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The Best Stories You Can't Read

Arkadium Inc's Matt Plotecher on what Disney theme parks can teach us about effective, subtle storytelling

I've always believed that one can use a narrative to truly elevate a user's experience. Likewise, I've also always believed that this does not have to take the form of a series of intrusive pop-ups, filled with exposition and dialogue.

The art of blending a storyline into a game, especially a casual or social game, tends to require a mastery that most have yet to achieve. Part of this is the simple fact that most would rather not even attempt such a feat. After all, apart from cute-looking characters and candy-like environments, why bother even taking such a risk? The fear that the story elements will merely distract the player from the core game mechanics is ever present.

The implementation of ungainly blocks of text - or even long passages of audio - usually detract from the player's overall enjoyment. However, it needs to be understood that there are other, more elegant ways a story can be introduced to even in the most simple games.

One of the examples of this type of subtle story structure is not even found within video games, but rather located in the self-proclaimed happiest place(s) on Earth: the Disney theme parks.

Disney's theme parks do a flawless job of demonstrating how to seamlessly weave narrative into a user experience. It also helps that rides and attractions function very much like video games

You may ask, "Why use theme park rides to talk about narrative in games?" My reply: Disney's theme parks do a flawless job of demonstrating how to seamlessly weave narrative into a user experience. It also helps that rides and attractions function very much like video games - the underlying mechanics are meant to evoke a specific emotional response. If you've been to a Disney theme park, keep your last trip in mind as you read on...

First of all, the queue area often gets a lot of attention, and for good reason - this is where you spend most of your time at the park (or, at least, it can feel that way sometimes).

The queue is vital for getting the user to buy into the narrative of the ride. Just the look and design of the queue line can sell you on the idea that you're in a futuristic space station, or that you're exploring the ruins of an ancient Indian temple, or that you're walking through the port of a Caribbean island in the 1700s. Everything about the queue is reinforcing what the tone or feel of this ride is, and it pretty much always happens through indirect information.

Consider that there isn't a big sign outside of "Star Tours" that says something like, "On this ride, you will be boarding a tourist spaceship that has some problems on its trip."

Instead, as you move through the queue, you see that you are in the docking area of a spaceport. You see laser scorching on the side of a ship, hear the droids talking about how the ships are breaking down, and all of the dialogue and actions are deliberately humorous. You know from simple observation that this ride is going to feature some wacky hi-jinks.

Takeaway 1

Story mood, tone and foreshadowing can be conveyed through audio environment, visual design and smart use of images. The less that a player needs to actually read, the better.

Next, while it may be subtle, the main Disney rides usually have some sort of actual storyline, complete with a beginning, middle and an end. Here are three examples:

1.) The Haunted Mansion: At the beginning you arrive at the mansion and attend a séance to summon the spirits; the middle unfolds with you seeing the spirits flit about the dining rooms and graveyard; the end closes with a hitchhiking ghost following you home and haunting you for all eternity.

2.) The Tower of Terror: The beginning sees you entering a once-famous, but now-abandoned, Hollywood hotel and taking a service elevator up to the site of a mysterious disturbance; during the middle, you see the ghosts and enter into another world; at the end, you are dropped to your doom into the bowels of the 5th dimension.

3.) Mr. Toad's Wild Ride: The beginning has you joyriding through an English village; in the middle, you are tossed into jail; but in the end you escape, run headlong into an oncoming train, die, and go to Hell.

Incidentally, those endings don't really seem to gel with the whole "Happiest Place on Earth" proclamation, but that's a topic for another time.

Now, is this really that important? After all, a fun ride - like a good game - is going to be successful mainly based on its underlying mechanics. If the thrill ride has no thrill to it, or the core game mechanic is amazingly disappointing, no amount of story is going to make it better. But I would argue that the value of the narrative comes in more subtle, yet powerful ways.

Remember, the human brain has been honed for thousands of years to recognize the patterns of classic storytelling. We are intrinsically wired to the construction of stories, and so when these elements are present, even if we might not be directly aware of them, it's easier for us to make an emotional connection, and thus make the overall experience much more engaging.

Takeaway 2

Never underestimate the brain's ability to find comfort in familiar patterns. Construct your story correctly and the players will find the overall experience more enjoyable.

To make a final illustration of my point, let's make a comparison of two thrill rides: the "Top Thrill Dragster" at Cedar Point in Ohio and the "Kingda Ka" at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey. Both rides are basically identical: you blast down the track insanely fast, rocket up a single hill over 400 feet tall and then come back to the station. All told, the ride lasts about 20 seconds from start to finish.

The human brain has been honed for thousands of years to recognize the patterns of classic storytelling. We are intrinsically wired to the construction of stories

Both of these coasters do their job very well. However, because they provide very similar experiences neither one stands out from the other. But imagine that we took "Top Thrill Dragster" and themed the ride - just for the sake of argument - on Dante's "Divine Comedy." To be precise, we'll call it "Dante's Divine Comedy: The 20 Second Edition."

Since it's a themed ride, the queue line would be properly decked out to look like the users were wandering through an Italian village, complete with frescos depicting Dante and his life previous to the tale. The riders eventually work their way down into the "dark wood of error," which is the boarding area. The ride would blast riders through the nine layers of Hell, up the mountain of purgatory, through the spheres of paradise, up to touch the face of God, and then return to Earth, better for their religious sojourn.

The underlying mechanics of the coaster have not changed, but I'm willing to bet people would find it more fun, have a greater emotional response and even use it as the benchmark: "'Kingda Ka' is like 'Dante's Divine Comedy: The 20 Second Edition,' but not as much fun."

Why would they do this? Because the user's brain was even more engaged. It found a familiar structure and has latched on to that, even if it's on a subconscious level. The proper underlying narrative structure took an already great ride and made it even better.

Takeaway 3

A good storyline can make a great game even better - something I like to call "The GLaDOS Effect," named in honour of the computer system who serves as a narrator/antagonist in Valve's excellent Portal games.

The next time you play a game think about its narrative elements. See if it has an actual story structure and, if so, whether or not the game is taking full advantage of that resource.

Because, just like with the Disney theme parks, if you look closely enough you just might find some magic beneath the surface.

Matt Plotecher is a game designer at Arkadium Inc. For more information about Arkadium, click here.

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