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8 Questions That Improve Your Game's Narrative

Angel McCoy gives writers and narrative designers tips for how to improve on a story they work on. McCoy is a narrative designer at ArenaNet, working on the AAA MMO GUILD WARS 2.

Quips: Quick Tips for Game Narrative and Other Noodlings

Creating narrative for a video game has similar challenging, frustrating, and fun elements as those you encounter when putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Both tasks require critical thinking and the ability to see the big picture as well as the details.

Half the battle is learning how to evaluate each piece and determine where it belongs in the grand scheme of things. The following questions can help guide your narrative design toward stronger, more cohesive storytelling.


Does it support and strengthen the brand?

Every product has an identity that players and readers rely on. If a player is looking for a science fiction first-person shooter with mature situations, then they're going to look for a brand that has all those markings. They will then be surprised and disappointed if they start playing and learn that it's actually all about relationships and RPG-style interactions. Thus, it's important that your story support the brand.

If you're completely unfamiliar with what brand identity is, the article "Defining Brand Identity" by Christy MacLeod has basic information on it. Read that first, then come back.

At its core, the brand identity is a promise to players that you will deliver what you've said you will. As a narrative designer, it's your duty to support and strengthen the game's (and the company's) brand.

Most existing companies will have well-established definitions of what their brand identity is both for the company and for the game itself. This may include a mission and/or value statement, the voice/tone of the game, and its look and feel. With games, the ESRB rating also plays a strong role in a game's identity. And, if you're starting to make your own game (hello, indie teams), one of the first things you'll want to do is determine and document your game's identity. Many of your decisions will be based on it.


Does it make sense from a player's perspective?

Sounds basic, right, but this is one of the most challenging aspects of game writing. You have to always put yourself in the mind (and heart) of the player. There's a phenomenon I like to call "writer omniscience syndrome" which describes the fact that a writer knows everything about the story and thus assumes everyone else does too. This, however, is never the case. Your readers and players do not know the whole picture, and so they may be confused by events that make perfect sense to you.

How do you avoid this? Avoiding writer omniscience syndrome is a skill you develop over time, like a muscle, and it starts by exercising that muscle at every turn. Ask yourself, "Have I given the player all the information they need to understand what's happening here?"

If your answer is "No," then you need to look into foreshadowing and lore delivery in prior content. Getting the set-up right is critical to a satisfying pay-off.

Have you ever experienced writer omniscience syndrome? I'd love to hear about your experience in the comments below.


Are the physics right?

Every story has its own set of internal physics that determine how the world and its elements work. The two most important story physics are world dynamics and character motivations. If the tale you're telling in-game breaks the rules you set up previously, then you'd better be fully aware of it and know exactly why you're making that story choice.

For example, in a science fiction world, interplanetary travel could be established as taking hundreds of years. If you choose to now say that your characters can teleport between planets, you must explain why they can now do this. If you can't explain it, then don't make the change. 

The same applies to character motivations. If one of your characters behaves out of character, then either fortify the behavior by building in a new motivation or modify the behavior to fit. When a character changes its motivation or methods in mid-stream, it pulls the player out of their suspension of disbelief and triggers their right-brain critic, and that is not immersive storytelling.

TRAP: Many writers fall into the Shiny! trap. Don't be that writer. Your idea may be awesome, but examine it closely to see if it truly fits what you're trying to accomplish with your product.

What other areas of storytelling have story physics that you should fortify?


Can I make this story idea fit?

Game companies are filled to brimming with passionate, creative people who are overflowing with great ideas. A large part of the narrative designer's job is taking someone's else's great idea and fit it into the narrative. Game design is collaborative at its heart.

These ideas may come down from the director level, from the level designers, or from support teams like Art or Quality Assurance. Depending on the force of the passion behind the idea, you may find yourself working magic to weave an idea into the rest of the world and story.

Straight up, this isn't always possible and you may have to explain why and see the excitement die from the eyes of your coworkers. (My least favorite part of the job.)

When it is possible, then it's a puzzle that demands solving, and it will call on you to use your most creative and strategic muscles to make it not just work, but work smoothly. Your coworkers love it when their ideas become canon. It's your job to evaluate ideas and find ways for the best of them (or the one's forced on you by bigger fish) to fit into the story.

Ever had to incorporate someone else's idea into a creative project? How did it go? Tell me about it in the comments.


Is there a better way?

Neurologist David Eagleman, host of the PBS show "The Brain," believes that the first idea you have may not be the best idea—and I agree with him based on my own anecdotal experience. The problem is that we're wired to grab the first thing that comes to mind, and often that originates with whatever pop culture we're enjoying at the moment, or whatever game we played most recently, or just whatever's foremost in our minds.

The real trick—and challenge—is to stretch beyond that and really dig into your creativity for all the ideas, some of which may be better than your first one. Eagleman recommends that you not stop at the first idea, but force yourself make a list of ten ideas. I've also heard the advice to force yourself to come up with 100 ideas, but when I tried that it devolved quickly into the ridiculous. Ten seems a good number.

Remember that you're the narrative designer and that means it's your responsibility to come up with the best ideas and then pitch them to others. If you had one idea, then others did too, and they're not trained—as you are—to look beyond the obvious for the extra cool option. You will have to walk them there yourself, by explaining and justifying why your idea is better. 

Let's talk about the lazy human brain!


Is this plot necessary?

In my job, I talk a lot about stages and spotlights. I view the game environment as the stage, and where you shine the spotlight defines the story you're telling. Many parts of the story will and should remain in the eaves, never making it into the spotlight. Learning to discriminate between what should get the spotlight and what shouldn't is another important narrative skill to hone.

Any plot point you put in the spotlight should advance the story—no exceptions. There are no good digressions or detours in game narrative design because we don't have that much gas to go wandering around the countryside. The focus, and thus the spotlight, should be on the core through-line and any moments that strongly support that through-line.

If you were the technician behind the spotlight, how would you choose where to shine it?


Does the story moment ask questions we can't/won't answer?

It's also important, when choosing what moments to spotlight, to consider the future. Does using this dialogue or introducing this item cause players to speculate and yearn for more? Great if you plan to pay it off! Boo, bad if you can't or won't. Players hate few things more than when the game teases them with something that they never get to experience.

We call this "story debt." It's a debt that we creators owe players, and we should endeavor never to renege on that debt. Any game that is putting out multiple releases and advancing the story in each will undoubtedly create "story debt" by introducing plot lines that they won't pay off.

This may happen because the people working on the game change, because tribal knowledge is lost over time, or because the team no longer has the bandwidth to pursue the storyline despite their best intentions.

Narrative designers can learn to be vigilant and recognize these situations, evaluate the risk, and determine whether it's worth it. Is there a better way?

Ever been saddened because an anticipated game story got dropped?


Where is this going?

"The past is already gone, the future is not yet here. There's only one moment for you to live, and that is the present moment." —Gautama Buddha.

What Buddha said is true, unless you're a narrative designer and the future of your story is at stake. While it is true that the future cannot be set in stone until it becomes the present—and this is especially true with game design—it pays to have some idea of where the story will be going. This allows you to seed elements early on that you can pay off later to fans' delight.

You don't need to know exactly what the destination will be, but you do need to have an idea what the next few story landmarks will be. Foreshadowing, as mentioned above, adds depth and clarity to your story. The more you know about the future of your story, the more control you have over foreshadowing.

The best laid plans of mice and men (and women) often go awry, however, so you have to remain flexible. If a tree falls across the path you're on (or an asset doesn't get completed in time), you'll have to take a detour. It's this flexibility and practical use of all these questions that makes you a great narrative designer and allows you to create awesome experiences for your players.


For the past 9 years, Angel McCoy has been a writer and narrative designer on the AAA MMO Guild Wars 2. In the past, she lent her creative skills to industry heavy-weights,  Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and White Wolf's World of Darkness. In her spare time, she founded and serves as Creative Director for the indie game team at Games Omniverse. Her narrative toolbox is overflowing with lessons learned and shortcuts discovered, so she's sharing some of the best of them with you.

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