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Game Writing From The Inside Out


March 18, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3
 

What if we made failure an option?

So far we've looked at ways to separate the player from the story. It is also possible to build a story around the player, without losing narrative tension -- that intense desire to find out what happens next. We can do it by looking for ways for our character to fail.

Risk is compelling. When everything's on the line, we pay attention. As writers, we love to create stakes -- and then raise them.

The protagonist has a desire. It's unattainable -- if he plays it safe. So the protagonist takes a chance in order to reach his goal. This puts him at risk.

Now the hero has to succeed, or else. Real change becomes a possibility -- and that's both a promise and a threat. If hero succeeds, then he will live happily ever after. But if the hero fails, then things will fall apart.

When developing a story, the writer wants to know, "What will happen if the hero doesn't get what she wants?" If the answer is "Not much," then the story doesn't work yet.

But true change -- permanent, point-of-no-return change -- is a hard sell in games. Players can always reload his last save point.

And that mechanic isn't going away anytime soon. If we want to create meaningful change in our stories, we'll have to get creative.

In God of War, Kratos vows to kill the god of war. Is there any chance he'll fail to do so? Only if the player quits the game. In a movie, the hero announces his goal -- "I'm going to kill that man" -- and then we in the audience watch to see if he pulls it off.

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.

How can we create narrative tension when player controls the outcome? By creating unconscious needs in the main character -- needs that clash with conscious desires. (NOTE: God Of War narrative spoilers ensue.)

Athena asks Kratos to kill the god of war. He agrees. Why? So that Athena will take his nightmares away. This hints at Kratos' underlying problem. He is consumed by rage -- and also by guilt. Guilt over what? We don't know. We have to play the game and watch Kratos' memories unfold in order to learn his secrets.

Eventually, the truth is revealed. Kratos may want to kill the god of war and end his nightmares -- but what he needs is redemption and forgiveness for his role in the death of his wife and child.

Characters usually know what they want. They almost never consciously understand what it is they need -- but that need drives them just as strongly as their desire. This creates conflict within the character, and conflict between characters. Conflicts make stories work.

Once a team has a character with both wants and needs, they have options. They can design the story to allow the player to get what he wants, while denying the character the thing that he needs. Or, maybe he does get what he needs. There's only one way to know for sure, and that's to reach the end of the story (and game).

This approach is a demanding one. It means the team has to figure out what the character really needs, versus what he wants, and find ways to build the story events so that the need is revealed in a surprising way at the end of the story. The writer and designer have to understand the character more than he understands himself.

In the end, Kratos does what he set out to do. He kills the god of war. (Surprise!) But he still can't escape the memory of his family's death. He is so desperate to escape these memories that he throws himself off a cliff -- but even that doesn't work.

With Ares dead, the gods realize that they must have a new god of war -- and so they give Kratos the "gift" of eternal life. Now he is an immortal -- one that can never escape his horrible past.

The player succeeds. The avatar succeeds -- and fails. Both the writer and the designer go home happy.

Conclusion

In this article, we've looked at a few of the structural challenges facing anyone that sets out to create a story for a game.

If writers and designers start collaborating at the very beginning of a project, during the concept and pre-production phase, they can tackle these game/story challenges together.


Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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