Game Writing 101

Growing up with a love for both books and video games, I was always disappointed at the quality of the stories found in my games.  Games had the gameplay, while books had the plot – the two never really mixed. Sure, there are a handful of games with top-notch plots behind them, and it could be argued that for some games the story is irrelevant (and in some cases, rightly so.) But I always wanted that little bit more from my games, and it was disappointingly rare to find a gem that delivered. Even rarer to find a game that shines in both aspects, story and gameplay.

But it wasn’t until I tried to write my own game plot that I realized just how hard it is.

Let me explain – I am one half of an indie game-development team called ‘Nightfall Studios,’ and for the past few years we have been working on our first game ‘Shadow of a Second Sun’ – I had been involved in it from the beginning, but my biggest contribution was writing the plot and several ‘faction plots’/subplots/sidequests.

When I set out to work on the plot, I really wanted to come up with a good game plot that could drive a long campaign forward and bring out the best a game can offer. The standard for game stories has been set depressingly low, and because I come from a novel-writing background and consider plotting to be the strongest aspect of my writing I decided to treat it like a novel. I would write a plot that evolves, captures and holds interest and makes the player  feel for the characters involved in the story – just like any good novel.  However, there were a few major differences between novel and game writing I quickly learned to keep in mind…

First of all, there is the question of what can be portrayed in the context of a game.  In a novel the writer can portray almost anything with the clever use of words, and they can  jump from place to place, character to character to show a reader different events happening at different times, far away from each other. The entire purpose of a novel is to tell a story, and it is perfectly suited to doing that. A game, however, is a little more restricted.

I wanted to have the story develop and evolve around the player as they play the game, as opposed to having segments of story and play with relatively little to do with each other.  I was able to achieve this in two ways – First, I made sure everything I wrote could be portrayed in the game. This means I stuck to a single characters point of view and didn’t write anything that required programming or extra game features to implement. Working within the context of the game mechanics  is very important, and being mindful of that allowed me to write a plot that can be written into the game without changing and reworking core game mechanics and systems. In fact, I was able to actively use the mechanics of the game in the plot.

Second, I use a lot of characters to inform the player of what is going on in the world around them. This is the first major deviance from my ‘write it like a novel’ philosophy, as in a novel it would be a blatant break of the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule.  However, it is justified in the context of a game where it is impossible to show the same amount of detail possible in a novel.

The second concern was the question of interactivity. Unlike a novel, where the story is the sole attraction, a game is based on interactivity with the player – indeed, that is what makes it a game. While writing the plot, I had to keep this in mind – the primal purpose of a plot is to give context and purpose to what the player is doing.

Here, I used the concept of ‘modular plotting’ – the idea was to give the player a goal to work towards, and let them follow it themselves.  In addition to this, I tried to make the plot events themselves as playable as possible, so that the player was actively working towards their goal in the game, instead of simply running between cut scenes.  This created two kinds of gameplay – ‘plot’ gameplay, where the player is playing directly for the advancement of the plot – be it delving deep into a dungeon to recover something, escaping capture, to raiding an enemy fortress – and ‘world gameplay’ where the player is exploring the world, making their way from one point to another.

The story was written to have all the aspects of a good novel, so that if I wanted to I could write a book from it – but gameplay-story integration was also a high priority. The balance between these two demands was hard to get right at first, but I’m confident we have stuck it (or are very close). It’s a compelling plot with all the Themes, characters, emotion and connection as a novel, but happens within the context of a playable and evolving world where the player makes their own decisions and, most importantly, plays the game.

So, there is a little about how the plot for Shadow of a Second Sun was written.  Next time, I’ll talk more about the plot itself, and difficulties with character.

I thought I’d end this post with a short list of some of my favorite story driven games. So, in no particular order, here goes:

Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones – I love all FE games, but Sacred stones if my favorite.

Legend of Zelda:  Majora’s Mask -The Zelda games are very Similar, But Majoras mask is a stand out story-wise. Ocarina of time is my favorite, overall.

Bastion  – Bastion has a good story, but the really impressive part is the way it is told and explored through the game.

Metro 2033 – Metro 2033 is perhaps one of my Favorite games. It has a Brilliant story, brilliantly told –with most of the plot unfolding naturally around the player – it is Linear, but it doesn’t feel like you are being pushed though a set plot. The Narration between chapters is just the icing on the top.

Arcanum of Steamworks Obscura  – a Great RPG. Maybe I’m a little Bias because I love anything Steampunk. It’s a Good example of a story the player has a huge effect on, where player choices have significant and permanent effect on the plot and world.

World In Conflict – Proves RTS games can have good stories.

Half-Life 2 – Another prime example of the story evolving right in front of the players eyes.  Like Metro 2033, everything seems to naturally fall into place.  (A bit of a ‘gaming confession’ – I haven’t played Half life 1. I know – terrible, right?)

What story based games to you know? Leave any game suggestions or comments below! 

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7 comments on “Game Writing 101

  1. jmmcdowell says:

    Haven’t done any gaming in some years, but I always thought they lacked a good plot and believable characters. Your work sounds really interesting, and maybe you’ll set a higher bar that other game writers will need to reach.

    • Ben says:

      Hopefully! Out general philosophy was to make all the parts fun on their own, so that when combined we have a memorable and enjoyable experience. The story was no exception – Who knows where that will lead us!

  2. Aibird says:

    I agree with you that a lot of them seem to have mediocre plots. I think that’s why the only games I ever finish tend to be ones that have plots and characters that engage me.

    Have you checked out Mass Effect? I found the story in that one to be really good, but it is very linear. Almost too linear for my liking to be honest. However, there is some decisions you make in the first one that directly influence aspects of the second game’s plot. I haven’t played Mass Effect 2 however, so I’m not sure if the plot in that one improves on the story arc itself.

    I second the Fire Emblem games, they always have some of the best plots in the fantasy gaming circles.

    Golden Sun was one of the first games I finished because of how the characters were so interesting – their personalities were really unique and well crafted. The plot was also fascinating and there was a few unexpected twists. It was one of the first games I encountered that had a pretty good plot and characterization.

    Not long after I played Legend of Zelda’s Link’s Awakening, which had the most amusing plot I’ve ever encountered.

    Another fun plot driven game is Divinity II: the Dragonknight Saga. There is an amazing twist in the end, which had me astounded and delighted. They did a good job of giving subtle hints, but not enough for you to truly guess the extent of the twist. That’s something I see more often in novels, so it was fun to see it in a video game.

    Suikoden Tierkreis has an amazing plot that involves other dimensions and the interplay between them. It’s absolutely fascinating; the characters are also well crafted. I’m enjoying it thus far, though I’m not really finished with it yet.

    So there’s a few out there, just harder to find. It’s sad that the vast majority have little to no plot substance. I’ve started many a game, only to put it down and never return to it because it just wasn’t engaging enough.

    • Ben says:

      Thanks for the suggestions, I’ll look into them. At the moment i’m playing ‘Skies of Arcadia’ on a Dreamcast emulator – The only reason i don’t include it is because i recently started and don’t really know what it will be like yet.

  3. Aibird says:

    By the way, from what I remember, you were doing alpha testing? How far are you from the release now?

    • Ben says:

      A hard question to answer. We have all the mechanics and game play stuff built in, and if we wanted to release a short game with an excuse plot we could probably do it next month. Right now, we are working in building the game world and plot, and I’m not sure how long that will take. We are aiming for a release later this year, but no promises yet!

  4. bfiggins says:

    Writing with the system in mind is critical for good game writing. I believe that any writer needs to have some familiarity with the game’s development and the technical setup behind it – just enough so they can understand what they can or can’t put into the story.

    I worked on SuperSecret.com for a while, a Flash-based MMO targeting tweens, and we had a very simple system for quest logic. With very few exceptions, the only thing we could detect was whether a player did or did not have a particular item. But armed with that knowledge, I designed quests and wrote storylines that had players getting items from interesting places, getting them in interesting ways, using the gaining and losing of items to track progress, and even doing some simple puzzle-solving and maze gameplay.

    If I had just written a story for SuperSecret and presented it to a development team, it couldn’t have been implemented. Working closely with the development team gave me the knowledge I needed. (This is a good reason for large game studios to have on-staff writers, instead of relying solely on freelancers.)

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