Story Design by Layer II

in Tutorials

In the last tutorial in this series we explored story theme, style, and laying down the initial framework of characters, plot, and setting. Today, we will talk about using causality to add details, and more importantly connections, to all the aspects of our game.

The Third Layer: Causality

Let’s take a moment to look at what we have accomplished so far. If you have followed the steps in the previous tutorial we know the following things:

  • A Story Theme
  • A Story Style
  • Basic Setting Information
  • Vague descriptions of major characters
  • A few major plot points

In this step, we are going to add details to the setting, characters, and plot, but what we aren’t going to do is add them willy nilly. I know I’ve stressed this a lot, but I think its time to stress it again (hopefully if I say this enough people will really catch on): The most important part of a story is how all the parts connect and move together. So, in this layer we will add details by looking at causality.You may be asking me now, what IS causality. Its really rather simple: Causality is the relationship in which one event causes a secondary event to happen. When we look at causality in story, you may first think this only applies to plot events leading to other plot events, but that is a rather shallow way of looking at it.

Any aspect can have an effect on any other aspect in your game. Let’s look at some examples of causal relationships from some popular games:

  • The fact that elves in shed ruby tears (setting detail) caused humans to abuse Rose in order to accrue riches (plot point) Dragon Quest IV
  • Cloud handing the black materia to Jenova (plot point) fills him with selfdoubt (character detail) Final Fantasy VII
  • Leaving Robo behind to cultivate the land in the past (plot point) caused a forest that wasn’t in the present originally to have regrown (setting detail) Chrono Trigger

As you can see, almost everything in a game can generally be described as a causal relationship. So how do we go about deciding WHAT causal relationships to put in?

The first thing I would look at is my major characters and deciding how their character should develop within the game is supposed to be. Character development can be both positive and negative. For example, a character grows bitter over the game because of his brother being the favored son, or maybe instead, he learns to not look to others for approval under the same situation.

For the main protagonist, character development usually, though not always, follows the story theme. The reason for this is really rather obvious, the main protagonist is the character we are meant to identify closest with, and as such is the main vehicle for presenting perspective on the story as a whole. Neku of The World Ends with You for instance, has character development pertaining to learning to trust others, which is a main theme of the game as a whole.

Other characters can have more varied development, but should almost never develop counter to the main theme of the game UNLESS it is portrayed as a negative development, otherwise it may lead to theme confusion for the player. Nearly all major characters should have SOME development.

With your planned character development in mind, its time to look at what can cause this development. This will end up with you working in a seemingly backwards method, but it allows you to keep true to the overall theme and your character themes. If you have an existing plot point, character detail in another character, or setting detail that can fit the change in the character, go ahead and tie it in! If not, you can just create a new aspect to cause that change.

So, let’s say you’ve led back to a plot point. Now you get to track back and figure out what caused that plot point. You can use the same method used with the character development above. First look through what you have and see if something could have caused it, if you can’t find anything, create a new aspect. Make sure if you create a new character detail to fulfill this that it fits into their existing personality well.

Other things you can do to create causality:

  • Add minor characters. Minor characters may not have complex development, but they can easily cause development in other characters, or create plot points.
  • Add new setting details. Setting is the cause of a lot of things in games. The way magic works for instance can cause certain rituals to be necessary to accomplish a task.
  • Changing a setting detail. Sometimes events within the game will be caused by a setting detail being actively changed within the game. Perhaps a town is burned down, or a volcano erupts, causing plot points or character personality changes.

You will probably also catch yourself occasionally moving forward chronologically, that’s okay, too. Sometimes, you see a plot point and it just jumps to you how it would affect one of your characters, or you can just picture how one character would react to another character. Keeping it a bit fast and loose at this stage is okay, we have plenty of time to clean up messes in later stages. The main point of this layer is just to make sure that characters have a sense of purpose in the way they are written, and that plot, setting, and character development follow a logical progression.

Bonus Game Design Tip: Working with the medium of games means that sometimes, you will be doing something for the concern of gameplay rather than the concern of story directly. Perhaps, you need a character solely for the skills they bring to the table, such as healing, or as a bruiser. Perhaps, you need to put a town in the setting solely to have a place for the characters to buy some equipment. Try and do your best to connect these new aspects into your story as much as you can OR find reasonable gameplay alternatives that can be connected.

Hopefully, this continued discussion of my story writing methods will have a beneficial causal relationship with your writing skills. Next time, we will cover cleaning up some of the extraneous details we’ve created here, and working more on plot points specifically. Have some suggestions for others? Have some questions about my methods? Don’t hesitate to post in the comments section below.

6 comments… add one

  • Companion Wulf February 3, 2012, 3:31 am

    I *love* causal relationships, and planning their cause and effect. It can be one of the most difficult but rewarding aspects of a game/story. There’s a saying I once heard: “If you kill a fly, you don’t just cause the death of that one fly, you affect potential future generations of flies too.” ~CW

    • Nick Palmer February 3, 2012, 9:13 am

      I like causal relationships because they answer a very basic question: Why?

      And really, answering the why’s of everything by constantly interconnecting all the aspects of your game creates a much tighter story, and makes players have to ask why less themselves :P (unless you just haven’t explained why yet, which is sometimes a good idea)

  • Robin Porter February 7, 2012, 12:17 am

    Watch out for “straight curves ahead”

    • Robin Porter February 7, 2012, 12:26 am

      meh. you can probably forget this for now.

      Straight Curves Ahead is a model I use to explain each characters story (major and minor) and how they interact and affect one another.

      Sound like that should be in your next part.

  • voymasa July 28, 2013, 9:04 pm

    Your two tutorials on layered story design are wonderful! I never thought of things like theme, style, and causality for my stories. I never considered putting such depth in my games. I’ve got some 3×5 note cards I’m going to start using to do this.
    Thank you.

  • Matt June 13, 2014, 3:26 pm

    I love your tutorials! They have helped so much! Can’t wait for the third :D

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