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Sunday, August 18, 2013

Brainstorming, Continued: The First TESS Story

The basic mechanics of the game are starting to come together in my head.  We're rapidly approaching the point where I need to start putting together a prototype.  To do that, I need to put together a story for the player to play through.

I'd like the first TESS (The Expandable Solitaire System) story to put the player through a series of challenges that require different foci.  I don't want everything to be combat-based, so that a combat-heavy deck can just waltz through it.  That means there should be some hacking, some social encounters, perhaps some environmental challenges.

I'd also love to be able to incorporate three act structure into the narrative.  This is a finely tuned narrative skeleton.  When applied correctly, it gives the audience a compelling narrative with a satisfactory climax and denouement.  The structure was used, completely on accident, to great success for several decades before film critics and theorists were finally able to nail down what the good films were doing that worked so well.

The first act of the story introduces the main characters and the world they inhabit.  It also sets up the status quo.  Now, the status quo may be lousy, such as in Star Wars--everybody is under the thumb of the Empire.  Then there is an inciting incident, an event that compels the hero (or heroes) to action.  Often, the hero has no idea that this action will change the course of his or her life.  In Star Wars, Luke just goes off into the desert to find his uncle's rogue droid.  Act one ends with a major plot point that propels the story into a new direction--Luke agrees to go with Ben Kenobi, Neo takes the red pill, the Avengers assemble to help Nick Fury, Dorothy sets off to see the Wizard, etc.

In the second act--which takes up the bulk of the story--there is a great deal of action as the story accelerates.  The hero learns new skills and gains new allies.  However, things keep getting worse and worse for the hero.  At the midpoint, it seems that all hope is lost!  The heroes are about to be smashed by a garbage compactor; the team has been scattered and/or killed; there's a traitor in the midst; things just could not get any worse!  Then things begin to turn around.  The heroes reunite.  The major plot point from the first act is (usually) resolved--the princess is rescued, Loki's plan is discovered, Neo accepts his role in the Matrix and rescues Morpheus, and so forth.  But a new plot point comes along that propels into the final climactic act--the Death Star is about to wipe out the Rebellion, Loki opens the portal, Neo decides to fight Agent Smith, Dorothy must confront the Wicked Witch.

The third and final act includes the final battle, where the hero must use the skills he or she has learned and rely on the new friends he or she has gained in order to triumph.  Han saves Luke's bacon, then Luke uses the Force to blow up the Death Star.  Neo becomes faster and stronger than an Agent.  The Avengers work together to blow up the Chitauri forces and shut the portal.  Dorothy is rescued by her friends and melts the witch.

So how can we incorporate these lessons into our TESS narrative?  First, let's ask some questions about the characters and setting.

Who is the hero?  Well, for the first TESS story, it should be the player.  (There's room to play here, of course.  It is entirely possible for the player to play Han to the story's Luke, but let's not meddle with the formula until after we've perfected the formula.)  The player can be a robot, a cyborg, a human, or an uplift.  That does make things a little difficult; each Persona has different goals, perspectives, and desires.

What does the main character want?  Let's borrow from Serenity for a moment and say, "Freedom."  No matter what Persona the player is using, the character's goal is to be free.  He or she has a starship and a steady enough income to keep it running.  He or she may have a dark past that is constantly trying to catch up with him or her--we'll see how things develop.

What problem does the main character have?  Now we get to the inciting incident.  Uh oh, there's a problem with the ship!  Better land and get your ship repaired.  But this is our inciting incident, after all; it can't be as easy as, "Okay, your ship will be fixed in an hour.  That will be $100."  So there's a problem with acquiring it.  Maybe the city has recently been attacked?  The port was raided, and the mechanic cannot repair your ship right away.  But perhaps if you acquired the part you need?  He tells you of the enemy's base, and says that if you bring back the part you need and some spare parts for him, he'll repair your ship free of charge.

You agree.  That's the first plot point.

Time to sneak into an enemy base.

There will be some opportunities, at this point, to overcome some combat, hacking, and environmental challenges.  The base is surrounded by an electric fence and you need to get passed it.  You encounter some guards and need to take them down.  The door is locked and you need to bypass it.  The storage location for spare ship parts is hidden and you need to hack a computer terminal to find out where they are.  Et cetera.

Now, we need a good midpoint.  A classic one would be to have the hero captured.  You're stripped of your equipment and thrown into a cell until the interrogator can arrive.  You mount a daring escape, retrieve your equipment, steal the parts, and return to the port for your ship repairs.  However, as the mechanic is working on your ship, your conscience nags at you.  The things that were happening at the enemy base were despicable, inhuman.  Can you really just leave these people to their fate?

Of course you can't!  You decide to help out.  That's the second plot point that drives us into the third act.  You gear up and head out to bring down the enemies, using your knowledge of the layout of their base to pick them apart.  Eventually, you reach Weak Point X and use it to wipe out the enemy base, but not before a final climactic battle with the Big Bad Guy and the Evil Mastermind.

Now, obviously, there are some important points to flesh out.  Who are the enemies?  What are they trying to accomplish?  What does the hero see that spurns him or her to action?  But this is a nice, simple plot outline that I can work with.  It allows for several different types of encounters--Social, Combat, Hacking, and Environmental.  It has a beginning, middle, and end, with a nice character arc thrown in for good measure.  I can flesh out the details as I write the story, but this is a solid guide for what, in general, needs to happen.

Thanks for reading!  I'm always up for a good discussion about films and the three-act structure, so feel free to post questions or comments.

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