By: Paraluman Cruz.
Hi! I’m Luna from Boomzap Entertainment. We make casual adventure games like the Awakening series, the Dana Knightstone series, and the recent release Otherworld: Spring of Shadows, all published by Big Fish Games. My job at Boomzap is to start franchises. I create the story and the world, develop the design, lead the team for a few months during development, and then leave to start the next one. Much to my chagrin, I am not allowed to work on sequels. (Awakening ‘s third game and Knightstone’s sequel both came out last year; I had hardly anything to do with them, and they are all awesome.)
My job is both amazing and terrible. It’s amazing to have the freedom to create entire worlds from a blank page. It’s terrible because each time I do it, it feels like I’m giving birth — it’s physically and mentally exhausting. And at the end of it all, I hand my baby off to another person, so I can only hope I’ve raised them well. It’s a lot of responsibility.
So where does one begin? How does a game writer transform a blank page into a good game story, one that gets players hooked and wanting more?
This is how we do it in Boomzap; I thought I’d document it for game writers who might be looking for a place to start. Take note: Writers usually discover their own process later on and stick to it, so feel free to take or change anything here until you find what works for you.
1. Find an idea
Otherworld started as a hidden, dark magical world
While all stories begin with a blank page, I don’t necessarily start empty-handed. Usually, a game starts with a core idea from someone in the company (it could be the design team, or one of our bosses) or from brainstorming with the publisher. When we decide on an idea that we think is cool, our creative director tells me to go and play with it.
For example, Awakening started with: “Let’s make a fantasy game with a princess and magic.” Dana Knightstone started with: “Let’s make a game with ghosts and lets us travel around Europe.” Otherworld’s basic premise was: “Let’s make a fantasy game like Awakening, but darker.” Our games don’t start from much more than that! Keep your core idea clear and interesting, and once you’ve found something you feel strongly about, it’s time to write.
2. Go away
Our company is a virtual office, so all our communication is done online in front of our computer. The next thing I do is to step AWAY from my monitor, grab a pen and paper, and write. I’ve found my PC to be full of distraction (whether it’s people, e-mail, or Facebook), and it’s harder to find good ideas if your mind is scattered in different directions. (This is not unusual: my dad, who’s a writer, holes himself up in a hotel for days. Find a quiet space that works for you.)
What I do next is a form of freewriting. Freewriting is a writing trick where you write continuously without stopping for grammar or punctuation; it’s basically recording your stream of consciousness. While my freewriting is more like a bulleted list merged with a really messy mind map, the idea is the same: write all your ideas down without judgment. If an idea spawns another one, follow it to see where it leads. Don’t cross anything out (even if you hate it); write and write for several pages until you hit something you like. You’ll know you like something when you get excited about it. Believe me, if you’re not excited about your story, the player won’t be, either.
Stop freewriting when you feel like you have enough to work with, then read through what you’ve scribbled down and encircle the ideas you like. Go back to your computer and type out the encircled ideas into a bulleted list. By now you have a skeleton of a story. Time to put some meat on it.
4. List the story reveals
Next, I flesh out the basic story into a list of “story reveals” – 15 or 20 story bits that the player needs to learn throughout the entire game. They are basically the 15 steps in between point A (the premise) and point B (the end). Don’t confuse story with gameplay at this point; your gameplay and your story reveals may not be the same. Consider Awakening’s opening sequence:
- Wake up your fairy friend
- Find a way to unlock the door
- Activate the elevator
Those are all “hows” (design), but they don’t tell us the “whys” (story). Awakening’s opening story reveals, in contrast, were:
- You are a princess
- You are human, and there is no other human in the kingdom
- You have no magic, but everyone else does
Focus on the basic story and don’t worry too much on how it’ll be played, as long as the story is good. Your first pass will probably be much more than 15 (you might go up to 30 or 40, with a bunch of “ors” or “maybes”). Type them all out without judgment. When you reach the end, look hard at your list and whittle it down to 15-20. That forces you to simplify your story into something a player can clearly understand, and at the same time check if each story reveal makes sense in relation to each other.
Subgame with Knightstone characters
Even when introducing characters, a bird’s eye view is enough; for instance, Knightstone’s list of murder suspects was listed under just one bullet point:
- You investigate three possible suspects:
- William, the rich suitor, who was jealous of Charlotte’s love for David
- Charlotte’s mother, who thought David was unfit for her daughter
- Joseph, David’s stablehand, who was poor but for some suspicious reason died wealthy
This is a good way to keep an eye on the number of characters you have; too many people might dilute the story (and the player’s interest). Once you have your story reveals, it’s time to distribute them across the game.
5. Distribute the story reveals for pacing
A casual adventure game is about six to eight hours long, and is usually divided into “chapters”, or areas where a significant plot point or location change occurs (just like books). But instead of jumping into chapters this early on, try dividing the game into just three parts:
A: FIRST HOUR
— End of survey cliffhanger —
B: MIDDLE OF GAME
— Middle goals reached —
C: END OF GAME
— Ending —
In casual adventures, Part A is free to play, so it’s imperative that the story builds up to a cliffhanger. We’ve also found that the first 15 minutes of a game are just as crucial, since that’s the amount of time a player makes an opinion (and either continues or quits). While Part A has to grab the player’s attention, don’t fall into the trap of shoving too much story in the first hour. Not only will you overwhelm the player with too much information, you’ll spoil them too much and run out of story to keep the game running later. Don’t give them too few story reveals at the start either; otherwise, they won’t know enough to want to continue the game. The more evenly you spread out your story reveals across the three parts, the steadier the pace.
This process may sound mechanical to you, but just think of it as a mystery novel. You want your novel to be a page-turner, so the events and surprises should keep on happening throughout the book. It’s the same here.
Otherworld’s garden: a symbolic beginning and end
Awakening’s pacing was simpler to do because the entire game took place inside a castle, so we just divided the castle into three: South Tower, Main Castle, and North Tower. Most casual adventures don’t take place in just one building, but don’t let that stop you. Otherworld’s pacing spanned multiple locations, but can still be divided into three parts:
A: Discover the magic world and get 1 locket charm
— Garden closes; win magic map —
B: Use map to visit new locations and get 3 locket charms
— Enemy reveals he has the last charm —
C: Return to garden and get the last locket charm<
— Defeat enemy and save Fiona —
Parts A and C above are shorter than part B, and we’ve found this to be true across our games. A tells the player what they need to do (e.g. solve blah, find blah, rescue blah). B is the grunt work of figuring out how to do it. C is where you actually DO it, getting your resolution. It’s okay for C to be short, as long as it’s exciting and rewarding; after spending all that time solving puzzles and going through all those rooms, the player should feel like it was all worth it. This doesn’t necessarily have to lead to a happy ending, as long as the ending is worth the effort.
By now you already have a clear and evenly paced story, but there’s an extra step you can do that will help you detail your story later on.
6. Flesh out the characters and locations
Before moving onto a full game design, it’s useful to make a separate list of characters and locations with short descriptions. This helps other people get to know your story better, and it’s also useful for you as a way of checking the story you just made.
For characters, try limiting your description to two paragraphs. As tempting as it is to write pages and pages of back story, you can do that much later. I usually put basic information in the first paragraph: age, occupation, how they grew up, and what role they play in the story. The second paragraph contains characterization: their personality, what they think of the other characters, and how they react to the player. Keep it short, like the way you would talk about a friend of yours to someone else. That way, you get a clear picture of who this person is.
Once you’ve written that, double-check your story reveals to see if your characters are behaving “properly”. You might have gotten more ideas while you were writing their descriptions. If they’re helpful, devious, or ruthless, they would act a certain way in your story (and even live in certain places)! Do a pass and make sure they all align.
For locations, start with a short, one-paragraph description of each area. If you’re writing an adventure, you probably have some exciting locations in your head already. Now is the time to write not just what they look like but what the player can DO in them. Are there interesting rooms or objects you can fiddle with? List down these rooms and objects; you can note which ones MUST be in your story (such as weapons or treasure) and which are just cool ideas or suggestions. This is your chance to translate your story into something interactive!
For example: If it’s a crime story, where was the victim found? Was it out on the street? At the bottom of a river, or in a car trunk? Buried in the forest, or in someone’s backyard? Just by changing the location, you change what the player can do. And it takes the story to a whole new level.
The wine cellar
Awakening’s back story was that goblins had been guarding this castle for 100 years, waiting for the sleeping princess to wake. By the time she actually did, they’d already given up hope, and the castle had been taken over and “lived in”. We wrote in a dungeon that the goblins transformed into a gambling den, because they were so bored; we also had a wine cellar with a drunk goblin who was babbling on and on about the prophecy of the princess being hogwash. Gameplay-wise, the gambling den and the wine cellar gave us some cool inventory puzzles and subgames to do, but they were also tied into the world we were trying to create.
In Otherworld, we took it one step further with a hobgoblin that only spoke gibberish! With no dialogue to help us, we had no choice but to tell his story through locations and gameplay. We made hobgoblins hoarders who would steal household items and build nests of random stuff. This gave us a quick way to have “junk pile” hidden object scenes but add character to them, such as having him hide under Fiona’s bed, peeking out in the darkness surrounded by toys. Later on, you get to rummage through his latest stash and find mementos of Fiona, the girl you are trying to save. You realize he was her friend, and he joins you on your quest.
Just by compiling these lists, you should already have several pages of text! You now have a game story with a beginning, middle, and end, plus some gameplay ideas from characters and locations, too. Keeping it simple at the beginning trains you to create a core story that is tight, clear, and exciting. After this, you can start dividing the story into chapters, and flesh things out as much as you want – go nuts!
As a final tip, don’t get frustrated if this process takes a while, or if you get stuck and no ideas are coming to you. Creating a story is tough, even for seasoned writers; we all go through the birthing pains every time. The more game stories you write, the more you’ll find your own groove. Keep at it, and I wish you the best of luck.
Paraluman (Luna) Cruz joined the Philippine game industry in 2002. She served as senior producer for Anino Games for five years before moving to indie studio Boomzap Entertainment. Boomzap’s best-selling titles include Awakening: The Dreamless Castle, Death at Fairing Point: A Dana Knightstone Novel, and Otherworld: Spring of Shadows, all of which she wrote, designed, and produced. Luna is currently giving birth to a fourth franchise.
Luna previously served as a board member of the Manila chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). She taught game design and game narrative part-time at De La Salle University, Manila. She has spoken on game development at Casual Connect Seattle, the IGDA Leadership Forum, and different events around the Philippines. You can contact her at luna(at)boomzap.com.