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Opinion: Once upon a time...
Opinion: Once upon a time...
May 1, 2012 | By Poya Manouchehri

May 1, 2012 | By Poya Manouchehri
More: Console/PC, Design

[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday opinion piece, former Microsoft software design engineer Poya Manouchehri shares some advice for writing the story of your game.]

I have a theory: everyone has or will have, at some point, an idea for a story they want to write. Or tell. And I don't mean a real life story, but a story that is a creation of one's imagination.

Now it might be a passing thought… Maybe it's a person, a news report, a real life event, a book, or a game that suddenly triggers an idea for a story. The process of turning that idea into something complete and finished is a whole other…well, story.

Currently I'm writing the story for the game Connectorium. It'll be the second story I'm writing in full, after co-writing the Revival short film (I'm not counting the one or two short stories here and there, and a failed attempt at writing a fantasy novel after watching the first Lord of the Rings film. Who didn't do that, right?).

Here are just a collection of random thoughts, observations, and experiences about the process. Obviously these are not the opinions of an expert; I'm merely hoping it opens up the way for a conversation and invites thoughts from you.

From abstraction to realization

This is something that is universal to the creative process. You begin with an empty canvas. Maybe a concept that is completely abstract and vague. Then with every sentence, with every stroke of a brush, with every added note, or with every line of code, you bring that abstraction one step closer to existence (and also the number of possibilities of what that end product will be reduces with every step).

But there is a key thing I have realized: this is a tw- way process. The original idea, or concept affects what you create. But what you create also affects the idea over time. To a point where the final product may in no way resemble the original idea. I think this a very important part of the creative process: the organic nature of it.

As far as a story goes, that initial concept and idea can be many different things. Maybe it's a particular character, or a specific plot point. Maybe it's a particular setting. Maybe it's a mechanic in the game you are designing. Either way, it's important to keep in mind that your completed story may be nothing like what you had initially conceived. And that's OK. In fact it's more than OK. It's usually a good thing.

Working backwards

When I first started working on Connectorium, I had a general idea for the story. The game is about systems and connections, so the story was going to be about a little girl who wakes up one morning to a world where all connections have gone missing. Her adventure would be about her meeting various characters, helping them restore the missing connections, and solving the mystery.

For some time, though, I stalled fleshing out the story more. Eventually I asked myself, why am I wasting time? Why don't I just write the story? And it occurred to me: it's because I didn't know how it's going to end.

So one morning I decided to take my iPad, go to a quiet park, and not come back home until I figured out how the story will end. It took a couple of hours, but eventually I came up with an idea, quite suddenly really. I had a big smile on my face right at that moment, because I knew I could start writing the story now.

Maybe this is more a function of the kinds of story that I enjoy and like to write, but I find that I really need to know the ending early on. Everything in the plot, the characters, and the gameplay in the case of a game, is pushing the audience towards that ending. It's what keeps the story coherent to me.

Characters or plot

One of my favorite writers, Isaac Asimov, is often criticized for having somewhat uninteresting and 2D characters. Nevertheless he is an amazing story teller.

But one can't argue that the best of stories combine a great plot with believable and great characters. What I have noticed is that personally I'm much more interested and focused on the plot. So I always need to be conscious of the "flatness" of my characters.

For that reason, after I have written the initial draft of the story, I'll do an iteration where I'll focus specifically on each character, writing more back story, fixing the dialogue, descriptions, and so on, of course adjusting the plot where necessary. I can imagine the reverse can work just as well: building a detailed and interesting character, and developing the story around that character (or characters).

Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue

For me, probably the hardest part of writing a story is the dialogue. Not only is it really hard to write a believable, natural, and flowing conversation between two or more characters, it's even harder to have all your characters not sound exactly the same! Exactly like…you!

More than anything, it just requires time, and rewrites to improve this. It is also important to have back stories for characters, even if none of it is ever revealed to the audience. Where do they come from? What do they do? What do they eat? What was their childhood like? What are their relationships like? What is their motivation? All of these impact how a character speaks, how they would react to a situation, and how they'd express themselves.

Another thing that has helped me is trying to picture a real life person acting out that character. Maybe someone you know, or an actor. Putting a face and voice to a line of dialog goes a long way to help you see if it's the right fit. Sometimes reading it out loud in the voice that you think the character would be speaking in also helps here.

On the subject of games

I've been talking a lot about stories, and haven't really talked much about games. Here is point I want to make which I can expect at least some to disagree with.

I feel that the gameplay must reinforce the story as much as possible. At the very least it shouldn't contradict it, because that takes you out of the immersion that you might otherwise have. How often do you run around in a game, killing various things, and collecting numerous items, stats, etc, just to be reminded by a cutscene that you're actually trying to resolve a much greater conflict.

"Alright guys, just a few more crates. Then Lord what's-his-face is gonna get it…"

And here is another (potentially less popular) thought. Given that there are practically infinite possible stories, why is it that a good percentage of games, especially those with plots and characters, include combat in some form as their core mechanic?

Is it that we are simply avoiding stories where combat isn't an integral component? Or are we throwing in combat into the mix, regardless of whether or not it reinforces the story?

Just a thought. Would love to hear yours.

[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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James Coote
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I joined a couple of forums for novel writing, and these sort of "How do you write?" type threads come up fairly regularly.

Everyone has a different way of writing. Some start from a single strong scene or character, then construct the story around that organically. Others may spend a long time planning the entire story, then once all laid out and structured from start to finish, start filling in the detail. There's a whole bunch of ways to do it, and the general consensus seems to be "whatever works for you".

"Given that there are practically infinite possible stories, why is it that a good percentage of games, especially those with plots and characters, include combat in some form as their core mechanic?"

Combat is the easiest way to create conflict in a story, which in turn creates dramatic tension.

Most games start off with the player defending.The player is directly faced with not being able to continue the game on one level, and on another level, the character in which they have invested time is being threatened

Kyle Holmquist
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I would have to disagree with James as far as combat being the easiest way to create conflict in a story. Stories should have conflict implicated within their very core, starting with characters and setting. Combat is simply something that has evolved into what our general conception of what a game is, something players are used to, something that has proven to be "engaging".

Look at the Myst series, for instance. It's been story-driven with no combat for many many years. Not exactly the most popular series of games, either, but still they have a relatively sizable following. I think that it's very easy to make a game that isn't combat-driven, but I think the toughest portion of such games is establishing why the player should even begin to care in the first place. Using mechanics such as time limits (for instance some form of escape, like from a burning building) in introductory levels can help to establish a player's care for the character they take control over. In order for a player to finish a game, they must be interested and invested in some portion of that. One of the easiest ways of doing that is through combat, or something that's going to keep the player engaged in a more fun way. Story is not oftentimes thought of as fun, unless we make it so (oftentimes through combat). But there are other ways to invest the player's time and feelings into a character, making them want to find out what happens and to continue playing through the game. It's merely figuring out how to get the player to care that is the most difficult in the design of such a game without combat or more exciting mechanics.

EnDian Neo
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Rather than combat being the easiest way to create conflict, I would say it is the most established given the sheer volume of precedent data (movies, books, games). Given this wealth of material, it is easier to string together a narrative by playing with what has come before. It's easier because there's more reference data to draw from.

Gameplay vs narrative - that battle since before time between ludology and narratology. A ludologist will insist that your narrative should reinforce the gameplay loop by providing the context for beating X number of monster A. There's a third camp that says that gameplay and narrative are mutually reinforcing forces. A game of nothing but gameplay (puzzle games like Tetris) can hook players pretty quickly with its wealth of things to do, but is less able to occupy players over an extended period of time. A pure narrative game (visual novels) has a harder time hooking players to continue playing, but once you are 3 chapters in, you most likely will finish the whole thing. A generalization of course, but I find it holds true most of the time.

A difficulty with using something other than combat-as-conflict is integrating the gameplay into your narrative conflict. Let's say I want to break new ground - Introduce conflict into a cooking game, say Cooking Mama meets Julie & Julia. The dramatic conflict in Julie/Julia comes from managing real-life with the dream of cooking - how to highlight these competing needs? It is so much easier to do Cooking Mama meets Iron Chef - compete against teams in competitions and earn honors. All the personal beef you have against the antagonists will be settled on the cooking ground~

P.S. You can probably overlay a time-management simulation over the cooking simulation (You only have so much time to cook depending on how fast you clear the time-management minigame) but that feels distinctly un-fun.