Games with stories are getting better and better.
The better the stories, the better these games.
Storytellers have been honing their craft for thousands of years and passing their knowledge from generation to generation. There is much to learn from their experience and knowledge about building suspense, creating new worlds, characterization, dialogue, surprises, twists, mysteries, genres, depth of story, satisfying endings, and more.
In this blog I mean to share some of the secrets and techniques of storytelling, both basic and advanced, that would be relevant to gaming.
Today we're going to talk about creating a mystery within a mystery.
Let's define 'A mystery within a mystery'. When the player begins the game there is a mystery he must solve (Who is in charge of this futuristic society? Who stole the car? Who is the new crime boss? Who wants to kill the president? Who killed my wife? Why is my dead wife back? Etc.) When the player puts a couple of clues together, the solution reveals an even greater mystery. With each revelation, the mystery is not solved, but becomes more complex, revealing more wheels within wheels. Until, of course, the satisfying ending which solves all mysteries.
It is your task, as someone who is designing the story of the game, to create a mystery within a mystery. Here's what you can do in seven steps.
Step #1: Decide on your endgame.
Find your ultimate endgame: What is the final resolution to the mystery? What is the ultimate mystery?
When you seek your ultimate solution, don't worry about how big the payoff is going to be. If you create the mysteries following these steps, the payoff is going to take care of itself more than 90 percent of the time. Other times you'll just have to do a second or third draft. It shouldn't be too difficult.
To make things easier, I'll generate an example which I will explore during each of these steps. In it, I'll be building part of a plot to an imaginary game.
Example: The task in this step is to find the ultimate endgame in this new game. Here it is: It turns out the president of the US is an alien.
Now let's build the mystery.
Step #2: Make a list of possible avenues of game/story.
Now that you've decided on the big reveal, make a list of the different avenues this could take you, in both story and game. Erase avenues you don't want to explore.
Example: Our reveal is that the president is an alien. Here's a short list with one item crossed out:
- 1. There is an alien invasion coming, and the president is signaling the aliens to come.
- 2. The president is secretly sabotaging the military, making sure it's unprepared for the invasion.
- 3. There is going to be a war of aliens vs. humans.
- 4. The previous president of this administration was assassinated by an alien in order to allow the disguised alien vice president to rise to power.
- 5. Aliens eat humans. The president eats humans.
- 6. The president's body guards (or closest advisors) are also alien.
A war between aliens and humans, suggested in item 3, would be really cool for our game. Supposedly, we can't actually have it because the big reveal comes at the end. If we stop the alien president from starting the invasion at the end of the game, no one will be fighting the aliens. But we're writing the plot, aren't we? Without changing the big reveal, let's put some aliens on the ground already, and have them battle our hero or heroes before the big reveal. In fact, let's have the army of aliens on Earth be almost undefeatable as it is. That way, during the reveal, we'll realize that the real invading force, a thousand times greater than what the player has fought, would surely annihilate Earth. Thus, destroying the president and his plan would win the war as a final step in the story.
Step #3: Repeat the previous process at the lower level.
You have a list. Now make a list for each of the times on the list that you didn't cross out.
As before, the list should contain all avenues of story or game that result from each of the items on the list. Cross out options you do not like.
When creating this new list, never allude to the tier above you (in this case, that the president is an alien).
Example: To keep our example short and manageable, let's pick only one item from the list we created during step #2's:
There would be a war between aliens and humans.
- 1. We already decided there are aliens on the ground, so there are alien sleeper cells everywhere.
- 2. Aliens are seeking some kind of rare metal X, which exists on Earth in abundance. They mean to strip Earth of it, and leave it barren.
- 3. The first aliens came here thousands of years ago, to explore the land and report back.
- 4. Aliens and humans are already fighting in the streets.
When writing these items, you'll find that each one is either a revelation in and of itself (from the perspective of a player who has not yet played the game all the way through) or a game-changer. But we'll get to that.
Step #4: Repeat process at lower levels until reaching the desired level of complexity.
Again, make a list for most of the items in each of your new, second-tier lists.
Once you've done that, repeat the process for many of the items in each of the new, third-tier lists. The further down you go, the more items you can skip.
Repeat this process until you've reached a level of complexity that fits your needs.
To keep the example short, I'll only pick only one item.
The first aliens came here thousands of years ago, to explore the land and report back.
- 1. There are skeletons of aliens to be discovered in rocks.
- 2. There is one alien old enough that survived and seen the last two thousand years.
- 3. There are stories and legends of strange creatures that walked the land. Even more, there are stories of those who had captured such a creature.
- 4. There are remnants of machines buried deep underground, perhaps some even work in underground caves.
In our example, let's go down one more level before we start building our story from the ground up. Again, I'm only choosing one item. When designing a game, you need to repeat this process for all relevant items. Here is only one item from the last tier:
There are skeletons of aliens to be discovered in the rocks.
- 1. A geological team discovers ancient remains of aliens.
- 2. In trying to hide their presence from humans, a cell of aliens kills the geologists.
- 3. Only one survivor remains, carrying the evidence of what was discovered and where it was discovered. She is not a geologist, but a courier, carrying a package of info sent by the geologists.
- 4. The aliens should now be after the courier.
We will stop at this tier, with the present level of complexity, and move on to the next step.
Step #5: Design the reveals.
Designing the reveals means that you are now beginning at the lowest tier and working your way up. Your hero will begin at one of the items at the lowest tier, and not be able to see that there is an entire network of things to be discovered. Now build the plot so as to guide your hero from one item to the next on the same tier, slowly climbing up to reveal the big reveal of that stage: the title of the list you were working on.
If you work each stage as if this is the most important mystery and solving it would solve almost everything, each reveal will lead to a greater mystery and a change of gameplay.
Our example has only a small part of the lists we need to make, but let's try to build a plot with what we have:
Crime is rampant in the streets. Our hero is a police detective who finally gets a simple job, out of town. Five geologists have been murdered. Go and find out what happened.
The game begins as a simple mystery.
The player discovers that not only are they dead, but all their belongings have been ransacked, and all their information erased. They must have stumbled on to something big.
As the player explores this, he realizes he's being followed. He can't pin down exactly by whom. One moment his 'shadow' is there, the next he isn't.
Another clue reveals that there is one piece of information the murder/s missed: the geologists sent their findings through a simple courier. The player needs to find the courier. However, an instant later, he realizes that the paper he had just put down, the one with the info about the courier, is gone. His shadow must have taken it!
Did you notice? This small reveal leads to more questions, not to a closed solution. It also leads to a game change: Now it's a race against time, the player against an unknown killer, for the life of the courier and the information she holds in her hands.
During this race, the player discovers he is racing against a lethal alien. (Did you notice? This solution leads to more questions, not to a closed solution.)
Next, the player saves the girl. Some of the information was lost in battle, but one piece remains: the location of caves. (Another solution that will lead to more discovery. Also: we've jumped up one tier.) The player and the courier go to explore the caves.
Now let's pause: Next on our list, as we climb up the tiers, is the reveal that aliens have been here for thousands of years. But anyone buying the game would know they would be fighting aliens, so that reveal would be a dud. Let's change that reveal to something that would be helpful.
The player and the girl explore the caves, discover ancient alien machinery as well as alien bones. Either through a battle with more aliens or by piecing together the puzzles on the walls and in the machinery the player discovers: There is an alien invasion in progress, and only the player and the courier know about it.
Again, having built the lists resulted in an answer that reveals greater wheels within wheels rather than ending the mystery. In addition, learning that there is already an alien invasion helps us with a bigger reveal later on, that there is an alien invasion coming. The unstoppable force of aliens the player will be fighting is not the invasion, the real invasion is coming up and it is far, far worse. To paraphrase Crocodile Dundee: "You call that an invasion? That's not an invasion. This is an invasion!"
Step #6: Mix and match.
When building the game's story, don't work only one subject up the tiers. Mix and match from the same tiers on different lists. That way, there are more mysteries, your world is much richer, and there are more reveals to be discovered. It will feel like wheels within wheels within wheels.
Let's continue to build this plot, but skip over to another tier.
Remember the president was trying to sabotage the military? There are a few ways to do that, which our list would have included. One would be to actually sabotage machinery. Another would be to sink the US military into a war that would kill most of its soldiers, deplete its resources, and destroy its best weapons, planes, tanks, etc. We'll choose to pursue this avenue.
Continuing to build our game, the girl and the player are on the run and have a secret that must be delivered to the president. Still, they can't call and say, "I've found aliens." The girl has an uncle who's a general and lives nearby. Convince him, and he'll convince the president.
The two go to him, but the aliens are in pursuit, seeking to keep their secret hidden. In the battle, the general is killed, but not before putting the player (and maybe the girl) on a plane in a last-minute escape. The plane won't stop until reaching Whereverstan, the country in which the war is held.
Now the player must get the US military to either win or stop fighting, so that it could direct its might against the alien invasion. The player will battle the enemy and aliens simultaneously, sometimes with the aid of the US military, sometimes against it. Again, the game has changed, and climbing up the tiers has led to more avenues to explore and to a greater battle. This works almost every time if you create your lists properly and follow the rules.
Now let's skip ahead. We don't have all our lists, but even from what we do have we know the player still needs to: uncover alien sleeper cells, discover that the reason for war was not what everyone thought it was, and discover that aliens can disguise themselves as humans and that some of the president's staff are actually aliens in disguise and that if the president does anything to stop the war he'll be killed (that's what the player thinks, it's not the truth). The player must also defeat an ever-growing army of aliens. Once he has defeated them and killed the president's guards, bleeding, wounded and exhausted the player stands face to face with the president.
The president then reveals that there is an even greater invading force, an unstoppable one. To make things worse, he reveals his own identity and his role in the plot. The player must kill the president in such a way that makes him call off the invading army and/or blow it up using alien technology.
Remember, as you're building the story from the ground up, to treat each mystery of the story as if it's the most important one. Solving it would solve everything. Do not hint that there are bigger things at play until you get to them.
Step #7: Bury clues at the outset.
A mystery is most beautiful and a payoff is greatest when the player discovers that the clues were there in front of his eyes since the very beginning. These clues must always be obvious in retrospect, but never obvious before the big reveal.
Example: We mentioned that the previous president was assassinated, so that the alien vice president would take over. Let's find a way to put the information about the assassination in the story, without the player suspecting that there was something behind it.
The solution is to bury this clue among a sea of other information that is given in order to make another point.
Specifically, this clue could be buried in the intro clip which is giving the atmosphere of the game: The US is going to hell in a hand basket and crime is rampant. It all began with the assassination of the US president, and now no one feels protected. Fear and disorder is everywhere: stores being looted, crime in the streets, the police is on the take, gangs rule the cities, etc.
The intro clip showed a couple of seconds from each of these, including the assassination. The assassination would later become important, but right now it feels like background.
I hope you've gotten a glimpse of how a mystery within a mystery can be created.
If structured correctly, the player finds himself inside a highly intricate and exciting story that keeps him guessing from beginning to end.