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Game Writing From The Inside Out

In a Gamasutra-exclusive analysis, Krawczyk and O'Connor, writers for the God Of War series and Far Cry 2/Gears Of War respectively, discuss how writers and designers can collaborate smoothly and successfully.

March 18, 2009

11 Min Read

Author: by Marianne Krawczyk

[In a Gamasutra-exclusive analysis, Krawczyk and O'Connor, writers for the God Of War series and Far Cry 2/Gears Of War respectively, discuss how writers and designers can collaborate smoothly and successfully.]

What does it take to create a story for a game? A lot of work, for one thing -- from the concept phase right through to the final draft. The process usually begins with the creative director or lead designer. At some point, a writer is brought on board. It's a collaborative process -- and it can be a rocky one as well.

For one thing, not all games need stories. When push comes to shove and development time runs out, story can fall by the wayside. It can become a serious PR effort, internally, just to get the story work bumped up on the list of priorities.

And there are plenty of challenges for the team to resolve -- system complexities, time & resource constraints, and communication gaffes.

So if story development in games is both hard and nonessential, why do so many studios make the effort?

Because even at their worst, stories can enhance gameplay. They provide context. What would players rather shoot -- a wall, or a Nazi?

At their best, stories transform gameplay -- and gameplay transforms story. Stories help us make sense of the world; games bring stories to life in a completely new way. Immersion and agency create brand-new possibilities for storytelling. Gameplay gives us freedom; story gives us meaning.

So why do so many writers and designers get bogged down in 10-car pileups when they work together? They have the same goal, after all: create a compelling experience for the end user. The trouble begins when they approach the same problem from opposite directions.

A game writer looks for brief moments -- cutscene or otherwise -- when she can take control of the game so that she can create throughlines, pacing, conflicts, character development, plot twists and thematic meaning.

A game designer looks for ways to give control -- not to the writer, but to the player.

Both the writer and the designer are right. Stories benefit from structure, and players love their freedom.

How can teams resolve this conflict so that writers and designers can collaborate successfully? We can start by rethinking our assumptions about how stories work - and what players expect.

The heavy lifting in story development happens at the very beginning of the process, months before a single line of dialog is written. In this article, we revisit the basic building bocks of story and look at ways we can arrange them in new ways to build a compelling, player-centric experience.

If the golden age of game narrative really is right around the corner -- and we think it is -- then writers and designers have the opportunity to redefine how stories are told, by looking at old problems in new ways.

It's in this spirit that we are asking, "What if?"

What if we didn't build the story around the player?

Most game stories revolve around the player character. This makes sense -- sort of. Players are the stars of the show. They make things happen. It seems logical to make them the focal point of every event.

But this approach also creates problems. The designer can find his options limited by the story's logic. The team has to struggle to find ways to present the story events without interrupting the game. And regardless of the quality of the final product, there will always be players that resist the story, or subvert it, or ignore it altogether.

So what do you do if your goal is to create a compelling story that involves the player? One option is make a distinction, right out of the gate, between the game's story and the player's narrative.

What does that mean? "Story" is the sequence of events that take place in the game - the main character overcoming obstacles in pursuit of his goal. "Narrative" is the player's unique experience of that story -- the player controlling his character and/or the game world as he sees fit.

(These terms are not perfect or precise. Better terms will probably emerge eventually, as the industry grows.)

Who defines the narrative? The designer -- by creating the world and its rulesets; the ways in which the player comes to understand the game.

Who defines the story? The writer -- by creating themes, characters and plots; the ways in which the story comes together in the end - the way the game comes to understand itself.

This is a subtle distinction; story and narrative are tightly intertwined. But it can be a useful starting place, for both the designer and the writer.

What if the player were the hero, but not the protagonist?

Once we've separated the idea of the player's narrative from the game's story, it becomes easier to look at the mechanics of story structure -- and how to apply them to a game.

In other forms of media, like movies, the main character is the protagonist. This is a widely accepted concept, rarely questioned. George Clooney is never cast as the third waiter from the left. But does this construct work for games? Let's take a closer look, starting with terms.

One way to define a protagonist is by his desire. He wants something, badly -- so badly he's willing to fight all odds in order to get it.

This simple definition highlights the problems inherent in casting the player as the protagonist. The player wants what he wants -- and rarely is it the same thing that his avatar wants.

The player is operating on a higher plane than his avatar. The avatar thinks he is a prince that lives in a kingdom; the player knows he is a blip on a screen.

The player's desires are usually tied to gameplay, not story. The avatar says, "I want to save the princess"; the player says, "I want to kill as many dragons as I can."

A protagonist with a strong desire can create production problems for both the writer and the designer. Desire clashes with agency.

How do developers resolve this dilemma?

Some studios create a main character that has a very passive desire -- or no desire at all. "I am a soldier, I fight." This approach results in an avatar that supports gameplay, but it can also leave us with dull characters and a pointless plot.

Other studios create a main character that is driven by a strong, overpowering desire. "I'll kill the king and end this war if it's the last thing I do."

Then the writer and designer must show the player the impact of this desire -- and this is the avatar's desire, not the player's desire -- so we are left watching cutscenes, and in effect watching someone else's story. This can work, but it has its obvious limitations.

Here is another option: cast an NPC as the protagonist, build a story arc around his desire -- and design gameplay as a counterpunch to that arc.

Some games are already employing this concept. To figure out who is the protagonist of a story, you can ask: Who is the person who's got the most on the line, the most to lose and the most to gain?

Who wants, more than any other character? Both Fontaine in BioShock and the Jackal in Far Cry 2 want something, badly.

You can map their desire lines and see how those desires ignite the game's -- and story's -- conflict.

With this approach, the player is still the hero -- of his own story, which he creates dynamically through gameplay. The designer builds the hero's path; the writer crafts the protagonist's journey.

Then, together, they can look for ways to integrate the story and the game. The team can cast the player character in a new role -- ally, for example, or antagonist -- and then allow the story to unfold in unpredictable ways.

What if we made failure an option?

So far we've looked at ways to separate the player from the story. It is also possible to build a story around the player, without losing narrative tension -- that intense desire to find out what happens next. We can do it by looking for ways for our character to fail.

Risk is compelling. When everything's on the line, we pay attention. As writers, we love to create stakes -- and then raise them.

The protagonist has a desire. It's unattainable -- if he plays it safe. So the protagonist takes a chance in order to reach his goal. This puts him at risk.

Now the hero has to succeed, or else. Real change becomes a possibility -- and that's both a promise and a threat. If hero succeeds, then he will live happily ever after. But if the hero fails, then things will fall apart.

When developing a story, the writer wants to know, "What will happen if the hero doesn't get what she wants?" If the answer is "Not much," then the story doesn't work yet.

But true change -- permanent, point-of-no-return change -- is a hard sell in games. Players can always reload his last save point.

And that mechanic isn't going away anytime soon. If we want to create meaningful change in our stories, we'll have to get creative.

In God of War, Kratos vows to kill the god of war. Is there any chance he'll fail to do so? Only if the player quits the game. In a movie, the hero announces his goal -- "I'm going to kill that man" -- and then we in the audience watch to see if he pulls it off.

In games, when the player character says "I'm going to kill that man," the ending is a foregone conclusion. The ending is in the player's hands, and is therefore entirely controllable -- and predictable.

How can we create narrative tension when player controls the outcome? By creating unconscious needs in the main character -- needs that clash with conscious desires. (NOTE: God Of War narrative spoilers ensue.)

Athena asks Kratos to kill the god of war. He agrees. Why? So that Athena will take his nightmares away. This hints at Kratos' underlying problem. He is consumed by rage -- and also by guilt. Guilt over what? We don't know. We have to play the game and watch Kratos' memories unfold in order to learn his secrets.

Eventually, the truth is revealed. Kratos may want to kill the god of war and end his nightmares -- but what he needs is redemption and forgiveness for his role in the death of his wife and child.

Characters usually know what they want. They almost never consciously understand what it is they need -- but that need drives them just as strongly as their desire. This creates conflict within the character, and conflict between characters. Conflicts make stories work.

Once a team has a character with both wants and needs, they have options. They can design the story to allow the player to get what he wants, while denying the character the thing that he needs. Or, maybe he does get what he needs. There's only one way to know for sure, and that's to reach the end of the story (and game).

This approach is a demanding one. It means the team has to figure out what the character really needs, versus what he wants, and find ways to build the story events so that the need is revealed in a surprising way at the end of the story. The writer and designer have to understand the character more than he understands himself.

In the end, Kratos does what he set out to do. He kills the god of war. (Surprise!) But he still can't escape the memory of his family's death. He is so desperate to escape these memories that he throws himself off a cliff -- but even that doesn't work.

With Ares dead, the gods realize that they must have a new god of war -- and so they give Kratos the "gift" of eternal life. Now he is an immortal -- one that can never escape his horrible past.

The player succeeds. The avatar succeeds -- and fails. Both the writer and the designer go home happy.


In this article, we've looked at a few of the structural challenges facing anyone that sets out to create a story for a game.

If writers and designers start collaborating at the very beginning of a project, during the concept and pre-production phase, they can tackle these game/story challenges together.

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