Thursday, June 24, 2010

Seq.Breaker Dev Journal # 8

One of my stated goals in making the game that's now called Seq.Breaker is to provide a stronger narrative context for the gameplay. By this I don't mean that there's going to be some kind of knotty plot to unravel with a bunch of twists and turns and double-crosses, but that I want to use the tools of narrative-- dialogue, characterization, humour, world-building-- to imbue the setting with a greater sense of life and verisimilitude, and to build up one particular narrative thread to help keep the player motivated.

That thread is the question of what happened to the protagonist's husband during her mission to "the colonies"-- a mission that was otherwise such an unqualified success that she's famous in her field, considered to be at the absolute top of her game, even as a gnawing sense of personal failure and loss prevents her from enjoying that success.

I wanted the player character to be famous and successful because I thought that would give the player a subtle sense of empowerment. You're no neophyte getting your hand held through a tutorial, you're a competent professional specializing in creative solutions to dangerous problems. When the help character for the first mission butts in, he's very aware of how unnecessary he really is, and that feeds into his nervous personality-- always apologizing and second-guessing himself, lacking the confidence that, it is implied, the player has in spades.

The problem is there's a degree to which this is amusing and a degree to which it really isn't, a degree to which his constant apologizing grates on the player's nerves and seems to violate the integrity of the fiction: why would a super-star sequence breaker be working with such a nervous, redundant scanner?

Another problem with this set-up is that that narrative thread-- what happened to her husband on the colonies?-- might excite the player's curiosity, but it doesn't give the player a compelling reason to play the game the way it's meant to be played. There's a reason, after all, why the game is called Seq.Breaker. The whole point is to encourage the player to engage in meta-gaming, and if that central mystery of what happened is answered regardless of whether you adhere to the sequence of break it, there's not really any incentive to engage in the kind of thinking that would break the sequence. This is a major problem that needs to be fixed.

And so, I've done a great deal of rethinking about that narrative thread and the player's position in the game's world. The game now begins a year after the colonies mission. Far from being her greatest success, it is now her most daunting failure, both personally and professionally-- the first such failure in what was once a supremely promising career. No matter how she tried, she just could not break the sequence-- and her husband dies as a result. Her colleagues, for the most part, are sympathetic, and in the time since, many scanners and breakers have looked at the colonies mission and found that they, too, were unable to think of a way to break the sequence. Still, she blames herself.

At the game's start, she is embarking on her first mission in a year: she's a bit rusty and unsure of herself. She knows she has the skills and brain-power to do the work and is eager to prove it to herself and others; she's eager to throw herself in her work to distract herself from her loneliness.

So, now, the first mission has two characters with something to prove, two characters who are slightly unsure of themselves. Her scanner is still nervous, still anxious, but now he seems more helpful, seems like he relates to her more. Her journey is his journey.

And when we finally do see the colonies mission, it's been built up as something that's daunting and impossible. There's no way to break this sequence, the player is told, no way to save the life of her husband. Which, in a game that's explicitly about sequence breaking, is an implicit challenge, a dare. Now the player has a reason to think outside the box, a reason to meta-game.

I'm much happier with this new narrative context; it's one that's tied more closely to the game's central gameplay idea.

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