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Game Writing: Designing Non-Linear Game Narratives

A summary of the narrative design process in RPG Maker VX Ace.

Games Vs. Story

(You can find the original post here)

For me, one of the most important and unique aspects about games is their ability to allow the player to change the content of their experience. Through "interaction" (gamepads, keyboards, joysticks, mice, Oculus Rifts, and all) players and their games form a remarkable sort-of symbiosis wherein the act of playing becomes a dialogue between the user and the game's creator. These ideas have been explored in works like Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, and as games become an increasingly integral part of our society it is bound to become a more prevalent theme.


"The games we choose to play, and the way we play them, reveal a tremendous amount about us -- from our creative drives and ambitions to the dark corners of our desires." - Eric Zimmerman

As people in the world, our actions reflect and define us and individuals.  Some smart people have also agreed that it is possible for video games to both reflect and influence how you act and perceive the world. One of the primary tools to exercise this ability in game-making is a game's story.

As you'd probably imagine, this is where it gets tricky. How does a designer make the story reflect who the player is and how they wish to act in a given situation?

Non-Linear Writing

Let me preface this by saying that this is definitely not an exhaustive list of the ways to design game stories, but merely how I've decided to tackle the story in Class Rules. The game is a pretty clear cut case of needing non-linear storytelling because it's a role-playing game--meaning that on some level of the game experience, players succeed based on their ability to assume roles.

I wanted to have a non-linear story where the player was able to "choose-their-own-adventure"  because I am interested in discovering how players can use their roles choose to construct a single game experience in vastly different ways. As Class Rules vaguely reflects some of my own life experiences, a part of it is also the narcissistic curiousity of exploring possibilities about my own life experiences and how they could have ended up differently.

Where to Startchoices

In my opinion, there's no shortcut to crafting strong non-linear stories--especially if you want it to be good. I was having a conversation recently with Writerly Game superhero Will O'Neill (who is currently working on Sometimes Always Monsters, sequel to 2014's acclaimed indie title and also wrote/developed Actual Sunlight ) who made a point about the importance of making sure player's choices mattered, and further that these choices were created in a context which allows the player to navigate the story convincingly. These story threads all have to be woven into the story and kept in mind from the beginning of the plot.

So actually -- where do you start?

In terms of game narratives, I tend to start with a scene.  In a lot of ways, I think good story-telling relies on believable characters. The saying "good characters write themselves" is a mainstay of the cliché writer's dictionary, but it's no lie that the best characters feel like real people that you could know personally.

Just as an example and general shout-out, Square Enix's Life is Strange does an amazing job of building strong characterization, and using them to drive to the flow of the game. Dialogue can (and, in most cases should) be a primary tool used to define characters.

The Process

About little while ago, I wrote the dialogue for the new opening scene of Class Rules.

I mentioned in a previous post that it is always good to start on paper when designing. I think writing and narrative design might be a case where the idea of starting on paper is not essential. Despite that however, I usually prefer to start my narrative design on paper as well. When time is tight, I'll write content directly into the game editor--it really depends on the context.

Whatever the case is, you'll need a method of handling some "flow control" through the branching dialogue. Again, how this can be done varies depending on what works best for the particular situation. I try to separate the player's options visually using a chart, lines, separate pages, or whatever works for you. This helps your mind reinforce the notion that the separate branches are distinct parts.

paper dialogueAnother thing I think is very important is to design talking points that represent a true diversity of choices. Try to differentiate the player's speech options such that they posses several different angles to approach a given situation. It will help to bring out range in your characters and make conversation more varied and interesting. Most of all, it gives the player a huge stake in the direction the game experience goes.

If you know for sure that the player has the ability to choose dialogue options, it helps for me to write what input command would be read along with the content. Often the player's dialogue selection is a part of GUI with limited space, so summarizing the text in a few words can be useful for when it's time to implement the text in the game.

Also, try not to worry about whether content repeats or not. Don't beat yourself up if conversations end up leading to a common point, or if a character ends up saying something similar at more than one point in different branches. I think it's important to keep the validity of the conversation itself separate from the branching dialogue in mind. That being said, there's definitely a point where there can be too much repetition, so just make sure to run through the dialogue often to make sure everything feels good.

Twine/Branching Text Editors

The next step is to get the raw writing into some sort of text editor. While I was making the Class Rules prototype I actually did not do this step, however I think it's a good idea moving forward to have all of the text content ready to go in a shareable and highly iterative format separate from the game engine.

twineConvo

Personally, I like the ability to work with the text content completely separate from everything else. My professor Martin Zeilinger showed my classmates and I the Twine editor and its capability for mapping branching stories. With a really intuitive interface, the ability to install the app on your PC or work completely online, and the functionality to export your stories to a whole bunch of different formats, it's a big help towards being able to visually map your dialogue.

RPG Maker

Lastly, the text gets copied into a message box within the engine. The version of Class Rules I am developing at the moment is being made in RPG Maker VX Ace, and those who have used it know it has a very simple input/output system that takes two or three clicks to get working.

whererwegoing

As the amount of conditions increase in your dialogue, navigating the options can become a headache. Do your best to use common events and event pages to organize the flow of the game. Formatting at this stage is also very important, as it's easy for the text to look wonky if the lines are too long, or if there is not enough text/too much space in the wrong places! Always be sure to play through all of your dialogue options to be sure they're working okay and look the way you want.

External Text Editor

One option might be worth pursuing if you are using RPG Maker would be the option of finding a script for the manipulation of external text. Thanks to Envelon's External Text Editor, I'm able to store the dialogue within raw text files in the game's directory, thoroughly reducing the need to navigate through walloping lists of conditional statements and text blocks.

Rinse and Repeat...

And that's pretty much the just of my writing process for Class Rules. I drafted a plan for the general plot outline of the game, so I am going to proceed and create the other scenes in the game following this process. Using Twine will help me share, collaborate on, and visualize my story ideas. As dialogue is handled through events in RPG Maker VX Ace, I usually build the environments first so I can place events appropriately in the scene.

Until next time.

cavemanK

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