Storytelling in Games: Essential Writing Exercises for Aspiring Writers Part II

Greetings everyone! Here’s an outline of what we’ll be going through in today’s article:
1. Thematic analysis (part II)
2. Pacing
3. How to use symbolism properly
4. Anchoring

In the process, I’ll also guide you through some story writing exercises that are essential to every writer’s toolkit. There’s a lot to go through, so let’s begin:

In my previous post (make sure you’ve read that before you start this section), I discussed about the utilisation of themes to create the story’s meaning. Every writer should master this aspect of writing, and they should be able to analyse the themes of any given story. This was an important topic in high school English, but I utterly failed at it back then, because it was never taught properly. So here’s a simple exercise you can do to analyse the themes of a story (make sure you’ve read my previous post):

1. Pick your favorite story (it can be from a novel, a film or even a game).

2. Examine the beginning and the ending. Note that sometimes a movie begins with a subplot and the main plot begins later on. In this case you can examine both plots.

3. List the theme changes that have occurred e.g. hatred becomes love, injustice becomes justice, life becomes death. Then write the corresponding thematic statements for these (this is explained in part 1).

4. Figure how these themes combine together in order to form the story’s meaning. Everyone will have a different opinion, but yours is what matters.

5. (Optional) Post your answers to this exercise in the comments section and give constructive feedback to at least one person.

So what’s the point of this exercise you may ask? Well, apart from improving your analytical abilities, you get to replay (or re-read) your favorite films/games/books and study how the composer masterfully portrays these themes throughout the story. You’ll be able to pick up techniques for yourself and become inspired to write out a story with similar themes.

Some people have asked me: since story revolves around themes, does that mean they should use them as a starting point for your story? Well, unfortunately it isn’t always this easy. I’ll be sure to write another post on the story writing process, but right now let me give a brief explanation. Firstly, there’s nothing wrong with using themes as a starting point. In fact, you might be able to take a story’s meaning from your favorite movie/novel/game and slightly adjust them, but often times, creating the story’s meaning from scratch is a daunting task. So what can writers do instead? They start writing their story and once they’ve wrote the beginning and ending of their story, they can discover what their story is about. After that, a writer must repolish the story from start to finish in order to suit the themes. The good news is: the ending is usually written as one of the first things in a story. I’ll talk more about this later in the post, but first, there’s still some more things you need to know regarding themes.

 

Creating Diversity

A common mistake I see beginners do is they decide “I’m going to write a story around the theme of honesty.” Then next, they only write scenarios where honesty is portrayed in a positive light e.g. if you’re honest, good things happen to you. That is called static themes, and if the same emotions are experienced by the audience for too long, habituation occurs. Habituation means: repeated exposure to something will lead to a decline in response. Too much exposure to the emotion of happiness will cause the player to experience a gradual decline in that feeling. 

The theme should constantly be challenged throughout your story: “What would happen if you were honest in this situation… would your parents die?” “Is it okay to NOT be honest when…” Remember, whatever message your story portrays depends on the ending. If it ends on a happy note, then honesty is portrayed in a postive light and vice versa. It can also end with a positive tone with tinges of negativity (or the other way around) and in this case, it portrays both the good and bad of honesty. 

Note that themes can occur in conjunction with each other as well, for instance, happiness can be accompanied by friendship. Habituation not only occurs for themes, but also pretty much everything else, including pacing, action and the amount of dialogue. A movie that’s always high paced will begin to lose its effectiveness, so instead, contrast it with slower moments. The same goes for action and dialogue, if your story has moments without dialogue and you contrast it with another scene with dialogue, all of a sudden the character’s words become more precious. I highly recommend you watch this video right now:

As a game designer, not only do you have to take into the account of pacing in scenes, but also during gameplay. In Persona 3 and 4, the slower paced life simulation mechanic is often contrasted with a higher intensity battle mechanic. This wasn’t true 100% of the time, because there were moments when you spent too much time in the simulation aspect without anything interesting happening in the storyline. Players often felt bored during these moments. Perhaps ATLUS should identify these moments and include some faster paced moments during the simulation aspect.

And finally, before I wrap this section up, a final note about themes that has huge relevance to game design. Schaglund (a contributor on this site) was discussing with me about themes, and he said: it’s useful to think of game design in terms of themes rather than storylines so you can create mechanics which suit these themes. A good example is the ‘rewind’ mechanic in Braid which aids to serve the theme of forgiveness. Another one is the social link mechanic in Persona 3 and 4 help portray the theme of friendship (as you acquire more social links, your powers grow stronger). This follows the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics (MDA) framework which state that the mechanics create the dynamics which generates the aesthetics. The original paper can be found here: http://210.240.189.214/gamedesign/resources/06_personalweb/2006_web/20/paper/MDA_GameDesign.pdf
Or if you’re lazy, you can just look up a summary on wikipedia. Now, that’s enough about themes for one post, but you get how important they are. Let’s talk about a fresh new topic altogether:

 

Symbolism

In order to teach symbolism, I’d like to briefly touch on a subject on a psychology subject called classical conditioning. There’s a well known experiment called The Little Albert experiment, where a child called “Albert” (which isn’t his real name by the way) was shown some white furry animals. At first, Albert wasn’t afraid of any of these things, however, he was then shown these furry animals again except this time, they were paired with a loud banging noise, causing the child to cry. This pairing was repeated several times… and eventually Albert had been conditioned to fear these furry animals. When a furry white rabbit or mouse was shown alone without the noise, the child would begin to cry.

Classical Conditioning

The study was highly controversial and it’s not something that can be carried out again nowadays. However, thanks to this experiment, we are provided some groundwork on how to use symbolism properly: by pairing a stimuli with a certain outcome (it can be both good or bad), we can evoke certain emotions from the audience. However, there are four things we have to keep in mind:

1. Several pairings are needed in order for this to be effective. You can’t just pair a butterfly with ‘danger’ or ‘freedom’ just one time in your story and expect it to be effective next time you show a butterfly. The pair must occur many times, and usually without your audience being aware of it.

2. Some objects have been conditioned in our daily lives, so it is not necessary to condition them again in your story. For example, candy + sweetness, smoke + danger, spider + fear and many more.

3. Don’t try anything too farfetched, for example, pairing a lollipop with a gun fight (danger). Something like that would never work because humans are just far more complicated than that. However, it is okay to pair a lollipop with something rather than sweetness, for example, poison/illness.

4. The appearance of symbolism must seem natural, or it must occur without the audience being aware of it. As long as the symbol is used in a natural setting, it doesn’t have to be kept hidden away from the audience’s consciousness, despite what many writers might say.

And finally, I want to say that the objects of symbolism don’t have to be 100% alike, but they must be similar enough. Using butterflies of different colors can substitute for using the same butterfly throughout, but there’s nothing wrong with either, so long as the audience doesn’t recognise the strangeness that’s going on.

Analysing symbolism can be a real pain in the @#&* sometimes so I won’t ask you to do it. You can to do it in your free time with your favorite movie if you’re curious enough. So before I wrap this post up, I’m going to treat you with one last technique in story writing.

 

Anchoring

This is my favorite technique to use when I’m writing a story… my friend actually came up with the term ‘anchoring’ so I doubt you’ll find it elsewhere on the internet (I don’t know whether it has an official name or not). It basically means: to include things early in the storyline which become more significant and meaningful later. In To the Moon, the paper rabbits, the toy platypus, and even Johnny’s last wish to go to the moon don’t mean much when you start the game. In fact, it’s quite a mystery and it’s what keeps the player engaged. However, as you progress through the story, things get explained gradually whilst more mysteries arise. It’s not until near the end, where everything gets revealed and this becomes the turning point of the story.

This is the sign of a very talented writer – the ability to keep the audience engaged by withholding important information, whilst gradually releasing information and creating more mysteries as the story goes on. These moments build up the turning point of a story, which then results in a climax, the most powerful, exciting part of a story. The moments leading up to the climax must also be at a fast pace, and the moment after the climax slows down. Does this remind you of the pacing graph from earlier? If you ever get stuck with writing the turning point or the climax, look to the most moving films you’ve watched or even games like To the Moon to try imitate their style of pacing.

I’ve broken down this anchoring technique into a very easy to use formula. Now before I share the technique with you, I need a quick favor from you. If you like the technique I’m about to reveal, then please share this article to your friends on Facebook/Twitter. This would mean a lot to me and all the other writers on this blog. So here goes:

1. When you have a very basic idea of the story you’re going to write… start writing the ending as ONE OF THE FIRST things. Remember, as writers, we save the best for last… so here’s the trick: write down the WORST things that can possibly happen in your story. These will be the deep, dark secrets of your story and be used to create the turning points. The “I am your father” moment in Star Wars, the moment you find out that the world is about to end in Persona 3, the part where Johnny promised River to re-unite on the Moon.

Artist used lies to tell the truth... while politicians used them to cover the truth up.

 

2. Next, list down what the ‘side effects’ of these deep dark secrets will be and decide which ones to include in your story. Examples in To the Moon:
Side effect: the fact that Johnny doesn’t know his motivation to go the moon, caused by his use of beta blockers.
Side effect: The fact that River keeps making those paper rabbits, in order to remind Johnny of their first meeting.
Side effect: Johnny’s mother calling him ‘Joey’ since his brother died.

Examples in Persona 3:
Side effect: The mysterious boy that appears during your sleep
Side effect: The mysterious place called Tartarus
Side effect: The mysterious group known as ‘Strega’

There’s plenty more in both games and I won’t list them all, but you get the point. These games like to use mystery to keep the audience engaged. Just be careful to not include too many clues that a will give the secrets of your story away.

3. Assess whether any of these ‘secrets’ can be predicted (you might need some friends to help you here). If you believe the audience even has a slim chance to guess what it is, then include some things in your story which will stray them away from the truth. Surprise your audience, give them what they don’t expect.

 

Neil from To the Moon

 

You can even decide to use these dark secrets as subtle cliff hangers which don’t necessary stray the story away from its purpose. For example, in To the Moon, the fact that Neil uses painkillers, the ‘red screen’ at the end, and the fact that he didn’t have full health when he was fighting the squirrel. These things suggest he is dying, but this doesn’t get revealed during the first episode. Maybe we get to see Neil as the patient in “A Bird Story.”

 

 

By the way, this is not a formula for story writing, it’s just one that I like to use. Not all stories follow this principle of ‘anchoring’ as there are other ways to keep the audience engaged rather than through mystery alone. I just like the idea of giving the audience what they don’t expect and exciting them with the secrets my story entails.

So… thanks for reading this far! Remember, practise and diligence is the key to becoming a successful writer. So take what you’ve learnt today and put it to good use by writing a story. Remember to share this article on Facebook and Twitter if you want to see us writing more often! You can also follow us on Twitter or Facebook for updates in the future when we release a new post.

This will be the last time I write an extremely long article like this. From now on, I will break each topic into smaller fragments and discuss them in greater depth.

Stay tuned!

Don't be shellfish...
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About Winston 4 Articles
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.

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