Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Why It's Harder to Write Stories for Games Than Any Other Medium

Developing a story for a game is a unique experience, as no other medium presents quite so many complexities and roadblocks in getting the story across to the audience. I believe that this is the case because, to make a great game story, you need to:

  1. Come up with a great story,

  2. Break it into digestible chunks, and

  3. Present those chunks appropriately.

Movies and novels don't have the same weight of story, because you can't go explore what happens off camera or away from the page. And in any case, both of these are uniform, single-experience media whose number of digestible chunks is 1 (though one could argue about chapter structure for the written word and scenes for film and theater. But not here). The real problem for a game story (and it is unique to game story) happens at number two on the above list, and it is compounded by non-linearity.

Part of the problem is that there is an awful lot of what you could call 'story' in a game. Not merely the pieces of the plot and what is going on, but all the elements of character histories, world history, geography, social structures, item descriptions, famous places and events, side quests or missions... it goes on and on.

Somewhere and somehow, all that data has to be distilled, portioned, cut into appetizing bite-sized chunks, and served up as an irresistible dish. Furthermore, those chunks have to be proportional to the time of play. I underline that, because doing a point-and-click adventure game does not permit a developer to force upon a player MGS-length cutscenes (come to think of it, maybe nothing should...). For a casual game, the story may have to be cooked up in chunks the length of newspaper comics or stand-up jokes -- maybe 5 to 30 seconds. Longer games, with longer play times and a longer expectation of B.I.C., can certainly cope with longer story moments.

Next, of course, we do have to face the question of linearity, branches within the story, and all the joy and pain of knitting them into a coherent experience. The pieces of story need to complete a comprehensible puzzle regardless of the order in which the player experiences them; it is bad form to either skip or repeat plot events.

Once the story is broken down and laid out, however, an important piece of work remains to be done because each of the story elements has to be prioritized. My first real game writing project was as Assistant Writer to Richard Dansky on Dark Messiah. Richard created a spreadsheet of all the story elements that coud be included in the game, then went through and prioritized them:

"1" was for the critical plot elements, without which the actions of the player and the objectives we gave them would not make sense. This would be more or less the spine or throughline of the story.

"2" was for all the elements that went a little deeper, explaining motivations and the reasons for what was happening in the main plot.

"3" was all the world history andd setting detail for the obsessives -- for the players like me who went around reading the tomes in Neverwinter Nights.

Without a system like this, the player risks either getting irrelevant or uninteresting information or not understanding why they're doing what they're doing.

The difficulty in story design goes beyond the balance between the scope and the priorities of all the story elements, however, because once all that is done we still have to work out how to deliver them. Cutscenes? Voice over dialogues? Quicktime events? Optional dialogues? Environmental elements? Side quests? As part of artifact / skill descriptions? Ingame books, movies, or audio tapes? Information in the manual or marketing material on the web site?

And, finally, it all has to be written well, and the cutscenes have to be too interesting to skip, and every bit of text has to be a mini-Easter egg of information and style.

So the next time you play a game and pass judgment on the story, think twice. A lot of thinking and preparation goes on behind the scenes, and the challenges faced by the writers and designers are considerable. I cannot think of another medium in which so many different factors weigh in the effective transfer of story from the minds of the creators to the minds of the audience. And if there is such a medium, I am not sure that I would want to work in it...

"Non-Casual Story in Casual Games"

Back in December I submitted a proposal with the above title for a presentation at the Casual Connect conference (Hamburg, 10-12 February 2010). I had a fairly rapid 'yes' from the organizers, which was very kind, so I put together my current wisdom into a presentation.

When I arrived at the conference I discovered why my proposal was so quickly accepted--Yulia Vakhrusheva, one of the organizers of the conference, is a fan of Heroes of Might & Magic V (as well as being energetic, cheerful, and efficient). Go Heroes!

The presentation is now available online with the accompanying audio (about a half hour) on the Casual Connect web site:
Thanks to Yulia and the other great people at Casual Connect for making the conference so much fun.

And thanks as well to a few indie developers who came up to chat with me afterward, interested in game story and gameplay:
Brian Meidell:
David Mekersa:
Alexander Dergay:

It's always great to talk shop with smart people.