Storytelling is the Most Important Part in Mission Design

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by: Thespian - January 08, 1999 for Freespace Watch

I spent five years, and a large chunk of my own money, to educate myself after high school. A lot of this time was spent in earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology. However, an equally large amount of time was spent earning formal minors in Creative Writing, English Literature, and Performance Communications. I read classics at a voracious appetite. I worked in one writer's workshop after another, polishing my craft in fiction, poetry, and playwrighting. I also discovered the wonderful world of theatre and began to act in everything I could get cast into. Within my college career, I wrote for and edited the campus' literary magazine, published several short stories and poems, and performed in over a dozen shows on both the mainstage and the blackbox theatre. I say all this, not to tout my accomplishments, but to add credence to my ability to assess the creative element, especially as it relates to the narrative form.

Zarathud, in his editorial 'Calling In Reinforcements: The Need to Beta-Test Freespace Missions,' states, "Don't rush the design process, take a few days to think about the mission and to get help if necessary." This statement was made in light of his comments on the need for beta-testing missions, but the fundamental core of his statement still applies to the nature of creating a mission. Most user-created missions seem to be the result of 'just getting in there and putting something together.' This is a fatal faux pas in the mission design process and leads to mission after mission of Endorian-like battles, battles in subspace, and just plain battles that don't work. The problem stems from the initial concept. Without knowing where you are going, how are you supposed to know when you get there?

There are, I believe, some simple guidelines to creating a well balanced and thought out mission or campaign. In fact, a well designed mission is truly a microcosm to a well designed campaign. Like most stories, you need a plot. You need a protagonist (hero) and an antagonist (villain). You also need some type of conflict between the two to act as the driving force for the action. For example, Romeo and Juliet are in love and both families are in full support of the marriage. Who gives a crap? Now, Romeo and Juliet are not supposed to fall in love since they are children of two feuding families whose hate runs so deep as to blind everyone to the other. Suddenly, they DO fall in love and everyone tries to prevent the marriage, many of whom die in the process. Now we have a tale worth telling. There is a reason why William Shakespeare was voted to be the most influential Britain for the past millennium -- he knew how to tell a good story. The same applies to FreeSpace missions. Here are some questions to ask yourself when starting a mission design:

  1. Who is the Protagonist? (Is he or she someone on the edge? a hero? a somewhat grey character that plays between the lines of right and wrong?)
  2. Similarly, who is the Antagonist? (Shivans? A criminal mastermind? The elements of nature itself?)
  3. What forces the Protagonist and the Antagonist to collide? (Fate? Destiny? Poor planning?)
  4. What does each of them have to gain from their surroundings? (Does the Hammer of Light need to maintain the fuel depot in order to stage a major offensive?)
  5. What happens to either if they fail? (Mission abort leads to massive loss of life? Disgrace and removal from a prestigious unit? Life patrolling garbage scowls?)
  6. Finally, does the audience have any interest in the interchange between Protagonist and Antagonist? (Does it really matter that the capital ship went down?)

These probing questions, when answered, help to fine tune the characters and the initial plot of the story. However, that is by no means the end to the creative stage. Once these questions begin to form somewhat solidified answers, questions of believability and realism fall into play. This is sometimes called 'wilful suspension of disbelief.' In other words, the events are told in such a logical and believable fashion that we have no problem accepting the story as it unfolds. The opposite of this is called Deus Ex Machina, which is Latin for 'god out of the machine'. This literally came into play during early Greek plays where the main character was so far boxed into a corner, that the playwright had the 'gods' come in and lift the character off of the stage. (The story of 'Medea' is most synonymous with this kind of an ending, whereby Medea, after killing her sons and setting all allies against her, is lifted on the backs of swans to escape her demise.) To avoid contrived endings and to create a plausible storyline, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Do events happen in logical order? (Does a wing of support fighters warp in before the carrier on which they are based?)
  2. Are facts consistent throughout the story? (If the nature of subspace is the prevention of shields, does anyone in subspace suddenly have them? Is the subspace from Sol suddenly connected to Vega?)
  3. Is there a clearly defined way for the characters to make it through the story? (Is it possible to make it successfully to the end of the mission? This doesn't mean the mission can't be a failure if the story calls for it. However, if the point of the mission is to destroy the capital ship, can it be reasonably accomplished?)
  4. Is the action believable? (Does a science vessel normally destroy everything within a 3000 meter radius without some kind of an explanation? Do fighters normally have invulnerable shields or weapons that can kill with only a few hits? Does it make sense that one Vasudan fighter can take out a destroyer with only a single fly-over?)
  5. Does the action make sense? (Do you need to destroy Alpha 2 in order for your home cruiser to make the jump into subspace? Is it necessary to disable a target only to have a repair ship jump in and fix the unit, then receive orders to destroy the ship anyway? Wouldn't destroying a ship in subspace effectively close the node in which it was travelling, making it impossible to return through that same jump node?)

These may seem like such minute points that they hardly warrant a second thought. Unfortunately, that is often never the case. It is always the small details that help to make or break a mission. Think about your favourite movies, the ones that receive universal acclaim or are contenders for Emmy's or Oscar's or even the People's Choice Awards. There are plenty of Star Wars clones, but how many are actually thought of to be anywhere close to the calibre of the original? It is real easy to get caught up in the glitz and glamour of several capital ships peeling off to engage each other in massive exchanges of ship-to-ship fire while swarms of fighters dance in and out of the surrounding carnage. But if the story doesn't lend itself to such a battle, the overall effect cannot help but be weakened. What keeps gamers engaged in the plot is their wilful suspension of disbelief. They can buy into the fact that a failed run to protect the supply depot will prevent a massive assault on an enemy held system. But, if they fail to protect the cargo and the mission continues on as though the depot were of no consequence, then what is the point of protecting it in the first place?

Finally, all of these suggestions apply more importantly toward the creation of a good campaign. As stated earlier, a well designed mission is truly a microcosm of a well designed campaign. Events in a campaign are the result of one mission leading to the next and the next. A failed mission should lead to an alternative event rather than if it was successfully accomplished. Moreover, each mission should build on the events of the last, while constantly pushing toward foreshadowed events in the future. Storytelling is truly the art of keeping the audience on the edge of their seats wanting more. They want to fully believe in the events unfolding before their eyes. They want to be teased with speculative thoughts about what the future holds, while retaining an almost infallible ability to recall factual occurrences that have just happened. This makes for an enormously dynamic and rich environment in which well planned scenarios thrive, and ill planned ones fail. Take the time to think about what you want to have happen in a mission before you commit to the placement of the first ship, the first asteroid, or the first jump node. In the long run, it will only make for an easier time in development and a much more enjoyable mission for everyone.

After all, isn't that what we demand in the games we play ourselves?