Iron is Thicker Than Blood (Building Virtual Worlds: Round 4)

Round 4 turned out to be the one dedicated to the story, and I was excited at the prospect to flex some of my writing muscles. Granted, I’ve been utilizing my writing skills to some degree in all of the rounds, but to be able to use what I’ve learned in my past more so this round was an appealing prospect. However, while the narrative aspect was a major piece, it was still only a part of the criteria, with the prompt instructing us to “tell a compelling, meaningful interactive story where the guest has some ability to interact to bring the story to a fulfilling climax.” From this, I extracted key phrases to hone in on:

  1. meaningful, interactive story
  2. a guest has some ability to interact/advance the story

I interpreted this to mean that not only does the story itself have to have some decent sized stakes to keep the guest involved, but the interactions the guest does should be meaningful the story and/or world as well. Not only would this highlight the guest’s importance as a character in the story, but it would also emphasize the actions/consequences that the guest makes.

This was also the round where I learned about the “story stack”. The story stack is a basic representation of building the basics of a game in an abstract sense. More importantly, it highlights what are the most and least flexible aspects of these basics. Below is a diagram of the story stack:


The story stack includes many concepts I was aware of and supports a philosophy I subscribe to, but I had never seen these thoughts mapped out in such a neat and simple way before. Learning about the story stack confirmed my belief that every aspect of a game or experience should support each other in some fashion. Furthermore, different creatives tackle experiences from different levels of the story stack. While it is generally believed that starting from the bottom and working up works best (since the Fantasy will determine the Actions and could ultimately help shape the World by proxy), companies like Disney may start from the Story level, since that is what they are most concerned with. In short, the story stack was an excellent lesson to learn and absorb during this round.

With this structure in mind, the group got to brainstorming. While we initially disagreed on where to start in the stack (with some thinking we should start with Story since that’s what this round was more focused on), I brainstormed as recommended: from the bottom up. It should be noted that the platform we ended up with was the Valve Index, so usage of hands and finger detection would be important in the interactions the guest would be doing. With all of this swirling in my head, I got work and came up with a handful of Fantasies that I thought would be interesting given this medium:


Making things from clay to impress someone? Build something?


Various movements / gestures to cook things?


Magic symbols / ninjutsu


Building something? A mate? A representation of your creator?

Heavy Metal / Rock Band

Instrument playing? (crazy guitar solos) Singing?

After meeting up with the group again, the one that really seemed to spark their interest was the Robot one, especially with the spark of an idea of rebuilding your creator. We continued to utilize the Story Stack to the fullest, focusing on Actions and World next. I consulted with the wonderful programmers in my group and got a list of actions that would work well on a mechanical level. This list included simple interactions such as picking up objects, turning a wheel, sliding objects, and more. Taking all of the above into account, and making sure to have “robot building X” as our mission statement, we moved on to World.

Our World turned out to be, as one professor put it during Finals, “complicated”. And to a degree, that statement is very true. Aesthetically, we borrowed heavily from Fallout 3, especially in robot design while adding a pinch of steampunk into the mix. We had a mix of technology ranging from big gears to floppy discs to robots with BIOS sequences. What made the world truly complicated were all of the Story elements we added to it shortly after.

So we had the basis for our story: “robot builds creator.” The bones were there, now it was time to add the meat. But to do that, questions had to be answered about the World for the Story to make sense. Some of our key questions included:

  • Why are you building your Creator?
    • Is there an emotional connection?
    • Did he die?
      • If he died, how?
  • Does the Robot have free will, or is he programmed to carry out this task?
  • How will the Robot rebuild the Creator in a compelling and meaningful way?

After many long discussions, we managed to work out the answers to these questions and then some. We painted the Creator (now named Dr. Judah Wilson) as a brilliant scientist. He was a pioneer in the field of robotics until his untimely death during the Robot War. Now, a robot is turned online (played by the Guest) and it is up to them to power up this workshop and bring Dr.Wilson back to life.

To do this, I designed a series of short workshop-based interactions/puzzles to get to the key moments. This involved finding the correct gear to fit into a machine and turning a large wheel to light up the rest of the workshop. A scanning feature was implemented to highlight key items that the Guest can interact with to progress.

Making sure the Guest was able to advance through the experience as well as comprehend the information being given to them in the forms of pseudo-code displayed in the HUD and other screens, world interactions, and voice-over was a monumental task. Given the World we built and the various aspects of lore we wanted to convey, it became that much more difficult. Designing and writing the ending had us make some hard choices. While I do not know if they were 100% successful, I stood by them nonetheless. Even with my experiences in writing, this round taught me the vital truth that while creating stories could be natural, delivering compelling stories are HARD. It also told me that while I’m skilled at building worlds, characters, etc. and while I’m familiar with narrative aspects, that doesn’t necessarily make delivering stories easier.

Creating a world is one thing, but telling a story is another.

While I am now focused on game design, writing will always be a huge part of my life and skill set. I had not combined these two worlds in a while, and it showed me that I need to start doing that again in order to become both a better designer and writer. In a good way, this round was humbling in the sense that it reinforced that I still have a lot to learn and a long way to go, but still love the journey.


Programmers = Siqi Wang & Badri Mohan

Artists = Yifan Deng & Marieke Van Der Maelen

Sound Designer = Lawrence Plofker

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