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Article - 'Irony Through Contrast' by SMOPHWoD.Y

An item about Game Design posted on Jan 14, 2004

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For all gamemakers, Mr. Y details how proper, good use of contrast can help add new interest and deeper concepts to any game!

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Just today I received a Private Message from somebody who wanted me to go over his new project's storyline. I won't name the game here, but I thought it did have a good start so far. One thing I noticed that I recommended the gamemaker accentuate was the excellent use of contrasting at the beginning of his story. And, that very idea gave me an idea here. In my very first storywriting article, I remember one person who posted his personal favorite technique for storywriting- heavy use of contrast. If I remember correctly, that person was working on a humorous role-playing game in which a man had to travel on a quest with a group of beautiful succubi- the man knew he had to resist for a reason, but the urge to share company with the succubi was so terribly great for that man. That is one sort of contrast you may understand quickly. Let's define contrast, as well as some of the benefits and disadvantages of its use, simple instructions for introducing it to your games, and some good examples of its uses.

The verb contrast is defined as comparing two different things for their differences. You probably know of compare and contrast charts, which are used to show with images the differences and similarities between two or more things. Gamemakers use contrast for a wide range of storytelling (tale-telling) purposes- for character relationships, character and situation relationships, situation-to-situation relationships, and many other things mostly associated with these three types. Let's examine all three for their individual use of contrast, along with examples of some older community games that made good use of each.

I. Character Relationships
Come on, how many good RPGs have you seen that haven't used even the tiniest pinch of contrast in the relationships of the main characters? Some of the best-known RPGs have used this- the popularity of the "tough badass boy meets kind nieve girl, they learn from each other, change their ways, and fall in love" cliche is proof of it! In fact, many of the popular save-the-princess games, RPG and otherwise, contrast their characters very well. In the classic Mario Bros, for example, Mario (And his EXACT GREEN CLONE LUIGI) mixes pretty well with other characters like the Princess and all those dratted Toads spotting up Bowser's castles. However, Mario isn't fighting a legion of disgruntled social workers or fast-food employees- he's fighting an awful army full of some of the most diverse and dangerous monsters ever spawned, led by the nefarious King Bowser! If you contrast the monster army with humans altogether, you should see interesting differences immediately. For example, humans differentiate physical differences with things like skin, eyes, and hair color. Meanwhile, Bowser's soldiers just seem completely messed up, from mushroom-shaped pests to shell-spinning man-sized turtles, to much more. And then there is Mario and Bowser himself- Mario, the plain red-clothed warrior of the jump and fireball attacks, goes up head-to-head with the behemoth Bowser and all his bridge-stomping antics. It's a simple example of the matadore and the bull, the man and the beast. It's simple, yeah, but it works so well!

II. Character and Situation Relationships
This is also a fairly common type of situation in games, in which characters that are usually bull-headed or set in their ways are taken into chains of events that cause great reaction in them, often resulting in drastic change. How about that particularly famous cliche set by the Star Wars trilogy, when Luke Skywalker learned his father had become none other than Darth Vader? The contrast is obvious in the first, but look further at the second and you'll notice it there too- Luke, a pure-hearted Jedi Knight dedicating to fighting the corrupt Empire, learns that his honorable father actually chose to become a sinister figure of evil and death? If he weren't some fictional character, Luke may have thought things like, "How can I ever honor my father again? Why should I even continue fighting, if my own father chose a different path? Maybe my father knows better? What if all this time I've been nieve to truth, or I've been duped? What if the rebellion really is the evil cause?". You the viewer can watch Luke and just imagine his pain- but is he really in pain? How do you know for certain? In fact, you might (And probably are) placing most of your own thoughts unfairly into Luke's situation, inventing for yourself what Luke must be experiencing. Some people may see Luke's emotions and come to the conclusion that he is concentrated even more on aiding the rebellion against the Empire. Others may believe Luke feels alone, frightened, and powerless against much larger motions through a complex universe; still others will see Luke as being transformed into a duplicate of his own hateful father, harboring dark feelings of murder to purge himself of his corrupt lineage with the death of Daddy. Every viewer watches for him or herself, and the most commonly-held beliefs taken from the movie are used as the general truth of it.That's quite a few events spinning off from just one great twist in the storyline, isn't it? Could you duplicate such a huge effect? Probably, if you can 'think outside the box'.

III. Situation-to-Situation Relationships
This is the rarest of the three types, I think, or at least in video games, but like the other two examples of contrast, it can really improve your game a ton. I really don't have a terribly good example of this from the top of my head, but why not Final Fantasy 7? Similar to A Blurred Line, several hours into FF7 the party escapes the city of Midgar and its powerful controller, the monopolizing Shinra Inc company. The city itself is extremely large (For an RPG), with terrible clouds of smog and dirty air, and ugly gray metal everywhere. The city is full of life yet lifeless, breathing with industrial might, yet built from the work of humanity's hands, with no 'God' or 'nature'. In Final Fantasy 7, it really is a testament to the triumphs that humans had made with their own trust in themselves. However, once the party has escaped and is in the world map itself, the player really is introduced to a much different atmosphere, where the world really feels much more alive and living. Everything is brighter and warmer- remember Costa De Sol's sunny beach and humorous character interactions, or the Chocobo Farm's simple, sunny, grassy fields? The severe contrast between Midgar and the outside world made both of them that much more exciting and improved. This is a much larger example of a situation-to-situation relationship contrast. You can try things of this scale, or apply StSRs to much shorter event chains. Use what fits you best!

There is a major advantage and a major disadvantage to using contrast in your amateur games. The benefit of contrast's use is that it can really pack an immediate 'wow!' effect into your game's storyline, plotting, and/or characters. Mean people and nice people brought together can easily reveal more to the player through conflict and resolution. Pacifist karate masters can quickly reveal their tempers and powers when thrown into heated battles with old evil rivals. That ice dungeon you've added to your game would seem even chillier with a fire dungeon to oppose it. Those are three quick, somewhat-cliched examples off the top of my head. By using contrast and some good ideas, you should be able to reveal a much deeper game to the player much more easily. There is a downside to contrast, especially for the less-imaginative- avoiding cliche. You really need to make your contrasting ideas as original as you can, or you'll fall for some of the oldest plot bits in the book. Hero falls for the princess? Come on. Evil emperor's home burnt as a child? Spare me. Honorable hero's father is the maniacle bad guy? Please. Make sure when even adapting contrast ideas you liked in the past to your own game that you do not copy off others' ideas or cliches, at least not too often. Contrast is great, but originality is always better and more important. Make sure you keep those priorities in mind.

So, for those without a clue on getting ideas for contrasting parts of a storyline, what can be done? First, always be open to changes and additions to your game's world- it's okay if you don't want to remove things once you've began working hard on the game and are far into it, but always be freed up for adaption and change. The brainstorming part is simple- just remember to try 'connecting the dots' anytime your mind isn't preoccupied. Let's say you're out jogging and see a puppy. The puppy has a playful bark, and likes running around on its bright green lawn chasing rabbits. You first need to take as many of these things to your memory- happy puppy, chase, bright grass, bark sound. If you have poor memory, carry a small notepad and pencil with you. Later, stew over these ideas from your memory or notepad. Perhaps in a serene village area the hero could encounter a small happy puppy running about playfully in the town? Then, later in your story, the town is attacked by marauders and nearly everyone is killed. What could happen to the puppy? You could play it simple and just kill off the puppy. Sure, yeah, that's REAL deep, go you. But wait a second- if we want a deeper reaction from the player, how about we keep the puppy alive and just change it somehow? Instead of the dog merely being killed off, perhaps something 'worse' happened to it? Here's something for the players that remembered this extremely cheery puppy they saw earlier- the dog has become a fearful, snarling menace of the dead town, a chilling ghost of something that disappeared in just one evening. It could growl at the party on their approach, and maybe even fight them! I personally like the second idea more, not only because it generally seems better than the first in complexity and impact on the player, but because it was my idea and not some traditional cliche.

The process for contrast idea brainstorming isn't hard, as you probably gathered from the above paragraph. First, you see ideas, and write them down someone in your head or on paper. Then, you brainstorm your ideas. And of course, you finally add the new ideas to your project. While making your game, be sure to always be open to additions or minor changes, always.

Well, that's it for this article, folks. I know I used the word 'contrast' in a few places where 'irony' would have done just as well or better, but ah well. The article still seems fine to me, so I'm finished. I hope you enjoyed reading this, thank you!