Designing stories for games: A thinkening! Part I

The basic actions of a game is the vocabulary of its story.

There, I wrote that down. It’s been jostling in my head for a quite a bit. I’ve been thinking about the fundamentals of how to design and write stories for games. I’ve come up with a few basic thoughts that I might expand into a series of posts, if Skyrim, Batman, L4D2HK and work don’t get to me first. Otherwise, let’s hope this is a first in a series of ideas on how to approach designing a game with the kind of narrative elements that I love, as well as understand how games communicate their ideas to players.

More so than any other medium, games trumps interactivity as its key differentiation for a story-telling medium. Game stories are stories in which the audience (player) can do stuff. The cutscenes don’t matter, neither does the walls of text detailing the history of the world nor the way the architecture hints at alien technology. The most immediate story to players is the actions they take in progressing through the game. Those actions are the basic building blocks of the story. Whether it’s killing zombies by the droves, or deciding which building to construct, which technology to research; what we do is part of the unfolding story. Everything else is context.

[Picture of Shogun 2: managing a dynasty]

Stories are essentially a series of events. Backstory, characters, details and style are the  world in which these events take place. They help the audience better understand the significance of their actions and how they impact the world. A narrative is how it all comes together as a experience for the audience. For a game, each action that a player makes is an event, however minor. That action is the player’s own, and while it may be similar to another player’s in mechanic, the act of taking that action is simply down to player pressing a button.

What are the kind of actions a player can take; that’s where the game designer comes in. They design the rules and the actions that a player is allowed. Whether its shooting a bad guy, or fiddling with your weapon to get it customized to your liking; the designer is building the kind of vocabulary a player can use to craft his story. The more actions that a player can do, the more expansive his story becomes. RPGs are usually lauded as the greatest storied games, because they give players a ton of options to do stuff. Other games limit those actions to what makes sense in the overall story they want to tell to the players. You can’t really customize weapons in Call of Duty because it would detract from the roller-coaster ride of a military techno-thriller the game wants to put you in.

So it comes down to how players approach these actions and how the designer can define these actions in the greater context. It leads to a ton of questions the designer has if he begins to consider the game story at all.

  • What kind of actions will the player be doing?
  • Are those actions fun, in of themselves?
  • Are individual actions complementary, do they build up to a larger story even if some are less fun than others?
  • What sort of context can be applied to support those actions?
  • Are there better mechanics to achieve the same sort of action?
  • How basic are these actions?
  • How challenging are they?
I suppose it’ll be a useful exercise to take some games and break them down into their individual actions. Complex games of course have a ton, so the question there is whether all the actions the player can take at any given point in time useful in constructing the overall story of the world. Does any individual action somehow break the suspension of disbelief in the story that’s being presented. Do they players even understand the actions required to take.
I’m getting rhetorical.
Still, it’s pretty cool to think about it this way. Every story needs a proper vocabulary to be told. Once that’s establish, we can start organizing the most common words, or figuring out just what is it we, as designers, want the player to do and excise all the cruft that might get in the way of the player crafting his own awesome story of how he’s moving through the world. It’ll still be our world, but if we do it right, it’ll be the player’s story, and if we do it incredibly well, we can set up emotional arcs that’ll be the player’s own. And that’s the goal of a story, to open up the audience’s mind to the possibilities of other experiences.
Then maybe he’ll tell that story to others.

Stray Thoughts

– An expansive story isn’t necessarily a good thing. Consistency is a quality that a good story should strive for. Just because a player can do a ton of actions, doesn’t mean they fit one another to build a consistent story. Call of Duty is the kind of game that limits the player’s action to just moving and shooting. Yet they surround that with enough context to make that moving and shooting impact the story at large, while still delivering what they want. It’ll be an odd sort of story for Call of Duty if a player could wander off in the favela and get a burrito.

– I keep wondering how much I can take this thought and the rest of my notes are a jumbled mess of jots and scribbles. One in particular is taking the fundamental concept of scene building as change and conflict and applying it to how actions are designed for the player. The actions the player takes are usually to overcome an obstacle after all. Even if it’s as mundane as travelling from place to place.

– Man, finding pictures for an abstract post is hard. I’ll probably retroactively add some later since I rather put this up first.

– The ease of those actions matter. As a pretty heavyweight comment came to me today; there’s a fine line where the actions the designers ask the players to do break their suspension of disbelief because of the restrictions placed upon the player. We all know some of these. Like why it takes several decades for an early scout in Civ IV to climb a hill, or how certain characters can just carry so much loot. Where’s the line to be drawn that the story breaks down? Honestly, I don’t know. I suspect that comes from play-testing, hoping your audience aren’t all anal retentive moaners who like to feel clever at pointing out how games are inconsistent with real life, and designing a mechanic fun enough that they don’t actually notice.

– I’ll break down one game I’m playing now. Dead Island: Hacking and Slashing Zombies, rummaging through luggage, managing inventory, driving, walking around a post-apoc island, eating fruit, stomping on heads, watching cutscenes. How does it all form into a story. Verdict: Next Post!


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