I’ve noticed there are some major differences in the careers of designers based on what kind of game they started with. It mostly seems to manifest itself as a difference in what tools they tend to dust off first in their design toolkit, and where they really work on expanding. I’m not sure I want to go into where I see this in anyone else’s work, wouldn’t want people to take it the wrong way, but I’m more than happy to talk about how this has effected mine.
This may surprise some people, but the first few games that I worked on were all interactive fiction. A few attempts went into straight up, room by room, interactive fiction that lightly mixed in some of my favorite crpg standards. This all culminated in my final C++ project, which was the last code I’d touch for about a year afterwards, Birth. It was an unconventional, to say the least, mix of fiction and simulation, using a full 3d simulation with a text based interface. I’d gotten the overall project fairly far along, I no longer remember why I didn’t go ahead and follow through on it. In any case, one of the major points I focused on in Birth was the introduction and early story telling, it was here that I developed my love of self explanatory backgrounds. (In Birth the player was an AI that had just been “born”, neatly putting player and character on the same page.)
Anyways, the point of it all is that my early exposure to design was not “design in absence of narrative” rather it was “design as narrative”. To me working out the story elements of a game is not something to done once I’ve discovered stable fun gameplay, it’s a starting point which I work from to discover possible design elements. Those elements may then be worked into the story making them two parts of an inseparable whole. This isn’t that odd, art direction is used similarly all the time, it’s just the kind of thing that you don’t see done as much with story due to the tendency of story to come later in a development cycle.
One of the things this allows is the use of much more diverse storytelling elements. For instance it’s easier to include a first act and not have to just reach for in medias res because I’m not having to fight a bunch of design decisions that won’t allow me to show the protagonist’s earlier states. Unfortunately, I can’t go into Officer’s story too deeply, for a few reasons. In large part because I’ve found it’s a terrible idea to write a whole bunch of stuff about a game that’s still in a very malleable stage.
What I can talk about, though, is Officer’s approach to The Call. Most first acts, even if you break things down in 4 acts or 9 acts (where we would really be talking about the first 2-3 acts), are basically introduction, the call, and acceptance or a reversal. In games we usually start the second act at The Call, the acceptance may be given, but it’s almost always assumed, i.e. packaged in the call itself, since it’s usually before the player can even act. Sometimes the ground between call and acceptance is covered as a tutorial segment. In Officers, we have the basic call that comes AFTER the tutorial intro, Foira’s parents are killed and she has to take over one of the most elite military forces inside the empire to prevent her cousin from taking her inheritance from her. The game gives you a fairly aimless time period for a while, your strategist will give you advice and there are some things you can’t do, but otherwise your free to mess around in the nearby area. After a while we get what looks like second call, the emperor is dead with succession in doubt, but this is actually the moment where we finally get to the acceptance. Before now Foira hasn’t taken on the responsibility of being the head of one of the main factions of internal politics, only taking care of her own fief and direct vassals. The sudden change in circumstances forces the issue, she cannot surrender without a very close friend being executed, and literally all routes that might lead out of the country would be guarded. Cornered and holding many lives in the balance, she accepts the call to be more than just a gentry, but to be an actual hero.
An interesting counter-example to the gaming norms are the Bethesda games Oblivion and Fallout 3. In those cases, the player is given the call during the introduction, but the acceptance is actually the point where the player arrives at the first main quest location. If the player decides to ignore the main quest at that point, it’s the same as refusing the call. There are two examples that immediately come to mind of it being played straight. In the Magicka demo, the player is dropped down a shaft, literally dropping them in medias res into the game play and adventure. It can be debated, though, that the true call isn’t until after the tutorial level when you find the village being raided by goblins, but I assumed my character’s motivation was to get back to the party, which would make that first drop the call. My second though is actually the Vanilla WoW starting areas. By and large they tend to start things off with only a short introduction to who you may have been, then explicitly give you a call, by completing the quests in the zone you wind up accepting the call and then from there head out into the world.
As you can tell from the examples above, it’s not necessarily bad to have only a short first act. To be honest my aversion to the short first act is more my *stubbornness in relation to the role of “in medias res” in the writing, than a noble agenda for the improvement of games. Still, having a feel for how to make a good, playable first act is something that I feel will set me apart in the long run. In all honesty, if somebody really wanted to make me giddy, they’d show me an example of a good third act that includes a playable resolution. I have an idea off the top of my head, it roughly comes out to go around giving away all the things that made you powerful until you return to the power level you began the game with. Still if anyone has actually done it at all, I’d be interested to see.
One thing that just came to my mind is it’s interesting to see how completely focused on that acceptance to defeating the big bad story segment games tend to be. There is plenty of room for game mechanics in character introductions, especially a lot of room for game mechanics in those moments just after the big bad has been defeated but the end of the world not yet averted. Nonetheless, most games pick up after our hero is definitely our hero, and end as soon as the big bad has met his final end. Imagine, for instance, that SW: The Force Unleashed ended with a mission about destroying a rebel base and killing Luke if you turned Sith, or playing Luke saving the same rebel base if you stayed light side.
* I once read that it was advised that all beginning authors make their first few projects in medias res, at which point I decided that for the next few years I would absolutely not start in medias res.