In 2010, Deadly Premonition was a surprise hit among players searching for a deep narrative single player game, and went on to win over a dozen end of the year awards from a variety of media outlets (including Gamasutra).
At GDC 2011, Deadly Premonition director Hidetaka “Swery” Suehiro, revealed his seven tactics for creating a memorably story that will inspire a strong fan reaction.
Point 1: Make gamers think about your game when they aren’t playing it.
Relate actions in the game to actions players take in real life. “Gamers who smoke have said this a lot – when they see York smoke in the game, they want to light up in their living room,” said Suehiro. “Sleeping, Hunger, and Shaving, wanting to stay clean. Though these things seem unnecessary at first glance, they help with the cause and effect.” The goal is to link memories of Deadly Premonition with the player’s actions real world.
Suehiro says he likes to put daily human needs in the game, because they help affect the player outside the screen. “Playful elements” like predictions in the coffee, discussing movies lead to players identifying with the characters. “They’ve also told us they’ve rented one of the movies York talked about in the car,” he said. These things linger in your mind.
Point 2: Make gamers actively “want” to play through your meticulously scripted story.
Being forced to play through a tightly-bound storyline is a chore. “Those rails make the player feel like they’re being forced to do something. How do we alleviate that?” he asks. “How do you make them want to play through it?”
There are two pre-existing methods; multiple endings, and side quests. DP used a third method – freedom of timing – allowing for a “change of heart” from the player. They can stop whatever quest they’re on at any time, and take another path. It creates the illusion of freedom. “Once they’re comfortable, they’re more willing to get involved in the story,” he says.
In other games, including his previous game Spy Fiction, you get scolded for failure. In Deadly Premonition they wanted the main character, York, to go along with the player when he changes his mind. “That’s exactly what I was thinking,” is the feeling York gives the player when he or she goes off the rails of the story to pursue their own path. In fact, an important character within the story itself tells the player that timing is what’s important, not speed.
The goal is to earn the player’s cooperation with the story and suspension of disbelief. To do this, you’ve got to allow for a retry at any time, support the player’s actions 100%, and modify the story to allow for a player’s change of heart. Player feels empowered due to decision being allowed.
Point 3: Creating a storyline for a free-roaming open world game.
“We need to make a universe and characters in our game that are unique,” he says. Vague characters never stick in anyone’s mind.
When creating a storyline, it’s not uncommon that you’d figure out the map of the game world, and character details after the script for the main plot is complete. In DP they created the high level synopsis, then the map and character details, then made a 24 hour action table for each character’s daily life. Only then did they finalize the plot.
“The universe, the environment, and the characters are just as important as the storyline,” he says, especially for a free roaming open world game. “When we started making this game many years ago, there weren’t many games with free-roaming storylines that we could refer to,” said Suehiro, and this was the solution they came up with.
Point 4: Prevent players from quitting the game at the result screen.
Any game that prioritizes getting the player to finish the game over getting the player to want to learn more of the story is already dead. Every pause in a game, such as a results screen or chapter end, is a place a player might choose to quit.
“We inserted a glimpse of the next challenge before the results screen, making them want to know what happens next,” Suehiro said, though he did not address the idea of making a game where results screens and stages aren’t necessary, such as in larger open world games like the Fallout series.
Point 5: Make appealing characters.
“If you can’t remember any of the names of the characters, then that game is crappy,” said Suehiro. Note down everything you can possibly think of about a character, to really develop them so that they’ll stick in players’ minds. “You need to spend a lot of time to make deep characters,” he says. “It really helps to generate a resume for every character you make.”
He creates a mind map for each character, including habits, hobbies, the character’s first love, and so forth. Signature phrases and poses are also important, he says, because they’re easy for fans to recall. “It’s important that your fans can copy the poses and use the phrases,” he says. “You want your characters to have these elements that are copyable and mimic-able.”
“It could be a lot more natural though,” he said, acknowledging that his own poses and phrases for his main characters were a little extreme. The most important point is that the characters have good and bad points. “They say every rose has its thorn,” he says. York, for instance, is a good looking agent, but he’s an otaku and inconsiderate. Each character has a main overlying good quality, but some weaknesses built in.
“It takes courage as a game designer to add a bad side to your character,” he says. “Of course you want everyone to love your characters.” But putting flaws in them makes players actually identify with them more.
Point 6: Direct voice recording sessions.
Characters should speak in a memorable way. How did he voice direct without knowing English? He referred to music and thematic ideas when dealing with the actors. Agent York’s manner of speech is inspired by the Liverpool sound and the British Invasion. “I focused on the how of the lines being spoken,” he said, focusing on rhythm and “musically, how they work in the scene. You need to make sure you have your own set of rules when you go to a voice recording.”
Point 7: Use your ideas whenever and wherever you can.
“What’s most important are your ideas,” he says. You should use all your ideas while you can use them! Even if you feel people may not see everything you’ve put into the game, unnoticed ideas explode when they do get noticed, he says. “You should use your ideas when you can. Don’t hold on to them until a rainy day.” As an example, he showed the fact that the town of Greenvale where the game takes place, is actually an outline of the Dalmatian in the game.
In the end, Suehiro closed with the thought that that, “If I get the chance, I’d like to make another game that makes larger leaps for a world-wide audience.”