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.
Screen shot from Blademasters -- a RPG that follows the nine act story structure.
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 write dialog.
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.