Four Storytelling Lessons from Video Game Writers

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Four Storytelling Lessons from Video Game Writers

I recently finished a course at UBC called Video Game Narrative. As someone who doesn’t play many video games (or any at all, really), I was curious to learn how to construct a story in a medium so player-driven where gameplay comes first. At NGX we occasionally build games and often use gamification techniques in our programs, so I wanted to know more about the process. What I found in the course were useful storytelling lessons that weren’t just unique to video games, but applied to all forms of stories:

Storytelling is Teamwork

This lesson isn’t really a new one, but it’s of particular importance when gameplay is involved. If you’re a novelist, you’re pretty much flying solo as far as the story is concerned. But when you’re creating a game, it really does take a village to construct a narrative: concept artists, level designers, game designers, audio crews, cinematics crews, and an entire art team all should have story input at various stages in the process to identify issues that may come into conflict. This is a lot like NGX where we have interactive designers, animators, software developers, and tech experts all helping me (the writer and content strategist) craft the best story for visitors and audiences.

Start Building your World Early 

In the world of games, visuals are everything. As you’re building your narrative, it’s important to gather reference images and inspiration materials as early as possible. This will not only help flesh out your fictional world and help build the story, it will also help the other creative players on the project get invested in a strong vision early on, which is good news for everyone. This process also encourages the design team to build upon existing materials and run with new ideas, resulting in a richer story world.

Nail the Dialogue

A common complaint among gamers is that dialogue in video games leaves a lot to be desired.  Clunky, unrealistic, and just plain bad dialogue crops up in many mediums (including digital interactives) and takes players out of the experience very quickly, so it’s an important issue to address. Thankfully, a dialogue enthusiast for the website Gamesauce has created a checklist that identifies the key components of good game dialogue:

  • Helpfulness: does the dialogue meet the minimum requirements to give the player the information he or she needs to learn the rules, obtain a hint, or play the game, while not makings things too obvious?
  • Believability: are the characters saying things that a real human or sentient would say?
  • Depth: are the characters saying things that a real human or sentient being would say (is it too on-the-nose?)
  • “Gameness”/”Interactivity”: does the dialogue appropriately support the interactive medium of games.
  • See the Big Picture

Map it Out

One of the most helpful tips I took away from the course was the use of something called a Beat Chart that physically maps out the entire story of a game on a wall from start to finish. Plot points, characters, designs, game elements – they all go up. This wall-sized chart not only allows the entire team to add their contributions to the story, but it also provides an opportunity for everyone to take a step back and examine pacing and see how the plot fits together with other elements of the production.

There is always something valuable to be gleaned from another storyteller’s creative process. In the case of video game writing, one theme that emerged above all others was collaboration. Much like a digital interactive, creating a video game involves input from a host of designers, concept artists, writers, developers, producers and tech experts as early in the process as possible to create the best story and the best player experience.

During the course, the phrase “gameplay drives all” often came up to describe how gameplay is the force that determines everything from story and characters to sound design and colour palette choice. As story development begins to play a more prominent role in video games (and begins to become more expected by players), it’ll be worth noting how game writers tackle the challenge of creating an absorbing story that doesn’t leave gameplay behind.

-Jason Clarke, Content Strategist

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