Story in Game Design (1/2)

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Story is a huge topic, and there is no way to cover it all in a single blog post. I have split this post in two, but could have just as easily filled the pages of a book. Incidentally, there are already many excellent books about storytelling out there. In part 1, I talk about story in the context of video games.

The following thoughts and opinions about stories popped up during my work on Torgar’s Quest. I hope there might be something here, you can use as well…

On a basic level, stories are the context that tie events and characters together to give them meaning. Through them, we pass on wisdom, tell jokes and share experiences. A story can be simple or complex, and have a lasting impact on its audience regardless.

Storytelling in games

For any story to work, it has to make sense in the context of its universe. In this case, universe refers to the lore and background story as well as the laws enforced by the physics engine of your game; or rather the sum of all those parts. Create any universe you want, but once it is there, you have to commit to its laws. Depth and detail must then be balanced with the circumstances under which the story is told, and in games, this means fitting the story to match the pace and feel of the game you want to end up with.

Simple games typically require less complexity. For example, you won’t find much story in Candy Crush compared to World of Warcraft. Story helps players learn advanced features and in-game strategies, but can also get in the way of the action under less complex circumstances. Note that both games have strong fan bases and hold many hours of game play, and story is not the only deciding factor for a game’s success.

Carefully crafted story greatly enhances the emotional response from the player. Twists and surprises, humor or clever dialog, combined with timing makes your game more memorable, more fun and more likely to be played a second time. When you test your game, try to gauge whether you get the response you were hoping for and if not, tweak the story or the way it is delivered.

Often, action is centered around characters the player can root for. We want our Sims to fulfill their dreams. We want the rightfully angry birds to take down the greedy pigs. We want Lara Croft to make it through whatever temple she’s exploring today. We want to win! Sometimes a good setting can evoke an emotional response from the player as well, much like a character.

You can tell the story in a number of ways, from cut scenes to audio clips or text dialog boxes and in-game choices, leading to different outcomes. Or any combination of these. You can even make it part of your level design. The trick is to choose the method of delivery that works best for your game. Is it okay to break up the action, or should it play out in the background? Does it simply set the stage or force players to make decisions?

It is worth noting that game-based stories often unfold through programmed behavior, rather than a pre-written narrative. For example, Creepers provide fodder for many a Minecraft story, and though each player has experienced Creeper encounters their own way, the damage they do is something all players can relate to. Still, Creepers never speak a word. It is purely their behavior and design that fuels the story here. This is something to be mindful of when designing AI and other behaviors.

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Story in marketing

From a marketing perspective, story is meat on the bones of the basic features and game mechanics. When describing the game to others, story gives people a way to quickly put all those features into a bigger picture, and if you tell it right, make them curious for more.

Avoid obstacles on-screen while traversing from A to B is less fun-sounding than help the frog avoid traffic, and safely cross the road.

A great character can really help boost your game’s fan base. Continuing the Minecraft example, in spite of its lack of dialogue, Creepers are prominently featured on toys and clothes everywhere Minecraft gear is sold. I am personally the proud owner of a Creeper T-shirt, a desk vinyl toy, Legos and more.

You don’t have to be hugely successful to promote your game using characters, you just need to know which characters will appeal to players in-game (again, this is something you can test), and then use those characters as hooks to spark even more interest.

How I Became a Storyteller

Sometimes people ask me why I do so many different things. Secretly, I’m sure some of them wonder how I can possibly be good at any of them, and in my darkest moments I have asked that same question. On most days however, I take pictures, write, code, compose, sketch and make videos without mentally separating them from each other.

I call myself a storyteller. I’m not trying to sound pretentious, it’s just the best description I have found. Because it’s always about the story.

What is a story then? They are essentially about our basic values, right and wrong, life and death, love and hate. The story makes its point by taking the audience for a ride, it evokes emotion and sparks imagination, all fitted into some kind of structure or frame.

Often the point is a message; a song that says she loves you, an ad that says buy this product, or a speech that says make good art. Other times the point is to ask a question, and leave the audience to ponder it (religious texts are full of stories like these), or even dare them to prove it wrong. Conflict and resolution gets us interested and keeps us vested, but that is just a vehicle, not the destination.

I used to be extremely frustrated by having “too many interests”, and in a way I did have too many — because there was no focus. One day I sat down, listed every one of my interests out, and started looking for commonalities. And there it was – The Story – staring right back at me. Once I centered on story, my creative efforts started aligning like planets around a star. The Story is the star, and the rest are just tools to help tell it. I don’t have too many interests after all; just one.

I love stories. I love finding them, crafting them and telling them. It’s what I do.