I am thinking about Five Fires and another interesting game that I'm working on and the matter of tone keeps coming up. There is simply so much grim dark content out there these days, and while the quality on many products is good, I want the games I'm working on to have an upbeat tone and nature. Five Fires, while it certainly can touch on crime and corruption and poverty, is also meant to be celebratory in a sense. I don't want a game worn with platitudes and empty cheering and cheerleading, though, so how do I get there? How do I build a fictional space that is upbeat and positive without being saccharine or stale?
It occurs to me that the tone of a piece of media is often determined by the resiliency of its protagonists. Resilience, as I use it here, is the capacity of fictional characters to "snap back" to their basic frame of mind and attitude after experiencing dramatic stress and/or trauma. This resiliency can encompass physical resilience but is more a measure of mental resilience.
Resilience affects tone because it is in resilience that audiences can find safety and comfort, even humor, in the face of repeated conflict and stress. As a fiction trends towards high resilience, it trends naturally towards more humor and comedy. At the far end we have animated comedies like Looney Tunes, Family Guy, and Archer. The characters undergo major mental and physical stress but are often back to normal in both body and mind by the next scene. Even Archer, which often uses permanence of stress to create long running gags throughout one or more seasons, allows the characters affected to be functional and sources of humor in other ways.
Looney Tunes operate with characters possessing such absurd resilience that we almost forced to laugh at the violence they suffer on screen. Wile E. Coyote isn't ever permanently hurt by his backfiring schemes, so it is then amusing to see them backfire. But imagine the feel of the same backfiring scheme if we then followed him to the hospital as he fought for dear life, each episode a chronicle of his former life and battle to continue living. It represents a deep shift in tone, and is most likely not upbeat or humorous at all.
When the audience knows characters will be essentially OK after stress, we introduce levity into the scene without even having to make site gags or explicitly humorous conventions. By establishing that our characters can essentially survive what they encounter, we signal for our audiences to relax –their favorite character is going to survive, so just enjoy the show and the ups and downs that come.
When we approach darker, grittier, "realistic" works, what we find is, although the characters are tough, although they are often stoic and capable of masking their emotions and going through extreme pain and anguish, the actual construct of their character is not resilient from our perspective. The characters in these works are likely to change permanently from their trials and tribulations. There won't be any snapping back for these characters to some platonic ideal of their character.
We don't often laugh when one of these characters is hurt because we know the hurt will stay. The longer and more severe the consequences of our fictional space, the less humor we embed naturally in that space. Characters who are moved and effected by stress move us in many ways but not often towards laughter.
Drama and consequences are great! I really love shows that explore the lives of their fictional characters in the midst of their triumphs and failures. I'll always be a fan of Breaking Bad, for instance. But you'll notice that the show starts with a death sentence and moves towards that the whole time. Walt is tough and resourceful but he is no Wile E. Coyote: Walter White is a completely different person at the end of the show then when he starts. Stress alters him and changes him. He carries everything with him. And while he can survive and get out of the worst situations, we don't often laugh at his plight because the character's structure is not resilient enough to "snap back" after each incident.
While Breaking Bad certainly has moments of humor, the overall arc of the show is towards drama and consequence. It's always good to break up the mood of a fictional space by making detours and journeys into different tones and feelings. A show that demonstrates great range while maintaining a generally upbeat natures is Cowboy Bebop.
In case you haven't seen it, Cowboy Bebop follows a group of intra-stellar bounty hunters and their (mis)adventures. It's one of the most brilliant anime ever made on multiple levels. It's tremendously upbeat, even when they are showing us elements of horror and drama. But yet, it's not a comedy, though it has a lot of funny moments. How is it so upbeat?
The characters are all very resilient (you saw this coming, right?). It's not that the characters don't have problems. In fact, some of the characters have big problems. But the show gives us the impression that even when the worst happens, even when the characters are at their lowest, they'll have the ability to not only survive, but be very close to a version of who we knew them to be before the trauma. Now that we as an audience don't have to worry too much about the characters, we are free to get in the rollercoaster and enjoy the ride.
What I'm attempting to assert though is that controlling the overall tone and mood of your fictional space is really a question of how you treat your characters when they are stressed. When you want to inject humor into a fictional scene, think less about and gags or jokes and first look at creating a scene that your characters can recover from easily or a scene where the consequences are light. Conversely, if you want to heighten drama, make sure to create scenes that will bend a character. The more serious the bend, the more serious the drama.
Once you approach tone from the character-centric perspective, it will provide a more solid base for any other mechanics or storytelling you want to do.