By Jenna Hume
Writing in the casual game space presents a unique challenge because of the limited word count available for dialogue. It can be difficult to convey even fun, humorous moments in a few lines of speech, but writing serious, emotional moments can be even more difficult. At Brunette Games, we believe in three pillars of game storytelling: conflict, mystery, and connection. While we covered all three in our GDC talk on the subject, here I'd like to take a deeper dive on the third: connection.
Connection is all about getting players to relate to a game’s story and characters. A great way to get players to connect with your game is by having the game’s characters experience relatable situations and emotions—the tricky part is getting these emotions to come off as authentic instead of manufactured or convenient. Here are some tricks for how to avoid this problem in your writing:
1. Create Emotionally-Complex Characters
When characters experience sudden emotional turmoil after hours of happy, wholesome gameplay, players can feel a bit cheated. What happened to the upbeat character(s) they loved? Are the game designers throwing in conflict just for advertising shock value? To avoid this problem, if you’re going to eventually draft emotional conflict in your game, you need to include emotionally-complex characters from the game’s conception.
For example, in our new release Cash Journey with Jumbo Technology and Funtopia Ltd., we knew creating emotionally-stunted characters wasn’t an option. The narrative we crafted focused on three adult friends reuniting to search for a missing friend.
Centering a story around a missing person is no easy feat, because you have to get players to care about a character they either haven’t met at all or haven’t seen much of. To pull off this story in Cash Journey, we had to characterize the missing character Skye through her friends and their memories of her.
The above example characterizes Skye as a peacekeeper—someone who keeps a group together. This is a common theme throughout Cash Journey, as the others have to learn to work as a team without Skye. From Cash Journey’s first chapter, we show Alice, Edmund, and Jack trying to find Skye while they cope with their emotions surrounding her disappearance. By including these emotions at the game's beginning, players aren’t surprised later when the characters deal with regret, guilt, and worry. This is just one way to make emotions come across as truly genuine.
2. Allow the Text to Work in Tandem with the Visuals
While writing scripts, it can be easy to forget that the final game will feature copious amounts of artwork and graphics. Without the art being visible at the script stage, you can rely too heavily on text to explain emotions rather than using the text and eventual art. That’s why it’s so important to collaborate with artists while working on a script to determine needed character expressions as well as possible visuals to support the text.
In our work on Puzzle Villa with ZiMAD, we had a great level of collaboration between our writing team and their artists and designers.
In the above example, we used both the text and character expressions to portray Valentina’s complex emotions over her deceased husband. The text by itself expresses anger, as Valentina suggests Carlos “rest in agony” instead of in peace. But her expression is sad, so it’s clear she’s still upset over his death despite her anger toward him. Character expressions may seem simple, but we at Brunette Games pick each one carefully; they're helpful for displaying complex emotions, such as the example above.
In Puzzle Villa, we were also able to create flashback scenes with the aid of ZiMAD’s artists and designers. When possible, a change of art can catch players’ attention and help them focus on the scene.
In the above example, the setting is abruptly different from the library Justine was just in. The change can help refocus the player for a big moment, like Justine reflecting on her divorce and how it led to her passion for jigsaw puzzles. By letting the art do half the work, there’s less pressure to include a bunch of text to overexplain how Justine felt. Which leads to our next point…
3. Don't Overexplain
When dealing with complex emotions and situations, it can be tempting to explain everything in detail to the player. But this easily falls into “telling” instead of “showing,” which isn’t encouraged—you don’t want to tell players how to feel about an aspect of the story.
It's important to remember to give your players some credit—they can understand complex emotions without us needing to overexplain. Spelling out emotions isn’t necessary because players experience complex emotions themselves. A prime example of this can be found in City Escape, a title we worked on with Sparkling Society.
In City Escape, the Filburn family moves from the city to the country to start their own homestead. While the parents are excited about this move, things don’t go quite as smoothly as they hoped. In the above examples, we don’t have Melanie specifically state she’s overwhelmed and frustrated. The text subtly implies this instead, often in humorous ways.
With so many games in the mobile market, it’s important to provide players with a genuine experience—they can sniff out an inauthentic one a mile away. Beyond our three tips above, the key to writing genuine emotions in mobile games is to be intentional:
- Create emotionally-complex characters at your game’s conception.
- Work with your art team to allow the text and art to help convey emotion.
- Give your players some credit, and don’t overexplain.
If you’re considering how to make emotions in your game a genuine experience for players, you’re already way ahead of the game.