How I Design: Returning to the Moment (Finale)

Previous entries, for a refresher:

Part 1: Worldbuilding

Part 2: The Chapter

Part 3: The Moment

Part 4: The Medium

Part 5: The Message

I’ve put together all the pieces of the scene, our player finally tracking down a rogue mage in Atlanta, working through mage gangs to do it. I want to talk briefly about the pieces of this sequence in-game, and then go piece by piece to talk about how I’d build it.

It might be a bit cliché to talk about the three-act structure, but it’s really important here. It’s a really solid, really familiar framework for pacing, and when we lack it in our entertainment, it makes that entertainment feel badly paced (often, it is!). We normally think of the three-act structure in terms of the overall story, but it scales to a variety of sizes, from the overall story itself to an individual scene, or level, in a game. Here’s how I’d apply the structure to the scene we’re setting up:

–Act 1: Exposition–

We don’t have a lot of exposition here, because we’ve (theoretically) set it up in the previous few hours of gameplay. We’ve communicated a lot up to this point, and this scene is the climax of the story arc. There are two types of exposition in a game: explicit and implicit. Explicit exposition is text you read, or spoken dialogue, or cutscenes, or mission briefs. It’s the moment where the player is aware that the game is telling them something. Implicit exposition is how we subtly suggest how the player should play, either how they should move through the space, what they should pay attention to, or how to defeat their enemies, using visual or nonverbal audio cues. When the music slowly ramps up before a major boss fight, that’s implicit exposition. When you see a skeleton on a strange-looking floor panel and realize there’s a trap there, that’s also implicit exposition. When you follow lights through a dark area to find where to go, that’s another form.

We don’t have a lot to set up here as far as explicit exposition goes, but we will have to set up the area. We’re going to want to establish the play space. Notably, I want there to be some dialogue with the rogue mage character, and I don’t want the player distracted by the space. A nearly-abandoned building at night in a bad part of town works really well here– I can have the player move deeper and deeper into this building as part of the setup, and then have to fight their way out with the rogue mage at their side. This gives me some time to work on the first impression for this character, and having her help out the player in a tense situation is a good way to establish that early.

Act 1 will be moving through the (relatively quiet) space, getting a feel for the layout and looking for the rogue mage. I want it to be tense but not actually dangerous– in fact, I’m really likely to have few if any enemies in the building proper, and the only things that might exist are environmental traps. The whole of Act 1 should take relatively little time– 5 minutes or so, because it’s going to be very low-action and dragging that out isn’t interesting.

I set up this segment last. All of the rest of it has to work first, so that I know what I’m setting up. The biggest part of this is planning out Acts 2 and 3 with my art team, then coming back to it. For me, a lot of this is running through the space over and over again, working out little details and planning out how long it takes to get from place to place. I’ll return to how I set this up once the other two acts are crystallized.

–Act 2: The Spark–

Act 2 is where things really get rolling. The transition from Act 1 to Act 2 should be the moment of weightlessness as the roller coaster crests the very first rise.

That transition moment is the first really touchy, really difficult segment of the sequence. If I’m working with cutscenes, that’s where I’m building one of them, and if I’m not, it’s where I’m setting up a heavily scripted sequence. The player isn’t getting out of this sequence without a fight, and I’m not interested in setting up the rogue mage as the boss of this area, because I need the player to like her for the next part of the game. We also need to wrap up her situation with the rival gang boss, which we can neatly do here– he’ll be our final encounter.

The transition moment is the moment where the player’s conversation with the rogue mage is cut off by the hideout being attacked– in this case by the rival gang boss. To play up her reputation and set up a more interesting scene, we’ll have the gang boss’ main ploy be burning down the building with you and her in it. If we want to be tricky, and depending on the tone of the game, we can have the main gang member that the player’s been dealing with have been the rival gang boss all along, but we run the risk of things being a little too pat when we do that. In a choice-heavy game, where the player might side against the rogue mage and take the gang boss as an ally instead, this might work.

Either way, our transition to Act 2 is the first shattering molotov cocktail against the building, or the activating sprinklers. I want a beat, for the player to realize along with the characters that everything is about to go very wrong, and then action ramps up quickly– “We have to get out of here!”

I want this transition scene to be easily triggerable on the backend so that I can tweak the timing. I should be able to paste a single command and have it run so that I can see it and make tweaks, because it’ll need a LOT of work.

What we’re going to have here is the player moving in reverse through the space they just walked through, only with some noticable changes. I want the path back to be recognizable but blatantly different (in this case, largely on fire) and we can use environmental changes to alter the path– big patches of fire, collapsing hallways and stairwells, etc. A lot of this will get planned out with the level designer and artist(s), if they’re someone other than me, to figure out which rooms have the key encounters and where there will be slightly longer run-time segments to squeeze in a few lines of dialogue (hallways are good for this).

This is also where I want to plan out the enemies. I need the building to transition very quickly from quiet to burning down, and I want to play up the enemies a bit– cowardly is a theme. Fire elementals work well for this, syncing nicely with the environment and making a lot more sense than a bunch of gang members running into a burning building to make sure the occupants are dead.

This also gives us a lever to extend the sequence if it turns out we need more gameplay– if the fire elementals are coming from some sort of summoning apparatus hastily set up throughout the building, we can then have a secondary objective of disabling the summoning. If necessary, this also gives us a good way to characterize our rogue mage– she either doesn’t want to risk innocents or she thinks wasting time disabling summoning circles is a bad idea; we can communicate this in one or two lines of dialogue and, because it’s delivered in a high intensity situation, it will stick with the player a bit more.

The other technical detail that’s important here is how well the game engine supports active AI companions– this is often a nasty sticking point, and the way the sequence plays out relies on this bit of tech. It’s really important to know the limitations before going into something like this– we can spend days or weeks trying to get a sequence where the rogue mage follows along and fights with you to feel good and still fall short, or we can have a fantastic sequence where the mage is watching you on security cameras, having sent you to stop the attackers while she performs some other useful off-camera task. That last bit is important– we need the player to believe in the competence of the rogue mage for later on, and to make this whole story arc seem worthwhile, so we want her doing something valuable if she’s not fighting alongside the player, and if she *is* fighting alongside the player, the player should be glad to have her along. Getting this wrong is how you get a lot of famously terrible game characters, and having an experience shoehorned in that the game doesn’t support well sours the experience.

This is the most action-intensive sequence and will require the most playtesting. I HIGHLY recommend a checkpoint immediately as the action part of Act 2 starts, with possible extra checkpoints scattered after major encounters in the section (if it proves to be long). I personally spend quite a lot of time running around the space and visualizing combat to set up these sorts of sequences, so that I don’t find myself surprised when I go to set up fights in the space. I also like to plan for about 20-50% more combat space for discrete separate encounters than I think I need. Movement doesn’t take long and if there’s nothing doing in a given room I can use it for a dialogue line, and if I suddenly need to cram more combat into a full space, it makes the sequence feel long and tedious, because there isn’t constant forward motion.

–Act 3: Finale and Denoument–

At the end of the sequence, we drop the player off in a boss arena, where they’ll face off against the opposing gang leader and possibly henchmen. We’ve set up this characters specifically to be a throwaway boss, so fighting him here is payoff. He’s the representation of all of the frustrations the player has developed up to this point, and if we’ve delivered our story properly, we blame him for the rogue mage’s reticence to join our cause, rather than the rogue mage herself.

First off, if we haven’t already found something else for our rogue mage companion to do while we fight the boss, now’s a really good time. Unless we have truly top-notch companion AI, the complexity of a satisfying boss fight is going to clash badly with our rogue mage friend. However, one of the “alternative” things she can do is play a support role throughout the fight, either setting up traps for the boss or helping sustain the player through the fight. It’s a great way to showcase her abilities but not rely on the standard AI packages to control her. It adds a lot of complexity to the fight, though, as you’re now working to set up two entities (or more, if there are gang members) in sync. This will be the other major endeavor of the sequence, and will require a lot of fine-tuning to get right.

This is where testers are your best friends. You need people who aren’t you playing your boss fights, so that you can tell if they can figure them out and win. It’s trivially easy to make a boss fight players can’t win– it’s much harder to make one that they think they can’t win at first but actually can and do. It’s similar for me to GMing a tabletop game– you can kill your players easily in a tabletop RPG (“rocks fall, everyone dies”); the greater challenge is pushing them right to the brink but not quite over, unless they themselves slip and fall.

The specifics of scripting this sort of boss fight will differ with every game engine, but essentially I find it useful to script the boss in phases, getting each section of the fight working independently, whether that’s individual abilities or entire JRPG-style boss phases (or both, for sufficiently complicated bosses).

Having defeated the boss, there’s almost certainly going to be a brief payoff victory scene, which may wind up being expensive on the animation/FX/audio side, but is going to be fairly simple (or, at least, simpler than the previous poignant transition scene) on the design side.

After this scene, there’s a temptation to drop the players somewhere more useful than “right over the boss’ body”. I tend to think this isn’t a good idea unless there’s a really good story reason for it (at which point, the aforementioned post-boss scene is going to be a lot more complicated). I find that it makes the whole sequence feel better if you can run around in the area you just conquered to get a last look at it on your own terms before shuttling off to the next area. Sometimes this isn’t possible, and that’s fine, but whenever you can I think it’s a good idea to offer that in-world breather in a space where the player isn’t taking in new, potentially dangerous surroundings. If you do shuttle players off immediately, it’s a good idea to return them to a hub, or some familiar location: that moment of in-control calm to let your mind catch up with your reflexes is a very useful add.

With a few moments to look over the burned building, the defeated opponent, and our new rogue mage ally, we then take our own action to move forward and onto the next part of the story, like actively turning the page.

This whole sequence has a few notable Moments. The transition from Act 1 to Act 2, fleeing the burning building, the boss fight, and the final denoument are all Moments. This whole sequence probably takes about 20-30 minutes, depending on the size and complexity of the encounters, and has roughly four Moments, sections that players will remember.

A shorthand for it is this: Will players either put the scene on youtube or talk about it with their friends? If so, that’s a Moment, and you should make sure you’re pacing them appropriately. I mention the Act structure because it’s a very good fallback when you’re juggling a large number of things; it’s easy to lose your sense of pacing when you’re in the nuts and bolts of why an NPC won’t stand quite right during her dramatic monologue.

I hope this series has been fun or interesting to read. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments, I’ll see what I can do about answering them.

Source: Digital Initiative
How I Design: Returning to the Moment (Finale)

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