Improving the Story (Unity Story Analysis)
Take 60 seconds and click through Life’s a Beach’s intro cutscene (and be sure to select “Campaign” at the main menu). This is what you’ll see–
A sequence of very high-quality (for a cheap webgame) cutscene stills comprising an animatic. This animatic’s job is to give context to the gameplay that follows, and that means explaining (at an ultra-basic level) who we are, where we are, and why the defense-oriented gameplay exists. In response to these needs, this handful of cutscene stills shows…
- Two nerds creating sand castles (the who)
- A beach (the where)
- An angry girl inspiring a mob to attack us (the why).
The last point is what we address this week, as it is the sorest spot in our simple setup. The player’s motivation for defense-oriented gameplay is currently not terrible, but vanilla and undercooked. It involves the main antagonist, Shadia, being peeved and inspiring a mob against the player for…reasons? She’s jealous? It involves the protagonists building sandcastles because…fun? Boooo!
“Our motivations stink. Nuke ‘em.”
- It isn’t clear what the player is defending, other than “themselves”. This is a mediocre motivator, as people respond more emotionally to the defense of others than themselves (much more heroic). Consider every Disney movie under the sun– the protagonist is usually on a quest to help someone else. Spider Man, Batman, etc are rarely hunted themselves– it’s their loved ones and innocents that suffer to raise the stakes. Don’t save yourself, be selfless and save the cat!
- Why is Shadia peeved at us? Stereotypical High School popular kid being a bit neurotic? Possible, but her actions in this scene don’t add up– How would she have any friends if she walked around siccing angry mobs on people doing innocent things (like building amazing sand castles)? If she doesn’t have friends, how can she have the political power to be a useful antagonist? Even if she fears Sandy gaining popularity (to eventually rival her own), she needs a better reason to attack if she hopes to keep her status.
And with these issues, comes a simple fix in the form of 2 new cutscene slides–
“At long last, a home!”
“At long last, a friend! (crabs are invasive to Lake Michigan)”
These two slides, inserted into the middle of this cutscene do some very nice things at very little cost–
- Establish Character : Crab community.
- Make Important : Sandcastles.
- More Likeable : Sandy, Drift.
- Less Likeable : Shadia, the mob.
- New Location : Lighthouse.
- Tension via Moral Dilemma : Crabs are considered an invasive species in Lake Michigan.
This is some good impact for just two slides (which cost $46 dollars total, as Sam Olson is very efficient– Please hire him!).
From cartoons to creepy stuff, Sam can do it all (and efficiently)
The latter two points above may have you curious, as what could the value be of showing a simple lighthouse in the distance? Chekhov’s Gun is a principle in storytelling that goes “if you show something early, you can use it later to great effect”. If a mounted shotgun is shown on a wall in chapter 1, using it in chapter 6 may be a good idea. Consider this– in Chapter 6 the author might have a perilous situation (protagonist trapped in the room by a deranged killer), and the author must come up with a way out of this situation that is “clever” (so not obvious, but still sensical, and without committing a deus ex machina, which is likely to be seen as cheating by the audience). If they introduced the gun in an earlier chapter, it is officially part of the world, and can not be seen as deus ex machina. It is also something the reader is likely to have forgotten about, so it may be seen as clever. A gun is a good tool against an attacker, so it will be seen as sensical. By introducing the gun early, it becomes a great tool for the author later. If the gun is never used though (perhaps the killer ends up attacking in a different room in the final draft?), then the gun is likely a waste of time, and should be edited out or de-emphasized.
It’s probably not even loaded. (from video by Berni0707)
Put differently, I want to use the lighthouse later in the game’s story as a climactic or important location. By putting it in this image, players are likely to notice only in-passing. When it comes up later, users who were paying attention may enjoy some satisfaction– the thought that this just might be a connected, real place, where distant locations may eventually be visited.
An IRL lighthouse on the shores of Lake Michigan.
The final point (Tension via Moral Dilemma) may be the largest victory of this tiny 2-slide cutscene change. Crabs are not native to the game’s setting (Beaches of Lake Michigan), so their existence may be reasonably considered a problem (destruction of habitats, disruption of food chains, etc).
p-pweese don’t kill us…
But but but! They are cute and lovely and humanized via their little luggage bags– they’re in a strange new ecosystem, likely one they didn’t ask for, and they just want a home– but no one likes them, and their demise would be a win for the environment and those who care deeply about it. They’re “fish out of water”– something that any picked-on kid at school can relate to. It’s something our protagonists can relate to as Shadia and the school’s elite bully them.
“You! You HUMANIZED an INVASIVE species!?” -my environmental friends when the game releases, maybe
So, Sandy and Drift have a moral dilemma on their hands, in addition to more selfless goal in protecting wildlife, and the antagonist now has reasonable cover for her antagonizing of the protags (“You’re abetting dangerous illegal crabs!”). It’s a simple setup, but leagues more interesting than what we had only 2 slides prior (bully bullies nerds for building stuff). It also makes crabs the center of the story, giving us a mascot character that we can cutesy-up and feature in ads for more emotional impact.
“Ya think we’ll need to add crabs into all our old victory cutscenes?” “Nah. Sounds expensive.”
These narrative improvements lend themselves to some gameplay changes too–
With this new change in the narrative, gameplay needs a change in order to avoid “Gameplay-Narrative Dissonance” (or ludonarrative dissonance if your goal is to feel smart while confusing people). A common sight in previous versions of the game–
Crabs are hostile enemy units currently.
In our current iteration of the game, crabs are a common mid-level enemy with impressive HP and large swarming numbers. This doesn’t make much sense in a world where the protags (Sandy, Drift) are aligned with the Crab faction, and building sandcastle homes for them. The new narrative suggests crabs should be a reliable ALLY to the player, not a recurring antagonist.
The narrative changes go on to suggest some more interesting design changes down the road–
- Should every stage begin with 3-5 crab escorts? Does the game begin to play more like an RTS in this case?
- Should crabs spawn automatically from a sandcastle object (their home), ala the MOBA genre?
For now, let’s leave it at “remove the crab unit type from the enemy pool”.
“Ready the butter. Our crabs have turned traitor.”
Bonus : New Tower Type (“4Way”)
Surprisingly, this is the first tower that doesn’t require a particular “target” enemy unit.
Very-very-slowly-but-not-quite-so-surely, new tower types are coming online. Please look forward to more discussion of new tower types in next week’s devblog post.
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