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The Selfish Story model

by Egil"Vumsy" Johansen on 03/30/20 10:38:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

The Selfish Story model

A Suggestion for Writing Narrative in Games from an evolutionary, psychological and design perspective

Abstract

After having worked with script writers in creating a narrative for games, I experienced the commonly reported cursed problem[1] of the dissonance between traditional storytelling and the interactive media of games. As such, I have attempted to identify the cause of the dissonance, possible solutions and a model to help writers and designers when developing a narrative.

This model is not an attempt to restrict game narrative as a creative art form or diminish the value of passive media such as movies, books and other non-interactive story telling devices. This is simply a suggestion on how to efficiently use the power of interactivity and the psychology behind its storytelling with as little ludonarrative dissonance[2] as possible within videogames specifically.

The model is as follows:

The Selfish Story – The egoistic experience you wish your audience to create stories from.

The Pitch – The justification to play, the spark of interest and contextualization.

The Loops – What the player finds themselves doing over and over and the narrative reasoning for this.

The Hooks – One or multiple events in the game that the audience will remember and talk about.

The Sidetracks – The optional content, rewards for exploration or skill, other side events outside the main narrative.

The Resolution – The justification to stop playing, the enticement to keep playing and the cursed problem.

The Selfish Story is meant to create a helpful understanding and mindset when writing and developing the games narrative. The other parts might be considered the gaming equivalent of story acts in passive stories[3]. The reason they are not referred to as acts is because aside from The Pitch and The Resolution, the chronological order and number of occurrences may vary from game to game. They are instead ordered after their common appearance during production and level of priority.

In this article, I will give a basic understanding of the evolutionary history of humans regarding storytelling, the psychological mechanics which processes storytelling, and the basic structure of stories. I will then explain each point in the model and attempt to highlight differences between games, movies and books. While most games are developed in a team of varying size, I assume that the reader is a either a solo developer or a script writer/author and address the reader as “you”. When it is a problem, while irrelevant to solo developers, that require communication with team members outside of narrative development, I will properly address that. This article is also not considering interactive experiences that are not technically games, abstract games[4] or other games without a narrative, as well as experimental movies and books which breaks conventions by introducing varying levels of interaction.

 

The Sympathetic Story

The main difference between games and traditional passive medias like movies and books is obviously interactivity. Your audience is not passively observing the story, they are experiencing it through simulation. However, it seems that while the problems posed by this are commonly reported and observed, there is little awareness on the fundamental causes for this. And fundamental causes should be prefaced by fundamental questions.

First, what separates humans from animals? We are vastly more intelligent and have jack of all trades bodies that allow us to survive a number of hostile environments.

Second, what defines our intelligence and what good is a body such as ours? We are able to abstract information and run simulations within our minds, instead of waiting for evolution to kill us, we run simulations to kill off our bad ideas instead. And since we have complex bodies paired with a complex brain, the two can learn from each other interchangeably, you store what your body has done and what your body experience as information, and you can imagine relatively accurately what your body can do, can’t do, what you wish to be able to do, what is beneficial and what is harmful to your body.

Third, how does this relate to storytelling? We can communicate in detail between each other, which has even greater evolutionary benefits for us. Some things aren’t obviously dangerous or useful, so we can hear or witness the experience of others and through sympathy, empathy and abstraction we can incorporate that knowledges into our mind and bodies. That way, we don’t just kill off simulations imaginable, we can use the death of others who died in circumstances we can’t even imagine. And as a hyper social species, we therefore tend to record such information as stories in order to retell them when needed and structure information as such so that we can better understand and incorporate it as well.

This makes us historic creatures. The reason a good story grips us is because our brain finds it useful. It orients us towards our highest ideals and away from our worst nightmares, but not only that, it allows us to confront the unknown as well and gain a new and profound understanding of it in a safe environment. This is what motivates the telling and consumption of stories from an evolutionary point of view.

Now, with the absolute evolutionary fundamentals out of the way, we can go further in depth on this issue. Understanding the evolutionary benefit of stories, our brains have then evolved accordingly, which means that there are two distinct means of developing stories. Either we are told a story, and through abstract information processing we are able to interpret, process and incorporate the stories we are told as information. Or we experience an event through the physical world, our inner dreams, fantasies, simulations and imagination, and then structure the information as a story.

This is the most important aspect to consider when creating stories in passive or interactive media. The story itself emerges from both approaches, but they rely on fundamentally different psychological mechanism in order to do so. Namely sympathy and empathy on one hand, and epic syntax[5] from personal experience on the other. However, as previously mentioned, stories must emerge from events and the response to them, but it isn’t logically obvious what can be properly classified as events. One can say that everything can be considered an event since technically something always happens, yet we all experience the boredom of uneventfulness at some point in our lives. This is one main aspect of what our emotional system is for, we react to what is relevant for ourselves with emotion. If an event is considered good for us, our brain rewards us with dopamine[6]. If an event is considered stressful or dangerous, our brain activates our fight or flight instincts with cortisol[7].

Regarding how this relates to storytelling, is the fact that most stories are intended to induce some kind of emotional response. Happiness, sadness, catharsis[8], fear, excitement, etc. Still, these are mostly subconscious responses, and stories can also appeal to the more logical parts of our brain. So, by using clever writing, a storyteller can induce a specific mindset as well, critical thinking about the current state of the world, soul searching, wonder over scientific or magical possibilities, etc. Which raises the question, when writing for passive media, how is this achieved? By using the aforementioned sympathy and empathy through mimesis[9]. You write one or more protagonists[10] as the ethos[11] and your audience project themselves upon and empathize with the protagonist through eleos[12]. Then you put those characters through trials and tribulations your audience can sympathize with through fobos[13]. Then, depending on the emotions or mindsets you wish to induce, after they face the problems they’re experiencing, you make their efforts lean more towards positive or negative results by either lexis[14] or dionia[15]. As such, you set the contents of your story in a certain chronological order to make it somewhat approachable and understandable through mythos[16]. The purpose of said approach is usually to educate your audience with paideia eleos [17]about a particular subject, philosophy or some emotional response they can discover within themselves. This is the boiled down version of Aristoteles view on drama.

 

The Paused Game, The Ignored Narrative

We now know the basic evolutionary history of humans regarding storytelling, we know the basic psychological mechanics which responds to storytelling and we know the basic structure and purpose of traditional storytelling. All of this is vastly different in videogames. Simply because games have a definition one must adhere by, for something to be a game it must be interactive, relatively challenging, have a form of fail-state and at least one winning condition. If these criteria are not met, it is no longer a game per definition, it is simply some form of interactive experience. All games are interactive experiences, but not all interactive experiences are games. A book where you make interactive choices, but has no challenge is not a game. A movie where you make interactive choices, has a fail-state, but has no challenge is not a game. A simulated interactive experience where you can make choices, display skill, but has no win condition or fail-state is not a game. With that out of the way, we can use this definition to highlight the differences in narrative in games compared to passive medias.

While some may find this controversial, it is my belief that games cannot tell a narrative story, and whenever a game starts to tell a narrative story, it is no longer a game in that moment. They exclusively present the player with experiences which only becomes a narrative story after the experience has passed and it becomes history. This is the heart of the selfish story model and understanding this will hopefully be useful.

We know the evolutionary value of traditional stories, and games have equal value, but for different reasons. A game is very much like a dream, it is a simulation of an experience within a safe environment where you are controlling a physical extension of yourself within that simulation. The reason games are immersive and engaging is because they simulate rules and situations beyond our own imagination and the satisfaction of problem-solving mastery within those rules and situations.

Consider the following, when you read a horror novel and play a horror game, the result is the same; fear. In the novel, the character is going through some dangerous and horrible experience, so your brain projects you onto that character. As such the fear is induced implicitly through anxiety, dread, phobia, disgust, and other abstract emotions your mind conjures up to put your body in a state of fear. In the game, the fear is induced more directly. Because the avatar[18] within the simulation is not someone else to sympathize with, it is you. You are the one in a scary situation, you are the one who might die at any moment, you are the one who must act and make decisions to survive. As such, you might say that your body is experiencing the sensations of adrenalin, fight or flight instincts and intense levels of stress in that moment, which puts your mind in a state of fear. The result is the same, but the cause is fundamentally different.

When it comes to traditional storytelling and games, the end result is usually a story someone can retell. They have once again equal value, with equal results, but the psychological mechanics used are once again vastly different.

For example, when you watch an action movie and play an action game, the feeling is the same, excitement. In the movie, the character is in a stressful situation, he must push himself to his limits to physically overcome the situation. As such, the excitement is induced once again through sympathy. You pay close attention to what happens and try to react to threats and witness the character do the same, you’re at the edge of your seat and want to see if he makes it or not, even though you are pretty sure the character will somehow make it in the end. Witnessing such feats puts your mind in a state of awe and excitement and it induces said feelings onto your body. In games, it is no longer someone you root for, it is you. You are facing a fast-paced trial, you must react to the threats all around you and execute properly through your own skills. The stakes are higher however, because it isn’t obvious that you’ll make it. Your body is once again experiencing adrenalin and stress first and asking your brain to enter a flow state[19] to beat the game. The feeling of excitement is once again the same but are accomplished through different means. The story told afterwards are also quite similar. On one hand you might ask you friend if he/she watched that action movie and describe the scene that excited you. On the other, you ask your friend if he/she has played that action game, but then the story is conveyed like you are reliving that moment and talk about personal experience.

One might point out various games which are known for their strong narrative and praised story. For the purpose of accessibility, I’ll avoid using specific games as examples, but rather discuss the most common tools used for telling their narrative.

Many games present their stories with cutscenes. Cutscenes are usually short movie clips which appear within videogames and are usually used to direct your focus towards points of interest, display events outside your field of view or narrative disposition. Something to note, is that the cutscene is not a part of the gameplay[20]. It pauses the game, to display a movie which tells a story, then the story is paused so gameplay can resume. When you are controlling a character within a video game, that character is a physical extension of yourself, and everything that happens to your avatar happens to you. What happens to your character is your own, egoistic, moment to moment experience. When you lose control over your character to watch him/her in a cutscene, it is no longer the same character, because it is no longer you. The character speaks, acts, behaves, succeeds and fails beyond your control, and you now feel sympathy and empathy for that character instead.

This does not mean that games with cutscenes are not games, they are simply not games in that moment. Look at it this way, you are watching a fantasy movie which is 2 hours and 30 minutes long. It has various creatures, and orcs are one of them. Now, every time an orc appears in the movie, you have to beat a level of “Orc Sudoku” to see the rest of the movie. But you can press the skip button and see the rest of the movie right away if you want. A silly example, but highlights my point, it is a movie, but the moment you are interrupted to play “Orc Sudoku” it is no longer a movie.

Another tool used to present stories is through visual storytelling, or in the case of games it is usually called environmental storytelling. It is when a certain scenery implies that some event has taken place. It is a powerful tool, because unlike cutscenes it does not forcibly pause the gameplay for the sake of presenting a narrative. However, it still not a traditional story and is more comparable with something like a painting, picture or visual poetry. It has no beginning, middle or end, it does not require sympathy or empathy, and you are not told the situation, only the result. It might be a story since it is history, but it is no narrative. And even if the player is smart and attentive enough to piece together the exact narrative you had in mind; it is still separate from the game itself. Even if you can interact with the scenery, it has no challenge, fail-state or win condition, it is simply there to be observed. As far as the game itself is concerned, there’s no need for the scene to be there and can be replaced with anything else. And if the game itself is not concerned; it is something that a player can choose to completely ignore.

The last tool is three part, namely text, audio clips and dialogue/monologues with NPC’s[21], specifically words. Usually, texts are reserved to be displayed outside of the gameplay itself. Either you interact with something in the world, which then pauses the game so you can read it at your own pace, or you must pause the game yourself and navigate through some kind of menu to find the text entry. Some text appears real-time, but they are usually reserved for instructions, are subtitles to something said, environmental storytelling or appear more as short and fleeting poetry since your attention is usually required elsewhere. Audio clips are usually something talking over the gameplay, where it is either a prerecorded monologue or a voice that reacts to the actions you perform in-game. In the case of monologues, they tend to convey background information, another character’s experiences and other lore. This is a decent tool to increase the amount of narrative told without decreasing the amount of gameplay, the main issues with this approach is that players might find the game too challenging to properly pay attention and play at the same time. In which case they might ignore the audio clip and play the game or stand still in their tracks to listen. Important to note is that listening to something while playing, does not make the gameplay itself tell a narrative story. When it comes to dialogues and monologues with NPC’s, it is a great tool to create immersion and make your world alive and interesting. It has a problem of balance however, because either the NPC’s does not interrupt gameplay and simply talk at you, or they pause the gameplay to make their statement and wait for the player response before they continue. Where the former makes them fall more into the environmental storytelling category and the latter makes them fall more into the cutscene category.

With these tools in mind, one might argue that it is possible to tell a story without interrupting the game itself, which is true to some degree, but remains false in other aspects. Remember that text itself is not interactive until you must make a decision. Remember that audio itself is not interactive, if the audio tells a story while you are playing it might be relevant to the game, but the purpose is still more similar to that of a music soundtrack. Also, if the audio is a voice which comments on the actions you perform while playing, the fact doesn’t change that you are experiencing the game first and the experience becomes history after the fact. Lastly, remember that NPC’s might tell their own stories and might ask you to react to it as a player. They are still separate stories from the gameplay you are experiencing. The player and the player avatar are in the process of experiencing something that will become their own story. And it is ultimately up to the player if the NPC’s stories will be a part of it or not.

One of the greatest sources of frustrations of writers, is when the audience wish to see a movie, read a book or watch a theatre play, they are obviously only in it for the story. However, this is untrue for games, games cannot tell a narrative story, so the audience is in it primarily for the game, the story is secondary at best. Which means it can be completely ignored by players and if it can’t, some might say that the story ruins the game. This also causes a host of issues during development as well, a writer might have a deep, engaging and brilliant story moment, which might simply not work within a game. The assets are too expensive to produce, it limits player control for too long, or it changes the controls and perspective, which for accessibility purposes is the same writing an English book, but over the course of ten pages it changes to French before going back to English.

Now that we have the most common narrative tools explained, I want to point out that they are not inherently bad, but I wish to stress that they must be used with extreme mindfulness. When you take control away from the player, you stop the game itself, which is the main reason they are playing your product. And when you don’t take control away from the player you run the risk of your story not being found or completely ignored. Unless new techniques are discovered or technologies developed, these are the only ways to tell narrative stories within games. The main purpose is to provide context, history or a scene beyond the game’s capabilities, if it provides none of those, it is something unnecessary and something the game can say for itself.

 

The Selfish Story

Games cannot tell a narrative story, and whenever a game starts to tell a narrative story, it is no longer a game in that moment. They exclusively present the player with experiences which only becomes a narrative story after the experience has passed and it becomes history. This statement might dissuade writers from stepping into the field of writing narrative in games, what point is there to write for something which can’t inherently tell a story? I’d argue that this is what makes writing for games challenging, interesting and fun. While you can’t tell your own story directly to a passive audience, you can still direct the kind of experience and story your audience will end up with after a play session. The tools are different, the approach is different, but the result is the same. A compelling and emotional story to be remembered and retold.

This is where the role of writer and designer merge to some degree, because what you are both trying to accomplish is to present the player with a personal and meaningful experience, powerful enough to conjure up emotional responses and make that moment as memorable as possible. You’re hoping that the player will encounter moments, where gameplay, context, time, place, skill, choice, audio, visuals and everything else culminates into one moment of a deeply engaging, immersive and emotional experience. To achieve this, I will present you with tools and mindsets that has a high likelihood of achieving this result for most players without going too much into game design.

Remember that the events in games are inherently open and unchronological. Interactivity, challenges and fail-states cause games when played to not progress through events as predictably as other passive medias. You can and should reward winning with story progression but remember that you are not limited to that. A player who makes choices can shape the story, a player who fails can change the story and the challenges to overcome can be the story itself.

For example:

The designer sets up a system where you can interact with NPC’s through dialogue and make choices. Within the dialogue system you can attempt challenges which allows you to bargain, intimidate and convince the NPC to yield you more favorable results. The game supports NPC companions to follow and aid the player. There is also a form of combat within this game.

With the proper groundwork from a writer, this is one of many experiences the player may retell as stories.

“Me and my companion stopped by a town on our way to our next mission. Then some shady character appeared and asked me to join his gang or something. I declined, because in this game I am trying to be a good person, not a bad one. He started to sound threatening, so I attempted the intimidation challenge, I failed though. Then he said; “Well, you know what to do.” which made no sense at the time. Anyway, I bought what I needed and left the town. I came across a group of enemies, but me and my companion were strong since I had given her tons of effective combat equipment. Then my companion said; “Such a shame, you really should have taken the boss’ offer, because if you’re not with us, you’re bound to end up against us. Now die.” My companion was a part of his gang, and she betrayed me! So now, I had to fight her AND the group of enemies!”

The moment this occurs, it is not a story yet, the player is simply experiencing a chain of events. And after the experience, the player then structures it as a story to be retold through epic syntax. And with sufficient insight into the possibilities and limits to the game system created, you as a writer can use that to puzzle together innumerable chain of events and outcomes based on what the player chooses, what the player fails in doing and present the player with challenges or rewards based on their skills and actions. So, while you can write a deterministic narrative which only appears when the player succeeds at something, it is unique to games to explore the writing of open and unchronological experiences.

While writing complex and branching narratives is indeed a challenge, developing games to support such a feature is also challenging. So, in the case of smaller, linear or just more contained games, you can still create experiences which lead to compelling stories. Remember that the stories which emerge from gameplay is not grounded in sympathy or empathy, they emerge from the egoistic experience the player goes through. If that is the case, while not necessarily establishing a narrative right away, it might be worth considering discussing a theme, like an emotion or state of mind with your designer. By doing so, it will help the designer to support said theme with metaphorical[22] game mechanics[23]. If we compare games to dreaming, as in that you’re experiencing various events within a simulated environment, you can restrict or enable the player with certain rules and functions which can serve as metaphors for your theme.

For example:

The established theme is death and how to overcome the fear of death to make the most out of life.

Death is inescapable, so the player is chained to an object, death is inevitable, so it moves towards a destination relentlessly and drags the player along with it, death is final, so when the object reaches the final destination with the player, the game is over. In order to make it into a game and not simply an interactive experience, the challenge is to make the most out of your limited time in order to find the courage to accept death when it comes and the fail-state is having done too little within that time.

And since the game itself is now a metaphor for your theme, you can use the other tools at your disposal to further explore it. Environmental storytelling, cutscenes, NPC dialogues, etc. This will drastically lessen ludonarrative dissonance, because the tools you decide to use and the game itself are both exploring the same theme. However, if you wish the game to remain purely a game between start and finish, a contained experience such as this is still compatible with the selfish story.

Let’s say you wish to explore the theme of death with the 5 stages of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. With the mechanics established, you can then set up events which attempts to put the player to some degree in these emotional states.

First, inform the player that once you reach the final destination, it’s game over. When the game starts, the mechanics might seem too simple and the winning condition is unclear. Inform the level designer that you want puzzle like points of interests, but they are always just out of reach due to the chain. The player will most likely attempt to “solve a puzzle to cheat death”. This can to some degree trick the player into a form of denial.

Second, add a character or another source of voice to taunt the player for not figuring out the answer. If conveyed efficiently, this will to some degree frustrate the player, but hopefully not enough to make the player quit the game immediately. This can to some degree conjure up an emotion similar to anger.

Third, inform the designer to add an object which the player can actually reach and pick up. The purpose of the object the player picks up is unclear, so the player will most likely bring it to the object he or she is chained to. Hoping that some interaction prompt or anything will let the player “trade with death”. This can to some degree trick the player into a form of bargaining.

Fourth, inform the visual artists to add effects such as lower saturation and higher contrasts, the composers to make a melancholic soundtrack and the designer to zoom out the camera to make the avatar seem small and insignificant. Use everything within your disposal to make the mood as sad as possible. This can to some degree conjure up a sense of depression.

Fifth, now you turn the mood around into something beautiful and peaceful, and where mechanics that were intended to manipulate the players feelings before, are now mechanics to simply play with. Ask your designer to make a fun and beautiful level before the game ends. And with something wholesome, fun and beautiful as a finale, the player might be satisfied with the experience in the end. This can to some degree make a player find acceptance.

As always, this is not telling a story when these events are experienced, but after the experience has passed and the player reflects on the events within the game, it becomes a story. Just like when you are dreaming, you are simply experiencing what your dream has to show you. It isn’t until you wake up that you can decipher the metaphors, symbolism and meaning into a narrative. Where passive media psychologically manipulates the audience into a state of sympathy and empathy, games manipulates their players ego and personal emotions. The art of psychological manipulation is the main commonality between stories and games.

In the end, the goal with this method is to propose a tool and develop the understanding to lessen the dissonance between gameplay and storytelling during preproduction and production, and as a result end up with a final product which has as little dissonance between gameplay and storytelling as possible. As such, it makes sense to go through the development of the game and its story from preproduction and into later production. And the rest of the model is structured with this in mind.

 

The Pitch

An idea may emerge from anywhere, and ideas itself have little value unless it becomes more than just talk. The moment it moves away from being an idea and becomes a project which hopefully turns into a product, then it has value. And value is relative, but if you put work into a project and you finish the product of your efforts, of course you want to be rewarded. At this point it becomes a matter of scope, a two-day passion project finished can be the reward itself, a four-year development period needs more compensation than being good for your creative spirit. Larger games need a lot of things to get going, funding, talent, software licenses and usually publishing services. So, to get the resources you need, it all begins with The Pitch.

Moving away from marketing and entrepreneurship, the pitch still remains for games, because it is far less obvious that your audience should play a game. It is not a matter of paying for something, then passively watch or read. Games are challenging and you can fail repeatedly and get stuck in a game. The risk to pay for something like that is way higher and since most digital games can be refunded even after a few hours of play time, you need to present the player with a pitch to justify their investment in your game and to keep playing. Explaining the rules, mechanics, intended experience and such can for most people become very abstract concepts that are difficult to relate with. A narrative however is far more intuitive for people to understand and become interested in.

The unfortunate truth is also that narrative writers are usually brought in on game development after the initial inception. Which means their creative freedom is usually severely limited in terms of contributions which are acceptable within the game in question. This is where scriptwriters and authors can contribute the most while remaining within their comfort zone. Simply because the game hasn’t truly begun quite yet. The job at hand is to primarily to spark interest outside of simply the gameplay, it can be by presenting the protagonist, the setting, the side characters, the lore or whatever else is narratively or visually interesting. Here are some tools to make contextual narrative more compatible with games.

The protagonist is by far the most limited character in terms of creative freedom, given that it is also the avatar within the game. The protagonist cannot have defined goals in open games, because the player sets their own goals while playing. The protagonist cannot go through massive character development during the game, because it is not obvious that the player will do so as well. The protagonist cannot have knowledge of the world the player does not. The protagonist’s personality traits must match the type of gameplay, aesthetic and the challenges the protagonist faces. And the background story of the protagonist should to some degree match all of this. While you can deviate from this, know that you do so at your own peril, as this is the most common source of ludonarrative dissonance. When the character tries to draw sympathy and empathy, instead of simply being a vessel for the player, it tends to end up in some uncanny experiences for the player. Usually giving one protagonist too much personality only works if both gameplay and story is objectively superb otherwise.

However, some games can have multiple “protagonists”, where the main appeal of the game is to choose among different characters. In which case, by analyzing what kind of gameplay that specific character has within a game, you can be more lenient in defining their personality. This is because since the player has options, they can pick a character they feel as if they identify with or a character they wish to fantasize as themselves being. It might lead to some characters being underplayed however, with the reasoning being “they are annoying to play”. In which case the gameplay and personality are simply lacking, and if only one of those are lacking, the other couldn’t make up for it. As previously mentioned, you can do this for a single protagonist, but be mindful of the fact that the player can’t choose another character.

Establishing the setting within games are relatively similar to passive medias but has a few traits that differs. Consider the following, the main purpose of world building in literature is to set time, place and context. In movies the main purpose of world building is to set time, place, context and aesthetic. In games however, the purpose of the world building is to set time, place, context, aesthetic and theme. This is because the level of interactivity within the world has increased, and as a result the emphasis on believability increases along with it. Time and place can be whatever makes sense for the gameplay, the kind of transport, weapons used and how grounded gameplay is in realism are common determining factors. Context is limited to lore or other background information, and to some extent the narrative reasoning for the mechanical functions. Lore is very important in games, since environmental storytelling is such a powerful tool, but also because a world feels more real if it has history. Unless the game is about the creation of the world, a world rarely appears out of thin air. Aesthetic is far more fluent in games than movies, due to levels having variation and to entice further exploration. Theme in world building is something that is relatively unique to games. In other media, a theme is usually decided by the main protagonist’s character development. However, due to the limited attributes assignable to the main protagonist, the theme is then instead transferred to the world building. If you think about it this way, since the point of games is exploring experiences within a simulation, the world of that simulation becomes the main attraction. And when comparing the relationship with the world and the protagonist within passive media and games, the power dynamic changes. In passive media, the world places trials on the protagonist and the audience will learn by example on how the protagonist attempts to overcome those trials and the character development that took place in doing so. In games, the world places trials on the player and present the player with options to overcome them. Also, based on the actions and choices of the player, the world must transform to accommodate that. In the end, the protagonist is not shaped by the world, as much as the world is shaped by the protagonist.

The world in games comes in two extremes; the open world where the player is free to explore wherever and whenever they want. And the linear world, where the world is usually more gated, and areas are contained within levels. For the open world, bliss and catastrophe can be represented in the entire world mechanically, such as higher or lower enemy count, friendliness or hostility of NPC groups, the creation or annihilation of towns and so forth. It is harder in open worlds to create custom experiences in a certain order, because it isn’t obvious that the player will play the game in the intended order. In linear worlds, you can control which experience will happen in which order, and as such, you can rely more on visual transformation instead of mechanical transformation. If something good happened, the next level can be brighter, if something bad happened the next level can be darker. This can also be used to forebode something, or to subvert expectations of something that is yet to happen.

A practical example of creating a world with a theme, which can be applied to some extent to open and linear games, would look something akin to this:

The established main goal within the game is to defeat an antagonist[24] by collecting and using artifacts around the world.

To apply a theme to the world, let’s say that these artifacts are somehow maintaining some facet of natural order. And whenever the protagonist collects an artifact, some natural disaster is occurring during the rest of the game. After collecting the “Sea Artifact”, tsunamis and hurricanes erupt. After collecting the “Earth Artifact”, tremors split the ground apart. After collecting the “Fire Artifact”, volcanoes erupt, and lava pours across the land. After collecting the “Wind Artifact”, tornadoes of water, ash, dirt and fire rampages in the horizons. In which case the theme of the world is environmental awareness, where you are supposed to question to what extent you can destroy the environment to serve your own goals.

The side characters, known as NPC’s in games, is where most of the memorable potential lies. They offer the most creative freedom for writers, because they simply have two requirements. Functional purpose and establishing context. This is another case of change in power-dynamic compared to passive medias. Since the protagonist’s character is limited to simply being a vessel for the player, internal motivations within the protagonist is limited. Therefore, side characters present the player with motivations, meaning the various goals the game wants them to pursue. They also establish the context necessary as for why the player should do so, besides the obvious “To beat the game”. This is how a writer makes side characters establish context.

Side characters who simply hassles the player into doing random things without justification are usually frowned upon. There needs to be some kind of incentive for the player, aside from generic rewards. As such, it is paramount that they have a defining functional purpose. Merchants, companions and NPC’s who can level up some aspect of the player are examples of helpful roles. NPC’s who force players into overcoming challenges or make difficult decisions, bosses[25] and final bosses[26] are examples of advisory roles. By assigning your side characters a functional role, you make sure that they are at least somewhat memorable, simply because they can be associated with a practical function within the game. Also, the player won’t simply ignore them after talking to them once, since they don’t offer any service or challenge. Hints and lore might be considered a service, but since it isn’t crucial to beat the game, there is no practical purpose to revisit them or remember them. Other than that, there is little to no restrictions on how you portray or develop the personality or the narrative of side characters.

When all of this is in place, you have a pitch for your game when gathering funds, resources and people to your project, but you also have a pitch of narrative justification and interest for your player to engage with your game. This is often conveyed before the game really begins with an intro cutscene. It is a risk-free way to implement cutscenes into your game, because the game is yet to begin anyway. Here you can give insights to the setting, the protagonist as a person, other characters, you can have a narrator or other acting which tells a traditional story. It hardly has to relate to gameplay at all if desired, because at this point, there is no gameplay. Of course, you should be mindful of plot holes within the rest of the game, if something completely irrelevant to the game is in the intro cutscene, you will brute force ludonarrative dissonance despite the liberties you have at this point. You can also be liberal about narrative disposition during the early segments of the game, simply because the player is in the process of learning the game, not playing the game. Be careful not to force it too much on the player however, playing games requires skills and skill discrepancy may vary. So, if you pause the game too much for narrative disposition, skilled players might become frustrated. This will also hurt replayability[27] if it takes too long to get into the game itself. Still, the reason to even have narrative in games is fundamentally to pitch a fantasy, the interesting world or the promise of a certain experience to the player. It is the justification to play.

 

The Loops

Playing games requires skill, and to make games accessible it is important that the players are allowed to repeatedly use and improve the skills required to beat the game. As a result, it is common that the player will do practically the same thing over and over with a consistently rising difficulty. This is called a gameplay loop.

Here are some examples:

You must jump over the obstacle, so you can get to the next obstacle, so you can jump over the obstacle, …, so you can beat the level.

You must defeat monsters, so you can get better gear, so you can defeat more monsters, so you can get even better gear.

There is no reason for you as a writer to make that experience fun or interesting, that is the designers’ job, your job is to narratively justify this. Depending on the depth of the experience, there’s two tools commonly used to do this. It is in service of the end-goal, or the context for this is regularly updated.

When the justification for the loops is the end-goal, it is usually because it is the simplest to write. It intuitively matches the players desire to beat the game, so simply presenting justification for wanting to do so is enough in itself. While this is viable and even sometimes preferable, it is mostly limited to short, simple and linear games. As the game grows in complexity and openness, the time required to get through it drastically increases. It isn’t obvious that players will even remember the end-goal after 20 hours of play time, and it isn’t obvious that a player won’t find an hourly reminder of that end-goal annoying after 20 hours.

While you do want to introduce an end-goal for players even in longer games, it is no longer sufficient on its own. At this point you must update the context as for why the player should keep doing what he or she is doing. There are two ways of doing this, either through development or assignment.

By introducing new developments, either through new problems or new opportunities, the context for doing the loop is updated and as such gets a new meaning. The player has done the same thing again and again to rescue his sister, but now it is revealed that his brother has turned to the dark side and the player must do the same thing again and again to reform his brother, but now it is revealed that the sister was mistaken for your best friend who was secretly a princess, and now you must do the same thing again and again to help the princess, but now the princess is also kidnapped, so now you must do the same thing again and again to rescue both your sister and the princess and your brother is the one guarding them, so now you must do the same thing again and again extra well to conclude this drama. The fact doesn’t change, but the context does, which makes the experience more exciting and, in some cases, tolerable.

Assignment is a more voluntary way of updating context, this is where the player takes various assignments upon themselves through seemingly their own free will. While it might not be exclusive, the most common way to do this is to have side characters or other user interfaces offer the player missions or quests for a certain reward. In this case, the relationship between game and player becomes something like employer and employee. Where the player is willing to accept the conditions to work for a reward. The challenge at hand is to not only make the functional reward enticing, but also the context. While things like padded content, side missions and so forth will be covered later, in regard to how you use this to push forward the main narrative of the game, the trick is to make this choice seemingly voluntary. By establishing a certain important side character, the player will know in time, that interaction with said character will push the story forward. “Come talk with me when you’re ready” is often heard at the end of a mission, area, act or whatever is about to be concluded. The keyword is “when you’re ready”, this implies that the player has a choice in assessing whether or not he or she is ready. So even if there is nothing left to do in that area, it seemingly remains a choice which enhances the interactive experience of the game. This also enables cutscenes or non-interactive dialogue to take place, because the player voluntarily accepted the mission and upon completion a cutscene or other narrative disposition can serve as part of the reward. Consider the following, when side characters are asking the player to do something in return for something else. The interaction and story become more believable if you make the story into a person, with a problem, who prays to god and is willing to present a sacrifice to that god. The moral of the story is whether or not god was willing to listen and willing to answer.

When it comes to deciding the basic personality of the protagonist, it is important that the character does not betray the gameplay loop. If the core gameplay is overcoming impossible odds by brutally slaughtering enemies, a character who is portrayed as cowardly, but kind-hearted will be at severe odds with each other. This can be used as a tool for parody or subversion, but otherwise matching personality with gameplay loops is important. As a player does the same thing again and again, the mental image of the person willing to do this becomes more and more fortified.

As far as world building goes, it is also important that it makes sense to repeat activities in that world. What value does resources hold, if it is only the concern of the player? If the loop is to gather resources, making a world where resources are sparse, valuable and worth fighting for, said loop becomes far more believable.

The writer must however respect the loop. Remember that the player will be exposed to the loop multiple times over extended periods of times. The chance of player discovering inconsistencies between gameplay and narrative drastically increases when information contradicts each other.

 

The Hooks

The Hook is the moment or moments when The Selfish Story, The Pitch and The Loops converge into a memorable experience. It can be compared to the passive media equivalent of catharsis, climax, the moment of surprise, reveal or subversion. The way to construct a successful hook, is to either move the player beyond the loop for a moment or change the loop from that moment on.

When I say, “move the player beyond the loop”, it is not the intent to momentarily change the game genre or fundamental mechanics. It is a matter of using them in a new way to subvert or enforce the established pitch through experience. For example, the main mechanic in a game is flying, you can still move along the ground, but you rarely do so because the game is about flying. So, what happens if catastrophe occurs, and you can no longer fly as a result? And what happens the moment you regain your power of flight? You put the player in a state of distress and then in a state of relief, and such emotional experiences are what becomes memorable stories in hindsight. Another example, the main challenge is shooting enemies with various weapons. What if the protagonist gets a flashback, where he is playing war with his brothers and father? This can put the player into a more reflected state of mind, after all, he or she is essentially playing war when playing this game, and is that something one should consider as fun? Last example, the gameplay and narrative loop is to solve problems, to make friends, to solve more problems, to make more friends. What if the player faces an impossible problem and there is no way to overcome this with the current mechanics available? If the player character then receives gratitude and encouragement from all the friends made along the way, which powers up the player to overcome the impossible problem. It becomes a personally empowering, inspiring and exciting moment, which captures the essence of collectively overcoming problems.

Permanently changing the loop is done more often in games than you’d think, after all my previous points on how not to narratively betray the loop. In games, it is usually done by introducing power-ups[28], as the player finds new tools, the loop changes into using those new tools in addition to the old loop. Depending on the power-up, you can use it for symbolism or significant story development. Let’s say that during the pitch, the protagonist will never use the power-up, because he or she knows cost of using such powers. Then as the events unfold, the player is forced to use that power-up to overcome something. While the protagonist at this point is simply the vessel, the attentive player will know the established narrative of forbidden power and will feel a mix of empowerment and dread over the power it yields and the consequences of using it. A power-up undoubtably leads to a feeling of empowerment in terms of gameplay, the narrative however can serve to enforce that feeling or challenge that feeling. However, you can also apply the same mechanics established in a loop but tweak how the world responds. Let’s say the loop is simply to fight enemies within a room, so you can unlock the next room. As the player grows stronger and the kill record grows higher. Monsters might initially taunt and attack the weak player, but as player power grows, the monsters might instead start to panic and flee at the sight of the player. The loop was fight monsters, now it is hunt monsters. This can also be the hook within a game, the observation of how the loop changes in response to player accomplishments.

The hook can also be purely narrative to some degree, such as an impressive cutscene or impressive writing. This introduces some difficulties however, because such things happen outside of player control. The feeling that might emerge is “Well, great. I had no control in that moment, and now I have to just live with the consequences” in the case of tragedy, or “That was great, but why couldn’t I do that myself? It would be so cool if I was in control in that moment” in the case of excitement. Therefore, narrative hooks are best used for more intimate situations. Let’s say the game features romance between the player and NPC’s. A beautiful romantic moment is hard to achieve in games without becoming silly. A close-up shot of people in love who are about to reveal their feelings, would require a lot of work just to make sure the player doesn’t ruin it with poor camera management or by doing the wrong things at the wrong time. If the gameplay and narrative thus far have to some extent helped to build these feelings and this relationship, cementing it with a cutscene as a reward is adequate enough. Do note that in the future, design solutions and technological progress might change this. Large action sequences in cutscenes was because designing such action sequences and the technology at hand made it impossible at the time. When it comes to writing impressive dialogues or monologues, do remember that players might choose to skip it, not pay attention to it or simply not find it. Because impressive acting or writing is not a game, it is a story which a player can choose to not care for, since they are not in control.

Regarding the fundamental nature of hooks, it may be helpful to shed some light over what draw people to games, and what draw people to traditional stories. Stories are intended to educate to some degree. Not necessarily what is objectively true, but to some extent what is subjectively true. Love does not factually conquer all, but it can on a case by case basis help someone through a lot of hardships. Stories are a means of structuring something hard to grasp into something that can still be shared and to some degree understood. By manipulating the audience into a state of sympathy, empathy and immersion, the author can educate the audience with his point of view within a suspension of disbelief and openness to symbolism. Games are different however, they do not wish to educate you, they wish to train you. If passive media is like psychodynamic therapy[29], games are more like cognitive therapy[30]. A story will present you an ideal to become when faced with a problem, games simply present you a problem and asks of you to solve it. The meaning emerges in moments of personal victory and personal defeat. As such, the stories that emerge from games are not orientating you towards a goal in the end, it is a cultivating story of what you went through to achieve your goal. With this and the selfish story in mind, a good hook within a game is when the player experiences newfound understanding, experiences moments of defeat and experiences the high of personal accomplishment and triumph. You cannot control what is a defeat or triumph since player skill may vary, but you can attempt to get players to experience newfound understanding at least.

A successful hook is not only personally memorable for the consumer, it is also free PR[31] since the players who experienced this moment will openly talk about it and bring in more players. Either face to face or over the internet.

When it comes to where to use hooks, this depends on how open or linear the game is. If the game is open, you can place hooks everywhere. A player might not find every hook, but they should find some of them. In linear games, this becomes trickier. You want to have a hook within each level, but you cannot make the hook too good right away. The purpose of narrative in games is to justify playing them, if the narrative hook is too powerful, it will be hard to narratively keep justifying the game to be played. If they have already experienced a moment which is impossible to be surpassed without becoming silly, what reason is there narratively to keep playing? The hooks should be good, should break up the loop and should be plentiful, but save the best one for last. There is unfortunately no clear answer to this other than subjective intuition and biased feedback. Hopefully this is sufficient to give a basic insight into what makes a good hook, and that this knowledge is helpful in where to put them.

 

The Sidetracks

Games in essence, are a collection of content to interact with and as budgets, teams and technological possibilities grows, so does the amount of content. It becomes hard to tie all content to the main narrative without boring the player, especially if total playtime is creeping over 16 hours. As such sidetracks is a way to introduce experiences with fresh context. This is also where writers are allowed to be more playful, because it isn’t part of the main experience anyway. This is where you can experiment more with the loops and pitch, and if you hit a mark, the cheap, filler side content can even become a hook. The Sidetracks is all about filler content and making that filler content something players find enjoyable.

Using the established world, game mechanics and protagonist as a foundation, this is an opportunity to create interesting contained stories within the game, stories that wouldn’t suit an entire game, but are welcomed additions within a game. In a lighthearted game, you can explore the tragic, in a serious game, you can poke fun at the game or the player. The only caveat is that while it is a self-contained story, it is still something found in the world and as the player interacts with it, it should to some extent change the world or the player character. The most memorable sidetracks are the ones where the result is that the player receives something gained, but also where something within the world is created or destroyed.

Of course, creation or destruction cannot be too large scale, or else it will disrupt the main narrative. Disregarding morality or context: Let’s say the side mission involves a town, you follow a few series of events, you complete the tasks and get your rewards. Then a town is wiped off the map. However, let’s say the side mission involves a person, you follow a series of events, complete the tasks and get your rewards. Then a new town is added to the map. The blank spot on the map or the icon of the town on the map is proof that the player did something within the world and the world adapted. Such moments are memorable simply because they positively reinforce interaction and proves that the player has agency. Creation and destruction do not have to be as big as entire towns, it can also be individuals aside from life and death. For example, an NPC asks you to save her child from enemies, you attempt to save the child and either succeed or fail. If you succeed, she is thrilled and can get back to work as a merchant. If you fail, she is enraged and wants to join you in killing enemies. This is another case of player actions and ability having permanent consequence.

Another benefit of sidetracks is to use environmental storytelling in relatively hidden places. It is a quick and easy way to reward exploration with something a player might find interesting or meaningful. The appeal of environmental storytelling is its sense of mystery, and this will be further amplified if it is found in mysterious places.

One thing to note, is that not all games have Sidetracks, it is a novelty through lenient budgets, staff and technology. Still, it does not hurt to mention.

 

The Resolution

The Resolution of a game narrative is not really well formulated yet. The games that are considered to have a good or satisfying ending are few and far between, and in addition it isn’t obvious what makes them good or satisfying. The good endings bring some kind of conclusion, and at the same time enticement to play the game further or be on the lookout for sequels or expansions[32]. There are some tropes[33] however which can be helpful to know.

There’s the ending where you simply completed your goal. It is a straightforward happily ever after ending, which either concludes the game then and there or asks you to keep playing. Very generic and lacks creative options, but overall effective.

There’s the cliffhanger[34] ending which is essentially a teaser for the next installment or expansion. This should only be used once a sequel or expansion is confirmed and already in development. If it is cancelled it will hurt the reputation of the studio, sometimes enough to make them bankrupt, because even if people don’t finish their games themselves, they’ll hear it from the people who did.

There’s the custom ending where your story and choices so far is summarized. An ending such as this is usually frowned upon, simply because the player tends to have their own summary in mind and the ending either seems redundant or mismatching.

There’s the absurd ending where the ending is vastly open for interpretation. These are usually used in games which is light on direct narrative but has conveyed their narrative more indirectly. Such as cryptic dialogue or environmental storytelling. Some players however, doesn’t get it. So for many it can seem to be absurd for absurdity’s sake, without any real meaning.

There’s the ending where the protagonist or other important characters transform. This one is difficult to dissect or successfully tell. There’s the issue where protagonist transformation should be limited to give the player room to transform, but in some sense the game is over anyway, so there’s now room for transformation. It largely comes down to understanding the experiences the player has gone through and match the protagonist transformation to match the players expected transformation. This is easier with important side characters, since they have more room for development, but some players might feel cheated that the story apparently never was about them.

Then there’s the multiple endings where depending on factors like choices, skill and sufficient exploration unlock different endings. These are usually divided into good, bad, hidden, true and joke ending. The good ending tends to be the ending where you simply completed your goal. The hidden ending can sometimes be the true ending, which is either the cliffhanger ending or absurd ending. The joke ending is absurd, but usually humorous. The bad ending is usually similar to the custom ending, but only as far as negative actions and choices goes. While this is praised among some players, the truth remains that this is a huge low profit investment, because only a small fraction of players will see more than one of those endings.

Lastly, there is no ending. Some games are more like services, where the intent is to some degree play the game forever. Therefore, no resolution is necessary.

The reason why endings are difficult to discuss has many parts, first off; the aforementioned lack of consistency in quality. Many games use these tropes, but only some succeed as great endings with difficulty in discerning why. Second; this is unfortunately an afterthought during development, a project takes years to complete and usually changes during development. So, the ending of games tends to be criminally neglected.

Third and most importantly; The players themselves. They are objectively a horrible audience to make endings for. Only a few players actually finish games and only a few of those players actually care about the story you present them. But worst of all, they already make up their own stories and endings, because the ending is every moment they take a break, or stop playing for the day. According to The Selfish Story I have presented, games cannot tell a narrative story, and whenever a game starts to tell a narrative story, it is no longer a game in that moment. They exclusively present the player with experiences which only becomes a narrative story after the experience has passed and it becomes history. This means that no matter what ending you present the player with that is conclusive, it will most likely be rejected by their own subjective experience and the history they have with the game at this point. This is what makes the resolution a cursed problem, it has no answer that does not involve sacrifice. Either you make endings so absurd and open that it’s no longer a real ending, and let the player conclude the story for themselves. You settle with making your ending a cliffhanger. Or your artistic spirit wants to conclude the story because it is important to you. And in the case of the latter, most people will never see it, and most of those that do won’t even care, and those few that care might subjectively disagree and not like it.

I have hope that we will figure out a proper way to end games, but at this moment, I have no idea on how. Until then, it seems the best ending for a game is whenever the player stops playing, which means there’s no narrative ending.

 

Summary

So, in short, traditional storytelling is sympathetic and empathetic, games however are selfish stories about the players personal experience. The pitch is important to establish context for the player in terms of world, lore and characters, it is supposed to spark interest in the gameplay by making it accessible through narrative justification. The loop is what mainly restricts the narrative, if a narrative makes no sense or betrays the loop, ludonarrative dissonance occurs. The hook is the most interesting part, where the goal is to make the narrative and gameplay merge into a memorable and meaningful experience. The sidetracks give room for further exploring established setting, characters and mechanics, and should be used with the intent of creating a hook. This is also excellent for hidden environmental storytelling. The resolution is a cursed problem at this point, with only tropes as guidance. Still, the goal is to either justifying the player to stop playing or entice the player to keep playing. I hope this text is informative enough as a foundation for writing narrative for games, and I also hope this might ease the dissonance in the final product and during development. Games as a medium is young and therefore lacks proper definitions, answers, research and terminology.

It is an exciting frontier, and just like the games we play. We are not told the history regarding this subject; we are experiencing history in the making.

  • Egil Mikael “Vumsy” Johansen
 

[1] A problem which has no definitive answer or solution that does not involve sacrifice or compromises.

[2] When the story and gameplay is such at odds with each other, that it hurts the overall experience to varying degree.

[3] The different points in a story which serves as reference points for both audience and writers. The most common one; Beginning, Middle and The End.

[4] Usually puzzle games or competitive games with mechanics and aesthetics which has little or no grounding in reality. (Sudoku, Chess, Tetris)

[5] Structuring events into a narrative.

[6] A neurotransmitter which commonly regulates pleasure among other things.

[7] A steroid hormone which regulates metabolism, immune responses as well as managing stress.

[8] The relief of built up tension, cleansing emotions.

[9] Acting or mimicry, in terms of drama, it is humans in action.

[10] The main character within a story.

[11] Character, person, personality.

[12] Engagement, immersion, empathy.

[13] Excitement, anxiety, usually over the well being of characters.

[14] Language or words.

[15] Thoughts or ideas.

[16] Narrative or plot.

[17] Education through empathy.

[18] The character or object the player is in direct control of within the game.

[19] A state of mind when you are fully immersed in an activity with intense focus, singlemindedness and enjoyment.

[20] The features of a videogame, the way it is designed, how you play it or the act of playing a videogame

[21] Non-playable characters, characters which appears in games, but whom the player cannot directly control.

[22] Describing an object or action which isn’t literally true but helps explaining an idea or make a comparison.

[23] A specific mechanical function within a game, such as jumping, shooting, picking up items, etc.

[24] Someone who actively works against the protagonist, usually the villain.

[25] An enemy within a game who is usually far more powerful than regular enemies, usually the final trial of a level or mission.

[26] A boss within a game who is usually the culmination of the other enemies and bosses in terms of challenge, usually the final trial of the game.

[27] Playing the game again from the beginning one or multiple times.

[28] Usually skills found or learned, as well as stat increases which increases player power.

[29] Therapy which consists of using conversation to uncover things within the patients subconscious that troubles them, bring attention to that thing and work it out. Like explaining problematic behavior as a result of past trauma.

[30] Therapy which consists of solving problems in the patients day to day life, through discussion, practice and various exercises. Like overcoming a phobia through gradual exposure to the cause.

[31] Public Relations, informing or promoting something to the public.

[32] Usually downloadable content which expands the game after release.

[33] A common or overused theme or device. A cliché.

[34] When the end of a chapter or story is inconclusive on its own and serves as a buildup for the next chapter or story.


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