Star Wares: A New hope instantly grabs the viewer’s attention with the opening scene of the Rebel ship being capture. The engagement sequence then progresses in a series of hills and valleys, building higher and higher until the climactic destruction of the Death Star.
Virtually all good entertainment has a similar pacing curve.
LAFS Game Design 1 - Working With Dramatic Elements
Game Design 1
The Los Angeles Film School
How To Start Your Game Narrative
Extra Credits: How To Start Your Game Narrative
Don’t start planning designing a new game by
creating the game’s story.
Start with defining the experience you want the player
to have, and then create a story that will provide that
Most people would agree that the one thing that
engages them in a game is challenge.
Challenge is very individualized and is determined by
the abilities of the specific player in relationship to the
Challenge is also dynamic. A player might find one
task challenging, but after becoming accomplished in
the task, they’ll find it no longer challenging.
The Experience of Enjoyment
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that certain
conditions made activities enjoyable:
A challenging activity that requires skill
The merging of actions and awareness
Clear goals and feedback
Concentration on the task at hand
The paradox of control
The loss of self consciousness
The transformation of time
Experience becomes and end in itself
Csikzentmihalyi created a
theory called “flow”, the
mental state of operation
in which a person
performing an activity is
fully immersed in a feeling
of energized focus, full
enjoyment in the process
of the activity.
If a challenge exceeds
the abilities of the
current skill level, it can
lead to frustration
If the skill level is
increasing faster than
the challenge, it leads to
Both of these will
normally end with the
player leaving the game
The Lens of Flow
Does my game have clear goals? If not, how can I fix
Are the goals of the player the same goals I intended?
Are there parts of the game that distract players to the
point they forget their goal? If so, can these
distractions be reduced, or tied into the game goals?
Does my game provide a steady stream of not-too-
easy, not too-hard challenges, taking into account the
fact that the player’s skills may be gradually improving?
Are the player’s skills improving at the rate I had
hoped? If not, how can I change that?
Jesse Schell, Lens 18
Premise establishes the action of games within a
setting or metaphor. Without dramatic premise, many
games would be too abstract to become emotionally
invested in their outcome.
Space Invaders Defend the planet from invaders
Pitfall Harry Explore the jungle and find hidden treasures
Diablo Defend the town from Diablo and his undead army
Myst Unravel the puzzles of a deserted island
Tasks of the Premise
Make a game’s formal system playable for the
Makes the experience richer for the player
Unifies the game’s formal and dramatic elements
The Lens of Unification
What is my theme (or premise)?
Am I doing everything possible to support that
Jesse Schell, Lens #9
Characters are the agents through whose actions a
drama is told.
By identifying with a character and the outcome of
their goals, the audience internalizes the story’s
events and empathizes with its movement toward the
Type of Characters
Protagonist: The main character, whose
engagement with the problem creates the conflict
that drives the story
Antagonist: A person or some other force that
works against the Protagonist
Major Characters: Have a significant impact on the
Minor Characters: Have a minor impact on the
Understanding Characters in Stories
Psychological: A mirror for the audience’s fears
Symbolic: Standing for larger ideas such as the
American Dream or for a group such as an ethnic
Four Key Questions
Whether for a story or a game, ask yourself these
questions to make sure you have really thought
through your character’s presence in a story:
What does the character want? (Their goal)
What does the character need? (Tools or
resources required to achieve their goals)
What does the audience/player hope?
What does the audience/player fear?
Myers Briggs and Character Creation
Myers Briggs and Character Creation
Methods of Characterization
Characters are defined by:
What they do
What they say
What others say about them
Round Characters: A character with well-defined traits and a
realistic personality or undergoes a significant change of
personality during the story
Flat Characters: Show little or no change in personality, and they
are often used as foils to show off elements of another character
Agency vs. Empathy
What is unique to game characters:
Agency: The practical function of a character to
serve as a representation of the player in a game
Empathy: The potential for players to develop an
emotional attachment to the character, to identify
with their goals, and consequently, with the game’s
Characters vs. Avatars
Predesigned Characters: Backstories, motivations
Player-Created Characters (Avatars): Role-
playing, growth, customization
Both have potential for empathy; the question is
which is best for the game’s design and player
Free Will vs. Player Control
AI-Controlled Characters: Characters exhibiting
“free will” by having their own personality and
inner thought process
Player-Controlled Characters: Player assumes
agency for the character’s actions
Mixture: Player-controlled characters with
elements of simulation that provide character
(such as Sonic the Hedgehog tapping his toe)
The Lens of the Avatar
Is my avatar an ideal form likely to appeal to my
Does my avatar have iconic qualities that let a
player project themselves onto the character?
Jesse Schell, Lens #75
The Lens of Character Function
What are the roles I need to have the characters
What characters have I already imagined?
What characters map well to which roles?
Can any characters fill more than one role?
Do I need to change the characters to better fit the
Do I need new characters?
Jesse Schell, Lens #76
The Lens of Character Transformation
How does each of my characters change
throughout the game?
How am I communicating those changes to the
player? Can I communicate them more clearly, or
Is there enough change?
Are the changes surprising and interesting?
Are the changes believable?
Jesse Schell, Lens #81
The Lens of Character Traits
What traits define my character?
How do these traits manifest themselves in the
words, actions, and appearance of my character?
Jesse Schell, Lens #77
In many games, story is limited to backstory, an
elaborate version of the premise.
The backstory gives a setting and context for the
game’s conflict, and it can create motivation for the
character, but its progression is not affected by
Amnesia and Story Structure
Extra Credits: Amnesia and Story Structure
The Hero’s Journey
Extra Credits: The Hero's Journey
Extra Credits: The Hero's Journey
The Hero’s Journey
From the 1949 Joseph Campbell book, The Hero
With A Thousand Faces:
1. The Ordinary World
2. The Call to Adventure
3. Refusal of the Call
4. Meeting with the Mentor
5. Crossing the Threshold
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
7. Approaching The Cave
8. The Ordeal
9. The Reward
10. The Road Back
11. Resurrection (greater
12. Returning with the Elixir
The Lens of the Hero’s Journey
Does my story have elements that qualify it as a
If so, does it match up with the structure of the
Would my story be improved by including more
Does my story match this form so closely that it
Jesse Schell, Lens #68
The Lens of the Story
Does my game really need a story? Why?
Why will players be interested in this story?
How does my story support the aesthetics,
technology, gameplay? Can it do a better job?
How do the aesthetics, technology and gameplay
support the story? How can they do a better job?
How can my story be better?
Jesse Schell, Lens #70
Extra Credits: More Than Exposition
The outcome of a game must be uncertain. The
same is true of a story.
However, the outcome of a story is resolved by the
author, while the outcome of a game is resolved by
Because of this, it is difficult to integrate traditional
storytelling methods into games.
The problem with branching storylines is that they
have limited scope.
The story emerges from gameplay rather than from a
The Sims: Players can take snapshots of
gameplay and arrange them in a captioned
Black & White: Combines elements of simulation
with strategy and gameplay
Half-Life: Story sequences are triggered by
World building is the deep and intricate design of a
fictional world, often beginning with maps and histories,
but potentially including languages, governments, politics,
Lord of the Rings
World of Warcraft
The Lens of the World
Think about the space in which your game really
takes place when all the surface elements are
How is my world better than the real world?
Can there be multiple gateways to my world?
How do they differ? How do they support each
Is my world centered on a single story? Or are
there many stories happening here?Jesse Schell, Lens #74
Extra Credits: Design Analysis
Design Club - Super Mario Bros: Level 1-1
1. Download GD1 4 Resources from the
LAFS GD1 website Session 4 page
2. Create a Platform game
A particular slide catching your eye?
Clipping is a handy way to collect important slides you want to go back to later.