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Building a basic story bible for your game

Building a basic story bible for your game

October 18, 2019 | By Bryant Francis

October 18, 2019 | By Bryant Francis
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More: Console/PC, Design

Game developers often find themselves dreaming of fantastic, far-off worlds. But at the end of the day, those worlds need to be implemented in a game's logic in some form, otherwise they're just ideas floating around in developers' heads. 

This is particularly true in narrative games, like the ones that Ubisoft Massive lead writer Anna Megill has worked on. With a resume that includes Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, ControlGuild Wars 2, and many other games, Megill's had a bevy of experience bringing those fantastic worlds to life. And at Sweden Games Conference this week, she took the time to share some of her techniques for the benefit of a larger audience. 

Megill in particular dove into the making of story bibles--foundational documents developers can use to guide the writing, design, art, sound, and other aspects of a game and facilitate communication between different teams. 

She first identified a game's story bible as a "living document." "Your bible has to accommodate changes while displaying what needs to be in there," she said, urging developers against static documents that can only be changed in an emergency.

These documents are often difficult to share publicly, because as Megill said, "If you're writing a good story bible, you're writing the universe around the game, events the player doesn't encounter, events that have yet to come." Companies become averse to sharing them because they may reveal secrets about the game that aren't ready for the public yet. 

Megill begins all her bibles with a 2-3 paragraph summary that contains the core elements -- it's more evolved than an elevator pitch, but still a shortened version of the overall bible. From there the bible contains the game's tentpoles. From there, like many design documents, bibles tend to contain the game's pillars themes, and other key information to lay the foundation of designing a game. 

Further in the document, Megill lays out key objects, major events, and locations that define elements of the game's backstory. Key objects are objects that story can be attached to, major events are narrative moments that can be referenced in dialogue and art, and locations are obviously important so the level design team can begin thinking about where the game is taking place and what those spaces can feel like. 

From here, Megill showed she includes components like explaining the game's combat, an overview on the game economy, and even information that will be relevant to the game's marketing. Beyond that, Megill includes a set of relevant references to help keep team members on the same page. 

In defining a game's story, Megill tries to establish the tone, the language, the characters, and an overall narrative summary, all with the hope of conveying a document the development team can use to communicate with one another. 

After laying out the game's story, Megill explained developers need to lay out storytelling methods -- exact definitions of how information is conveyed to the player. A key unusual example of this was the Threshold Kids from Control: a creepy children's show that drips narrative information via uncanny puppets. 

One goal of story bibles is that they can help narrative designers and game writers create a sustainable production process. Whether a game is live like Guild Wars 2, or has a fixed ending, it's best to ensure the document has room to grow as different teams pitch ideas.

"When we were writing Guild Wars 2," Megill explained, "we had a full game with tons of expansions we had to account for, while still allowing writers (and players) to tell stories in the game's new space."

"You have to be careful when you're doing this stuff. You don't want to paint yourself into a corner, and that's what sustainable worldbuilding is. Seeing it coming, putting all this stuff down, making it sustainable by thinking of the transmedia surrounding it, thinking of the marketing etc." 

Once the game's bible is written, it's still a chore to turn that bible into a proper game world while collaborating with colleagues. "Cohesion is a really really important thing. Creating a story bible means feeding this all together." 

For instance on Control, the game's story bible dictated that its setting, The Oldest House, be a chaotic labyrinth of ever-changing rules. But the art team had become enraptured with the sterile stillness of brutalist architecture. But these two elements became cohesive when the team began finding ways to implement that chaos into Control's levels, creating ominous shifting spaces filled with stern right angles but moving like the flow of the ocean.

"These ideas were completely at odds with each other. But somehow, that contrast is what made it work," said Megill. 

It was an illustrative look at how professional writers and narrative designers can use a practical form of documentation to structure the magic players relate to in narrative games. 

Gamasutra is a media partner of Sweden Games Conference, who provided travel and lodging to cover this event

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