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Techniques of Written Storytelling Applied to Game Design
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Techniques of Written Storytelling Applied to Game Design

April 26, 2006 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

The term “grounding” refers to the frequent resetting of the reader's imagination into the time and place the author wishes them to experience. In written stories, a lack of grounding leaves the reader guessing where the story is taking place, what time of day or year, how cold the air, what century. This confusion will be nagging the reader's mind, preventing him or her from concentrating on the events and emotions the writer is attempting to portray.

Half-Life 2 achieves a very high level of technical storytelling.

Grounding in games is easier to maintain. There is always a visual presentation on which the player can concentrate and from which the player can infer details of setting. Remember only that the angel is in the details here, that small things such as the state of the paint on the walls, the amount of trash on the floor, the color of the clouds (note how the sky changes accurately with time-of-day in Half-Life 2) can all contribute to grounding and should all be exploited deliberately.


Reaction in written fiction is the primary vehicle by which writers evoke empathy. A piece of writing always relates a sequence of events. A piece that refuses to illuminate the impact these events have on the character who experiences them is lifeless. A reader will use a word such as “dry” to describe writing like this, and will display their own reaction by putting down the book. Reaction is one of the hardest things to do well in written stories. Some writers have a gift for it, but others must gain proficiency only by steady practice.

Reaction is a difficult thing to port directly to interactive titles because there is no direct analogy. In first-person genres, the character from which we are most interested in eliciting a reaction is the player. We cannot therefore simply show the reaction. However, we can be aware of the fact that we are seeking to evoke one, and ensure that we employ as many visual and auditory queues as possible. Many of these are well-established in our medium, such as the red flash and visual jolt that accompanies an injury in any first-person shooter. It's still refreshing to come across a new example, such as the temporary deafness delivered by a nearby explosion in Half-life 2, and it's not wasted effort to seek as many avenues as possible.

Authorial Intrusion

One of the surest ways to bump a reader out of your story is to reveal the fact that a person invented that story. Authorial intrusion can take many forms, and can only be rooted out by exposing the work to other readers. Overly florid prose, explicit political statements and exaggerated walk-on characters who serve an obvious story purpose are all good examples of this error.

In games, the author who might intrude is either the writer or the level designer. We need to define two new classes of authorial intrusion for games: the classic types as listed above, and the pragmatic constraints imposed by the fact that we cannot hire enough artists to create an entire Universe. An example is the crate full of rocket launchers that tells the player that a helicopter gunship is just around the corner. This is a form of intrusion, because it reminds us that we are playing in a world that was created by a human being, and we are bumped from the story. Those levels should be tweaked such that the means to defeat an enemy are not visible until after the enemy is met. This doesn't eliminate the problem, but it does push it off to a point where the player is so engaged in a fight for survival that they are less likely to notice they have been bumped.

Pragmatic intrusion is of course unavoidable, but classic intrusion can and should be expunged wherever it arises.

Critique Groups Become Critique Testing

Working writers, even experienced, successful, multi-book authors, always participate in critique groups. The writer will bring in a short (a thousand words or so) sequence from their work and read it to a small group of diverse individuals who will then comment on their reactions to the piece. The reason this is done is again the fact that the reader's reaction is necessarily invisible to the author. Time and again, an author will hear reactions in critique that were completely unintended. If these reactions are negative, and if they are consistent for more than one member of the group, the author is well advised to change what's written.

We can apply this technique to games. All you have to do is sit a stranger down in front of the game and let them play for a few minutes. After which, you ask the player for their reaction. Ask them to describe the story they have witnessed in their own words. Some points to watch out for that come straight from our experience with literary critique groups:

  • Never pre-brief the player on the world in question. This defeats the whole purpose. Say nothing about what you are going to show them, not even the genre or time period being depicted. You will learn more from how a confused player responds than by having a briefed player confirm your elegant depiction of the world by parroting back what you have told them.
  • Make sure you critique-test with a diverse cross-section of your target audience. Gender, ethnicity and age in particular have a heavy impact on reaction.
  • All reactions are valid, because they are the reactions of a member of your target audience. But if you hear the same reaction more than once, you can be confident that you have discovered something significant.
  • When asking for feedback, do so in terms of questions that fish for the player's own personal reaction to the story. How did this situation make you feel? What questions arise in your mind? Did you like any of the characters you met? Dislike them? What is the world you just experienced?
  • Look for “bumps”. This is the most important point. Ask the critique-tester to describe any moment they felt disconnected from the story, any moment in which the author was visible. The answer may range from things like low texel density on a rock to how cliché a particular line of dialog was. Comments such as these are solid gold.

Critique testing like this is separate from general play-testing. Critique testing seeks to unearth bugs in your storytelling. Treat the process as entirely different from technical play-testing, and don't attempt to do both at once.

Some Examples

By way of illustration, I'll give some concrete examples and thereby contrast some interactive titles that have achieved mature storytelling with others that have not.

  • Myst and Riven were two of the early successes of interactive storytelling. The point of view is perfect in both titles, and both offer many examples of good use of show-don't-tell. Sirrus's and Achenar's bedrooms in the first game hold many a creepy trinket that evoke the personalities of their owners far more effectively than would a cut-scene or passage of prose during a load.
  • Half-Life 2 achieves a very high level of technical storytelling. The point-of-view is almost flawless. The only slip-up I can recall noticing is watching my own hands move of their own accord after I donned my environment suit in Doctor Kleiner's lab. Show-don't-tell moments abound. One of the most effective is the sequence where the player passes out at the hands of a squad of thugs, only to wake up to the sight of one slender young woman and a pile of motionless bodies. The player infers a lot about Alyx Vance in this sequence, without even realizing they are doing it. We are shown Alyx's boisterous personality again shortly thereafter, as she leaps over a railing instead of taking the convenient stairs. A moment of high subtlety is the sight of one of Father Grigori's hangouts in the Ravenholm level: a lawn chair and a box of ammo atop a building. His maniacal and gleefully murderous attitude towards zombies is beautifully illustrated by that simple collection of objects. Elsewhere, we do see some authorial intrusion, most notably the afore-mentioned RPGs on the bridge, heralding a battle with an aerial foe. Finally, it's interesting to note that the game in its original form didn't offer a deathmatch mode set within its universe. This, I believe, was a deliberate attempt not to dilute the story. Practicalities (or economics?) do intrude, and a deathmatch mode was released by popular demand.
  • Doom 3 makes many mistakes of technique. The player's vantage point is extracted from his or her character's head and taken towards cut scenes showing exchanges between characters that the player-character could not have experienced. This is a blatant violation of point of view. Worse, the player character then enters the room, unbidden by the player. When such a sequence is over, the point of view slides back into the player character's head, and we are expected to pick up our sense of agency immediately, to make that dizzying switch between actor and witness, and at regular intervals. Doom 3 is also very heavy-handed with explanation and out-of-character exposition. Witness the explicit telling of the written prose in the level load screens. It would have been far more effective simply to allow the player to experience, for example, that Mars Underground was dilapidated and dirty.
  • Halo 2. This title has mixed success. It manages to offer some solid point of view sequences that show (not tell) evocative things, but then slips into agency-violating cut scenes showing the Master Chief doing and saying things that the player did not initiate.

This list is a good opportunity to assess the efficacy of these techniques. Which experience was the more involving? Which seemed to have the best story? Now think about the actual story, its complexity and power devoid of its vehicle, the game. The difference is in the quality of the presentation, and this arises purely from technique.

In Conclusion: Trust Your Writer!

Writers of prose fiction have been working the bugs out of their presentation technique for a long time, and we can learn a good deal from them. It's true that a skilled writer can break these rules for dramatic effect, but it's a prerequisite to understand the rules first.

Perhaps the best lesson to be learned from written fiction is that a production house should always have an experienced, professional writer on-call if not on-staff, and should always listen when the writer says something that doesn't at first sound important. It might be!

I expect that, as our medium matures, we will see a standardization of accepted technique, and deviations from the well-established methods will be few and far between, used consciously for dramatic effect or to increase usability. I look forward to that day.

For Further Information

There are many books on written storytelling technique. Some good ones:

  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King, ISBN 0-06-270061-8
  • Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card, ISBN 0-89879-927-9
  • The First Five Pages, Noah Lukeman, ISBN 0-684-85743-X




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