Tips for writing intriguing stories for Serious Games

–><–><–>–>· The big reveal is both fulfilling as somewhat predictable ‘Aha!’ moment and somewhat unexpected.

Here we talk about a simple step by step process that will help you change your ‘Learning’ story into a mystery. The Tutorial assumes that you have already
decided what the basic outline of the story is and who your main characters are.

Step 1 Decide the Big Reveal

The big reveal is that big and insightful realization that the audience goes through just before the end of the mystery. It may be many things such as who the Villain is or even what his motivations are, what is the root cause of a series of unexplained and often scary events etc. Remember while the big reveal may be alluded to during the course of the story a big surprise here can be a very fulfilling reward for diligently following the story. Hold off the revelation for as long as possible but avoid making it either too obvious to the audience or deceiving them with misinformation.

By working out the big reveal first you can make your other writing tasks much simpler. In the case of the ‘City of Fear’ game the big reveal was the fact that the unexplained deaths were caused by the plague and not any human agency.

Step 2 Decide the Starting point

The starting point of the narrative is essentially as important as the big reveal itself. This is the canvas against which the big reveal is painted. Since the entire narrative has to be imagined by the audience the starting point provides the anchor to the audience about what everyday life should look like. This enables them to see the oddity or mystery in the first place and also provides the motivation to solve it.

This is the place you can have as much background about the setting, incident, participants and investigators as you want.

The ‘City of Fear’ started with a very worried Mayor of Sydney calling upon the Player’s Character (a private investigator) to investigate unexplained deaths across the city. The Mayor praises the PI’s past performance and expresses his confidence in him. This gives important background info to the Player about the character he is playing. This part of the game also lets the player know that the frequency and circumstances of the deaths are not normal thereby piquing their interest.

Step 3 Decide the number of Layers in the Mystery

A good mystery peels like an onion with new layers revealed as you examine the surface layers. This layering doesn’t simply happen and requires a lot of planning and work.

A good technique for layering is to create a hierarchy of the layers. Start with the big reveal and layer it behind such clues that point to the big reveal when put together. Do the same thing for each of the clues that lead up to the big reveal.

If A is the big reveal then:




Your hierarchy would look something like this




An example of this from the Mystery Matters “City of Fear” game is

Layer 1 clues

A large number of deaths are occurring in the city of Sydney sporadically

Healthy people suddenly fall ill and die in a matter of days

The Deaths seem to be more concentrated in the denser sections of the city

Layer 2 clues

The pattern of the deaths seems to be spreading out from the docks

There has been an outbreak of plague recently in Europe


Sydney has a rat infestation because of poor sanitation. The rats are the vectors of the plague.

Step 4 Remember Chekhov’s gun

Chekhov’s gun is a technique where an apparently irrelevant element is introduced early in the story whose significance becomes clear later in the narrative. The concept is named after Russian playwright Anton Chekhov.
Chekhov used this principle in his play Uncle Vanya, in which a pistol is introduced early on as a seemingly irrelevant prop and, towards the end of the play, becomes much more important as Uncle Vanya, in a rage, grabs it and tries to commit murder.

The phrase “Chekhov’s gun” is often interpreted as a method of foreshadowing, but the concept can also be interpreted as meaning “do not include any unnecessary elements in a story.” If you don’t abide by this rule then the audience may be left feeling unsatisfied with the narrative experience.

A statement of the rule is:

“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.”

Anton Chekhov

Use of Red Herrings

Another interesting literary technique you can use in the game is the presence of a ‘red herring’.

Wikipedia describes these as:

“Red herring is an idiomatic expression referring to the rhetorical or literary tactic of diverting attention away from an item of significance. For example, in mystery fiction, where the identity of a criminal is being sought, an innocent party may be purposefully cast in a guilty light by the author through the employment of deceptive clues, false emphasis, “loaded” words or other descriptive tricks of the trade. The reader’s suspicions are thus misdirected, allowing the true culprit to go (temporarily at least) undetected. A false protagonist is another example of a red herring.”

While this can prolong the audience’s immersion in the story it must be remembered that the audience must not be misled and that the ‘red herring’ must be revealed as not being the central agency before the story concludes.


Mysteries can be fun to explore as a tool for creating engaging narrative especially in games for learning. A great tip for Teachers embarking on this path can be to involve your students in the creation of these stories. It is as much fun to create mysteries as it is to solve them. Plus the process of creation of a mystery requires thorough research of the subject and domain of the narrative which is a great learning exercise in its own right.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article and have fun building your own mystery games. Check this space again for more articles about making serious games.


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