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

For those who don't know, November is NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month. The idea is simple: for those who participate, the challenge is to write a novel from scratch during the month.

I've been craving to explore the intersection between literature and VR. As a lifelong writer, stories are how I understand the world. How do we create story-driven VR experiences that leave a lasting emotional impact on users? How can we put users in the story in ways never possible before VR?

With that in mind, I've decided to write and build a story-heavy game over the course of November. It's an ambitious project. To document it, I'll be publishing blog posts a few times a week to explain my process and progress, so others who want to tell stories in VR can learn from my pipeline.

PART 1: GOAL-SETTING, CONCEPTING & STORY DESIGN

1.1 GOAL-SETTING.

When you write a book, you begin with a dream. A hook, a key concept. The same is true for a game. But whereas with a book this concept takes the form of a narrative arc, a struggle, or a character, in a game, the hook is often a game mechanic or interaction. Before I even began considering these two parallel design elements, I had to decide what I wanted to end up with.

After an hour of brainstorming goals, this is what I came up with as the objectives of the end project, knowing full-well that these might change over time:

  1. GOALS for STORY:

    1. 20 minute VR experience for HTC Vive

    2. Get players to laugh/cry/cause strong emotional reaction

    3. Get them to feel like they’re making real emotional decisions

    4. Get it to feel magical, surprising, FUN!!!

    5. Primary goal is to be so compelling and interesting people really enjoy it.

    6. Multiple ways to navigate.

    7. Linear but multiple parallel paths; exploration within constraints

    8. Simple interactions, lots of exposure to written/narrated story

1.2 CONCEPTING.

With those very rudimentary goals in mind, I set about imagining a story. What challenges or journeys in life are emotionally compelling by their very nature, but aren't often used in books or games?

As I began researching the most emotional experiences in people's lives, I came across this quote:

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This immediately led me to wonder what happens to the homes and possessions of people who pass away without leaving a will. After all, these are people for whom their entire lives are paused in a moment- their homes, their finances, their hobbies, leaving 'a soul ready to be picked up'. While diving down that research rabbit hole, I encountered this: 

There is a Public Administrator in every county in the City of New York. The Public Administrator’s primary duty is to administer estates that would otherwise remain unadministered; to protect the decedent property from waste, loss or theft; make appropriate burial arrangements when no close relative is available to make the decisions; conduct thorough investigations to discover all assets; liquidate assets at public sale or distribute assets to heirs; pay the decedent’s bills and taxes; and to locate persons entitled to inherit from the estate and ensure that the legal distributees receive their inheritance.

Wow, that's fascinating. To think that it's some stranger's job to explore the homes of people who pass away without wills to figure out what should be done with their lives. Fascinating, and also a bit depressing.

What kind to mind, instantly, was a game where you play as a Public Administrator, explore a deceased person's home, learn about their fascinating life, and decide, as you explore, what should be sold at auction, what should be sent to the deceased's family, and what should be thrown out.

This simple interaction, of exploring a home in which interactions with objects could trigger voiceovers, seemed flexible enough to serve as a dynamic tool upon which to scaffold a story. The sorting mechanic-- labeling or placing objects in boxes based on your (the player's) decision of what to keep, donate, or sell, seemed a strong path to tap into player emotions.

For instance, imagine you see a broken metal flask in the kitchen. You choose to throw it out, because there's no sense keeping it. Then, later on, you see a photo and hear a voiceover about how, one winter, you went deer hunting with your father.  You spotted a magnificent buck, took aim, and fired, but the bullet ricocheted, and struck the flask in your father's jacket pocket, saving his life. He gave you the flask at your college graduation with a note saying may you have my luck your entire life

Thanks to this new tidbit of information, you (the player) might choose to return to the kitchen, take the flask out of the 'trash' pile, and put it in the 'keep' pile.

I liked this idea. This general approach.

1.3 CONCEPT COMMUNICATION TESTING

As I mentioned, I liked this core interaction, and the basic story wrapped around it. It felt ambitious, provocative, and unconventional to the right degree. Only one problem. I started communicating the core idea with my friends and family, and they universally found it uninteresting and really depressing. Which I totally understand. People who don't study games generally don't think of games as a tableau for the existential. But some of the best hi-concept games do it really well and successfully (both commercially and artistically successfully). (See: The Beginner's Guide).  

Based on my experience crafting stories and game narratives, when people say something is both uninteresting and depressing it's usually because they don't see a reason to care about the outcome of the game/story (there's nothing 'in it' for them as a protagonist). This could also be communicated as stating that there's no player journey, no aspiring destination. 

1.4 CONCEPT AND NARRATIVE REVISION

So I decided to revisit the narrative and find an opportunity for a journey. For something fun and mysterious to provide a thread of curiosity that pulls players through from the beginning to the end; some kind of mystery, something unanswered that screams to be resolved.

After brainstorming, I though: what if the deceased person claimed to have communicated with aliens, or some other fabulist element, and the player was trying to uncover the truth of this situation? The broader context would still be the same: investigating the home of a deceased person. But now, there was an aim, a goal: and in order to raise the stakes, I wanted to make that goal personal. So I decided to do away with the 'Public Administrator' player role and decide to make the player the child of the deceased. And, to make it less depressing, I aged up the deceased person to be elderly. 

I next sought concept inspiration to explore how, in narrative, magical realism, fabulism, and coming to terms with death are combined. I would up with 2 good examples:

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In Big Fish, a son sets out on a journey to learn if the tall tales his deceased father told were true. In K-PAX, a psychologist investigates his patient's claim of being an alien temporarily inhabiting a human body. Both are stories about loss, vulnerability, and magic, and I liked the tone of both.

So I revisited the narrative and came up with this elevator pitch:

You are Michael Maston, aged 56, of Cleveland, Ohio. Your father passed away last week. It’s time to sort through his apartment to see what you want to keep, give away, or throw out.
Your father, Liam Maston, was no ordinary man. Your memories of him from childhood are of a distant, aloof man. A man half-there. Today they call it PTSD, from the war, probably.
As Liam aged, though, his soul blossomed into a thing of vibrant colors. He smiled more. He came alive. Colorful, too, were the excuses and stories he told you about where he-- this new, true self-- had been all along. Stories too fantastical to be true.
Now is the time to learn who your father really was. Sort the objects in his apartment. Uncover hidden secrets. Find your truth.

So that is where I am now. I'm deliberating about whether to up the stakes even more: perhaps your father went missing, instead of died; perhaps your father told you he'd been communing with aliens/the supernatural. You can't tell this to the police, because they'd never believe you... 

This 'running out of time / find a missing person' is actually a much safer story to tell. It fits nicely within the trope of games, and is a conventional way to up the stakes. But obeying convention isn't a sin. Moreover, disobeying convention isn't a mitzvah. I've been watching Stranger Things though recently... so perhaps I'll build an alternate universe accessible through some portal. These are things you can do with VR, after all.

NEXT STEPS: WRITE THE FINAL NARRATIVE ARC, WRITE THE DIALOG AND INTERACTIONS.