Game Design vs. Story: Playing Referee
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
This is an edited excerpt from Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques.
One of the most challenging tasks the creative lead of a game project can face is the seamless, harmonious melding of gameplay and story. How can you, as a creative director, game director or lead designer, encourage these two (sometimes squabbling) siblings to get along?
Let's start at the beginning.
Who's On First?
A question often asked by people outside the game development industry is whether game projects kick off with a script or story concept, like, say, movies almost always do.
Of course, as you know, that’s not how it generally works in games. In fact, whenever a writer asks me where she might shop her idea for game story, the analogy I use in my answer is that of a film score composer wondering where he should shop the movie soundtrack he just wrote. Games don’t start with stories any more than movies start with scores.
A new game almost always begins with a decision on genre, followed by a concept within that genre. At this formative stage, few if any specific narrative elements are yet determined.
For example, some game concepts featuring original intellectual properties (IP) might have looked something like this in their very first days:
- A third-person sandbox game set in the Old West in which the player takes on the role of a gunslinger. (Gun, Red Dead Redemption)
- A first-person environmental puzzle game in which the player shoots “holes” in walls, floors, and ceilings that can be traveled through. (Narbacular Drop, Portal)
- A third-person co-op exploration and puzzle game that emphasizes emotion and simple beauty, and contains no dialogue. (Journey)
- A third-person stealth assassination game featuring climbable urban environments and large, interactive crowds. (Assassin’s Creed)
- A third-person puzzle-action game in which the player rolls a highly adhesive sphere across the environment, collecting objects that stick to it and increase its size. (Katamari Damacy)
There are so many implications in these brief concept statements! Design, team size and composition, budget, schedule, engine, possible platforms, target audience . . . the list goes on and on. It’s a lot to evaluate before even starting to think about more detailed questions like, What is the story?
Even game concepts based on existing/licensed properties, with considerably more prior baggage, might have appeared thusly:
- An isometric, four-player action-RPG "dungeon-crawler" with dozens of available playable characters from the Marvel Universe. (X-Men Unlimited, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance)
- A narrative-rich 3D adventure game that’s based on The Walking Dead comics and TV series. (The Walking Dead: Season One)
- A non-open-world Spider-Man action game featuring multiple playable incarnations of the iconic Marvel web-slinger. (Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions)
- A world-building casual mobile game based on a satirical prime-time animated TV sitcom. (The Simpsons: Tapped Out, Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff)
The point is, before there is a game story, there are always previously established elements such as genre, core mechanics, and context. In sequels, remakes, and licensed games you can usually add to that list established characters, abilities, and world. But unless it’s a straight adaptation of an existing fictional work — remember all those inevitable and generally mediocre “movie games”? — video games generally do not start with story. Nevertheless, the impact on the final game’s story starts at the very first moment of game conception.
As a creative lead on a game project, you have already at this early stage made decisions that will affect the game narrative. Just by picking the game genre you begin to set expectations in your potential audience — and probably in yourself — as to how critical narrative is going to be to the gameplay experience. These drive other decisions down the line like dominoes.
How Much Focus on Narrative?
One of the first things you need to ask yourself regarding your game’s narrative elements is how important and central you believe they are to the game’s design, appeal, and success. Some questions that might help clarify this for you include:
- Are there existing games that are similar to the one you plan to create? If so, how prominent was each game’s narrative, what methods did their developers use to integrate and convey it, and how effective were those choices?
- Can this game be successful without a strong story? Can the gameplay itself carry the experience, or is narrative crucial to its perceived quality? How much of an investment is justified?
- What do you believe your target audience’s expectations will be regarding your game’s narrative? What percentage of the players do you believe will be story-philes versus story-phobes?
It’s important to understand and be clear with other game design leaders regarding the role that narrative elements are likely to play within the overall game design, and how those elements will be prioritized versus other aspects. This will drive smart decisions early in the process, and set the tone for the rest of the game’s design development process.
Matching Player Verbs to Narrative
Core game designs and mechanics are always directly linked to what the player character can do... the verbs he is able to express within the confines of the game space. Some common verbs in video games include walk, run, jump, aim, shoot, crouch, block, climb, float, fly, swim, drive, build, and collect. Many games also have contextual verbs that are only available when the player character moves within range of a certain in-game location or object: open door, use computer, talk to NPC, pick up item, etc.
Player verbs can be expensive in terms of development effort. Just implementing a new verb will require additional code, and often also imply new art, animation, and/or audio. Verbs also tend to open up gameplay possibilities that must be accounted for, and doing so can take a lot of time and effort. Level designers must constantly take all verbs into consideration, or disallow specific verbs at certain times (often leaving Narrative to justify a seemingly arbitrary restriction).
The lower the number of player verbs, the easier it is to control the variables and rein in scope. However, a low number of verbs can result in more and more onus being put on out-of-game narrative mechanisms to convey a story. For example, if all the player verbs in a game have to do with combat and none have to do with traversal movement, then how will you bridge from one combat context and location to another? With no option to provide the player an interactive journey from Point A to Point B, you will likely lean upon noninteractive storytelling techniques to establish a change of location and a new reason and context for the next battle. This can range from the simple, five-second panning of images in between Angry Birds worlds all the way up to the sumptuously rendered, ten-minute cutscenes from the Metal Gear Solid series. As you make the hard decisions about player verbs, keep in mind that the more narrow your focus in this area, the more you might be overburdening the noninteractive narrative tools at your disposal.
Another point to consider with regard to player verbs is that people and fictional characters are, in many ways, defined by the choices they make and what they do. In a game, a playable character ends up doing only the things the designers allow. Thus, the gameplay verbs that are available to a player character define, in a very basic way, who that character is. It’s important to realize that player verbs and the player’s character are inextricably interwoven, and should be concepted and developed concurrently.
Further, if you are using a pre-existing character as a (or the main) playable in your game, be aware that the character may come with baggage that includes a bevy of implied verbs. Spider-Man, for example, has inherent wall-crawling and web-swinging abilities that can cause waking nightmares for your level designers and camera designers/engineers. Other characters may imply other abilities.
Game Story vs. Player Story
Another important decision that will have massive implications for the game narrative scope — and possibly its quality — will be how much of the story you are planning to craft beforehand versus what you allow to emerge naturally during gameplay.
Will you go for a tightly crafted, largely linear cinematic game like Uncharted or Batman: Arkham Asylum? A narrative-heavy experience with multiple, story-impacting branch points such as Mass Effect or The Walking Dead: Season One? An open-world sandbox more loosely held together by a largely linear storyline like Grand Theft Auto, Fallout 3, or Red Dead Redemption? A mainly emergent story design like FTL: Faster Than Light? Or an almost purely systemic offering such as The Sims or League of Legends?
Most games that incorporate any kind of storytelling include, to one degree or another, two narratives running in parallel. There is the game story — predefined by the developers to be the same for every player who experiences it. And there is the player story — the narrative unique to each player based on choices she’s made or things that just happened to occur via the various interactions of game systems with each other and the player’s actions.
The proportion of game story to player story can vary wildly from title to title. There are games at both extremes of the spectrum, but most are positioned more toward the middle. And, simple puzzle games aside, it is a rare game indeed that doesn’t have at least a little game story or player story.
I believe when it comes to game story vs. player story, most games with any game story content at all will fall into one of five categories.
99% Game Story
- Same linear game story for all players
- No choice or customization of player character
- Exactly one way to win
- No opportunity for expression of individual play style
- Limited or no artificial intelligence to computer-controlled characters, preventing emergent stories from interactions with them
- Dragon’s Lair
- Space Ace
- Parappa the Rapper
It is rare to find a modern video game that is nearly 100% pre-determined, right down to every successful player action. The original Dragon’s Lair laserdisc arcade game from 1983 is a good example of a title that is almost completely dominated by game story.
If you watched five different successful playthrough videos of this classic arcade game, they would look virtually identical. The narrative content remains exactly the same each time, and the path to success is rigidly set, with only one way to solve each gameplay challenge. Even on a moment-to-moment basis, the events must unfold exactly the same way for every successful player if they are to proceed.
The only personal influence a particular player might have on the story experience is how many times she failed and had to respawn at a checkpoint. While that in and of itself is technically a player’s story, it is the thinnest and least interesting sort. Because of this, we’ll call player failure a given and discount it from the rest of this section.
Graphically, Dragon’s Lair’s movie-quality art and animation put to shame its pixel-pushing competitors of the time. But even a game with graphics as relatively crude as Space Invaders provided much richer player story possibilities.
The primary advantage of this type of game is the potential to craft a narrative that, freed from the vagaries of player influence, has the potential to be just as well-crafted as the best stories from any other medium, such as novels or movies. The main disadvantage is the other side of that very coin; without giving the player opportunities to make any interesting choices, the experience boils down to a trial-by-error test of reflexes and rote memorization. Many would say it barely qualifies as a game at all.
Game Story Dominant
This is a game that emphasizes rich, linear story material, potentially at the expense of player freedom.
- Same linear game story for all players
- Few if any side missions or optional quests
- Limited or no choice or customization of player character
- Opportunities for player choice and self-expression only in moment-to-moment gameplay sequences
- Moderate opportunities for expression of individual play style
- Interactions with computer-controlled characters provide potential for small-scale emergent stories
- Uncharted series
- The Last of Us
- Spider-Man (2000)
- Batman: Arkham Asylum
- God of War
Game story-dominant experiences provide for a bit more self-expression and unique-to-each-player experiences — almost exclusively during the moment- to-moment gameplay — but still cleave closely to a linear, pre-crafted narrative that ends up being the same for all players.
For example, everyone who plays all the way through Uncharted 2 will be playing as Nathan Drake, and every player’s Nathan Drake will look exactly the same, go to identical locations, and fight the same enemies for the same in-story reasons.
However, within the gameplay sections of the missions, the player has a variety of available verbs and enough choices — of movement, of weapons, of play style — to allow for experiences that are unique to him. With various weapons and ammo scattered around an environment containing multiple cover positions and AI enemies dynamically reacting to player actions and to each other, the player is free to express himself within this context and resolve the situation in any way he can. The possibility space is still somewhat limited, but there is nevertheless opportunity for a unique player story: How I managed to beat those ten mercenaries!
Of course, these player stories are only of a moment-to-moment nature, and don’t extend into the rest of the narrative or even change anything about the next mission. Once the combat and/or traversal climbing ends and a transitional cutscene begins, the game snaps right back to the linear game story, which is identical for all players. The player is powerless to have any effect on how things turn out. Everyone who plays Uncharted 2 to completion will see the exact same, expertly crafted conclusion.
Working in favor of games such as this is the fact that the hand of a professional writer can be put to good use, fashioning a strong and well-paced narrative that nevertheless allows for player choice and expression within certain confined areas of the experience. However, some players want more customization, control, and influence on events than is allowed for within this type of design.
Balanced Game and Player Story
A game design intended to strike a balance between predetermined story content and player choice and expression.
- Same or very similar overarching game story for all players
- Limited, often binary game story variations based on player actions or decisions
- Some choice and/or customization of player character
- Non-linear and/or optional missions
- Significant opportunities for expression of individual play style
- Interactions with computer-controlled characters provide potential for emergent stories
- Grand Theft Auto series
- Far Cry series
- Red Dead Redemption
- Fallout 3
- The Walking Dead: Season One
- Tomb Raider (2013)
A reasonably equitable relationship between predetermined and dynamic story elements is the compromise favored by many popular game designs. Essentially it’s an attempt to "have your cake and eat it too." The goal is to provide the main components of a satisfying, resonant, and classically structured game story, while also offering the player ample opportunities to — within that framework — express stylistic preferences, personal reactions to characters and situations, and a greater sense of agency.
Some games of this type provide an open-world environment teeming with AI to provide random and sometimes unpredictable encounters, and peppered with quest-givers who dole out missions ranging from purely optional to a requirement for advancing the game story. The freedom given to the player to explore, combined with the systemic AI and their potential reactions to the player and to each other, can provide an environment rich with player story possibilities.
Many games in this category also provide the player plenty of choices when it comes to her player character(s). In addition to visual customization, the player can determine her avatar’s areas of skill and expertise, either via menu choices or even by performing certain actions repeatedly in the game space and watching her player character “get better” at it. This unlocks certain player character verbs while ruling out others, providing for unique player story experiences.
Perhaps the most significant and challenging feature games of this ilk sometimes attempt is to incorporate player choices that do affect the overarching, pre-crafted narrative in some way. These branched structures are tricky since, with multiple levels of branching, they have the potential to set up a combinatorial explosion of possibilities, each of which may require custom content — most of which will never be experienced by a given player during a playthrough. This can mean creating a large amount of content that most players will not see, robbing precious development time and effort from the content that the player does end up experiencing.
One solution to this dilemma is to restrict the ramifications of player choices to settings that are quietly tracked by the game itself. Usually invisible to the player, these “flags” don’t often change the big-ticket aspects of the narrative — where you go, what you must do — but instead alter more minor aspects of the experience along the way. For example, if you are rude to an NPC in Mission 1, the game may silently set a flag that is referenced and reflected when you run into that character again in Mission 3. (Perhaps she’s much less friendly.) This approach may still require the creation of alternate versions of assets, situations, or entire missions, but improves efficiency somewhat by allowing for significant sharing of most assets.
BioShock silently tracks some of the moral decisions you make during gameplay and uses that data to present one of two different closing cutscenes. And The Walking Dead: Season One provides many small-scale choices in dialogue and action that can have noticeable effects on later events and situations. However, in order to control scope, the game’s developers made sure that none of these flag-based variations change where you go, what you’re tasked with doing, or how the story ends.
Another solution to the threat of a combinatorial explosion of branched content is to keep the choice binary and then “pinch back” into a single, unified story thread.
This was the approach we took in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2, on which I was lead writer. Once the player chose a side in the super hero Civil War, he experienced a unique series of missions from that perspective — but then we introduced a bigger threat that required both sides to put aside their differences in order to face it.
This allowed us to craft a unified third act that resolved the branching and saved us from effectively developing two different games. (That said, we also included some flags that allowed us to sporadically acknowledge which side the player had chosen in the war, including the playing of two mildly differentiated closing cutscenes.)
Using a balanced approach between game story and player story creates the potential to please the widest range of players — from those who crave a well-crafted narrative to those who want a decent amount of freedom and a significant feeling of agency. The main downside of this approach is an ongoing challenge in finding the correct balance and dealing with what may be unclear priorities during development between crafted and emergent storytelling. When both are considered equally important to the design, which one wins when a conflict emerges? And of course, another risk when one attempts to provide the “best of both worlds” is to fail at doing either particularly well.
Player Story Dominant
This type of game design emphasizes player choice and agency over rich, pre-determined story elements.
- Same or similar overarching game story for all players
- Thinner, less developed and less compelling crafted story
- Limited, often binary game story variations based on player actions or decisions
- Significant range of choice regarding player character
- Often multiple player characters with wide variety of customization options
- Allows for "perma-death" of multiple player characters
- Less emphasis on the creation of engaging, memorable game characters
- Emphasis on strategy and/or tactics
- X-COM: UFO Defense
- XCOM: Enemy Unknown
- FTL: Faster than Light
- Warcraft series
- Starcraft series
As we move further down the spectrum toward an emphasis on the player’s story over the game’s predetermined narrative, we come upon titles that provide highly systemic gameplay spaces with almost limitless player story possibilities — but which are nevertheless stitched together with a unifying story that is essentially the same for all players.
Looking at the examples in this group, you’ll notice they are all strategy games with the player taking on more of a “god” role, controlling a number of disposable player characters and using them as a diversified team to achieve victory in various scenarios. While there may be named NPC characters either on the battlefield or with the player in the command bunker (or equivalent), in general the controllable characters are template-based cyphers that the player eventually grows attached to and infuses with personalities based on her experiences with them, or just her preference. In the case of the X-COM games, FTL, and others in this genre, certain player characters may also be very close to the player’s heart due to the expertise they’ve gained over the course of the game up to that point.
The potential for these characters to permanently die along the way without causing automatic mission failure — otherwise known as perma-death — adds much to the potential of the player story and its emotional impact. There is an "anything can happen" feeling during gameplay that players don’t generally experience in games of the previous categories, and it can be intoxicating. Players may never forget emergent scenarios in games like these in which one of their favorite player characters paid the ultimate price to help achieve victory, or in which everyone in the group perished except for one terrified but dogged survivor who somehow pulled off the win.
However, these games also have an overarching game story — generally focused on an enemy force that needs to be defeated. The details will vary, and the narrative elements are probably thinner and more flimsy than in the previously described categories. But games of this ilk still tie their systemic gameplay experiences together with noninteractive sequences that are as aligned with the Three-Act Structure as any Hollywood epic. By providing context, structure, fictionalized motivations, and an emotional center, predefined narrative elements prevent the game from devolving into a repetitious, endless, and potentially empty-feeling experience.
99% Player Story
A game design that includes characters and a world, but almost completely eschews crafted narrative structure in favor of gameplay.
- No overarching story, just a world and narrative context
- No ending per se
- Often multiple player characters with wide variety of customization options
- Allows for "perma-death" of multiple player characters
- Emphasis on strategy and/or tactics
- Sometimes multiplayer-only
- League of Legends
- Team Fortress 1 and 2
- SimCity series
- The Sims series
- Mortal Kombat
- Dead or Alive series
- Super Smash Brothers series
Finally, there are games that feature characters and take place in a fictional world, but in which stories only emerge in a systemic fashion. They generally fall into three genres: simulation games, fighting games, and multiplayer-only battle arenas (MOBAs).
In all three types, only a touch of game story is applied at the outset — to establish the context of a fictional world, a starting situation, and possibly characters in that world — and then the player is essentially turned loose in the play space, free to take whatever actions are allowed by the rules and systems.
Simulation games, such as the aptly named SimCity or The Sims, feature dizzyingly complex and interdependent systems that create massive possibility spaces, allowing for maximum player expression. The player doesn’t directly control any characters, but instead controls situations, setups, and organizational elements to influence characters and cause events to move in one direction or another. Complex interactions between the various in-game systems produce interesting and highly unpredictable results that, with the benefit of hindsight, should mesh with what the player knows of the world and the choices she’s made. With no specific victory condition, the player’s story can go on indefinitely.
The main strength of this setup is getting out of the player’s way and freeing her to start creating her own stories within the space. However, with virtually no game story or direct control of player characters, this genre of game is aimed at a very specific type of player. Only the very best of these games can hope to capture a large audience.
Fighting games, their origins generally traced back to the venerable 1991 arcade hit Street Fighter II, have rarely incorporated much of a pre-crafted narrative structure to their proceedings. Their players come for one thing: to fight! And designers of these games generally focus on giving those players what they want, allowing the stories to emerge from the endless interactions the play space allows. A recent exception to this rule was the surprising hit Injustice: Gods Among Us (NetherRealm, 2013), a traditional fighting game featuring the DC Comics super heroes and villains, and incorporating an epic, extended story experience.
Multiplayer-only games set up a general context and then rely heavily on players to generate emergent stories for each other. It can be an effective strategy. After all, there is nothing less predictable or controllable than other human beings, and en masse they will come up with all kinds of behaviors and tactics within the rulesets that a designer (or small group of designers) might never imagine or plan. Examples at the time of this writing include the very popular MOBAs League of Legends and World of Tanks.
Designers of MOBAs know that players who come to enjoy their product — even those who might otherwise appreciate a linear story in a single-player game — do not have much interest in narrative content when it comes to team-based competition in a shared space. Apart from outside-of-game lore content, the developers don’t waste their time creating or integrating story material, and they don’t let it get in the way of the players’ shared experience.
The downside of this approach is that your game may feel less like an intellectual property and more like a gameplay facilitation space. Player loyalty and attachment will not be so much to your world or characters but to your game systems, which are difficult to transport to other media for continued expansion of the property.
So Whose Story Is It, Anyway?
When weighing the benefits of leaning toward one end of this spectrum or another, it’s important to keep in mind that the bars of quality for game story vs. player story are very different.
As discussed, game stories are crafted and predefined. They can be developed slowly, tweaked and refined, tested and perfected. These are all qualities they share with the storytelling approaches of more traditional media such as movies. And because of this, game stories are often compared to the best examples from those other media.
And, for many reasons previously covered in this book, they are often found wanting.
However, player stories, emergent and personal, are judged by a different standard. It often doesn’t matter if the story is objectively a good one. A player story is much better received by the participant simply because he was there.
If the player were to excitedly relay his personal story to someone who wasn’t present and didn’t take part, the tale will probably not hold up very well.
If you don’t believe me, talk to a friend who plays Dungeons & Dragons and ask him to tell you about his latest quest in the game! As thrilling as it may have been for him to directly experience it at the time, the resulting narrative will almost surely be less than compelling to an outsider. You had to be there.
But for the player himself, it will be memorable.
Which is more exciting, more heart-pumping, and memorable — a movie about a baseball team making an incredible comeback to win the World Series, or watching it actually happen to your favorite team, in real time, right in front of your eyes?
Even though the movie version might be better crafted — with well-defined characters, compelling cinematography, perfectly tuned dialogue, and a rousing score backing it all up — it will probably fail to evoke the same degree of raw emotion that watching a less-polished but emergent version would. Why? Because the audience knows it’s pre-crafted, knows it’s not actually happening. Suspension of disbelief only goes so far when compared to something that’s for real. Thus, the objective quality bar for an emergent story is much lower than for a pre-crafted game story.
This isn’t to say that every emergent story is superior to every pre-crafted one. Game stories, being crafted and refined, are more likely to hit at least a certain bar of emotional impact, while player stories, by their very nature, can and will be all over the map — from incoherent and eminently forgettable to transcendent and indescribably thrilling.
The potential for the latter scenario to occur is among the reasons League of Legends is one of the most popular games on the planet at the time of this writing, with over 27 million people playing it on any given day.
That said, the more your design relies on emergent versus predefined stories, the more pressure it puts on your game designers — and possibly the rest of the team — to create play spaces with almost endless potential for unplanned but emotionally compelling interactions. Game stories are powerful tools to enhance the entire experience. If you decide to eschew them in favor of the player’s story, your game design and its systems had better be pretty fantastic!
During the long slog of a game’s dev cycle, it is frighteningly easy for "Game Design plus Narrative" to become "Game Design vs. Narrative."
In the previous chapter (“Team Leadership”) much time was spent discussing the pushing and pulling that can and does occur during development of a game featuring a significant narrative element. Although various other considerations can impact your narrative plans, design tends to be the consideration that most often comes into conflict with story development.
In a story-based game, changes in design or narrative plans can wreak havoc on each other.
As a creative lead, you have the power to balance these various factors and decide, on a case-by-case basis, which is most important. Every time Design and Narrative come into a conflict that is escalated to your level, you need to do your best Solomon impression as you weigh the various benefits and costs — not only to the project, but to the enthusiasm and morale of your team members on both sides of the divide.
This should be nothing new to you. Indeed, saying yes to some ideas while saying no to others is a primary function of being a creative lead. But when Narrative is in the mix, it tends to be regarded as the ugly stepchild and can often be trumped by other considerations, almost by default.
This is not a problem if you’ve decided at the outset that your game’s narrative quality isn’t terribly important to its success (and if you’re correct in that assumption!). But if you believe the story content of your game is central, and is vital to its success, then in the heat of game development, it’s important at these junctures to step back for a minute and remind yourself of your priorities. The damage being done to a narrative structure in its formative stages is often only perceptible to the most experienced of writers and editors. So don’t assume that the "small" change you’re requesting your narrative experts make to their story design to be minor, especially if they indicate otherwise. As we covered earlier in this book, a “cool” idea may inadvertently introduce a risk to the story’s believability, characterization, pacing, or even to its structural integrity.
Understanding these risks is the first step in mitigating them... and in getting your game's design and story to play more nicely together.