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Stories in Games

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Before starting...

Actually English its not my native language, you can hope some nonsense things and serious grammar errors around... this is my first time witting something, too. I don't know how good it will be, but I am willing that this may be of some use to you.

Why Storyline?

Yeah... thats a good question. Stories has been earning less and less value each year that passes. The game industry now its giving more attention to the 3d gfx and cool effects, while both story and musics fall behind. In consequence, our fellow small teams its going in the same way. Thats sad, thought... I, and I am sure that most of people who are having tons of patience reading this (1.5 mins?) don't have knowledge, experience or resources to do one of those full scale 3d games with lots of action and the guitar playing the same thing almost the whole game. So, we have to compensate on the real thing: fun. I remember reading in pixelate about "fun factor" (sorry, don't remember the author name, but was one of the thinking indie columns). "Why storyline its so important anyway? I play AA everyday, having fun and there is no story after all". Storyline have its true power in single player games, and in some multiplayer games too. Its objective its to create a new universe (or simulate an existing one), and, more precisely, tie the player in that world. A good story in game is that one that make you keep playing to know what will happen.

Stories and game type

There are lots of game types around. Most of time, the story its the start point in making a game. But not always everything goes smooth. Each game type need a type of storyline. An RPG, that lives essentially from the story, need a complex story, deep personality sense from the characters, big events and some "political schemes". But if you just go to a Action game, the character personality its hard to make deep, many things would not fit right. Imagine that they had made Final Fantasy VII a FPS game how it would end...

Basics things when writting

Before starting to write the whole thing, its better that you have in mind what you really want to make, and how it will have to feel like. The job its up to you, but there are some hints that may be of some use...

  • Global vision. Creating the whole system where the events are going to happen before anything its really useful. This will allow you to not going out of the "world", as to keep track of what is happening. After you have the "global vision", you use it as start point. Then you can go thinking, writing, adding things and changing it bit by bit. While you keep writing the story, you will be able to keep track of how things are connected, making it far easy to make more complex situations. Understand global vision as "starting world". For example, two countries, with some problems. Now that you know the two countries and their situations, find a way to make one of them to star a war, and then, keep evolving from there, changing bit by bit their situations.
  • Character design. Know who its going to play the game. Even if the game its some kind that don't need deep personality, the player has to like who he is controlling. If the player don't like "himself" inside the game, if anything goes wrong he will stop playing, and that is not what we want, right? As example, a third person shooter game rambo-style. Who is going to play mostly are rambo-style fun, so if the character its a "new era Rambo" it will be more accepted as if you had put Alice of the wonderlands with a R-15 as the player (even thought I would like to see that). In a survival-horror game the "new era Rambo" would not be as good. Who is going to play want to feel fear, so put a somehow weak main character, or strong ambiance. Think for example Harry Mason running inside the school (Silent Hill series) and compare to Allucard Hellsing running inside the same school.
  • Principal events and information creation. After having some of the characters created and the global vision set, its good to create the main events that the player will be playing. Think as a big resumed storyline. For example, "the virus will be spread this time, player will be contaminated that place and in this situation he will discover that there is a cure (or not)". After making this, you write in more details how things keep evolving, reaching slowy each main event, in more complex terms. If you need to change some of the main events because of what is happening in your story, you probably its writing a good one.
  • Main character and world changes. The player likes to see changes with the main character, and like to have the feel that he is controlling the story, even thought he is not (in most cases). Keep this in mind.
  • Impact and innovation. The whole thing say.... about impact, unexpected things that can change lots of thing happens suddenly. Hard to make, since this make easy to loose track of the story line.
  • Finally, good ending. Know the ending as you know the start. The ending its decisive if the player will play the game again or not. Full closing endings are good, but leaving some unexplained details its better. But I warn you, even professionals have hard times to create ending with unexplained things, so just stick with full explained for now.

Most of times, you will loose the master control you have on the world you are creating. Things will start to happen on their on, characters will start to make their own decision and thus you will loose main events, and have to re-think, change, put new things and make new main events. If this ever happens, the world you created its realistic and the characters have deeper personality than you thought. This is most of times the meaning that you have reached a real simulation of the world you created, thing will feel more natural, but again, if it goes out of what the target audience wants, you will be wasted... Anyway, this lost of control means a good thing, even thought that you have to check if it is not going out the objective. If it goes out more than accepted, create an event to put things on the right course again...

Don't ever forget that emotional/social/psicological conflicts make the thing, too. Thats is called drama, and is also the fighting to an objective. Having people running around without objective, feelings and minds its not that good.

Linear and non-linear story lines

Here goes something more advanced. Most of games you played have linear story lines. I don't know if this is right, but I understand linear story lines those that you will always end with the same ending (with some bits of changes). Non-linear story lines some people say that is those confusing ones, that you start somewhere in the future or present, goes to past then back to some time and so on... I don't really think that this is non-linear... its just confusing. I understand non-linear stories those with multiple endings, but multiple endings REALLY different each from another (in one player dies, on another the world explodes, on another peace its reached). There is not much left to say for linear story lines, but lets talk a bit for the non-linear ones.

These stories evolve creating "key points". Key point its one event that you will check what the player did before, or you make him to have a hard decision. Based on those factors, this key point will have two children. Each children will have its own main events and the world will evolve in a different way. This is a lot harder to write, since you will have to write the same story in different versions. The good point its, the harder the decision to the player to make, the more important both choices are, more distant will be the evolving from each point. In the end, the player may want to play the whole game again to take another decision. Lets have an example.

" A world where a high demon its borning in our dimension. The demon have half-infinite powers, enough to enslave humanity. In parallel, a country its being betrayed by its own king, who its killing people, selling the terrains for another king who want to eliminate the existence of this country. A priest has been sent to stop the demon from borning, and you were to reach her/him while she/he was traveling to the demon place. In mid-travel, you get to ambush the king traitor, but you are alone. Will you stay and kill the king? Or leave him to save the priest? If you stay, the priest will be killed by some bandits, and the country will be saved, but then the demon is born, and hide. After some type, he strikes and make destruction, then you go after the demon who just killed your family, brother, friends and home city. If you go to the priest, the king survives and the country is little by little destroyed, until you get him and end up with your family happy and alive, just when the other country start a war. "

Working on non-linear stories is hard but interesting, and you will also be able to know the player. There is not much more to say...

Final words

I am sorry, my brain its really tired on thinking in English. I also don't know how good this is nor how much help this will give, so I just lost the confidence I had when I wrote the first words. Anyway, this was a big resume with some of my thoughts and strategies. As base I had read some sites. You could go check it out. this one is really good. Some of the articles need gamasutra account, but its free and top quality articles.

Pixelate. Yeah, also, the best. Some things were based from "Thinking Indie", columns that have in some issues, that changed many of my way to think and see things - changed to better. You know that it find it out.

My teachers, really lovely people when not in classroom talking.

If anyone reading want to write more, feel free to edit, after all, knowledge its human.

Counter Argument

Gameplay is everything. The story exists as padding for the manual, and as a marketing tool. It may also paper over some of the cracks in your gameplay (e.g. providing a pseudo reason why you can't do something intuitive) and graphics (explaining that the green blob with wavy bits is actually a Medusa)

It may seem to the player that the story is finely crafted at the start of the design process, but with successful games this is rarely the case. In my own bestselling game, the story was written AFTER the game was written, in order to fill a space in the cassette cover.

It is very much easier to write a story to explain a game, than it is to write a game to play out a story. Proof of this should be apparent in all the awful movie tie-ins we see.

A shared artistic vision can be helpful for team projects. A story is not necessarily the best vehicle for this. An artist expresses themselves in art. If an artist chooses to add extra tentacles to a character, it is because it looks good, not because a story dictates it.


Why Video Game Stories are "Stupid" by Ken Levine

Chris Crawford writings on game design, interactive storytelling