GAME DESIGNER'S MANIFESTO: PART THREE (CUTSCENES, MOOD, THEME)

In which we look at how we can deal with handling cutscenes and setting our mood and developing a theme in our games.



I want to discuss cutscenes. What is a scene exactly? A scene is a component of your story, a lego block. Does this lego block fit here or not? Is it necessary? Each scene should have a relation to the main plot and crisis. If it doesn't, it's unnecessary. Toss it out. It's fodder, just fluffing things up for no reason and giving the player things he needs not digest and it's going to leave a sour after-taste.

So yes, toss it out if it has very little or no relevance to the main crisis or plot, no matter how brilliantly written or sprited it may be.

How do you determine if a cutscene is necessary or significant? A cutscene should advance two of these three things: narrative, character, and theme. You can judge whether your idea for a scene is on track by making sure that it moves the story forward (narrative), deepens our understanding of character, or develops more of the theme — two of these three. Or a fourth one, foreshadowing. Deepening our sense of character of our heroes is important, unless your game is purely based around archetypes. Our female hero could seem like a tearful, powerless waif, but here she shows herself to be resourceful, and perhaps, depending on the motives that are developed through the story, spiteful. Again, what that event shows about a character might not be immediately apparent, though if the game maker chooses, it could be. So that takes care of narrative and character.

In addition, if a locket in the blanket seems symbolic of the larger meaning of the story — say, that you can try to bury your past, but it will never go away, especially, since quilts are used for sleeping, in your unconscious — then the scene would work on the thematic level as well.

The game maker should also be aware of a common trap: knowing how much to expose during a cutscene, not too much, not too little. As well as staying away from being repetitive. We don't need to be drowned in cutscenes showing a villain's excessive cruelty until it becomes tiring.



In addition to this, it is in my opinion that a cutscene should always have action while the dialogue goes on, whether it's a character pacing, or slamming a table, or going to lean against a wall or lie down, or drinking a cup of tea or whatever. It's very dull when characters just stand around and talk about how the Empire is going to fall and do nothing else. A cutscene should also never be too long. I don't know how to properly define 'too long' as there can be some hooking cutscenes, but to be safe, let's assume you can't create a cutscene that will hook a player for more than five minutes. Then that should be the maximum length of one, unless it's a major U-turn cutscene, then I guess it's okay to cross that. Or if you're using very nice custom graphics.

But characters should always be to the point, while at the same time, expressing how they feel about what they're talking about or what's being talked about.

There's just a few more things I want to discuss.

FOCUS

You should try your best not to shift your focus to a bunch of different characters, story arcs and events. Especially in the beginning, keep your point of view clear. In your story, you will need to choose a point of view. If the story is told through the events and eyes of one of your characters, your problem is solved. At any point in the game, your player will understand the point of view because it will always be the same. Don't jump from one character/arc/event to another a lot—that will make it difficult for the player to become emotionally attached to any one group/character.

In addition to this, help your players identify with the characters. Give the player a reason to like the character and to care what happens to him or her. Once you have a player concerned about the character and afraid for him or her, that player is hooked.

MOOD

When I say mood, I mean you have to know how serious your story is. Are you creating a game laden with gravity, or do you want to make something light-hearted? Do you want to make a game that is serious and funny at the same time (farce/satire)? You have to know before you begin planning your plot, conflict and characters, so you can use it to its full potential.


Mario... if Miyamoto wanted to go the 'dark' route...

Even if you choose a mood, don't forget that you can break the mood whenever you want (but not too much) to achieve certain emotions. I would recommend that a serious game should at least have some comic relief, and that a light-hearted game have at least some degree of seriousness. You just have to have the correct timing for these things. Like you can't have a character crack a joke while another character is getting tortured in front of him (or you can, if you're Mister Big T). Just find the right balance and you could create a gem.

THEME

Many literary works have themes. A theme is defined as a unifying idea that is a recurrent element in an artistic work. Basically, what I'm trying to say is your plot could have some kind of underlying theme to make it, for lack of a better word, "important". To give your story a greater, deeper significance, if I may. A theme is expressing an idea you or your story "believes" in, so your story could not only be a string of events, but a tale that expresses an idea that would be dear to players.

But don't toss it in your player's face. And don't make your story your theme. Your story is your story. Theme comes after.

Symbolism can be defined as an effort to express abstract or mystical ideas through the use of images. I would recommend more symbolic images to express theme in games that don't have a lengthy plot, but perhaps puzzle games, shoot-em-ups or platformers even. Think Tetris, and blocks falling on top of each other and fitting together and Russia and communism and whatever. I can't tell you what symbolism to use. You have to figure it out for yourself.


Don't let the waffles fool you.

Here are five problems connected to theme which might afflict you as a writer.

1. Beginning a story with a pre-determined theme. We do this when we are afraid the work won't speak to us on its own, and so we want to control it before it gets going. This is like deciding where your kid is going to college while you are still at the candlelit dinner that precedes his conception. It's an act of fear — fear of the process. It is also a declaration of a lack of faith in the process. And it is an attempt to dispose of the fear and override the lack of faith through control. But it doesn't work. As I mentioned above, a pre-determined theme leads to stiff characters and forced narratives. Experienced readers can almost always tell when a writer has begun her story with the theme uppermost in her mind. This is because readers reading such stories get the "message" as if they've been hit in the head with a two by four — yet are not fully absorbed by the story. The characters are thin, and the theme doesn't going through its own development.

2. Thematic greediness. This is a common mistake made by apprentice writers. You have fifteen thousand themes in one story, and you jump rapidly from one to the next without really treating any of them in depth. Most readers will experience such a story as choppy, unsettled. They won't necessarily put their finger on thematic greed as the culprit, but they will know that it doesn't feel coherent either. Thematic greed happens for a few reasons. One is that we haven't written enough stories, and so are trying to cram everything we think about or believe into each story. The other reason it happens is that we haven't given ourselves the patience we need to revise — or the egolessness we need to delete something that may be interesting but isn't working together with the whole. Thematic greed is solved by applying the basic remedies of egolessness and patience, and also remembering the importance of thematic coherence. It also helps to write a lot, because then you can always stick into the next story the themes you cut from this one.

3. Thematic shift that feels off. Sometimes this happens partway through a story, when we haven't been sure where to go with the piece, and make narrative decisions that don't work with the existing themes — or do, but we jump too abruptly to the next theme. It helps to think of your themes as being connected like generations, so that all shifts grow out of existing themes. I find that if I reread a piece which seems to be working narratively but which is choppy, there is a good chance that I wasn't paying attention to theme. This sometimes happens because the material is so potent inside me that I need to deflect it, digress from it, or ignore it. I either have to go back through and make some tough decisions — or, perhaps, realize that I need to work out something in my own life before I can address it in this story.

4. The theme/ending that just isn't happening. When we can't figure out our climax, it's generally because we haven't developed our characters. But when we can't figure out our emotional coda — it's generally because we haven't worked through our themes. Endings are always hard, but when you have no clue at all, it's because you don't know what you're really saying thematically.

5. This one doesn't just go for writing games. You stare at the page or screen and can't figure your theme out — and, as a result, you can't figure your story out. Your two cures are time and reverie. Time just has to happen, but reverie you can attempt to induce. Your best approach is what I call reverie-producing activities. These rarely have to do with writing; they have to do with solitary activities which promote free-wheeling thinking, and hence a breakdown between the conscious and the unconscious mind. The best reverie-producing activities I know are physical exercise, especially solitary, aerobic ones such as swimming, walking, running, biking.



Another great reverie-producing exercise is short naps, which I often take when I'm writing (sometimes even at my desk). I know people who use easy, repetitive tasks to achieve the same goal: gardening, painting a wall, shelling walnuts, sewing a hem. Whatever you do, make an effort to keep your mind to yourself. If you are running on a treadmill that's facing a TV, don't fall into the TV lock, stock, and barrel. You can glance to the TV now and then, but try to keep yourself in your own narrative, however disjointed that might appear to be. It's more important to float about in your own mind than to be entertained. Dreamers can turn into doers, but if you fall completely into being an audience member, you might forget to dream.

Always remember, we are daring to be different here. Yes, with our stories and characters. Don't be afraid to venture into territory you are unfamiliar with. Don't be afraid to write about an idea or work with a concept that has never been used in a game before. Being the first is scary, yes, because the formula is untested and you wouldn't know the results. But in my opinion, it would pay off.



1. Would I like to endure cutscenes that last more than ten minutes each?
2. How much better would it be for characters to gesture or show action during a cutscene? Would this make the cutscene more interesting/bearable?
3. Would I want my game to have a theme or a greater significance or deeper meaning?
4. If I played a game where focus shifted to six different characters all the time, would I be confused? Would I prefer to follow just one or two characters?
5. How much good could comic relief do in a game?



Stay tuned for the fourth article in the Game Designer's Manifesto series: DIALOGUE AND CHARACTERS!


Former chapters:
PART ONE: INTRODUCTION AND PLOT OUTLINE
PART TWO: CONFLICT!



Posts

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Yeah, I made a mistake here! It's supposed to be titled "Part Three", not "Part Two". Can a staff do me a favour and mend this?
Solitayre
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
17202
You can fix it yourself. Just go to your submissions tab and edit it.
Like you can't have a character crack a joke while another character is getting tortured in front of him (or you can, if you're Mister Big T).

Always cracks a smile on my face. Also: That's really good segment on "themes" there's some stuff in there I haven't even considered.
A great read. There's however a trap not covered here I have noticed many writers fall into when it comes to the necessity or significance of a cutscene, namely giving their cutscene a hidden purpose and not realizing that the audience expects cutscenes to have a purpose and will likely figure out that hidden purpose.

For example, let's assume the female lead has a mother who will later get killed. In order to make the audience care about that upcoming event, the game has to show her as a likable person. However, if the cutscenes showing the mother of the female lead being a great person has no other apparent purpose, a large part of the audience will realize what's going to happen.

So, even if a cutscene is significant for reasons not known to the audience, you should still provide apparent reasons for the cutscene to exist. So, the requirement about narrative, character, theme or foreshadowing much be obeyed for that apparent reason and not only for the hidden reason. The exception is of course if the you want the audience to start guessing, hopefully because you're confident that the upcoming twist is hard to figure out.
I know I have read this many times already, but I really enjoy the greediness piece you pointed out. It's very tough throwing away segments or characters that you built up, but sometimes things just don't work out. It goes for gameplay, or any aspect of your game as well. I've only learned to change this with patience (and not being ignorant).

And yes to the action with dialogue. =)
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