There was once a time when writing a story for a game wasn’t even a concern. I mean, when all you had to work with was 64K of memory (!) it wasn’t exactly easy to tell a robust story filled with hidden meanings and moral messages. But nowadays stories are an important part of our games. For some, it’s the whole reason you buy the game.
And there’s nothing wrong with that! In fact, I think it’s a wonderful thing. But we are left with two important questions: how will we write the story; what will we communicate through it?
Communicating Your Story
For one thing, game style affects the story. Yes, it does. Don’t question it, because if you do you’re going to end up trying to turn a puzzle game into a first-person shooter. Or, even worse, you’ll end up with an atrocity like Mario Is Missing.
Trust me, it isn’t the action packed game the box depicts. No castles. No battles. Just crushed childhood dreams!
So the first question you want to ask yourself is, “What type of story does this game lend itself to?” Puzzle games can tell amazing, intricate stories! But they’re not going to be stories of the epic-battles-in-space-with-splosions-and-stuff variety. Existential, historical, or emotional stories, on the other hand, could go very well with a puzzle game.
Once you’ve determined what style of story you’re going with, begin studying examples of stories in that genre. If you want to make an action game with an amazing, adrenaline pumping story, then you probably are going to want to watch Man of Steel. And The Avengers. And read The Lord of the Rings. And. . . well, you get the idea. What do they do? What type of characters are present? How does it flow? What makes you want to watch it? What do you like? Dislike? Form opinions on other works, take their strengths, avoid their weaknesses, and then begin crafting your mighty epic.
Once you’ve started this creative process, write the story. Read it. Rewrite it. Read it again. Rewrite it again. Repeat about one-hundred times. Good stories take time! Keep working at your story. Work on character names until you are happy with them. Make sure everything in the story is logical. If you are not engaged when you read your own writing, try again! Make something so good that even you enjoy it. Think about it when you’re going to sleep. When you’re walking. When you’re driving. When you’re sitting. . . even in the bathroom. Seriously. Think about it and develop it all the time!
See? Edison didn’t give up – even if it suuure looks like he wanted to!
Before moving on let me add a few practical pointers. Practice good spelling/grammar. No one wants to read child speak. Be creative, be descriptive. “This game is about a man trying to come to grips with his life” doesn’t sound nearly as enticing as: “Existence is a story – the story of a small rat named Abuelo struggling to understand the stark, existential world which now fills his vision.” If you notice, both are about the same thing, the second is just more creative. Bounce your ideas off of others. If everyone says your story sucks, I hate to say it but most likely. . . it sucks. Get outside input, and – as always – listen to it!
Communicating Your Message
In my opinion, the best games and stories also communicate a message. Some games I have played – like To The Moon – communicate those messages in powerful, gripping ways which make the game especially memorable.
Communicate your message using themes, characters, and emotions that everyone can understand. Some games have great messages, but they are so freakishly high, mighty, unknowable and downright douchey that no one can understand what the author is trying to say. Keep it real! When your game is “a mysterious look into the untold depths of the human soul as seen through the eyes of a metaphorical worm climbing through the spire of the ethereal doorway reaching to the lowest heaven of the highest anguish of the eternal soul” . . . well, do you see why no one likes it anymore? People think that communicating depth requires using unknowable metaphors and mysterious imagery. Not so. Sometimes the best stories are told using the simplest things.
Story-telling done right. Simple, effective, emotional.
Finally, a good story is always a reflection of the worldview and beliefs of its creator. And, that is a good thing. I don’t know what you believe. But for crying out loud, if you believe something, believe it! Let that belief permeate what you are creating. I enjoy nothing more than seeing what others think by playing and enjoying their games. Whether you are a capitalist, socialist, Buddhist, hedonist, or downright I-don’t-knowist, communicate the world as you see it and allow us to catch a glimpse of your “lens” for understanding the world. It will make your game better, and hopefully the development process will cause you to challenge your beliefs and grow your understanding of life. I am a Christian. I read the Bible on a daily basis (I know, that’s hardly normal gamer talk). I can honestly say that my worldview affects everything I do, and as I develop games I am challenged to continue examining what I believe and learn how to communicate it in better, more beautiful, more understandable ways.
Telling stories through games should be awesome! Everything I just wrote is, obviously, my opinion. But isn’t that what story-making is all about in the first place? Sharing thoughts, opinions, emotions, and beliefs in powerful and gripping ways which everyone can enjoy? So go out there and write your story, make your game, and share your dreams with the world!