Plotting or Event Structure

Does the player feel that interesting things will happen in the future?

–Set up
––Tell the player something interesting is about to happen, and they’ll be excited now.
––Don’t build something up unless you can make it worth the wait.
––Events must have consequences to truly matter. Consequences should be set ups all of their own.

For respectability’s sake I named this Set Up, Payoff, Consequences. I was thinking about calling it Foreplay, Payoff, Consequences, but I figured that might turn some people off. I was also considering titling this post “What sex teaches us about game design”, but decided against it.

It goes by many names, some call it hype, some call it anticipation, some call it foreplay, some just call it build up. All it means is that sometimes things are better when you wait, as long as you aren’t 100% sure what’s going to happen.

To start this off in PG land let me take you back to a time in elementary school when I got a bad report card. I knew my parents would be upset with me, and I knew that I was in trouble. I knew that there would be unpleasant consequences for my behaviour, and I started to feel bad. Not bad, because at that age you lack all perspective, I felt horrible. I was certain that I had fucked up royally, and that my parents would be truly horrified and angered. Looking back, I don’t think that my fourth grade report card was the most important thing my parents dealt with that day, and not just because I had three older sisters, more because nobody really cares about a fourth grade report card. But the question is: why would I feel bad before I had been punished?

I did on occasion get good report cards. Upon opening the envelopes and looking inside I would immediately feel an enormous sense of well-being. This was partly due to misplaced pride in myself, but mostly because I knew my parents would be happy with me. But once again, why would I feel happy before I had been praised?

When we are expecting something good to happen in the future, it’s good now. When we are expecting something bad to happen in the future, it’s bad now. When we are expecting something interesting to happen in the future, it’s interesting now. I could go on, but this all seems so obvious. What’s not quite as obvious is what this means for video games, although it should be.

Look at the Bowser fights from Super Mario 64.

They could have just had you fight Bowser, instead they have you go through a difficult stage each time just to get to him. Then, even when you get to him, they play that little cutscene with his cheesy but weirdly effective laugh. I love how they change up the music for the last fight to make it even more hyped.

There are three stages to proper plotting, set up, payoff, and consequences. Games need to be aware of what their payoffs are, which can be identified as the moments in which the game tries to reward the player, whether indulgently or not. Chainsawing an enemy in half in Gears of War is a payoff, as is beating the final Bowser in Super Mario 64. Actually, we shouldn’t even think about moments that reward the player, we should just try to identify what the moments of our game that stand out. That might be poorly worded, but what I mean is that there are highlights, or moments when we play games, on both the macro and micro scales.

In Gears of War, killing an enemy in any particular battle is a highlight when compared to moving around in cover, or on a small, second by second scale. At the same time, the battle itself is a highlight when compared to the time in between battles, or on a minute to minute scale. Finally, if it’s the last fight of the game, it’s a highlight compared to every other moment in the game, or on the largest, hour by hour scale.

Since those are probably going to be the best parts of the game it’s very easy to try to eliminate everything else and make a game that consists of nothing but cool things happening all the time. This is where you get games that seem like they have ADHD, or seem terrified that they’re going to lose your attention at all times. If you have the idea that nothing but punchlines is what you’re going to have, then it’s justifiable to have an explosion going off every three seconds, and enemies dying left and right, while a voice on the radio or in person screams at you to complete whatever stupid objective they want you to complete.

Partly this is bad because, if explosions are happening constantly, the consequences of each individual explosion is probably very little or nothing at all, which makes the audience stop caring. Partly this is bad because any game designed like that is going to have very minimal freedom for the player. Mostly though, this is bad because it’s just “cool” shit being thrown at the player. If you don’t build up an explosion, then it’s really just background noise. You can only have as much payoff as you’ve actually earned through build up. It’s the equivalent of skipping to the very last fight in Super Mario 64. It may still be good, but if you haven’t built it up it’s not going to be anywhere near as good as it ought to be.

But it’s worse than that. As mentioned above, when you don’t setup your big events, you actually miss out on an opportunity to make your audience wait. It isn’t just that the payoff isn’t as large, it’s that we don’t get the pleasure of anticipation. Imagine Christmas as a child. If you were like me this was a huge deal, and the specter of Christmas Morning hangs above your little head as The One Thing in Life. I, along with my sisters, would look at the presents under the tree and wonder what they were. We would hold them up, feeling their weight and hardness, and sometimes we would even tear off little pieces of the wrapping paper if we didn’t think they would get noticed. Presents would be so much less enjoyable if they weren’t wrapped, and if you weren’t waiting for them. As I got older, I started to look forward to the Christmas meals as much if not more than the presents, and again, as much as I would have enjoyed eating them, it simply would not have been as good if Christmas dinner was made on a random Tuesday with no foreword. I enjoyed the process of waiting, being 95% sure that something delicious is going to be made. It’s the same reason that I always love waking up to the smell of bacon downstairs.

But there’s a missing ingredient here. It’s not enough that interesting things are going to happen in the future. To be most interesting in the present, we must have a small amount of uncertainty in the future we predict. I’m not eagerly looking forward to the sun rising tomorrow, because I know the sun is going to rise tomorrow. I look forward to eating, because I make good tasting food, not because I’m looking forward to relief to starvation, because I’m 100% sure I’m not going to starve in the near future. Ever watch a movie where you feel you can call out not just the next few plot points, but you could practically write the dialogue minutes before actually watching it? Ever watch a sporting event when you already know the result? That’s not eager anticipation, that’s just waiting.

This is part of the reason that it’s so frustrating in games when you’ve lost before you’ve officially lost. In the multiplayer of Gears of War, when you take too much damage you get downed. Being downed meant that you were still alive and one of your teammates could possibly revive you. Problem with that is 90% of the time when you’re downed you know you’re going to die, but you have to wait for long enough to bleed out or for the opposing team to come over and kill you. This is pretty bad in a gametype that only has one life, but when the game allows respawns it’s downright irritating. The problem is that there is no uncertainty in your death. You aren’t hoping for someone to save you, you’re just waiting until whatever kills you. Not fun. For those who are familiar with Gears, yes the mechanics of being downed changed throughout the series but it was still never good. Even when you could revive yourself, 80% of the time there was no way you were going to get up before dying.

It’s also a (small when compared to others) argument against games that have leveling as a major determinant of power. There is little exciting about being mathematically unable to kill a certain enemy, nor is there any excitement in being mathematically unbeatable by a certain enemy. When you already know that you’re going to win, or going to lose, with 100% certainty there thrill is completely gone. In contrast, even being 95% sure that you’re going to win or lose is still thrilling, and the player will always have a chance in games that are built on depth, and not levels, since those games give the player a chance, no matter how unlikely, of winning a certain encounter.

This really seems like something that game really ought to be better at, since games that have depth will be both easy to predict somewhat well, and impossible to predict perfectly. Not even the best God Hand or Ninja Gaiden players could predict with 100% certainty what’s going to happen 5 seconds later while playing, but anyone who plays has a good idea of what’s probably about to happen in that game. I want to make it clear that I’m not advocating randomness here, just that the imperfect predictive power of the player is good enough, provided that the game has depth.

So the formula for games is really quite simple:
1) Have a ton of depth, build up the big things
2) Make the big things that the player does feel great to do
3) Make the big things that the player does actually matter

I picked on Gears of War earlier, but it really displays mastery with its Chainsaw Bayonet:

1) Chainsawing enemies isn’t massively deep, but it requires you charge around without getting hit, and there’s nothing more exciting then getting closer and closer to an enemy with a raised chainsaw
2) Oh my god it’s satisfying
3) One less enemy alive, but you out in the open. Things have noticeably changed.

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