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mystery narrative players motivated

author: @aestranger

Reading time: 7 minutes

Mystery & Narrative: Keeping your players motivated


For a while now, I’ve been interested in the idea of the Alternate Reality Game, or ARG, and what has come forth from that idea, like the Room Escape concepts and Live-Action team building simulations. I’ve been so interested in it that I develop and deliver group experiences based on the ARG concept now. My own tag-line as it were is “learning through storytelling and adventure to teach leadership skills.”


What drew me specifically to ARG’s is the immersive narrative that is weaved into them. Grabbing the players, throwing them in a different world, filled with agency, and if used correctly, they come out the other side with new knowledge and skills.


One of the most used ways of creating immersion in ARG’s and be extension Room Escape experiences is through creating a mystery in the narrative that ties the entire experience together. A mystery is great because every person wants to solve it and know the answer. Even the ones who say that don’t, still really do, they just don’t admit it in public.


And with that, I thought I would share some of the knowledge and methodology that I work with when conceptualizing these experiences. Perhaps it will give insight into those who are considering creating their own or wish to run similar experiences with their own teams.


The Strong Hook


The first aspect you need to consider before anything else, in any narrative, is the creation of a strong hook. And by hook, I mean something that grabs the players attention straight from the get-go, literally hooks them into the story. And you certainly need this to be strong and universal when developing group experiences, as the whole group needs to buy-in to your narrative world, not just 1 or 2 people from the group.


The best ways I’ve found and seen are by using techniques that are often seen in European and Asian, Japanese cinema storytelling. A quick set up of the environment, giving the audience, or the player, the knowledge they need to understand what happens next. And that next is the hook, an event that of significant magnitude that creates the sense of agency and urgency in the player. Now this can be anything, but these are the three most common and effective in a narrative:


  • A question that needs answering
  • A discovery that needs to be uncovered
  • A conflict that needs to be resolved


Fairly broad, but it leaves you open to imagine compelling narratives around.

The first-person experience


Much like in some written narratives, you need to ensure that your players, as individuals and as a group, experience your ARG narrative from the first-person perspective. What I mean by this is, make sure that everything that happens in the story, happens to them. Don’t have aspects of the narrative that happened “off-camera” as it were.


It’s fine to set up a narrative world for their understanding, but the action of the story is for them to experience. There are few more disempowering experiences than being told something amazing happened elsewhere while in a, supposedly “exciting”, game.


Your players are there for a reason, give them the action to experience, give them the pieces of the story to solve for themselves. What you want is for them to start “describing” to themselves and each other what is happening in the story. This embeds the immersion even further. And gets them physically and mentally involved in the narrative world.


The Red Herring


No narrative would complete without a few red herrings. Red herrings are great devices, and Room Escape experiences use them quite well to send people off in a random direction to increase the pressure when the realize it wasn’t the right direction.


But that can be dangerous if it takes them too long to realize it was a red herring, then they can feel cheated. Therefore, use them only briefly and sparingly to mislead your players. They need to be quick detours that they quickly solve before the end, leaving them enough time to finish, but with enough pressure to heighten the experience.


The red herring should not be immediately obvious that it is one and it should also be less plausible than the desired outcome. If they become more plausible, then either tone them down or swap out the outcomes. And also remember to not make them overcomplicated. In essence, they should be a fun detour, with a “cute” surprise at the end.


That said though, when creating them, they should require as much work as the main narratives points. Just because they are detours, you as the creator and developer should not skimp on the depth and breadth that they require to be believable.


Variations of the red herring in group experience are creating crisis situations that appear relevant in the moment due to stress, but really have no influence on the overall narrative and outcome. Or arbitrary rules are given to players to lead them to believe that restrictions are in place, but in actual fact, they can still win within these restrictions. To give you a few broad examples.


Third-person information


As with traditional written and visual narrative, there is the third-person perspective. An outside view of what is happening. The players themselves may choose to step out and review their experience from this perspective. This usually occurs when they are stuck on something.


I’ve found that allowing mechanics to exist in the experience that allows players to review and reassess problems they come across, is very useful in their learning process. Mechanics such as helping hands or hints, that aid them in the third-person perspective will give them that extra push of optimism to continue.


If they step out, review, reassess, and remain stumped, then they will most likely become frustrated and eventually bored. And you will have lost them for the rest of the experience, so make sure that doesn’t happen.

The Omniscient perspective


This is essentially you as the deliverer and facilitator of the experience. You hold the position of the wizard behind the curtain as creator, designer of the narrative. You know everything there is to know about that world that your players are journeying through.


The first point is, make sure your players never get a peek behind the curtain. Place yourself as a believable part of the narrative, because if you are just the facilitator, the players will eventually call upon your deity-like power to help them in some way. You should only use your power if something in the experience is about to go wrong, but beyond that, be the “wizened old sage” that offers advice when needed, or the “miraculous oracle” that gives hints when asked.


The second point is that you are naturally still in control of the experience, do not let yourself slip into character as it were. Use the character, tools and mechanisms of the narrative keep the sense of agency, urgency, and pressure going for your players. Give them a “ticking clock”. It could be a real clock, or hourglass, or a metaphorical, or a deadline. But make sure they are constantly being pushed.


Show & Tell


This may be an obvious one, or it may not be, but always try to show your players rather than tell them. If you have a great narrative, bring photo’s or videos to create the atmosphere and explain the theme and the world they find themselves in. Try not to read out or let them read a long piece on what the story is and where they are. This doesn’t really convey much excitement to them and removes some of the fun.


Even just an audio piece can be more interesting than a block of text. And don’t worry too much if it’s corny, in all likelihood your players will find it more endearing anyway.


As long as it remains fun and suspenseful, then showing more than telling has had the desired effect.


End with satisfaction


Always, and always, have your players answer the question, make the discovery and/or resolve the conflict. They always need to leave the experience with some satisfaction in what they went through was worthwhile. They need closure, even when they fail.


Depending on the narrative that you create for your experience you can choose to reveal the outcome if they’ve failed or kept it a secret if they wish to come back. Unfortunately, there is no hard, fast rule about whether to reveal or not, you’ll simply have to judge their overall mood.


But whether they succeeded or failed, your players should have a sense of fulfillment and you should leave them with wanting more. If you have a larger experience that can be done episodically over a longer period of time, then you can use the “cliff-hanger” mechanic.


Mostly what leaving them with wanting more means is that they were so immersed in the experience that they actually don’t want to leave it. And to achieve this, it needs to be a compelling narrative with meaningful challenges that push players to work hard and together to overcome them. Once they start to create that shared narrative, they’ll most likely not want the experience to end.


Nevertheless, though, the experience must end, and with one last piece of advice when creating any narrative experience, always start with the end. And by this, I mean that you should start with the end. Dream up how your experience ends, what is the big reveal, the answer to the big question. Once you have this, start working backward, creating the latticework of the journey that your players will go on. And test your idea for your ending, ask friends, family, colleagues whether they feel it’s a strong enough ending, would they enjoy discovering the answer? If so, then your players will most likely leave your experience satisfied and happy.


I hope this piece helps you in better understanding the idea and concepts when creating mystery in narratives so that your players remain motivated.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Please do check out the other posts on æ, and please do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

Please do Share if you found it helpful and know of someone who would it find it helpful as well.



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