Using Story Elements to Brainstorm Emotional Complexity

Let's take a look at a few of the many possible story elements, and see how they can be used to brainstorm emotionally complex and engaging game experiences. Then we'll ask, "What can be done to make these story elements more emotionally complex?" I call this process Complexification.

To demonstrate this technique, I chose a strange assortment of story elements, picking some that occur in many stories (like "danger") and some that would appear in a much smaller selection (like "racing"). The example story elements are:

  • An enemy

  • Danger

  • Racing

  • A mystery

  • Tension

  • Spying

  • Good guys/bad guys

Let's see how emotional complexity can be injected into these elements.

An Enemy

What if it's an espionage game, and the top enemy spy you've got to kill was a close friend of yours earlier in the game?


The illustration provides another example: Our hero fights another version of himself, who has returned from the future. His future self says his younger self has to die, for the good of humanity.

If you're playing the younger character in the game, this would be a very emotionally complex moment, especially if you believe that your future self is both sane, and sincere, and possibly accurate.


You're a soldier in World War II, and your commander is your uncle a man who has already saved your life on two occasions. You volunteer for a dangerous mission, but he doesn't want you to go. You go anyway, but upset him in the process. You've hurt someone you care about, in order to do the right thing.


In a street racing game, what if the guy who fixes up your car your mechanic and ad hoc pit boss is the best in the business, but he has a disgusting personality, at least some of the time. He's only helping you build and maintain your car because you both share an enemy the other great street racer in the city. So you feel different layers of feelings toward him (Admiration and Loathing), either at different times, or perhaps even or simultaneously. (This topic was discussed in Chapter 2.13, "Player Toward NPC Relationship Deepening Techniques.")

Here's another example: You race a crazy street course a number of times, splitting whenever the cops show up. The game itself tracks your score. You have two friends who help keep your car in top shape with all the latest upgrades.

Your two friends are kidnapped by your rival. The kidnapper will kill them all if you don't beat your own best score by 10 percent.

In effect, you're now competing against yourself, and the lives of your crew hang on the outcome. This is an Emotionally Complex Situation (see Chapter 2.15).

It's also a Plot Deepening Technique (see Chapter 2.17), in that the plot doubles back on itself in an interesting way. That is, your own high scores now come back to haunt you in an unexpected manner. However, there won't be much feeling of depth here unless:

  • You care about those two friends who've been kidnapped, and

  • When you made that earlier high score, it was an exciting, big deal a big deal to you, and to your (now kidnapped) friends, who helped you celebrate the triumph.

Thus, we have now have the irony that the victory they helped you celebrate may now cause their deaths. The plot has circled back on itself in an interesting (and emotional) way.

A Mystery

You begin a game by walking down a street in Chicago. Suddenly, with no warning, you find that you're in an office on a large, fully operational space station. And everyone seems to know you. Indeed, you look around your office and find evidence that you've spent considerable time here.

Rochelle, a young woman who's a technician on the station, quietly approaches and asks you to help her. She says she's in danger the same danger you're in. And she's sorry for wiping out your memory. Suddenly guards are firing at her.

Do you help her or not? This tough decision is a First-Person Deepening Experience (see Chapter 2.21).

(I develop a similar plot-line to a much greater degree in Chapter 3.2, "Chasm.")


This example is a kid's game: You defend a weird animal realm from its enemies.

You've built a large machine that spews out (funny) magic wands. Each wand performs a different function. One reverses gravity and makes your enemies fly up into space. Another one makes an enemy laugh (literally) to death. Another turns an enemy into a large carrot.

Each wand can only be used twice, so you need to keep your machine producing new ones. But 1 out of every 20 weapons is defective and blows up as soon as it's ejected from the machine, all but eliminating your health points.

You could have built a machine that created only perfect wands with no defective ones, but that would have taken much more time to assemble and would have left you vulnerable to your enemy, whom you need to fight with these wands.

As you wait by the machine, you don't know if you're about to get blown up and injured by the next weapon that emerges, which in turn would put you out of commission for a while.

The fear that you'll get a defective wand creates tension as you wait to see what comes out of the machine, but still, there's nothing emotionally complex about it. So how could we add emotional complexity?

Let's say various other life-forms have come to depend on you turtle-bears (bears with shells); cowraffes (cows with long necks like giraffes); and rabbicats (rabbits with cat heads and paws). These animals will die if you get injured and can't protect them from your mutual enemy. Suddenly, we've added some emotional complexity to the situation.


A new game: By boat, you've hunted your enemy and pursued him to a small but thickly wooded island. On the way here, you got caught in a storm and barely survived. Your boat was damaged. There are many dangerous creatures on the island.

Now you spy on your enemy, and, oddly, he's carefully repairing the small boat you took to get here, allowing you to escape from danger. There's no trick; he's not secretly sabotaging you. Why is he helping you? Is he secretly on your side?

This makes your enemy more complex, of course, but it also takes a story element like spying and adds to it emotional complexity.


Good Guys and Bad Guys (or Good and Evil)

We looked at the illustration on the preceding page and its accompanying hypothetical game in Chapter 2.25, "Motivation Techniques." You play the detective who has just discovered your police chief paying off a mobster. If anything, you had expected to find the mobster paying off someone in the police department, not vice versa.

In that chapter, we discussed this kind of mystery as something that can motivate a player to continue on through the game. Let's go further and see how we can take some of the story elements here and Complexify them.

In this example, we've Complexified not just "spying," but also "good guys and bad guys."

For as the game goes on, things will only get more complex regarding these two characters you're observing. You'll learn, in the following order:

  1. That the city government had lost a fortune by purposely overpaying contractors on some city construction projects with kickbacks going to the top government officials who hired the contractors.

  2. Because of that corruption, now the city is broke. So the mayor and city council intend to save money by cutting the size of the police force which would be a disaster for the citizens. Another reason they're doing this is to punish the police chief (the one you're spying on), because he was investigating the corruption in city government.

  3. To keep the police force at its current size, the police chief has decided to manufacture an "emergency" that will make his force seem obviously needed so that the public will rally behind him. So he's paying this mob boss to engineer a riot that the police force will then come in and quell.

  4. The chief feels terrible about this, but he's doing it for the greater good that is, for the citizens.

  5. The mobster who is taking the money has made a trade. For helping engineer the riot, the cops will leave his group alone for three years.

  6. However, even with that arrangement, the mobster is disgusted by this deal. He has always taken pride that, in all his thefts, control of unions, and fights with other crime organizations, the citizens of the city haven't been physically harmed. But, in starting this riot, innocents stand a chance of being injured. This goes against everything he stands for.

This is our unfolding list of Reveals. By the time you, the player, have learned all of them, you'd see that the situation here is anything but black and white. Who are the good guys? The bad guys? You might, at the end of the day, put all the characters in the game somewhere on a scale from good to bad, but certainly the people and the situations are emotionally and morally complex.

Who would you fight in the game? At different times you might fight some friends of the police chief the mobster and his men and the mayor and his bodyguards. Alliances will continue to shift as you gain information and continually reassess who is good and who is bad.

Creating Emotion in Games. The Craft and Art of Emotioneering
Creating Emotion in Games: The Craft and Art of Emotioneering
ISBN: 1592730078
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 394

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