Stem to Stern #1: Narrative/Gameplay Structure

I had originally planned on opening up my series of more informative posts with a big post on AI, but since I’ve been mostly doing dialogue and cinematic writing, I’ve been inspired to make a post about the game’s overall structure instead.


Let’s start by describing the game in the simplest and most basic way possible.  The gameplay involves me throwing a huge amount of writing and text at the player, and having them search for the important bits of information in there.  Unlike other adventure/mystery games, there aren’t many puzzles or problems that if you can’t solve, you’re stuck.  In WAID you always had access to everything you need.  If you felt up to it, you could always brute-force through the challenges of the game by triggering every single dialogue and dialogue branch.

The challenge is to find the hints I’ve scattered in order to figure out which character interactions will get you on the right track.  Of course, the non-vital dialogues are both an obstacle in that they obscure what you need, as well as a bonus in that they can flesh out the story and give further insight to the characters.

Let’s take a look at the structure of the previous “Why Am I Dead”.  There is a wide body of what I refer to as ambient dialogue: the sum of dialogue which obscures the way forward.  There are also smaller pieces of story dialogue which are actually needed to trigger the ending of the game.  The way the game was structured, it could take you hours to finish it, or two minutes.


How does this structure look for a longer game, though?  I would certainly like “Why Am I Dead At Sea” to last longer than that, whether “that” is two minutes or two hours.  So how do we make that happen?

There were two challenges that I saw going into this project.  Firstly, it seemed to me that a longer/larger game would run into the problem of overwhelming the player with far too much ambient dialogue far too quickly.  As it was, the original WAID wasn’t extremely navigable and could bring the player down time-consuming dead-ends.  Some people enjoyed this, but some did not!

And secondly, for a larger story I would want time to pass as the plot moves forward – that is, things would have to be a bit more sequential in order to make sure there was some plot.  In the previous WAID nothing happens without player input except at the beginning and end, which was fine…but in this game that severely limits the kind of story I can tell!

So I decided I wanted to taper the beginning of the game, bringing the player into the ambient dialogue slowly.  I also wanted to cut up certain parts of the game into self-contained ‘chapters’, in which there was only one entrance and one exit, so that some modicum of stage-setting could be done.  The resulting structure for Why Am I Dead At Sea looks like this:

ImageThis is accomplished, admittedly with some awkwardness, by restraining who you can possess and where you can go at the beginning of the game.  For the first two major parts of the game there is a substantial amount of optional dialogue accessible, but not so much that the player is drowning in it.  Objectives are hopefully much more clear.  As each new character becomes available to possess, however, the amount of ambient dialogue also increases.

This also allows for that oldest of design tropes seen so often in LoZ dungeons – if there’s a new character you just unlocked, you can be confident you will have to use them pretty soon.  I wasn’t allowed to guide the player in this way before!


And just as importantly, having certain choke-points for the story allows me to do things such as have small periods of time pass, or move characters move around, and so on.  This isn’t trivial.  A weird thing about the last game was that, to preserve an interesting pace, characters had to spill their guts to each other very quickly, without knowing anything about each other!  It was possible to suspend disbelief, but definitely felt off.  This time around I want dialogue to feel more organic, which means at least the illusion of some time passing.

So that is, in a nutshell, the layout of the game.

3 thoughts on “Stem to Stern #1: Narrative/Gameplay Structure

  1. The thresholds/chapter separation was much needed in my opinion. I can’t comment on the exact execution of course, but keeping the experience tight at the beginning will affect how players perceive the additional freedoms later. Simply put, players might think of all the extra options as icing rather than cake.

    I saw both of these mentalities when I watched people play my candy jam game: The Saga of King Kersnuffle. The dialogue and progression was structured much like yours, but due to time constraints, I didn’t have time to bottleneck areas/chapters. As a result, many people understood the point of the game as aimlessly wondering and talking to npc’s rather than aimfully wandering and facilitating events. Hooray!

    On a different note, did you find a good way to keep track of all the dialogue? Personally, I found traditional word/notepad docs to be a kind of unwieldy way to keep track of dialogue.

    1. Yeah, allowing access to all of the game content at once makes it all less interesting as a whole, I think. The player’s sense of anticipation is lower, and there isn’t much you can “reward” them with when they progress.

      In practice, I’m very pleased with the bottle-necks I’ve imposed on the game and what they’ve allowed me to do with the progression of the story. It’s much easier to guide the player where they need to go, and I can make reasonable assumptions about what the player knows at any point. In the previous game, any particular conversation could technically be the very first one that the player triggers – so there was no way to write any sense of progression, and I had to be careful not to write in information that would render other dialogues redundant. While the player has less freedom in what they can do right out the gate, I have a lot more freedom in what I can make as a result.

      I saw the blog post about the game you’re talking about. It sounds like a tricky problem – you want to surprise the player with events they may not predict, but you also want to lead them to that event so they can be surprised in the first place! I guess in your case there wasn’t enough structure to guide the player through the linear parts, but I think sometimes it can be murky. Generally I’m not very good at predicting how much/little guidance a player needs to understand their objective and the direction they should go.

      As for the dialogue….text files are definitely unwieldy, but I’m not very good at using tools to stream-line things, so I have clung steadfast to them regardless! Vertical spacing is my best friend. That’s all I got.

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