I took the liberty to summarize the awesome article about “Designing game narrative” by Hitbox Team for those of us with less time to read it’s awesomeness and for my own and others future reference. If you have the time and missed it, go to their site and read the full article!
So without further ado, here’s my summary for your time-saving pleasure about how we avoid common mistakes with the story when we make games and how we can create better narrative experiences in the future:
What not to do
Weak storytelling suffers from dissonance, which means an internal conflict within the story or gameplay or between both.
Don’t have the story say one thing and then have it or the player do the complete opposite. Example: Don’t have a protagonist care about family and then have him run a hundred people over with a car. Don’t have an ally say how smart he is while in the next moment he’s running in circles.
For the player to be immersed and not get detached from the game you have to avoid switching the perspective for the player. It takes the control over the experience away from the player.
Example: The game switching between third person and first person perspectives when it feels like it.
It destroys the immersion the player had when playing themselves. “Every time the game switches from gameplay mode to movie mode, your attachment to the player character switches from 100% emotionally invested, to 100% detached.”.
Good example: Half-life 2: story is advanced while playing, with the player still in control. It’s not perfect since you realize where there are boundaries but it generally works well.
A lack of choice; an over-emphasis of dialogue and a rigid, linear progression are common problems detaching the player from the game.
What to do
Don’t simply state “Bob is nimble” to a player. Create a challenge where they player gets to experience being nimble.
Example: The player has to dodge a boulder. “Now it is the player themselves who feels nimble, instead of just his avatar. This conversion of character development into personal development is the key to immersive storytelling in games.”
Let the explicit story (told by the game) and the player story (what the player experiences and does themselves that could be told as a story to a friend) be indistinguishable. “In a good game, what you are supposed to do should intersect with what you want to do. If the emotions and motivations you feel while playing a game feel natural within the context of the game, then something amazing has happened.”.
Example: Portal, while being transported towards death by the conveyor belts you as a player want to survive and instinctively look for another way and find it, just as the game wanted you to. It wasn’t the other way around: i.e. the game telling you what you were supposed to do and you followed the instructions which would’ve made one of the most memorable moments in gaming history as boring as following a mission marker in Call of Duty.
Examples of how to create powerful stories with this in mind
As mentioned above, a linear story can still work if the explicit story and the player story are indistinguishable.
Example: Despite falling for all of the common mistakes listed earlier, Portal still managed to be a great game because the theme of a test subject being chased through test chambers by a constantly talking robot made these problems as true for the player as they were for the story.
Traditionally the story is created first as with other media, and the game follows. This creates the classic problems of forcing the player to follow the story. One way to go about this is to let the player story dictate the explicit story.
Example: Journey doesn’t tell you what to do, but the environment invites you to explore and together with other people you find in the desert you advance the explicit story by playing your way.
Emergent stories are where the complex mechanics and possibilities of the game allows unforeseen and unscripted events to occur and stories that wasn’t planned by the developer can emerge.
Example: “While I would consider Dwarf Fortress to be on the extreme side of its style of storytelling, as it is quite inaccessible to most people, there’s still a lot from it that we can learn. The main thing we can take away is that an emergent situation – whether it came from the interaction of complex rules, the player’s experimentation, or even just through random chance – can be just as impactful to a player as a scripted situation, sometimes even more so.”
Remember to focus on the player story when building the explicit one.
- Stop looking to cinema as the perfect narrative for games
“We should stop looking to cinema as inspiration for our narrative, and start realizing that nontraditional structures can be a stronger storytelling technique than the ones in the biggest scripted and cinematic games. Let’s redefine game narrative to mean more than just plot and dialogue – what we really care about is the story that happens in the player’s mind.”
Emerging stories fairly unexplored and could be a promising path but it’s not the only one. “I don’t think we’ve fully understood yet what it means to have great narrative in games, so we need to be open minded about different storytelling formats.”
There ya go! I know I’ll definitely keep this in mind while making my next game!
Let me know if I misinterpreted something!