The Story is not the whole story! I’m serious.
One of the first things you learn in game design is that every game has a narrative. Pacman is about some weird hungry creature and his survival in a haunted world. Tic-tac-toe is a battle between two powers, and the narritive for hangman is in the name.
People perceive things in situations and stories. When they describe their experience with your game they’ll tell a story of what happened when they were playing last night. Telling and hearing stories is something we are wired for.
In games story is almost perceived as a separate part of the game. A game often has story segments where players just watch. People enjoy the game-play but don’t like or want the story. I want to talk about the story that happens outside of the obvious cut-scenes.
Your game is telling a story of its own, and it’s independent from the story sections of your game.
Games have always been driven to become more cinematic. I grew up on the games of the 80s and 90s. Games like Zelda, Final Fantasy 1-9, and Chrono Trigger showed me two things:
That games can be the best story telling medium when they want to be.
That I want to devote my life to creating games.
They did this by expertly using the technology of the time to weave dialogue, visual arts, sound/music, and game-play together into one entity. When you combine these things together you get more than the sum of the individual parts. When all elements are working together they all compliment each other. They cause immersion that fires the player’s imagination.
Some of these early games did something amazing. They told a story without uttering a word and without making the player watch. You see it’s not just the story that’s the story. The game’s art, sound, environments and game-play, everything that happens to the player while you have their attention is your game’s story.
You could create a great game story without stopping to explicitly tell the player story is happening. You can even tell an effective story with no dialogue at all! Look at the aptly named 2012 game Journey. It tells the story of a journey, but it never stops to tell you this. It just lets you experience it. The result is total immersion.
This is accomplished primarily by the use of the environment the player passes through; every ancient ruin or rocky outcrop, the occasional fellow player who suddenly makes the game feel less lonely, the sound of a sandstorm as it blinds the players vision.
That level that the player just passed through is as powerful a tool as any cut-scene. Imagine encountering a giant mural of a battle long ago, alien hieroglyphics, a fallen warrior clinging to a book, graffiti on the wall that says “Keep Out or Die!”. Games that tell a story well understand this fact, the environment that players just pass through has a huge effect on the story.
Similarly, imagine passing through a level and hearing something crying out in agony. Imagine the echo of footsteps. Imagine how a violin concerto or blaring rock music will effect the players interpretation of your story.
You can even use different types of game-play to get something across to the player. There is an adrenaline rush when moving really fast and blowing lots of things up. There’s a certain feel of desperation when you give the player tons of enemies to deal with.
Most games today use cut-scenes as a reward for the player progressing in the game. This method doesn’t fit every game. It has to suit the type of game-play you are looking for. If I were to put cut-scenes in Tetris, that would be really weird right? So what makes it correct to use in a FPS or TPS?
I would argue that in many games today the story should be told with the virtual blood of battle; the clattering of heavy machine guns, thick smoke bellowing off a wrecked tank, space marines shouting expletives, the sound of choppers overhead, a snipers bullet whizzing by your head (this is also the story of a good multi-player match). All of these things conspire to create a sense of place and are more powerful story telling then some guys sitting in a war room talking about sending the player’s character to stop a terrorist plot. If the player is there to blow stuff up, don’t spend time trying to show them a dramatic tv show.
I’m not knocking game-play to cut-scene type story telling, I often enjoy it. I just want to get across that it’s key to understand the story telling that best compliments your game.
There is also a jarring effect when you change all around to different characters that have nothing to do with the player’s character. Successful immersion is created only when the player feels like they are in the shoes of their character. That character may be a pawn in a larger plot, but that doesn’t matter to the player.
One thing to note is that these cut-scenes do provide time for the player to rest, but there are more interesting ways of pacing the player. You could do something like have the player drive for a minute and have dialogue in the background. An open-world game doesn’t even need this as pacing because an open-world would provide it’s own.
What I am trying to say is that your game’s story is a lot more than the cut-scenes. Because players are constantly thinking and interpreting, it’s nearly every thing you do. You can even use your UI to create a better sense of place.
Story can be told driving down a desolate road, and a story can be told in a multi-player match. You must look at everything through this lens.
If your game does a good job of telling its story when it’s not telling its story, snapshots of epic moments or times where the player felt emotion will stay with the player forever. That’s all folks. I’ll be posting future articles on http://www.itsmadscience.com and my twitter. Follow me for more.