How to write a video game story - Polygon

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My first attempt at writing a video game script begins with the socialist journalist and activist Marina Ginestà, a remarkable woman who died five years ago, at the age of 94. How to write a video game story - Polygon

Although she lived an eventful life, she’s most famous for a photograph taken of her when she was 17 years old, standing on the rooftop of a Barcelona hotel, a rifle slung over her shoulder. It’s one of the most arresting images of the Spanish Civil War, in which young, idealistic Europeans like Ginestà fought for democracy, against a coalition of fascists and aristocrats.

I’m going to use that photograph as the first building block of my game. You see, I’ve signed onto an online course called Story for Video Games, a six-session investigation of interactive narrative. By the end of the course, I hope to have created a fully fleshed story for a game. There’s no coding or art. I only have to write.

Marina Ginestà, photographed July 21, 1936, in Barcelona.Juan Guzmán

The course is run by John Yorke, the author of Into the Woods, a book on how stories work. He also runs courses on writing novels, plays, movie scripts, and TV dramas. He’s spent most of his career in British television, holding senior roles on the BBC’s most popular production, the rollicking soap opera EastEnders.

Yorke tells me that games pose a particular challenge because of their interactivity, and their reliance on spectacular visual effects.

“In games, the writing often takes second place to design and technology,” he says. “If developers invest more in the writing, in the very best screenwriters, that’s going to take them to the next level.”

Yorke says he plays “AAA, blockbuster games, when I can find the time.” He is assisted by experts in gaming, including Caroline Marchal, CEO of studio Interior Night, which is currently working on a narrative game for Sega. She formerly worked at Quantic Dream, where she was lead game designer for Beyond: Two Souls. Quantic Dream is arguably the world’s most ambitious studio when it comes to interactive narratives and character-driven gaming, seen in its most recent title, 2018’s Detroit: Become Human, which has sold 2 million copies.

“The big difference between movies or novels and video games is that, because they’re interactive, the audience is actually part of the experience in a way other media doesn’t offer,” she says. “So the journey they’re going through is the same as that of the protagonist. That creates challenges as well as opportunities.”

“The audience is actually part of the experience in a way other media doesn’t offer”

The session’s first exercise is to create a protagonist. Yorke asks that I mention the game’s genre in my written presentation, but he’s much more interested in the character at the center of my game than in the way the game plays. He says games are beginning to escape a long history of character cliches and stereotypes, and he’s looking for his students’ work to reflect that progress.

“I’ve seen a lot of really basic, James Bond-level characterizations in games,” he says. “It’s done out of a desire for safety. The games companies think that’s the easiest person for players to empathize with. But I think they’re wrong. That’s not how empathy really works. Empathy is about finding something inside a character that’s flawed and damaged; that you understand.”

Yorke and Marchal’s introduction to the course states their belief that today’s games should focus as much on stories as on activities. They point toward the recent success of narrative games in which protagonists (and antagonists) have displayed more depth and human resonance than in years gone by. Their gallery of examples includes The Last of Us, Her Story, Overwatch, and Reigns.

I want to find out if they’re right. Is character really as important in a game as it is in a novel or a play? So I’m going to write my story.

Olivia, the pitiless assassin, needs to find a new path.Photo: Benjawan Sittidech/Getty Images

Creating stories

There’s one snag. I’ve been writing about games for decades. I’m deeply interested in how they work and how they affect me. But I have never in my life felt the least inclination to actually make one.

It’s not that I’m averse to telling stories. I’ve written two novels, so theoretically, I ought to at least be curious about writing a story-based game. But in the realms of fiction, I’ve always cared more about why people do the things that they do, than on what they actually do. My novels include few action sequences. The stories focus mainly on dialogue and relationships. This is how novels work. But it’s not how games work.

Most narrative-heavy games, like Telltale’s story adventures, are constantly introducing action elements that draw focus away from emotional problems and toward practical and physical puzzles. But we’re beginning to see exceptions, such as Florence and My Child Lebensborn — both of which were ranked in Polygon’s top 50 games of last year — which focus almost entirely on story and resonance.

Yorke’s course is attractive to me because it’s dedicated to the curious idea that novels and games are the same, at least insofar as how they allow us to inhabit other people.How to write a video game story - Polygon

”All stories are forged from the same template,” he says. “What that template is and why we need to follow it is the subject of this course.”

Traditionally, games have mostly been dedicated to inhabiting the physicality of their characters. Mario jumps. Solid Snake sneaks. Lara climbs. Their personalities and backstories are sideshows, or thin marketing exercises. The characters lack substance. Their motivations are arcane.

Marchal points toward woeful completion rates for many single-player campaigns. “If you look at the statistics for single-player games, the majority of players do not finish them. That’s a storytelling problem,” she says. Raptr estimated that only one in 10 players completed the final mission in the original Red Dead Redemption (which has, admittedly, a very long campaign).

“There’s a lot we can learn from the ways stories have been crafted for centuries”

She argues that, in many big-budget action-adventures, players lose interest in the mechanics, but a good story would pull them forward. Players want to care about the game’s characters and about the most important element of any story: What happens next?

“There’s a lot we can learn from the ways stories have been crafted for centuries, which can then be crafted to work with just about any kind of game, even if it doesn’t seem to fit any kind of traditional linear model,” she says.

To fix this problem, Marchal argues that game designers must rise to the challenge of increasing narrative complexity. Technology today — animation, artificial intelligence, dynamic narrative systems — allows for deeper characters than in the past. We can all agree that Lara Croft is a more complicated and interesting person than she was 25 years ago. Tomb Raider’s recent three-game reboot was built around the story of Croft’s growth as a character.

As players become more demanding and diverse, they desire more believable, flawed, identifiable characters. In his introduction to the course, Yorke points out that game stories and linear stories fit the same patterns, but that they are not the same thing. They require specific approaches. “Writing for a linear medium is difficult,” he says. “Writing for games is even harder. There are very specific challenges and pitfalls to overcome. The task gets even more complex when you consider that narrative needs vary greatly from one game genre to another.”

I’m interested in writing about people and emotions. So it feels like I ought to be able to explore my ideas through the medium of games. At least, I want to find out if it’s possible. I know my game is never going to get made. I just want to see how far I am able to run with Yorke’s ideas.

And so, my game character comes to life.

Murderous communist

Olivia Espinoza is a woman in her early 20s. She dresses in factory-issue clothing or in dark, bohemian garb. She lives in Paris, in 1942, under Nazi occupation. She is a communist, a political idealist who works for the French Resistance. She is also a cold-eyed assassin.

I am required to supply some sort of visual aid to my character. Although Olivia is older than Marina Ginestà is in her photograph, the image sums her up nicely.

My game could be a shooter, or action-adventure. I’m interested in a human adventure, like A Case of Distrust, a noirish game I admire greatly, in which dialogue trees and visual puzzles lead the player toward the resolution of a mystery.

I want to see Olivia move through wartime Paris, engaging in awesome conversations with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, with collaborators and resistance fighters. I want to see her cope with encountering Jewish parents, hiding from the round-ups.

My desire to model Olivia’s story on a niche game turns out to be a mistake. When I present Olivia, my tutors say nice, encouraging things to me. But they’re confused about what she’ll actually be doing in the game, and they want to hear more about her motivations.

It’s important to me that this isn’t another game about killing people

They’re not familiar with A Case of Distrust, so I take the easy option and add $100 million to my imaginary development budget. It’s going to be a AAA extravaganza, more like The Last of Us.

But it’s important to me that this isn’t another game about killing people. I want to place severe restrictions on Olivia, so she can’t just run around Paris shooting Nazis. In my game, it’s going to be just as difficult to kill Nazis as it would have been in wartime Paris.How to write a video game story - Polygon

Of course, the game is all in my head, so I have unlimited access to the best coders, animators, and financial backers in the universe. But I also have tutors, and they warn me that my game must be created within the realms of the practically possible and the commercially viable.

They are kind enough to leave me with just enough wiggle room to ignore their guidance. I figure, if I’ve been given this opportunity to write my game, I’m not going to fret about what some bean counter at EA or Activision might think about it.

I understand, of course, that in the real world, my idea would have zero chance of attracting funding. It’s fine. I’m here to find out how interactive stories work. I already know how the game industry works.

Their mission is to save Jewish orphans from Nazis in wartime Paris.Photo: Cedric Kerjan/EyeEm/Getty Images

Narrative arcs

Story in games can sometimes create an inherent friction between the writer’s ambitions, the designer’s goals, and the player’s desires.

Doom co-creator John Carmack once said, “Story in a game is like story in a porn movie: it’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” Back in 1993, Doom relied on its superb game design and graphical innovations to capture the imaginations of players.

But the world has moved on. Years later, the Doom of 2016 comes with a big narrative element that falls broadly into the same three-act pattern of a classic movie or play.

The unnamed playable character is faced with the challenge of closing a portal to hell. He resolves a series of crises, generally manifesting as hordes of monsters. He overcomes an antagonist and resolves the initial challenge. It’s true that he displays little in the way of personality — certainly, he’s no Hamlet — but he interacts with people who have motivations and flaws in a way that we do not see in the original game.

Characters must demonstrate a flaw that the story addresses

Overwatch is one of the most successful shooting games in the world, a modern successor of sorts to Doom. It is filled with characters like Tracer, D.Va, and Hanzo, whose backstories and personalities add significantly to the game’s appeal.

Like many creative writing tutors, Yorke argues that all great characters come with three things. They have to want something. They have to need something. And they have to demonstrate a flaw that the story addresses.

So I set to work on Olivia’s wants, needs, and flaws.

She is tasked by her resistance bosses with assassinating the Nazi chief of police in his fortified lair. What she wants is to complete her mission.

But she’s unhappy. She’s spent her life killing people, and yet finds no satisfaction, or reward, in her work. She needs to break free from her life of violence, while still staying true to her desire to defeat the Nazis and create a better world.

Olivia’s flaw is that she’s a dogmatic person who’s unable to understand her own despair. From a young age, she’s gained immense skills as a warrior, but in achieving excellence as an assassin, she’s denied herself basic humanity.

Inciting incidents

The course follows a pattern of investigation, followed by creativity, and then analysis. Each week, the students — there are about a dozen of us — watch YouTube clips, play games, and read story synopses from a variety of games. We offer perspectives on what we believe works well, and what doesn’t.

We look at motivations, antagonists, and inciting incidents, studying games as varied as Candy Crush, Ico, Evolve, The Crew, and Red Dead Redemption. How to write a video game story - Polygon

One element of game design that fascinates Yorke is the relationship between the player and the main character.

“There’s a contradiction between the agency a player has, and how that conflicts and contrasts with the desires of the game’s writer,” he says. “How you marry those two things together is difficult, but also an incredible opportunity, if you get it right.”

We move on to studying the classic three-act structure of stories

Some games, like multiplayer worlds, present “blank slate” characters that are built by the player, who fills in the blanks. But these stories cleave to narrative models based on heroes, villains, an inciting incident, crisis, and resolution. Resolution can come in the form of completing a mission or leveling up or acquiring a sword. These games are cast as “open-world” or as “sandboxes,” but they are essentially amalgamations of fairy tales, tied together with an overarching story.

I work my way through these examples, offering notes when required. My homework is evaluated by Yorke, Marchal, various tutors, and other students. Feedback is always delivered in a way that’s constructive and useful.

We move on to studying the classic three-act structure of stories, and how such a notion fits with games. I immerse myself in the detailed story arcs of Inside and Life is Strange.

The course addresses arguments about whether or not games, by being interactive, are fundamentally separate from linear forms. We look at mainstream literature and entertainment, from Macbeth to Jaws, drawing comparisons with games. We learn how linear structures work in the context of games, emphasizing how games bend and morph these structures in ways that are still being investigated by writers.

Compassion alone is not enough to save the children.Photo: Laurent Hirsch/EyeEm/Getty Images

Redemption and rejection

I return to my project and try to apply what I’ve learned.

Yorke says it’s useful to be able to state a story’s theme in one word. My story about Olivia focuses on redemption. It’s about her relationship with deadly violence. The warrior-to-pacifist transformation has been told many times before, but rarely in the context of a video game.

Emerging pacifism throws up interesting challenges in the context of a game. I find myself struggling to find things for the player to do, while Olivia works through her journey. Again and again, my tutors try to correct my habit of longish dialogue tree sessions. I keep at it, honing my scenes to give the player as much agency and illusion of choice as possible.

Long story short, Olivia’s mission to take out the evil cop goes awry, and she accidentally kills the cop’s mistress. During her escape from the police station, Olivia kills two guards who get in her way. They are guarding a West African nun, who is being interrogated about the location of missing Jewish orphans. This is the inciting incident.

The nun knows an opportunity when she sees one. She wants Olivia to arrange for the escape of these orphans. The plan provides a short-term refuge for Olivia, so she agrees. But the nun has one stipulation. She asks that Olivia kill no more people during this mission. The nun sternly assures Olivia that while she is grateful to be free, the deaths of the soldiers are a stain on her own religious beliefs and eternal conscience.

This causes a friction between the two women, and within Olivia. Resolving this friction — the justification of violence as a means to an end — is where we encounter Olivia’s need. It also creates a challenge for the player throughout the game. Killing people will solve immediate problems, but will endanger the children. Stealth — which I have always loved playing — will be a core activity in my game.

As the game progresses, Olivia and the nun travel across Paris, evading patrols. They survive a series of dangerous encounters that allow us to explore cool Parisian locations, often converted for quasi-military purposes due to the war.

Missions often create practical problems that illustrate the pros and cons of the women’s competing ideologies. Pacifism is hard. It can also be dangerous and, in this setting, possibly self-defeating.

The gameplay structure is a little like that of A Way Out, which makes use of a variety of devices to tell a story about a prison break, and to explore the relationship between two very different convicts.

Pacifism can also be dangerous

My dialogue tasks are heavily influenced by Mike Bithell’s superb work in Subsurface Circular, in which characters are revealed through conversations that also progress the plot. Olivia and the nun argue with one another while the story moves forward. In turn, the player is presented with provocative arguments, and a little levity, as the two women buddy up.

Olivia is forged by violence. The nun is heavily influenced by origin Christianity, and by the ancient traditions of her upbringing. In time, they will both be forced to confront their own inconsistencies because (of course) nothing is as simple as it seems, most especially to ideologues.

When he reviews my story, Yorke suggests that I find a way to physically manifest this exchange of ideas. So I have the nun present Olivia with a necklace: an enamel tortoise charm. In her home country, the tortoise represents peace.

This reminds me of a lesson about writing, one that I’ve always struggled with. Physically, writing is the act of stringing words together. The production is text. But weaving words is barely the point. Writers must think in terms of images, because that’s what the reader “sees” when they’re reading.

I’m a person who thinks in the language of words. It’s difficult for me to construct images and then write about them. I do it the other way around. This is a problem.

But if I want to write a game, even this leap, from words to images, is not enough. Game writers have to go farther.

Stories and history

A few weeks into the course and it’s impossible for me to play games without thinking about story. I play Red Dead Redemption 2 and Tetris Effect. The first is chock-full of characters and stories. The second has almost no story at all, but incorporates imagery that suggests narrative forms, such as discovery and redemption.

The dichotomy of story and not-story is at the center of gaming history. In the early days of games, those beeping, menacing Space Invaders arrived without any apparent motivation, inner conflict, or backup plan. We just shot them, and they shot us, and everyone was happy. The action game was born.

At the same time, text adventures appeared — Zork, The Hobbit, A Mind Forever Voyaging — that were wholly stories, with characters, motivation, flaws, and plot twists. They were smart, provocative, and commercially marginal.

Over the next three decades, these entirely different forms came together, and action games began to include narrative elements. Role-playing adventures, the descendants of those text adventures, became action-oriented exercises, interspersing killing and fighting with cutscenes or walking conversations between characters.

Commercial considerations and marketing drove the embrace of narrative and character. Sonic the Hedgehog was born from Sega’s desire to show off the Genesis’ ability to render fast-moving action. The company wanted a mascot who could compete and contrast with Nintendo’s Mario. Sonic’s main attributes were speed and a cocky, anti-establishment attitude.

This naked branding fed into comics and cartoons, as the character’s popularity exploded. But Sonic has always been trapped inside the mundane ambitions of his creators, and has never evolved into anything more than a funny mascot. (I accept that not everyone will agree with this view.)

Throughout the ’90s, stories became a creative consideration. Like all human beings, game developers had been brought up enjoying stories, and wanted to add gravitas and drama to their work.

But game developers were often better at coding than they were at telling stories. They made their games, and then they grafted on some hackneyed version of Lord of the Rings or Star Trek. A few games managed to stand out because of their devotion to story and to mythology, such as the Final Fantasy series.

Game developers were often better at coding than they were at telling stories

Game publishers took note. Companies hired writers, usually to package up gameplay and art assets. Spinoff novels pulled convoluted series like Halo and Assassin’s Creed into some semblance of narrative form. Missions were cast as mini-stories, adding up to a baffling whole in which a princess was saved, a bomb deactivated, a tyrant deposed.

Critics began to write about games as stories, lambasting certain games for their ludonarrative dissonance in which the player’s actions are at odds with the personality or the aspirations of the on-screen character.

Big-budget games began to appear with more believable and compelling stories. BioShock, Mass Effect and Dragon Age explored the meaning of interactive stories, layering their narratives with provocative ideas about agency and heroism. They helped to establish games as fully rounded narrative experiences. Games now compete directly with the rest of the entertainment business, and must present themselves as coherent tales, in the same way as blockbuster movies. Many of the most highly prized games are seen as writerly endeavors.

The Witcher series is literally based on fantasy novels. The big games of 2018, like Red Dead Redemption 2, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Shadow of the Tomb Raider, all began life as stories about characters, not as tech demos in search of drama.

These days, game producers are more likely to view writers as central to big game projects. In press interviews, development team leaders like The Last of Us’ Neil Druckmann and Red Dead Redemption’s Dan Houser speak about themselves primarily as writers, and secondarily as producers or directors. When Square Enix rebooted Tomb Raider, it sent out its writer Rhianna Pratchett as a prime spokesperson. In interviews, she talked about Lara as a person, not as an amalgamation of polygons designed to deliver kicks to the player.

Diverse bunch

My tutors press me to tighten my story. They send me notes asking for more clarity, more interactivity, more drama, and more fun. What they really want, I divine, is more action. They poke at each scene. I rewrite. My game improves.

My fellow students are facing the same process. We chat with one another via forums. They are a diverse bunch of men and women from various countries, a mixture of mainstream writers who want to learn about games and game developers who want to learn about writing. The course costs around $1,600, and takes up maybe half a day per week for seven weeks.

Most of us have full-time jobs. So the only mandatory exercise is the writing of the game story; all the others are optional. It’s easygoing and good fun.

We’ve seen a remarkable growth of indie games with powerful stories and memorable characters

I’m fascinated by the diversity of the other students’ games and stories. One action-RPG tells the tale of a soldier’s lost pet. Another is a racing game about a group of cartoon couriers. One game follows the romantic adventures of a woman who does not conform to standard beauty ideals. Another takes on the god game genre, and delves into the Almighty’s personal relationship with life creation.

These writers are looking at ways to polish up their resumes or even to launch their own indie projects.

In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a remarkable growth of indie games with powerful stories and memorable characters. Among them are some of my favorite games ever, including Tacoma, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Rakuen, Blackwood Crossing, Orwell, and Virginia.

Action games are wonderful, but we all occasionally (or often) want something else. We want games to make us feel the way the best movies and books make us feel. And games are now providing that. It’s amazing that, only a decade ago, “can games make you cry?” was a genuinely interesting question. Now, who among us has not shed a tear at a game story?

At the end of the course, my characters, plot, and gameplay plan come together.Photo: Olivier Reynes/Getty Images

Final exercise

For the final exercise, we must present our game stories, complete with descriptions of fully interactive elements. In my story, Olivia and the nun both make accommodations with one another’s beliefs, in order to save each other and to rescue the children. Olivia encounters the chief of police. The player decides if he lives or dies.

The nun falls into the hands of the Nazis. Olivia breaks into the Nazi compound, but when she finds the nun, Olivia discovers that she has been tortured beyond any possibility of escape. The nun begs to be spared further torture and her inevitable confession. She must die in order for the children to live. The nun sacrifices her own beliefs in the sanctity of life, while Olivia sacrifices her warrior self. The last person Olivia will ever kill is the nun (again, this is a player choice).

The tortoise “peace” necklace makes its reappearance in the final scene, offering Olivia a practical strategy for shepherding the children past Nazi guards, and onto a waiting boat bound for Britain.

In the final scene, we see her on a Normandy beach, gazing out across the English Channel. She will win the war, but she will kill no more. Her want, need, and flaw have been resolved.

Useful lessons

I’ve learned a ton of storytelling tips and techniques that shape the story, that add to its most intense beats, and that create an ending that feels satisfying and whole, at least to me. I feel the class has made me a better writer, and it’s made me understand game design more fully.

I’ve also learned to further appreciate how games are taking basic theories about story and subverting them in the name of fun and interactivity. When I play Reigns: Game of Thrones, I’m struck by how cleverly each character, each quest, and each decision follows a pattern of inciting incident, crisis, and resolution (though not always in that order).

Few games can (or should) blindly follow a three-act shape. But understanding form is how artists learn to subvert and surprise. This is the value of the course.

The biggest lesson is that writers of games aren’t merely storytellers; they are kinetic designers. Like all writers, they must create words by conjuring imagery. But they must also operate in the realm of action. The story is about the characters, of course. It’s also about what the player sees. But, most importantly, it’s about what the player does in the context of the narrative. Marrying character, action, and player together is the trick. This requires three-dimensional thinking that I now know for certain is a tough skill to master. My admiration for good game writers increases.

I still have no plans to make a game, but I’ll write up Olivia as a short story for my weekly fiction writers group. She exists in the world now. She and the nun have taught me something about what it means to be a person.

I hope my fellow students will find jobs, or project backers, and will bring their ideas into the world. That would make for the sort of narrative resolution Yorke would enjoy.