Backing games with a strong story is an inherently complex effort -- and considering that not all games even need narrative, why go to all the trouble?
In a Gamasutra-exclusive analysis
, Marianne Krawczyk and Susan O'Connor, writers for the God Of War
series and Far Cry 2/Gears Of War
respectively, discuss the transformative effect that stories can have on gameplay:
So why do so many writers and designers get bogged down in 10-car pileups when they work together? They have the same goal, after all: create a compelling experience for the end user. The trouble begins when they approach the same problem from opposite directions.
A game writer looks for brief moments -- cutscene or otherwise -- when she can take control of the game so that she can create throughlines, pacing, conflicts, character development, plot twists and thematic meaning.
A game designer looks for ways to give control -- not to the writer, but to the player.
Both the writer and the designer are right. Stories benefit from structure, and players love their freedom.
Krawczyk and O'Connor raise several thought-provoking 'what-ifs' -- for example, what if the player were the hero, or not the protagonist? In other words, in a strong story, the protagonist has a specific desire he or she is seeking, and rarely does that work in concert with what the player wants to do.
The player is operating on a higher plane than his avatar. The avatar thinks he is a prince that lives in a kingdom; the player knows he is a blip on a screen.
The player's desires are usually tied to gameplay, not story. The avatar says, "I want to save the princess"; the player says, "I want to kill as many dragons as I can."
A protagonist with a strong desire can create production problems for both the writer and the designer. Desire clashes with agency.
So how to resolve the inherent conflict?
Some studios create a main character that has a very passive desire -- or no desire at all. "I am a soldier, I fight." This approach results in an avatar that supports gameplay, but it can also leave us with dull characters and a pointless plot.
Other studios create a main character that is driven by a strong, overpowering desire. "I'll kill the king and end this war if it's the last thing I do."
Then the writer and designer must show the player the impact of this desire -- and this is the avatar's desire, not the player's desire -- so we are left watching cutscenes, and in effect watching someone else's story. This can work, but it has its obvious limitations.
Here is another option: cast an NPC as the protagonist, build a story arc around his desire -- and design gameplay as a counterpunch to that arc.
The full Gamasutra feature
contains much more depth on creative ways writers can resolve common conflicts between gameplay and narrative -- and thereby the conflicts between writing and design (no registration required, please feel free to link to this feature from other websites).