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Applying Robert McKee’s “Story” to Video Games

by Adam Volk on 08/21/09 03:12:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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Applying Robert McKee’s “Story” to Video Games 

When it comes to Hollywood, there are few writers working today who are as revered and enigmatic as Robert McKee.  Over the course of his some thirty-year long career, McKee has become the de facto guru of all things screenwriting having created the now legendary “Story” seminar and book of the same name (the latter of which has achieved an almost biblical status among both established and novice screenwriters alike).

It’s a strange reputation given that McKee has been working in the industry for decades and has yet to have a single one of his screenplays ever produced into a feature film. Yet among the ranks of his students are thousands of accomplished professional writers – including a score of Golden Globe and Academy Award winners - all of whom swear that McKee’s principles have revolutionized the field of creative writing. 

So how has a man with few credits to his name amassed such an impressive reputation? McKee, as it happens, is one of the few contemporary writers living today to attempt to answer the age old question: what makes a story? A question not nearly as straight forward as one might assume. After all, each year there are countless films, television shows, books, plays, and video games which attempt to create meaningful stories.

Yet despite humanity’s insatiable appetite to be enlightened and entertained there really is no comprehensive definition of what makes a story succeed or fail. As a result the notion of “story” has been relegated to the realm of the metaphysical or brushed aside as a “trade secret” that only a handful of talented writers intrinsically understand. 

Screenwriting guru Robert McKee

What makes Robert McKee so unique, however, is his brilliant attempt to quantify and piece together the elements of “story” as a kind of unified theory which anyone can understand and implement. McKee forgoes examining the structure and style of writing, or picking apart mechanical components such as dialogue or pacing, and instead offers a fascinating look into what truly makes a story work.

Best of all, his principles can be applied to anything and everything from television and films, to novels, plays and yes, video games. Given the increasing complexity of interactive narratives, it’s perhaps worth considering just a few of the fundamentals behind McKee’s story-based philosophy and applying them to video games. 

Story is About Archetypes, Not Stereotypes 

If video games are guilty of anything it’s promoting stereotypes. In fact, at times it seems that games are full of nothing but stereotypes, from the chisel-jawed action hero to the cardboard cut-out fantasy barbarian. These characters all too often come across as being overly familiar and as a result repetitive and stereotypically boring. An archetype on the other hand, according to McKee, is a kind of universal character that audiences can identify with, while also possessing enough pathos and depth to avoid cliché.

Fortunately more and more games have become less about stereotypes and more about exploring new and innovative archetypes. Mass Effect’s Commander Shepherd for example, is a complex and multifaceted character regardless of which way the player directs his moral compass. Similarly, BioShock’s enigmatic antagonist Andrew Ryan offers a fascinating take on the archetypal mad scientist. If more game writers steer narratives away from the stereotypes all too often associated with the medium, then the medium can create truly memorable archetypal characters that rival anything seen in film, television or in novels.  

Story is About Respect, Not Disdain, For the Audience 

A good writer, regardless of the medium, draws audiences in by creating a world that feels real. This means never speaking down to the audience or being over explanatory in the dialogue or narrative (or simply put: by following the old adage of “show, not tell”). A character for example might offer a seemingly throwaway line of dialogue, only to have it signify something of greater importance later on, or the audience may know something a character does not, all of which makes the audience feel as though they are part of a larger unfolding experience.

According to McKee, an audience’s intelligence also increases exponentially when they are invested in the experience. This is especially true of gaming in which players are involved on an emotional, intellectual and even autonomic level, constantly testing the limits of both gameplay and story. As a result, gamers are often aware of elements that designers might not even have taken into account during initial design or story planning. This means that game writers and designers should at all times be conscious of the limitations of their game world and come up with creative solutions. A truly gripping interactive experience is one that respects the decisions and wishes of the player, while also recognizing that games are interactive, yet finite, environments.

What a game should have, however, in both gameplay and in narrative form, are plenty of “Aha!” moments, which arise when a player tests the limits of a narrative or gameplay and discovers something new and exciting that makes them feel as though they are part of a larger world. Portal is a classic example of this, not only because of its innovative gameplay, but because of its clever use of a narrative which respects its audience. Despite being trapped inside a labyrinth maze filled with death traps and run by the malevolent GLaDOS, players still feel as though their actions matter and that they are in control.

Indeed, what differentiates a game from a film or novel, is that the player has control and choice (or at least, the illusion of control and choice). By respecting the intelligence of the gamer and anticipating their responses, a skilled game writer can create a narrative that achieves something that no other medium can: drawing the audience in and making them not only a passive viewer, but an active participant in a larger world. 

Story is About Originality, Not Duplication 

In terms of the many cardinal sins that game narratives often commit, a lack of originality is undoubtedly at the top of the list. Far too often the video game industry delves into the world of oft-used Hollywood clichés instead of creating its own characters, worlds and stories.

Being original, however, is no easy task and means taking risks, pushing the envelope and finding new and innovative ways to tell stories. Fallout 3 is a classic example of a game succeeding in originality. While steeped in the tropes of the post apocalyptic science fiction sub-genre, the game still manages to tell its own story convincingly and without devolving overly much into the realm of cliché.

Video games are all too often littered with cookie cutter characters, narratives and dialogue, yet by taking risks, and creating works that are truly original, rather than derivative, games transcend the realm of simple entertainment and become true works of art. 


The above are of course, only a few of the many fascinating concepts behind McKee’s philosophy of story and readers interested in exploring his ideas further would do well to pick up a copy of “Story” (or, for the particularly bold and deep of wallet, to attend one of his workshops). Because as McKee points out, there are still countless stories out there waiting to be discovered, and there is perhaps no better medium for them to be told than the interactive and endlessly imaginative worlds of video games.

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