every game out there needs a strong story, but many do. Not every game
out there has a great story, but many should. The problem that many
game designers face is that they've come from other jobs in game development
-- and typically still need additional help when it comes to some areas
of design. There are some good books on game design, but few of them
really tell you how to start with an idea and turn it into a design.
This article examines my approach to making strategy, adventure and
role playing games, but many of these techniques apply to any game that
relies on a strong story. I'll show you how to create an outline for
your game and break it down into a linear series of events which will
help you to develop both the game's story and level flow more quickly
and easily. For some people, this outline may be only the roughest of
starting points, but for others it may provide everything needed to
create a compelling game and story.
One of the hardest jobs a game designer has is to take an initial idea
or concept and turn it into a game. Trying to decide how to flush out
a story and fit it to a game layout, or how to take an existing story
(like a novel or screenplay) and adapt it to a game can be very challenging.
Many books and screenplays use what is called a nine act story structure;
basically a story with a twist or a reversal in the plot. This is in
contrast to the very linear, more traditional three-act story structure
(beginning, middle, end) that shorter TV shows and movies often use.
The nine act story structure isn't anything new, but many people either
still haven't heard about it or don't understand it's applicability.
Since it has already been fairly well explained by many other authors,
I suggest you read a great synopsis article by David
Siegal. The nine acts are designed as an outline for your story
rather than a law or rule. In a nutshell however, the nine act structure
allows the story to progress from it's beginning through the body of
the story, then to a reversal and finally a climactic ending. The best
reason to use a story structure is to develop good pacing in the game.
shot from Blademasters -- a RPG that follows the nine act
The different acts in a story are designed to draw a person in and keep
them interested. Like any good action movie or book, a game needs to
hook the player immediately, keep them interested and finish with a
bang. Pacing your story is what creating an outline is about.
The problem with many game designs, however, is that designers try to
create a completely open ended and nonlinear game. It is extremely difficult
to correctly develop a compelling nonlinear story because skipping from
place to place in a story makes it very hard to pace. This article focuses
on a more linear story progression where the player is expected to pass
through most of the major story plot points and is not able to bypass
certain events. It is for this reason that it is very difficult to adapt
an existing story and equally as hard to adapt a new story written by
a writer without considerable input from a game designer. I worked on
a game years ago which had an incredible original script written by
Orson Scott Card (who wrote the best selling Enders Game), but
the script was written before most of the gameplay was finished and
most of it was ultimately unusable. I find that it is very important
for a game designer to write the first pass, or first few passes, of
a story. Then, if needed, bring in a seasoned writer to polish it and
A good story and game needs conflict (yes… there are games that
don't need conflict, but this article deals with the type of games that
are built on action and combat). It's not good enough to just have pure
conflict if you're trying to create a very compelling game. Games that
just have nonstop action are fun for a while, but often get boring.
This is because of the lack of intrigue, suspense, and drama. How many
action movies have you seen where the hero of the story shoots his gun
every few seconds and is always on the run? People loose interest watching
this kind movie. Playing a game is a bit different, but the fact is
the brain becomes over stimulated after too much nonstop action. For
this reason, you need to develop some kind of plan to keep players interested.
The pacing of the game should change through the various acts. The first
few acts are often done within the initial cut scenes, before game play
begins. In some instances, the player may get to play through some of
the backstory. It may be possible to structure the initial training
and learning parts of the game within the context of the first two acts,
so that once the player jumps right into the third act after learning
how to play. A few games may choose to start their game play during
the fourth act when the story is already fully going, but with careful
planning it should be possible to get the player into the story from
the first act. The pace of the game will change several times through
the story until it reaches its final climax at the end. The game should
hit at least one low point, where the player feels the odds are stacked
against him, before the climax .
Some of the best conflict comes from troubles between two characters
that began many years before the beginning of a story. Batman got his
start because the Joker killed his parents when he was little, but they
didn't meet and have direct conflict for almost 20 years. The history
of the conflict heightens it. A good central conflict should be like
two trains on the same track speeding towards one another. Just the
fact that they are on a collision course is enough to heighten the tension
and create fear, and as the story progresses they grow closer and closer
until it's inevitable that they will collide. It is simply not realistic
that two people meet, instantly hate each other, pull out guns and start
shooting -- there should reasons and backgrounds for conflict. This
doesn't mean adding a long, involved cut scene at the beginning of the
game explaining the last 20 years, but it does mean using some creativity
to put in references and minor explanations throughout the game explaining
the source of the conflict
If you think about the pacing of the story during the early game design
phase you will probably be able to come up with other interesting ways
to follow your outline with game play elements and mechanics. This can
be done by introducing a new character or enemy into the story that
forces the player to change his outlook, or by introducing a new weapon
or ability to the player. Constantly rewarding the player with new items
and abilities keeps the game interesting, but the rewards should be
integrated into the story and the game play mechanics.
I prefer adding more intrigue and story elements into the middle of
the game. By the end of the game most people just want to finish it,
and at the beginning people can get tired of too much story or background.
Even in an action game you can add a healthy mix of mystery, plot reversals,
and intrigue to keep the player interested. Most movies have at least
one plot reversal in a two hour running time, so don't be afraid to
throw in a couple of them in a 20+ hour game. One of the best examples
of how to integrate a story into an action game is Half-Life.
If that's not reason enough to do it, then nothing is. Half-Life
is a perfect example of how a deep story added to an action game can
create a thrilling experience.
Choosing the nine-act story structure in your game is only the beginning
of the design process. The story structure has everything to do with
pacing, but nothing to do with theme. The true challenge comes in figuring
out how to create a theme for your story and apply it to your story's
structure. The oldest theme in literature and many ancient stories revolve
around what is called the hero's journey, and it can help you write
a great game design.