Managing Story Threat: High-Stakes, Low-Stakes and Sequel Escalation

In any fiction, a threat to the world feels empty. Although the high-stakes of planetary destruction establishes an understandable severity, it doesn’t worry the audience. We know the hero will save the world.

Small, more personal stakes, introduce variance to the plot. And unlike the two true outcomes of the world’s destruction, anything can happen in low-stakes scenarios. If the antagonist threatens a specific character, the story can change outside of survival and destruction. In a hostage situation, if the hostage dies, the world and antagonist still exist. In a high-stakes story, if the world blows up, so does everything else. You can’t continue a story from nothing.

Personal stakes take time to develop, so thrusting someone into danger won’t make the audience care. Splinter Cell: Conviction follows Sam Fisher and his investigation into the hit-and-run death of his daughter. Players learn nothing about Fisher’s daughter or what happened at the accident. The game assumes you will care from the start, without ever establishing a connection between the audience and the characters.

Unlike stories with high-stakes, low-stakes problems can grow to include more people or places. Threats to children, animals and innocents can generate easy, quick sympathy, but the feeling won’t last. It matches the cheapness of the earths destruction. When you already threaten the entire world, next is the galaxy, and the universe after that. Astronomical stakes feel all too similar.

The stakes tied to the conflict need to affect the character personally, pushing them to sacrifice and prevail. In Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, the stakes remain small, but it motivates the character enough to risk her life.  Senua – a Celtic warrior – departs on a vision quest to release the soul of her dead husband. On her journey, she battles with psychosis and the obstacles through the hellish lands. As you learn about Senua and voices she hears, you feel obligated to ease her pain. The stakes, although personal and independent of the world, carry a painful consequence. Without resolution, Senua sees no relief.

I’ve written many articles about Mass Effect and still wonder about the real reason people hate the series ending. Although Mass Effect 3 trivializes past decisions and introduces space magic, the escalating stakes forced the story. BioWare wanted players to care about the Reaper threat when they cared for their crew instead.

Mass Effect is about the characters and the relationships you develop. While the threat of the galaxy destroying alien Reaper looms, you fight it to save the characters you care about. As the story progressed with sequels, the threats grew and the stakes escalated. The high-stakes story overcame the actual core of the Mass Effect series – the relationships.

The stakes grew larger than life itself, threatening humanity and survival of all living beings. The large scope put pressure on the player. It handed them a problem impossible to ignore. Despite the threat to earth, a balance once existed between the Reaper problem and saving your crew. But when the series escalated to include hundreds of other Reapers, the high-stakes lost its personal intimidation.

NieR: Automata puts the world at stake, but it deviates from the two true outcomes of survival and destruction. The high-stakes story creates a scenario for the personal development of the android main characters: 2B, 9S and A2. Towards the end of the story, the world’s fate doesn’t matter. The themes of companionship, purpose and consciousness form the story. The high-stakes allow these android characters to understand those human themes.

Much like Mass Effect, NieR’s high-stakes story placed characters in a situation where they revealed hidden traits. The high-stakes brought forth unanswered questions of each character’s personal motivation. But if PlatinumGames developed a direct NieR sequel, how can the developers escalate the problem beyond human survival?

To avoid the escalation problem, games need to start small. A low-stakes story affecting the characters personally, can grow with sequels if needed. If the game stays contained, a personal conflict can carry a story better than a worldly threat.

Low-stakes, personally motivated stories demand more from writers, but give more to the audience. When the stakes start small, the problems affect the core of game stories – the characters.