Game Lore - Storytelling
Story-driven game without interactive storytelling is like having a movie based on a book where a person reads the book aloud on screen; it does not use the medium to its potential.
This note is about storytelling, story and dialog in video games. Note is written from a role-playing point of view but it can be apply to all games that have storytelling in any form. Related to game design.
- Plot = what really happens.
- Narrative = the plot from a particular point of view.
- Presentation = realization of the narrative in a particular medium or way.
- A good story is a combination of these three.
Story and storytelling are two different things. You might have the most amazing story, but if you cannot tell it properly, it will not be understood or might appear too corny. You may have communicated the story, but not the greatness of it. Prefer having amazing storytelling and immersion over the story itself.
Games are a new media to tell stories. Use the medium for your advantage. Games provide an interactive environment where player can affect the story and there is no content limit like with movies.
Controls are more important than story, always. If the actors in the game are not functioning as the player intends them to, it will ruin the storytelling for the player.
Keep your storytelling in the gameplay and interaction. Prefer interactive storytelling over cinematic storytelling, static images and non-dynamic text. Interactive storytelling is one of major selling points of video games. It's hard to do properly so most game developers avoid doing it, while it's the single most important thing when creating story-driven games.
Comics: Ideas + Visual
Movies: Ideas + Visual + Audio
Games: Ideas + Visual + Audio + Interaction
Keep the story as dynamic as possible. Every locked story branch drives attention from the player.
In books, everything is around the story.
In games, everything is around the player.
A few example challenges of interactive storytelling:
Ludonarrative Dissonance: What the story says and what the player does do not match.
Dissonance of Identity: You can control the avatar, but in the next moment you are forced to watch without control.
Cut Scene Hangover: Cut scenes that take away control totally break immersion and tension.
Books: Do not tell that hero is nimble, write an event around it. Movies: Do not tell that hero is nimble, show it. Games: Do not show that hero is nimble, let the player play it.
Game should have one main plot that has a clear finish. That main plot may have multiple endings and paths. You may also have multiple main quests for the main plot but only one of those should be active at a time. These main quests are frequently called "chapters".
Track down assassins who killed the sultan.
Recover stolen plans for the XK-100.
Find Holy Sword of K'athaar.
Slay the Lich King.
Use clear transition between chapters. Transitions between those chapters can happen in many ways.
To The Tomb Chapter
-> Players spot a lurking NPC and start to chase NPCs, leading to a tomb.
-> Players are ambushed on a road and NPCs corner players to a tomb.
Trapped Tomb Chapter
-> Players escape from the tomb through zombie catacombs.
-> Players escape from the tomb through heretic monastery.
Who Where The Tomb Robbers Chapter
-> Players ask around and find out in town after doing quests for a guild.
-> Players sneak into Thieves Guild and get the information by fighting.
The active main quest is backed up by side quests. Side quests are always optional. If a side quest is not optional, it is part of the main plot. If player does not want to explore the world, they should be allowed to run through the game without doing any side quests.
To create a great story, focus on:
- Story is linked to previous in-game descriptions of people, places and events.
- Story is faithful to the game lore, you should have much more lore available than the main quests and plot requires to be used in side quests.
- Dialog between players and NPCs should be good and make a difference in plot.
- Results of events should make a difference in the plot progress.
- Results of choices should make a difference in the plot progress.
- Player, NPC characters and the game world should progress.
Keep the dialog simple. There is no need to over-complicate matters.
Dialog should always be dynamic. Dynamic or contextual dialog is where game responds to player actions, current game state and previous game states.
Dialog trees that saves explicit flags.
Characters bark based on player actions, indicating AI state.
"What's in that shadow over there?" -> Goes to inspect.
Dialog can also be storytelling or artistic. Artistic dialog is generally annoying and should be optional. Prefer showing what is happening over telling.
Orc: "You wanna fight me?"
You see a statue of immense beauty.
Statue resembles a fine lady with roses hanging from her hair.
Double check your dialog. Read out loud each dialog path from start to finish.
Create a knowledge flag database to direct the dialog. Players might not know a piece of information involved in the dialog. This might be because they missed a quest or have not spoken with another important character yet. The dialog system must have some kind of reference what it can tell to the player. Variant (dynamic) dialog lines work well with a knowledge flag database.
Always write dialog from the point of the player. What would the player want to do at this point? Is the player male or female? Learn more about the encounter or historical information about the context? Create choices that fit into multiple stereotypes.
The more strict the outcome is, the more choices you must give. When player cannot control the outcome, at least allow them to state how they feel about it.
sentences with "seems", "believe", "feels like".
sentences with "well...", "as a matter of fact", "come to think of it".
weak `-ing` verbs like sleeping, use "is asleep"
closely linked actions e.g. "find him and call him back" -> "call him back"
yes, no -> use "Yes, I imagined that so."
rephrasing previous player line -> "I am the King" "You are the King? ..."
Start creating quests by creating quest placeholders.
A. Scene where the quest is given and the reason player might want to do it.
B. Environment and context the quest progresses.
C. All the different paths players can take.
D. The twist. Unexpected turn of events or player choice.
E. Scene(s) where the quest is resolved and the outcome(s) of the quest.
When writing quests, you must focus on what, how and when. Quest writer does not have to design the combat, puzzles or other forms of gameplay. Level designers do that.
You take a quest to save the princess.
You eventually encounter a mage to accompany you.
HOW DO YOU MEET THE MAGE?
In the end, there is fight against guardians of the tower.
DO NOT NEED TO DESIGN THE COMBAT.
Re-write or remove all quests that are broken or uninteresting. Quests tend to become really good after 5 re-writes, but you never have the time to do this for each quest.
Most quest writers over design the initial quests. Quest writers must learn to trim the fat. Remove all the unnecessary. If a line does not change the meaning of the message, remove it. When you cannot remove anything and it is still bloated, re-write quest.
There is nothing we could do. It would be pointless. (<- redundant)
- Everything is normal for hero.
- Hero is called to action, usually refuses first.
- Hero gets power and allies by conquering obstacles.
- Hero encounters the biggest enemy and at least partially wins.
- Hero returns to normal state but is now a real hero.
Cookie Cutter RPG
- World has forgotten its history.
- World is in conflict which makes an excuse for fighting.
- Hero is a traveler or is pushed to travel.
- Hero has dominant personal interests.
- A powerful monster casts shadow over a community.
- Hero prepares for the battle.
- Hero faces the more powerful monster.
- Hero battles the monster and the monster is more likely to win.
- Hero wins nevertheless and usually gets a prize.
From Rags to Riches
- Hero is poor farm boy.
- Hero encounters a beautiful and rich princess by accident.
- Something bad happens to the hero.
- Hero overcomes the crisis.
- Hero now has new identity.
- Hero is united with the prices.
- Hero sees only one way to fix the problem, a long journey.
- Journey to the "other world" for guidance or power.
- Returns but still far away from reaching the goal.
- Final great battle.
- Escape from death and goal reached.
- Hero is young and undeveloped in some sense.
- Hero is transported to a new world and is excited.
- Little by little mood change to frustration and oppression.
- Shadows begin to dominate.
- Just as the threat is closing in, the hero escapes.
- Hero is confused.
- Confusion gets worse.
- Things come to light that was not known previously.
- Hero's little world is brought together in a joyful union.
- Hero looks for unusual gratification.
- Hero becomes committed to his course of action.
- Hero feels frustrated.
- Hero cannot gain control of events.
- Hero is killed.
- Hero is incomplete.
- Hero dies or falls under pressure of dark power.
- This continues for a long time, with pressured or dead hero.
- Mystical power or some other hero comes and saves the original hero.
Even though these are stated to be side quests, they need to have meaning. Never have quests that are simply "go kill 10 goblins".
- NPC X wants your party member with the highest charisma.
- You encounter NPC X in a cavern with other hero NPCs, Y and Z.
- NPC X gives you, Y and Z a quest to get a treasure in surrounding area.
- As you return with the treasure, Y does not return from the quest.
- NPC X gives a new quests to you and Z, you leave.
- As you return with the treasure, Z does not return from the quest.
- NPC X gives a new quest to you, you leave.
Change of Power
- NPC X that wants you to get NPC Y in the town council, any means necessary.
- Optionally change voting tickets while they are in the box.
- Optionally kill as many council members so he gets in.
- Optionally bribe the mayor the take him in.
- NPC X wants you to kill Y, Z and A.
- Each of them should be unique to kill.
- NPC X wants you to desecrate one of the altars in a dungeon.
- NPC X gives you a simple quest to get a huge treasure.
- Optionally return it to him and get a lesser reward.
- If you do not return it to him in two days, he disappears and starts to hire assassins after you with notes that shows why these assassins are coming. Finally he comes after you himself.
- You encounter merchant X that gives you a quest to beat up alchemist Y.
- You encounter alchemist Y that gives you a quest to beat up merchant X
- You encounter guard G that gives you a quest to get X and Y chill down.
- All of these should have make modifications to the town they live in.
- NPC X that gives you a quest, but if you refuse to take it, will attack you.
- NPC X wants you to help him find his party.
- When you find his party, you find out that it is party of Z, your arch nemesis.
- Optionally, you find out that his party is party of Z, what do you do? Kill the NPC X or help him anyway.
Not Going to End Well
- NPC gives you a quest to get a shotgun, bullets and alcohol.
- Optionally get him the items, leave and hear a bang.
- Optionally make him to tell you why he needs them.
- Optionally find a suicide note in his pocket / drawer.
- Optionally convince him not to do it.
I Guess the Reward Is Ours Now, Huh?
- You encounter NPC X at start of a cavern.
- He gives you a quest to lead him through the cavern.
- Little deeper in, he dies to a trap.
- You receive the quest reward from his corpse.
- NPC X gives you a new item Y that you must field-test.
- The item Y does not work as stated in the tooltip.
- Upon returning, NPC X gives you a new item Z to test.
- The item Z does not work as stated in the tooltip.
- You return and the NPC X is dead, killed by the next item he was supposed to give to you.
Bob the Builder
- In a crappy house, NPC X gives you a quest to fetch some planks.
- When you return those planks, his house gets better looking.
- Then NPC X asks for something more like a chimney and you get that etc.
- You encounter NPC X and NPC Y.
- NPC X talks in language that you might not know.
- NPC y translates it for you.
- Optional if you know the language, you can read what he really says, might be different what the translator says.
Characters are much more important than the setting. A story with good characters and plain setting will have more chance of being exceptional than a story with plain characters and great setting.
- Make characters more complex.
- Characters must have passions and motivations beyond the main plot.
- Don't model protagonist after yourself, protagonist must be interesting, fully developed and deep background.
- Make protagonist active.
- Flaws give protagonist possibility to fail. Possibility to fail makes the story more interesting.
Villains appear more active as they force hero to do stuff.
Make your hero active, not just reactive.
When you can introduce the protagonist while acting as the protagonist,
you know him/her well enough. The way he thinks, speaks and behaves.
Then try becoming the antagonist and describe the protagonist.
After that, become the referee and describe the protagonist
in a neutral way.
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MGTI) helps to get into the mind set of characters. MGIT is used to avoid boring personalities when writing your story. Specifies what kind of decisions characters would make.
It is a good idea to write down dominant fields for each of the four. All characters are able to operate in each field, but prefer the dominant fields. Note that the MGTI does not state anything about the strength in preferred fields, only the preference. For example, extrovert people are not always good in talking, it just how they act.
1: Introversion or Extroversion (Attitude)
2: Sensing or Intuition (Gathering)
3: Thinking or Feeling (Rationale)
4: Judging or Perceiving (Lifestyle)
- Introversion Though oriented attitude while seeking deep level of knowledge. Gets energized when alone or in small groups. Can work in large groups and public but it is draining.
- Extroversion Action oriented attitude while seeking wide range of knowledge. Gets energized when in larger groups or in public. Can work alone and pairs but it is draining.
- Sensing: Trusts things they can examine with their senses. Emphasis on why over what.
- Intuition: Trusts their gut that can lead to amazing results, good or bad. Emphasis on what over why. They usually know the answer before they know why.
- Thinking: Makes decisions they see logical and calculated. Believes that there are optimal choices when there is sufficient amount of information about the context.
- Feeling: Makes decisions after thinking it from multiple perspectives. Believes that there are no right choices, there are just choices that are best from the given perspective.
- Judging: Likes to be firm on decisions made.
- Perceiving: Likes to keep their decisions open and see where things go.
- Hero = Lion King, Simba
- Mentor = Yoda, Star Wars
- Shapeshifter = Mysterious, Femme fatale, Secret Agent.
- Trickster = comical, unethical, childish.
- Messenger = calls the hero to the quest
- Gatekeeper = fights against the hero, testing him, but not the nemesis
- Shadow = dark side of humanity, usually the nemesis
Inspiration: Lord of the Rings
Lord of the Rings has very deep but simple meaning behind the story. The ongoing story about the Ring is just a facade.
A machine is a tool that generates something. The Rings of Power are supreme machines that generates what the wearer desires.
- Sauron desires to unite everything under one banner, a war to end all wars.
- Elves desire to create art and art is creating world vision in the mind of the perceiver.
- Humans desire power and power is forcing your world vision to other individuals.
- Dwarves desire fortune, and fortune is something that you and other people desire; thus it usually involves taking it from other beings.
- Wizards desire righteousness, but what is right depends on the context and personal values of the judge.
- Hobbits desire simple pleasures like food, sleep and alcohol.
Hobbits are perfect ring bearers because of this.
Gandalf would be one of the worst wearers of the ring because he would be self-righteous like most wizards. What an individual thinks is right is not always right. He understands this.
Body Horror: Slow and irreversible transformation to something horrible. Emphasis on face and personality changes.
In Warhammer, genestealers implement DNA, recipients start adoring stealers
and 4th generation offspring are born as genestealers.
Well-intended: Saving a girl by mass murder.
Tautological Templar: Paladin is kicking puppies, why is it good? Because he is good!
Sufficiently Analyzed Magic: Mage catalogs which fireball makes most damage
Always Check the Context: Does moonlight, reflection of sun, hurt vampires? Does UV light vampires?
Sacrifice: In Dark Sun using magic damages environment so whole world is one big wasteland. FF7 Mako energy leeched from Lifestream, makes places desolate. None knows as Shinra owns the media and in the end they switch to oil.
Surprise: KotOR you are Revan. Metroid, Samus is girl FFX. Tidus is a dream. Consider giving subtle hints e.g. FFIX, Kuja says "oh brother" at one point.
- Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
- Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots
- Interview with Tolkien's son.
- Designing game narrative
- On Narrative Design (Part 7 - When Things Go Wrong… And They Will)
- On Narrative Design (Part 9 - Writing, BioWare Style)