness. If we announce
"For centuries magic and science have worked together, creating amazing contraptions and uncovering new realms of knowledge... Quite literally. The existence of alternate universes, along with technology to store magic power, has led to some interesting results..."
As corny as this may sound, when the last enemy appears and throws a phoenix out of a metal egg, the player may just make the connection, "Oh! So that's what the narrator was talking about! Clever!"; and even "The way I've been told, it seems that this is not the only magic gadget in this world. And it might even be available for me to use!" With a simple paragraph, we've opened up two new gameplay options. Hooray us! Of course, if we did not expect to implement summoning beasts, we might just limit it by adding to the narration
"Yet most of those contraptions soon became a dangerous gate to powerful weapons of war. In the present, almost none remain, and those caught in possession of said tools are punished with death."
With this, we not only express the scarcity of those items, but also include a moral and danger link to their use: be seen with one of those eggs, and you're an evildoer, or worse, your game can be over.


It's not only important to story, but also to gameplay, that the whole game is consistent with what you show. Let's take a quick concept weapon of mine as a test, the Thorn Bow:



Whatever the things you are planning to do with the weapon, the most avid designers will have already deduced an interesting fact. The bow is made out of thorny wood! It's hard to figure out, I'm aware.

Truth is, if this bow is for sale players will barely look at the model; they'll be more focused on attack damage and effects of the weapon.

But even then it's obvious there's thorns in the theoretical handle of the bow. What does that mean? It actually gives way to including an option in which the player will self-damage themselves every time they charge the bow, as they will be stabbing themselves in the hand, in exchange for an extraordinary attack damage.

We can push the effects further. For the sake of showing you how much consistency can change the game experience, I'll explain:
The colonizers quickly found that the promised wood, that the amazons so greatly praised in bow crafting, was in fact a thick twig of thorn-filled bush; however, its great resistance and elasticity proved the material worthy of legend. But upon removing or blunting the thorns, the colonizers discovered the structure of the branch would become severely compromised. How, then, could the amazons use the weapons with such deadly accuracy? Surely generations of perfecting the technique, and years of training, had driven the tribe to master the bow in such a way that it caused no harm to the experienced owners. 
With this extremely summed up tale of what seems to be an extract from a history book, these attributes can be deduced from the Thorn Bow:

  • Great attack damage
  • Great resistance
  • Harms the wielder for every shot their take
  • Amazons are immune to the harm

Of course, now we should explain who the amazons are, keeping a chain of concept designing where everything has to fit tightly with every other piece. Only then will the game be consistent, and more importantly, comprehensible by the players, creating an experience that, in fact, feels natural.

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