Designing Drama

Fugitive Postmortem

[Text by John Thyer. This article was funded through Patreon under the ZEAL project. ZEAL aims to provide high quality criticism of rarely discussed games, and showcase the talents of exciting new writers and artists. For details and information on how to donate, please check out!]

In November of 2013, I released a game called Fugitive. It took about five months to put together, and since putting it online I’ve probably played through it two dozen times.

I’m not only really proud of Fugitive, I just plain like it. That’s a cool thing to be able to say about your own game. And it’s not because it’s anything exceptional mechanically; it’s a 2D platformer that riffs pretty heavily on Metroid and Mega Man, and lord knows there’s not a shortage of those out there. It’s not a particularly gorgeous game either — half of the sprites and tiles are edited art ripped from other games. If there are any perfectly polished freeware masterpieces that work in every conceivable way, Fugitive isn’t one them. So, why do I like it so much?

I like Fugitive because it tells a story.

Video games can be a lot of things: social experiences, competitions, meditative exercises, advertisements, pornography. But what makes the medium so fascinating to me is its potential for storytelling. The Walking Dead, Super Mario Bros., Dys4ia, Tetris; all of these games, while vastly varied in terms of mechanical execution, aesthetics, and thematic heft, are undeniably compelling dramatic experiences. Whether they’re about subjective morality in the face of apocalypse or arranging colored squares in a doomed battle against entropy, these games take the player on a narrative journey. More than anything else, that’s what I want out of video games.

The basic plot of Fugitive is super-simple: you (or rather, your unnamed, ungendered power-suit-wearing avatar) land on a planet intent on chasing down the eponymous fugitive. You encounter a number of hostile alien robots, which you dispatch handily with your powerful weaponry. Then, after an explosive accident early on, your suit starts malfunctioning, and your power-ups break down one by one. As you chase the fugitive deep into the planet, the robots and the locales get scarier and scarier, until you wind up deep underground at the center of an alien base. After you destroy the core and shut down the robots, the game climaxes with your battle against the fugitive.

When I first started outlining Fugitive, I already had a number of ideas. I wanted to make an action game where the player character grew weaker as the game progressed. I wanted an oppressive and hostile atmosphere, to emphasize the terror of facing greater threats while being less and less capable of facing those threats. And I wanted an ending that denies the player an easy catharsis, because I thought it was weird that Samus regularly blows up entire planets without pause or regret.

The plot came about as a natural way to explore these ideas. I wasn’t interested in finding a “fun core mechanic” and “iterating on it” until I had a “polished product” — I wanted to tell a story. That’s not something that requires cut scenes and text boxes (although those mechanisms certainly have value); it just requires that you think about how your game works as a cohesive narrative.

So. How do you do that?

Think about how you want to use the tools at your disposal! For instance, one storytelling method in games that’s received a lot of mileage over the years is to have a “difficulty curve.” Making a game demand increasingly skilled play as it progresses is a natural and laudable way to create a dramatic experience in the context of a video game. SolarStriker for the GameBoy is as bare bones as they come, but the way the difficulty escalates as the game progresses (combined with its surprisingly effective soundtrack) gives it a naturally exciting narrative shape.

This is the way most video games use difficulty, including Fugitive — but it also approaches challenge from another direction. Unlike most games, the player character is actually at their most powerful at the start of Fugitive and gradually loses health and abilities as the game progresses. This means that as the world becomes more hostile and difficult to navigate, the player simultaneously becomes less capable of surviving in that world.

This ostensibly makes the game harder, but that’s kind of a lie. I had to deliberately design the levels so as to accommodate the player’s weakened ability set as the game progresses. So even though the player keeps losing health and abilities, the game still has a pretty normal difficulty curve.

So why not just give the player a static ability set and design the levels around that instead? Because it makes for a better story! Every time the player hears the power-down sound effect it’s a signal that surviving in the world just got harder. It creates a sort of internal dread, whereas most tension in these sorts of games is purely external. It’s not really in place because it makes the game more interesting “mechanically” — it’s there to make the game more dramatic.

How else can we do that? Sound! The games from which Fugitive takes inspiration — most obviously Metroid and Mega Man, but also REDDER and Star Guard — have a uniformly exceptional command of aural atmosphere. It was also the best aspect of my first game, Quarantine, which was ultimately sort of clunky and shallow, but its control of sound helped elevate it in a really interesting way.

All of the songs in Fugitive were selected based on the emotional state that they conveyed and how that meshed with the game’s story. The music for the introductory over-world segment is simple and unobtrusive but gradually grows in complexity, operating in tandem with the player’s journey of learning more about their character’s abilities. The second tune also stays in the background for the most part, but its eerier texture meshes well with the increasingly malevolent level designs. The third song starts as the player descends into the deliberately Tourian-esque final level after a particularly challenging second boss fight, and unlike previous songs it’s very loud and intense; the thumping bass and percussion is almost absurdly dramatic. The fourth song, played during the final boss, feels more restrained, but its use of repetition and harsh instrumentation actually makes for a more intense listen than the preceding tune, perfect for a climactic boss fight.

These songs fit into the experience quite nicely, but just as important as the choice of what music to play is the choice of when to play it. A solid third of Fugitive is spent either listening to atmospheric noise like waterfalls or electrical humming, or in complete silence, save for the sound of your character’s footsteps. This is true of every boss fight save the last, so as the game progresses, the player learns that silence typically functions as buildup for an intense fight.

This silence takes on a special significance during the game’s ending. It’s easy to see that Fugitive takes a lot of inspiration from Metroid, based on surface details like the title screen, the powerups, or even the elevator ride to the last level. All of this is flipped on its head for the ending; unlike your typical Metroid, the escape back to the surface isn’t about thrilling catharsis but quiet dread.

Most players will expect an exciting timed escape sequence after blowing up the core, but instead everything just turns off — the robots, the electrical hazards, even the lights. Then you walk back to the left, and the respawn point flickers and shuts off. The implication is obvious: if you die now, that’s it. Game over.

So, because there’s nothing else you can do, you walk back to the left, into an area that was previously blocked off. You see the fugitive. After a brief chase, the fugitive turns around and fires a missile straight at you. If you fail to reflect the missile, you die, and the games ends. If you succeed, the fugitive dies, and you’re left to wander back to the surface, past the empty shells of robots you’ve fought throughout the game. You reach your ship. The game ends.

I really like this ending in a lot of ways. It’s weird and understated and eerie, and without it Fugitive would definitely be a lesser experience. It’s also really tense, between the crystal-clear visual cue of the respawn point, and the surprisingly creepy dead robots. And it all really comes together thanks to the music (provided by Xerferic of the Newgrounds Audio Portal.)

Still, it doesn’t provoke much of an emotional reaction. There’s very little connection between the player and the fugitive as a character, and I spent a long time trying to create that connection. I tried adding an intro cut scene, I wrote a block of text to play on the title screen, and I started working on a minor boss fight with the fugitive early on. I even considered ditching the fugitive character and focusing entirely on the conflict between the player and the planet. But I wasn’t really happy with anything I came up with. It all seemed kind of tacky, like it was spoiling the mood the game had set up.

So in the end, I looked to the games that inspired me — REDDER, Metroid 2, Monuments of Mars, Star Guard — and went with the minimal approach. No intro cut scene, no text. Not because that’s the best or only way to make games (the world needs SimCity and Deus Ex just as much as it needs Ico), but because its the mood I most wanted to capture in Fugitive. Sometimes that’s reason enough.

The ending is what it is. I genuinely believe that it contextualizes the game in an interesting, thematically relevant way, but it doesn’t have the emotional resonance I pictured in my head when I first started Into the Vortex, a short shmup I released a little while after Fugitive, has a much more straightforward and cathartic ending, so obviously there’s something about it that didn’t sit quite right with me. Still, I definitely think there’s a lot to appreciate about Fugitive’s more cerebral conclusion, and I’m ultimately content with it.

So that’s Fugitive. I’ve barely mentioned how the game actually plays, and that’s intentional. While I put a lot of thought into its mechanics and I’m quite proud of how they turned out (certainly much more so than in Quarantine), I’m more proud of everything else: the sudden violence of the ship exploding on the over-world, the fall through the false floor right when the fugitive is in your grasp, that awful electrical hum, the way the game teases you with a power-up in the last level and then rips it away, the agonizingly long black-screen-transition before the final boss, and the way the re-spawn point flickers and turns off during the ending.

These are the little touches that make Fugitive special to me. If you make games, or just like them a whole lot, pay attention to these kinds of moments. They can mean the difference between a boring game and an interesting one, or a fun game and something transcendent. In the end, I like Fugitive because it’s a game with a thoughtful, exciting little story, and it does a pretty good job of telling it. I think that’s worth something.