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Article - 'A Vacation From Reality' by Xanqui

An item about Game Design posted on Jan 14, 2004


An in-depth article about how to portray a character's state of unconsciousness. Dreams, flashbacks, and Out-Of-Body Experiences are explained in detail.


There is a dimension in many stories that provide a very important part in character development. These can be out-of-body experiences, day dreams, nightmares, flashbacks, or even the walk towards the light. Since they do not take place in a physical world, but within the mind of the character, it can be a bit hazy, or even confusing. But the important thing is to make the characters confused, and not the audience.

A first hint that a character is in the realm of his or her mind is if everything is slightly blurry. Lights will be brighter than usual, and colors will be surreal. There is a general unrealistic feel, but something must bring the character to some form of reality.

Perhaps a loved one’s smile will be the first expression the character sees. This could be a childhood love, a lost love, or a love that the character had never even known about. But it is at this moment that the character feels comfort in this new reality.

This is a day dream, possibly caused by a heavy blow to the head, or a tranquilizer that knocked the character out. Bright lights are a common thing for the character to see after being knocked unconscious, but this trend must continue even after he or she has awoken.

During the day dream, the character may follow the loved one through a short journey, where the character will realize something that has built up within his or her mind throughout the story. This means, generally, that the story is about midway through, or even near the end. The audience must have already gotten to know the character, and therefor will understand what the character understands.

A nightmare, however, is quite different. This is generally started when the character falls asleep either before or after an awful day. Nightmares are generally used as a foreshadowing for characters.

The background in the scenes of a nightmare is dark, and difficult to make out. Most of the light focuses on the event that is occurring in the dream. Think of a circle of light with everything in the light.

The character will be confused and afraid as the events occur around him or her. He will feel helpless and lost, and will have no control over what’s going on. No matter how hard he or she tries, the event that occurs is inevitable.

When the character awakes, it is usually just after the event occurs, or just before a loved one is killed in the dream. The character will not know what happens in the end, but will know that the future can be changed, and he or she has to do something fast.

Flashbacks can be a combination of both. They can start in a number of ways. The character could be telling a story, and rather than having a bunch of text of the character talking, you could show what happened according to that character visually. That is, if you’re making a game. Or they could start when the character falls asleep. The possibilities are limitless.

Anyway, since flashbacks are generally of events that have scarred the character for life, the character will probably be confused, as he or she would be in a nightmare. Blurriness around the edges of the screen (game) provide a hint that this was a flashback, or even dark colors. Rain and thunder are a common flashback element.

Before the event occurs, the hero will be extremely oblivious and unsuspecting of what is about to happen. He or she could be dazedly staring into the eyes of a loved one, in complete bliss one moment, and in the next, he is watching a horrifying event take place involving the loved one.

Unlike the Nightmare, a flashback often shows what happened in the end. The loved one could be lying dead on the ground, while the hero rushes towards him or her, crying. Some flashbacks, however, don’t show the end of what happened, but later in the story, the rest of the flashback is shown, and the audience understands what happened, and thus, understand the character better.

Keep in mind, however, that a flashback needs to be relevant to the character’s personality. It must explain something that the audience would not otherwise understand. For example, we wouldn’t have known why John Preston in Equilibrium decided to stop taking the Prozium shots if we didn’t know what the Grammaton Cleric had done to something so close to him. That was like the most important part of his character. But we wouldn’t need a flashback of something like why he decided to become a Cleric because it simply wasn’t vital to his character development. Not to mention, it probably wouldn’t involve him shooting the crap out of normies.

Out of Body Experiences (OOBE) occur when the character is in a state of complete oblivion. The hero will not need his or her body for this experience. These can occur if the character is drowning, on the verge of death, or even in a complete state of relaxation. But unlike the previous three alternate realities, the character will be experiencing the “real” reality.

The character could be looking through a window at something in the current time happening, wishing he or she was there. OOBEs are not commonly used in video games, and especially not novels. However, they can bring out the true feelings a character has towards an event that he or she isn’t even really at.

OOBEs are more like dreams than actual experiences. It can generally be classified as what the character portrays an event that he or she isn’t able to attend. Their worst fears can come out in these, such as viewing a loved one falling in love with another character that the hero fears.

Think of these escapes from reality as an alternate path or an alternate ending. A character can dream what is most likely to happen, but this gives him or her the knowledge that he or she can alter the future.

I personally wouldn’t suggest using flashbacks in novels, because they can be explained just as easily through a conversation. That is, unless there are no other characters the hero has to talk to. The more dream-like experiences, however, can do just fine in novels.

Video games and books parallel in many ways, but the methods in which dreams are portrayed differ greatly between them. A written piece requires a great deal of text to show the reader what the character is seeing in his or her dream while the game can simply show the haziness and the awkward scenery, and go straight to whatever event occurs.

It’s really up to you when it comes to portraying the dreams. I will suggest, however, that whatever the character sees throughout the dream is something believable to him or her. The mind can only portray what it has experienced, but it can twist it in whatever way it wishes.

Well, if you managed to read all the way through this article, congratulations. I know it was a bit wordy, but I wanted to use the correct terminology in certain areas. A bit of this was based on a book I skimmed through a week ago about the mind and what it portrays while in a state of unconsciousness. I forget what book it was, but if you’re interested in these “Vacations From Reality”, I’d recommend that you look up some psychology books. They’re quite fascinating!.