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  • Key Principles Of Region-Based Narrative

    [10.29.19]
    - Nathan Savant

  • Now that we've discussed some examples, let's break down what defines this structure.

    I'd say the core is an "overworld" with a general theme. In my previous article I defined this as an Act, but here I've broken that down into just a story beat. Either approach is valid, and you can easily chart both, having a structure laid out for the entire Act One, and then having a sub chart within that to define the story surrounding the first few dungeons that happen during that act.

    As an example, let's say you're making a fantasy game, and everything that happens in the first hour of the game is about the Evil Lord Sorkk'naal, King of All Orcs, planning an invasion of the nearby kingdom. The kingdom you start in, and any spaces you travel through around that kingdom, will all be talking about that invasion, it's the most important thing happening right now. Even if you leave the kingdom where this is happening, all quests ideally reinforce the theme of the orc invasion, or give us a new perspective on it. If we know the physical space we have access to, we're able to control where and how the story is told. This could also include something like a hub world. Mario 64 isolates its levels from the overworld, but there are characters throughout the hub world who convey information as you progress, and the castle subtly changes as you come to open new doors and find new spaces. I use the example of Mario 64 here, because even non-narrative games can adapt this structure to keep the world feeling coherent even if a full story isn't really the point.

    After you define the overworld, now define the linear "dungeons" that expand on specific concepts. These "dungeons" could be literal areas that you explore that are specifically about a particular idea, or they could just be quests that you go on which help to expand this aspect of the story. Control gives us a quest that leads us to a specific area for a specific purpose and as we approach that area we get a reinforcement of the area's events, be that sentient mold or piles of clocks. You are always given the quest when you're somewhere else, giving you motivation to explore for a while before you go to the linear sequence.

    By the time you reach the linear quest moment, you've been prepared, and you're ready for linear curation. Control has a few discrete "dungeons" throughout the game, where you'll go down a particular hallway and reality will bend and leave you in an isolated space full of puzzles or battles, but most of its story happens in spaces that start off as linear sequences and eventually just become spaces you travel through in metroidvania fashion. The concept of "dungeons" is less about an isolated space away from the regular gameplay, and more about the linear, curated sequence that's paced very specifically.


    No, really. Control does SUCH an amazing job of this. Go play it if you haven't.

    Ok, you say, that's all great and everything, but how do I use this structure in a production? Well, I'm glad you asked. Start by breaking your story into chunks. Most people will have an Act One, Act Two, Act Three, and that's a solid place to start. Have a specific narrative purpose to each of those. Act One: "The orc army is attacking". Act Two "The army has attacked and now we must fight back". Act Three: "We've won, but at what cost". Once those over-arching elements are defined, carry them down into the smaller elements within them.

    Any quest in Act One should be all about the impending attack. Maybe you scout for information, maybe you sabotage them, maybe you convert some of their troops to your side or negotiate for peace. Whatever happens within a story sequence should mirror the overall theme of that sequence. When it's time to move onto the next Act, discard the quests from Act One. Do this by making it obvious that you can't go back, once the orc army has attacked, there's no point in scouting anymore, right? But you can have quests that span multiple acts, Mrs Poppowitz's pet cat needs to be saved, and it doesn't matter if the orcs have attacked or not, the poor thing is still just going to be stuck up in that tree.

    These sorts of quests don't need to relate to the specific themes of an act, but should certainly expand the story as a whole or serve some functional purpose (fun is a valid purpose, btw). As long as most of what a player experiences in the game pushes the story forward, having a sprinkle of world-building quests available will rarely be a bad thing for your players.

    So the key takeaways:

    • Define the ‘overworld' where your story beat is happening.
    • Fill that ‘overworld' with things that move its specific story forward.
    • Use neighboring spaces as transitions from beat to beat.
    • Break up the ‘overworld' with specific, curated ‘dungeon' sequences.

    And that's that! Hopefully this has in some way illuminated a dark corner of your mind. Thanks for reading!

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