Video Game Storytelling

What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques

About the Book


With increasingly sophisticated video games being consumed by an enthusiastic and expanding audience, the pressure is on game developers like never before to deliver exciting stories and engaging characters. With Video Game Storytelling, game writer and producer Evan Skolnick provides a comprehensive yet easy-to-follow guide to storytelling basics and how they can be applied at every stage of the development process—by all members of the team. This clear, concise reference pairs relevant examples from top games and other media with a breakdown of the key roles in game development, showing how a team’s shared understanding and application of core storytelling principles can deepen the player experience. Understanding story and why it matters is no longer just for writers or narrative designers. From team leadership to game design and beyond, Skolnick reveals how each member of the development team can do his or her part to help produce gripping, truly memorable narratives that will enhance gameplay and bring today’s savvy gamers back time and time again.
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Listen to a sample from Video Game Storytelling

Praise for Video Game Storytelling

Every once in a while I end up reading a book that should be read by almost everyone that I know – whether they actually need to or not. Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques (published by Watson-Guptill) is one of those books. [It] is a great resource not only for budding writers, but it should also serve as a very important reference for everyone who holds a position in the ever-expanding videogame industry.
-- Toronto Thumbs

[This] book piqued our interest to an exceptional degree. 'Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs To Know About Narrative Techniques' is perfect for anyone who is a Developer, wants to get into game development, anyone who is a fiction writer, or anyone who wants to have a greater understanding and appreciation of the fictional game worlds we so much enjoy.
-- Digital Mayhem Radio

I found it to be both interesting and entertaining, using real-life examples taken from very popular movies and games that most people will be readily familiar with. I feel that Evan Skolnick has a lot to share and I really wish I had the opportunity to attend one of his talks. I would recommend Video Game Storytelling to anyone involved in the game development process - or anyone hoping to get into game development.
-- Game Vortex 
If you’re the kind of gamer who likes to peek behind the curtain of video game development – and you don’t mind picking up a book once in a while – I recommend the new Video Game Storytelling by industry veteran Evan Skolnick. The book is aimed primarily at game developers, but it’s fascinating stuff for anyone interested in games as a storytelling medium.
-- News & Observer
Skolnick broke down the basic structure of video game storytelling into various parts that highlighted the importance of each and how they could be applied to video games. There’s a lot of information that’s covered, but presented straight-forwardly with plenty of examples of how it was all used previously. Overall, I enjoyed this book and I recommend it to anyone who wants to read it.
-- Our Thoughts Precisely
The reader is also introduced to the term ludology, or the study of games. Taken from the Latin verb ludere ‘to play’ it is used and expanded on to introduce even the more erudite terminology of, “ludonarrative harmony/dissonance.” Simply put, it describes how story can make or break the player’s gaming experience. It is worth buying the book just to read how Skolnick defines this with concrete examples from past and existing games.
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Video Game Storytelling

All but the smallest-scale video games are created by groups of people working together. Mission designers collaborating with AI programmers, concept artists working with 3D modelers, audio designers coordinating with tools engineers, environment artists working with lighting experts, and dozens or even hundreds of other potential kinds of interactions. But success will elude them all, unless everyone on the team—whether it’s comprised of two members or two hundred—is pulling in the same direction.

There’s rarely one person you can point to as the reason a game is of high quality. Conversely, there’s hardly ever a single individual you can blame for the opposite. Game development is a team effort, and the team wins or loses together.

This is also true of the game story. No one person can pull it off alone. 

It is not enough to hire a talented writer and/or narrative designer for your game. Depending on the scope of your project, it will ultimately take designers, artists, animators, programmers, audio experts, and potentially many other specialists to deliver the narrative content in the final product—to bring the story to life.

Thus, the working relationship of the writer with the rest of the team largely determines the game’s potential narrative quality. That relationship hinges on the team members’ familiarity with storytelling, their attitudes toward story’s place in games, and their mastery of a common language with which everyone on the team can discuss the game narrative.

It is the goal of this book to provide that common language, and to help give you, your team, and your game the best chance to deliver entertaining, effective, and well-integrated story content.

I have spent over a decade in the game development industry, working in various roles, on dozens of projects, delivered on every major platform. During that time I have collaborated with hundreds of developers to solve creative, technical, and logistical game development problems. I have found narrative challenges to be among the most subtle and intractable. 
And I’m not alone. Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to become acquainted with many fellow game writers and narrative designers, each with their own “war stories” and frustrations from projects current and past, each of us trying to find ways to make game and story play more nicely together—attempt after attempt to solve this ongoing conundrum.
My own efforts in this area have met with some limited success, on projects ranging from kid-targeted handheld games such as IGN Game of the Year cowinner Over the Hedge for the Nintendo DS, to the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences story award nominee Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2, to the first mature audience–oriented Star Wars title ever attempted: E3 2012 showstopper (and unfortunate victim of corporate upheaval) Star Wars 1313.

Beyond toiling behind the scenes on these and other projects, I’ve also very publicly tried to bridge the gap between gameplay and storytelling by speaking at various conferences and shows, particularly the Game Developers Conference (GDC). On an annual basis since 2006, I have run a day-long tutorial at GDC in San Francisco—by now experienced by over one thousand working and aspiring game developers—focused on the essentials of story development. With a wide mixture of attendees including game producers, designers, artists, programmers, and academics, the workshop provides core principles of storytelling in a compact and intensive primer.

But not everyone can get to San Francisco easily; nor can every producer afford GDC passes for every member of his or her team. Thus this book, which contains similar information to what one would experience in my tutorial, albeit in a noninteractive (but eminently more affordable!) format.

The book is divided into two main parts. Part I provides a basic grounding in well-established principles of Western storytelling: the common language that everyone on the team can use when discussing narrative elements.

Part II represents a deeper dive, investigating the specifics of storytelling as they relate to the main areas of game development and describing in greater detail how members of each discipline can contribute to—or potentially sabotage—good storytelling.

As we embark on this journey together, you may notice a few choices I’ve made. The first is that when it comes to examples from existing stories, many of the ones I’ve selected are from movies. As this is a book about video game storytelling, you might wonder why most or even all of the examples aren’t culled from games. The simple answer is that there are a significant number of movies that I feel safe in assuming nearly everyone has seen from beginning to end (for example, the original Star Wars). When it comes to games, though, due to their longer length and potential for players to get “stuck,” there are few if any examples for which I can safely make the same assumption. Sadly, there just aren’t many games that everyone in our industry has purchased and played. Even if there were games we had all played, it’s unlikely we all would have finished them. Online player data regularly confirms the low percentage of players who tend to push through any game’s story mode to completion—it’s almost always less than half.

Another aspect you might notice is a focus on console and PC games vs. games on other platforms, particularly the burgeoning mobile and tablet gaming sector. With regard to narrative, large-scale projects generally offer the “biggest stage” for storytelling, which in turn allows for a deeper discussion of those elements as they relate to game development. Please be assured, the core lessons from this book are applicable to the development of any digital game, whether it’s on a console, PC, handheld system, tablet, or phone.

Finally, although they are two distinct roles, for simplicity’s sake I will use the terms “game writer” and “narrative designer” (along with the more generalized “narrative expert”) interchangeably throughout this book.

With those caveats and explanations out of the way, it’s time to dig in. Let’s take a look behind the curtain at what makes your favorite stories tick, and discover how you can apply these lessons to your own role as a game developer.

About the Author

Evan Skolnick
With over twenty-five years of story and game development experience at world-class entertainment companies such as Marvel, Activision, and Lucasfilm, EVAN SKOLNICK brings a unique perspective to narrative experiences in games. An international speaker and educator, he has conducted workshops on storytelling techniques for well over a thousand game development professionals. Skolnick’s work includes projects such as Star Wars 1313Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2The Godfather: Five Families,Over the HedgeSpider-Man 3Spy Muppets, and many others. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two sons. Visit More by Evan Skolnick
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