The Means to the End

I’m sure you’ve heard Machiavelli’s quote, “The ends justifies the means.”

And of course there are a number of counter-quotes that disagree with this justification of utilitarianism, but I want to force a semantic shift to talk about it in terms of structure.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Setup, Conflict, and Payoff. Well, there’s another layer to this: the means to the end. Often, the story hasn’t yet started because there is no obvious path of how to achieve the main character’s desire, which is defined in the Setup and resolved in the Payoff. Basically, the protagonist wants something, but doesn’t know how to get it: (s)he is lacking the means to achieve this end goal.

This could be guidance in terms of a hint or suggestion, an opportunity, even a “call to Adventure.”

What is important is that the means and goal are not confused: the means is the way the protagonist can achieve their original goal, not a new goal that replaces the original desire.

A great example is in Wreck It Ralph, where Ralph’s desire is to be valued and included by both Felix & the townsfolk, as well as himself.

The means is provided through his leaving of his own game, and his subsequent support of Vanellope- through her he learns that flaws are really “super-powers” that are useful elsewhere; and meanwhile, Felix realises that he loses value without Ralph’s contribution. Vanellope teaches Ralph that he isn’t “just” a villain, and he helps her succeed– but the story feels complete when he returns to Fix It Felix Jr and is prized for his role in the game. Through their friendship, Vanellope and Ralph transform themselves and each other, and individually get their desires fulfilled. If Ralph only succeeded in helping Vanellope and this was celebrated as the end of the story, his victory would feel hollow or at most, bittersweet: it would be a different story, one about escaping limitations others put on you, rather than one about being valued for what others put down or take for granted.

Setup, Conflict, and Payoff: Your new Beginning, Middle, and End

I’m starting to think that the middle part of a story isn’t as significant, in terms of audience satisfaction, as maybe we make it out to be. It’s all about the Setup and the Payoff. In between, the Conflict must be what delays achieving the Payoff. That isn’t to say that the meat of the story is put together isn’t important, but that in order for the story to feel “worthwhile,” the Setup and Payoff must feel like bookends to the journey in between. Continue reading

The Seven Minute RomCom

1 page = 1 minute. It’s film. Its generalised.

Page 1: The Setup. End with “I wish” somewhere in there, whether spoken or shown (it’s film.)

Page 2: The Meeting. Make sure they’re opposites, yet the same.

Page 3: The Withdrawal. Something (or someone) gets in the way…

Page 4: Together but Not. That thing is always in the way.

Page 5: You Complete Me. No one gets me like you!

Page 6: Complete Abandonment. Forget it, sever all ties!

Page 7: The Transformation. The wish comes true, for both of them.

Add a wild woman, slightly dorky, and a restless emotional man… done.

A different Journey

For about the last year, I’ve been rolling a narrative concept around in my head; something akin to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, yet less (for lack of a less loaded word) masculine.

I remember one of my university lecturers referring to The Hero’s Journey as “the masculine coming-of-age tale,” and became fascinated with this concept ever since. The theory was, these days, in western society, we don’t have a real ceremony for when a boy becomes a man, so we look to stories that echo older “leave a boy, return as a man” rituals.

The boy is reluctant to become a man, but the village knows he is mature, and sees what is within him; so he is sent out. 

Now, this doesn’t mean that this monomyth only appeals to boys and men, because within each of us there is both masculine and feminine energy or personality. Additionally, as part of a community whether there are both men and women, we are predisposed to recognise and celebrate each other’s triumph into maturity.

However, as someone who had a childhood fascination with fairy tales and who grew up to star in pantomime versions of Sinbad the Sailor, Cinderella, and Snow White, I started feeling that there was something fundamentally different in these stories: something that was the same as the Disney Princess movies and the 90s RomComs I rewatched to indulge my late-20s nostalgia. In RomComs, it is the most hidden, but in Disney animated films it seems utterly transparent. Think of the songs and you’ll see the difference:

…do you see the connection? These heroes aren’t reluctant to go on their journey- they want to go, but they are blocked.

Villains and Unlikeable Characters

I’ve been thinking about unlikeable characters: the villains, antagonists, and characters that just walk around doing more harm than good, or those that start sounding like they have no redeeming features. Firstly, these characters have purpose. Without them, there would be no conflict, and everyone would just be fine and dandy and agree to disagree on things. But the question is: how do I make sure that these characters aren’t one-dimensional “drama-bots”?

I’ll preface this by saying that I’ve played quite a few villains in plays. So when I think about my character, or I begin to work on a bad character, I try to think about them as having real motivation behind their “evilness.” Whatever they are doing, they need to believe that it is, somehow, the right thing. They need to be justified in their bad behaviour, no matter how selfish and irrational it may appear to others. If this is a major character, then significant backstory is required. A minor character? Then motivation is generally enough, but you could choose one random event or a moment when it became their driving force.

Using the example from the picture: (spoiler?)  Continue reading

World Design Tuesday

World Design Tuesday

I’ve been spending time every Tuesday or so with fellow “narrative-driven” game designer Anthony of Handwritten Games, mostly discussing views on games, game development, and writing, as well as workshopping our individual projects. But last week, I suggested we do an activity together. Turns out, this has ended up being a project which we’re both pretty pumped about. Granted, it’s becoming pretty ambitious if it gets to the point of actually being a game, but at the least, we’re designing what we think is a pretty cool world. Stay tuned for updates!

(Image is my own, taken in Slovakia on June 16 2005)

False Fear

Back during my Honours thesis when I was researching about Tragedy and how it functions, I came across the concept of fear/relief as experienced by the audience. Then, when I started researching for the PhD that I never wrote, I saw the same fear-relief brought up in “Leisure Studies” (what they started calling Adult Play Psychology after it became wildly unfashionable for Play theorists to say that grown men and women would ever do anything as frivolous as “play”) in the discussion of Extreme Sports, and again in the rituals of sport. Fast forward a few years, and I find it again in books on Trauma Therapy and overcoming PTSD. I even find it in books on nutrition and adrenal-related disorders such as Adrenal Fatigue or unusual cortisol levels.

Today, in the video on High Concept films, I heard Michael Hauge talk about the promise of emotion: the emotional journey that the viewer will take, through identifying with and relating to the hero. I guess Aristotle wasn’t far off, if these concepts are still being discussed today!

So what was the common thread that I found through all these varied discussions of us humans, fear and relief? When we talk about “adrenaline junkies,” or those who love horror or thriller films or violent video games, are we talking about people who have something seriously wrong with them, who are obsessed with “danger” or violence or something else unsavory and ultimately detrimental to our society?

Well, as far as I have read and reasoned, this couldn’t be farther from the truth (besides, that video pretty much ruined my life-long love of Back to the Future).

When we watch/see/experience something that makes us feel as though there are high stakes, we get stressed. We go into “fight or flight (or freeze)” mode, a state of “high arousal” where our adrenal glands flood us with adrenaline. But rather than worrying about all the things that does on a physiological level, psychologically we become just a little more used to being in a high-stress, high-stakes situation. Now, I can imagine the short-sighted response to that. “Normalisation of bad things like violence is bad and makes us more violent!” Well, no. Normalisation of “bad things” can actually be good, provided they’re talked about. Here’s what happens: we experience something “stressful,” but are subconsciously/consciously (developmental psychologists are pretty sure that it’s conscious but willingly suppressed from the “age of reason” ie “when the child starts playing make-believe”) aware that it’s not really stressful and we’re actually safe, so we use it as a way to prepare ourselves for the real situation where we find ourselves actually in danger. Now, I don’t know how widely accepted or agreed with Peter Levine is within the world of PTSD treatment (I can imagine them thinking his methods are too “hippy”), but he points out in his book “Waking the Tiger” that the individuals least likely to suffer PTSD are the ones who feel the most empowered to respond to the situation. Neither he nor I are talking specifically about Military PTSD, but any situation where we are “powerless” (Levine quotes Freud’s description of traumatisation).

So next time you watch a scary movie, ride a rollercoaster, read a book about war crimes, indulge in the original Tales of the Brothers Grimm, play an almost-R rated FPS, or even watch the news, be aware of your play-training. Because just like a puppy play-fights, by experiencing that “false fear” and the relief that follows, you’re learning to keep your cool in a tough situation, making yourself more resilient and more trauma-proof.


I’ve noticed I’ve been a bit afraid to work on my game… stalling a bit. I mean, I’m always juggling my health, as well as changing jobs and moving house over the last few months, but I’ve been distracted from working on it like I wish I was driven to do.

So I’ve been trying to really understand myself, really get a feel of what I want to be doing (and whether it fits) and figure out why it might not be on the top of my list.

Georgia&Dragon-smaller.jpgThe conclusion that I’ve reached is that I really want to play to my strengths, I really want to do a good job, and I’m scared that either I won’t be proud of this, or I will be making something of a cop-out. In other words, the idea is there, but the vision isn’t. I want to make something “me,” but of course the self is an always-changing concept, especially when going through life changes such as illness (or healing), job search/changes, or moving house. So now, I’m fairly settled, I feel well, and happier that I have been for a long time. I’ve had some moments of clarity, and I’m hoping to get a lot of work done. Hopefully you can all see something very soon!

Don’t be it, just experience it

I just finished reading the GDC talk by Richard Lemarchand, Lead Games Designer at Naughty Dog, “Attention, not Immersion.” Firstly, I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t and didn’t see it at GDC.

But I actually wanted to post about something he mentions about 1/7th of the way through (pages 17 & 18)…

If I could reach into your mind, make you forgot who you were while leaving your
skills and emotions intact, and have you literally believe that you were Nathan Drake,
hanging out the back of a cargo plane with the desert floor a quarter-mile below you,
and gun-wielding enemies above you, you probably wouldn’t be excited and
entertained in the way that everyone at Naughty Dog hopes for, for players of our
…you’d almost certainly be scared witless! No disrespect, you understand.

Continue reading

Coming Soon: More on Writing for Games

On Sunday morning, I was part of a tiny panel (there were two of us) on Writing for Videogames at SwanCon. We had a modest attendance, which was to be expected considering that Saturday night is the Ball! Anyway, in preparation, I looked over my Powerpoint presentation for my guest lectures on Narrative Structure in Games. It’s been so long since I’ve looked at it that when I did, I actually learned something from my own notes. I don’t necessarily agree with what I wrote, as it was three years ago, and I’ve changed and learned since then.

But I’m going to take some of the concepts and turn them into (hopefully) useful posts.

Oh, and the panel went pretty well, I thought. Most people seemed to enjoy it, or at least were engaged.