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Techniques of Written Storytelling Applied to Game Design

Written storytelling has been sharpening its own techniques for centuries. Writer and Microsoft Game Studios contributor Jeff Noyle takes these techniques and explores them from a game design perspective in hopes of inspiring better game storytelling.

It's been said many times, and that's because it's obvious: game design must strive to become more emotionally involving, and the best way to achieve this is to create resonant characters. It's obvious, but it's only half the story. The characters whom we seek to fill with emotional depth are the non-player characters (NPCs). In games, we have another class of characters: player characters.


Halo 2's cutscenes violates the player's sense of agency.

At first glance, it would seem that the rich set of techniques available to us from the visual media of film and television is ideally suited to creating compelling game characters. This is true, but only for the NPCs. These techniques are irrelevant to presenting a player character, because a first-person player character isn't presented, it is experienced. It's not empathy that we wish to promote in the player character, but immersive agency. No film script ever had to concern itself with such a task.

Where then do we look for guidance about how to promote an involving first-person experience? Written storytelling has been sharpening its own techniques for centuries. A first-person (or what's called a tight third-person) written account, one in which a character's deepest inner life is exposed, offers more insight into first-person gaming technique than does film, and in this article I will explore these well-understood techniques from a game design point of view.

The Biggie: Point of View

The first and by far the most important technique is the effective use of point of view. Point of view refers to the character chosen by the writer to relate the story. From the perspective of a first-person game designer, the most important kinds of point of view to study are first person and tight third-person. (see the sidebar for definitions).


Sidebar: Point of View and How to Mess It Up

What do the terms first- and tight third-person point of view mean? First person prose is characterized by lines like “I saw that, and I felt like this.” It's the character who is actually experiencing the action that relates the story. Third person has lines like “He saw that, and felt like this.” First person is fairly easy to get right. Tight third-person is more subtle, and is where mistakes most often creep in. Mistakes in both styles fall into two categories: commission and omission.

Firstly, let's look at errors of commission. The more tightly the point-of-view is presented, the more jarring it is when the text makes a point-of-view shift. In fact, point-of-view is such a well-established literary technique that any shift at more than a scene boundary is considered an error. The most serious form of this error is the “head hop:” switching from one character to another sentence by sentence. The reader is left confused and unaffected by the emotional state of any of the characters.Secondly, there are also errors of omission. Consider these two paragraphs describing the same action.

  1. Charlie put a one-dollar sticker on the statue next to the bed, hesitated, then put it in the box to take out to the garage sale.
  2. Charlie touched the statue. It was the one Helen would always hang her clothes on. It hurt just to look at this thing and see it unadorned by a t-shirt or jeans, empty of the simple objects that declared that she was still a part of his life. He picked up a one-dollar sticker and hesitated, unwilling to commit the act, to label this precious thing and render it no more than a cast-off, lifeless object. One dollar for a memory that was worth the world to him. He sighed. Holding on to all these things wouldn't bring her back. It was time to be strong. He had to let them all go. He placed the sticker on the statue's base, where it wouldn't tarnish the finish, and rested it as carefully as he could inside the box.

The difference in the emotional impact is obvious, and the impact comes from the fact that we can see into Charlie's head, and this insight lets us understand the meaning of each event. The first paragraph, devoid of this insight, is a point-of-view error of omission.


In written fiction, a sloppy point-of-view will earn your manuscript a one-way trip to the editor's bit bucket. There is a direct analogy to be drawn between such errors in written fiction and in interactive titles. In writing, the reader's empathy is sabotaged. In first-person games, it is the player's sense of agency that is lost.

Let's take a look at some specifics. Consider the cut-scene in a first-person game. The loss of agency is clear because we have taken away the very mechanism by which the player expresses that agency: the fact that the joystick controls what the character sees and does. But the situation is a little more complex than this. A cut-scene in which the player's character is portrayed in the third person does irreparable harm to the player's agency. A player who sees his or her character walking and talking out of their direct control is robbed of their power. The James Bond Golden-Eye tie-in made this mistake with frustrating regularity.

The switch from first-person to cut scene is analogous to switching from first-person to omniscient points of view in written fiction, but in our young medium it is debatable as to whether it is as grave a mistake. A cut scene that does not show the player's character can be very dramatic and does not necessarily defeat that sense of agency. It can indeed heighten it. Recall the closing sequence of Halo: watching the destruction of the ring was made all the more vivid by the knowledge that you, the player, caused it.

Now, we might reasonably expect that the interactive author is free to switch between different first-person points of view at low frequency, just as writers are. This is, of course, true, but we pay a price that is different from that of our literary cousins: if the new point of view presents an image of the other characters the player can control, then, as in the cut-scene, we have again defeated the player's sense of agency. For this reason, it is far more effective to stick to exactly one point of view in a first-person game. If the author does switch, then it is vital that the many points of view never observe each other. This situation leads to a tricky finale: you can't wrap up all the storylines in the same scene at the end of the game.

Point of view is also relevant to the player's audio environment. It's often tempting to have the player's character speak pithy comments that are heard by the player. Two examples that leap to mind are Duke Nukem's famous “Come get some” and Crimson Skies' player character noting “Now we're cooking with gas” after blowing up a fuel dump. This is a clear point of view error in a first-person title.

Show-Don't-Tell

The next technique we will consider is a more subtle one. In fact, most beginning writers, myself included, tend to scoff at its power before they understand it. This method has no particular name, but we can denote it by the phrase “show, don't tell.” These three words are a mantra for working writers, and remind us that the reader's experience is far more vivid when he or she is given credit for their intelligence and is allowed to infer information rather than be told it outright. The power of this process lies in the reader's tendency to infer more than they are told. Readers will always bring their own imaginations to bear on any information they receive, and a conclusion thus derived is bound to be richer, perhaps richer even than the author intended. This is why the effectiveness of the technique is invisible to the author, and likely to be underexploited by the neophyte writer.


Riven is an early example of successful interactive storytelling using "show, don't tell" to great effect.

Show-don't-tell doesn't necessarily mean that the author shouldn't give explicit information, rather that the important information, the stuff of the story itself, should be left strongly implied by what you do tell. For example, a story that shows jack-booted thugs, tanks in city streets at night, the beaten, downcast look of the citizenry and rifle-fire starting at exactly nine p.m. need not contain an explicit and far less affecting statement such as “the city was under fascist martial law.”

Let's consider how show-don't-tell transfers to the interactive realm. It's fair to say that there are no hard-and-fast rules, but an author who approaches the problem with an awareness of these issues is more likely to be successful. I'll present a list of the issues I have encountered, and my suggestions for addressing them.

  • There is a desire to make use of the player's valuable time when loading a level, and since game sizes are growing faster than the stubborn bandwidth of our various media and peripheral busses, the problem is only going to get worse. It's easy to succumb to the temptation to throw up a static image with a paragraph or two of text underneath it describing the area the player is about to enter. You'll find examples of this all over, notably in the Unreal Tournament series and Doom 3. Resist this urge. Your players will be far more involved if they experience the setting directly during the game itself. The same comments apply to install-time screens.
  • Training levels. Most game studios are now mature enough that they avoid an explicit training section of the game, and instead weave the learning of the control mechanism into the action itself. This was done well in Halo, for example, but not at all in Thief. This is as much an error of omission as of commission, since a training level robs the player of some time that could be better spent allowing them to experience the world we are showing them.
  • Back story in the game manual. Let the player experience it firsthand. Delete the pages from the manual and save the printing cost.
  • Pop-up text such as Doom's “you found a secret.” If a crate is located behind a locked door hidden behind a filing cabinet, the player already knows they've found a secret. Telling them is a form of authorial intrusion (see below) and is a guaranteed way to disconnect your player from the story.

Lastly, the writer must always resist the urge to explain. The reader is smarter than you think. Trust the reader to infer more than you show. A conclusion drawn by the reader from the clues you do provide enters their brain through an irresistible path: their own intelligence. They will trust and internalize that judgment far more deeply than the same result painted in pages of descriptive prose. The parallel to interactive titles is direct: avoid sledgehammers when showing elements of setting or character.


Grounding

The term “grounding” refers to the frequent resetting of the reader's imagination into the time and place the author wishes them to experience. In written stories, a lack of grounding leaves the reader guessing where the story is taking place, what time of day or year, how cold the air, what century. This confusion will be nagging the reader's mind, preventing him or her from concentrating on the events and emotions the writer is attempting to portray.


Half-Life 2 achieves a very high level of technical storytelling.

Grounding in games is easier to maintain. There is always a visual presentation on which the player can concentrate and from which the player can infer details of setting. Remember only that the angel is in the details here, that small things such as the state of the paint on the walls, the amount of trash on the floor, the color of the clouds (note how the sky changes accurately with time-of-day in Half-Life 2) can all contribute to grounding and should all be exploited deliberately. Reaction

Reaction in written fiction is the primary vehicle by which writers evoke empathy. A piece of writing always relates a sequence of events. A piece that refuses to illuminate the impact these events have on the character who experiences them is lifeless. A reader will use a word such as “dry” to describe writing like this, and will display their own reaction by putting down the book. Reaction is one of the hardest things to do well in written stories. Some writers have a gift for it, but others must gain proficiency only by steady practice.

Reaction is a difficult thing to port directly to interactive titles because there is no direct analogy. In first-person genres, the character from which we are most interested in eliciting a reaction is the player. We cannot therefore simply show the reaction. However, we can be aware of the fact that we are seeking to evoke one, and ensure that we employ as many visual and auditory queues as possible. Many of these are well-established in our medium, such as the red flash and visual jolt that accompanies an injury in any first-person shooter. It's still refreshing to come across a new example, such as the temporary deafness delivered by a nearby explosion in Half-life 2, and it's not wasted effort to seek as many avenues as possible.

Authorial Intrusion

One of the surest ways to bump a reader out of your story is to reveal the fact that a person invented that story. Authorial intrusion can take many forms, and can only be rooted out by exposing the work to other readers. Overly florid prose, explicit political statements and exaggerated walk-on characters who serve an obvious story purpose are all good examples of this error.

In games, the author who might intrude is either the writer or the level designer. We need to define two new classes of authorial intrusion for games: the classic types as listed above, and the pragmatic constraints imposed by the fact that we cannot hire enough artists to create an entire Universe. An example is the crate full of rocket launchers that tells the player that a helicopter gunship is just around the corner. This is a form of intrusion, because it reminds us that we are playing in a world that was created by a human being, and we are bumped from the story. Those levels should be tweaked such that the means to defeat an enemy are not visible until after the enemy is met. This doesn't eliminate the problem, but it does push it off to a point where the player is so engaged in a fight for survival that they are less likely to notice they have been bumped.

Pragmatic intrusion is of course unavoidable, but classic intrusion can and should be expunged wherever it arises.

Critique Groups Become Critique Testing

Working writers, even experienced, successful, multi-book authors, always participate in critique groups. The writer will bring in a short (a thousand words or so) sequence from their work and read it to a small group of diverse individuals who will then comment on their reactions to the piece. The reason this is done is again the fact that the reader's reaction is necessarily invisible to the author. Time and again, an author will hear reactions in critique that were completely unintended. If these reactions are negative, and if they are consistent for more than one member of the group, the author is well advised to change what's written.

We can apply this technique to games. All you have to do is sit a stranger down in front of the game and let them play for a few minutes. After which, you ask the player for their reaction. Ask them to describe the story they have witnessed in their own words. Some points to watch out for that come straight from our experience with literary critique groups:

  • Never pre-brief the player on the world in question. This defeats the whole purpose. Say nothing about what you are going to show them, not even the genre or time period being depicted. You will learn more from how a confused player responds than by having a briefed player confirm your elegant depiction of the world by parroting back what you have told them.
  • Make sure you critique-test with a diverse cross-section of your target audience. Gender, ethnicity and age in particular have a heavy impact on reaction.
  • All reactions are valid, because they are the reactions of a member of your target audience. But if you hear the same reaction more than once, you can be confident that you have discovered something significant.
  • When asking for feedback, do so in terms of questions that fish for the player's own personal reaction to the story. How did this situation make you feel? What questions arise in your mind? Did you like any of the characters you met? Dislike them? What is the world you just experienced?
  • Look for “bumps”. This is the most important point. Ask the critique-tester to describe any moment they felt disconnected from the story, any moment in which the author was visible. The answer may range from things like low texel density on a rock to how cliché a particular line of dialog was. Comments such as these are solid gold.

Critique testing like this is separate from general play-testing. Critique testing seeks to unearth bugs in your storytelling. Treat the process as entirely different from technical play-testing, and don't attempt to do both at once. Some Examples

By way of illustration, I'll give some concrete examples and thereby contrast some interactive titles that have achieved mature storytelling with others that have not.

  • Myst and Riven were two of the early successes of interactive storytelling. The point of view is perfect in both titles, and both offer many examples of good use of show-don't-tell. Sirrus's and Achenar's bedrooms in the first game hold many a creepy trinket that evoke the personalities of their owners far more effectively than would a cut-scene or passage of prose during a load.
  • Half-Life 2 achieves a very high level of technical storytelling. The point-of-view is almost flawless. The only slip-up I can recall noticing is watching my own hands move of their own accord after I donned my environment suit in Doctor Kleiner's lab. Show-don't-tell moments abound. One of the most effective is the sequence where the player passes out at the hands of a squad of thugs, only to wake up to the sight of one slender young woman and a pile of motionless bodies. The player infers a lot about Alyx Vance in this sequence, without even realizing they are doing it. We are shown Alyx's boisterous personality again shortly thereafter, as she leaps over a railing instead of taking the convenient stairs. A moment of high subtlety is the sight of one of Father Grigori's hangouts in the Ravenholm level: a lawn chair and a box of ammo atop a building. His maniacal and gleefully murderous attitude towards zombies is beautifully illustrated by that simple collection of objects. Elsewhere, we do see some authorial intrusion, most notably the afore-mentioned RPGs on the bridge, heralding a battle with an aerial foe. Finally, it's interesting to note that the game in its original form didn't offer a deathmatch mode set within its universe. This, I believe, was a deliberate attempt not to dilute the story. Practicalities (or economics?) do intrude, and a deathmatch mode was released by popular demand.
  • Doom 3 makes many mistakes of technique. The player's vantage point is extracted from his or her character's head and taken towards cut scenes showing exchanges between characters that the player-character could not have experienced. This is a blatant violation of point of view. Worse, the player character then enters the room, unbidden by the player. When such a sequence is over, the point of view slides back into the player character's head, and we are expected to pick up our sense of agency immediately, to make that dizzying switch between actor and witness, and at regular intervals. Doom 3 is also very heavy-handed with explanation and out-of-character exposition. Witness the explicit telling of the written prose in the level load screens. It would have been far more effective simply to allow the player to experience, for example, that Mars Underground was dilapidated and dirty.
  • Halo 2. This title has mixed success. It manages to offer some solid point of view sequences that show (not tell) evocative things, but then slips into agency-violating cut scenes showing the Master Chief doing and saying things that the player did not initiate.

This list is a good opportunity to assess the efficacy of these techniques. Which experience was the more involving? Which seemed to have the best story? Now think about the actual story, its complexity and power devoid of its vehicle, the game. The difference is in the quality of the presentation, and this arises purely from technique. In Conclusion: Trust Your Writer!

Writers of prose fiction have been working the bugs out of their presentation technique for a long time, and we can learn a good deal from them. It's true that a skilled writer can break these rules for dramatic effect, but it's a prerequisite to understand the rules first.

Perhaps the best lesson to be learned from written fiction is that a production house should always have an experienced, professional writer on-call if not on-staff, and should always listen when the writer says something that doesn't at first sound important. It might be!

I expect that, as our medium matures, we will see a standardization of accepted technique, and deviations from the well-established methods will be few and far between, used consciously for dramatic effect or to increase usability. I look forward to that day.

For Further Information

There are many books on written storytelling technique. Some good ones:

  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King, ISBN 0-06-270061-8
  • Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card, ISBN 0-89879-927-9
  • The First Five Pages, Noah Lukeman, ISBN 0-684-85743-X

 

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