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.