The Making of Tragedia: Crafting an Immersive Story
As this marks the first post in my “the Making of Tragedia” series, I thought it appropriate to begin with the game’s story, as that is where I began in my development. But first, a quick introduction of the game itself. Tragedia is a classic-style role-playing game that I have been working on for a few months now. It is being developed in RPG Maker VX, which has proven to be a wonderful tool that allows me to primarily focus on the game’s design and story. For this post, I won’t be discussing any specifics for the story, so no need to worry about spoiling the game if you plan on playing it later.
I came up with the basic premise of Tragedia at least a year or two before I decided to make it a reality. It all began with a simple sketch of what would become the main character, Reks, wielding a sword that featured his eye in the blade. I titled the picture “The Marionette and his Master,” and that was the spark that initiated the ideas for the game. At that time, I did not yet possess the skills or knowledge to create the game, so it sort of disappeared into the abyss that is my game concept folder.
After the unfortunate disbandment of the Delirium team, I decided I wanted to start work on a new game, something that I could work on during my free time but that could still showcase my skills as a designer and storyteller. After playing through a few RPGs over the summer, I knew it was time to try my hand at the complex genre that is the role-playing game. I sifted through my game concepts folder, trying to find something that would work as an RPG, until I rediscovered the Tragedia document and sketch. The ideas were vague, but I knew there was something there, so I set about fleshing out the game’s story and mechanics.
To be honest, the story needed a lot of work. I had a few basic ideas for the characters and the world, but for the most part, they were just names and basic descriptions. I took the concept that would become the beginning of the game, and from there, I began to consider what kind of journey I wanted the main character to undergo, and what kinds of lessons I wanted them to learn along the way. As I continued to work on the story, I wound up having a starting point, an end point, and a jumbled mess of stuff to go between. The next step for me was to create a timeline of significant events, so that I could organize all of that jumbled mess and give it context. As I created more characters and story elements that I wanted to introduce, I would find a suitable place in the timeline where they would make sense. Of course, there are lots of different ways to craft a story, but if you follow this timeline method, I recommend reading through your timeline multiple times to make sure it is comprehensible, since it is easy to stick an element where it doesn’t belong just because you want it in the story. Not everything that I wanted to include in the game made it into the final timeline, but don’t get discouraged if that’s the case. I was able to rework some abandoned story elements into side quests or optional backstory, and that’s far better than trying to cram stuff into your core game that just doesn’t belong. The main thing to remember is that your story needs to make sense; if it doesn’t, or if it deviates too far from the main storyline at times, you’re likely to lose your player’s interest.
Story is a tricky thing in any genre, but when it comes to RPGs, the large emphasis that is placed on a game’s narrative makes things even more difficult. When people hear that your game is an RPG, they are going to have certain expectations, and one such expectation is an immersive narrative filled with interesting characters. Would Chrono Trigger or any of the Final Fantasy games be as highly regarded if the developers just slapped on a loose, uninteresting story right before release? A good game intertwines the story and game design from the very beginning of development, and that is exactly what I have been trying to do with Tragedia. The story, characters, and mechanics for Tragedia were all developed in conjunction with each other, which allowed each aspect of the game to influence the others. A character’s specific traits and backstory can influence everything from their appearance and equipment to skills and word choice, while the narrative itself can influence environment and level design, the types of skills and strategies available at that time, stats and game mechanics, and much more. By developing the narrative and core game design at the same time, you’re allowing for a more immersive and intuitive world.
So what exactly am I doing with Tragedia to give it an immersive story? Part of it has to do with creating a believable fiction for the world. You want to establish this fiction early on, as well as create relatable characters (something I’ll delve into more in a later post) and a world that feels grounded for the player. That’s not to say that your game should be completely realistic, but it should have elements that hold true over the course of the game. Just as you wouldn’t want to change the rules of the game constantly, you don’t want to stray too far from the core fiction of your game world. In Tragedia, there are knights and magic users, but if I were to introduce a character that uses modern guns or a robot, it would break the fiction and probably confuse the player. A world without any limits is an unrealistic one, as there needs to be conflict and boundaries to help the player progress and stay grounded.
Another key factor in immersion is the balance of backstory. A lot of RPGs tend to be heavy on backstory, but it’s critical to strike the right balance. Too much backstory can make your player feel like they’re in a history lesson and they have no effect on the game, while too little backstory could result in a lack of interest in the game world. It’s certainly a difficult thing to balance, and I know I have a lot of work to do for Tragedia with this, but if done correctly, it will keep your players from wanting to put the controller down. One of the things I’ve done with Tragedia is to keep a lot of the backstory as optional, where players can discover more information from minor NPCs and side quests, but if they aren’t interested in hearing the game world’s history, they don’t have to.
Most of what I’ve talked about so far are concepts and guidelines to help you write your story, but what about the actual writing? For me, the technical side of writing for an RPG has been a learning experience. Having never worked on a game that involved lots of dialogue or an extensive story, I had a hard time figuring out where to start, and wound up making several rookie mistakes. Since RPG Maker allows me to input dialogue into events, which makes it extremely easy to write text on the fly, I found myself writing all of my dialogue as I added new content. After a while, however, I realized this way of writing made it difficult to maintain things like character voice and the overarching storyline, aside from just being plain impractical. The story was there, but it felt disjointed at times, and character voices tended to meld together. My solution? Stop trying to write dialogue on the fly! Dialogue is an integral part of narrative, and it is a serious injustice to not take the time to really work at it. I converted all of the dialogue from the main storyline into script format using a program called Celtx, and have since been going through to make changes that enhance the overall story. Now it’s important to note here that I use the script format, versus a more traditional narrative style. If you’ve done creative writing in the past, you might be tempted to try writing your game like you would a novel, but the problem with that format is that it tends to be heavily invested in the details of the surroundings, what the characters look like, etc. While you certainly should care about details like that, it is easy to get lost in them, and if you’re trying to focus on dialogue writing, they can become a distraction. With the script format, you can still include some details, especially actions, but can direct your attention to the dialogue between characters. For Tragedia, I have the design document, which houses all of those details on the locations and environments and whatnot, and a separate script that only details actions and dialogue.
Crafting immersive narratives for any game, RPG or otherwise, is certainly a challenge, but you are not alone! There are plenty of books and blogs out there that cover the very subject, and you can always look at how other games handled their stories. I recently read through Character Development and Storytelling for Games by Lee Sheldon, as well as Writing for Video Game Genres: From FPS to RPG, and I highly recommend both. As a last little tidbit, if you are unsure if your story is coherent or interesting, ask a friend of fellow developer to read through it! Sometimes, we can become so wrapped up in things that we need a fresh opinion, and critiques will only help you to become a better writer.
As always, feel free to leave a comment, critique, or question below, and stay tuned for the next post in “the Making of Tragedia” series!