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Painscreek Devlog #2: Designing The Story

(Image of the 3-act structure found online.)

When we first started, there were two areas to consider developing. First, the story and game design. Then there’s the technical part where we need to build the game, something that we are still learning to be efficient at. The story and game design is probably the more important part of making the game succeed, so on this week’s blog, we will explain how we designed the story.

COMING UP WITH THE IDEA  What game genre would it be? Which game engine should we use? What should the story be? What game mechanics should be implemented? How much time, money, manpower are needed? Finally, could we literally pull it off? We knew that walking simulator was the only option we had, so that narrowed down our choices a bit. Could we literally pull it off? This was covered slightly in our much earlier blog, ‘How we survived without a programmer in our first 3 years’. As for time, money and manpower, we really had no idea how much or how long it will take. After all, it was our first game. But what we knew was to focus on a story that’s worth playing. To do that, we had to come up with a game idea first.

We were playing The Secret World during our ideation stage when we realized how great the missions were. The world was atmospheric, the stories in each mission enticing, and the events when accomplished, fulfilling. Despite it being an MMORPG, it felt like a single-player game that's choked full of memorable content. Players would find a clue which leads to another, look up a phone book to find the address of a key location, stare at paintings to see which one hides the answer to a secret passageway, etc.. The game was challenging and definitely worth playing.

(We think that The Secret World is one of the best MMORPG ever designed, rivaling many single-player adventure games in terms of story content.)

We wanted to make a game that would have players remembering it as time went by. However, we were limited with our design abilities. Since we grew up in the 90s, the era had to be around that time period. This being our first game and not having any programming experience also forced us to abandon the hope of having NPCs (non-playing characters) in the game. All of that led us to tackle the idea of a murder mystery investigation set in an abandoned town in the 90s.

To make the story work, we turned to a saying “Start from the end, and end at the beginning.” Actually, it’s more like "consider what your ending will be, then proceed to develop it from the beginning". For The Painscreek Killings, we followed the 3-act structure.

DEVELOPING THE 3 ACTS (SPOILER AHEAD) Ending: It will be a murder mystery solving game. We wanted the players to be the ones who will unmask the killer’s identity.

Act 1: For the setup, we want players to familiarize with the NPC's backstories, places and locations, and the game mechanics. Players will come across general information, such as those reported in newspapers and articles. Once players have enough knowledge about Painscreek, we reveal the first plot-point, something that will hook them.

Act 2: This is where players spend the bulk of their time at. We want players to start searching for clues to proceed with their investigation. We want them to let their instinct lead them in the right direction. Along the way, there will be obstacles. The harder the obstacles are, the better the rewards. As players delve deeper into the NPCs’ backstories, they will realize that everyone has something to hide. Whoever seemed innocent at first will reveal something, and those who looked guilty in the beginning might turn out to be innocent. Since act 2 is the longest of all, we had to split it into act 2A and act 2B, with a mid-story inserted in between.

In act 2A, the goal is to find out if the assumed killer was actually the real killer.

In the mid-story, players might realize that the media got the wrong person. If so, where do players go from here? Who could the real killer be?

In act 2B, players will revisit what they have to see what they might have missed. Who's the key suspect now? Do they have the clues that will enable them down that path? Will that suspicion be the real deal or a red herring? We want players to think and play an active role in finding the truth. Should players persist and not give up, they will be able to find key information that leads them to plot-point 2, where they will find the identity of the real killer. But the killer knows that the players have found out about it! What should players do now?

Act 3: This act consists of the climax and the ending. Everything that has happened is for the climax. The climax should also be the part where the tension is at its highest. Everything before should build up to the climax, and it's here that killer will chase after the players to silence them! Depending on the outcome of the climax, the endings are: (1) either the players survive till the end and tell their stories in the papers, or (2) they are killed.

(The 3 act structure summarized in a chart.)

’THERE IS ONLY ONE TRUTH’ & THE INVERTED PYRAMID SYSTEM There’s a Japanese anime TV show called Detective Conan (Case Closed). In the opening song, Conan always proclaimed “There is only one truth!” No matter what, the truth will be revealed if the clues add up in the right manner. In a way, that lent strongly to the premise of our game. Vivian’s killer will never reveal him or herself. It’s up to the player to find it out.

When we look at the 3-act structure, it’s hard not to make the game look linear. To avoid that, we approached it like a D&D campaign where the game master creates the world and places everything in it, allowing the players decide where to explore. However, the game master also need to sure that the players don’t lose sight of their goals. So we designed it such that to proceed from one act to another, they would need to find the right ‘key’ to unlock it. This resulted in a system we called the inverted pyramid system where at the start of the game, it seems as if there’s a whole town to explore. As the the investigation deepens, more secrets are uncovered until players reach the one and only truth - the killer who killed Vivian Roberts.

(Detective Conan's famous line. Image taken from Pinterest.)

WHAT WE LEARNED Can a 3-act structure work in games? Just type ‘can 3 act structure work in games’ and there’s a number of articles explaining why it won't work. That’s understandable as games are not simply films that are interactive. Yet without it, it would be hard to develop a story-based game that runs 10 to 20 hours on an average playthrough and still be able to hook players from beginning till the end. The issue is not whether a 3-act structure can work in a game. Rather, it's how you make it work so players are hooked, despite the length of the game.

In our case, we believe the 3-act structure worked very well.

Next: Follow us next as we talk about coming up with and implementing the game design of The Painscreek Killings.

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