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Story Design Tips: wHen iS iT oKay tO bE iNconsistenT?

Consistency in story design is a virtue. But is there a loophole that allows us to be inconsistent?

We all know that in designing a story for our game, we have to make sure its rules are consistent. We must establish the story rules in the beginning and towards the middle, then follow through with those rules to the very end.

The rules of the game are the rules of the game, and we can't suddenly invent a new rule just because it's hard for us to stay within the rules. The player will feel cheated, and the story will feel as if it's not been made well enough.

But what if we don't feel like being completely consistent? What if we want to be rule breakers?

The rules of what makes up a good story have been around for thousands of years, and they've been tested repeatedly. They work. Whatever's outside them doesn't. And yet, is there a way to be a rule breaker and be inconsistent, while still remaining within the rules of having designed a good story?

There is absolutely a way. It's a loophole of a sort.

If you want to be inconsistent: do it. But be consistent about it. Here's the rule: If you want to be inconsistent, you have to be consistently inconsistent.

It sounds silly, but it actually works. Lovecraft's Cthulhu stories are a good example. An unknown god consistently performs inconsistent deeds, without any logic or reason that is apparent to any of the readers or the human characters in the story.

But because the god is consistent in his way (constantly being inconsistent), we the readers assume that there is a pattern to this god's behavior that we simply do not understand. He is a god; his logic is widely different than our own.

And yet the god's consistency leads us to believe that there is a logic behind his inconsistency. The stories are rewarding not because they're inconsistent, but because they're consistently inconsistent.

There are many ways to be inconsistent, and whichever one you choose, make sure to do it pretty much from the beginning in order to be consistent about it. Treat 'inconsistency' as just another rule of your world: establish it, play with it, let it progress, and bring it to a climax.

Take, as an example, another rule you shouldn't break: Deus ex machina. I assume you know that when you have some kind of fight or crisis, you probably shouldn't bring a sudden savior that nobody's seen or heard of to save the player's hide.

You should solve that crisis/fight with the weapons you have and the knowledge and items you've gained. It feels like a copout and lack of imagination on the side of the story designer to suddenly drop in something totally out of the blue.

However…

If you establish from the very first serious fight or crisis a Deus ex machina, and then continue to establish that with every fight or crisis a new surprising feature or player or savior or weapon is added to the game, then these are the rules of the game.

And now all you have to do is figure out how to have a totally fair showdown at the end that also takes into account this rule, while allowing the player to feel like he's the one who's beaten the game. You'll need to think about it, but there are many solutions to be found for this problem.

In conclusion

You want to be a rule breaker? Make a rule out of it, and treat it as a rule of the game.

You want to be inconsistent? Do it consistently, from the very beginning to the very end.

The structure of a story accepts many, many things. You just need to find the loopholes that allow you to do anything you want.

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