In the previous part of my new feature on episodic design, I demonstrated with a practical example how episodic storytelling can be adapted to a true action-laden shooter game and improve it.
I will now do the same with another popular genre, open world games. GTA, Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed are among the best sellers. Even if they feature a multiplayer mode, they are essentially story-driven, one-player games. What are their other main features? Their world is interesting, and highly detailed, they all feature a main character with whom we may empathize (think of Red Dead Redemption), exotic and endearing secondary characters and, last but not least, an immense freedom of action. Those games are built around a linear story arch but numerous secondary missions are available as well.
However, these games suffer from a weakness: Their gameplay structure tends to repeat itself, over and over, from one game to the other. In other words, the themes change but the player’s experience is the same. Furthermore, they are so expensive and complex to develop that few publishers take the risk of developing them or modifying their format.
The game concept I am about to present now is built on the strengths of open worlds design but uses episodic narration 1) to build a new player experience and 2) to smooth development costs.
The game world
The year is 1760, we are in Nouvelle France, in this province that, one day, will be called Québec. Nouvelle France belongs to the kingdom of France but is bitterly contested by English troops. 1760 is an important year; it is during that year that the Montreal fortress and city will fall to the hands of the English troops, marking the end of the French sovereignty in this part of the world.
What if history could be changed? In this game concept, I offer the possibility to live in this historical period and, maybe, to change the course of time.
French settlers and English troops were not the only concerned parties: This territory is also the land of its first inhabitants: Iroquois, Algonquins, Huron-Wendats and many more. Furthermore, in this savage frontier of distant Europe, other communities are also trying to survive and thrive: Renegades, traffickers, former convicts. Let’s call them pirates. You understand that this is not exactly historic reality but I need a fourth faction for the sake of storytelling.
Why have I chosen this theme?
First, I want to move away from overly used themes such as heroic-fantasy or space opera. Both of those themes are great but they have been used so often and, most of the time, without great creativity. As a result, they have lost most of their appeal. That’s an issue because a novel and well-crafted game context is a powerful means to attract player’s and media attention.
Second, it allows me to stage for different factions in the same environment: The French and English factions feature military strength, Native Americans can use their outstanding knowledge of their land and the pirates offer a mix of strength and mobility. Furthermore, all factions are guided by conflicting interests. However, alliances are possible. Thus, the French settlers, that were less powerful than the English expeditionary corps, had forged alliances with some local tribes.
Third, the terrain itself is interesting. It is quite diversified: deep forests, creeks, caves, villages, forts, harbors. It allows for interesting infiltration and ambush gameplays. Those of you that have played Hidden & Dangerous games will understand why. Rivers are also interesting because they make it possible for small ships to bring inland their firepower.
Last, the historical context could draw the attention of a large share of North American audience, the largest market for home consoles.
Game structure and narrative arches
Let’s see now one of the unique points of this concept: Each episode focuses on one of the four factions. The player can experience the conflict from different perspectives. In each episode, he plays a character that is representative of its faction. The player discovers their way of life, their values, their hopes and doubts but, most importantly, their strategic objectives. As you’ll see later, I am using the word “strategic” with a real purpose.
For the French settlers, their objective is to inflict the maximum damage to the English troops in order to weaken them before they launch the final battle against Montreal.
For the English expeditionary force, the objective is to conquer and control as much territory as possible before the final assault. The more territory they control, the less “bad” surprises they’ll have then.
The Native Americans are stuck in the middle. Their objective is to weaken both sides in the hope that it will allow them to regain the upper hand.
Lastly, the objective of the pirates is to amass as much wealth as they can and to lose as few men as possible.
The success of each faction is illustrated by a score. When playing a given faction, the player will attempt to improve that score, either by completing missions or by taking the right decisions during tactical or dialog phases.
Then, in the last episode, the player could play any of the four characters but the factions’ scores will have an impact on the flow of events and the difficulty levels in the main missions. For instance, if the English faction got a mediocre score because French and Native Americans were successful, it will be more difficult to take over Montreal but the player will always be free to play the episode dedicated to the English faction in order to improve its score.
For the sake of simplicity, all episodes offer the same combat gameplay, either in first or third person perspective, but with specific variations to each faction.
Thus, gameplay for the English faction focuses on medium to short range combat and the player commands a squad. The player will essentially play offensive missions.
The gameplay for the French faction is defensive. It focuses on long and short-range combat. It also includes diplomatic options that allows the player to benefit from the temporary help of the Native Americans.
For the Native Americans, their gameplay rests on stealth, swimming and trap-laying. The player will need to use those skills to ambush opponents equipped with better weaponry.
Lastly, the player that controls the pirates’ faction will use his ship to launch surprise and devastating attacks along rivers thanks to his powerful artillery. Attacks will have to be swift and well-planned because pirates are largely outnumbered.
Those different gameplays will make it possible to renew significantly the player’s experience while using over gameplays developed for the previous episodes.
In the episode dedicated to the English faction, the player will control a young and idealistic officer convinced he is embarked on a mission to bring all the goodness of European civilization to the new world. He will soon realize that the reality of a colonial war is far from the ideals of the Enlightenment. What choices will the player make? To blindly support his camp or to stay true to his humanistic principles?
The French main character does not come from the same social class. He is a modest settler living from his hunting and fishing. He has learned to love this land and its native inhabitants, in particular, one of them: the daughter of an influent warrior in a local tribe. When the conflict with the English troops gets bitter, he is enrolled in a French militia where the skills with a rifle turns him into a precious marksman. But his close relationship with the Native Americans have also attracted the interest of French officers that task him to coax them and get them involved in the fight. In spite of their good relationship with him, the Native Americans are suspicious of him and the player will face a difficult choice: To support his faction at all cost or to protect the tribe from possible retaliation?
Understanding that the war between the French and the English forces is an opportunity to slow down, or even to stop the colonization of his land, the chief of a tribe decides to manipulate them to their mutual destruction. The player controls a warrior that advises the tribe chief and it is with him that he will forge alliances and stage betrayals. But, he is also the father of a daughter that is in love with one of those “invaders”. Can a father sacrifice the happiness of his own children?
What about the last faction, the pirates? Its main protagonist is the youngest son of a British noble family against whom he rebelled. Looking for adventure, he left for the English colonies in America but hunger drove him to join a riffraff crew that became sea outlaws. His life could remain careless until he discovers that his own brother is part of a naval force tasked to protect English outposts and to take over the rest of the territory from the French. When he will face him, will he listen to his family ties?
The main narrative arch of each episode is built around one main character. Don’t forget that characters are one of the success factors of series. By building the story around one, the player has the time to discover the life and the issues. Furthermore, each character’s personal objectives are designed to collide with the interests of its own faction. Thus, we create highly conflictual situations where the player has to make difficult choices. Telltales games have demonstrated how gratifying for the players it can be.
The use of a specific character associated with each faction allows us to build diversified narrative arches and to use a main character in an episode as a secondary one in another episode.
Since most characters, main or secondary ones, will come across, help or, fight each other, it is easy to conclude each episode with effective cliffhangers and to add secondary narrative arches that will drive the sales of latter episodes.
The last episode links them all because the victory conditions of each faction will result from the performances and choices of the player in each previous episode. And since that last episode can be played from the perspective of the four main characters, we offer good replayability, a rare feature for story-driven linear games.
Lastly, if this first season is a success, new episodes could be planned. They could focus on individual characters, main or secondary, as what Disney is planning with his movies dedicated to key figures of the Star Wars saga.
To conclude …
With my two examples, I am trying to demonstrate that it is possible to combine the best of episodic design with mainstream gameplays. I also want to showcase how episodic narration can actually improve the player’s experience.
My previous publications on episodic design:
The design of episodic games (part 1)
The design of episodic games (part 2)
The design of episodic games (part 3)
Interested in my master classes? Contact me at [email protected]