Wednesday, November 09, 2005

What's in a Tagline?

A lot of new writers and designers come up with "plots" that sound like something that was old in the sixties. This isn't really their fault: it's the way they've distilled the plot. They've lost - or never had - a hook. A hook is very simple, but not very easy.

There is a continuous drone of these kinds of plots to the IGDA forums. "This guy tracks down the four elemental amulets". Bleah. Occasionally you get one with a little promise, such as "this girl comes back from the dead to prevent her mother's murder". Properly executed, that example could be a solid game or movie. High-tension and disturbing. Even though it lacks punch, it has an underlying hook.

What's the difference? "Cliche"? Not really. Here, let's review a few other summaries.

"Most humans live in a virtual world controlled by machines. One of the humans which wakes is the only one with the ability to control that virtual world." It's the plot from The Matrix, of course. Personally, I hate any plot which relies on "the one" technique, but it is undeniable that there is a hook there. Reading it makes you say, "hm. That could be cool."

Here's another good one: "In a cyberpunk future, a man hunts androids which look exactly like humans." That doesn't exactly catch you these days - it was a genre-maker, so it sounds cliche. But back then, the idea of how technology that looked like a man would act was intensely new and interesting. Moreover, as with The Matrix, the execution was very good.

Good movies and bad movies, good games and bad games, they all have this "hook". Something which says, "hey, this is an odd and interesting situation". Whether it's a romance movie or Doom. That's because NOTHING can get made until you have hooks! Otherwise, it catched nobody's attention and nobody cares.

Hooks are based in the cultures of today. One of the major reasons Doom III failed was because it's hook was from the eighties:

"A lone marine in a space colony has to fight off hordes of monsters." In the eighties, that would have been cool, like Blade Runner's summary was cool back then. But these days, we know marines, we know space colonies, and we know monsters.

I'm not exactly a supreme pro at this, but I've become quite good at hooks with my multitude of GMing. Most of my hooks are more like The Matrix: I have a tendency to explore how reality functions, rather than how one person fits into that reality.

For example, "In a universe of infinite universes, whole realities are collapsing and calcifying. As lords of chaos and potentiality, you (the players) are on the forefront."

Or, if you want something more mundane: "In a cyberpunk future, something has broken in from beyond reality as humans conceive of it. The city of (whichever city it was) has been consumed by these intruders from the unknowable, and the only ones who have any hope of stopping it before it spreads are also intruders from the unknowable: you."

The most mundane I've ever done: "1986, The City. A meteor has struck, instilling dozens of people across The City with supernatural powers. Ordinary folk, such as Mr. T, Bruce Lee, and Dracula have gained special abilities! Play your favorite eighties-movie character in this 4 hour LARP!"

Unfortunately, I don't really get much more mundane than that. These hooks appeal to a specific audience. They are all "kinetic" hooks. Not all hooks need to have the "KA-BAM! IT CHANGED!" feeling, but most of mine tend to.

Anyhow, as far as I can tell, there's three elements to a successful "hook" - and a successful hook will drive you and your story.

A) Where am I?
B) Who am I?
C) Why do I care?

Every interesting game or story has an interesting setting. Even most BAD games have an interesting setting. A setting sets the whole tone of the game, and can be described in one sentence - less if it's a classic ("cyberpunk future"), but hopefully not more. This isn't the event, it's just where the event takes place.

Similarly, most games and stories have interesting characters for the audience to step into. This is really where I shine, I think. My settings are often too bizarre or a little trite, but my characters are always nicely weird and interesting. If you don't have someone interesting for the player to "look through", what's the point of playing?

It can be argued that "why do I care" is the most important. I disagree, to some extent: in a book or movie, perhaps, but even then I have doubts. In a game, just being that interesting person in that interesting place is often enough. Anyone who likes GTAIII can tell you that.

However, you still need a "why do I care" to punch plot elements into high gear. You don't need to explicitly state it to the public if it's patently obvious, but you should always state it to yourself.

With that in mind:

The Matrix:
A) Today as a virtual world and a post-apocalyptic future.
B) The only human who can control the virtual world.
C) To free the human race from their virtual world. (Implicit)

Blade Runner:
A) A cyberpunk future.
B) A classic noir detective.
C) To hunt down androids that look just like humans.

Obviously, this is hardly the only thing you need to do. But I find it drives the development of the story in my mind. I imagine it could prove useful to you, planning your games or stories. If you find that any one element is too boring, punch it up a notch.

For example, The Machine City (my game in development):

Machine City (Early Version):
A) Steampunk in the monster at the center of the earth!
B) A plucky pilot and her team of mad scientists.
C) Errr. They shoot stuff and discover stuff. (NOT implicit...)

Okay, "where" and "who" are passable, although "who" is a bit iffy due to mushy definition. However, there's no "punch" to the plot, because there is nothing to get the characters MOVING.

Sometimes, you can be dazzled by one or two elements of this threesome, and totally miss the third. Keeping this in mind can help you to ground yourself and make your plot the best it can be.

That said, I'm still gnawing at (C). Not entirely sure what the best approach is, although I know the basics. If I had a clear one-line hook, I wouldn't be mumbling and grumping, I'd be moving forward.



Patrick Dugan said...

Hows about "C) to shatter the rigid mechanical social order and re-make the world in exciting new ways" or a similar, simplified phrase. This implies both violence conflict in the microgame and interesting macrogame effects via the PAC engine. I mean, you've got this whole victorian repression theme going on in the dominant society, so I bet you could set the memes up to have interesting global agency... or at least fake it with cut-scenes ;)

Craig Perko said...


I have to make sure it drives the player. Unlike a movie, a game has to have a strong connection to the player.

But shattering social orders is something most gamers are rather fond of.

Patrick Dugan said...

Totally, and it fits in nicely with the nature of the game, that is competing against an adaptive system. Your storyling could actually play off the adaptive patterns as the efforts of the evil prudes to tighten up their defenses, or whatever.