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Story Design Tips: Control Your Game’s Lesson

Every story has a lesson. If you don’t design the right one, your story will have the wrong one.

Stories are as old as humanity. Their structure is ingrained into us. And some of that structure includes unexpected elements. Here’s one: All stories contain lessons. Whether you want your story to contain one or not, whether it’s the lesson you wanted to convey or not, whether your story is for children or for adults, whether it’s political or nonsensical – all stories contain lessons. Some lessons are stupid, some are smart, some are complicated, some are simple. But all stories contain lessons.

First, let’s learn to see the lessons in stories, and then we’ll take a look at how that applies to games in stories and to story design.

The Simple Lessons

The lesson is not the sentence at the end of the fairytale that someone arbitrarily put there. The lesson is hidden in the subconscious effect of the story on the reader: In the fairy tale about Little, Red Riding Hood, the lesson would be that talking to strangers is bad.

The simpler your stories, and fairy tales are simple, lessons come in the form of ‘X is bad’ or ‘X is good’. There isn’t a story you’ve heard and liked that does not give you a subconscious lesson.

Lessons Can Become Complex

The more you’re able to manipulate the structure of the story, the more you can manipulate the lesson. Lessons can become political (but since lessons appeal to the gut, the politics needs to come from the gut).

For example, Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson takes place at a time when blacks are treated as if they are subhuman. They talk differently, they’re treated differently, and they treat themselves differently as a result. Now the thing is that blacks don’t need to appear black, they need to come from slave blood.

In the story, a mother replaces her baby, which appears white but is 1/16th black with another newborn baby, which is all white. The ‘originally-black’ baby grows up to be a snobbish kid that abuses the ‘originally-white’ kid who talks and thinks with slave mentality. The subconscious statement of the story is that there is absolutely no difference between black people and white people.

In an article, Asimov once said about Star Trek (the original series) that since it took place when nuclear war seemed a possibility, and right after the 60’s brouhaha, as well as the civil rights movement and all that entailed, one of the statements (subconscious lessons) from Star Trek was that “Everything is going to be all right”. That was because you saw a future, a few centuries ahead, in which we did not destroy ourselves, in which different races lived in peace with each other, and in which justice was important.  

Now take a look at stories, books, movies, and TV shows you like and ask yourself what that statement is.   

How Does This Apply to Gaming?

All stories have lessons, whether you like it or not. If you design a story without taking that into account, or if you design a story that’s intended to have no lesson, you are as good as saying “I’m going to draw a beautiful picture, but this time I’ll make sure it has no composition at all because I hate the concept of composition.” It can’t be done. By ignoring it or setting it aside, you’re allowing an element of your story to be outside of your control. Why do that when you can take charge of it?

It seems to me that the best way to deliver a ‘lesson’, a ‘message’, through the stories done today is to follow Steven Bochco’s lead. Bochco is the creator of the revolutionary Hill Street Blues, as well as L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, and more. In an interview a few years ago, he revealed the way he looked at things, as far as lessons go.

Bochco didn’t look at each hour of a series separately. Rather, he looked at the whole of it together. When people returned to his series, they began to live in that world and breathe that world and identify with it. (This is much like the immersive gaming that exists today. Games take eight hours to play (most players play them more than once) and they suck the players completely into their world.)

So Bochco’s way to deliver his world-view was to put it in the structure of his series: In Hill Street Blues, for example, he wanted to show that life is dirty, that life is noise, that life is tough. And so he was the first one to actually add noise and dirt to the TV that used to be antiseptic before he came along.

On the other side of lesson-making is Disney. When he was alive, the overall lesson that came from watching any of his movies was that everything is good and love for mankind is in the air. In Homicide: Life on the Street, the writers wanted to show the audience that living beside death creates callousness towards the presence of it. Every episode showed that, regardless of the story. And so, if you watched the series, rather than a single episode, that lesson would find its way into your subconscious.

Before we get to lessons from games, here’s a lesson you wouldn’t expect. The lesson from watching America’s Top Model (which, obviously, all of you are watching) is: ‘Beauty comes from within’. This is the message not because anyone says it outright, but because whenever a beautiful girl doesn’t feel beautiful, the judges don’t see it in the picture. When a strange-looking girl feels like a supermodel, she looks like it in the picture. There is a lesson in everything that tells a story.

Now let’s take a look at games. The two Modern Warfare games are telling us that this is what war looks like. If you go to sleep after playing one of those games, you’re going to dream about war and what it looks like.

After playing Dead Space II, you’re going to think there are monsters everywhere. If you close your eyes after playing it, you’re going to feel those monsters coming. That’s the effect of immersive games. Are you getting the right effect out of your game?

You, the story designer and game designer, have a rapt audience for hours and hours. Start putting some of yourself into it, and build a story that comes solely out of you. A lesson would emerge from that story, whether you like it or not, that comes from your life experience. The lessons don’t have to be political. They don’t have to be contrary. But since they do have to be there – they have to come from you.

This leads us to a problem. Stories in the industry are rarely designed by individuals, but rather by teams. This is a surefire way to get a mangled lesson or an attempt at no lesson at all. Which, as I’ve said above, eventually hurts the story.

This should change. Stories should be designed by experts who really know what they’re doing and that can manipulate every aspect of the story to their will. And, just as importantly, bring themselves to the story design. The result of better storytelling is better games.

Think about it.

P.S.

I’ve been doing this Story Design Tips column for almost six months now in an attempt to raise awareness of overlooked aspects in story design, and I already have a backlog of ideas for the next six months. I started thinking, though, that maybe you have questions, as well, that you want addressed. So if you have questions, problems, ideas for future columns, please put them in the comments below or email me at guyhasson at gmail dot com, and I’ll try to address them as soon as I can.    

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