Something on a sunday #3: Structuring a story

A bit late. But still Sunday. I think we’re OK.

Today’s Thomas Was Alone dev post was a challenging one to come up with. In between Portal 2 and various holiday commitments, not an enormous amount has got done on the game. I’m also now away from the dev computer, so no chance of any further prototyping or art assets.

What I can do is give some thought to the structure of the game’s story.

I’m not trying to redefine game narratives here, neither am I attempting to take a really simple game and spoil it with branching conversations, epic cutscenes and metaphorical ponderings from a diverse cast of deep characters. That said, I’m asking players to sit and play this game for an hour or two, so there should be some kind of progression to the world and characters.

What went before

The narrative of the Flash prototype is simple. Thomas was alone, Thomas met some other characters and learned about friendship and cooperation, Thomas was no longer alone. That was fine, and for a short Flash game, absolutely adequate. It also left enough room for players to emote with the characters and scenario. I got loads of messages claiming the game was built as a training tool for project management, one guy was convinced it was a attempt to make a game based on Seinfeld (a show, I’m ashamed to say, I’ve never seen).

Adding an arc for Thomas

The problem with no friends > lots of friends is that it’s dull. There’s no drama there. The most common arc is ‘character is missing something > character overcomes obstacles to get it > character nearly loses it > character gets what they need in the end’

So applying that to Thomas, it becomes ‘Thomas was alone, Thomas began to make some friends, Thomas lost his friends, but won them back in the end and made even more.’

That’s better, and applies a slightly more interesting structure to events.


So why is Thomas alone? Why are other characters around, and why does he have trouble keeping them once he’s befriended them? At the same time, the minimalist art style means everything needs a story and context which fits.

So, avoiding a Science Lab presided over by a rouge robot, an alien invasion or a vengeful cop with nothing to lose, here are a couple of context ideas…

  • Maybe it’s a wizard of oz / alice in wonderland style ‘lost in a magic world’ story. Thomas wakes up in a strange place, and must befriend the locals in an attempt to get home. Meanwhile, a dangerous nemesis is chasing him down, kidnapping anyone who befriends him. In a final showdown, Thomas rescues his kidnapped friends from the big meanie.
  • Thomas is an AI, a minor program in a virtual world, who just achieved sentience via a coding aberration. He’s lonely, and begins to seek other programs in a similar state. An anti-virus system kicks in, turning his friends into enemies, but he manages to turn them back to his side and spread sentience across the network.

I really like the latter – it allows me to enjoy the abstract qualities of the aesthetic. I like the idea of representing the workings of a computer program as more akin to an infographic than a tron style glowing interface. It’s also a fun way to tell a story, with visual and text information appearing around the characters to explain their feelings and communicate gameplay concepts to the player.

The part about characters being ‘won back’ by the system while the player is effectively a virus trying to convert AIs to his side really appeals to me. A temporarily ‘evil’ ally can start acting on its ‘original programming’ following a predefined path or action. Could be fun.

Character reveals

The characters of the game (much like in the original prototype) are essentially mechanic reveals. The logical approach, therefore, is to space them out reasonably equally in the game, so there are frequent new abilities to mess around with.

This is muddied up a bit by the narrative (which calls for a period about 3/4 into the game where Tom isn’t making any new friends). At the same time, I want to be pulling characters out frequently – playing with more than three or four characters at a time would likely be overkill. Combinations of characters therefore encourage mechanics in and of themselves, meaning that new challenges can be frequently given to the player. The order of character introductions and pacing can be worked out during the challenge brainstorming stage.

Character stories

Each character will have a starting state, along with an end state. These simple stories of reversing fortunes wouldn’t be enough for the main character, but should layer up nicely on the ensemble. I already gave these some thought (see the character image in an earlier post) but will continue to fiddle to make them fit, and maybe inter-relate a bit more.

And so…

The following is the story treatment I think I’ll be going with. This may well change as I go forward, but it’s what’s in my head for now. Spoilers. 🙂

30 years ago, an experimental programmer created a computer environment, populated by self replicating, evolving AI lifeforms. Thomas was the first to achieve sentience. Alone in the computer, he seeks out other evolved AIs to relieve his loneliness. As negative aspects of the code begin to manifest in dark AIs actively seeking to destroy any sign of life, Thomas and his friends must race to the program’s core to unleash sentience and bring the world to flourishing, beautiful life!

Right, that feels like a decent chunk of thinking done. Back to the chocolate 🙂


4 Responses to “Something on a sunday #3: Structuring a story”

  1. Dr. Mike Reddy Says:

    This is reminiscent of Systems Twighlight (not a bad thing) in plot terms if in no other way. And is a classic hero’s journey. And, of course, follows the story arc of Darwinia. So, I for one think you are on to a winner here.

  2. mikebithell Says:

    hehe, I need to check out systems twilight.

    Yep, Darwinia is an obvious parallel. I guess it takes place as sort of a prequel there, the moment that life actually sprung into being inside a computer. If a sentient agent appeared in a computer, would the existing system see it as a threat?

    And you’re right, it’s a classic hero narrative (should have name checked that). It’s also a story of revolution I suppose, that might be an interesting aspect to explore further.

    Thanks for the comment Mike.

  3. Matthew Pekarek Says:

    I really like the plot idea so far, but how do you plan to present the plot. I understand that the style of the game is very understated so do you have a narrative device in mind to present the plot without breaking the atmosphere, or are you going to have to resort to some sort of opening cut-scene? I hope you can come up with something innovative, because the more I play games, the more I hate cutscenes, and the more I love Valve’s style of game storytelling. Also, do you think it would be possible to release the game early enough that it doesn’t conflict with the launch of Episode 3?

    • mikebithell Says:

      plot will be communicated mostly through text, colour and a little light scripted animation. Gameplay comes first in Thomas Was Alone, but hopefully the tone set out in this story will set a good backdrop.

      Ultimately, I’m treating the creation of this game as a process of ongoing experimentation, I look forward to working out how best to tell a compelling story without sacrificing the player’s puzzle solving fun.

      Cheers for the comment, and watch this space 🙂

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