Crafting a literary VR game, part 3) Nailing down the story, Design Document drafting

Crafting a literary VR game, part 1: Concepting + Story Design

Crafting a literary VR game, part 2) from Concept to Narrative Timeline to Script to Set Design!

Hello strange internet people! I've been in Denmark for consulting work this past week, so I haven't been able to devote sufficient cognitive cycles to this project. Accordingly, I've shifted the project timeline to have a working prototype I can test with by End of November, and then finish the game before New Years.

Here's the most significant accomplishment from the past week: building a high-level design document that integrates both narrative and interaction. It explains what the player can do, how to solve the mystery-- the entire narrative and interaction arc for the game. Check it out, parse through it, and if you're curious you can read through the rest of the blog post explaining how I got there. (Click on the image below for a zoomable, legible version). 

From a high level, the game begins with a brief, linear experience, then branches out into non-linear exploration of the player's vanished father's apartment, then returns to a linear climax where the player is presented with a simple task, which, depending on their performance, ends in either a horrific loss state or victory.


So how did we get here, and what does this design document DO?

So far, this November, we began with a challenge (crafting a literary-feeling VR game) and, through research and the design process, wound up with a game concept centering around exploring the apartment of your estranged father, who mysteriously went missing. The game now has a strong Stranger Things vibe, crossed with K-Pax and Big Fish.

This past week I nailed down the story. To do that, I first needed to answer some big questions. The biggest of which, and really the key question, had to do with the element of Mystery. How can the protagonist (named James) discover what happened to his disappeared Father? Solving this mystery involves discovering and synthesizing clues into a conclusive timeline of events (the solution to the mystery). 

Clues in the apartment can be divided into 2 categories: Clues from before the event, and clues from during / after the event. Clues from before the event give us background information on the people involved. Clues from during/after the event would be, for instance, a chair knocked over, spilled blood, that kind of thing. If all the clues for the player to find in the game are 'before the event' clues, then why didn't the protagonist's father piece together that something was going to happen to him? If all the clues are from during/after the event, then there is no significance to characters' backstories.

To answer the remaining plot questions, figure out this balance of before/during/after clues, and wrap the interactions around those, I came up with and answered a list of questions.


  1. How does player's father piece it together that the Axixu might have malevolent intentions?

    1. He didn’t-- he misread the clues, because of his trustingness. He thought the Axixu would take him somewhere wonderful. His naivety is a character flaw stemming from weakness, and his desparation to find a treatment for his PTSD.

    2. It was only because of the obituary of the Crazy dude who disappeared from same apartment years ago (obituary appeared in newspaper 2 days previous) that struck player's father as queer. He confronted the Axixu about it, and they dragged him away. There is evidence of a struggle in the apartment, and odd claw marks on the walls...

    3. Obituary has drawing of ‘gods eat happiness’?

  2. Why should James want to go through the portal?

    1. Three days ago the Axixu visited and told player's fatherhe had nothing new to learn, were going to show him their world, where he would stay for a few days, and he would be the guest of honor at a feast. player's father excited. (this is in journal) (this shows James that player's father is still alive)

  3. What did player's father and Linda believe?

    1. He did tell Linda- Linda calls James to tell him about her most recent conversation with player's father.

    2. He told her he was going on a vacation with the Axixu. Linda warned him not to go, that she never fully trusted them. Linda explains the Axixu wear masks with no eyeholes, says how player's father was so excited to help her with her problems, the Axixu sat across from them in the living room and spoke with a soft, gentle voice. (creation of narrative) They tell you beautiful things.. Things that make you wise, that change the way you see the world…

  4. Did player's father know about the portal?

    1. player's father never pieced together how the Axixu entered the apartment. He didn’t realize that they had to come in through a portal. He thought they just magically appeared. The Axixu were worried that if he found out, he would destroy the portal. This, James deduces, when he learns there is a portal, is further proof they were conniving and evil.

  5. How/why can James piece together something his Dad didn’t?

    1. The fact that the crazy dude (obituary) was terrified of showers indicates where the portal is/was, a fact that player's father never pieced together.

    2. The fact that player's father went missing confirms Fa’s fears that player's fatherwas too uncertain to act upon.

    3. player's father mentions that the Axixu showed up for the first time after he cried in the shower, audio recording. The axixu said it was because, as a god, it sensed Fa’s suffering from afar. Further, there are scattered thing in the bathroom, proof he was dragged in there.

    4. James was always skeptical of religions, and never took people at face value, whereas player's father was always trusting and into organized religion.

    5. The struggle and mess that player's father left behind is a confirmation

    6. player's father, having been kidnapped, is stuck in the between world, and can kind of communicate with James. This new information- of what it’s like where he is now-- is information that he completely didn’t have before. However, it’s very hard to piece this barely audible communications together. It’s not clear who or what is communicating.

      1. player's father tells James there is a portal (says so through the TV), says he was dragged to it, didn't see where it was, but it was wet.

    7. The Axixu left behind some clues that James must parse and figure out.

      1. A mask player's fatherhad knocked off as he was being dragged

      2. player's fatherwas reading a book about Mayan temples, but the knocked over chair indicates he got dragged away part-way through. The player can turn the page, but only to the next page, that has a codex for translating the runes from the man's obituary, which would have helped player's father piece together the Axixu's true intentions!

    8. Who IS player's father, and how is his story told? How does it wrap into the narrative?

      1. player's father was an emotionally distraught veteran who ignored his family and wallowed in self-pity. He turned in every direction possible to find salvation except within. He just never had the strength to see that he was really in control. He bought into organized religion, grasping for a treatment to his PTSD; he turned to cults, and quack medicine, and all that stuff. He was thusly naturally susceptible to being seduced by the Axixu. However, as he got wiser, he became more suspicious...

      2. The game contains 2 kinds of interactions: Narrative and Progressive (and the 2 often combine in single interactions). Narrative are more for world-building, telling the tale, helping to situate and build an emotional relationship with the characters. Progressive are more about moving the story forward through plot reveal and actions.

      3. player's father was a war photographer, and after the war, he worked for a nature publication.

      4. As James is investigating the disappearance, he's also coming to terms with his anger at his father. Each interaction moves in the direction of redemption and reconciliation for both of them.

    9. How does the emotional reconciliation play into the story?

      1. Maybe James doesn't feel comfortable looking into Fa's diaries and such until he reconnects with him? Maybe his diary is kept locked, and the hint for the key is something like “favorite vacation spot when the kids were young”, pointing to the vacation photo.


Next up: technical prototyping!