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September 17, 2019
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Creating a narrative focused mission design document: A Last of Us example

by michael how on 08/23/19 10:30:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Introduction:

I always begin by asking a lot of questions and researching. Throughout my career I have worked on numerous sequels to IP's that already exist. The best thing you can do in this case, is master the game genre and study the world. I've had to delve deep into Halo, StarWars, Hellboy and the Division to name but a few IP's. Good game designers are good researchers.

The Last of Us: Left Behind was masterfully executed upon by Naughty Dog and I certainly wanted to do my homework before attempting this project.  If you haven't played Last of US, go play it! It's honestly one of the most incredible stories and their character development is second to none. Developers can learn so much from their process. Due to their heavy focus on narrative; Naughty Dog call their Mission Design documents - Chapter Outlines. I think this is a nice touch. It makes you think more in narrative terms as you create content and give your designs a more narrative focused structure.

Warning - this will contain spoilers for Last of US and Last of Us DLC.

Content Created:

  1. First pass 3d sketchup - Gives an overview of the layout - layout can be ported to engine or created in engine. 
  2. Chapter Outline - Overview of the content created with images/goals and descriptions
  3. Scrivner - used for research to develop a timeline, understand characters/motivations and themes. 
  4. Visio Flow - This highlights the beat by beat flow
  5. Intensity Graph - this allows you to plot the intensity of each beat and ensure the pacing refined
  6. Pure Ref - Gather reference for the area/beats and mood

Sketchup Tips:

Sketchup is extremely useful for rapidly creating layouts. I find it really quick to develop layout prototypes and work with the layer structure to show hide content.

It really helps to create a pallet of objects you intend to work with before you get started. In the example below you can see a pallet of all the objects I would likely repeat in a cover based shooter. 

I'd also suggest creating gameplay relevant objects in clear colours so they pop and can be identified at a glance. Try to keep the screenshots simple and guided, usually with a camera angle that best illustrates the gameplay intentions. 

Scale is always important - use the metrics within sketchup to keep things to scale and reflect the metrics within the game world for key affordances like cover,mantles,vaults etc.

Use the labeling system within sketch-up to help plan the key verbs, actions and activities. Anyone viewing the file should be able to get some sense of the player journey through these callouts. 

Scrivner Tips

Such a great tool for creating and cataloging research. I love the way you feel like a detective with your own cork board connecting all the dots. I used it to develop the connections to other characters and also look at the core themes demonstrated throughout the game. I also examined meeting points and repeated references to subject matter that helped me identify the strong themes. I created the document whilst doing a second full run through of the game and also referencing the wiki pages available online. 

Chapter Outline Tips:

Stay on Stick - As a level designer we want to focus on the moment to moment gameplay. The writers will be able to do a much tidier job with the narrative than we can. Try to tell stories "on stick" and in game. If you have suggestions for narrative these can be welcomed, but the core focus needs to be on the moment to moment gameplay and how that will relate to the bigger picture and goals for the character. I have sort to flesh out some Cutscenes in my example but this was more to complete the story and offer some details. In a traditional development setting; these would be driven by the narrative department. 

Avoid Kill All - Look for moments to create different emotion and avoid a feeling of each encounter being a "kill all" objective. Players should be offered a varied experience and the tone and emotion will help achieve that. Look for moments for players to feel empowered, then raise tension, surprise the players or deny affordances to increase difficulty or change the strategy. These moments will pull the experience away from a kill all and become a more immersive and intelligently crafted experience, making players feel smart. 

Lean on your themes - Try to reflect on the key themes and tone of the entire narrative during your chapter and look for chances to develop characters or feedback to their core character traits.

Create a crisis point - Craft the chapter outline with a crisis point that pulls the player our of their comfort zone and varies the pacing in a way that is meaningful and challenging. Try to structure this towards the middle of a 3 act/mission structure. 

Introduce new things with extreme care - Lean into the existing mechanics and only modify them with care. In this example - as it is DLC -  I sort to make an introduction of a single new mechanic. Players might expect small meaningful gameplay additions with new paid content but with the main game, reinforce or get creative with what is there.

Allowing Ellie to pierce fuel and light it would be a memorable systemic ingredient to use in a tight pinch where multiple enemies are present. 

Visio Flow:

Reference the key locations,objectives and layer them together. Try colour coding them to check your variety or intensity - cool/warm. Also try to form a super high level flow of the content start to finish. Think about the key things player must do and how each space connects logically. Try to ensure that there is variety in the visual pallet as you progress through each area. Try to ensure that the tone of each beat matches the visuals in some way. 

Created a flow with more detail that handles any logic branches, epic moments or cutscene events. This will also allow you to get a greater understanding of your pacing. Narrative moments should almost exclusively be focused around down beats. Avoid pushing the player into combat and competing with your narrative moments. 

A thumbnail flow with high level concept or images will allow you to track a very basic colours script and ensure that the locations are varied. Try layering in the locations above the key beats and see what you have. It should allow you to ensure that the mood can match the beats. Narrative focused games are particularly careful with the colour tones to ensure they match the mood of the beat. Given the subject matter and themes In my proposal, I aimed to start of with a suitable dreary misty/raining street to match the mood of the girls. We can vary the weather and tone to ensure that the characters and players have moments of hope, and these are reflected in the visuals.

  • Blue: soothes pain, comforting, sadness (western)
  • Red: stimulates body and mind, increase blood circulation
  • Orange: energizing, revitalizing
  • Yellow: purifying, stimulates nervous system
  • Blue + Red: increases physical energy

Naughty dog have always been open about how they aim to match their color script to their tone and mood with each chapter of their games.You can see an example colour script in the reference at the end.   

Intensity Graph:

The intensity graph will allow you to plot the intensity of each beat and ensure that you have some down beats - commonly referred to as calm after the storm. If your content flat lines the experience will likely be less memorable. Players get fatigued with too much intensity or bored when it lacks drama/action or subversive moments. 

Reference:

Gathering reference which is really close to the area that you are working with is really helpful to nail the scale and feel of a place. In real world settings try to get lots from google maps or image search. In this case I chose Back Bay Boston as it was referenced as a quarantine zone in Last of Us and is also where the girls are infected during Left Behind. Knowing this, it was the perfect choice for setting and reference for the chapter outline. I try to gather reference that speaks to the gameplay and mood or tone. 

I also gathered reference that would help inform the metrics of the spaces and cover. Usually you'd have your cover metrics defined but in this case, I had to eyeball the character and make some educated guesses about the metrics and heights.

My goals:

Answer questions left unanswered in The DLC and develop existing characters further.

Story Setup:

I had a start and I had an end already to the chapter outline. The end - Ellie finds Marlene. We know this because we see her with Marlene when we meet her in Last of Us.  Marlene has become aware she will not turn into an infected. I had a timeline to fill in, Ellie, being infected with Riley. "I say we loose our minds together". I needed to answer the questions and fill in the blanks to get Ellie to Marlene. You can learn a bit more about Ellie and Marlene relationship prior to Last of US through the comics. 

---------------------------------------------------

Chapter outline Example - The Last Of Us - Turning Point

Introduction

"There are a million ways we should've died before today. And a million ways we can die before tomorrow. But we fight for every second that we get to spend with each other. Whether it's two minutes, or two days, we don't give that up. I don't want to give that up. My vote? Let's just wait it out. Y'know we can be all poetic and just lose our minds together."

The Last of US DLC – Left Behind ending is an incredible story to tell for a chapter outline – It posed so many questions and would allow players to explore the emotional end of the close relationship between Ellie and Riley. Like any good story it begins with a lot of questions that need answering.

Questions

  • What would they do?
  • Where would they go upon discovering Ellie wouldn't turn?
    • Possibly to Marlene?
  • How would Ellie reach Marlene?
  • What would the girls go through to get there?
  • What would Riley behave like?
  • How would Ellie cope with her transition?

Ultimately it feeds back to one of the main assertions in Last of Us. Relationships will cause nothing but pain and always end in tragedy. “All roads lead to the same end” Both Tess and Bill impart this message. Tess often scolds Joel when she notices Ellie and Joel beginning to bond. “Hey! stay focused!” Bill also seems aghast that Joel has picked up unnecessary ‘baggage when he see’s Ellie and warns Joel about staying with her. The world Naughty Dog has created inevitably reinforces this through the very fabric of its human and infected interaction. 

* The chapter outline begins 2 days after the girls are infected. The turning point.

Story Goal

Work with Riley and get Ellie to Marlene

Primary Goals

  • Locate a radio to contact Marlene and let her know you are coming
  • Escape the warzone and get to Marlene

High Level Gameplay

  • 20 Minutes play
  • Start on the back foot within a warzone
  • No guns during the mission
  • Desperation
  • Take out or avoid clickers and Military
  • Run from large clicker swarms or avoid them completely
  • Preserve your supplies as best you can
  • Avoid sweeping search lights

Synopsis

 Riley is turning quickly. As it takes over her mind she is growing increasingly aggressive and unstable. Ellie however, is not. The girls have come to the conclusion that Ellie won’t turn. She has no symptoms and there is no visible spread.  They decide to act quickly to move Ellie to Marlene. Riley is desperate to get Ellie to the Fireflies - it becomes her final vow. Riley originally pushes Ellie, motivating and helping her. As the infection takes hold her behaviour starts to contrast dramatically; she grows angry and irritable, lashing out.

As play begins, Clickers are flooding down the main road towards a military compound. The girls must infiltrate it and try finding a radio in order to get in contact with Marlene. The girls must avoid armoured Military Humans and infected along the way. They move through derelict buildings, ledges and alleyways, silently taking out the military occupants.

Chapter Emotions

  • Fear for Riley’s safety
  • Make every moment count
  • Desperation and overwhelming odds
  • Fear of Riley turning
  • Relief when reaching Marlene
  • Shock when Riley turns
  • Sadness

Chapter Themes

  • Life Is Cheap
  • Supplies keep you alive
  • Sound Is your enemy
  • All Relationships have the same end

Mechanics

Existing mechanics

  • Throw-ables – Bottles and Bricks
  • Co-op gating – Spam SQUARE(or hold) to just make it through the barricade and avoid the clicker swarm
  • Bats,Pipes,2x4’s
  • Conversational moments – once threat is cleared or avoided; Ellie is given the chance to speak to riley and check on her. Push TRIANGLE to trigger dialogue.

New mechanic

  • Sabotage Fuel with Ellie’s flick knife or Shiv by pressing   – Shivs are destroyed in the process
    • Lure enemy in to the spilt fuel with a brick or bottle or set up the trap at the end of a patrol path.
    • Throw “Match Box Bomb” – when thrown at a flammable source it will ignite it. Collected from supplies Explosive and Binding
    • Or Shoot fuel for a spark(but risk drawing more AI to you)
    • requires you to locate a gun first

Reference

Chapter Enemies

  • Clickers
  • Assault Weapon- Military

Gameplay Beats

Gameplay Key

The Radio tower is seen in the distance (in gold). Enemies on the wall rain down fire to the other side of the wall at approaching Clicker packs. The ongoing war between the military and the clickers means the area is lit up with tracer fire and explosions. Tension mounts with the gun fire as they pick off the Clickers one by one. The lower door is signposted and the cover objects on the ground, draw the eye to the door.

02_LOU_TP.jpg

When you turn to the right you have a 2 options – one is the path of least resistance to the left and is quicker. The path on the right is further away but would be good for some supply rummaging. It is away from the military so should have less threat.

03_01_LOU_TP.jpg

The view down the alley to the right has a well signposted ledge leading into the building.

03_LOU_TP.jpg

 

If players chose this longer path, we reward their exploration with supplies and also allow them to stock up on throw-ables. This also places them in a more empowering position when they engage the first threat on the lower level – from behind.

03_02_LOU_TP.jpg

 

From here players can move out into the main building keeping cover between them and the Military in order to try deliver a Switch blade kill from behind.

04_LOU_TP.jpg

Once the player leaves this space they can go up the stairs and enter cover in order to avoid LOS. One patrol is preoccupied firing out the window. Ideally players should try to distract one threat whilst they choke another. There is some high cover in the center of room to make it an option - one patrol guard can pass out of LOS of his mate. The patrol loops them around to a conversation where both girls can attack simultaneously during the conversation.

05_LOU_TP.jpg

Once the threat in the room is dealt with or avoided (players must take out the threat at the window) players can leap out the window onto a thin ledge outside. They must shimmy along the edge to reach a cross over point that allows access to the radio tower. In game event -  During the shimmy Riley is seen to buckle forward and nearly falls form the building. Ellie stops the fall and helps her back to her feet. They both push on. The girls exchange a quick quip. 

06_01_LOU_TP.jpg

The next building contains 1 primary objective and further dilapidated confines.  There are 2 military patrolling the area. One is covering the radio whilst the other is roaming on his basic patrol checking out the window and moving to other POI’s in the room. Players have solid cover available in front of them which takes them closer to the primary objective. They should look to time their kill on the radio operator or dispatch the patrolling guard behind high cover.

07_LOU_TP.jpg

Once the radio is used and Marlene alerted to the girls location. They establish a rendezvous. Before too much information is exchanged the girls are rocked by a huge explosion from outside. The Clicker warfare is building in intensity. At that moment clickers burst through the wall and fan out into the room. Players must look to quickly relocate to the zone in the stairwell and try to separate and flank the Clickers to kill them or simply escape out the window.

08_LOU_TP.jpg

Players quickly reach the street dropping down from the roof of a truck. They are set upon by more clickers bursting round the corner and down into the street. They player must bash through a sewer barrier in an intense moment to allow passage through to the park by spamming SQUARE

09_LOU_TP.jpg

As players pass under the road they are exposed to the carnage above. Clickers are killed in numbers above them and gun fire illuminates the tunnel.

10_LOU_TP.jpg

On exiting the sewer players are getting closer to their objective and fleeing the warzone. There is still a sentry up ahead taking out Clickers in the park. These Clickers can be avoided or engaged. It does make more sense to avoid them here as the risk/reward ratio is high.

11_LOU_TP.jpg

Clickers spawn to the south dropping in over the park fence and lumbering their way up towards the sentry tower. Player must aim to cross this hazardous path and avoid the sweeping light of the watch tower. The bridge sign posts the players path along with debris leading player down to the shallow waters edge. The idea with the water is to push Ellie towards her own fear in order for her to escape. The desperation means she is willing to move from her comfort zone. The water should feel creepy and ominous. The sweeping spot light punctuates the foggy night with the clickers adding a creepy ambience to the area.

 

12_LOU_TP.jpg

 

END IGC

IGC – Game Sequence Complete

 

The Firefly outpost is seen above them back lit.

Clickers still rush through the streets below them

Both girls take in the view above - they can see the shadow of Marlene illuminated from behind

“We’ve made it…”

Ellie turns to Riley but is met with a cold gaze, her eyes are starting to glow slightly…

“Riley…”

Riley begins to shake violently and screams, she is turning right in front of Ellie.  

“Riley please!!!!” Screams Ellie as she trains her gun on her preparing to fire.

A shot rings out from the balcony above her slamming into Riley’s heart. Riley stops, staggers and slumps forward, then slowly falls to the ground. Ellie rushes over and cradles her.

Riley has a last moment of clarity as the blood seeps out of her

Riley leans in close to catch her last words. Riley’s breath is caught before she speaks, and her head slumps backwards.

Ellie begins to pound on her chest, she is utterly distraught.

Her strength leaves her and she falls forward..

“Please don’t leave me…”

She exhausts herself holding riley to her chest.

Marlene comes forward from the shadows and slowly picks her up.

As they leave, the light above silhouettes them both holding each other for support.

All roads lead to the same end..

Take Away

When asked by Sam during The Last of Us “What are you scared of?” Ellie replies – “scorpions are pretty creepy – then offers  “being by myself…I am scared of ending up alone”

This chapter should help the player truly understand some of the reasons that led to this fear. Ellie’s promise to stay with Riley to the end is broken and she has no choice but to leave on a different path. Indeed this helps Ellie's character develop towards this fear of being alone – given everyone she cares about, is taken from her. Which plays to what I consider a central theme in Last of Us - All roads lead to the same road. In this they mean, everyone who means something to you, will be taken from you. 

Conclusion

I hope this example is helpful and that you enjoyed the chapter outline and what I consider could have happened as the girls turned after one of my favourite pieces of gaming content -  the masterful Last of Us - Left Behind.  This is by no means the best or only process, it's merely a process which I find helpful, hopefully you do too. 

Hit me up in the comments with feedback, or if enough people are interested in the workings files, I can make them available. All photographs/reference and images used remain the property of the incredible artists who created them. 

Reference

 

 


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