Disco is Dead! — Designing a Narrative for an Arcade Game

Let’s Revive This Bad Boy

For my team’s capstone project, we will be continuing forth with our earlier sprint week prototype, Disco is Dead!, to further develop it as a portfolio piece and demonstrate it at game showcases. One of our biggest challenges is to turn this arcade cabinet game into a non-linear narrative-driven experience. I will be the narrative director where I will be working and guiding the narrative design team, composed of three people.

To start off, here’s a quick backstory from our original prototype. Disco is Dead! is an arcade game where the player(s) take control of two manly hunks who slap zombies away with girlish screams, all set in 1970s disco. Here is the trailer:

Let’s Expand the Story!

The premise of our revised version is generally similar to our older prototype. This time we can expand the world and dive deeper into the characters. Now, the two protagonists will be cops. Yes, we’re making a buddy cop video game, and it’s fantastic. Surprisingly, there aren’t really any buddy cop games video games that provoke the same relationship portrayed in famous buddy cop films, like Lethal Weapon or Rush Hour.

So I did some research. I read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, a very good book on film screenwriting. He shares the formula on how to write a buddy film:

  • The two main characters have very opposite personalities, resulting in continuous conflicts based on their choices
  • The two opposite characters are forced to work together, and use their differences to resolve the main conflict.

Originally, we had it so that these two cops are already established best friends; a bromance even. But after learning and realizing the differing personalities is what makes buddy cops so great and hilarious, our first draft will needs some re-adjustments. We can still get away with them established as work partners, but the players should be the ones in control of the relationship themselves. This can even hype up the conflict between the two characters, and offer more argumentative slapping choices for the players when in disagreement or perform an act of betrayal.

Snyder concludes explaining simply, that a “a buddy film is a love story in disguise”. I highly agree with this logic and I want to take that even further. Personally, I want to bring in diversity in race and sexuality. So there should be moments where the player is open to interpreting what sexuality their character will be, such as letting the two cops go in for a smooch.

Let’s Design the Non-Linear Story

Even though the game is going to be narrative-driven, the beloved slapping mechanic is hands down the core of the game. However, the narrative can work hand-in-hand with the mechanic. By brainstorming interesting scenarios where the player has to slap (or not to slap), it can really brighten the slapping mechanic’s essence. Most of the non-linearity will be based off the slapping mechanic, thus making it a bigger sensitive weapon.

The non-linear aspect will not be drastic. The game will only have a few different endings, and the choices will not completely alter the story line. When we showcase this game to potential employers, some may not be able to replay, and thus they can miss out on all the work contributed, making all of that a waste. So, our game will use the illusion of choice to make it feel like the player is altering the story drastically, but really isn’t. In a way, this non-linear game will be linear; all the choices will lead back into one path, similar to how Telltale designs their interactive stories. That doesn’t stop us from adding in some one-liners and jokes!

Our older prototype was flexible when it came down to who players. It can be a 1-player experience by using both joysticks, or 2-player experience. Since our game is now going to be buddy cop genre, it makes sense to make a good 2-player mode as opposed to just 1-player. Unfortunately, there are no narrative-driven games that actually work well a 2-player experience. For most of these games, it is designed as a 1-player  experience, while the 2-player component is added in afterwards. However, I would like to take on this challenge; I would love to be able to play a story game with a friend and make choices together. Our game, as proven in our prototype, showed that the two players can create their own conflict outside of the game. If we can focus on designing an experience where the game encourages the players to create their own personal conflict, such as being able to slap each other if they are in disagreement of a choice, we can produce a memorable 2-player story experience.

Let’s Think Visually

Despite my focus being in narrative and writing, I still like to think visually. In order to start working with the narrative, I need to understand the structure.  So I got my cork board and started organizing it, colour-coding and pinning up index cards. As I assembled the board, I noticed how large of a scope the board can support. 42 beats to be exact, which is enough for a feature-length film! Since our game should be no more than 20 minutes of story, I cut it down to 20 beats. Even that is still quite long, but it will work for our first team meeting. I want this game’s story to focus on quality over quantity. If the game is too long and not intriguing, no one would want to continue playing it. Focusing on the short and sweet moments is essential.

In our first meeting, the board was extremely helpful for the team to quickly understand how the story will unfold and more importantly, what needs to be included in each level and how it progresses.  For the structure, I used Syd Field’s famous 3-act structure to understand and see the bare bones of the game’s story. Each level consists of 4 beats and has a goal, and the result of completing the goal directs them to the next level.


Easily from the board’s visual, I can still see some structure and scope problems. Even before finding this out, we composed Act 2 into three distinctive levels, where no more than two levels can be scraped if we don’t have the time to do it. However, it was a smart move; it won’t be as grieving or devastating when the time comes to cut it, since no one would be too emotionally attached to the work. An idea even sparked where we can even merge the levels into one mega awesome level! In the end, as long as each act as one level, it is enough to create a compelling experience.

Now, here is the first complete draft of the game’s story progression:


Onwards to the second draft!

An little extra note I’d like to add, was that the working title I thought for this game was Disco is Dead: Slappy Seconds. It works really well; it’s technically the “second” Disco is Dead game, it’s a 2-player experience, and it really centralizes the game’s slapping mechanic. Despite being proud of my pun, I did not realize there would be a handful of people that found it offensive due to the slang’s sexual origin. Wanting to respect the opinions, Disco is Dead! seems like a great title on its own!

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