This post will contain a minor spoiler about the game’s plot. Don’t read if you want to be completely fresh.
In the last dev update I talked about how I was updating the narrative to have a bit more punch, a bit more personal conflict right out of the gates.
An important problem to tackle, that, but not the only plot issue I’d identified. The other, trickier problem, is moving the inciting incident to an earlier point in the narrative.
For those who aren’t familiar with script writing terminology, the inciting incident is the plot event that kicks the protagonist out of their everyday routine and forces them to grapple with the core conflict of the narrative, whether that’s saving the world or winning the heart of their love.
It’s Luke Skywalker finding Princess Leia’s message, Trinity contacting Neo, Ned Stark being called to King’s Landing. It’s Gorian’s murder and Imoen’s kidnapping in Baldur’s Gate 1 & 2.
And it’s best if you get to it fairly quickly, so as to give the story direction and movement. Wait too long to kick things off and your story feels limp and uninteresting, your audience gets restless and starts to lose focus. Like a crowd forced to wait too long for the band to come on stage.
And this, unfortunately, is what I did with System Crash. I kind of outsmarted myself (The KISS principle is something I wholeheartedly endorse but often forget to practice myself 😛 ). I had this “neat” idea that I’d write a number of smaller story arcs that seemed isolated from each other, but would eventually be revealed to be tied to the main plot arc. So that later in the game the player would go “Aha! X and Y were actually about Z!”
Which sounds, like I said, neat, but my execution was a bit flawed. I held off on starting Z, the main plot arc, until the X and Y mini-arcs were finished. Which is a lot of stuff to get through before the story really gets its main surge of energy and motivation. The smaller arcs aren’t compelling enough, by themselves, to hold attention.
The answer, of course, is to start Z, the main arc, earlier. I’ll run it concurrently with X and Y, but make sure that X and Y are completed before getting to the part where it’s revealed that they’re linked to Z.
So that’s why I’m moving the inciting incident forward. It’s really the kick-off point for the main arc, for Z.
What that has entailed is figuring out how to rearrange the pieces of story that I have into a new, more compelling configuration. I really don’t want to rewrite a lot of narrative, I just want to shuffle what I have. Luckily, since there were already a number of smaller arcs, they can be rearranged without breaking the entire structure. The change looks something like this :
Notice how much more overlap there is in the starting bit, and how much earlier that yellow blob starts. 😉
I think this will be better. I hope so, I’m not rewriting the entire bloody thing.
And by ‘conflict’, I don’t mean just dudes biffing each other. I mean conflict in the more general meaning of the word – Struggle, opposition, friction.
Whether internal to the characters or external, ratcheting conflict is what builds tension in a narrative, pulling the audience along through the story. Building up the pressure until it peaks, then releasing it in a final, (hopefully) satisfying climax.
So a lot like sex, then. And like sex, fumbling the beginning can kill the mood.
This feedback on the SC beta leads me to suspect that the latest version of SC’s storyline is a bit of a failure to launch. Luckily, like sex, writing is a skill that can be practiced, and stories can be refined.
Now, that forum comment is just one person’s opinion, I know. And you can’t necessarily take any single individual’s feedback as objective truth, everyone brings their own subjective tastes to the mix. But this comment rang true, down in my gut. And I’ve learned to trust that feeling, it’s rarely led me wrong.
As Maximillion says, he found it odd because the previous iteration of the story hooked him. Not that strange, if you examine both intros with an eye toward the underlying conflict. Here’s the last beta’s intro:
In the aftermath of The Great Collapse, the world teetered on the verge of chaos.
Starvation and rioting spread across the globe like wildfire, nation-states dissolved into anarchy, and militaries clashed over ever-dwindling resources.
The spectre of global war loomed once again.
Strained to breaking-point and facing populations in open revolt, western governments took desperate measures.
New legislation was passed outsourcing the management and security of entire cities to private corporations.
Though politically controversial, the transfer of city governance into corporate hands was extremely successful.
Armies of privately-funded security contractors re-established control of troubled urban centres, putting down rebellion with ruthless efficiency.
The new corporate enclaves were beacons of stability and prosperity in a world wracked by turmoil, and other nations soon followed suite.
Order was restored, but the balance of power had shifted permanently.
Megacorporations are the new global Superpowers.
There are some who reject the new corporate order.
Operating in the shadows cast by the gleaming towers of glass and steel, they follow their own code, surviving by taking on the dangerous, illegal jobs that the rich and powerful cannot be seen to be involved in.
They call themselves Runners.
I took inspiration from the opening of Blade Runner there, introducing the dystopian futuristic setting in a little text sequence, trying to squeeze the maximum amount of expository and thematic efficiency out of those few lines. If you’re unfamiliar with cyberpunk genre tropes, that was intended to get you up to speed.
But where’s the conflict?
Sure, it suggests some larger themes of conflict in the overall setting. But where is the direct, personal conflict for the player? There isn’t any. Not good, not good. You have to touch your audience in the right places, if you want to get them excited. 😉
(Try not to picture these sexual metaphors, you’ll creep yourself out. Or, perhaps, get yourself excited. You pervert.)
Now, I’m not going to replicate the old intro for comparison, because it was 7 pages long, a lot to read before getting into the game proper. One of the things I’ve had to practice is brevity. But I will share the new intro I’ve been working on, or at least what I have at the moment (it may get a few more edits). It cannibalizes and repurposes plot elements from the old intro, which some of you may recognize. No use wasting good words, after all.
The sprawling San Angeles Metroplex rises around you, brightly lit towers thrusting up through the smog to rake the sky, neon ad boards jostling for your attention.
You take a deep breath, almost smiling at the foul, familiar taste of the air. It’s been more than a year since you were on the West Coast. You’re glad to be done with Europe and its miserable winters. The assassins didn’t help, either.
The job in Berlin, the one Jackson promised would be a piece of cake, was anything but. Things had gotten real messy, real fast, and you’d had to leave Berlin in a hurry, hired assassins hot on your trail. If you’d known you would be tangling with the Syndicate, you’d never have accepted Jackson’s offer.
No use holding a grudge, now. Jackson died in Amsterdam when the hunters ambushed your team in a small cafe. He and Summers were torn apart in the initial burst of gunfire, you barely made it out of there alive. You had to pay a black market body shop a small fortune to graft you a new hand to replace the one you lost to a grenade. A rush job, the colour doesn’t quite match.
The team split up after Amsterdam, those that were left figuring that travelling alone would be less conspicuous than in a group.
Six months you traveled the globe, staying one step ahead of the killers looking to collect the Syndicate’s bounty. Six months before you were convinced they’d lost your trail.
And now you’re back in San Angeles. Your first order of business was getting a new deck, you’d had to abandon your old rig in Amsterdam. And the kind of deck you need, they don’t sell those at the mall. Black market cyberware is expensive and you’d burned most of your credits getting out of Berlin. A bank loan was out of the question, the background check would poke holes in the fake ID you’re using.
That had left only one option – a loan shark.
Miriam had a reputation for ruthlessness, but she was the only one whose terms you’d found even slightly palatable. She’d agreed to lend you the 25 thousand credits you needed for a new Hijati, on condition that you paid her back 50. You’d had little choice but to accept her terms. You can’t buy a deck without credits, and without a deck you can’t work to earn the creds.
You have 3 months to pay back the debt. After that, Miriam will send her goons to collect your organs.
That’s better. Gives you a nice, clear conflict for the player character, a reason to be doing the game’s missions. And I’m introducing a some scripting and missions involving Miriam, the loan shark, in the early game. The push to earn enough money to pay her back before she comes to collect your kidneys will carry players through into the primary storyline involving…well, you’ll have to wait and see. 😉
So that’s what I’m currently doing on System Crash. Painting Miriam, prepping her dialogue and scripting, cutting and chopping the mission flow and storyline a bit to accommodate that. If I do it well enough, new players won’t even be able to see the stitches where I performed my script surgery. 😉
Reminds me why I’m doing what I’m doing, what I’m sacrificing so much for. I just love these fantasy worlds so much, I couldn’t be satisfied with anything other than spending my life creating them. It is at the very heart of me.
I put a writing section in the sidebar here, but I’ve yet to post up any actual writing! Which is a shame. I really enjoy writing, in the last year or so I’ve taken a real interest in the craft skills, I want to put that knowledge into practice, see what comes out.
But I haven’t found the time, not yet, not outside of the writing I’m doing for System Crash, obviously. Getting System Crash out has to take priority, when that’s done I’ll give myself permission to play around with my other hobbies a bit. 😉
For now, here’s an little snipped of story I wrote ages ago (seriously, I think it was 4-5 years ago! Hah!) for Scars of War. I did 3 of these “Magic’s Price” pieces to illustrate something about the game world and mechanics. This one is about the dangers of using magic that manipulates Time. I unashamedly stole the idea of Paradox build up and Paradox Spirits from Mage : The Ascension, the idea being that every time you changed time you’d build up a little bit of paradox. The more paradox you built up, the higher the chance that next time you cast a Time spell, you’d summon a doppelganger Paradox Spirit, a sort of potential version of yourself from the future that wanted to kill you.
These Paradox Spirits were sort of the white blood cells of the time stream, attacking threats to the stability of Time itself. Paradox would slowly drain off from time-manipulating magi, but using too much at once would rapidly increase the danger. This would serve as a narrative-grounded balancing mechanism for the kind of powerful magic that could see you freezing time itself.
Would have been interesting to see how it played in-game. Ah well, one day. 😉
As one, the hunters of the Order burst from their hiding places behind stacked crates and piles of refuse, weapons tarred so as not to reflect the light and prematurely alert their prey.
Not that it mattered. Kalus had known they were waiting for him from the time that he’d stepped into the alleyway that had led him to the grimy, isolated dead-end where he usually met his agent. The perfect place to stage an ambush. His man was probably dead, he’d need to find a replacement, curse them.
Focusing his will, Kalus began to chant softly, his eyes on the the one with the red cloak, clearly the leader, as he took aim at Kalus with a throwing dart. Kalus had heard of this tactic being employed by hunters before. The dart would be poisoned, something to cloud the wits and make it difficult for a spell-worker to bring their powers to bear. Unconcerned, both by this and the other two warriors closing on him, Kalus continued to chant.
In a smooth, practised motion, the Captain set the dart to flight. Kalus felt the strands of fate thrumming around him, the subtle flow of the time stream as it channeled the infinite possibilities of the future into the concrete reality of the now. The spell he’d cast when first he’d sensed the danger waiting for him hovered like a lurked spider, plucking at those threads, shaping probability to Kalus’ will. The dart flew past him, missing his ear by a finger’s width.
Lifting his arms, Kalus’ chant became a roar of triumph, even as the two hunters brought their blades down on him. Magic lashed out from Kalus in an invisible wave, those deadly weapons slowing to near stand-still, the hunters held fast as if insects trapped in honey.
Unhindered by his own magic, Kalus stepped out of their path. With a small smile he stepped behind the one on the left, grunting with exertion as he pushed him into the path of his fellow’s blade. Then, unsheathing his knife, he turned and casually drew it across the second warrior’s neck. Blood welled lazily from the wound, droplets escaping his throat like lazy bumblebees taking flight. When the spell ended the man would feel his life blood gushing forth at the very moment that he witnessed his companion impaling himself on his sword. Delighted with his own artistry, Kalus turned from the two to gaze at their captain. He, like his soldiers, had been trapped in the temporal distortion field. He’d managed to draw his blade only a few inches in the time it had taken Kalus to deal with other two. Contemplating the most fitting manner of death for this fool, this insignificant insect who’d thought to challenge one who wielded Time itself as a weapon, Kalus moved toward the man.
He’d taken only two strides when he felt a quivering tension run through those invisible strands around him. He stopped, casting about for the source even as he felt that tension growing, growing into a great, tearing agony that scoured all thought from his mind, driving him to his knees as his field of slowed time collapsed around him. The two hunters behind him met their shrieking ends as the captain freed his sword in a sudden ringing of steel, spitting curses as he saw the fate that had befallen his men.
But the pain wasn’t over yet, it continued to build towards a climax that threatened to shatter Kalus’ sanity. The air writhed before his eyes like a thing alive, heavy with the scent of ozone. A form began to take shape between Kalus and the captain, indistinct at first, then suddenly snapping into focus. With growing dread, Kalus looked up at…himself. A perfect copy of himself, smiling lazily down at him.
No, not a perfect copy. There was grey in this Kalus’ hair, deeper wrinkles around the eyes. This was himself as he would be in years to come.
The moment of paralysed shock passing, the captain leaped forward, sword raised. Kalus’ doppelganger turned and casually raised a hand in response, force lashing out at the captain, flinging him back into the piles of refuse. He lay where he landed, twisted, unmoving. The other Kalus turned back to look at his kneeling self, that same familiar grin twisting his lips, arcane light still dancing in his palm. They stared at each other, the man on the floor and the one standing, while around them the threads of destiny danced and whispered of things that could be, that should be and that would never be.
Despairing, Kalus attempted to form a ward even as his clone lifted his arm to hurl death at him. White-hot fury tore through his feeble defense, picking him up and hurling him down the alleyway, the impact of his landing leaving him stunned. Face pressed against the cobbles, muscles spasming, Kalus could do nothing as he heard the other’s footsteps approaching. A whisper of steel announced a dagger being drawn, almost certainly a clone to the one Kalus kept on his belt. A finely-crafted boot rolled him onto his back, and he stared helplessly into his own brown eyes. The blade hung above him for a long moment, then plunged into his chest.
Agony lanced through him, tore apart his focus as he tried to form a spell of healing. Time, if only he had time!
With a final shudder, Kalus’ time ran out. And as he died, so too did the Paradox spirit begin to fade out, dissipating like fog in sunlight. The wounds that Kalus had inflicted on the tapestry of time with his magic had begun to heal, soon it would be as if they’d never been.
THE FUTURE IS a foreign country. Not only do they do things differently, the things they do are often incomprehensible, wildly exciting or profoundly horrifying. And the locals won’t stop to translate for you. The only effective way to cope with the shock is through immersion, the way a child learns.
I rather enjoyed reading the first couple of paragraphs of this, describing the experience of science fiction, as a genre. The author isn’t the first to describe it that way, certainly, but it’s elegantly phrased. And I do so enjoy elegant writing.
Elegant writing and elegant code. Two of life’s greatest pleasures.
“The Passive Protagonist Problem,” try saying that five times quickly!
As many of you know, I’m in the final stages of building System Crash, the cyberpunk, story-heavy collectable card game I’ve been working on for about two years now.
The end of an artistic or creative project can be a tricky time, because it’s difficult to know when to call it “done”. An engineering project is simpler, you’re judging utility, ticking items off of feature lists, testing stability. Qualities that are directly and objectively measurable. With art, you’re dealing with subjectivity and nebulous principles. Read more →
I’ve always loved words. And I’ve also always had a deep and abiding admiration for those who use them well. Whether it’s an insightful and engaging analysis of the world around us or building fantastical worlds of the imagination, good writing resonates. And it’s a skill I want for myself. Read more →
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