A Comprehensive Game Design Methodology
From First Ideas to Spectacular Pitches and Proposals

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Level Five: Architectonics

Process Phase Level Five

Beat 1. Partitioning

Quantifying & Qualifying

To establish a basic dramatic structure for video games, we have to differentiate between dramatic partitioning and dramatic development first: the playing experience is quantified by the former and qualified by the latter.

First, the dramatic partitioning:

  • Beat. A distinct event within a game level, equivalent to the “beat” as the smallest unit of measurement in a screenplay.
  • Level. A unit that frames a specific place, time, motif, or player proficiency (if either changes, it becomes a different level). It’s roughly equivalent to the familiar dramatic unit of a “scene,” but in terms of duration more similar to scenes in a stage play than to the considerably shorter scenes of a screenplay.
  • Sequence. A unit that groups two or more game levels into a higher narrative unit by place, time, motif, or player proficiency, equivalent to how the term “sequence” is used in a screenplay.
  • Act. A major segment within a game, which can be everything from a single act to usually not more than five, equivalent to the familiar dramatic unit of an “act.”

The partitioning scheme follows the traditional play/screenplay pattern for both unit distribution and naming conventions, with the exception of levels.

It’s the most familiar pattern, and a very effective one. But it’s certainly not set in stone. It can be tinkered with, replaced by dramatic partitioning schemes of different cultural origins, or abandoned for something entirely new. (The structure of the Ludotronics paradigm, for example, has beats and levels, but uses phases instead of sequences.)

Then, the dramatic development:

  • Story Development Arc. This is an arc that evolves through effectively placed dramatic events, either by applying dramatic elements known from plays and screenplays (exposition, plot points, turning points, pinches, escalations, climax, and such), or by applying elements from different structures, both Western and non-Western, like kishōtenketsu, jo-ha-kyū, or repetition-break.
  • Character Development Arc. This is an arc that the player character goes through in the form of an inner journey, represented by structures based on Western and non-Western myths alike, among them the hero’s journey, the medieval quest, nostos (the return home), and others, often outwardly expressed through actual travels.
  • Player Development Arc. This is an arc that the player goes through by mastering challenges with well-placed and well-paced progressions of game mechanics and combinations of game mechanics through actions and decisions.

Both the dramatic partitioning and the dramatic development structures are less like manuals and more like recipes. If you follow them, you’ll probably create something delicious. But you’re free to experiment with different setups and, possibly, create a whole new experience. (In a good way or a bad way.)

Fig.4.37 Dramatic Units
Fig.4.37 Dramatic Units

These caveats notwithstanding, the tripartite structure of the Dramatic Development section is a core aspect of the Ludotronics methodology. Integrating the player development arc deeply and deliberately with the story development arc and the character development arc is among the reasons for the Architectonics territory’s very existence.

But the difference between the two latter, the story development arc and the character development arc, is also important. These arcs are often treated as if they were one and the same, which they are not. Like Poe’s purloined letter, the difference is so obvious and in plain view that it can easily elude perception. To substantiate this difference, let’s look at two examples: the original Star Wars movie, deservedly famous for its adoption of the structure of the hero’s journey, and 1997’s Titanic.

For Star Wars. you might have come across those fringe discussions about where the original Star Wars movie truly begins—when Leia’s ship is pursued and violently entered by a boarding party or when Luke receives Leia’s message through R2-D2’s holographic projection. That’s a remarkably unproductive question from the category of not even wrong. First off, Star Wars begins when Star Wars begins, with the opening crawl. Next, the boarding of the diplomatic ship is the inciting incident, a dramatic element from plays or screenplays, and as such the beginning of the story development arc. Why is it the inciting incident? Through several dialogues—between Leia and Vader and then between Vader and Daine Jir—the screenplay goes out of its way to emphasize that the violent takeover of a diplomatic ship is not business as usual. It’s the first “imbalance” that the inciting incident is there to create, the first step toward upsetting the world’s existing order that, in our example, will lead to the dissolution of the Imperial Senate and the Republic. The world’s balance is reinstated at the end through the destruction of the Death Star, courtesy of the stolen plans the whole boarding business was about in the first place. Then, there’s Leia’s holographic recording that R2-D2 uses in its abbreviated form to lure Luke into removing that pesky restraining bolt. This is the kick-off for the character development arc, structured after the hero’s journey, known as the Call to Adventure. It leads Luke in rapid succession to the journey’s subsequent elements of the Supernatural Aid (Obi-Wan), the Refusal of the Call (Luke won’t leave the farm), and the Crossing of the First Threshold (after the farm is burned down and Luke’s foster parents are killed).

Then, James Cameron’s Titanic. Smack in the middle of the script, you’ll find three consecutive scenes: Jack and Rose make love in a 1912 Renault Towncar in the cargo hold; Rose’s fiancé discovers Jack’s drawing of Rose and her tell-tale note; and the RMS Titanic hits an iceberg. These events, you probably guessed it, belong to different dramatic structures. On the one hand, there’s Rose’s Apotheosis or Initiation, the “innermost cave” element from the hero’s journey and part of her character development arc. Making love in an automobile in the Titanic’s cargo hold is as innermost cave-ish as it gets. On the other hand, there’s the fiancé realizing that Rose and Jack have an affair and there’s the Titanic hitting an iceberg. Together, they form the so-called Act II midpoint plot point from Syd Field’s screenwriting paradigm that spins the action into a different direction. (Why two events, the fiancé’s realization and the collision? Well, it’s a love story against the background of the sinking of the Titanic, not an action movie about the sinking of the Titanic with a love interest thrown in, that’s one reason. Also, we know the collision will happen, so it can’t spin everything into a different direction alone.) Thus, we have the midpoint’s double-whammy from the story development arc and Rose’s Apotheosis from the character development arc neatly side by side in the middle of the script, where they belong.

In both movies, Star Wars and Titanic, the story development arc and the character development arc operate on different levels but blend into each other so seamlessly and beautifully that their elements seem all of a piece.

Now, what about games that are not dramatically complete, as touched upon in this level’s Opening? Do they have all three development arcs? Or only two? Or perhaps just the player development arc, and nothing else?

As discussed in the Procedure phase’s Level Two: A Travel Guide to Motifs, even a game like Pong runs the whole gamut of game mechanical, ludological, cinematological, and narratological elements, however barebone. But not all games have all three dramatic development arcs.

Tetris is a good point of entry, again. The player development arc offers four learning experiences: getting better at manipulating the tetrominoes and doing that faster; and getting better at recognizing and exploiting stacking patterns. These are not easy learning curves, far from it, but they’re not particularly expansive. For the story development arc, it’s similar. There is no story, but there is dramatic development: the tetrominoes fall faster and appear more frequently. It’s pretty basic, but it’s a dramatic structure. Now, though, we run into a problem. Tetris has no character development arc. The reason is that Tetris belongs to a game type that lacks a continuous player avatar. There’s no tiny construction worker on the screen who’s spinning the tetrominoes and pushing them sideways.

However, when we consider game types that have visible avatars—paddles, rocket ships, plumbers, and so on—that are not only continuous but can undergo temporary or permanent change through power-ups or leveling-up, we do have a very rudimentary form of the character development arc. Such avatars, e.g., can become faster or bigger or obtain new moves or accelerated fire rates, and so on. Or they can experience setbacks and become slower or smaller at times (like the paddle in the original Breakout). It’s not a hero’s journey all right, and it doesn’t make such games dramatically complete. But it can be helpful, even necessary, to think along these lines during the design process and figure out how and when the player avatar can evolve in interesting ways.

Let’s turn our attention back now to what every beat in this level is ultimately about: integrating the three development arcs into player action and harmonize them with theme, player motivation, and player emotion.

Integrating the three development arcs into player action is the most difficult step. When the story development arc and the player development arc are at odds with each other, this often leads to the excessive use of cutscenes, as mentioned in this level’s Opening. When the character development arc and the player development arc are at odds with each other, this can lead to ludonarrative dissonance, a term coined and introduced by Clint Hocking in “Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock.” As an example, a game can demand player action like killing and looting that isn’t compatible with becoming a more enlightened, compassionate person/character by gaining insights into the theme. This should sound familiar. While there is good evidence that Hocking’s original example BioShock, touched upon in Level Four: Narrativity, creates this dissonance deliberately, that’s certainly not the norm. Finally, the story development arc and the character development arc can also be at odds with each other. This mostly happens when, during design, they bleed into each other instead of remaining distinct, so that plot points cannot be deliberately set up to strengthen journey stages and vice versa.

In the upcoming beats, a range of different techniques to integrate the three development arcs will be introduced, among them the concept of empathic tasks, developed and discussed in-depth from different perspectives in Beat 3. Paradigms Lost and Beat 4. Problem Space.

Fortunately, harmonizing a game’s development arcs with theme, player emotion, and player motivation is much easier. We will do that by integrating the emotional landscape and dramatic purposes in two intermediate steps. As a refresher, here’s our model of the emotional landscape that we developed in Level One: Integral Perspectives I:

Fig.4.6 The Emotional Landscape
Fig.4.6 The Emotional Landscape

The three development arcs correspond to the three classes of the emotional landscape, fear, pity, and fiero, in the following ways:

  • The Story Development Arc with its turning points and escalations is connected to the fear class as the dramatic situation players could, at least in principle, see themselves in.
  • The Character Development Arc with its journey-like structure is connected to the pity class as a progression of dramatic hardships players can empathize with or relate to.
  • The Player Development Arc with its player actions and decisions is connected to the fiero class through the dramatic representation of the players’ actions.

The difference between “empathize” and “relate to” in the character development arc is the difference between emotions from non-player characters (that the player can empathize with) and emotions from the player character (that the player can relate to as a series of basic human experiences around initiation and transformation).

To integrate these emotions in your dramatically complete game, you need to sketch events for all three development arcs across your dramatic partitions, and assign to each event one or more emotions from the appropriate palette that you want your player to experience over the course of the game.

Now we can proceed to our second step toward harmonizing the three development arcs with motivation, emotion, and theme: welding the dramatic partitioning scheme to purpose. Every single beat should either:

  • move the story’s plot forward,
  • move the character’s development forward,
  • move the player’s proficiency forward,
  • or move any combination thereof forward.

Every level, in turn, should have a group of beats that advance all three development arcs as distinct and meaningful bundles of plot, character, and player development progress.

On the basis of these purposes, eventually, we can harmonize our development arcs with theme, player emotion, and player motivation:

  • Moving the story’s plot forward. The Story Development Arc deepens understanding through exploring interesting aspects of the game’s theme, questioning assumptions, and revealing new perspectives through the lenses of theme-related motifs.
  • Moving the player character’s development forward. The Character Development Arc deepens player emotion by widening players’ understanding of the game world, deepening their relations with NPCs, and exploring their inner selves.
  • Moving the player’s proficiency forward. The Player Development Arc deepens player motivation through pushing players toward the goal with physical, cognitive, and empathic challenges that continuously improve their skills, knowledge, understanding, and attitude.

That way, everything in your game will be integrated in meaningful and robust ways through several layers of purpose.

Fig.4.38 Dramatic Unit Matrix
Fig.4.38 Dramatic Unit Matrix