Note: This is the combined version of a two-part series on narrative design for games.
It would be easy to say that everything is better when you add a story to it. You know, like bacon, story makes everything better. But unfortunately, that has not always been the assumption in the game industry, where writers sometimes find themselves fighting for story territory in the games they're working on, or brought in too late in a game's development, when they're expected to shoehorn a story into a game that doesn't have one--and desperately needs one.
I've also seen story handled badly in games, which only perpetuates the problem.
But since the primary reason players come to a game is TO PLAY A GAME, it begs the question: Why does story matter?
We can approach this by first brainstorming from our own observed experiences. What does story add to the games you've played? What would your experience of the games be like if there were no stories?
As a writer first, and a gamer second, I'm someone who comes to games LOOKING FOR THE STORY. But the reason I'm drawn to games at times instead of books is for the interactive experience. I want to co-create the narrative, and that can mean anything from making choices that shape my player character, as I did in Firewatch and The Walking Dead, to uncovering clues about my character's past in the Gardenscapes series of Match-3 builder games.
I also want to play. I enjoy the hunt for clues, the Match-3 game, the strategizing, decision-making, and puzzle-solving. By the way, I don't like to kill in my games and kind of think it's weird that we associate video games primarily with killing, but I don't mind shooting at targets. I struggled with this aspect of The Walking Dead even though my victims were, um, already dead.
Next, to find evidence to support story's place in games, we might look at what experts have said. I like this quote from Jonathan Gottschall's book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human:
Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can't resist the gravity of alternate worlds.
"Suction" hits it for me. Just watch a person's eyes light up when you say, "Let me tell you a story..."
We can also look at this more scientifically, and more specifically about games, through data. The Entertainment Software Association surveys players annually, and they ask what drives their purchase decisions. Story is always a major factor.
Lastly, I can share what experience has shown me to be true about games. I've worked in the industry for more than a decade, and about half that time I spent at Big Fish, a major publisher of a wide variety of games.
Big Fish published its first game in 2002, an online version of mahjongg. So, not much story there, but the game did very well.
Next, the design team at Big Fish hit an untapped nerve in the market with hidden-object games (HOGs). They were popular with the older, mostly female audience--a demographic albeit ignored by developers at the time. HOGs harkened back to traditional I-spy games found in newspapers and magazines.
The hidden-object game genre evolved quickly at Big Fish, and in a narrative direction that drew on a cultural legacy of text adventure games. The hidden-object puzzle adventure game (HOPA) was born. I've covered this in more detail over at the Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games magazine, but here's a trailer to give you an idea of how story-driven and cinematic the genre has become.
The reason for this move toward greater narrative content and development is simple: It helped sell the game. We knew from customer survey data and game performance that great stories made great games, and customers loved them.
So there you have it: Data, game performance, and playtesting feedback tell us stories make games better. But maybe you already knew intuitively that a good storyline sucks you in, no matter what the medium. What are your favorite game stories? Comment below!
Last week, we talked about why story matters in games, looking at how we experience games as well as what data and market performance has told us. Now I'd like to dive into how to make story work in games. In my own narrative design, it comes down to these three elements:
You'd think conflict would be a given, the default first step for any game designer working on a narrative project. But at least in my experience, you'd be wrong. I can't tell you how many games I've been asked to triage, and the first thing I see is that while there might be a lot of WORDS in the game, there's actually no story. Because there's no conflict. And without conflict, you have no drama, no story "stuff."
To quote my buddy Evan Skolnick:
The fuel of fiction is conflict.
- Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques
Let's take an example from a highly successful game that managed to suck me in despite its lack of story. (Because that happens. All the time. Just because I said last week that story can make games better, and that's been proved by data, doesn't mean stories without games are failures. Or that every game needs a story. These are not absolutes, people.) Anyway, the game is Farmville 2: Country Escape. I love, love, love this game. But there's no story in the game because there is no drama. What it does have are a lot of cute characters with little vignettes about them that you may or may not read because they are pleasant little scenarios, but no more. There's no conflict and therefore no drama, nothing for any of the characters to struggle against or triumph over. To return to the quote from Jonathan Gottschall, there's no "suction of story" for your mind to "yield helplessly to." Maybe that's OK, but it seems to me if you are going to go to the trouble of putting a lot of words in a game, you can use them to craft a conflict and get some more suction.
The first way to create conflict is to use the nature of the gameplay itself, but creating a STORY REASON for the gameplay. For example, in Matchington Mansion, players get to restore and redecorate a mansion. So it makes sense for the first bit of drama to be related to that, as in, uh-oh, this mansion I just inherited is falling apart!
One of the most obvious ways to create conflict is to add an antagonist, as we did with the introduction of the character Rex Houston. He's the only surviving relative of the woman who left you her mansion, and he wants to take it from you--so he can raze it and build a casino on the site.
Now let's talk about mystery. Adding story can mean giving players something to investigate, but it's important to let them find the answer through gameplay, since this thing is a game first and a story second, most often. Then reward them with story reveals.
"Mystery" can apply to any genre, so it doesn't have to be a straight-up detective tale to give you that sense of something to discover or solve. In fact, I'm working on a game called Survivors: The Quest, and providing players with new mysteries to solve is getting me through hundreds of hours of new content in a game that I've been working on for more than a year.
In Matchington, we gave players something to investigate in the environment itself, as part of the builder interactions.
Lastly is connection. While strict puzzlers like Tetris certainly have their appeal, players love game worlds filled with other people their player character can interact with. That's something that the aforementioned Farmville 2 has going for it, despite the lack of conflict. One of the best parts of that game is meeting a diverse crop of farmhands who help you find resources you can use in the game, like quartz from the mine, that you can turn into farm products, like a glass bottle for your wine.
Here we have your neighbor Edna Downing, a source of quirky amusement as she drops passive-aggressive comments like the one below or quotes from her downer poetry. But she also has a game reason for being there: She introduces players to the feature that allows them to visit other mansions.
It's good when creating story in your games to think about C-M-C: Conflict, Mystery, and Connection. Watch these moments from The Walking Dead and see if you can spot conflict, mystery, and connection in them.