Guest Article: On Revenge

written by Game Writer Alex Kain.

The first game script I ever helped write was for a mobile phone version of Road Rash. No, you won’t find it on the App Store—this was back in the pre-iPhone days. Back then, if you talked about mobile games, you weren’t talking about Clash of Clans or a slick port of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. No, you said “mobile game” back then, and people thought of one thing: Snake.

By the time I came onto the Road Rash project, the game’s mechanics were already designed, the boss fights were already implemented and in the game, and there was even a cool movie-style poster that had been drawn up based on the character concepts and hung in the office. The world and characters were there when I came on board, and the overarching plot of the story was in place: a revenge story that spanned the globe, but ultimately involved taking down a biker gang that murdered your lover.

Now, you probably haven’t played Road Rash Mobile, but you’ve played this story many times before. Fortunately for me (and maybe also for you), I haven’t written a revenge story since.

The next few games I wrote, Ninjatown on the Nintendo DS and Space Miner: Space Ore Bust on iPhone/iPad, did not feature any “revenge” themes. Instead, they focused on the following: saving a recipe for secret ninja-star cookies from the nefarious Mr. Demon, and saving your crazy uncle’s space mining business from the ruthless Mega Space Corporation.

I’ll let you guess which plot goes with which game.

These games could have been about revenge, I suppose. I mean, if I really wanted them to be. Ninjatown maybe could have been about a group of cute ninjas wanting to exact vengeance on their enemies for stealing their cookie recipe? Space Miner: Space Ore Bust could have been about the player exacting vengeance on Mega Space Corp. for taking over their uncle’s asteroid field. It’s an easy switch with some tangible benefits, right?

It’s way easier to make the player feel screwed over and then point to the big bad and go, “Hey, don’t you just hate their guts now?” It’s way easier to make players feel like a victim even when the entire game is likely designed as a power trip. It’s way easier to tell a story when your only necessary motivation for moving forward is to kill the bad guys because they’re helping that jerk who wronged you. It’s all so easy!

As I said earlier though, despite working over seven years in the gaming industry, Road Rash was the only straight-up “revenge” story I ever wrote. Things just naturally fell out that way—it’s not like I ever had to go to the mat arguing against somebody turning a game into a revenge plot. But there was only one time in those seven years when I was expressly told to avoid any form of revenge in the game’s plot whatsoever.

That game was Dean Dodrill’s Dust: An Elysian Tail, which I started work on in early 2011.

Well, sort of. Dean didn’t exactly know I was working on it just yet.

What Would You Change?

Let me rewind a little. It was shortly after Dust had taken home the prize in Microsoft’s Dream.Build.Play competition when news outlets began to cover the game. Most previews were rightfully impressed with its insane hand-drawn artwork and vibrant world—I knew I was among those impressed, so I sent Dean a tweet telling him as such. Much to my surprise, he tweeted back.

What followed was an incredible conversation about games, our love of dark-tinged ‘80s animated films, and a shared adoration of the infamously broken, but insanely ambitious Jurassic Park: Trespasser. Dean also mentioned he was a fan of my work on Space Miner, which certainly helped in what was to come next:

I asked him if he had anyone he was running the game’s script past. There wasn’t a lot of story material in the Dream.Build.Play trailer, but there was enough for me to see that I could maybe sorta kinda help. Dean was gracious and kind in his responses, but I’d later learn he wasn’t yet ready to allow somebody else to come in and mess with the game he’d been slaving over every minute of every day for the last 3 years.

He was, however, looking for honest feedback that he could process on his end at his own pace. In a few short weeks, Dean had me set up with a pre-alpha build that I could run on my computer, along with a questionnaire that he had written up with the usual testing questions (“What did you enjoy about the game?” “What did you enjoy least?” “How did you feel about the controls?”). But the one thing I was looking for was at the very end of the questionnaire:

“What would you change?”

What Would I Change, INDEED?

So, I rewrote the first 30 minutes of the game’s script. I didn’t change the intent or purpose of the dialog, but I did alter the language, so it felt more conversational and natural. I made it, as Dean would later say, “less fan fiction-y.” After all, in these types of situations, I don’t think a good game writer tries to make the story their own—the writer instead is trying to find what the creator wants to say, and tries to say it better.

A few weeks later, Dean asked me to start looking at other lines of dialog throughout the game. Then we reached the end of what he’d written (around the midpoint of the Cirromon Caverns sequence), and we co-wrote the rest of the script together.

It wasn’t that simple, though. Nothing ever is.

When Dean told me the original plan for the story, it involved a sequence of unrelated events that would tie together somehow at the end. The village attack in part one, the caverns in part two, the cursed meadow of part three—none of these things were connected at all at first. The only throughline for the player was the “Dust to Dust” quest, which involved the main character periodically finding out minor elements about his true identity (which is unknown to the player for the first 3/4 of the game).

The problem that I had with this approach, and I’d made my displeasure known in the original playtest notes, was that it often required the player to abandon their “quest for identity” to take on completely unrelated quests to help completely random characters. The game’s goals became different from the player’s, and the pacing of the story suffered for it.

In the original plot, for example, Dust is partway through a conversation with a key character and about to learn a valuable piece of knowledge about his identity when an earthquake hits. The ground opens up and a mysterious subterranean world is revealed! Awesome, right? We’ll just finish up this super-important conversation about Dust’s identity and then worry about the big hole in the ground, right?

Instead, Dust decides to jump into the hole and begin the “Darkness” storyline, without ever really resolving the previous one. I felt cheated, and I knew most players would as well. Something had to be done—all I had to do was suggest a better alternative.

So, invoking the skills I’d learned while trying to polish up the already-existing Road Rash story back in the day, I put on my story hat (I don’t really have a story hat) and worked with Dean to tie every single story thread together. Every sub-story became connected. The village attack was connected to the drought plaguing the caves, the drought plaguing the caves was connected to the cursed meadow, and so on. When Dust completes the previously unrelated sequence in the Cirromon Caverns, he comes closer to finding out his true identity and discovers where he must travel to next in his quest to confront the main antagonist, General Gaius.

Gaius tied the whole story together—a mysterious genocidal dictator bent on wiping out the lizard-like “moonbloods” and throwing the world into chaos as a result. There was only one thing Dean wanted me to keep in mind:

“Nothing the player does should be about revenge.”

I was confused at first. That’s not normally the writing direction one receives. “We need more action here!” or “Try to be funnier!” or “Nobody’s going to know what ‘wassail’ is! Have them drinking something else!” Those are the kinds of things I get feedback on. Dean wasn’t asking me to change the story or anything; he was just asking me to make sure that none of the main characters’ motivations were “revenge.”

Additionally, Dean was also beginning to include cutaway scenes that showed Gaius’ point of view. This mad dictator, whose actions directly lead to the destruction and mayhem that tear the game’s world apart, was to be humanized. Even more, he was to be pitied.

See, not even this genocidal madman was motivated by revenge. No, instead of revenge, he was to be motivated by something far more interesting: fear. Fear of what these “moonblood” creatures are capable of, fear of what they may do if left to their own devices, and fear of a past that saw the moonbloods as a far more powerful entity than they’ve been reduced to in the present time of the game.

Landing the Plane

Again, it could have been about revenge—and a lot of the flak we’ve gotten about the antagonist’s actions not being properly explained stems from that, I think. If it was revenge, it’d be a nonstarter. He’s killing these moonbloods because, I dunno, they killed his family or something. Makes sense!

Of course, development realities forced story cuts. It was literally at a point where Dean and I struggled over every single cutscene line spoken at the end. Every extra second was hours of work to animate, get in the game, test, tweak, update, rebuild, retest—this at a time when Dean was already working 20-hour days to get the game done for its Summer of Arcade release. Further exploration of the antagonist’s motivations was lost in the tumult, and we paid the price for humanizing our villain too much.

There were actually many points in the main story when Dust could have been molded into a revenge story for simplicity’s sake. It would have been easy, but Dean was steadfast in his desire to have the characters acting out of a desire to protect, to prevent harm, or to right past wrongs. All of the bosses in Dust are representations of the harm that the central antagonist has done to the world, and all are motivated by revenge and hatred. By defeating them, Dust frees them of their rage. Sometimes it really is just a matter of degrees—as the Blade of Ahrah states, “Justice must be tempered with mercy; otherwise it is nothing more than revenge.”

Ultimately, I think I had to change maybe four lines of dialog throughout the entire game to ensure that Dean’s “no revenge” theme was maintained. Even at the very end, when Dust confronts General Gaius and delivers what Dean called the “I’m a badass” speech, nothing there was about revenge. Dust actually warns the general to surrender because he doesn’t want to fight.

Throughout the whole boss battle, the villain is actually trying to convince Dust to stand down. Nobody really wants to fight. Dust is simply trying to stop Gaius from continuing his campaign, and Gaius is trying to knock some sense into a former ally and close friend. Even though the battle itself uses standard game language (“hit bad guy with sword a lot to win!”), the subtext is far more interesting when the characters are trying to stop that from happening.

When you’re working on a game, the last push to content lock can be like guiding in a plane on a stormy night. The plane is also on fire in this example. And the landing gear is stuck. And the runway is covered in both ice and sharp, pointy objects. Getting a game from 99% done to 100% done can be the hardest thing in the world, so when I was able to play through Dust: An Elysian Tail for the first time from start to finish with no bugs, all the voiced lines in place, and the cutscenes working (which were the last bits of content to go in), I could almost hear the sigh of relief all the way from Dean’s house in Colorado.

Not only was the game done, but it was done the way Dean wanted it. It truly is, as you see when you finish the final cutscene, “A Game By Dean Dodrill.” Helping Dean realize his story was one of the most unique experiences of my career, and you’d better believe I’m looking forward to helping him on future scripts.

After all, there are already plenty of revenge stories out there.

Alex Kain is senior game designer and writer at Venan Entertainment, contributing to such titles as the iOS RPG Book of Heroes and game-of-the-year-winning Space Miner: Space Ore Bust. Since 2007, he has collaborated with several studios on a number of titles, including the Adera adventure series (HitPoint Studios), Darknet for the Oculus Rift (E McNeill), and the award-winning Dust: An Elysian Tail (Humble Hearts). His writing has also appeared in the New York Times best selling graphic novel Mouse Guard – Legends of the Guard.

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