Narrative In Viola
Viola was a solo project I worked on in 14 weeks using Unity 2017 back in the beginning of 2018. It is a 2D side scrolling platformer where the player journeys with two sentient fairy weapons in order to defeat Giallo who has captured the fairy kingdom, and save the forest.This project contained combat, platforming, ingame cutscenes, boss fights, and dialogue creating 25 minutes of gameplay.
Besides the fact I created everything in the game, with the exception of most art assets + music files, the real highlight is the narrative design. This was the first title I both concepted + implemented a full 3 act structure containing 5 characters and a journey for the player to go through. I first learned about the 3 act structure from my time at DigiPen and Viola really shows how a structured narrative can really carry a game.
March 10, 2019
Before I go into the 3 act structure and how it is used in Viola I wanted to go over my design choices for incorporating narrative into the game. Some of the more major elements when using narrative in games is making sure the storyline the player goes through is intertwined with the gameplay. In Viola, the combat, setting, and levels are all just a reflection of what the player is doing and where the narrative is taking them.
In concept, the gameplay style I went for with Viola was movement focused. Meaning combat is more the player trying to dodge and survive instead of aiming their attacks. Therefore the weapons would auto-aim, giving them a sentient feel, and thus connecting
The importance of aspects like this is that the actions and abilities the player is taking is, in some fashion, justified. This avoids the moments of players questioning the game and its design resulting in an immersive and fluid experience. That is our jobs as designers no matter if its levels, gameplay, UI, or narrative. Our jobs is to be user experience designers and lifting the game up so players can enjoy it without question.
Full Gameplay Video
to the narrative idea that the weapons themselves are characters in the story. Additionally, the levels the player is going through is not content for content. Each serves in delivering a different narrative beat and only exists because it needs to. Their structure and purpose were defined ahead of time for the story to flow making it easier to create and also more interesting to play as a user.
Stories and narrative have multiple elements that all come together to form a cohesive and intriguing experience. One of those elements is characters and its one of the most important since everything is expressed through them. Too many characters and the audience gets confused or loses interest, too little and there's nothing to connect with or interesting perspectives to explore.
For Viola, and most things in general, the sweet spot is 5 characters: One protagonist(You), One antagonist(Giallo), and 3 supporting roles(Blu, Rosso, Old Man). It was not just some arbitrary quota that needed to be filled, however. Each character has its own role and purpose to push the story along. They were created in need no want.
Giallo who is the misunderstood villain taking extremes for a complicated and not so clear cut goal
The protagonist who is the player’s vessel in projecting themselves into the narrative
Blu who is the naive and optimistic being the representation of good and innocence
The Old Man who is the sage guiding the player and supporting them in their lowest point
Rosso who is the rough pessimist contrasting Blu’s views
Each character is a force created to push the story where it needed to be and thats how all characters should be made. Audiences can easily see through what character’s purposes are and if not justified will hurt the main narrative instead of helping it. Additionally, it is vital to define these characters relationships to each other beforehand so everything is cohesive. Cohesion is vital to a narrative in any format. Without complete cohesion there are obvious flaws and hiccups players will pick up on and remember over anything else.
The 3 act structure is strongly present in Viola and is why the game has a strong narrative cohesion. I am not going to go over the complete narrative of the game but here is a link to my design document if you would like to see my process and more on the game can be found on the project page.
I am going to go into what the 3 act structure is and how to use it in your game. The basic idea is there are 3 major acts to a story, each having its own narrative beats of equal length that the plot fits into and fit into a curve of excitement and tension. The curve brings the player or
viewer along for a ride creating a memorable experience. This same structure is used in most movies and a lot of pop music. If we break down the acts we can go into depth of what the specific beats are/mean:
Act One: Intro, Reveal, Break
Act Two: Ride, Turn, Fall, Death
Act Three: Plan, Climax, Resolution
Act one is one of the most important acts in any narrative since it sets up everything. The intro beat has to introduce all the characters in some capacity, the world, and at
least hint at the main conflict. This is the reason why a lot of stories feel really fast at the start. It is because you need to fit everything into this one beat to allow the rest of the story to easily flow. The reveal it where the main conflict really comes up and the break is where the hero starts their journey and leaves home. The inciting incident in Viola is when Giallo declares war, destroying the village and capturing the fairies. The player then has to leave their safe home for the first time to fix things. Act one is the foundation to the rest of the narrative and if not done correctly can cause confusion and loss of immersion later on.
Act two is where we see the hero really taking on their mantle and doing their job. The ride of the fall is the training montage. Its where the superhero puts
on their suit and get ready to take on the world. It’s high excitement and everything is going great. Then the turn happens where the hero starts questioning their work, if they can do it and not everything is resulting in victory. Still high excitement but tension is causing a less steep increase. Finally we get to the fall where the hero really messes up. They are defeated or crushed and then the death where their most loved thing crushes them. This could be a literal death such as a companion dying or more figurative. The important part is this is the lowest point. Its bleak, its dark. It's not fun and there is a loss of almost all hope. In Viola this is where I strip the players of all their powers
and plunge them down to darkness. The player needs to feel the weakest here. The death is important in setting up a power difference in Act 3.
Finally we get to act 3 which is essentially wrapping up the story. In a lot of movies this is the last 30 minutes where the hero collects themselves. They figure out a plan and execute it. They get to the climax where they fight the antagonist for the final time and whatever happens the resolution ends the story. Never skip the resolution. The engagement drives up high during the climax but without any resolution there is a feeling of emptiness when the story is over. All quests, stories, character conflicts need to be wrapped up here.
That was an extremely surface level explanation of the 3 act structure. I can write articles just dedicated to analyzing and detailing the important aspects of each beat. The purpose of this blog is to more give some insight on what I used to design my narrative. It is to show how each part of the story has a planned purpose and effect on the player.
If we are being honest, Viola does not have the best story. I do not claim to be a narrative designer and I am not here to write complex and interweaving plots. I do understand how these stories are structured and more importantly how the player will perceive dialogue and narrative. I utilized level design, gameplay, dialogue, and cutscenes all to deliver a full story to the player. The plot could have been better. The characters could have developed more. But by following the 3 act structure everything felt connected. Each part of the game felt like it belonged and carried the player through the game.