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Game Writing From The Inside Out

March 18, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[In a Gamasutra-exclusive analysis, Krawczyk and O'Connor, writers for the God Of War series and Far Cry 2/Gears Of War respectively, discuss how writers and designers can collaborate smoothly and successfully.]

What does it take to create a story for a game? A lot of work, for one thing -- from the concept phase right through to the final draft. The process usually begins with the creative director or lead designer. At some point, a writer is brought on board. It's a collaborative process -- and it can be a rocky one as well.

For one thing, not all games need stories. When push comes to shove and development time runs out, story can fall by the wayside. It can become a serious PR effort, internally, just to get the story work bumped up on the list of priorities.

And there are plenty of challenges for the team to resolve -- system complexities, time & resource constraints, and communication gaffes.

So if story development in games is both hard and nonessential, why do so many studios make the effort?

Because even at their worst, stories can enhance gameplay. They provide context. What would players rather shoot -- a wall, or a Nazi?

At their best, stories transform gameplay -- and gameplay transforms story. Stories help us make sense of the world; games bring stories to life in a completely new way. Immersion and agency create brand-new possibilities for storytelling. Gameplay gives us freedom; story gives us meaning.

So why do so many writers and designers get bogged down in 10-car pileups when they work together? They have the same goal, after all: create a compelling experience for the end user. The trouble begins when they approach the same problem from opposite directions.

A game writer looks for brief moments -- cutscene or otherwise -- when she can take control of the game so that she can create throughlines, pacing, conflicts, character development, plot twists and thematic meaning.

A game designer looks for ways to give control -- not to the writer, but to the player.

Both the writer and the designer are right. Stories benefit from structure, and players love their freedom.

How can teams resolve this conflict so that writers and designers can collaborate successfully? We can start by rethinking our assumptions about how stories work - and what players expect.

The heavy lifting in story development happens at the very beginning of the process, months before a single line of dialog is written. In this article, we revisit the basic building bocks of story and look at ways we can arrange them in new ways to build a compelling, player-centric experience.

If the golden age of game narrative really is right around the corner -- and we think it is -- then writers and designers have the opportunity to redefine how stories are told, by looking at old problems in new ways.

It's in this spirit that we are asking, "What if?"

What if we didn't build the story around the player?

Most game stories revolve around the player character. This makes sense -- sort of. Players are the stars of the show. They make things happen. It seems logical to make them the focal point of every event.

But this approach also creates problems. The designer can find his options limited by the story's logic. The team has to struggle to find ways to present the story events without interrupting the game. And regardless of the quality of the final product, there will always be players that resist the story, or subvert it, or ignore it altogether.

So what do you do if your goal is to create a compelling story that involves the player? One option is make a distinction, right out of the gate, between the game's story and the player's narrative.

What does that mean? "Story" is the sequence of events that take place in the game - the main character overcoming obstacles in pursuit of his goal. "Narrative" is the player's unique experience of that story -- the player controlling his character and/or the game world as he sees fit.

(These terms are not perfect or precise. Better terms will probably emerge eventually, as the industry grows.)

Who defines the narrative? The designer -- by creating the world and its rulesets; the ways in which the player comes to understand the game.

Who defines the story? The writer -- by creating themes, characters and plots; the ways in which the story comes together in the end - the way the game comes to understand itself.

This is a subtle distinction; story and narrative are tightly intertwined. But it can be a useful starting place, for both the designer and the writer.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Adam van Sertima
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This article raised a good problem- how do you describe narrative, especially in games? Here's one example; in movies, the "story" is what happens. The "plot" is the order in which those events are revealed.

Many movies start with an exciting flash forward( for example Starship Troopers). The plot reveals an event from the middle of the movie(the battle on klendathu) first, then shows the events of how johnny Rico joined the Military, then returns to the events of the middle of the story.

In that sense, if the narrative is the player's experience, it has a lot to do with plot, and the tension between the plot and the story. Plot also includes what the player/avatar knows versus what the story actually is.

It seems simple, but adding a term like "plot" makes it easier to conceptualise how both the designer and writer try to achieve a compelling narrative, or player experience. Similar complex plotting appeared in Starcraft, with "parallel narratives" helping to drive the stories in the single player campaigns.

Reid Kimball
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Interesting, I've had similar thoughts regarding making other characters the protagonist. Typical story arc structure is about the protagonist having a flaw that blocks them from achieving their goal. The tricky thing is knowing what the player's flaws are and creating a 1:1 map with the player's flaw and the protagonists flaw. Which is how I came to realize that maybe the story shouldn't be about the player's flaws and overcoming challenges, but the player helping another character do that. To help another character go on their own journey might work out better.

I think there is still a demand for games that feature playable protagonists, but players must willingly take up the responsibility to play the role they are given. It comes back to marketing your game to the right audience, those who want to blaze their own path or those who want to role play and participate in carefully crafted experiences.

Lance Burkett
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I think game designers need to give more attention to their story writers. If they designed their games to be told and experienced, rather than executed, than the actual motives of the player in game-play would be equivalant to the protagonist's motive in the story. I can only think of a few games that managed to pull this off well;

-Deus Ex

-Indigo Prophecy

Francisco Souki
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To further a point that is made in the article, I think game mechanics and story should work together tightly at all times during production. It makes me so happy when I can sense that a game mechanic in a game is reinforcing the story, because it does so much for the overall feel of the game. First, it helps the game achieve consistency between story and mechanics and second, it shows that game elements were thought of to resonate with each other.

I love using Ico as an example for this. A game where the story is strongly reinforced by having the avatar hold hands with the girl in order to have her move with him. Other games would use a button press to call her from afar, but Ico has them holding hands, which tells you so much about the characters' relationship. It's storytelling at the mechanics level. Game mechanics that tell stories, that is what I would like to see more of.

Roman Zimine
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Another strategy that's used is to allow the player to take in information and make a choice based on that. In other words, an open-ended game. BioWare games like KOTOR are examples of this: though the player ultimately goes through similar gameplay, it is the choices that are made that affect the outcome.

Great article! Story will be an incredibly powerful tool when its developed to its fullest interactive potential!

Mark Ludlow
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@Francisco: Actually, Ico did have a 'Call Yorda' mechanism. If you were far from her then Ico would call her to him and then when she was close enough, he would grab her hand for the same button press. It was used for some of the puzzles where Ico had to go on ahead and then call her to him to get up onto a ledge, across a gap or similar as well as to keep her in tow. I see what you are getting at though and I agree. When you look at the relationship mechanics of Yorda and Ico (Where Yorda was a person in your care) vs something like Elika and the Prince (where Elika was more or less a tool to get around and drive the story), you begin to see the 'other player' (AI or human) as part of your story and can empathize with them better.

The article raises some good points and there are a few games out there that have done these techniques in the past, however, it's kind of becoming lost amongst the commercial games at least which tend to focus on blockbuster movie style storylines and familiar gameplay rather than trying to bring the two together in new and interesting ways. The indie scene seems to have a better grasp of how gameplay and story should come together, probably because they aren't hijacked by profit hungry publishers.

That said, I'll enjoy a game with a gripping story that more or less railroads the gameplay as much as a game that has a few scene setters here and there but leaves it largely up to me to make up the story.

E Zachary Knight
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One thought I have about game stories is that for the most part the story stops progressing if the player stops. This is very obvious in RPGs. You as the player can decide at anytime to stop following the story and focus on leveling, exploring or gaining new equipment. The story waits for you to reach that next story check point.

What if the story didn't wait for the player? What if the antagonist reveals plans to invade a certain city and the player had to get to that city to prepare it for the invasion but instead the player decides that he wants to track down some cool item he was told about? In current games, the antagonist would simply stop his invasion until the player decided to finally go to the city. It would make things much more challenging if the race to the city to protect it was an actual race. If the player dawdled too long, they would either show up to a ruined city or a city currently under invasion. This would also help progress the story. This would show that the antagonist is a real danger and the player cannot take his threats lightly.

Rafael Chandler
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Great article!

I really loved this: "The player succeeds. The avatar succeeds -- and fails. Both the writer and the designer go home happy." The idea that the player's success can be linked to the protagonist's failure is a really intriguing one.

Arthur Protasio
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A short, but provocative topic. Though the article is a very good read, I felt as I were reading more of an introduction or a prologue to an in depth analysis or debate.

I agree with Ephriam's opinion, as it seems a really efficient way of having the player embrace the narrative as well as its sense of urgency.

May this lead to healthy discussions and revolutionary changes. :)

Keith Nemitz
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'The Witch's Yarn' solved the designer/writer dilemma a different way. Instead of controlling the protagonist, the player controlled the situation. If Wednesday the Witch won't do something because she's feeling depressed, summon her meddling mother to infuriate her. The protagonist reacted to the player's introduction of story elements.

It was a radical change from standard adventure games, but the player had to juggle exactly that which drives a story, the personality of characters.

Jason Bakker
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Cool article! It puts forward a couple more narrative options for game development... I feel like game writers' storytelling repertoires are slowly but surely growing...

Mark B
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"In games, when the player character says "I'm going to kill that man," the ending is a foregone conclusion. The ending is in the player's hands, and is therefore entirely controllable -- and predictable. "

In GTA 4 when Niko finds the man he has been looking for for the entirety of the game, Darko Brevich, the player is presented with a choice of what to do: kill him or walk away. They are then, via NPC dialogue, made to feel guilty if they chose to kill him or commended for sparing him. Pride and guilt are two powerful emotions and are elicited in this case by allowing the player a choice, and one that's fairly significant in terms of the story, when many games would simply force the player to kill their target or else not progress.

Adam Bishop
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I also think that Ephriam's point about time-sensitive tasks is a good one. I do think it would require one important design change from many games, though: the player would have to be able to play through the game without "dying". Nothing would kill the feeling that you must do something in a hurry more than having to repeat the same portions of the chase/quest/etc. over and over again. Obviously the challenge isn't that important if you can just try it over and over again, right?

Isaiah Williams
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There are a few examples of games built around time-sensitive tasks. The Last Express and Zelda: Majora's Mask probably being the most notable. You'll notice the design for both includes breaking the normal structure of a game to compensate, The Last Express by allowing you to rewind events at any time and Majora's Mask by hitting the reset button every three days to force the player to re-explore.

Bob McIntyre
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Quest For Glory 2 was built around a fixed schedule. The city was beset by various troubles and the player was responsible for solving them, one way or another, before they got too severe. The mechanic worked brilliantly! Players who wanted to power-level couldn't just sit around all day while the Big Evil Bad Guy amassed his army of fiend-demons (or whatever) so that they'd have time to get to level 99 swordsmanship. The player had to budget time well to get time to level up various abilities, find and complete side-quests in order to get new spells/items/etc., and still scrape out a few minutes here and there to kill monsters/desert brigands for loot and potion components.

The inability to max out everything was really cool and helped the fairly large amount of content in that title to feel even larger. I played through the game many times, and for the first six or so plays, I was finding new things by playing as different character classes and exploring alleyways and sections of the desert that I had never checked before.

Bryan Roth
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"Gameplay gives us freedom; story gives us meaning."

I enjoyed the article, but I dont agree with what I quoted above. First of all, story does NOT give us meaning. It's the other way around; WE give meaning to a story. By that account, a good story needs to be heavily laden with symbolism, characterization, and conflicts (mentioned in the article). One of the issues with shoddy stories in gaming today is the shrinking budgets, but another is where video games are getting their inspiration from: TV shows and movies. I think more game developers need to hit the library and read some literature.

Books are closer in body and soul to games than movies are, anyway. Outside of MMO's, games are played like books are read, at the pace of the player/reader. A movie/TV show, by contrast, controls the pace of the action. I wish games would attack you thematically a little more like a book, rather than aim to stimulate you visually, like a movie. Of course, a great game needs a little of both (and a whole lot more), but it since the article was about story, I'd like to close by saying that story should be taken to a much higher level in games. What I mean by this is: games (that want to have an engaging story) need to be ABOUT something; they need a message.

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Michael Doig
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Interesting article, I'm intrigued by the idea of separating the main story arc from the centrality of the player experience and allowing them to weave their own events surrounding apre-established canon. Something I'd never fully considered before.

A lot of the story structures written in here remind me of Robert McKee's writings in STORY, but the principles date back throughout teachings from Aristotle, and Plato and what not.

@ Bob Dillan

I think you may have misinterpreted Bryan a little, since you've entered with a text heavy argument. We have to remember that stories are not written, they are told. The medium is changing, so must our methods.

I believe he meant taking inspiration from the great stories which are timeless, seeking what they sought, rather than languishing in self referential material pre-occupying the medium. Games are almost like audience participation at a theatre, its unpredictable because it's improvised but if the other actors are creative and trained, the story is still delivered in an impromptu fashion because it still adheres to the integrity of stories' context.

Jamie Roberts
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Bob, I disagree that Planescape was a failure. It just didn't have mass-market appeal. It is still at the top of the list of my favorite RPGs, and has one of the best stories I've ever seen in a game.