Where'd you learn to shoot like that?

This is the sixth article in the Back to the Future theme week series.

Doc Brown with a custom made precision rifle

There's a dramatic principle called Chekhov's gun:

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.

The idea is to remove anything that's not going to be relevant to the story, or in other words, don't add too many red herrings.

A real life example: my very first work of IF was about a hard-boiled detective who, as I first assumed, has to carry a handgun as the genre trope dictates. The problem was that there was no actual use for the gun at any point in the story. It was just inventory filler for the sake of "realism." It wasn't until a beta tester brought the subject up when the gun had to go.

Let's take another practical example. A story features a bedroom. There you have a bed and a nightstand. On the nightstand there's a ballerina-shaped porcelain clock. As per the Chekhov's gun principle, we ask ourselves what purpose do these items have. The bed is there because it's an essential part of a bedroom; there would have to be a good reason for not having one there. The night stand is there to support the clock.

That leaves the porcelain clock. Why is it there? Does it play a part in the plot later on? Does it tell something important about its owner? Whatever its purpose, owning such a tacky thing is notable enough that it would have to be explained. It can't just spontaneously exist without a reason.

If it turns out that the clock is not a Checkhov's gun, i.e. it doesn't have a relevance to the story, then it should go. And since the only purpose of the nightstand was to provide a place to put the clock on, it shouldn't be mentioned either.

Note that, in the context of text-based narrative, not mentioning something doesn't mean that it doesn't exist in the story world. It just means that it's not significant enough to mention (or implement). Every location has tens or even hundreds of things that could be realistically expected to exist but have no relevance and therefore aren't mentioned or implemented.

The reverse Chekhov

Here's a transcript of an interview from the documentary Tales from the Future: In the Beginning... where Back to the Future writer and producer Bob Gale talks about writing the script.

We use the index card method of plotting. So we would have a big bulletin board in our office, and we would say "ok, we know, for example, Marty goes back in time." So, an index card goes up, says "Marty goes back in time." And then, towards the end "Marty goes back to the future," that's another card.

So we said ok, wouldn't it be cool if he invented rock 'n' roll. So we put up a card saying "Marty invents rock 'n' roll." Well, we need to establish that he can play rock 'n' roll. And that he wants to play rock 'n' roll. So that means that somewhere on the bulletin board before the card that says "he goes back in time": "establish Marty's desire and ability to play rock 'n' roll."

Two index cards and corresponding images from the movie: 'Marty's good on a skateboard' and 'Marty invents the skateboard'

Same thing with the skateboard. If he's going to invent the skateboard, show him on a skateboard. So these pairs of index cards would come up.

In light of this technique I'd like to turn the Chekhov's gun principle around:

If a rifle goes off in the second or third chapter, in the first chapter you must say that there is one hanging on the wall.

This is perhaps even more useful than the standard Chekhov's rule, at least in the early stages when you're designing the overall plot of the story. Working backwards by taking things you want the story to feature and adding things that support that feature to earlier points in the story will add a nice dose of authenticity to the setting and characters.

Clint Eastwood never wore anything like this

This is the fifth article in the Back to the Future theme week series. Contains spoilers for the first film.

Doc Brown Common writing advice is to always avoid clichés, but that's too simplistic to accept as a universal rule. Clichés and sterotypes serve to support another advice: Show, don't tell.

The main purpose of stereotypes in narrative is to establish character archetypes that are already familiar to the readers or viewers. Take, for example, the character of Doc Brown from the Back to the Future films. The "crazy wild eyed scientist" look immediately communicates a lot of information about the role of this character. We can expect some advanced, perhaps slightly humorous, and possibly dangerous inventions.

At the beginning of the first film, Marty's father George is portrayed as a stereotypical loser. He has a bad posture, a greasy haircut, and a pocket protector. At the end of the film, when Marty returns to his own time, he notices that his actions in the past have inadvertently changed his family. George is no longer the pushover he used to be. Beating Biff in the past gave him a boost in confidence which changed the course of his life permanently. He wears stylish clothing and a neat haircut. The slouch is gone.

Two images of George McFly

Left: "I'm just not very good at confrontations."
Right: "Now Biff, don't con me!"

The scene when Marty returns home and discovers the change in his family is almost purely show-don't-tell. At no point is it explained what's happened, the viewers are given more than enough clues to come to the right conclusion themselves.

The portrayal of new George wasn't completely successful, though. Outside USA George's appearance wasn't as easily recognized as the stereotype of a successful person. In mid-80s the yuppie stereotype had just reached its peak in popular culture but it was largely America-specific at that point. While the change of appearance of Marty's home and family members can't easily be misinterpreted, some nuances were lost to audiences in other cultures. Especially confusing to European viewers was why Marty's parents are carrying tennis rackets: the "rich people play tennis" stereotype is distinctly anglospheric.

This shows that stereotypes are culture-specific and that they change over time. They apply only for a relatively short period. In Back to the Future part III the 1955 version of Doc Brown chooses clothes for Marty to wear for his trip to 1885. Doc's perception of cowboy clothing seems to be colored by rodeos and early westerns, and even the 30 years older version of himself recognizes the outdated cliché.

"I dunno, are you sure this stuff is authentic?"

"I dunno, are you sure this stuff is authentic?"

Drawing conclusions from these precedences, good use for clichés and stereotypes is when you want to establish a well known archetype. It's still good to remember that stereotypes are dependent on culture and time, so their meaning might be lost on some of the audience. Bad use of stereotypes is if the reason for applying them is "for laughs" or because "that's how they all are". When they're done well, clichés can be used as a powerful authorial tool.

Biff, what a character

This is the first article in the Back to the Future theme week series. Contains spoilers for the Back to the Future and The Godfather films.

The three things that matter most in a story are characters, characters, and characters.

— Bob Gale

Character arc is a narrative technique that, in a nutshell, means that a character figuratively transforms from one person to another during and due to the events of the story. The character might experience a change in personality or opinions, learn a lesson, or otherwise come out as a different person.

Here are some famous examples:

  • Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Scrooge's extreme transformation from a bitter old man to a philantropist is one of the purest forms of character arc.
  • George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. Christmas is a well-suited theme for character growth stories.
  • D'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers. D'Artagnan is a hot-headed peasant who becomes a heroic musketeer.
  • Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars movies. Many of the Star Wars characters have their own character arcs.
  • Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Michael starts out as wanting to have nothing to do with his father's crime syndicate but eventually rises to take his father's place. This is an example of a character arc that results in negative change.

So how to include character arcs in interactive stories? Here are a couple of options.

Option zero: No character arc

A valid, and very common, option is to disregard any character growth entirely. Not every story needs it, especially in a game where the main focus might be in gameplay, exploration, puzzles or something else other than the characters.

The use of this option should be carefully considered, though; although no writing rule should be followed blindly, the character arc is almost universally regarded as a fundamental building block of a good story. Change is part of a character's metaphorical journey, and if the journey didn't have any impact on the characters then it could be argued that the events they experienced weren't really that meaningful.

Option one: Player character arc

Back to the Future didn't start out as a trilogy. When the first film became a huge success, the creators started working on sequels.

While the protagonist, Marty McFly, had driven the first movie's story forward, the film was never about him. The main character was his father, and that's where the character growth takes place: George McFly transforms from a submissive loser into a self-confident, successful author.

Screenshot from Back to the Future II with Marty and Biff

"Are you chicken?"

The filmmakers realized that while it was ok to have the protagonist not experience any real growth during one film, it wouldn't work for an entire trilogy. So they gave Marty a character flaw: he would lose his temper every time someone called him a coward (or, more specifically, a "chicken.") Now he had a negative trait that he could grow out of and thus demonstrate that the journey had affected him.

I'm the first to admit that the whole chicken business feels artificial, especially since there's no sign of it in the first movie, but it does show how important aspect characters and character growth was to the movie's creators.

Player character growth can be much less effective when the player's experience of the story doesn't match the protagonist's experience. As an example, let's assume that the protagonist starts out as resenting one of the NPCs but grows to respect them during the story. If the player hasn't experienced the same kind of change in their attitude towards this NPC, it's a mismatch that can make the story feel unrealistic. There must be a clear reason that has caused the change in the protagonist.

Option two: Non-player character arc

Marty didn't get much more agency in the sequels either. In the second film the focus is on Biff who becomes a powerful and corrupt businessman, and the third is about Doc Brown who builds a new life in the Wild West and finds love.

Marty is someone who mainly goes along with the things happening around him. He is almost purely a reactive character. In many ways this is very similar to the typical game protagonist. The player character is often an empty shell where the players are supposed to project themselves. The player very rarely has any real agency: the plot happens, and the player reacts to it in ways that trigger the next events.

When the game has no strong opinion on the player character, character growth can be delegated to NPCs. They are also less susceptible to the problems associated with how the player experiences the story, because the player is less likely to identify with the NPCs as strongly as they might with the protagonist. Again, there must still be a clear reason why character growth has taken place: an NPC can't just suddenly reappear with a completely new personality or opinions.

Option three: Choose Your Own Growth

Interactive media gives us yet another option: the author can let the player decide what kind of character arc the protagonist experiences. A good example of this is Slouching Towards Bedlam where the player's actions have long-reaching consequences in the protagonist's fate.

Providing several options for the player is of course a lot more work than making a single predetermined path. It needs more effort than just slapping on a final choice at the end. If we think of the character arc as a literal journey it should be clear that the same path can't lead to two different destinations.

In the best case when the story provides enough room for the player to move it doesn't necessarily even need to conclude the character arc explicitly. The player creates and experiences the character's journey, filling in the blanks. When the character arc is being built organically during the entire story, any possible last choice at the conclusion should feel like a natural choice to the player instead of just a bundle of alternate endings.

A big pitfall to avoid is the "kiss the baby / eat the baby" choices, i.e. moral choices that make you choose between an obviously good deed and an obviously evil deed. They have been widely criticized and ridiculed, mainly in AAA games, because they are ultimately meaningless: you could just as well ask at the beginning if the player wants to play a good or a bad character and be done with it. The impact is far bigger if the choices the player makes are subtle rather than obvious.

For more practical guidance on writing character arcs, K.M. Weiland's How to Write Character Arcs is an extensive online resource.