How I Design: The Message (Part 5)

I’ve talked thus far about the Medium, tailoring your experience to use the strengths of the medium it’s being presented in, rather than wasting effort and fidelity to struggle against your own presentation medium. A movie that tries to actively engage the audience tends to fall flat, whereas a stage production that ignores the audience entirely from curtain up to curtain drop is missing out on a strength of theatre as a medium. Mostly straightforward, hopefully.

Here, I’d like to talk about another important meta-concept for an experience: the Message. At a really high level, all entertainment is communication, and much like talking to someone, simply using fancy words or complex sentence structure or dramatic tone without any substance simply makes the audience confused at best. I find it very important to be aware of what I’m communicating, and how that message is coming through at any given point in the experience.

This isn’t necessarily about a moral, or a political statement, or any larger concept, although it can be. More often it’s about something much simpler — “this guy is the bad guy”, “this landscape is beautiful”, “this city is corrupt”. Often, there are several messages occurring simultaneously, and balancing them is important. You’ll occasionally see stories where the overarching “world is ending” plot is so overwhelming that it devours any other side-story that might occur, making those seem trivial. Alternately, when faced with a world-ending crisis, investigating a couple of people having a clandestine tryst seems trivial and unbelievable. Scale and pacing are important.

I like to establish messages on the Chapter and Moment levels, figuring out what (usually more complex thing) a Chapter is saying, and peppering Moments with simpler, more direct messages.

As an example, returning to the modern-supernatural mage gangs concept, and the Chapter I described, I might have messages that look something like this:

“There is a significant divide between trained, ‘official’ mages and the unlicensed hedge mages that make up mage gangs.”

“In the world of mage gangs, power is everything, and the power structure is volatile and prone to disruption.”

“Mage gang members tend to resent ‘official’ mages because their world revolves around power and is volatile, and the comparatively high power of trained mages to their untrained magic puts them at a severe disadvantage (and the rejection of their power-based structure by more powerful mages is akin to a rejection of their worldview).”

“Nonmagical people have a variety of effective means to deal with unlicensed, potentially dangerous untrained mages, which the mage-gangs have become more or less adept at avoiding but which remain a constant issue.”

At the Chapter level, these are fairly complex statements, which a variety of resources would be bent towards communicating. In some cases, actual NPC dialogue might communicate these, and the twists in the story and behavior of the opponents/environment might reinforce it. Others might simply be hinted at, if they’re not plot-centric, and left for the player to consider and discover on their own.

I’ll talk about Moments next, and the next in this series will talk primarily about crafting Moments, and the messages are an important part of them. The Moment I’d like to make is the point at which the player catches up to their target, the former licensed mage, gone rogue, who has thrown in with the mage-gangs. There are a variety of things I want to have communicated by this point:

“The rogue mage is highly dangerous and seemingly unpredictable.”

“The rogue mage’s gang is very powerful, but not the most powerful.”

“The rogue mage’s gang is the most organized of the powerful gangs, reflecting her background.”

The Moment relies on these messages being communicated properly, and understood by the player. In the moment, I want to communicate a few important details:

“The rogue mage is powerful and well-equipped, but desperate in the face of the opposing gang.”

“The rogue mage is reasonable, can be negotiated with, and has sensible motivations, but is entirely uncompromising on certain key points.”

“The rogue mage is very attached to Atlanta and is defending it from a greater danger that won’t be addressed by official channels.”

I’ll return to the Moment next time, and actually walk through constructing it, using everything I’ve set up thus far.

Source: Digital Initiative
How I Design: The Message (Part 5)

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