Originally posted on my blog at Dpad Studio
In this article I want to take a brief look at how stories in games can be used effectively through gameplay to flesh out important details that give more weight to the larger much simpler goal of the overall game.
Games need stories, but that doesn't mean everything in a game should be subservient to that story. I take a lot of pleasure in reading, it’s probably what I do more than anything else with my time, but there comes a point where verbose media becomes obnoxious. That point is different for everyone and it’s not easy or good to assume on the designer’s part. Something I've learned over the years is that an individual’s responses to pacing and their tolerance is entirely dependant on that their mood and expectations as they interact with a game over time. Pacing is a fluid experience because of an excessive number of factors. People enjoy and dislike different micro and macro elements of media and their favour changes based on where they are and who they’re with. A noisy exciting showroom can be beneficial or detrimental as would a comfy couch with no one else to share the experience. Certain aspects of a game won’t bother some people as much as others. Backtracking for items is fun if you’re happy with the game’s other elements. Awkward collision system issues are downplayed if you’re having fun with everything else. Nagging issues only bring down the experience if the game isn't trying to win over the player with more strengths than weaknesses. Polishing your game with love is super important.
There are some books I cannot marathon because of how they’re written or formatted. Really it can be any combination of font size, font type, word spacing, diction, sentence structure, chapter length, descriptions of characters and scenery, errors in an author’s research, errors in character reasoning and motivation, and continuity to name a few things. But my response to each of these things will change depending on what I’m interested in getting out of it.
I may keep reading because I need to know how Stannis will prove himself the most metal of kings or what Tyrion is up to, everything else about Danny flopping around her unstable kingdom is not so interesting but I don’t mind it because I’m still interested in the world and what is going on. I don’t hate any characters enough to skip chapters. I generally don’t have a problem with the fluffy language about clothes and food because character motivations have my attention.
The same can be said about how long I can play a game for. Sometimes I can just marathon a game in 10-25 hours and love it. Othertimes I can only play in 10-20 minute bursts once a week or maybe an hour before I give up on it.
In a game you’re up against even more issues than a novel since now you’re including visuals, sound, hardware, and interaction with systems. It doesn't matter how interesting your story is or how well you've built up the atmosphere when inconsistent character monologues ruin it with deflating awkward recordings. The last thing I want in a horror game (while escaping for my life or thinking that I’m being hunted) is a calm indifferent voice coming from my character. This only makes sense if the character is written to be this way. You need to know where your strengths are and mitigate the inevitable weaknesses of the experience. Story is a way for the designer to better understand their own game by comparing elements of the experience as a whole in an intended context. This is probably why the final boss in Kirby’s Dreamland 3 (SNES) has such a lasting impact.
Source: Flying Omelette
Kirby games use a simple story about dreams and nightmares colliding in physical space. Nightmares infect everything and spread quickly. Kirby is there to push it back but never destroys it completely. Contrast is what makes people appreciate what they have or don’t have. The story of a Kirby game exists to unify themes and ideas with a simple goal. Kirby games (especially Dreamland 3) use little stories in each level as a goal and rewards the player with a heart fragment. In one case you need to avoid stepping on any flowers to make the NPC at the end happy. There are other quests that ask you to mimic the NPC or have a specific power, lots of variation within established gameplay. It follows a strict level design formula where the 2nd to last room of any level is the optional quest. The sum of these side quests is to unlock the final area or boss of the game. The story here is that Kirby needs to help everyone because Kirby needs everyone’s help to save Dreamland. The sum of these heart fragments form a magical super weapon for Kirby to combat the ultimate nightmare. It’s expressed entirely through gameplay and I think elegant solutions like this are the best. The goal is to get the player emotionally invested in the larger conflict by using smaller more personal stories that shed light on who you’re saving from endless nightmares.
In something more complex like the Souls series it makes sense to put most of the story into item descriptions and NPCs. The story is that you missed the party and what’s left of the old world is in the ground or shambling on. It creates a puzzle outside of the game to make sense of all this information that’s thrust upon you without explanation. I think it works a lot like Kirby where the overall goal is saving the world, but that sense of true completion doesn't happen just because you beat the end boss. You have to investigate individual stories to really save anyone. In that way you’re the hero no one deserves and an archaeologist. The cryptic nature of the story elements creates initial distance for the player from the world and invites them to close the gap with their own efforts. You can also eliminate these NPCs from the world if you choose to, bringing another type of closure to problems in this world.
If you don’t have a story of some kind in your game plan it can cause the experience to become unfocused. Your story helps provides your design a set of rules and goals to stick to and break when appropriate. Stories are for the benefit of your design: Who, what, when, where and why fill gaps and enrich what you've already got layed out. Sometimes a simple story can help distance you from the smattering of ideas you want to use so you can single out the conflicting ones. You might even see connections between ideas that weren't there until you've re-interpreted your own work.
I think that some of the weakest games are ones that borrow ideas without integrating them into a narrative. You can break down games into their tropes and ideas common to other games, but it’s the story that woven into the world that makes the game own all of it. It should become more than the sum of its parts with that extra polish.
How you implement the little things in life depends entirely on what your game is trying to be. I want to be jumping and running around doing things in my games with the option to stop and look around. That’s generally what I want to make and I’m happy exploring the types of games that give me pleasure. I want more platformers, adventure games, jRPGs, tactics games and puzzlers. When I’m playing I want to go back to optional content that was beyond my ability at one time. I think it’s great design to give players the choice of setting their own pace. It’s about focusing on a core game that leaves the player wanting more so they will go exploring for these details once they grasp the scope of things. If I find the general story interesting and worth my time I will invest my efforts and get good so I can accomplish sidequests. If I find the gameplay interesting I will learn more about the world and the story in the process of enjoying optional content.