Crafting Narrative Arcs within Video Games

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As a direct result of the generous support of our Kickstarter backers, our development team has steadily advanced our game design capabilities. An essential component of our efforts is striving to create compelling storylines that you will enjoy. With your indulgence, we would like to share our perspective on story development.

Outside Mausoleum

Crafting storylines that draw the Player further into the world of Last Dream requires emotive, purpose-driven characters. Such characters must also be believable within the mythology of the game and evolve through their interaction with the Player. By way of example, below is a discussion of the development of two intertwined characters, Lord Jhaeros and Saelethil, who will appear in the Last Dream Expansion: World Unknown.

To begin establishing the history and motivational thrust of these characters, the Player first encounters inscriptions in the catacombs of an Elven city. One stone monument reads: “This grand engraving recognizes the war-broken, weak wanderings of a worthless man: Serge Melandrach. And yet, from Serge’s ashes rose the great Lord Jhaeros who lived and composed the concluding entry to the Elven Desiderata, Verse 9:99: ‘No parent, no race and lo, no history may lay claim to your honor. In the end and always, you stand alone.'”

This passage attempts to concisely communicate two story foundations: (1) how Lord Jhaeros’s values were driven by his desire to contrast with his father, and (2) Lord Jhaeros’s significance within the pantheon of the game. The reference to race, as used within Last Dream, alludes to the qualities exhibited by the various groups within the broader storyline. The pronouncement that “no history may lay claim to your honor” is meant to suggest that darker elements reside in Lord Jhaeros’s past.

Separate monuments introduce Saelethil as a scribe to Lord Jhaeros, and demonstrate Saelethil’s devotion to Jhaeros’s convictions, by declaring Saelethil’s preferred epigraph as “May you write your own Desiderata.” This reference to an epigraph within a catacombs setting would ideally lead the Player to believe that Saelethil is dead, yet once the complete story is uncovered by the Player, we as game makers must fulfill our commitment to consistency: the Player reads this text from monuments, not tombstones.

Outside Waterfall Cave

For some Players, no further experience of these characters will occur due to the multi-quest, open-world intended within Last Dream. This vast landscape is essential for the enjoyment of discovery. Only those Players that elect to explore a unique waterfall will encounter a cave inhabited by an aged guardian, the Peaceful Sage, who exclaims: “Ah, welcome weary strangers. You have the grave look of burdened warriors… I have seen faces like yours only once before, on the only true Leader I ever knew – Lord Jhaeros. I am not alone in my admiration for him, yet I may be alone in feeling that such people are strikingly rare. Bright beacons that light the way for others and then, sadly, go dark. Tell me, why is it that you have come here – are you merely wanderers or do you know your purpose?”

The Peaceful Sage is a dynamic character, offering the Player the option to respond either by sharing tales of the Player’s unlikely multi-world journey (the broader Last Dream storyline) or to decline. Each available response prompts unique dialogue from the Peaceful Sage, with an opportunity for the Player to revisit the same question and respond differently to explore the results.

If the Player explains his/her history, the Peaceful Sage inquires back, “I see, and you share these fanciful tales because you believe me to be a dying isolated man? Well, that’s quite alright. I am dying and I have no one to tell. Your miraculous story echoes older times. They remind me of the myths of my youth – multiple worlds, cosmic events, time loops, and such things. Frankly, I don’t believe your interpretation of your experiences; I suspect the truth is much more ordinary, but that is no matter… I can see that you sincerely believe what you say. And, in that regard, we may be able to help each other. If you could teach me the skill of Purify, Aligning Chakras, or Eternal Arrow, I have something I could offer you in return.”

The Player may only teach the Peaceful Sage these skills at an advanced stage of the game, which is one of many timing and power-balance controls available to video game designers. Once the Player is both capable and willing to do so, the Peaceful Sage advances the character development of Lord Jhaeros: “Excellent, I am grateful for this knowledge. By the way, that is a strikingly unique vial you have, unlike anything I have seen… Ah, but yes, now I will share a tale with you, but one with more practical implications for you: I was present when Lord Jhaeros was laid to rest in his hometown of Tisaren. To honor him, he was buried in his finest armor. Yet, I know he believed life was for the living, and he would want his mighty armor put to effective use. His body is entombed in the Tisaren Catacombs. Unlock his vault with this key, and honor Lord Jhaeros by wearing his sacred armor. Here’s to your journey, my worldly friends.”

Last Dream is meant to be replayed and so we hope this passage communicates two separate things to first-time and repeat Players. For first-time Players, this passage is primarily a quest directive to obtain a special item. Repeat Players may focus greater attention on the Peaceful Sage’s comment concerning the Player’s unique vial – an item that offers evidence for the Player’s “fanciful” stories of multiple worlds. The Peaceful Sage – not us, the game makers, but this character – is also knowingly lying and misdirects the Player to Lord Jhaeros’s tomb for reasons later revealed, while coyly calling the Player “my worldly friends.” Again, this secondary layer is intended to enhance multiple playthroughs.

If the Player then visits Lord Jhaeros’s tomb, s/he will discover “…a modest nameplate noting the contents as simply ‘Jhaeros.'” This contrast to the expectation of a grand warrior’s tomb continues when the Player learns that, “Inside is a diminutive Elven figure with badly deformed arms and legs. His fragile frame rests with a decaying cloth draped across his chest, embossed with the text, ‘No history may lay claim to your honor. You stand alone.’ No armor is present within the vault.”

World Map Waterfall

At this juncture, the Player has made multiple decisions to pursue this story, and as game designers we must provide a payoff both in the progression of this narrative and with items that advance the Player’s capabilities. If the Player trusts us, they will revisit the Peaceful Sage who will then be found motionless in his bed. Upon approaching the Peaceful Sage’s body, the Player will learn that, “The Peaceful Sage has perished. In his chest pocket is a note, reading: ‘Dear friends, I am sorry to have mislead you. I do believe your story – claims reminiscent of yours were made to Jhaeros – and I had purpose in wanted you to witness Jhaeros for yourselves. He endured great torment as a child prisoner of war and eventually escaped, but into poverty. His body was deformed by illness and the cruelties of our fellow races. His brittle bones could not support armor nor hold a sword. It was his courage and care for the suffering of others that defined him as a warrior. My real name is Saelethil and I found my purpose as a scribe and guard to Jhaeros. As I told you, life is for the living and the armor I used while guarding Jhaeros should be put to effective use. You will find it in my cabinet. Please know that whatever pedestrian history you may have led on your world is over. You stand alone on Firma now. Find your purpose here, as the great warriors you have become. Godspeed.'”

Aside from the valuable armor now acquired by the Player, this narrative arc has reached its conclusion with changes in how Jhaeros is understood by the Player, and through Saelethil’s revelation of his identify and his investment of hope in warriors such as Jhaeros and the Player. Likewise, this passage recalls Jhaeros’s declaration concerning defining oneself with honor despite personal history, with Saelethil now speaking Jhaeros’s words as his own. In this context, Saelethil’s restatement of Jhaeros’s words praise the Player’s real life transformation from a person literally on Earth to his/her immersion as progressively-accomplished warriors with urgent, cosmic purpose within the challenging realm of Last Dream.

Finally, although this mini-story has resolved, we believe greater immersion generates a better Player experience. Thus, we created a brief autobiographical passage from “The Writings of Jhaeros” found within the Peaceful Sage’s (Saelethil’s) waterfall-cave: “My tangled adolescence was a thunderstorm of punishment, filled with confused notions of glowering guards as surrogate parents. I understood only that life was suffering, and extended periods were endured under the poisoned gloom of suppressed rage and self-hatred. As I grew, I played a part in this sickness, too, but I was only a child. Then I woke up. I realized my fellow prisoners had intrinsic worth befitting an existence free from constant pain. In their reflection, I choked out the whispered words ‘I have worth, too’ and eventually came to mean it. I devised a plan to escape the cold iron gates and succeeded, with lifelong friends – lo, family – by my side. Over the accelerating decades, my resentment has partly receded. What remains now from this mixed childhood is a desire to scoop up that reflective boy from his oppressive world, offer the reassuring embrace of contentment and strength, and show him a more hopeful, accepting world.”

-White Giant RPG Studios