Playful Narrative is a series of short weekly articles each focused around a single lesson or point to remember when writing for games.
Weave your story
When you are weaving a cloth, you want to be careful not to get too many loose ties, for it would turn out raffled and fall apart quickly. On the other hand you also don’t want to use too few strings, for this would make it look bad and weak. Stories need to be woven in an equal fashion; if you leave too many loose ties in your plot it will feel like parts of the story are missing or it doesn’t add up. If you use too few strings however your story will feel predictable, unrealistic and without depth.
In principle games as a medium excel at multi-thread story telling. They are able to give players a lot of control over how much of the story they take in, allowing them to add a lot of supportive narrative just for the players that enjoy this, yet feature a strong clean-cut main plotline for the players that don’t1. Add to this the wide array of tools that can be used to tell the narrative with audio, visuals or text, through active dialogue, world design, gameplay and much more and games are a medium well fit to tell an intricately woven story. In reality though, games often seem to struggle with getting a grip on this.
There is no trick to getting this right, other than just doing it2. Spreading out narrative and information throughout your world instead of focussing it all into key points will make the story feel more realistic and creative3. Way too often games try to force an abundance of information and plot into a single conversation or cutscene, usually because this is easiest to produce4, forcing players to undergo lengthy interruptions of gameplay to watch or read boring monologues5. The problem here is that putting so much plot in a small timeframe forces you to write some sort of a summary of part of your story to fit it all in there. Summaries don’t make for exciting reading6. The reason for this is that there is no chance to build up suspense, excitement, wonder and surprise, no place for style and nuance. There is no time for the player to fantasize about the gaps in the story and make her own theories. Essentially the player hears the story instead of experiencing it. Furthermore, spreading important plot elements around different parts of the narrative can make piecing together the story a game in itself, something at which the Alternate Reality genre excels.
So next time you write a story for your game, spread it out, weave it like an elegant rich piece of cloth. “Hide” your plot amongst a multitude of dialogues, events and information. Enable the player to discover it all and truly experience your story7.
This week’s point to remember
Weave your plot over a multitude of threads.
Next week in Playful Narrative: Build a recap function
Whether you totally agree with me or feel like I completely miss the point, let me know in the comments or get in touch! See you next week.
- One of the more straightforward ways to do this is to add a lot of side story and extra lore in the game that clearly doesn’t have to be read/discovered to understand the main storyline and play the game. Games in the MMO and RPG genres do this a lot, but most triple-A titles sadly lean to a less refined and poorly executed form of this as well. This method is implemented best however when these bits of extra story, however optional, give the player an edge in the game or a deeper experience of the gameplay, as I’ve illustrated in this earlier post. [↩]
- It’s a basic skill in creative writing that I really can’t explain in a 600-800 words blogpost. [↩]
- This is in particular true for adventure games, which are often build on a mystery style plot based on spread out clues that need to be discovered by the player. The wider spread the pieces are the more rewarding and entertaining piecing together the whole will be. Moreover it will feel more like an achievement to solve a mystery if it truly had to be pieced together rather than just pursued for long enough through the gameplay for it to solve itself. [↩]
- Any producer that forces this down deserves a slap in the face. I’d rather even play a game with only half of a good and well built story than one with a fully fledged shadow of what could’ve been a good story. [↩]
- Possibly the worst version of this practice is where the villain a player just defeated explains all the missing plot elements together with half of the story in what I call a ‘darn-I’ve-been-defeated-speech’. It’s terribly boring to watch and hints at a lack of creative writing or a strong mess-up in the execution of the planned narrative. It’s like a writer noticing on the final page of his book that he still has to jam two thirds of his plot in there somewhere. [↩]
- If you doubt this statement, instead of picking up your next book on your to read list, go ahead and find yourself some 20 summaries of very good books instead. [↩]
- For those that still doubt why this works, I’m assuming you’ve at least at one time been in the situation where you follow links on wikipedia on and on until you’ve read half your night away? Curiosity is a strong force when following stories, and discovering new bits of information that add to the bigger picture can keep you satisfied for a long time. If it works on a digital encyclopedia it will most certainly work for a skillfully crafted narrative. [↩]