story is a hot item in games. Partly, this is because the quality bar
is rising in this relatively young art form. As games evolve, people
want more depth, not just higher polygon counts.
to the point, game developers want to sell their wares to more people.
Selling them to the same ones every time doesn't lead to a lot of
growth. It's clear we need to tap into something more universally
And story is a universal human experience.
how do we approach story in games? Well, to answer that, we need to
look at what has worked in other story forms, and what is unique to the
new story form of games.
Let's start with a statement everybody can agree on: Games aren't movies.
But that by itself doesn't get us very far. To figure out what games are, it's helpful to back up to an earlier problem: Movies aren't plays.
the early part of the 20th century, moving pictures were a curiosity,
an amusement. They had their addicts right from the beginning, to be
sure. But they didn't become a substantial lasting art form until they
discovered two related things:
- They are a form of story, not just a new toy.
particular form of story differs from all previous forms of story, and
has other things in common with all forms of story.
The same is true for games.
first attempts to make movies into real stories failed. They failed
because they were conceived as filmed plays. A camera would be set up
about where an audience member would sit in the middle of a theater,
and the play would ensue.
didn't work. Early film makers didn't take into account that the human
eye wanders all over the fixed box of the stage during a play, and a
camera that does any less will bore the film audience to tears. They
also hand discovered the rich tool set of camera angles, close-ups, far
shots, and all the language of film we now take for granted. Generally
speaking, they hadn't discovered what this particular story form was good at.
And frankly, neither have we in games.
are a number of places where we've gone wrong in game stories so far.
Most of the problems spring from two basic misunderstandings:
- Story is dialog.
- Story doesn't matter.
Sure, story is partly dialog. And a cake is part frosting. But here's a large fact that I'll elaborate on in just a moment: Story is CONFLICT.
The sabotaged dope deal in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is an 'inciting incident' that causes the protagonist's world to be thrown out of order.
the notion that story doesn't matter is worst with the industry
old-timers. "Just repeat that 30 seconds of gameplay, and you've got
it," I've heard. Or worse: "We've never had to worry about of that
story stuff before."
that's okay for a small audience of addicted gamers, but the new
charter for platforms like Xbox 360 is to appeal to a mass audience,
not necessarily people who have even played games before. That means
that if games are ever to rise to the level of universal cultural
experiences, the way movies have, we have to figure out the same story
problems movies did in the last century.
A starting place
Okay, to really get this right, we have to talk about story in general. What has always worked, and what will work in every form of story, including games?
could go back to Aristotle's "Poetics," but a more useful reference is
from that curmudgeonly guru of Hollywood screenwriters, Robert McKee,
author of the book, Story, which is based on his many three-day intensive story structure lectures.
people have their doubts about McKee, based on his personality, or his
emphasis on structure, or simply suspicions of his massive following.
But here's something to consider: He's right. Deal with it.
I'm reasonably sure McKee has never played a video game in his life. He
certainly never mentions it in his work. But that's where we come in.
If we are to develop games into the fairly advanced story form that
movies have become, we need to start by learning everything movies had
to learn, and McKee's Story is the place where that is best
summed up. I'll touch on the main points here, but make the reading of
that book your homework assignment. Lots of what I'm going to talk
about comes from him.
real substance of story, as McKee points out, is CONFLICT. Did I
already say that? Good. I'm repeating myself on purpose. If you
remember nothing else, remember this. Story is conflict.
is no trivial point for game developers. This has huge implications for
how we plan our productions cycles, and how story is best presented in
the game. For one thing, the conflict is part of the structure, which
means it needs to be planned from the beginning of the development
So, how does this conflict work through the course of the story? Glad you asked.
How classical stories move
There are a couple of very good reasons for game developers to know about classical story structure:
I'm going to tell you is not something that will confine your
creativity. On the contrary, if you keep this basic structure in your
back pocket, it will save you loads of trouble throughout your creative
process. And this is not merely a theory from Aristotle. This has been
put into practice by story tellers of all kinds for thousands of years.
You could say it has been thoroughly tested.
- First, there's a protagonist, a hero.
- His or her world is thrown out of order by an inciting incident. (Look at the sabotaged dope deal in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City for a good example of this.)
- A gap opens up between the hero and an orderly life.
- The hero tries the normal, conservative action to overcome the gap. It fails. The world pushes back too hard.
- The hero then has to take a risk to overcome the obstacles that are pushing back.
- Then there is a reversal.
Something new happens, or the hero learns something she didn't know
before, and the world is out of whack again. A second gap has opened
- The hero has to take a greater risk to overcome the second gap.
- After overcoming the second gap, there is another reversal, opening a third gap.
- The hero has to take the greatest risk of all to overcome this gap and get to that object of desire, which is usually an orderly life.
a three-act classical story, this is what happens. With more acts, you
have more obstacles. But three is a minimum, and a good goal for a
game. In a comic structure, the last gap is overcome. In a tragic
structure, one final gap opens up, and stays there. But games are comic
by their nature, so we'll assume it's possible to get to the end.
Character, and why it matters to games
while we're talking about universal story principles, there are a few
important notes we should make about character. There are a lot of
misunderstandings about what character is, and what it isn't.
What a character wears, eats, and drives are all important. But those aren't the things that make him who he is. That's characterization: the superficial stuff.
is what he chooses to do. He's driving by a burning school bus. There
are 80 kids trapped inside, and it's going to explode in 37 seconds.
Does he risk his life, or get out of the way? That's what defines his
Any good story will have pressures on the hero to bring out these choices, and therefore the character. This is called the principle of antagonism.
rest of your cast of character should be designed around the
protagonist, because they conflict with her to define her character.
world of the game should be designed (and often is-this is one thing
games already do well) to oppose the player at every turn. As games
become more sophisticated, these forces of antagonism will provide more
interesting choices, and our characters will become deeper.