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Story Design Tips: 6 Ways to Be Subversive without Anyone Noticing

Want to get some things under the radar? Here’s how.

Games Can Be So Much More

Stories in games today are immersive. You take the player and you sink him into an world and story from which his subconscious may not emerge even when he sleeps. You have an opportunity to create art, not just games. You can get to influence, to change, to add. That’s what art does.

We already talked about the effect games have over players, whether you, the story designers, know it or not. The thing is, there are many ways to touch players. When you take the next step and turn your game into art, you also have to break a few eggs.

You expose truths, you want to expand your players’ opinions, understanding, knowledge, thought, breadth. The problem is that games are a business. You have to show a profit, so you can’t really risk alienating your audience. But you don’t have to. There are old and proven ways to be subversive without anyone catching on.

6 Ways to Be Subversive without Anyone Noticing

1)      Say what you want, then take it back.

The thing is, that we’re not dealing with propaganda. Nothing you say, no matter how subversive or logical, will cause your readers to believe it and continue believing it, unless they already do. Only very rarely can you actually convince anyone of anything and make it stick, and the trick to that is saying something at the right time (when people are ready to hear it) rather than how you say it. All you can do is get the idea across, introduce it, and plant a seed in the players’ minds.

That’s it and that’s all.

One of the old and tested ways of doing it, is having a character say something accidentally, reach a conclusion accidentally, find a note by another character, and so on – and have the idea simply introduced into the world. Once you’re certain the players have heard and understood it, take it back. The characters didn’t mean it, obviously it’s not true, clearly that character has gone too far, etc.

Take it back. It doesn’t matter. It’s already out there in the world.  

2)      Have the ridiculous character say the things you want to say.

You can have a character that’s always wrong. Maybe he’s deranged. Maybe he’s a child who doesn’t know any better. Maybe he’s just stupid. There are many options.

Once you’ve established that this character is not to be believed, you can have him say anything and, even though he will say things that you mean, as long as you and the other characters around him will continue to treat him in the same manner, no one will be offended by what he says. And you’ll have gotten the seed of the idea across. In fact, for a split second, you can have the character make complete logical sense, as well, and then have him continue to act normally. Works every time.

3)      Have a character mirror the audience’s normal response.

When the character reveals his subversive ideas, have another character there who will be as shocked and horrified as the most conservative audience member you imagine. That character’s task is to be horrified by the other’s words or deeds. He will be shocked at every new aspect of the message that is revealed, and will take the stance of your most conservative audience member.

4)      Make the conclusion inescapable.

Suppose there’s a subversive conclusion you want the players to achieve, but you don’t want your game to offend. Make the characters reach the conclusion in spite of themselves. It’s the last place they wanted to get to, it’s the last thing they wanted to think, but suddenly here it is, inescapable.

Mirroring the audience’s responses, they will then have to deal with it. And, who knows, maybe you’ll take back the conclusion later. It doesn’t matter.

5)      Deny what you’re trying to say.

The best way to get an idea into someone’s head is to completely deny it. Any denial you hear is automatically inserted as truth into your head: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”. The first you do is imagine that he did. Suppose your neighbor comes to you in the street and says, “I didn’t see aliens on the roof last night. I didn’t. I swear I didn’t.” You automatically imagine aliens on the roof. “I didn’t steal anything,” will automatically get you thinking that person stole something.

Denying is usually a lot more effective that actually trying to convince someone something is true.   

6)      Write a happy ending.

A happy ending makes everything all right and the players supposedly forget everything bad that happened. But though they forget, the seed you planted is already there.

There are other ways to be subversive without being noticed, but they’re much more subtle and harder to do (like being ironic, and saying what the players want to hear in irony. If you do it right, those players won’t even hear the ironic tone. But it’s very hard to do right).

So what do you say? Shall we start using games to their fullest, artistic potential?

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A note: I still owe an answer to a reader’s question about timing. I promise to answer next week.

[If any of you have any questions for future Story Design Tips columns, please write them in the comments or send me an email to guyhasson at gmail dot com.]

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