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Single Servings of Story

Telling stories is hard, and sometimes you want a story without all the baggage that's attached. Fortunately, game devs get to use the "Just Enough" principle: as long as we're careful, we can tell "half-stories" that leave us more time for gameplay.

The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker is pretty damn great, isn’t it?  The combat was tight, the world was expansive (I happened to like the sailing), and the story was epic and mystical while being surprisingly intimate.  But would you ever go see the movie version or read the novelization? 

I should hope not.  It would suck worse than “The Room”.

Okay, maybe not that bad, but without the gameplay it sure wouldn’t be very good.

The story in Legend of Zelda: Windwaker –like many others in the Zelda franchise- is too shallow to function on its own, but it works remarkably well when paired with another form of compelling entertainment.  This is proof of what I call (with great pretention) the “Just Enough” principle.  Because we’re teaming a story up with another source of entertainment we can get away with having “just enough” story to function as a frame for gameplay without any of those messy, complicated, and therefore development-extending, emotions.  

Sometimes we want emotions.  Sometimes we want to make The Last of Us, to make Braid, sometimes we want to explore a part of us that’s too intricate to understand without a journey, a part of us too profoundly fragile to be expressly communicated, but sometimes we just want to blow shit up. 

Ultimately the type of story you should make is between you and your marketing team, but what do we do when gameplay is the one and only priority?  What can we leave out, making our story as thin as possible to save our time and our budget, and what do we really need to keep in?  Here’s a few of my own insights into making the short, sweet stories that only work for games.

  1.  Don’t Make it “About” Anything

Rule number one for storytelling is that a story needs a theme –something that our hero learns which we, the audience, can translate into our own lives (comedies can be exceptions).  “Finding Nemo” is about learning to let our children grow up, “Romeo and Juliet” is about how love is a more important concern than death, and “Miss Congeniality” is about how it’s okay to be tough and feminine at the same time.  If you want your story to be able to stand on its own merit you’re going to need a theme, but if you’re only worried about the gameplay then your theme should be the first cut.  A whole lot of time can be saved by just accepting that your story isn’t going to “mean” squat.

To bring it back to The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker, Link's journy isn’t “about” anything.  It isn’t “about” discovering the person you’re meant to be, nor is it “about” the importance of family.  Link starts out attempting to rescue his sister, but then just sort of keeps going because, I guess, Gannondorf is the bad guy.  But really just because.  The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker is about because, and when you aren’t trying to be Mass Effect that can work just fine.

  1. Focus on Structure

In a normal story, plot structure and character building are equally important, but we’re not telling a normal story; we’re telling the smallest story possible.  Characters take time.  Structure doesn’t.  Characters are about specificity and complexity (again, comedies can be exceptions), whereas structure is about overall tone and timing, neither of which take a whole lot of work to establish.  Developing your character can have powerful effects on gameplay as well, but structure aids gameplay (primarily by pacing the gameplay) in broad stroaks and half the time.  Focus more on what happens when than who’s involved and why.  Link and Gannondorf aren’t all that complicated, but not everyone needs to be Joel and Ellie.

  1. Be Symbolic (a.k.a. Fine, You Can, Just This Once, Use The Hero’s Journey)

I’m by and large not a fan of The Hero’s Journey.  It’s effective, but it’s restrictive; it tackles storytelling difficulties by dictating the exact path you need to take every single time.  I jokingly refer to it as story by numbers.

That’s a lie.  I don’t say it jokingly.  But what makes it useful in our circumstance is that it works symbolically.  The Hero’s Journey represents emotional growth without actually taking the time to have the characters evolve organically.  The deification of the hero represents complete emotional growth without actually requiring it, just as the refusal of the call represents our general unwillingness to change without requiring the hero to have actual flaws. 

There’s a reason that The Hero’s Journey has been so successful: it represents something that means a great deal to us, but because it’s symbolic it doesn’t require a whole lot of detail (or, dare I say, effort) to function.  If you’re trying to tell a unique, meaningful story, I’d say you can do better, but when it comes to doing “just enough” The Hero’s Journey fits our needs.

Just to clarify my position: nothing replaces a fully told tale.  Nothing replaces the games that Naughty Dog, Bioware, and Telltale –to name only a few- have graced us with, but we need The Legend of Zelda just as badly as we need Uncharted, and single servings of story can be useful to us without bringing the baggage of an epic yarn.  Just remember that a single serving won’t appease your player without a full-course game attached.

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