There's little doubt that a great story adds value to a game, especially in the casual game space. But something that is often overlooked makes a huge impact on the success of the end result—how that story is integrated with the actual gameplay. Players notice when game designers go the extra mile to incorporate gameplay with the game's narrative, and proper integration will help a game's story really sing.
The Brunette Games team took our expertise to the stage with a presentation on this very topic at 2022's Pocket Gamer Connects conference in Toronto, and we think the lessons are valuable enough to share here on the blog in more detail.
Games Aren't Passive Experiences
The first step in successfully integrating gameplay and story is understanding how game writing differs from writing for other forms of media. People consuming a game's story aren't listening to it in the background on the TV—players are actively engaged, and the experience is interactive. They didn't download the game to passively watch something unfold; therefore, the story must be written in service to the gameplay. One way to accomplish this is to immerse players in the game's setting.
Immersion can be achieved in a number of ways. One is to deliver tutorial messages through a member of the game's cast. Details like this transform dull instructional text into more of an interaction. More often than not, mobile game players are actively playing more than one game at a time, switching between them as their abilities recharge and their lives replenish. Something like tutorial messages may seem like a tiny detail, but unique touches add up to make your game stand apart from its competitors.
Keep in mind: The majority of players who choose games with narrative want to engage with the story and its characters. In other words, they want to be active participants.
Giving players the feeling they're directly influencing the game's world is another way to immerse them in the experience. This goes along with the idea that the game's visuals should work in tandem with the text and dialogue.
In Redemption Games' Sweet Escapes, tasks are often sweets or food-themed. Instead of a normal tree, for example, the player might place a tree with cotton candy fluff instead of leaves. The player, while being actively engaged in the decoration element, is constantly reminded of what makes the game's world unique.
Story and Gameplay Should Support Each Other
The narrative goals of the story's characters should also support the gameplay goals. In Gear's M&M'S Adventure, Red runs around New York as he attempts to find the other M&M'S characters.
This supports the gameplay in a few ways:
- The linear path Red walks on shows him moving through New York, supporting the game's visuals and travel mechanics;
- Red follows the path until he finds Yellow, the first M&M'S character he reunites with (fulfilling a gameplay goal for the player);
- As Red finds new M&M'S characters, they become unlocked for players to use in the puzzle gameplay.
The gameplay should also accommodate the narrative themes of the game.
In Sweet Escapes, the puzzle items match the game's theme: sweets and sweet shops. The boosters and blockers are thematically tied to the story to create an immersive experience. This practice is a hallmark of ours and something we've both done on many other titles and seen other designers mimic.
The Effort Is Worth It!
Finer details go a long way when it comes to making a game stand out. While considering how a game's story and gameplay can work together seamlessly, remember the following:
- Games should not be passive experiences;
- Immerse players in the world;
- Story and gameplay should support each other;
- Even tutorial integration can make a difference.