Friday, February 24, 2017

Foreshadowing and Layered Storytelling

Spoilers for Life is Strange and Night in the Woods. Night in the Woods spoilers are hidden behind a button (in the web version) and you can skip them.

Recently I've seen a lot of games stumble over the concepts of foreshadowing and layered storytelling. Even really good games. So let's talk a little bit about it.

This might be a bit rough, it's my first take.

Games have twists. At the end, in the middle, twists everywhere. All these twists have to feel like they make sense.... but they usually don't. They often feel like they "came out of nowhere".

There's usually foreshadowing: nobody simply forgets to set up the ending. They just... foreshadow badly.

The two most common kinds of bad foreshadowing are the accidental reveal and NG+shadowing.

The accidental reveal is pretty obvious: the foreshadowing is so blatant that it simply gives away the twist.

NG+shadowing is the opposite. The foreshadowing is so minuscule or unrelated that you can only see it as foreshadowing when you're playing the game a second time.

You might think we're on the hunt for goldilocks moments: foreshadowing that isn't too blatant, but isn't too subtle.

Not me. I say both those kinds of foreshadowing are misunderstanding the role of foreshadowing.

Let's get... hoity-toity.

The twists that stay with me are the ones that are thematically relevant.

Let's say we're writing a game about a main character struggling through a rough time in their life. The backdrop to this is a series of mysterious murders: our MC lives their life, notices murders happening in the background. At the end of the game, the two plot lines come together and there's... some kind of cool twist.

If you're a writer, you need to think about how these two plot lines support each other. They're not just two stories happening in the same place: both need to be stronger because the other exists.

The first instinct is to make them related physically. Our struggling MC witnesses a murder. Or is suspected of being a murderer. Or one of the friends is a suspect. Simply moosh the two plot lines together and then stitch things up. It works. Ish.

A good writer will think about more than that. We need the two to support each other thematically. The serial killing is a twisted reflection of our MC's internal struggle. The twist at the end is how the two separate or merge, and it reflects not the meanderings of the plot, but the slow syncing of the two themes.


Let's discuss and compare Life is Strange and Night in the Woods. They both have the same main character and a similarly laid-back approach to gameplay, so they're a good contrast. Since NitW is new, I put the NitW spoilers behind a spoiler block. You can skip them.


In Life is Strange, our main character has psychic powers. These help her to mask her social anxieties by allowing her to simply undo social interactions. Initially, her personal arc is about coping with or overcoming her social anxiety - perhaps with a highlight on the awkward fact that she's attracted to her childhood friend.

This arc is probably strong enough to sustain us through the whole game. Our B-plots each episode could easily integrate in. We can talk about Kate, who faces social execution due to a video of something that was not her fault. We could talk about Chloe, who has no 'social' because people keep leaving her and she's burning on a combination of deeply loyal raging and deeply bitter self-isolation.

These segments integrate well with our personal arc. Our worries about our own inadequacies and mistakes are shown as funhouse mirrors, blown out of proportion. Some segments are minor, like Victoria's cronies briefly admitting their own social worries. Some segments are major, lasting almost the whole game and providing a constant thematic companion - Chloe, in this case.

However, our personal arc doesn't require any superpowers. That story could be told with no superpowers at all.

The role of the superpowers is not to advance Max's arc. Max is responsible for advancing Max's arc. Instead, the superpowers are a mirror of Max's arc, showing in more concrete terms how Max is advancing, and giving us a simple tool to help tie other arcs to Max's own arcs. Think about it: if Max's powers reflect Max's place in her own arc, then naturally they'll be good at interacting with arcs that also reflect Max's place in her arc. Max's powers can be a needle and thread to stitch arcs together. They give us, as authors, a tool to make Max's arc feel palpable and clear.

Let's make it plain:

We start Max with the power to briefly rewind time, which we initially use mostly to let the player re-do awkward social moments. This gives us plenty of opportunities to cement both who Max is and who she wants to be. This basically represents Max's ability to consider other people, rather than just wallowing in herself: via retrying, she can consider how other people will react and plan her conversation accordingly.

That said, the limits are more important than the capabilities.

We can meddle with other people's lives, such as stepping in for Kate and Chloe. But we quickly learn that no matter what we say, there are things that can't be fixed with a few careful lines of dialog.

The arc of the powers reflects her own personal journey: she's just starting off, so she is pretty limited.

We slowly ramp up her powers to interacting with physical things. First with miraculous timing, then by being able to hold items while rewinding. In the real game, these are all mixed together... but we're talking about our own theoretical version, so we can separate things out.

This growing power reflects Max's interest in being better at peopling. The things she can't do with a snippet of dialog, she can do with physical objects.

It's very possible to use these powers to tie arcs to our current situation.

For example, the "Victoria on the stairs" puzzle, where she blocks our way until we pour paint on her. We can't convince Victoria with words, so we convince her with actions. In the game, this is one of the worst puzzles, since it makes so little sense, takes so long, and is immediately rendered pointless with another nonsense puzzle. But thematically, it's a good idea. A similar puzzle could have worked well.

For example, the Warren Gets Beat Up scene could have been replaced with a Making Warren An Accidental Badass scene. That would have felt awesome, and would have allowed us to take Warren down a self-destructive path for later use in a different arc.

If we really wanted to have it be a Victoria scene, why not have it be something that makes sense? Victoria's goons found Max's satchel, and are saying that nobody can be SURE whose satchel it is, and that they should probably go turn it in to the lost in found... in Pensacola.

Both of these puzzles are about situations dialog can't resolve. Both of them are about people who get things done beyond the reach of simple dialog, and about people who are also suffering from concerns dialog can't reach. In fact, we could get away with outright stating that as a throwaway line. Max sneaks up on Victoria and friends, hears them talk: "It's all just talk! If talking could solve everything, my mom wouldn't be in the hospital dying." Etc, etc.

This section of Max's arc could culminate in the second episode, when Kate tries to commit suicide. In canon, this situation is beyond Max's powers of time control, and represents a chance for Max to step up and personally resolve the situation without relying on "cheats" - proving that she no longer needs them. It represents Max closing the circle: dialog spoken from the heart is powerful enough to do what her carefully calculated superpower dialog could not do. Max has outgrown her powers.

In canon, Max's arc changes from social anxiety to heroism. More specifically, the theme becomes "how far will you go to stay with someone you love", which is also a very potent arc. I have no problem with this arc change, because it builds off of Max's earlier arc in an organic way and is completely believable.

Unfortunately, the arc doesn't follow through: the author clearly didn't think it out well enough, and the story devolves into a macabre serial killer dream. While the individual elements are written well, they don't thematically tie in with either of Max's arcs, and the whole thing falls apart. The finale does drag it back around, but only after hours of serial killer nonsense actively detracted from it.

That weird serial killer sequence? It was a twist that came out of nowhere.

It was foreshadowed, but it still felt awkward and forced, because the themes didn't line up.

Creating gameplay based on your theming is a powerful tool for a lot of reasons. First, it gives you a great lead: no matter what you're trying to do in the game world, you know how it should feel and what it should be about, so it's much easier to develop. Second, it draws the player in and keeps them in.

We can craft moments of triumph and pain that work within our arc - either our social anxiety or our heroism. Finding that Rachel died and watching Chloe crumple will gut us either way, but subtle highlights on Max's reaction will tell us whether Max is struggling to support Chloe or rescue Chloe. Those are very different feelings and players will pick up on it, especially as Max's subsequent actions struggle to do one of those things specifically. IE, are we trying to go back in time to rescue Rachel? How about to prevent Chloe from meeting Rachel? How about just supporting Chloe with hugs, pot, and ice cream? How about taking advantage of Chloe to bind her to you emotionally? All of these are valid paths which support different arcs in different ways, and develop Max in different, interesting directions.

Which direction you choose is guided by what path you want to take. And, at the end of the game, the ending sequence will be about resolving that mess.

The canon ending is: sacrifice the town for Chloe, or visa-versa?

However, there are other, equally powerful possible endings. For example: wipe yourself out of existence. Chloe's dad wasn't there cooking lunch for you, never died. Choose which of two or three Chloes is "real", and face down your nightmares of the other Chloes - it's even worse because they forgive you. Rewrite history so many times that there is no "real" Chloe, only your Frankenstein's Chloe made up of a hundred different pasts stamped together with superglue.

Those are all "heroism" endings, but there are just as many "social anxiety" endings. Solve Chloe's problems, or let her work through them? Leave Chloe straight, or just tweak reality slightly so she's your love interest? Etc, etc.

Knowing our goal allows us to build up a path towards it, choosing gameplay, puzzles, B-arcs, and supporting cast that highlight our journey. Usually this is about building up Max's vector until it is out of control, then simply pointing out that it's out of control.

I say "vector" deliberately. This isn't about letting Max use her power to stop a serial killer or whatever. That's not part of either of these personal arcs.

Technically, sure her powers are being used. But not in a way that reflects her personal journey. It's just out of desperation - and live-or-die desperation isn't part of her personal arc, not unless it's on someone else's behalf.

The serial killer arc could have worked if Chloe was the captured victim - Chloe ran off to check the grave without you, and she was gone when you arrived. It would have been interesting to let Max go off the rails trying to rescue Chloe from ever-earlier points in time, watching reality disintegrate.

But I still hold that a serial killer wasn't even needed. Max's powers are the serial killer. Jefferson's role could easily have been to narrate Max's fall from innocence in a much less murdery way, by simply being a smooth-talking pervert. This would have been useful in the part of Max's social anxiety arc where she learns that she can't really know someone by simply collecting their responses.

In the end, Max choosing whether to sacrifice Chloe or the town only makes sense if Max's arc is "Chloe and I will be together at all costs". And that can be established best by creating this universal, stitched-together flow.

That's the best kind of foreshadowing and layered storytelling to me. The two episodes spent on serial killer stuff weren't stitched in properly, and that was the game's clearest failing... despite the fact that it was technically both foreshadowed and layered.

What I'm saying is all of the B-arcs, puzzles, and twists should come out of their thematic connections to the core arc.


Now, how about Night in the Woods?

Night in the Woods is really good and the same length as Life is Strange, go play it instead of reading spoilers!

Well I loooove spoilers! Click here to spoil NitW!

Just foreshadowing doesn't make something feel like it belongs.

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