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Game Narrative: Developing a Story that Works

First off, let’s make it clear that this article doesn’t explain how to write a GDD (Game Design Document). It deals with game writing as can be divided into two broad categories: Narrative Design and Storytelling. Let’s start by presenting a clear definition that separates the “narrative” and “story” of a game, as you will see these terms often in this article. Simply put, a story is a pre-authored piece of information about “something happening to someone”. The narrative is about how you tell that story. Narrative deals with questions such as: In what order should I expose the audience to my story events? How to connect the story with game mechanics? Should the story be conveyed through dialogues or action cut scenes?

Game Narrative Format
Game Narrative: The “only” storytelling format where audience IS the subject/protagonist

Video Games: A Unique Storytelling Format

Video games are the only true interactive format of storytelling, and that is why writing for a game wildly differs from that of a movie or a novel. It comes with its own special needs and techniques. Many AAA games in recent decades have failed miserably because the company hired big-name writers from Hollywood or top-seller authors who knew next to nothing about the game medium.

In the game “Heavy Rain”, the story is about a father who has to struggle and sacrifice to save his kidnapped son. The narrative delivers the story mostly through cut scenes and dialogues. However, the narrative can take subtler routes. In Heavy Rain, the narrative starts right of the bat with a piece of somber intro music and a bleak menu that foreshadows all the heartbreak waiting for us inside the game. In a game such as “Dark Souls” the narrative exposes the story mostly through item description.

Game Narrative Dark Souls
Dark Souls: This isn’t just any ring, it belonged to Havel the Rock!

Countless people asked, “Where do you start with the narrative of a game?” Excellent question and one that many experts are grappling with. We can’t even remotely pretend to have a definitive explanation for this question, however here are our common thoughts and how we normally do it.

Start Small to Go Big!

First, don’t begin with the narrative, all the time I’ve come across young designers who have a wonderful tale in mind that they want to create their game on. This is going to take you to a world of damage. Getting a story built tends to trap you in a variety of ways.

First of all, it restricts what the mechanics can be. You’re going to get all these thoughts about what the characters should be able to do, how they can communicate, and what they should be able to do. And that’s going to ruin everything before you even start. You’re going to design these things out and try to make them work, but there’s no set of mechanics that came completely developed from the mind of the designer.

Game Narrative game mechanics
Game Mechanics and Game Narrative are both integrated parts of the same thing

Instead, you’re going to end up with a lot of bloats that you’re going to have to kick and force into a form that’s appropriate to your players, and it seldom falls together in a tightly coherent way. Getting your story prepared from the start will keep you from totally abandoning plans or chopping them down to the few that really work.

Rather than simply delivering the absolute best mechanics, you’ll try to deliver all kinds of stuff that can weigh down the rest of your experience. It’s all going to wreck yourself to failure. No one’s going to be interested in your story because it’s not being delivered in an enticing way.

Don’t Restrict Yourself!

Another factor why beginning with the plot is a bad thing: because doing so lures you into a particular collection of characters and locations. Maybe those characters and locations won’t fit the skills of your art team? Maybe the players won’t find them interesting or engaging? Who knows how well those characters and locations are reading on-screen? And who knows how costly the design would be? Most importantly, who knows how malleable these characters and locations are?

Game Narrative development process
A simple graph highlighting why we shouldn’t stick to immutable concepts from the start of the development.

Your game will eventually experience some significant changes in development. Every game will be. Would the elements of your story be able to adapt to suit those changes without breaking the whole plan? Finally, if you begin with your story, you’ will be stuck to focus on the plot and a certain amount of storytelling. As a general rule, we would never say, “We’re going to tell this story” until we at least get a prototype of our game up and playable.

Good Game Stories Are Flexible

Using a pre-defined plot from start is possibly one of the key reasons why so many game stories sound as contradictory and disconnected as they do. And all of this combines to drive you into a completely insane direction. It seems to be much, much simpler to script a scene than to actually be able to construct all the assets needed to deliver the scene to the game: all the artwork, the animations, the sound, and the mechanics, both in terms of programming and design.

Starting with this bloated context that comes from starting with a tale, more than one team has been ruined. What I see many designers fail to understand is that 99 percent of the time, in many different environments, you can reveal all the important parts of your story. All things that matter are convertible, mutable, capable of taking many forms. In reality, this is sometimes how you can say what’s really at the heart of your story. Looking at stuff that will work just as well for various characters, a different setting, with all of the specific materials replaced entirely.

Game Narrative sci fi Shakespeare
Shakespeare stories are timeless, because they would work in any setting.

I mean, think of a story like that of Othello. The tale will fit just as well in the distant future of the space empire as in medieval Denmark. It could have been set up in Rome. It may have anthropomorphic animals. The key characters could be called Hamilton and Klaus. It could be a novel, a game, a film, a poem, an opera, and it would still work. The same applies to any story you come up with for a game.

First Step in Developing the Game Narrative

Ok, let’s just assume that Pixune is going to make a game. We’d just start our narrative by trying to understand what kind of emotion or ideas we want to explore with the game. Then we’d work with our team to find genuinely convincing mechanics that allow us in some way to explore that concept or express that emotion.

Game Narrative Core Emotions
Any of these emotions explored in “Inside Out” could be the core emotion that your whole game revolves around.

When we got that, we really start asking ourselves: what kind of story did these mechanics tell us? What do they mean besides that? What do they mean in and of themselves? From there, we create the barest bones of a typical tale and try to put together a level or a few minutes of play that embodies what we’re looking for.

Experiment Before Committing

And with the first level that we develop as a team, we expect to have to fully refactor or literally drop the level in the long run, but it allows us to get to grips with what we’re looking for. It allows us to understand the story that the game can tell, rather than try to force a story from the get-go. Most importantly, it helps us understand how we’re presenting our narrative. So we know the cost of production for doing this, which in turn tells us just how much we can actually afford to maneuver.

What is a man but the sum of his memories? We are the stories we live, the tales we tell ourselves.

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations

However, at the end of the day, if you start with the things that really matter: the feeling at the heart of your work, and the concept you’re hoping to pursue. You’re going to be able to produce a lot better story if it’s designed and fine-tuned through the production process than if you’d already begun the story first. I know it’s not what a lot of people want to hear, but trust me, in the end, it’s going to save you from a ton of suffering.

Holy Trinity of Game Writing

When people talk about writing games, they generally talk about it as if it’s a centralized thing. It really isn’t like that. Really, it’s three unitary things! There are three distinct sections that makeup what we inadvertently call game writing: Plot, Character, and finally, Lore.

Game Narrative Trinity
Player is at the center of any proper game narrative, interacting with all the narrative elements.

And even in those rare cases when you’re hitting it out of the park on both of them, it’s nearly impossible to do so without breaking the narrative down into those component parts and thinking about the facets of the game you’re going to focus on. So let’s describe the Trinity of the game writing before we talk about how to deliver them properly.

Plot

The plot closely resembles the traditional concept of a story. It’s what you’re going to get if you strip anything except what actually happens. Its’ what you say when describing a movie you’ve just seen to your friends. Suprisingly, It can be the most confusing part of the trinity too. Take Kingdom Hearts games, for example. People typically speak about Kingdom Hearts as if they’re plot-driven games. But almost every Kingdom Hearts game plot comes down to “A big bad one is trying to ruin the world, and a group of heroes are banding together to stop it.”

Game Narrative typical plot
This image provides a summary for the plot of 95% of games.
(Dragon Quest Heroes 2)

Some of them are somewhat more nuanced, as in Final Fantasy 10 where a young man is teleported through time by a time manipulating sea monster that has to be kept at bay by religious rites and sacrifices. But essentially it’s a big bad thing, end of the world, hero saves the day, rides off to the sunset. That’s essentially the plot for most of them.

Character

The best JRPGs are the ones where the writers understood that JRPG games are not about plot; they are about character. Character writing is an aspect of game writing that fleshes out characters and reflects on their lives and challenges. It’s the aspect that gives them personality, that makes them seem holistic, that makes them relatable, or people you want to be.

Game Narrative Pixune
“Creepy Town” characters by Pixune. We wanted to convey a “Normal, everyday undead” of a town to the audience

It’s the element that makes villains not only look like dolls, and heroes are not just stereotypical do-gooders. It’s moments like when you find out that Mordin likes Gilbert & Sullivan, or that Kratos has had a hard time welcoming his son. And the curious truth about these moments, as a writer, is that they always come at the cost of the plot. These kinds of tiny touches, where characters sit around a campfire and chat about their dreams or their families, don’t really drive the plot forward.

Lore

Lore is all that makes the world seem vivid and alive. It’s the things that make you feel like the universe you’re playing in existed long before your characters got there, and that it exists beyond whatever your characters are doing. These are the descriptions of the items in DOTA , the scrolls in Skyrim, and the text shown in mouseovers in Battletech.

Game Narrative Castlevania
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. delivered its lore through what looks like an old book to make it feel authentic.

It’s a lot more than those, too, but we’re going to talk about it as we clear this up: What are the keys to delivering well on each of the Trinity? Most importantly, we have to understand that what people call “game writing” is not just a written word. it’s anything from level design, to battle mechanics, to the way characters look.

Plot: The Canvas for Your Narrative

What is generally referred to as “game writing” is basically equal parts of writing and narrative design. So, for all of these elements, let’s consider both. Let’s start with the Plot. A Plot focused game has to do at least one of these things:

Be a story you haven’t seen before, have an awesome twist near the end like Bioshock, or have something meaningful to tell, like This War of Mine.

Game Narrative This War of Mine
This War of Mine has a truly unique story to tell. War games are nearly always about the soldiers, here it’s about the survivors.

If you don’t follow any of these standards, you probably won’t make a plot-focused game. Luckily, Plot has the most overlapping with conventional storytelling. So if you’re making a plot-centric game, just write a description of your plot and share it with people. Do they think that your twist is fantastic, that your tale is meaningful? If it’s not, it’s back to the drawing board.

While the plot can be the most isolated part of the Trinity, if you’re going to have a twist, and especially if there’s something you’re trying to say about your game, try to integrate it into the mechanics as well. Papers, Please would be useless as a story if it weren’t a story about deciding when to break the rules, told through a game about strictly following the rules.

The role of the plot in delivering an amazing narrative is usually overrated. You could leave players dumbfounded and waiting for a sequel with a very simple plot, provided that we have done a good job with characters or even lore.

Character: The Centerpiece of Your Narrative

In direct contrast to the story, to add character to your characters, it’s important that every member of your team is working closely together from the get-go. The first experience of each character by the player is going to be the visuals. What are they resembling? A brave warrior? The magical warlock? A Handsome Rogue? The look will give your players the first impression of them.

Game Narrative Dragon Age: Origins
While the plot was pretty typical, Dragon Age: Origins managed to come up with some of the most memorable characters in video game history. Morrigan was exceptionally well-written.

Along with that, how the characters walk, what they wear, and how they talk, is going to tell a lot about who they are. Now, that doesn’t mean you’re never allowed to play against the norm. In reality, you ought to have a lot of time. But the graphics will still be a major part of determining the norm you’re playing against.

No matter what you do, the art department will literally save you thousands of words when it comes to giving personality to the characters. But make sure that you’re in touch with them.

Character Mechanics

First up is character mechanics. We’ve talked about this before, but your player is going to spend the vast majority of the game, not in text boxes or scenes, but they’re going to be out there doing stuff. The role and function of a  character tell a lot about who they are. Imagine if Junkrat had the mechanics of Soldier 76. The character wouldn’t have been the same even remotely.

Game Narrative Junkrat
Overwatch: Can you imagine this character’s mechanics be about precision shooting and careful planning?

In addition, think carefully about their casual lines, the things that your characters call out during the gameplay. These are very important. Your players can hear more than anything else in the game.

Last but not least, spend time thinking about who these characters really are. Not just what they do, or what their position is in your world, but who are they? What are their hopes and their dreams? What are the failures? Who was there when all this was swept up? And what do they think about what’s going on here? Then think about how they’re going to incarnate all those things. Are they talking about their issues, or are they locked up? Are they reacting too fast? or do they ponder about stuff too long?

It’s the minute details, not the general things, that give character to your characters. So you have to find them.

Lore: Make Your Game World Feel Alive

We’ve got Lore, finally. If the game is more about being a part of a living world than really having a conventional story, you literally have to find all the space in which you can work. This means not just object notes, in-game books, and splash screens. The very world of your game itself needs to produce that kind of stuff.

A destroyed palace? It can’t just be any ruined palace. It’s got to have a past and a justification to be in ruins, and your level design should reflect that. Have an old knightly order suit of armor? It must have their symbol on it. And also everything else that comes from that order.

Game Narrative Lore
I wonder who this castle belonged to, or how did it fall to ruins….You better be able to answer those questions as a game narrative designer

All need to be precise, and accuracy is important. This is why the Story Bible is so vital. I’ve found that when it comes to delivering plot-or character-driven games, authors can often really get distracted by going too far into the universe and coming up with big backstories that they’ll never be able to offer in-game.

However, if you can avoid that pitfall and still note that the player doesn’t really know all the information that you’ve never actually told them, then the story bibles are really helpful no matter what kind of plot you’re making. But they are a must-have in lore-driven games.

Story Bible

Write everything out, know your world intimately, put everything in as much depth as you can, and most importantly, put everything together in a way that’s easily searchable so that any time someone on the team works on it, it’s all clear and coherent.

To know more about the story bibles and how to write them, read this concise article.

Game Narrative Story Bible
They come in different forms and shapes, but a typical story bible looks something like this

So those are the Trinity in the writing of the game: Plot, Character, and Lore. Almost every game will have any of the three, but I’d bet 90 percent of the games you’ve played that have excellent writing in either one or two parts of the Trinity.

There, and back again…

We could discuss the topic of game narrative for hundreds of pages and we still won’t be able to say it all. We barely scratched the surface. But I hope we managed to pique your interest enough to continue learning about it on your own. And who knows, maybe we’ll do another article around the topic in the future!
Were there any games that you played mainly because of its story? Just to see what happens? Are there any story-driven games you’d like to suggest to us and our readers?

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