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Techniques of Written Storytelling Applied to Game Design

April 26, 2006 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

It's been said many times, and that's because it's obvious: game design must strive to become more emotionally involving, and the best way to achieve this is to create resonant characters. It's obvious, but it's only half the story. The characters whom we seek to fill with emotional depth are the non-player characters (NPCs). In games, we have another class of characters: player characters.

Halo 2's cutscenes violates the player's sense of agency.

At first glance, it would seem that the rich set of techniques available to us from the visual media of film and television is ideally suited to creating compelling game characters. This is true, but only for the NPCs. These techniques are irrelevant to presenting a player character, because a first-person player character isn't presented, it is experienced. It's not empathy that we wish to promote in the player character, but immersive agency. No film script ever had to concern itself with such a task.

Where then do we look for guidance about how to promote an involving first-person experience? Written storytelling has been sharpening its own techniques for centuries. A first-person (or what's called a tight third-person) written account, one in which a character's deepest inner life is exposed, offers more insight into first-person gaming technique than does film, and in this article I will explore these well-understood techniques from a game design point of view.

The Biggie: Point of View

The first and by far the most important technique is the effective use of point of view. Point of view refers to the character chosen by the writer to relate the story. From the perspective of a first-person game designer, the most important kinds of point of view to study are first person and tight third-person. (see the sidebar for definitions).

Sidebar: Point of View and How to Mess It Up

What do the terms first- and tight third-person point of view mean? First person prose is characterized by lines like “I saw that, and I felt like this.” It's the character who is actually experiencing the action that relates the story. Third person has lines like “He saw that, and felt like this.” First person is fairly easy to get right. Tight third-person is more subtle, and is where mistakes most often creep in. Mistakes in both styles fall into two categories: commission and omission.

Firstly, let's look at errors of commission. The more tightly the point-of-view is presented, the more jarring it is when the text makes a point-of-view shift. In fact, point-of-view is such a well-established literary technique that any shift at more than a scene boundary is considered an error. The most serious form of this error is the “head hop:” switching from one character to another sentence by sentence. The reader is left confused and unaffected by the emotional state of any of the characters.

Secondly, there are also errors of omission. Consider these two paragraphs describing the same action.
  1. Charlie put a one-dollar sticker on the statue next to the bed, hesitated, then put it in the box to take out to the garage sale.
  2. Charlie touched the statue. It was the one Helen would always hang her clothes on. It hurt just to look at this thing and see it unadorned by a t-shirt or jeans, empty of the simple objects that declared that she was still a part of his life. He picked up a one-dollar sticker and hesitated, unwilling to commit the act, to label this precious thing and render it no more than a cast-off, lifeless object. One dollar for a memory that was worth the world to him. He sighed. Holding on to all these things wouldn't bring her back. It was time to be strong. He had to let them all go. He placed the sticker on the statue's base, where it wouldn't tarnish the finish, and rested it as carefully as he could inside the box.

The difference in the emotional impact is obvious, and the impact comes from the fact that we can see into Charlie's head, and this insight lets us understand the meaning of each event. The first paragraph, devoid of this insight, is a point-of-view error of omission.

In written fiction, a sloppy point-of-view will earn your manuscript a one-way trip to the editor's bit bucket. There is a direct analogy to be drawn between such errors in written fiction and in interactive titles. In writing, the reader's empathy is sabotaged. In first-person games, it is the player's sense of agency that is lost.

Let's take a look at some specifics. Consider the cut-scene in a first-person game. The loss of agency is clear because we have taken away the very mechanism by which the player expresses that agency: the fact that the joystick controls what the character sees and does. But the situation is a little more complex than this. A cut-scene in which the player's character is portrayed in the third person does irreparable harm to the player's agency. A player who sees his or her character walking and talking out of their direct control is robbed of their power. The James Bond Golden-Eye tie-in made this mistake with frustrating regularity.

The switch from first-person to cut scene is analogous to switching from first-person to omniscient points of view in written fiction, but in our young medium it is debatable as to whether it is as grave a mistake. A cut scene that does not show the player's character can be very dramatic and does not necessarily defeat that sense of agency. It can indeed heighten it. Recall the closing sequence of Halo: watching the destruction of the ring was made all the more vivid by the knowledge that you, the player, caused it.

Now, we might reasonably expect that the interactive author is free to switch between different first-person points of view at low frequency, just as writers are. This is, of course, true, but we pay a price that is different from that of our literary cousins: if the new point of view presents an image of the other characters the player can control, then, as in the cut-scene, we have again defeated the player's sense of agency. For this reason, it is far more effective to stick to exactly one point of view in a first-person game. If the author does switch, then it is vital that the many points of view never observe each other. This situation leads to a tricky finale: you can't wrap up all the storylines in the same scene at the end of the game.

Point of view is also relevant to the player's audio environment. It's often tempting to have the player's character speak pithy comments that are heard by the player. Two examples that leap to mind are Duke Nukem's famous “Come get some” and Crimson Skies' player character noting “Now we're cooking with gas” after blowing up a fuel dump. This is a clear point of view error in a first-person title.


The next technique we will consider is a more subtle one. In fact, most beginning writers, myself included, tend to scoff at its power before they understand it. This method has no particular name, but we can denote it by the phrase “show, don't tell.” These three words are a mantra for working writers, and remind us that the reader's experience is far more vivid when he or she is given credit for their intelligence and is allowed to infer information rather than be told it outright. The power of this process lies in the reader's tendency to infer more than they are told. Readers will always bring their own imaginations to bear on any information they receive, and a conclusion thus derived is bound to be richer, perhaps richer even than the author intended. This is why the effectiveness of the technique is invisible to the author, and likely to be underexploited by the neophyte writer.

Riven is an early example of successful interactive storytelling using "show, don't tell" to great effect.

Show-don't-tell doesn't necessarily mean that the author shouldn't give explicit information, rather that the important information, the stuff of the story itself, should be left strongly implied by what you do tell. For example, a story that shows jack-booted thugs, tanks in city streets at night, the beaten, downcast look of the citizenry and rifle-fire starting at exactly nine p.m. need not contain an explicit and far less affecting statement such as “the city was under fascist martial law.”

Let's consider how show-don't-tell transfers to the interactive realm. It's fair to say that there are no hard-and-fast rules, but an author who approaches the problem with an awareness of these issues is more likely to be successful. I'll present a list of the issues I have encountered, and my suggestions for addressing them.

  • There is a desire to make use of the player's valuable time when loading a level, and since game sizes are growing faster than the stubborn bandwidth of our various media and peripheral busses, the problem is only going to get worse. It's easy to succumb to the temptation to throw up a static image with a paragraph or two of text underneath it describing the area the player is about to enter. You'll find examples of this all over, notably in the Unreal Tournament series and Doom 3. Resist this urge. Your players will be far more involved if they experience the setting directly during the game itself. The same comments apply to install-time screens.
  • Training levels. Most game studios are now mature enough that they avoid an explicit training section of the game, and instead weave the learning of the control mechanism into the action itself. This was done well in Halo, for example, but not at all in Thief. This is as much an error of omission as of commission, since a training level robs the player of some time that could be better spent allowing them to experience the world we are showing them.
  • Back story in the game manual. Let the player experience it firsthand. Delete the pages from the manual and save the printing cost.
  • Pop-up text such as Doom's “you found a secret.” If a crate is located behind a locked door hidden behind a filing cabinet, the player already knows they've found a secret. Telling them is a form of authorial intrusion (see below) and is a guaranteed way to disconnect your player from the story.

Lastly, the writer must always resist the urge to explain. The reader is smarter than you think. Trust the reader to infer more than you show. A conclusion drawn by the reader from the clues you do provide enters their brain through an irresistible path: their own intelligence. They will trust and internalize that judgment far more deeply than the same result painted in pages of descriptive prose. The parallel to interactive titles is direct: avoid sledgehammers when showing elements of setting or character.

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