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Story Design Tips: Allowing the Player to ‘Waste Time’

Is it good or bad for your story if the player wastes time?

A Question about Timing

About two months ago, I wrote in this space three articles about the basic rules of timing when coming to design the story for a game, ending with a fourth about 10 Timing Don’ts.

One of the readers, Jacob Rummelhart, asked in the comments:

I've been thinking about the first few points recently.

When planning out a game, I feel inclined to leave spaces in between story events that give the player some time to "just play the game"; interact with the mechanics, explore the world, etc. In terms of furthering the story, it's a black hole, as you said. It creates a disconnect, when the player should be doing something important -- like rescuing a princess or something -- but ends up searching for treasure chests instead.

Do you have any advice on how to write for "down time"? Hopefully I can avoid the situation where nothing is happening, but sometimes I'm unsure of how to lower the tension without it feeling contrived. It may have been covered in an earlier post of yours, but I can't recall.

As usual, thanks for the great articles!

It was such a good question, I wanted to give it the full attention it deserved with a Story Design Tips column and not just a comment.

How to Design ‘Down Time’

First of all, as I said in the 10 Timing Don’ts rules, you must at all costs avoid in your mind the concept of ‘down time’. There’s no real ‘down time’ if you want to keep the plot moving, there’s only something that looks like ‘down time’. Here are the three Down Time Rules that allow you to let the player explore without having your story break down.

Down Time Rule #1: Have a clock ticking in the background

For example, the player can roam around, but if he doesn’t get to his spaceship soon, it will leave without him. Or another character has left the scene to warn the chief of police about what the character is doing. The character can do anything he wants, but in the back of his mind he knows he has only enough time until the chief returns with the police… unless he finds something to do that can stop him.

Down Time Rule #2: The Player Must Always Have a Motive

If the player is given a motive, a task, something he’s required to do, then the rules of designing a new timing element in the game has begun. He can take his time doing it or take time to discover how to do it, but he needs to have been given the task.

Down Time Rule #3: Other Characters Must Have Motives

If the player is having ‘apparent down time’, but the characters he meets all have their own issues, agendas and little stories, then they have timing elements and ticking clocks that may eventually lead to explosions. The player still feels part of a story.

In Conclusion

These are the three rules that allow you to give the player a rest while maintaining the tension of a well-designed story. Without any of these options, the tension of your story will fall apart and your story will literally stop, as will the player’s interest in it.

[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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