When tales wag the dog: How narrative can help or hurt your game

In this classic Game Developer magazine column, industry veteran Noah Falstein examines when it's appropriate to invest your time in telling a good story, and when it's better to leave well enough alone.
In this reprint from the December 2007 issue of Game Developer magazine, industry veteran Noah Falstein examines when it's appropriate to invest your time in telling a good story, and when it's better to leave well enough alone. Consider the following statements. "Games need storytelling to reach a wide audience." "Storytelling and games are polar opposites, and any game designer who thinks otherwise is just a frustrated novelist or screenwriter." "Games don't need story, but they need strong, archetypal characters to be really successful." "Games thrive on narrative, not story -- it's all about the player's story of what happened to her while playing the game; the rest is just backstory."

The Story of Contradiction

These are just four fairly contradictory points of view that are expressed frequently whenever game developers gather. And despite the contradictions, there are elements of truth to all of them. The larger truth is that games and their design goals can vary tremendously. Some succeed or fail based on the story included in them, as is the case with adventure games. Others need storytelling as much as the proverbial fish needs a bicycle. Tetris and some match-three casual games fit that description. Some can make good use of storytelling elements, but are still primarily about the gameplay, like many first-person shooters and real-time strategy games. And some titles focus on the narrative that happens between players after the game, as with The Sims. But it's easy to dodge the issue by saying that the interactive world is big enough to include all types of games. The questions that really should be of interest to game designers are, when do story elements enhance a game, when do they diminish it, and when and how should they be used? These are big topics, but here are a few rules of thumb about the first two questions at least.

When Storytelling Helps

Emotional weight. Story and characters can add emotional weight to interactivity -- that's probably the single biggest reason to include a story and strong characters in games. This statement is particularly relevant to games that have goals driven by the motivations of the characters, which helps explain why Tetris or Bejeweled don't really need emotional weight. Rewards and respite. Story provides rewards or welcomed breaks from action, and can add compelling goals to a game. There is a lot of controversy about how best to implement story, but many games, from Half-Life to StarCraft to God of War, have shown that story progression can help with a game's tempo and engage players on levels beyond the core interactivity. Entertainment. Storytelling can be an optional layer of entertainment on top of gameplay, so that players who care about the story can revel in it, and the others can hit Escape and get back to the interactivity. Characters as hooks. Strong archetypical characters can provide good emotional hooks without much story depth. Duke Nukem and Solid Snake may not have the depth of a Hamlet or Odysseus, but they're a lot more fun to play than "Generic Avatar No. 4."

When Storytelling Hurts

Unnecessary. Some gameplay styles just don't need much story. Abstract puzzle games, sports titles, and embedded mini-games are often fine standing on the merits of their gameplay alone. Unbefitting of the gameplay. Story elements must be carefully designed to complement interactivity, not clash with it. If a player is forced to sit through long cutscenes (and for some players, long means more than five seconds) that wrest control away at the most exciting points of the game, something is wrong. Seamless blending of story with gameplay is possible, and ruthless editing of non-interactive sequences is essential. Stories by inexperienced writers. Good storytelling -- even just good character creation -- is hard and takes practice. A designer with no previous background in writing will probably create some pretty bad stories while learning his craft. So designers must listen to others to learn whether the story is working, as it is much too easy to fall in love with your own story and characters simply because you created them. Ignoring this maxim will often result in stories that actually diminish the game's replay value. Out of character. The story theme and characters must align thematically with the gameplay. Lara Croft is a good fit as a personality for the kind of tasks she tackles in a game. The Prince from Katamari Damacy, charming as he can be, would not be a good tomb raider. The humor of Guybrush Threepwood works great in Monkey Island, but would be a touch out of place in Silent Hill.

Playing With Fire

Like the old saying about fire, storytelling as an element of game design can be a good servant but a terrible master. It's better to first try it under some experienced or expert supervision, or failing that, start with a small, inconsequential part of a larger game. Do it right, and you'll warm the hearts of your players. Do it wrong, and you (as well as they) will be burned!

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