Guest Article: Building Over the Frame (Pt. 1)   Leave a comment

Welcome back to Gratuitous JRPG. I am Nonfiltered, and I will be filling in for Epic Alphonse while he works on storyboards for the next part of the curriculum, so to speak. Since the idea of an update schedule going off the rails bothered me something fierce, I’ve offered to step in and write a bit on the end of the game-making process that Alphonse is less familiar with, the aspect of writing. While I’m not discrediting anything he wrote in earlier essays, and I will, in fact, assume you have read all of the relevant entries about plot and character building, I will be approaching things from some other angles that he hasn’t discussed. This is strictly more on the theorycrafting end of things, and the technical, more practical aspects will be addressed later by your regular writer.

The important words for today are theme and narrative. For the purposes of our discussion, the plot outlines discussed in previous entries are your who, where, and when. Narrative is the what of the tale, as it is where we tie the events of the plot to the character’s motivations and personalities. Likewise, theme is the why, as it takes the narrative, and gives it a larger meaning both to the characters and the player. Both of these are important, and with proper understanding of them, make even the most cookie cutter story stand out. Think about it like this: without the themes of the triumph of good in humanity and our ability to correct the mistakes of the past, and without the shared narrative of a variety of would-be heroes adventuring through the aeons and overcoming their weaknesses, Chrono Trigger is a game about a bunch of teenagers doing various historical figures’ chores, murdering an alien life form, and generally freaking out their ancestors and descendants.

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I’m not saying you should ever go that far, but it is pretty damn important.

Theme is the more immediate of the two, and nailing down the theme of the game, if any at all, is going to be direly important to later development. Now, it is worth noting that not having a theme at first isn’t the biggest concern. You’re almost always going to start a project like this with the idea of a character, or mechanics, or some world-building. I guarantee Yasumi Matsuno didn’t sit down to write Final Fantasy Tactics and start by proclaiming to the rest of the office, “I want to tell a story about the inaccuracy of history and class warfare!” Well, okay, maybe he did. The guy is eccentric. But my point is that at no point should you feel like you have to have a theme first, and trying to write to a theme immediately may constrain creativity.

Instead, what you might want to do is write out your basic framework of a plot, as was gone over in the earlier entries, and then examine these for an emerging theme. Does the cast have any particular major divides? The theme may be about the difference between them and the ability to come together in the face of a greater threat. Is the story about a hero who sets out to do heroic things? You might want to make it a meditation what makes someone truly a heroic or good person, or how heroism comes in all forms and shapes. Do you feel like the threat could be a metaphor for something? Work with that angle.

Example: My immediate idea for a game is to do a short game, perhaps maybe a dozen or so hours long, that is essentially a fantasy heist movie in an SRPG style. As I consider a few character concepts, a few thematic elements jump out at me: a have versus have-not society is a given and I make note to have the cast come from a variety of walks of life, and the matter of trust and honor among criminals also sounds interesting. Lastly because it’s a heist story, I keep in mind that things can and do go wrong, and adaptability is sometimes more important than experience. I note these down and continue.

If this doesn’t seem to be working, then consider turning inward and thinking about your own experiences and tastes. Have you ever felt you would approach something differently (not necessarily better) than how another game handled it? This could be your chance. Do you have personal experiences that you feel could have gaming analogues without cheapening them? A game as a platform for expanding social awareness can be done well, though it is difficult. Even matters of the abstract, such as a preference for good triumphing over evil, or a need to tell a story about questionable or outright bad people who ultimately did the right thing for the wrong reasons (ala Drakengard or NieR) can be enough of a theme to fuel a game.

Example, continued: Going from what I’ve extrapolated from my concepts, I decide to refine some of the themes. I toy with the idea of making this a social statement, and making a lot of the narrative question who is precisely to blame for people turning to lives of crime. Ultimately, though, I feel largely uncomfortable writing about this in what should be a short, contained story, but I may try to touch on it. I do consider the relative longevity out of mechanical necessity that most RPG characters have, and how that won’t work at all in this case: the idea that life is cheap speaks to me. I decide to go with it.

Once your themes are isolated, you need to go back and examine how things work. Please note that this does not mean eliminate contradiction, but, rather, address it. And when you do address it, address it sincerely, and to a truly satisfactory degree. The only thing more frustrating than ignoring a problem is paying token lip-service to it. This may lead to something of a cascade of problems, where one question leads to another and another. Good. It’s far better to address this now as opposed to a few dozen hours into the work, when you realize that suddenly someone’s actions make no sense with the themes presented.

On the other hand, if you can’t solve a problem of theme not meshing with characters or story, you need to consider if the theme in question is actually the most accurate to your work, or if it’s entirely pertinent after all.  Ultimately, one of these has to win out, though, and it’s best to make changes now before things get any further along.  This is the biggest benefit of working in a team: you have people to bounce things off of.

And if you take away nothing else from this entry, remember this: just because you have a role on the team, does not mean you are infallible, or that your teammates opinions are not valuable. You are not a novelist, this is not your single, soul-scouring grand masterpiece. Games are inherently social, and multiple perspectives are direly important to the creative process behind them. Remember, Silent Hill 2, considered one of the high water marks of storytelling in games even thirteen years after its release, had it’s story pitched by a texture artist from the first game. Everyone has good ideas and bad, listen to them, and decide what works best for your project.

Example, continued: I’m happy with my themes: socioeconomic disparity, the importance of trust and honor in high-tension situations, the idea that life is cheap, and that plans never survive contact with the enemy. These inform a lot about potential characters and how the story is going to go. However, I’m a touch concerned with this: how do the characters have the money and contacts to go after some huge target in a world this messed up? I think for a bit, and note that at least one of the cast members will be a former soldier or cop, someone with some insider contacts and information, and that this may be the biggest heist the group has pulled, the one last, big job that will set them for life.

But if it’s the biggest heist the group has pulled, how can I have a perspective character, and how can they be expected to survive if everyone else is potentially on the chopping block? The first is simple enough: this may be the main character’s first big job, and he’s being brought on site because of his specialized skillset. I’m thinking they may be a safecracker, and this safe is too big to take with the group and too complicated to let the normal field agent handle. As to how he survives, I’ve got nothing immediately, other than making them a bit of a coward. This actually works with the theme of trust and honor, so for the time being, it’s noted down. If something better jumps out, or Alphonse has a better idea when I show this to him, we’ll see about replacing it. For now, though, I feel like my themes are well-suited to this.

And that brings us to the end of examining and selecting thematic elements for our game. There’s more to them, but until we have more than a concept to go on, we’re done. Join me next time when we’ll consider characters, and then combine them to come up with our narrative.

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Posted August 26, 2013 by EpicAlphonse in Uncategorized

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