Story? What Story?
You don’t often hear stories of playwrights telling their friends, “I’ve got an idea for a new play. It’s an hour and a half long, lit by twelve Par 64s and tickets will cost £15 each.” But when writing for games, you’re often faced with the challenge of creating a story to fit a swathe of pre-determined characteristics. From structure to audience, budget to length to schedule, much of the shape of the work is decided before you even get to the question of story.
This is a big change for someone more used to faffing around with their own little ideas for months in a bedroom before throwing a script at their friends to put on stage, and this article’s all about how we dealt with that. How do you go about designing a story to fit a structure, rather than creating a structure to shape a story?
On Zombies, Run!, the game idea and the narrative idea had come hand in hand. A running game where you play a survivor in a zombie apocalypse. A perfect idea, perfectly executed by ZR’s lead writer Naomi Alderman. With Superhero, the shape of the game came first.
We knew we wanted to focus on home strength training in the style of the 7-minute workout. We knew we wanted to use your device’s front-facing camera to track your exercise. We knew we had about 6 months to make it, and we knew what kinds of stories lend themselves to the audio drama format. That’s quite a lot of information to start off with!
The Seven Minute Workout
First up, I’m sure a bunch of you are asking, “What the hell is the seven-minute workout?” It’s pretty simple, but also pretty detailed, so here we go:
- A workout routine you can do at home, without special equipment.
- High-intensity strength training.
- Each seven minute cycle is made up of a series of exercise. You perform each exercise for 30 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds.
- Ideally, you perform 2 or 3 seven minute cycles in a single workout session.
With that covered, let’s look at what this choice of workout meant for the design of our story. Here’s what we needed our story to do:
Motivate the player
These exercise routines are hard work! If the story’s not making it easier and more fun to get through them, it’s not doing its job. We needed something that was exciting enough to push you through the “oh god please make this stop” barrier time and time again. More than with most stories, ours needed to provide constant positive feedback to the player , meaning we had to be very focused on the main character’s achievements and successes. That meant action, that meant high stakes, and that meant plenty of instances of the player getting to be a total BAMF.
Fit the exercises
A huge part of the success of Zombies, Run! is the fact that, when you’re playing the game, you feel like you’re at the heart of the story — Runner Five is running and so are you! This is such a key part of immersing yourself in the experience. You don’t just play as Runner Five, you become Runner Five.
We had to make sure that the actions of the player linked as closely as they could to the actions of the character.
With Superhero, this was one of our biggest challenges: a lot of the exercises we were incorporating are really, really weird motions. Seriously. Have you ever seen a plyo split squat? We had to make sure that the actions of the player linked as closely as they could to the actions of the character in the game, and the story we chose needed to be flexible to allow for that. No-one’s going to feel like they’re part of a story if the character they’re playing is filling out tax forms while they’re trying to perform a grasshopper push-up.
Fit the timing
The workouts we were aiming for are very, very strictly timed, as stated above: you perform one exercise for 30 seconds, have a 10 second rest, then perform another exercise for 30 seconds and so on until you’ve done 7 minutes’ worth. Then you do another 1 or 2 7-minute cycles like this. So that’s 14 or 21 minutes of very tightly timed, rapidly changing motions. We thought it was a tough job creating narrative reasons for the player to be doing burpees, but the real trick’s accounting for the player changing what they’re doing every 30 seconds! This meant we needed a story that was highly kinetic, with situations and story beats that could turn on a dime. Again, no room for paperwork here!
Work for a silent protagonist
This is another lesson we carried forward from Zombies, Run! — if our main character is given no identifying features, is not gendered or named or described, then that allows the player to really identify with them. Zombies, Run! has shown us that this immersion is really important for motivating the players, so it’s something we were really keen to carry forwards to Superhero.
Making a story work with a silent, non-gendered, non-descript protagonist comes with a whole slew of extra hurdles.
But making a story work with a silent, non-gendered, non-descript protagonist comes with a whole slew of extra hurdles. Quite apart from any practical, linguistic issues around pronouns and descriptions, the biggest issue is having a central character who by definition cannot respond emotionally to the events of the story. This means no character growth, no arc, and most importantly that your central character cannot be the person through whose reactions the audience understands the stakes of the story. The solution to this is, of course, to have a story which provides a solid, consistent reason for another character to accompany or assist the protagonist at all times.
So, where did all that leave us? We needed to create a story that:
- Was high-stakes, full of action and focused on the main character kicking ass.
- Had an acrobatic, agile protagonist.
- Was fast-paced with regular switches in action.
- Required the main character to have a sidekick / operator / other constant companion.
It looks pretty obvious from here, right? Obviously this is the story of a person in a high-tech flying space suit, working for the Orbital Defence Corps to defend the earth from aliens and save people from natural disasters. Right? Good.
Unfortunately, things were not quite so obvious to us last year and we went through a bunch of different stories before we got where we were going. Here are some of my favourites:
- Crank, but instead of a violent Jason Statham (is there any other kind?) it’s someone who’s trying to save the world from terrorists. Also it was the terrorists that poisoned the main character with the must-keep-moving poison and maybe they also have to find a cure?
- The main character’s friendly neighbourhood Doc Brown-a-like “gifts” the main character the super-suit (which takes the form of a nano-bot-injection, natch) to keep it safe from his bosses at the evil military science lab he works at. Cue FNDBAL being kidnapped by evil military folks and long quest to save him along with also saving the world.
- Sort of like the above, but instead of getting kidnapped, FNDBAL asks for your help becoming a “people’s superhero” — taking on odd-superhero-jobs from random folk on the internet. Yes, we called this version “Captain Internet” and yes I still think it would have been the best possible thing ever.
Bringing It Back
All great ideas, right? But not the right great ideas for this game. We played around with a couple of these for a little while (Captain Internet especially), but none of them ever really stuck. We realised that we were struggling against ourselves — we were so focused on explaining away the specifics of the game’s structure (working out, doing lots of different exercises, etc) that we’d gone way too high concept and come up with a bunch of stories that were far too complicated to tell in 20-minute chunks while your audience is sweating out half their body mass.
This was one of the most important things we had to remember while writing Superhero: focus on who’s playing the game, how they’re playing it, and why. We wanted this story to motivate people through their workout, and to make them want to work out more regularly to find out what happens next. If they aren’t following what’s happening because we’ve made it too complicated in the quest to entertain ourselves, then the story isn’t doing its job.
Focus on who’s playing the game, how they’re playing it, and why.
So, we trimmed it back. We want high-stakes action, so let’s defend the earth. We need strong central non-player characters, so let’s have the player be part of an organisation of some kind. We need the action to move quickly, so let’s give the player super-powers. We want to make sure each mission stands on its own two feet, so we’ll avoid any complex over-arching plots. We want the missions in the game to be varied and not to focus solely on combat, so we’ll make the organisation more of an emergency-response body than a purely military one.
And there we had it: The player pilots a high-tech flight suit, working for an organisation that protects the earth from alien threat, with an operator acting as a kind of co-pilot to direct them and respond to the action of the story. Lots of high-stakes action saving lives and fighting aliens, with a new adventure each time you work out. It took us a while, but now we had our story.
Next time, I’ll talk about the writing process in general: how we plotted out the season, how we worked with our writers, and how we took an idea and turned it into a script. I hope you come back to check it out!