Notes on Narrative Design by Dan Tabayoyon, Lead Narrative Designer of BLood Vessels, Kongregate.
“All stories are lies. But good stories are lies made from light and fire. And they lift our hearts out of the dust, and out of the grave.”
― Mike Carey, Lucifer, Vol. 11: Evensong
I don’t know if anyone else has this problem, but when I go to the movies and the setting is someplace I’ve been to or know intimately, I’m immediately looking for landmarks, familiar places, streets I’ve stood on, places I’ve had dinner, the works.
My wife is from a small town called Sitka, Alaska. Back in 2009, a cute little rom-com called The Proposal came out, set in Sitka, starring Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock. For whatever reason — financial or fictional — they filmed in Rockport, Massachusetts. Rockport, for as lovely as it is, looks nothing like Sitka. Not even close.
We got about 15 minutes into the film before we had to stop.
My wife kept grumbling about how nothing about it looked like it was supposed to. Not the buildings. Not the streets. Not the people. Not the trees, of all things.
She couldn’t let it go.
It wasn’t a bad movie, per se (your mileage may vary). It was just… wrong.
No shade to Rockport, but to this day I can’t say I ever saw that movie all the way through.
Right now, I’m working on a project called Blood Vessels. Set in the late 1800s in the Midwest United States, we open our story in Chicago following the Great Fire of 1871.
Fun facts about the game:
On October 8th, 1871, a Great Fire tore through the city.
There are lots of theories as to how the fire started. Local legends say a cow kicked over a lantern at Mrs. O’Leary’s barn, but this myth has been largely disputed; chalked up to negative sentiment towards Irish immigrants that had made their home in the Midwest in the middle of the century.
Years later, a man named Louis M. Cohn confessed to accidentally knocking over a lantern when running away from an illegal card game, though most people ignored his claim.
Some now believe the fires were started when a rogue meteor fragment landed on the southwestern side of Chicago. Other fires in nearby towns outside of Chicago also experienced fires, miles away, that began around the same time and there’s data from NASA predictions that suggest this might be the closest thing to the truth.
We’ll never know for sure.
What we do know is this…
The city of Chicago, made of wood and dry as bone due to the late summer heat, burned almost entirely to the ground. Cinders from burning rooftops were carried along the stream of hot air blowing in from the southwest. In a matter of minutes, the fire had spread across the Chicago River to the eastern district, destroying downtown businesses and hotels, before jumping the river again and raging through North End.
Terrible smoke choked out the sun. Flames filled the sky, turning it red like the surface of Mars.
For more than two days, the fire raged, destroying nearly 18,000 buildings in its wake.
Of Chicago’s 325 thousand residents, the fire displaced over 90,000 people; almost 1 in 3 residents, suddenly homeless.
Over 300 people were estimated dead in the wake of the fire, though only 120 bodies were ever recovered.
In Blood Vessels, we introduce the idea that of those 200 people never found, some became infected with a strange virus that turned and twisted them, creating strange mutations in their host in the form of physical deformities, odd powers, and an insatiable thirst for blood.
Because of this mysterious virus, you play a newly awakened vampire — trying to survive this new landscape armed only with your skills and the strange mutations you’ve been gifted.
With the discovery that you are not alone, factions within the vampire world have begun to coalesce, leading us to a showdown between them amidst the opening day ceremonies of the 1893 World’s Fair. You will have a chance to decide the fate of all vampire kind!
Pretty neat, right?
Here are the other fun facts that are important to the narrative design of this project…
Fun fact: Chicago’s famous Navy Pier was originally called Municipal Pier and didn’t open until 1916.
This is important when you’ve written a scene that takes place at Navy Pier where two vampire families clash over territory. Unless you want your characters to be standing in the middle of Lake Superior while they trade blows, you’re going to need to change that.
Fun fact: Most buildings in Chicago were single to two-story buildings with the exception of a handful of hotels in the downtown district of the city.
This is important when your protagonist wakes up in a room full of smoke in his 5th-story apartment. Unless he’s learned how to fly, that’s going to be a problem, too.
And if you were thinking that they’ll just climb out the fire escape to avoid the obstacle, think again. Because that fire escape didn’t exist in 1871.
Fun fact: Although fire escapes were invented in England in 1784, they weren’t patented in the US until 1898 by Henry Vieregg. During the reconstruction of the city after the fire, part of the legal requirements that required buildings over 4 floors high to include fireproofing wasn’t implemented until 1876 and not widely adopted as standard practice in all buildings in the US until 1901.
But what if your story needs your protagonist to run into trouble once they have escaped the burning building? Every good story needs a villain, right?
Fun fact: first-hand accounts of rioters and looters were captured by survivors of that day. They tell, in fantastic detail, horror stories of human survival. One of them is about a police officer who used his baton to clear the streets, striking people as they fled while trying to keep the peace. That guy seems like the perfect person for our hero to punch in the face. Repeatedly, maybe.
There are dozens of real archival stories from people who survived this event. Thanks to the internet and, with a modicum of time on your hands, you can read them all right here.
What does this have to do with narrative design?
Find out in part 2!
*If you’d like to learn more about Blood Vessels & narrative design, join us for our Blood Vessels livestream series here!