Playful Narrative is a series of short irregularly updated articles each focused around a single lesson or point to remember when writing for games.
The title above can and should be read in two ways. First, I mean to tell you that credibility matters in all stories you make. Whether they are based on real events, fairy tales or science fiction, credibility is highly important to keep your reader involved with the story and make the narrative stand out in such a way that the reader actually cares about what happens to the characters it involves. I could talk long about the psychological reasons behind this but I believe this will become obvious in due time when we dive into the other way you can read the title above: below is material concerning credibility in stories.
The issue of credibility in storytelling is very topical in games right now as part of a bigger discussion on games and narratives that has been going on since the term ludonarrative dissonance1 was coined by Clint Hocking to explain why the narrative of the game Bioshock felt strange. Though the issue of credibility differs from that of ludonarrative dissonance the latter may break the first2.
For example, an often heard complaint about storytelling in the FPS-genre (among others) is that the player controlled character kills so many others that he or she can hardly ever not be labelled as a homicidal maniac and that the narrative in these games seems mostly unable to account for this. There are games that attempt to fix this but don’t quite succeed, like the most recent Tomb Raider did. This then sparks discussion about narratives in games and an often made argument from advocates of those games is that credibility doesn’t matter as much in some stories. Yet credibility always matters, a lot.
The mistake here is that these people draw a line between credibility and realism. However, where realism is about whether story elements are realistic and plausible in our real world, credibility of the story world is about whether story elements are realistic in the portrayed world. In a fairytale world it’s completely acceptable that the main character encounters a talking dragon whilst in the woods yet in a Second World War setting, this would be frowned upon to say the least. Whereas in that fairytale world the credibility is broken if soldiers turn up to save the main character and in the other setting it would be fine. Realise that this is just an example, there are as many story worlds as there are stories, and anything is possible. You can make a fairytale world with dragons and World War 2 era soldiers for example, but you can’t just throw around Deus ex Machina’s3 from other story worlds without preparing for it. The key to creating any world is to be consistent and build up to anything that falls out of this norm of consistency so it can still be accepted by the player. Story worlds follow logic4 and any action or object in them must be logically explicable, though this doesn’t always have to be clear right away to the player.
The basic rule here is that whenever you build a story you define the world for yourself as the writer. Define the basic set of laws and logic the world operates in. This set is usually our real world logical set of rules5 with some changes or adaptations to them. That what isn’t changed feels logical and is a given fact for the player because the real world operates in such a way; you don’t need to mention gravity if you don’t change it. The elements that are changed need to be addressed or build up to for them to fit in and create a logical whole. They also need to be meaningful. If you change (usually small) rules but don’t actually make them fit into the world, they will fall out as poor story elements. For example, if the game designer wants characters to be able to carry around lots of gold it feels very cheap if the story explains this by saying gold is a very light material in this world but it subsequently doesn’t elaborate on this (or doesn’t do any explaining in the first place). The key here is to think everything through. If gold is very light, what would that mean for the world at large? Is there anything in our normal world that uses the weight of gold that would be different in this world as a result of this? If you can’t make things fit in in such a way, don’t enforce them but work with the game designer to change them to something that does suit the world at large instead6.
Make it general practice to always test every element in your world to this logic and change it if needed. Working in this way will greatly help you create rich and meaningful worlds full of detail where elements have reasons and consequences. Because credibility matters.
This week’s point to remember
Create a set of logical rules in which your world operates and enforce them in every story element. Don’t ever think credibility does not matter for your particular story.
Next time in Playful Narrative: Give the player actual choices.
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 time.
- Ludonarrative dissonance is a rather complex idea but described very shortly it refers to conflicts between a video game’s narrative and its game play. [↩]
- The main difference here is that ludonarrative dissonance causes disbelief in the overall story of a game and its world, yet credibility in a story can be broken by more things than just ludonarrative dissonance. [↩]
- Literally, god out of a machine, a term derived from ancient Greek play-writes and used a lot in theatre and storytelling to describe an element that is unexpected or irregular and often used to progress or change the story at a key point [↩]
- Even story worlds that might seem irrational or absurd do, but they follow their own set of rules that define their logic. [↩]
- Laws of nature, human psychology etc., be aware though that if you work in a certain genre or it seems like you do, you automatically inherit the most basic laws and logic of that genre too, and you will have to address breaking them if you do. [↩]
- This is a bit of a poor example, because I would tell anyone that would come to me with this particular issue right away that you can’t build a viable and credible economy when the lowest monetary unit is ‘a gold piece’. This way too often used system gets outright ridiculous when you pay over a 100 gold pieces for simple food or tools, inflation doesn’t even begin to cover this anymore. [↩]