Representing Epic Events In Games
Next Monday, August 21, a total solar eclipse will be visible across the continental U.S. for the first time since 1918. It is predicted to be one of the busiest travel days of 2017 as millions of people flock to the fourteen states across the United States in the path of the total solar eclipse to witness this magnificent spectacle. Many school districts have even purchased thousands of eclipse glasses so that students can observe this rare astronomical event without causing damage to their eyes.
It is fascinating to see how excited people are by this alignment of the sun, moon and Earth, which produces a shadow that moves across our planet. For some people, experiencing that gradual turn into total darkness is often uncomfortable, bringing out our childhood fears that bad things lurk in the dark. For some extremists, an eclipse is a sign of impending apocalypse, heralding the end of the world as we know it. However, for most of us, it is an epic spectacle that inspires more wonder than fear.
As a game designer, I certainly would like for epic events in my games to feel as epic as a total eclipse to the player. What qualifies as an epic event? It is significant event resulting in a change in the game state or story and which, once started, cannot be affected by the player’s actions. Such an epic event might be part of the game’s environment and beyond the player’s control, such as the celestial mechanics that result in a total eclipse. However, others might be irreversible actions initiated by players, such as the pressing of a button that detonates a nuclear bomb.
Such epic events can be foretold to players before they occur indirectly through clues or directly through narrative. Depending on the tone of the communication, it can inspire wondrous anticipation or fearful tension in players, particularly if the potential consequences of the event are carefully unveiled over time to the player. Knowledge of the event can take on even more important for players if it somehow provides strategic information to them, particularly if player have the ability to initiate the epic event.
Epics events in your game do not always need to be announced or hinted at before they occur. In the ancient past, people organized their lives by the order of the world around them, half of which was the sky. When surprising events like an eclipse occurred, they were an intrusion of chaos into that order and induced fear in the populace. To cope with such an event, many ancient cultures undertook ritualistic activity to try to control it. As a game designer, you can introduce surprise epic events to shake up your players and perhaps get them to try new play strategies in the game in an attempt to gain more control of their chances of success.
For the player to see epic events as fair, they must either have no impact on the player’s success in the game or the impact must be predictable (or consistent with the rules of the game world, at least). With an eclipse, for example, most players would find it sensible that the resulting darkness might have consequences associated with such darkness, such as shutting down all machinery powered by solar cells within the game. If, however, an oncoming eclipse might have some unpredictable effect, such as causing the stones in castles to melt, and it sets players back in their progress, they might see such an epic event as unfair.
The game designer must be careful that any epic events does not make players feel that their freedom of choice or chances of success in the game are diminished, but rather sets the stage for an exciting adventure. They should not be the end of the world as we know it (unless they truly come at the end of the game), but support the player’s feeling that such epic events can allow the player opportunities to do something epic themselves.