Compared to film and literature, games are still a fairly young medium. As we could see with films, it always takes some experimenting until new art forms find their very own means of expression. In games, this process is further complicated by the fact that, over the past few decades, technological innovations in hardware and software constantly renewed and changed the possibilities of game design.
Since their inception, games have been looking for ways of telling thrilling, deep stories that can keep up with films, series or novels in terms of quality and that nevertheless make use of the most important medial specificity of games: their interactivity. Unfortunately, this great potential can also be a huge problem when it comes to writing interesting stories.
In this blog article, I will outline some of the most important challenges and difficulties we have encountered so far when writing the story for our upcoming narrative game. I will get into some of the solutions we found in my upcoming posts, but I hope that today’s article will be helpful as well – it might point you to some aspects you could take a closer look at if you have the impression that your game’s story isn’t as exciting as it should be.
One big challenge consists in designing a tight dramaturgy for your game. You want your audience to be glued to the screen, much like when they’re binge-watching a show. To keep the narrative pace up, films and novels usually work with loads of ellipses, meaning that they only show you the most interesting parts of the story and skip the rest.
In the first Lord of the Rings movie for example, you don’t see the fellowship of the ring walk from Rivendell to Lothlórien for hours. Instead, you only get the scenes that are action-packed, relevant for character building, or otherwise important for the progression of the plot.
Skipping less interesting parts isn’t as easy in games since the player often is in control of the protagonist. For example, let’s say our hero is in her apartment and finally decides to break up with her girlfriend. In a film, the next thing we would see is the protagonist standing at her partner’s porch. In a game, we have control over the hero, which at the very least means we need to make them walk over to their destination ourselves.
To make such mundane things interesting, games often add challenges such as search for the coat, key and phone of our hero, and then navigating her through the city and finding a way across those building sites that block the road she usually takes. Unfortunately, this often tends to draw things out even more.
Although it is important to give the player agency and different possibilities to go about something, interactive passages in narrative games can easily cause a drop in tension and give the audience a good opportunity to zone out. Telltale Games titles like The Wolf Among Us illustrate my point: They have a very tight dramaturgy and, in my opinion, are highly successful in creating tension. On the flipside, they have to reduce interactivity to a minimum in order to do so.
In films, series and novels, the writers often put a lot of work into creatinginteresting, believable, and ambiguous characters. Public discussions around successful shows like Game of Thrones (up to a certain point) and Breaking Bad have demonstrated that audiences value these efforts. In games, we again face special challenges when it comes to character building.
As mentioned above, the player is often in control of the protagonist. However, at the beginning of a game, you don’t know anything about your avatar, meaning that there is a big discrepancy in knowledge between you and the character you are supposed to identify with. Nevertheless, you often have some influence over the protagonist’s behavior and, in many games, may even have to make decisions for them. This can make you very aware of the divide between you and the protagonist and thus hinder identification and immersion.
If you’re making a game that allows players to influence the course of the story, it can be very hard to create consistent, believable protagonists. Let’s say the player can decide how the protagonist behaves in certain situations. If the options between which the player can choose are very different from each other (e.g. they can either knock out a suspect or take a friendly approach), the choice is interesting and meaningful, but unless your protagonist suffers from multiple personality disorder, it’s hard to justify why both options represent plausible behavior.
On the other hand, if the choices are basically one and the same (e.g. take a friendly approach or a very friendly approach), they are more consistent with your character’s personality, but they aren’t interesting for the player and won’t give them the impression that they really have an impact on the story.
One more difficulty consists in finding appropriate ways to display your character’s personality. In novels, inner monologues and insights into the protagonist’s head allow the readers to learn how they think and feel. In visual media like films, authors mostly stick with the paradigm of “show, don’t tell”, meaning that they don’t tell us what the characters are like, but let them show their personality through their behavior.
Games also belong to visual media, but depending on the art style, the range of what you can show is extremely limited. In films and series, the of the actors’ performances may draw a very nuanced picture of the characters. They are able to make use of body language, intonation, facial expressions, and gestures. In a game, you might not have the budget to use voice acting, and if you go with a low-res or abstract art style, integrating detailed facial expressions isn’t an option either.
To sum it up, creating complex, nuanced, and consistent characters can be difficult due to the player’s influence and the limited means of expression.
The third challenge concerns the potential interferences between gameplay and narrative. When you’re writing a story, you usually want to your audience to be completely immersed into the plot and, to a certain degree, forget about themselves and the real world they’re in. However, in an interactive medium, this absorption into fictional story worlds can be hard to achieve.
This might sound counter-intuitive, but as soon as you have to actively do something and start to act, you necessarily become aware of yourself again. Of course it’s possible to completely immerse the player into the story world during interactive passages, but it is harder to achieve than in non-interactvie media. Please note that I’m only talking about immersion into the story. Immersion into the gameplay can of course be increased by interaction, but it often takes the focus away from the story.
There’s a number of difficulties related to gameplay and interactivity. I will go into them in more detail in my upcoming posts, but I will highlight some that seem particularly important to me.
First, in many games, it is possible for the player to fail: They can die in a fight, fall off a cliff or, as is the case in some older story-driven games, pick the wrong choice and thus cause the game to end. If you fail, you can usually retry from a nearby save point. However, the ability to try again makes failure narratively meaningless. You just do the part over and over again until you succeed; there aren’t any consequences whatsoever for the course of the story.
As a consequence, when you have to pick your next choice for example, you’ll just try any one you haven’t tried before to see what brings you success, and it won’t be a tough decision for you. In addition, every time you see the “Game Over” screen, you’re reminded of the fact that you’re playing a game. In short, failure that temporarily ends the game often breaks immersion.
Second, being stuck at a certain point can also have an extremely negative impact on your immersion. You might get annoyed because you can’t solve the puzzle. You might start doing random stuff hoping to find another clue. You might even tab out of the game and Google the solution. Whatever you do, you certainly don’t feel like you’re the protagonist facing a life-threatening situation anymore.
Third, it can sometimes be hard to find a good balance between complexity and accessibility. Complex stories are often more interesting, realistic and subtle than those that follow a simpler formula. However, depending on your mechanics and your game design, it might be vital that the player have an idea of what is happening. In a detective game, they might even have to be able to reconstruct the course of events or to uncover hidden connections.
This, in turn, can be difficult to achieve if you have a multi-layered story. If, for example, the player controls a detective and has to find out what happened at a crime scene, you have to make sure that there is only one plausible version of events. In reality, things usually are rarely that clear-cut, and the story is usually more authentic and credible if you try to mimic the complexity of real life to a certain degree.
All in all, those are some of the most important challenges we have faced and still face working on our story-driven game. As promised, I will talk about some of the solutions we came up with in my upcoming posts. If you encountered different problems while working on your game’s story, tell me about them. And if you found my article useful, feel free to share!