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What Every Game Developer Needs to Know about Story
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What Every Game Developer Needs to Know about Story

July 27, 2005 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

Increasingly, story is a hot item in games. Partly, this is because the quality bar is rising in this relatively young art form. As games evolve, people want more depth, not just higher polygon counts.

More to the point, game developers want to sell their wares to more people. Selling them to the same ones every time doesn't lead to a lot of growth. It's clear we need to tap into something more universally human.

And story is a universal human experience.

So how do we approach story in games? Well, to answer that, we need to look at what has worked in other story forms, and what is unique to the new story form of games.

Let's start with a statement everybody can agree on: Games aren't movies.

But that by itself doesn't get us very far. To figure out what games are, it's helpful to back up to an earlier problem: Movies aren't plays.

In the early part of the 20th century, moving pictures were a curiosity, an amusement. They had their addicts right from the beginning, to be sure. But they didn't become a substantial lasting art form until they discovered two related things:

  1. They are a form of story, not just a new toy.
  2. Their particular form of story differs from all previous forms of story, and has other things in common with all forms of story.

The same is true for games.

The first attempts to make movies into real stories failed. They failed because they were conceived as filmed plays. A camera would be set up about where an audience member would sit in the middle of a theater, and the play would ensue.

It didn't work. Early film makers didn't take into account that the human eye wanders all over the fixed box of the stage during a play, and a camera that does any less will bore the film audience to tears. They also hand discovered the rich tool set of camera angles, close-ups, far shots, and all the language of film we now take for granted. Generally speaking, they hadn't discovered what this particular story form was good at.

And frankly, neither have we in games.

Common misperceptions

There are a number of places where we've gone wrong in game stories so far. Most of the problems spring from two basic misunderstandings:

  • Story is dialog.
  • Story doesn't matter.

Sure, story is partly dialog. And a cake is part frosting. But here's a large fact that I'll elaborate on in just a moment: Story is CONFLICT.

The sabotaged dope deal in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is an 'inciting incident' that causes the protagonist's world to be thrown out of order.

Now, the notion that story doesn't matter is worst with the industry old-timers. "Just repeat that 30 seconds of gameplay, and you've got it," I've heard. Or worse: "We've never had to worry about of that story stuff before."

Maybe that's okay for a small audience of addicted gamers, but the new charter for platforms like Xbox 360 is to appeal to a mass audience, not necessarily people who have even played games before. That means that if games are ever to rise to the level of universal cultural experiences, the way movies have, we have to figure out the same story problems movies did in the last century.

A starting place

Okay, to really get this right, we have to talk about story in general. What has always worked, and what will work in every form of story, including games?

We could go back to Aristotle's "Poetics," but a more useful reference is from that curmudgeonly guru of Hollywood screenwriters, Robert McKee, author of the book, Story, which is based on his many three-day intensive story structure lectures.

Some people have their doubts about McKee, based on his personality, or his emphasis on structure, or simply suspicions of his massive following. But here's something to consider: He's right. Deal with it.

Now I'm reasonably sure McKee has never played a video game in his life. He certainly never mentions it in his work. But that's where we come in. If we are to develop games into the fairly advanced story form that movies have become, we need to start by learning everything movies had to learn, and McKee's Story is the place where that is best summed up. I'll touch on the main points here, but make the reading of that book your homework assignment. Lots of what I'm going to talk about comes from him.

The real substance of story, as McKee points out, is CONFLICT. Did I already say that? Good. I'm repeating myself on purpose. If you remember nothing else, remember this. Story is conflict.

This is no trivial point for game developers. This has huge implications for how we plan our productions cycles, and how story is best presented in the game. For one thing, the conflict is part of the structure, which means it needs to be planned from the beginning of the development process.

So, how does this conflict work through the course of the story? Glad you asked.

How classical stories move

There are a couple of very good reasons for game developers to know about classical story structure:

  • It's simple.
  • It works.

What I'm going to tell you is not something that will confine your creativity. On the contrary, if you keep this basic structure in your back pocket, it will save you loads of trouble throughout your creative process. And this is not merely a theory from Aristotle. This has been put into practice by story tellers of all kinds for thousands of years. You could say it has been thoroughly tested.

  • First, there's a protagonist, a hero.
  • His or her world is thrown out of order by an inciting incident. (Look at the sabotaged dope deal in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City for a good example of this.)
  • A gap opens up between the hero and an orderly life.
  • The hero tries the normal, conservative action to overcome the gap. It fails. The world pushes back too hard.
  • The hero then has to take a risk to overcome the obstacles that are pushing back.
  • Then there is a reversal. Something new happens, or the hero learns something she didn't know before, and the world is out of whack again. A second gap has opened up.
  • The hero has to take a greater risk to overcome the second gap.
  • After overcoming the second gap, there is another reversal, opening a third gap.
  • The hero has to take the greatest risk of all to overcome this gap and get to that object of desire, which is usually an orderly life.

In a three-act classical story, this is what happens. With more acts, you have more obstacles. But three is a minimum, and a good goal for a game. In a comic structure, the last gap is overcome. In a tragic structure, one final gap opens up, and stays there. But games are comic by their nature, so we'll assume it's possible to get to the end.

Character, and why it matters to games

So while we're talking about universal story principles, there are a few important notes we should make about character. There are a lot of misunderstandings about what character is, and what it isn't.

What a character wears, eats, and drives are all important. But those aren't the things that make him who he is. That's characterization: the superficial stuff.

Character is what he chooses to do. He's driving by a burning school bus. There are 80 kids trapped inside, and it's going to explode in 37 seconds. Does he risk his life, or get out of the way? That's what defines his character.

Any good story will have pressures on the hero to bring out these choices, and therefore the character. This is called the principle of antagonism.

The rest of your cast of character should be designed around the protagonist, because they conflict with her to define her character.

The world of the game should be designed (and often is-this is one thing games already do well) to oppose the player at every turn. As games become more sophisticated, these forces of antagonism will provide more interesting choices, and our characters will become deeper.

Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

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