Story Design Basics

     Game development is more than just graphics and gameplay. Most good games have a story that the players will follow. The story will wrap them into the game environment and provide them the mental desire or need to continue playing. It also takes the repetition out of the game. Older games do not have much if any story however modern games have more advanced story lines. It is important to understand a few points about story writing before developing your own story. However, writing a solid story can be difficult to write without losing the interest of the player. A good story has characters, a setting and a plot. If they are defined properly the story will encourage the player to take the game to the end but keep in mind that to much story can be a deterrent.

     In order to write a good story it is important to know a bit about story lines within games. Most games are single player or single player centric. This means that the player is the main character of the game and thus the center of the story. It is also typical to have a single enemy trying to stop the player’s advancement. This is unlike a book which can have dozens of key players that exist within the book all of whom contribute to the main and secondary plot lines. That being said it is important to look back through gaming history for examples of how stories are used to drive the player.

     Classic arcade games such as Pac-Man or Qix are all about the arcade action. There is no actual story however the designers do write up a brief explanation about the game for the players who wish to know why they are doing what they are doing. In the 1980’s, stories within video games started to progress through franchises such as AD&D, Bard’s Tale, Final Fantasy, and Ultima. These games present the player with a number of character choices and a single storyline to follow. They also present the player with side stories which reinforce the main plot and provide the mechanism to advance the player through the longer main plot line. The later games within the franchises and even MMOs present the player with long and complex story lines that have dozens of mini plots which slowly progress the player to the ultimate goal in finishing the game. Granted some games have truly amazing stories while others have to focus on gameplay since the story cannot hold the attention of the player. In all of these cases the basics of story writing are required and can be displayed in dozens of ways through the key lines of any story.

     With a basic understanding of what kinds of games have stories it is best to explain how stories are written. Some areas may be currently defined during the predesign phase of the game project. However, during the story phase these areas will be fully explored prior to development. The areas that will need refinement are the characters or actors, the setting, the environment and the plot lines. When each of these are properly defined then the world can be created and the game mechanics can be perfected.

     Characters are the backbone of any story. In a single player game there is one principle character which is presented as the player of the game. He will be doing everything that the other actors are unable to do. An example is that the player is the only survivor of an elite military unit who managed to survive when the rest of the team died. Another choice might be that the player is the first magic user in a century. These are two examples of the endless concepts behind the player’s background. However, it is the character’s future that the player is interested in not the past. However to support the main character supporting actors are required. The supporting roles can be filled by either allies or enemies. There is always a single foe that is behind the main plot but he may have dozens of lieutenants that need to be confronted prior to dealing with him. It is also common for the player to have a commanding officer or leader who will guide him on his way to the final foe while other less important and less developed characters will round out the social holes along the way.

     The supporting actors can be onetime or reoccurring depending on the plot’s requirements. An example of a single use character might be a researcher who gives the player access to the research records of the project that the opposing site is currently developing. This gives the player an edge of foresight and uses a disposable character to do it. An example of a reoccurring character might be the regent king who is the primary quest giver. This character will remain in the story throughout the game and helps the player move on to the next goal by sending him on the main plot lines of the story. There are countless ways to use different characters such as a character that appears every so often just at the right time or may appear to be in the way. These characters are also important since they will break up the monotony of the story and game play. In the end it is important to remember that characters drive the story not the gameplay.

     The setting and environment are not overly important to the story but it is to the player. The setting creates expectations that need to be filled. If the setting is medieval then a space age blaster would not fit. It is also likely to be said that in a game of ship to ship combat in space would not have magic. These are not hard fast rules but the setting needs to define what kinds of abilities the characters will have and what the technology level is going to be. It is also important that these stay consistent throughout the game. If something is out of place and does not fit within the story and setting then it should be removed. If the setting is medieval where knights and wizards are the main characters then a space ship landing in the palace grounds would be out of place and the player will have concepts of poor game design. However a flying boat would fit within the world and present the same story hook but maintain the setting. These are concepts that need to be addressed and are used to keep the story consistent and flowing in the correct direction.

     It is not uncommon to have an area that is contradictory to the rest of the setting. Sometimes it is useful to have an area that is more technologically advanced within the medieval world. It will break up the current flow of the game a bit but it should not be taken to extremes. It is important to know that the more variation within the setting creates inconsistencies within the story. If there is too much variation then the player will lose interest. It is also important to know that if the setting never changes the same is true as well. If the player is always in the same town, cave, forest or the like and there is not enough to engage them the game will get set on the shelf and never played again.

     With the characters loosely defined and the setting selected the basics of the environment have been outlined for the player. What is left is the story. The player needs to know a few things which will define the plot and sub plots of the story. Some of the questions that need to be answered are as follows.

  1. What is going on?
  2. Why am I doing this?
  3. What do I get from it?
  4. Who wants me to fail?
  5. What are their reasons for doing it?
  6. When will the next story hook happen?
  7. How much longer do I have to go before I’m in the next area?

     There are more questions that the story needs to answer but and that is the point of the plot lines within any good story. First it is important to examine the main plotline. By doing this the author can entrance the main character in the subplots that will slowly explain the main plot. One commonly used plotline is the leader of a country has been assassinated and the player must find out who did it and why. This is the main plot of the story but it is the exploration of the story that the player will follow intently not the obvious information. Perhaps the main story will point the finger at the player only to find out he was framed or double crossed in some way. It is then the player’s job to expose the real threat and resolve the conflict before total war breaks out. There are many different centralized plots and even more ways to make each unique. The better the writing the more interesting the story is.

     However, the main story is a drop in the bucket it is the small sub plots that will drive the player to the end of the main story. In our example of the assassination, the player is accused of the crime so the first sub plot will be to escape the city. So how does he escape? Will it be by force or will he be smuggled out? The second option provides more story and background into what is going on while the first leaves the player with a million questions and no answers. Both will compel the player to find out what is going on. Other sub plots might be finding a rare artifact or fighting unimportant bosses to get information that is critical for the story but not required. While the main plot follows the player through these side quests such as the guards following him trying to make the arrest.

     There are endless ways to write the story but if it is what the player wants to read then they will go through the whole game to find out what is really going on. It is also important to not over write the story for a game. It is not a book that the player is reading it is a game they are playing. If there is too much story or dialog the player will lose interest just as fast as if they have to grind levels in order to progress to the next zone or to defeat the next boss. When balancing story and game play it is best to remember if the player gets bored doing anything they will stop playing and may never read the end of the story that took months to write.


1 comment so far

  1. Roscoe Escorza on

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