I wrote in my last post about the challenges and opportunities of adapting existing properties into games. But what about games that create entirely new characters and worlds? The best original games do this so well it seems effortless, but the creation of a great game property from a story and character point of view is no less rigorous or painstaking than making a feature film, novel or television series. Matthew Weiner would need every bit of the anal-retentiveness he brings to Mad Men to create a game as coherent and narratively satisfying as many of the 99-cent apps that keep us coming back again and again.
One game that I think has built a narrative world beautifully is Beat Sneak Bandit. This game embodies many principles that are true to both game design and good storytelling of any sort, ones that I try to keep in mind whether I’m writing for games or television.
We Need a Hero
Having a central figure to relate to and root for is key, especially for kids (though Beat Sneak is not a kids game per se). This game has the Bandit, an Austin-Powers-esque figure who moves forward a step each time you tap the screen in time to the beat of the accompanying soundtrack. We never hear the Bandit speak, but his cute, compact design and jazzy finger snapping along with the music make him an extremely appealing figure. His distinct character design and limited animations bring him to life as well as a lengthy monologue ever could.
Tell a Story – But Don’t Get Bogged Down
I love the way the creators of this game have embedded their narrative into game play. An extremely brief intro sets up that the Bandit has broken into the castle of the arch-villain, the Duke, to steal his clocks, and the game begins. After this point, the narrative is detailed nearly entirely at the choice of the player. On many of the levels, there is a ringing phone that you can answer when you move the Bandit underneath it. This is optional, but if you answer the call, a short conversation ensues with either the Bandit’s sidekick, Herbie, or the Duke, which plays out as an overlay of text on screen, explaining more about the current situation. Other than these conversations, the narrative in the game is extremely minimal, appearing at most as an explanatory screen when a new level is unlocked. This is a clever technique because it leaves the amount of narrative up to the player – if you want to see the story pieces, it’s easy to know how to access them, but if you just want to go ahead and play, there’s nothing holding you back.
Build a Character Web
The best narrative experiences, whether they’re sitcoms like Seinfeld, costume dramas like Downton Abbey, or kids properties like Winnie the Pooh, build a great group of characters and get a lot of mileage about seeing how they interact with one another in different circumstances. Take any two or three characters and drop them into a situation and there’s always something funny, dramatic or engaging that will happen because of their internal dynamics.
In Beat Sneak Bandit, this dynamic comes into play not only with the characters (the Bandit, the Duke, and Herbie), but also with the obstacles that the player faces on each level. There are spotlights that alert the Duke to your presence, guards that you must sneak past, and even weird flying vacuum machines that suck you up if you’re unfortunate enough to wander beneath them. These obstacles and enemies in the game form a kind of character web themselves. You may have figured out how to get past a guard on one level, but add a spotlight or a vacuum machine to the mix on another and you may have to change your strategy. This layering of obstacles is a common element in games, but the limited number of these elements in Beat Sneak Bandit and the care with which they’ve been designed both visually and from a gameplay perspective really gives each one the feeling of being another character in the game.
The Ending Makes the Story
The other realization that I came to playing this game is that a Boss Stage essentially guarantees you a narrative arc. This is a classic element of platformers, familiar to anyone who’s played Super Mario Brothers or countless other games of its ilk. It offers a mano-a-mano showdown with the hero’s archrival, one that you’ve been building up to as you’ve conquered each one of the game’s episodic levels. Beat Sneak Bandit pits our hero against the Duke, who has created an elaborate machine to try and crush the Bandit. It’s challenging and well designed in and of itself, but it also has some narrative oomph because you’re finally face-to-face with the enemy that’s been working against you for the entirety of the game. Like the climactic shootout at the end of a great Western or the hero and heroine kissing in the rain at the end of a romantic comedy, a good ending leaves a game’s audience feeling satisfied and properly rewarded for the effort that they’ve put into the game experience.
Playing a game like Beat Sneak Bandit, where thoughtful attention has been paid to the narrative elements, is a pleasure in and of itself. For me, it has the added bonus of underscoring a fundamental truth that applies to all media — good writing matters.
Which games do you think have great story and character? Drop us a line at kidsGotGame@noCrusts.com or @noCrusts on Twitter.