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Out of Weakness, Strength: The Three Ds of Narrative Design
An analysis of what makes for compelling storytelling in games, and a proposed set of guidelines for maximizing the intrinsic advantages of video game narration.
April 2, 2021
18 Min Read
Every storytelling medium has unique intrinsic strengths. Books are free from budgetary, design, or time constraints. Movies and TV rely on visual spectacle to sell an emotion. Graphic novels use page layout to emphasize key moments. The zoetrope exemplifies life’s endless cycle of futility.
Over the years, video games have earned a bad reputation as story vehicles, and not just from snooty literary critics. I’ve heard many gamers boast about skipping cutscenes as proof of their commitment to hardcore gameplay and nothing else. I’ve had co-workers from other departments tell me that story always comes last. And while I agree that story should always defer to gameplay, I would argue that open-world video games have an incredible advantage to affect audiences in a way that no other medium can.
Dale Carnegie taught that “names are the sweetest and most important sound in any language...Talk to someone about themselves and they’ll listen for hours.” He also emphasized that “the deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated,” citing a hilariously dated study that the main reason “runaway wives” abandon their families is due to “a lack of appreciation.” Who would have guessed!
But how does this relate to video games? We’re not selling steak knives or deserting a thankless spouse (I hope). But we can use human self-interest, along with the player’s ability to freely interact within the game to complement the strengths that already exist in video games. Story relies on the Four Ps: People, Place, Plot, and Purpose, but I argue that video games contain an additional Three Ds, and I’m not talking about dimensions, har har: Dialog, Decision, and (i)Dentity. Hey, it works well enough for the Three Rs.
I have arranged the Three Ds in order of directness: Dialog choices are immediately recognizable as a choice the player can make. Next, missions should present the player with some sort of decision, giving them an investment in the outcome. And overall, the player should feel that their gaming avatar is an accurate reflection of their personality, or the one they wish to live through the game. These criteria are only available through video games, and for that reason I believe games are the future of storytelling.
I can’t show anything I’m working on so instead I’ll use examples from recent games I’ve played and a few classics. I am writing this article from the perspective of a narrative designer, and writing it specifically for other narrative designers. Also, I will not try to address the storytelling methods of linear games from studios such as Santa Monica Studios or Naughty Dog, who have created excellent and engaging stories while ignoring every point I am trying to make here.
One of the most direct ways to give the player a voice is through branching dialog. This has been a staple of RPGs for about as long as the genre has existed.
Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity: Gotta find those berries.
Fixed protagonist games such as Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption 2 use innovative branching dialog options as well.
Press O to ask a stranger, “Did you swap your face for your ass?”
Regardless of the genre, dialog should provide a breadth of options to match all player personalities, but the options should also be subtle. Life is subtle; the grey area is much larger than the black and white. Gaming stories should reflect this when possible.
That brings us to one of my favorite recent games: Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds. The dialog is written as a compelling mix of dark corporate satire and intimate, intertwining character arcs. In many conversations the companion characters interrupt to offer their own opinions, sometimes significantly altering the conversation. Obsidian has long held a reputation for sharp, memorable dialog, and The Outer Worlds shows why.
In the above example, the player is given five options, all of which will end the conversation and lead to a fight against marauders. Three of the options are skill based, meaning they are only available to the player if their skill trees are high enough. The remaining two lead to the same thing: the player volunteering to fight solo. This gives the player the option to inject their personality. Is the player heroic or more of a smart alec? Will they risk antagonizing the stolid Lieutenant or will they defer to her authority?
I like how the dialog options vary with the conversation. When the player enters the Unreliable, the game’s shuttle between the different planets, they have this conversation with ADA, the ship computer. ADA questions where the captain is, who was accidentally crushed by the player’s escape pod. The player is given three response options: assertive, sympathetic, and rude.
You can see the same template here, when meeting Vicar Max, a future companion character: assertive, sympathetic, and rude. There is also a fourth option for players who care less about the local chaplain’s job performance than he does. These options give the player a familiar path to follow. If they were too different from each conversation, it would be difficult for the player to nail down their character identity.
But now look at the options. The NPC is preparing to offer a side quest. The player can ask several questions: practical (“How much am I getting paid?”), expository (“Why would a cleric like you want a forbidden book?”), or just a sarcastic retort (“This is a sketchy favor, isn’t it”). And for the players who aren’t interested in the character’s quest, there is an exit option.
This is the first conversation available with Junlei, the space mechanic. Notice that the options don’t match the standard template either: honest, secretive, or snarky. These options are more interesting and relevant to the question than the assertive/sympathetic/rude template. The Outer Worlds establishes a clear dialog template so that its players know what to expect, but it isn’t afraid to break its own rules for the sake of a more interesting conversation.
For players who set their character intelligence to low, there’s even a “dumb” option:
And sometimes the dumb options beget even dumber responses:
The Halcyon System did not receive Earth’s best and brightest.
I’ve seen proposals about starting the game with a personality test and using the player’s results to determine the dialog for the entire game. As a writer, this sounds like a herculean amount of extra work, but the result could be really cool. Perhaps the closest thing we have to this so far is ZA/UM’s Disco Elysium. It features an unprecedentedly complex Thought Catalogue system for branching dialog that would require a separate in-depth analysis. The final script is over a million words long! But the intro-personality test has been done to an extent already by an earlier Obsidian game, Fallout: New Vegas:
Thank the mod community for the third option.
Providing the player with compelling dialog is important, but there is more to gaming than just conversations. As we learn from a very reliable source,“Words are wind, Jon Snow. Faith without works is dead.” Or something like that. To truly engage gamers in the story, they should have power over more than just what they tell an NPC when they accept a mission. They need to have a say in the mission itself.
“Every decision for one something is a decision against something else.” -Dark, S01E07
In season one of Netflix’s time-travel drama Dark, (mid-season one SPOILER WARNING), a teenager named Jonas discovers a time portal that leads to the year 1986. While wandering around town listening to A Flock of Seagulls and bumping into the teenage versions of his friends’ parents, he also spots his ex-girlfriend’s little brother, Mikkel, who mysteriously disappeared a few days earlier. Jonas wants to rescue the lost boy, but before he can intervene, he is interrupted by the Stranger, who warns him that if he returns Mikkel to the present, he will also be cancelling out his (Jonas) own existence. In the original timeline, the boy Mikkel remains in the ‘80s, falls in love with a girl his age, and grows up to become Jonas’ father.
So Jonas can choose to reunite a scared boy with his family, but if he does this he will cease to exist. Mikkel will never meet Jonas’ mother at the right age and so Jonas will never be born. At the end of the episode he decides to return to the present without intervening, allowing his father to follow along his original temporal course. Jonas lives to exist another day. He also has second thoughts about getting back together with his ex-girlfriend, who is actually his aunt...
When players make choices, they should always come at a cost. This is simple to achieve in RPGs: Whether you choose to return the [quest item] to its rightful owner or to the unscrupulous interloper, is a simple matter of scripting and branching dialog.
Early in InXile’s Wasteland 3, the player, in character as an Arizona Ranger, encounters an enemy Dorsey Stalker holding a gun to a fellow Arizona Ranger’s head. The player has a dialog option to let the Stalker go in exchange for releasing the Ranger.
“Make like a tree and pound sand, Colorado scum.”
Once she’s gone, the grateful freed Ranger warns the player that the Dorsey Stalker will now alert her cousins about the player’s presence. Which is exactly what happens next.
The Dorsey Stalker races to the next screen, where her cousins are holding two Arizona Rangers captive. She warns them that enemies are coming. In preparation for a shootout, the Dorsey Ambushers execute the hostage Rangers.
But what would happen if you choose to attack the first Dorsey Stalker, at the cost of the first Ranger’s life? Would you have a chance to save the subsequent Rangers? In-game decisions like this should always have rippling consequences. In the brutal world of Wasteland 3, there are no perfect answers where everyone can be saved. This is excellent reactive storytelling.
Bethesda’s Fallout 4 is another great example of a game that forces the player to choose for one thing and against something else. Throughout the game, the player becomes familiar with four main factions. The final section of the game requires the player to choose between them. But whatever the player chooses, the rest are destroyed. This was a difficult choice for me. The Brotherhood of Steel seems to have taken a step towards fascism since the last game, the Institute is indifferent to human suffering, and the Minutemen are just annoying.
I allied with the Synth-liberating faction The Railroad, because they seemed to be the purest of heart, but afterwards I fretted that I had made the wrong choice. The Railroad was hobbled by their good intentions and would never bring about meaningful change to the Commonwealth. A savage land requires a heavy hand to rule it, and the Brotherhood of Steel has the heaviest hand of all: Liberty Prime.
It’s a decision I still wonder about six years later.
That’s significantly more complex than the ending of Fallout 3, which boils down to a choice between good and evil: kill everyone in the Capital Wasteland or provide them with clean water. This isn’t a complex choice. The Fallout 3 ending did spawn a memorable moment in video game logic though, so maybe it’s a tossup.
Radiation isn’t deadly to mutants, so Fawkes could have turned off the reactor without the player having to sacrifice themselves.
Right now, fans of the series are agitatedly stroking their replica PIP-Boys and hissing at their screens, “What about New Vegas?” Once again, Obsidian knows how to create a complex game. New Vegas introduced a Reputation mechanic, companions characters who react to dialog choices, and an endgame decision point that, with the exception of one faction, is almost entirely shades of grey. The Caesar’s slaver Legion is clearly evil, but who among the remaining factions, New California Republic, Mr. House, or Yes Man is clearly good? The choices are more about player decision than generic good or evil. Does the player side with budding imperialists, the techno-robber baron, or do they choose the tabula rasa option with the robo-sidekick? The player picks their poison.
The examples I’ve given above are all from RPGs with unlimited personal customization, but it’s also possible for fixed-protagonist games to give the player control over certain outcomes. In CD Projekt Red’s Witcher 3, the player is the gruff monster hunter and bath aficionado Geralt of Rivia.
Who doesn’t like to relax after a long day of fighting Nekkers and Drowners?
Throughout Geralt’s quest for the Wild Hunt, the player is offered scores of side quests to choose from. Many of these are simply killing a beast for a village, but some end with a choice: should the player kill the godling or set him free? Should the player put the poltergeist to rest or turn it in for the reward? Many times the repercussions of the player’s decisions are not made present until much later.
I also like how Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V lets you choose which of the three protagonists to kill for the game’s final mission. I chose to kill Trevor, because I hated him. After being locked into so many cutscenes of him behaving psychopathically, I was happy to finally put him out of his misery.
“Now it’s Trevor’s turn to get a yee yee ass haircut.”
But speaking broadly about gamers and games, what drives the decision? I’m not presenting this as some clever maieutic. The answer is as simple as the question: Identity. What the player chooses depends on their desired outcome, which is the result of who they are.
Discussing player identity requires a more holistic view of the gaming experience. Why would a player choose one dialog line over another? Why would they choose one mission option over another? This depends on the identity they have chosen for their in-game character.
Narrative designers, generally don’t have a lot of control over the systems that get put into a game: reputation, good/evil, social, companions, skill trees, crafting, combat, etc. ad infinitum. The best way to contribute to an immersive gaming experience is to provide effective writing. This doesn’t mean injecting Nabokovian wordplay into your gear descriptions, but rather making sure to describe the object and its role in the larger world as fully as possible.
Something I learned as a storyboard artist is that clarity always trumps artistry. A stick figure drawing that clearly expresses a gag is more useful to the director and animators than a beautifully rendered mural that does not. The same principle extends to narrative design. Are your gear descriptions brief and evocative, or are they lengthy expeditions through the thesaurus? Do your NPC callouts/barks reflect the avatar identity the player envisions or are they a run-on string of syllables and clichés? Probably more than any other artist, narrative designers must be willing to kill their darlings.
A game that does an excellent job describing its world is Wasteland 3. I want to go over some examples here, but first a Trigger Warning for gore. This is the kind of game that keeps Joe Lieberman up at night.
The game starts with a cinematic ambush that leaves the player, an Arizona Ranger, stranded and vulnerable atop a frozen Colorado lake. As the player’s party navigates the icy terrain in search of safety and leadership, they encounter horrific sights. Corpses of massacred Arizona Rangers litter the map, each with a unique OST description. This is an impressive world-building effort that pays off in an unseen way.
Can you imagine seeing a dead soldier, his eyes so wide with fear when he died that they now reflect the broader scene of carnage? How do you react as a player?
Whoever did this is taking no quarter. The player has been warned.
This could have been a friend of yours. Now he’s just a pulpy stain on the ice.
This is a brutally evocative description of a dead body. This tells the player that the enemies he or she is up against are vicious. The enemies have tortured the player’s compatriot to death. How should the player react to this? Cautious about another ambush? Eager for vengeance? Anxious to get to safety?
If Wasteland 3’s OST descriptions were limited to just “Dead Ranger,” the player would have less information to influence their reaction, and thus their character identity. They might conclude that their own Ranger HQ is cruel for sending so many brave fighters to a bloody death in a strange northern land. They might blame wild animals. They might even deduce that a very aggressive stomach virus is going around Colorado.
You might think it’s silly to worry about the player deriving so many different opinions about the dead Rangers, considering they just watched the opening cinematic of the Dorseys’ ambush, but you would be surprised by gamers’ unlimited ability to misunderstand and misinterpret.
But the Patriarch’s Colorado isn’t entirely a frozen hellscape of death and torture. There’s still a silver lining of merriment to be sought out:
Maybe it’s just lemonade.
One last note, the narrative designers on Wasteland 3 had the advantage of working on a game that speaks directly to players. But not every game has such a robust OST system. How can the writer contribute to world building on games that give the writer less control up front? The answer is that not all of a narrative designer’s work is player-facing.
Video game creation is a supremely collaborative effort. The writer should have a consummate vision for any writing they do, be it NPC conversations, character backstories, mission assets, mission locations, and so forth. They must be willing and able to clearly convey their vision to the artists and designers tasked with bringing them to life. Writers should also be willing to listen to other departments as well. Some of the best story solutions I’ve seen have come from outside the Story.
Whether on the front or the back end, the narrative designer’s job is to give the player the information they need to build their character identity, which in turn affects their decisions, which determines their dialog.
Plot, Person, Place, and Purpose dictate conventional storytelling, but video games have additional tools to immerse the audience: Dialog, Decision, and (i)Dentity (yeah, I’m sticking with it). With these extra dimensions, we can create the most impactful stories our audiences have ever felt. I remember the sense of betrayal I felt during John Marston’s last stand in Red Dead Redemption (and the boredom of helping him build a house in the prequel/sequel), and the pride I felt at the end of New Vegas when I told the major factions that the Strip was under new management: mine. The palpable shock and dread I felt all throughout Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II was on par with any episode of Battlestar Galactica. The hallucinatory finale of Rocksteady’s Arkham Knight is every bit as mind bending as The Simpsons episode where Homer eats the Guatemalan insane asylum chili.
Video games are often derided as an immature medium, There is no Citizen Kane, Moby Dick, or Sopranos (unless you count the Playstation 2 adaptation). Or is there? There is nothing to stop us from creating stories that will stick with audiences across the generations, as many games already have. A medium is only as good as the stories one uses it for, and video games devs have no excuse for not creating the most compelling stories that modern audiences have ever experienced. We are far past the days of rescuing princesses or mayors’ daughters.
A final word of advice from Dale Carnegie: “All men have fears, but the brave put down their fears and go forward, sometimes to death, but always to victory.” Video games force the audience to take control and to take accountability. That’s not a weakness; it’s a strength.
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