Game Design Part 2 – The Plot Thickens

In my last article on game design I covered the importance of using the Bartle model to widen the appeal of your game to the various types of players that exist. This time around I’ll be looking at how to write the plot of a game, beginning with the standard insta-plot and then examining how this can be tweaked without plunging into the pitfalls that await those who try. Missed the first part? Not a problem, just click here to read it.

Mystery vs. The Insta-Plot

A little mystery certainly helps things along, as we don’t want to know exactly how the game will pan out right from the start. Plot twists and big reveals are all part of the fun but if you boil down any scenario to its vital essence then you are left with the same structure almost every time:

? Hero learns of Big Thing that needs to be resolved
? Hero sets out under-equipped and/or under-skilled
? Hero encounters many Small Things that are related to the Big Thing and need to be resolved in order to reach the Big Thing
? Hero gains the skills/level/equipment/soap-chewing capacity required to resolve the Big Thing by first resolving these Small Things
? Hero Resolves the Big Thing

This is such a standard requirement of a story that it doesn’t just apply to game design, although some genres such as martial arts movies add extremely little to this bare bones formula: You killed by family member/friend/teacher, I shall defeat you! Oh, I must kill all your guards and subordinates first? There, I have done it! In fact, by doing so, my Kung Fu has improved and is now stronger than yours. There I have killed you! I shall now meditate on what I have learned.

That plot was certainly good enough for every film throughout the early years of Jean-Claude Van Damme but even then there were tweaks to the formula. For example, in the early Van Damme films there was always a disabling injury as he faced the Big Thing, presenting one more Small Thing (and most importantly, an unexpected one) to overcome.

A Twist! Did You See it Coming?

Any plot that doesn’t follow this standard story is either highly innovative or deeply flawed, but it is the mystery that you add to the plot which keeps the interest of the player. Let’s add a layer to that by also stating that the mystery should itself be mysterious. In other words, it is important not to see the twist coming, or at the very least we should not be certain of the timing or nature of the twist until it is revealed, even if we suspect it.

You see, this is where Mr Van Damme’s writers got it wrong. My friends and I would purposely rent his films and sit down with beer and snacks before placing bets on his disabling injury in the final showdown. We had seen through the formula and knew that this plot twist was coming every single time, so we had invented our own entertainment in order to handle this lack of mystery by speculating on the only unknown feature: the exact nature of the injury. This is not good design.

To bringing this up to date, let’s look at Singularity; a recent game. I’ll not give away the ending for those who have not played it, but there was rather a large annoyance in that the reveal had happened right at the start of the game and it seemed as though the designers hoped that we had forgotten it so that it could be revealed all over again. Instead, it just resulted in frustration as the already obvious plot was further hammered home.

Not Another Boring Plot Section?!

Some games, like the Resident Evil or Fallout franchises make large sections of plot optional. As stated in my previous game design article: optional is good. Not every type of player is interested in the plot, so the ability to delve into it to a depth which suits the player is a great idea and these games handle this by placing notes and audio recordings throughout the game which add more back-story.

The danger with this approach is that even the players who are interested in reading every single plot detail may become frustrated if they can’t find a missing section of plot or if the order is not clear. Do you ensure that every note is found by making them obvious? Do you ensure that they can only be found in the correct order? Doing so can then make the game feel artificial, so it may be a better approach to take the discovery of plot away from the player to an extent, such as having an NPC (non-player character) doing the research on your behalf and offering to reveal the plot as you go, as Arkham Asylum did.

In this way you also avoid annoying the players who are only skimming the plot details in case there is vital information in there that will be required in order to progress.

Why am I Doing This? I Forget

Another consideration when designing the plot and coming up with a way to (optionally) reveal it, is that there is such a thing as too much mystery. The Big Thing that needs resolving at the end must be very clear to the player. Even if a plot twist changes the nature or identity of the Big Thing, the player must still believe that they know what they are trying to achieve at any given point.

Likewise, all Small Things along the way need to make sense and have an obvious connection to the Big Thing. If we take “The Thing” as an example (an old PS2 game with a very appropriate title) then I’ll freely admit that I lost all sight of my overall objectives on that game and often couldn’t remember why I needed to head to the various places that it told me were important, let alone see how they related to my forgotten overall objective. Eventually, I just stopped playing as I no longer cared.

My Plot Shall Break all Conventions… and Break The Game Too!

Now, maybe you are one of the many people out there who are cleverer than me. Maybe you don’t need to follow these guidelines for plotting out your game. If you can come up with a genuinely different plot structure to the above guidelines then you will undoubtedly be hailed as a genius… if it works. Be careful though.

Imagine if there was an evil wizard in a lovely dungeon with many small creatures of increasing difficulty before the showdown with the dragon and then the wizard himself.

You need the experience and items from the smaller creatures in order to tackle the dragon, let alone the wizard. Now, while it may be far wiser (and a very genuine departure from standard plot design) for the wizard to stand at the main entrance and double-team you with the aid of his pet dragon right as the game begins, it wouldn’t be a fun game. It’s just one of the many examples where realism is not the same as fun.

That said, a good game will compensate by providing a reason for the villain not doing this, such as Final Fantasy VII, where Sephiroth was still discovering his own powers and developing at the same time that you yourself were. Therefore, the final showdown could not have happened at the start. Perfect.


We’ve discussed the basic outline of most plots and seen how this can be best embellished with unforeseen twists. We’ve discussed ways to impart the information and also emphasised the importance of having clear goals. Finally, we’ve also touched on the dangers of being too innovative.

Having your plot conform to standard structures doesn’t make for a bad story, so don’t be afraid to use the basic framework when planning your tale. The plot is interesting to the players if the characters and events are interesting, so trying to add an unusual framework to the structure of the tale can be very hard to do without spoiling the whole game.

While new to game design, following the plot standard structure is your best way forward but hey, if you want to place the final boss at the start when it’ll kill all players with ease, or have the player weaken and lose abilities as they progress then maybe you’re just catering for a market niche that nobody else has spotted.

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