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Four essential elements to writing a good video game

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When it comes to writing a game, a good story is the difference between playable and great. Think the breathtaking narratives of The Last of Us, Witness or Bioshock Infinite: these are the kinds of games that extend and challenge the form, and persist in players' minds long after the credits roll.

The challenge for storytellers working in games is that your audience is not passive, and the story has to interact with the mechanics of the gameplay. Narrative is often the context for the rules: the setting and the set-up. It helps the mechanics feel meaningful to the player. This is the role of the narrative designer.

Here are four narrative elements that can be powerful in game design, which could help you design your own games.

Metaphor

After seeing Disney’s Up!, I still have an image of Carl carrying that house lifted by balloons on his back. When Carl comes to terms with his wife’s death, he can release the home they built together. Metaphor can be a simple as this or as complex as an entire dystopian world. Narrative and game design work best when what the player does, the mechanics, works as a metaphor and reinforces the themes of the narrative.

The game Papers Please is set in an Orwellian dystopian war-time society and the player is an immigration inspector. The gameplay requires them to assess documents of immigrants to determine if they are to be accepted into the country, Artotzka. The player’s pay is docked if they let the ‘wrong’ people through but they need the money to look after their family. The rules about who can be admitted change from round to round, people may not be from a certain state or they must have a permit. The game forces players to make morally complex decisions when these people come through with stories. One man’s paperwork is in order, he tells the player his wife is behind him, but her paperwork is incomplete. Do we let her through?

This is a great example of where the gameplay is a metaphor carrying through the themes of the narrative: the difference between what is legal and what is right. 

Papers, Please by Lucas Pope

Plot

In his book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker uses a Jungian framework to delineate recurrent plot structures in the Western literature tradition. One of these, which he calls the quest, is particularly popular with game designers because it interacts naturally with game mechanics. It favours an ultimate goal for a character that fills them with a driving purpose: to save someone, to acquire something, to destroy the big bad, and this pairs well with game design’s need to communicate progression to the player. It also matches the character’s journey to the player’s journey: they are just starting, learning the right moves and actions in order to win. But it is usually about one hero or a team of heroes on one clear journey.

When designing the narrative for The Gardens Between, we found the quest plot didn’t suit the game. We don’t have a main character driving towards an end goal. In The Gardens Between, the player moves time to solve puzzles, they observe the environment without time pressures, they can’t die and there are no scores. The narrative is gentle and unfolding, more of it is revealed as the player progresses. It is not based on a driving quest or journey, but the uncovering of a friendship between a boy and a girl.

Knowing other plot lines helped us locate one that fitted this unfolding feeling we wanted. We instead decided to use what Booker terms the voyage and return, where protagonists are not heroes with a clear goal. They’re wanderers. They fall from the real world into a surreal world, like Alice falling into Wonderland. In the strange world, they learn something or it allows them to express themselves and grow.

The Gardens Between by The Voxel Agents

Point of view

Considering which character’s point of view the player is asked to identify with can make for really interesting gameplay. For example, in L.A Noire, the player is the main character, Cole Phelps, a detective, and the game and one of the core mechanics is interviewing suspects. Players get to do this from Cole’s first person limited point of view by looking at his case notes.

Interview gameplay in L.A Noire by Team Bondai

When the narrative focuses closely on the main character’s point of view, we can bring players close by weaving the character’s mental state into the gameplay, creating potentially unreliable narrators. In Life is Strange, a high school student, Max Caulfield, discovers she has the ability to rewind time. As players, we experience Max's fear first-hand in a nightmare sequence when we have to creep past all the key people in her life who are suddenly adversarial.

Max’s nightmare sequence in Life is Strange by Dontnod

In Her Story, players are in charge of reviewing interview footage to get to the bottom of a murder case, however, they’re not asked to identify with a detective character. They are the detective and have an omniscient view over the narrative. The game positions the player this way by giving them a computer desktop which has the look and feel of an old computer in a police station. The player uses a search engine to navigate interview footage with a suspect, Hannah Smith, to determine if she is guilty of murder.

Her Story by Sam Barlow

Setting

The worlds writers create for games can heavily influence the level design and art direction. Narrative designers can script narration that plays over gameplay or write about key objects that may be found in a character’s bedroom (and therefore, have to be modeled and designed by artists). Narrative designers, like set designers, often have a say in what objects to show and draw player’s attention to.

In Gone Home, you play as Katie Greenbriar, a young woman who has returned from overseas and finds her family home empty. She must now search the house to understand what’s happened in her absence. The truth of the story is revealed by exploring the environment, including investigating notes left for Katie and family photos on the wall, making it a great example of how narrative can be embedded into the landscape of a game.

Gone Home by Fullbright

The best part about writing stories for games is this ‘designer’ mindset. I still have more to learn, and every game is different, but the fun is in finding novel ways to include narrative techniques into an interactive experience.

Brooke Maggs is an award-winning freelance narrative designer on The Gardens Between, which is currently on exhibition in Code Breakers: Women in Games and Paperbark, a beautiful game about a wombat and the Australian bush. Find out more about her by visiting www.brookemaggs.com

Image credit: The Gardens Between (2017) courtesy of The Voxel Agents