Crossing the Threshold — Revisited

I’ve previously written about tricks we’ve used to help the audience transition between the real world and your story world. There’s a fuzzy line here between reality and game, and working out how to bring your player across this line without friction is terribly difficult.

I’ve been thinking about it a bit more in the context of videogames writing, and have come up with several things we’re trying to do when inducting a player into our world (please, readers, feel free to suggest others!):

  • Set the atmosphere: introduce the player to the trappings of our world in term of mood and feel.
  • Set the emotional tone: get the player in the mindset we want them to be for the start of our story.
  • Set the player’s play expectations: guide the player into how our mechanics work.
  • Set the player’s world expectations: convey how the world functions and what the rules of our world are.
  • Introduce the protagonist: the player is taking on a role; they need to know something of the character they will become.
  • Introduce the protagonist’s knowledge and experience: what does the main character know about the world? What do they know about how things work?
  • Introduce the protagonist’s relationships: who are their friends and enemies?
  • What’s the story? Where is the protagonist? What’s just happened? What’s about to happen?

Some of these points are much easier than others to handle. For many of them, it’s easy to see how you might deal with them in a book or a movie, but far harder when it comes to gameplay, and I think this goes some way towards explaining why game characters are often seen as less complex than characters in other media.

So let’s step through them:

Building the game mood

First and most obvious, we’re dropping the player into a particular style of game world — the world and story has a tone and, feel and texture. Clearly we can sell this in the opening scenes through art, sound design, music, camera, voice, all the tricks in our arsenal — however, we can set things up well in advance of the game starting, in fact in advance of the player even buying the game.

Splash screens. Box art. Adverts. Artefacts. Branding in general. Even assuming no-one reads any background or reviews. consider how much this branding counts towards your player having a feel for the game’s atmosphere.

A few examples:

These covers say huge amounts about the game’s mood even at the point where the player is picking up the box for the first time.

It’s true of the game’s title, too. You expect a particular experience from Doomhammer IV as opposed to Candysimverse: The Fluffening.

As a parallel from immersive theatre — the experience should begin before you even buy the ticket.

This is really an extension of what’s above, but more directly targeted at getting the player into the emotional state you want before the game starts, rather than simply setting mood expectations.

The classic example of this is Hitchcock, on the release of Psycho, who produced a “Manual for Theater Goers” warning about the dangers of heart attacks that might occur while watching the movie. He also announced that he’d made sure nursing staff would be available outside the premiere in case anyone passed out.

I covered a bunch of this when applied to live events in my previous article. This is easiest to do for things like horror (so that the player is already anticipating being scared when they start the game), but is equally applicable to any genre — take a look at Purrfect Date’s art and messaging and tell me you aren’t already feeling gleeful curiosity and a sense of foreboding when you start it up.

You can go to all sorts of lengths with this sort of hype; my go-tos for this are the stage magic and trickery of Derren Brown and Andy Nyman.

Setting boundaries and rules

How should the player expect to play this game? Should they run in all guns blazing? Spend their time quietly exploring? The attitude they take will vastly affect their experience and enjoyment of the game. You’ve almost certainly created your game with a particular player attitude in mind; it’s entirely possible to craft games to cope with different play styles, but it’s not easy.

By default people will normally rely on their existing preconceptions (a word which will come up a lot in this article). Does this look like a first person shooter? In which case they’ll play a certain way.

In most cases before they start the game the player should have picked up cues as to what style of play is expected from the store description, from general PR & publicity, and from the branding hints I’ve already mentioned. But you can’t rely on that, so perhaps you need to get it across at the startup of the game. This can be done with clever design, with tutorials and in-game explanations, but it can be a tricky thing to get right; perhaps you can be a bit more direct.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent has a good example of this. It simply spells out in clear out-of-game-world terms how it expects the player to play.

Amnesia Start Screens

Until Dawn does something very similar, laying out the concepts of the butterfly effect and branching timelines so that the player very clearly understands what is going on.

Sure, you’re breaking immersion here; but there’s a lot to be said for clarity. See also “Clementine will remember that”.

If you have a tutorial level, this can obviously lay out very clearly how gameplay works and demonstrate the pay style you have in mind.

Dragon Age II had an interesting example of this; a small sandbox level right at the start where you had access to lots of powers and tricks that you wouldn’t really have until much later in the game; it allowed the developers to make a promise about what the game would become.

Edited: Rodolfo Rosini points out that you also need to set up the player’s expectations for how the world reacts to them — he’s right, this is important. If the player will have agency in the game, showing them how much agency early on is important.

The question you have to answer for the player in the opening moments is “What is this world all about, and what is ‘normal’ for it?” Some of that work might have been done in pre-game advertising and box art and so on, as above, but we can’t rely on the player having encountered any of that.

So the first experiences are crucial — they need to show normality for this world, not exceptionality. If this is a world where magic is commonplace, then show magic in the first few moments. If it’s a world where magic is the exception, then show how surprised or awed your characters are when magic first makes an appearance. Life is Strange does this well.

This can obviously be done through art, design, narration, all the usual storytelling bag of tricks. The other way it can be done is by using the player’s preconceptions. Is this a world in which one of the initial characters wears a wizard’s hat, or has pointy ears? Magic works, then, and it’ll take a lot to convince your players otherwise! Is it a world in which humans live alongside aliens? FTL travel is normal, then, and probably energy weapons.

The problem here is normally how to break people out of those preconceived notions: ‘I want a world where pointy-eared elves exist but there’s no magic’. If that’s your world, you need to show the elves in the first few moments, but also make it really, really clear that no-one has a clue what magic is. And even then, your players will expect it to pop up somewhere in the story. Breaking away from those preconceived generic universes (‘the medieval fantasy one, the military sci-fi with aliens one, the space opera one, the zombie one, the cyberpunk one, the Victorian vampires one’) is really hard, and few franchises manage much more than a few twists on the generic template.

There’s normally some sort of distance between the player and the player character. They’re different; not the same person. One of the very first things you’ve got to get across to the player is who that player character is; what defines them, what is that difference and why does it matter.

There are many games which offer blank slate characters. Particularly in FPS games, or in many RPGs which offer character generation — any characterisation that exists is created by the player. Often all you can do here is introduce the capabilities of the character, and the player must fill in the blanks themselves. (The player filling in the blanks is often a good thing, building engagement.)

At the other end of the scale, some games have heavily defined characters. These often make heavy use of cut-scenes to show us who characters are before we take control of them.

A really useful tool for all of these characters is to show who they are by the way the rest of the world treats them; by the space they leave in the world. Do they wake up in jail? (Or, for example, in the back of a police car.) That immediately says something about their relationship to the world. What do other characters think of them? Make that come across in dialogue and body language. There’s often some sort of tutorial character they interact with; how does that character treat them, and why? What conclusions can the player draw from that?

One issue that often comes up is when you’re trying to give the player character a different moral outlook from the player. That is very hard; by default, if an in-game character asks you ‘Is slavery bad? y/n’ then the majority of players will reply with the default attitude for fictional heroes in your gameworld. It’s a very difficult thing to shift; to do so, you’d better put them in a situation from the get-go which forms that non-standard opinion.

Many people wouldn’t, for example, actually shoot someone, but many games ask that question pretty early by throwing ‘bad guys’ at you and giving you a gun. In the vast majority of the generic game settings I listed above, this is how ‘heroes’ act, so you pull the trigger.

Again, this is about the player’s preconceptions of the world and the setup; if you want them to behave against those preconceptions, you’d better give them good reasons to very early on. And you can use preconceptions to sketch a character out for them — square-jawed action hero, soldier-with-a-gun, wizard with a wand. See also character classes — fighter, thief, cleric; not only are those skillsets, they’re also character templates.

Giving them history here doesn’t do much to shift the player’s sense of morality. Tell a non-religious player “You have been deeply religious all your life” and then in gameplay show them evidence that god is actually a hoax — that won’t work as a twist, because they’ll instantly believe you. However, giving them a few actual encounters with god (so that they believe it within the fictional world) and then showing the hoax… that might work. Actual in-game experience often works better. Show, not tell. Or rather, play, not tell.

Amnesia often turns up as a game trope for a very good reason. The player should know stuff, because after all they are the character, but it’s hard to pre-load all of that information on to them. See, uh, Amnesia.

This is a good reason why characters are often thrown into a new, unfamiliar world or situation. Stepping into a new scientific research base. Opening the door to a mysterious temple. Going through a wormhole. Opening a wardrobe door and stepping into a forest. The player character is new to the world, and so is the player, and they can learn together.

Similarly, the player character is often from a small, enclosed setting (a tiny village, the Shire, a Vault). That small enclosed setting is either readily understood by the player, or really simple to sketch out. And then the Wider World is introduced drip-by-drip.

Often games use a tutorial character or an early sidekick, who will chivvy you along and fill you in as you go, and make assumptions that tell you about the world.

Again, as with some of the introductions we’ve already discussed, you can use player preconceptions to help you out. Drop them into a small village in a fantasy world, and they’ll assume there’s a blacksmith, and a tavern, and won’t know there isn’t one until you tell them different. Put them in a squad of marines and give them a gun, and they’re going to assume that the person shouting at them is probably a Sergeant or a Captain.

One interesting trick is using your own character to tell you, the player, what they already know. Mass Effect handles this well — when someone mentions the Protheans for the first time, you get a dialogue prompt of “Protheans?” but when you click on it, Shepard actually says something like “I know the Protheans are this and this, but how about this?” Because Shepard knows about Protheans, and you don’t.

Unless this is a comedy, please, please try to avoid the dreaded “As we all know…” — a character standing up and explaining The Current State Of The World to the player character when they both should already know that. It always comes across as contrived and artificial. “As you know, your father passed away six weeks ago…”

I talked briefly about showing how the protagonist fits into the world by the attitude of the people around them. Along with that, you need to make it very clear to them very quickly whether they know the people they encounter, and what they think of those characters. The simplest way to do that is again to reverse it and show what those characters think of the PC, via dialogue — relationships are two-way.

You can also show what the PC feels about a character by the range of dialogue options you give the PC (or by banter/barks, for example in games like Uncharted). Should the PC think their little brother is irritating? In which case, give them dialogue options like “Will you leave me alone?” or “Not you again!” rather than “So pleased to see you!”

Create a situation

The best advice I have for setting up the player’s situation is to drop them straight into it. There’s a screenwriting adage — probably from the great William Goldman: Enter late, leave early. That is, don’t spend loads of story on ‘setting the scene’. Drop the character in the middle of the action, and leave it the moment it’s done. Sketch it out, rely on their preconceptions, and gradually fill in the blanks.

That’s about it for this one — far longer than I intended, but there we go! Other thoughts and comments welcome, and I’ll probably revise this as other examples occur to me.

I’m always really happy to discuss this sort of theory when it comes to interactive experiences — whether it’s games, LARP, immersive theatre, or whatever. Feel free to drop me a line on if you’d like to chat, or on Twitter over at wildwinter.

Ian is a narrative designer and writer of games, films, larp, and books. He is Narrative Director at Ubisoft Stockholm. He is co-founder of Talespinners.