Storytelling in Games: How to Write an Amazing Story Part I

What’s up everyone! It’s my first post here, and today I’d like to shed light on perhaps the weakest area in gaming: and that’s the story.

Schools out there will teach you how to improve your grammar, spelling, vocabulary and how to write better stories by using adjectives, adverbs, metaphors, similes, alliteration… you name it. However, these skills you learn in high school translate very poorly into visual (film) and interactive media (games), sometimes even causing more harm than good. So unless you go to a highly touted university, you will never learn about the concepts that one should follow when creating a great story. And let me just say that one SHOULD follow these concepts, but not MUST. These are concepts after all, not rules.

 

Idea Generation

idea

 

There are two types of ways in which people come up with their story:

1. Through spontaneity (that idea that pops into your head).

2. Through brute force thinking (aka “staring at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead”).

What are the disadvantages and advantages of each one and which one should you use? Let’s talk about the first one first.

 

 

Spontaneity

  • Disadvantages: Ideas which come through spontaneity tend to be clichéd, cheesy, and lame. Not all the time, but if you rely on inspiration as the source of your ideas, you are essentially doing what most people out there are doing – coming up with obvious ideas which have been overdone. Be very selective about which ideas you choose to include in your story if they come through spontaneity.
    Another disadvantage is that it will take a very long time to come up with a sufficient amount of ideas through spontaneity. Spontaneous moments can be quite rare, and those who rely on this approach will tend to procrastinate and eventually quit.
  • Advantages: Sometimes, you will be rewarded with an excellent idea for your story which could’ve only come through spontaneity. This idea adds great value to your story and you know how to recognise clichéd or boring ideas which you aren’t afraid to throw away. Other times, spontaneity can help you overcome ‘writer’s block.’

Now let’s discuss number two (brute force thinking) and why this should be the main method you use when writing stories.

Brute Force Thinking

There are two types of thinking which can be used: one of them is called convergent thinking and this is the type of thinking which mathematicians use. It basically means being able to come up with an answer to a problem. Convergent thinking certainly has it’s advantages in story writing, however, I am going to focus on the second type of brute force thinking. This is known as divergent thinking and it simply means ‘being able to think of multiple solutions to one problem.’

If you ever wondered why so few mathematicians, programmers or engineers are good at creativity, then there’s the reason. Their convergent thinking skills are highly developed, but they lack the practise for divergent thinking. There’s a myth that creativity comes from spontaneity and that you are either born as creative or not creative. This is far from the truth: psychologists have discovered that creative people are very good at divergent thinking. This is great news because divergent thinking can be improved through practice – like any other skill.

  • Disadvantages: It requires a LOT of brain work, practice and time to develop. Divergent thinkers often have to create an enormous amount of content and ideas, and they have to be very selective of which ones to include in their story (the rest of the content gets thrown away).

Let’s say you want to create a scene. As a divergent thinker, you’ll come up with at LEAST 5 different ways the scene can play out. Sometimes you come up with 10, 15, 20 different possible ways or even more and these have to be all written down, but only one of them gets selected to be included in the story. Imagine doing this for over 50 scenes, this process will get tiring fast and take a long time to complete.

  • Advantages: Despite this tiresome process of writing stories, the payoff is definitely worth it in the end, because, what you end up with is a unique and interesting story that can’t be found anywhere else. Your story won’t be clichéd because you’re doing the opposite of most writers out there and carefully selecting content which hasn’t been overused. You will also be able to work harder and procrastinate less, because you won’t have as many ‘blank mind’ moments (just make sure you minimize any other distractions).

So overall, your main idea generation method should come through divergent thinking, and not through spontaneity. However, when a brilliant idea manifests itself in your mind, then you should seize the opportunity and take it into consideration.

 

Storytelling 101: Show not tell

This same rule you learn in school still applies to movies and games. Whether you are trying to convey an idea, a theme or just exposition, it is wise to use visuals rather than words. You actually want to minimize the amount of dialogue and text as much as possible. How are some ways you can show that a female character secretly likes the main character? You can:

1. Tell the audience “She secretly likes you/him.” How lame is that? Some games do this though.
2. Make that female character expose her feelings towards the main character in a conversation with someone else.
3. Or perhaps… just perhaps… you can make that female character adjust her hair, or check her make up when she sees the main character coming.

The only time that narration or dialogue is required to out information is when:

1. There’s no other convenient way or
2. The dialogue is used in a natural setting
3. To save time (and speed up the pace of the story)

An example of having no convenient way to do show is the anime Death Note. The protagonist, Light Yagami is too clever for the audience to understand his complicated strategies, so they must be informed through narration (or dialogue of him explaining his plans to Ryuk). Now, here’s an example of horrible storytelling in which you should avoid at all costs. It’s from the game Persona 3 and 4.

Pretty much everything is explained through ‘telling’ in the Persona games. Take a look at these screenshots from the game, and you’ll know what I mean:

Does this look like a library to anyone? The text is completely pointless and a waste of time.

Persona 4 library

 

I have to shake my head when I see this next one. There is absolutely no need for this “you feel like you understand them more” crap.

persona 4 rise 2

 

Now all these are just minor issues, and most of it was done due to the limitations of video games, but what the Persona games did which ruined the experience for their players is this: they used dialogue to spout out the main themes of the story. I won’t go into detail here because that will spoil the game, but you should never do this as it will remove a lot of the emotional impact on your audience. The story’s meaning should be left for the audience to interpret, not lay it out for them… (note: this does not mean you should make your themes ambiguous!).

 

Using Themes to Write a Meaningful Story

You know that feeling after you just finished watching an incredible movie? I’m talking about the emotional value you get at the end of the movie… that feeling where you feel like your life has been changed. If you want to the audience to experience that same feeling, impact their life or change their perspective on life, then your story must be meaningful.

How do you create a meaningful story? Firstly, let’s talk about themes. What are themes? According to wikipedia, a theme is a central topic to a story. Examples are good/evil, honesty/dishonesty, truth/lies, love/hate. Along with the theme, there is the thematic statement. Examples of thematic statements are: Good triumphs over evil, honesty leads to rewards, truth can never be found, love is eternal. However, the thematic statement is never this simple, and writers should take the thematic statement even further and mention ‘why’ or ‘when’. Always add something like ‘because’ to the thematic statement e.g. Good triumphs over evil because good guys don’t betray each other. You should be able to mention your thematic statement in just one sentence and no longer.

Everyone has different opinions on these topics. Not everyone believes good triumphs over evil or that truth can never be found. The goal here is to choose what you believe in and embed this message (subtly) throughout your story. Take a look at your story as a whole and notice how the values are changing. Does it begin with evil ruling the world and end with the good guys winning? Does it begin with love and end in tragedy? This is how your themes should be conveyed.

A more complicated approach: The story begins with the bad guys ruling, and ends with the good guys winning, but losing their loved ones. The thematic statement would be: Good guys triumph over evil, but at perilous costs.

Let’s analyse an example from a game well known for it’s story: To the Moon. If you haven’t tried this game yet, I urge you to do so, because it is an amazing game and only takes about 4-5 hours to play it.

Here’s an outline of the story for those who haven’t played it: Johnny is on his death bed and only has a couple of days left to live. You play as Dr. Niel Watts and Eva Rosalene from the Sigmund corporation, a company in charge of transplanting fake memories into the patient’s mind and fulfilling their last wishes before they pass away. Johnny’s last wish is to go to the moon, but he doesn’t know why wants to go there. In order to achieve his wish, they need to discover the root source for why he wants to go there, and so the journey through Johnny’s memories begins.

Spoilers Ahead!

There are 3 main themes from To the Moon:

1. Love

2. Aspiration

3. Reality

To discover the story’s meaning (which is interpreted different by everyone), we must analyse these themes and how they’ve changed from beginning to end. Let’s analyse the first theme. The story begins with Johnny being alone, his wife, River has passed away. In the end, they are finally re-united in NASA and on the spacecraft headed towards the moon. Thematic statement #1: True love prevails…

As I said before, the thematic statement should be more complicated than this, you should state ‘when’ or ‘why’ true love prevails. However, I won’t be doing this, because there will be many differing opinions.

The second theme revolves around Johnny’s aspiration to go to the moon. This theme changes from ‘incomplete goal’ to ‘fulfillment’ as Johnny finally heads towards the moon in the ending scene. Thematic statement #2: Dreams get fulfilled…

Then finally, the last theme changes from reality to non-reality as everything happens in Johnny’s mind, not the real world. Unlike the other themes, this one changes from positive to negative, which is why there is a  tinge of sadness in the end. Thematic statement #3: Reality becomes non-reality…

Now, to get the stories’ meaning, we combine these themes together. Themes 1 and 2 are tied together by the fact that Johnny’s goal to go to the moon is driven by his promise to River that they’d meet up on the moon if they ever became separated. Of course Johnny doesn’t fully recall this, because he was given Beta blockers when he was young to help him forget a traumatic event that occurred. So despite Johnny being unable to recall why he wants to go to the moon, we eventually discover that it was due to his feelings for River.

The final thematic statement becomes: “Dreams of true love prevail, but in the surreal world.”

So To the Moon has been quite a successful game despite it’s almost non-existent mechanics. The gameplay itself is very boring and the puzzles after each timeleap is completely unecessary. The mechanis should be used to aid in conveying the themes to the audience. However, players were kept engaged, mainly through it’s one-of-a-kind storyline, which is near impossible to find in a game nowadays. Imagine playing the game alone without the storyline… that would be quite a boring experience.  I do hope there will be more interesting gameplay in the next episode, but I’ll leave this discussion about the importance of relevant gameplay for another post.

End of Spoilers

Persona 3 is another game that was highly successful, and I believed it was mainly due to it’s meaningful themes. Despite it’s horrible storytelling methods, somewhat predictable storyline and above average gameplay mechanics (which we will analyse in another post), the game had valuable life lessons to teach to everybody. I actually loved the Persona games bear-y much, and the lessons I learnt from it has definitely impacted my life. Of course, the mechanics also played a huge role in the success of the Persona 3 and 4 games. Actually, one of the reasons why they were so successful was because ATLUS (the company of the Persona games) used the mechanics in order to help portray the themes.

The social links mechanics aided the theme of friendship whilst the concept of a Persona aided in the themes of acceptance and truth. Having solid mechanics is just one thing, but they must be relevant to a game and aid in demonstrating it’s themes. I can’t stress this enough.

So if you’ve made it this far, I’ve gotta say a huge ‘thank you,’ as you’ve reached the end of this very long post. I hope this brings valuable insight to you game designers or future game designers out there. I’ll end by saying that these concepts can definitely teach you to be a better writer than 99% of people out there, however, story writing is a very tough job and requires lots of time to master. You can’t get good unless you actually go and practice writing stories using these concepts. It should take you AT LEAST a couple of months to finish one major story, sometimes over a year. That’s just how things are, so be patient and work hard and eventually you’ll be writing a story as brilliant as ‘To the Moon.’

Next in the series:

-More on themes
-The concept of Habituation
-Symbolism
-Pacing
-’Anchoring’

Storytelling in Games Part II is out, read it here: http://gamingpoint.org/2014/02/storytelling-in-games-the-guide-to-writing-stories-part-ii/ 

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About Winston
I'm a psychology student with a passion for screenwriting and game design. I'm also the admin of this blog so if find my writing useful then it would be great if you could follow me on twitter or facebook.

5 Comments on Storytelling in Games: How to Write an Amazing Story Part I

  1. Extremely interesting and useful article. Have shared with all of my games dev students, a must read for their games design and game story development work. Thanks

  2. Great article! I’ve often struggled and dreaded story writing during the game design process, primarily because I found myself bad at it. This article really exposed the key to some of my frustrations, and it was primarily due to my reliance on the spontaneity ideas. I think I need to work on the logical approach to story writing far more.

    Thanks much and keep up the great work :)

  3. Thanks. This article really helps me. :D

  4. “If you ever wondered why so few mathematicians, programmers or engineers are good at creativity, then there’s the reason.”

    Thanks for the jab at mathematicians, programmers and engineers for no good reason within your article. A group of people who are so clearly uncreative, how DO they ever come up with anything new?

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