How to make an engaging storyline in a videogame

Videogames have reached a point where they are no longer merely a source of simulated kinetic interaction in the form of virtual entertainment but many games are being known for their interactive stories, some games are built for this purpose exclusively but what is it that truly makes a good story? While I cannot speak for everyone, I can at least speak for myself and what videogame storylines can engage me. As such I will list several important components a story needs in order for it to become engaging for me.

1. World building

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Evil bad guy wants to destroy the world? Why should we care? Make your worlds captivating first before putting one of these tropes in your game… heck you should make your worlds captivating regardless. Every videogame with a storyline takes place in some kind of world and this world is shaped by the people in it.

As such, the player needs to be able to connect with the world through its characters and its people but not just any characters, they need to experience the cultures and social standards that govern the world, they must also meet with charismatic individuals who they strongly care for or bitter rivals who they wish to overcome before any world ending conflict. If you don’t craft an interesting world then you might as well be destroying a cardboard box. Make the impending doom something worth preventing!

2. Multiple Perspectives

multiple-perspectives

Now here’s something you rarely see in videogames. Remember that guy who crossed you at a certain point in the story? Perhaps you were brought into conflict with this person. Who or what is that person and what are his/her intentions, why do they side with the bad guys? What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? What do they strongly believe in?  What challenges must they overcome?

Most villains in videogames just show up to laugh at you and bugger off for a coffee break when they have played out their part. When a game puts you into the perspective of that evil dude however, the player sees a part of that character that the other characters didn’t see, they get a personal connection with that character… even if that character is a deranged psychotic serial killer. You might grow to hate a character one minute and the next minute you are cheering them on. Why most videogames do not make use of this concept is beyond me. I am tired of games being focused on individual characters, I want to play and experience all of them!

3. Add a bit of edge

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Now I know that edginess is often seen as a bad thing but let’s be honest, a good way to engage the player into a videogame is empowerment and by putting them into an edgy world filled with powerful enemies with a character who is equally as powerful and confident enough to take on entire armies of these enemies, the player is pumped up for not only the story… but the gameplay.

Remember that the purpose of storytelling in videogames is to motivate the player. What better motivation is there than having you play as someone stupidly cool?

Now sure there is a limit to how much edge you can have before it becomes too silly and if you do throw in too much edge, at least lighten things up with some humor. Edginess can get pretty bland after a while and that is why people tend to hate it. If you take your game too seriously and edgy, your game becomes sterile. No one cares if you can wield a 20 ft long buster sword and cut down armies, they want you to have some kind of personality. Even Arngrim, as edgy as he is has at least some funny moments in Valkyrie Profile.

4. Keep it clear and concise

Keep things simple and concise

Or more accurately speaking, respect the players time and make damn well sure it is not wasted with uninteresting dialogue or boring exposition. The player wants to move through the game as quickly as possible and the story needs to grab their attention whenever possible. However, the moment that the player loses that attention, stop the chatter and move on!

I know it can be difficult for game developers to judge when and how they present the game’s writing but it may be a good idea to have someone read through and cut out some of the filler. This can be quite important when writing complex storylines. It is easy to drown the player in jargon and cruel doses of exposition but you need to know when to stop.

In addition, it is important to make your points clear by being brief. The main reason why people hated the plot twist in Star Ocean Till The End Of Time was because it wasn’t clear enough… or to be more precise, there was way too much exposition explaining it all that many players completely lost track of the plot and gave up at what was a crucial point in the story.

5. Experiment with different tropes and see what connects

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Every videogame uses tropes but not every game puts them to good use. Tropes can be both a games strongest weapon or its biggest weakness. To use tropes correctly you must find a connection. For example, evil empire oppresses its people and suddenly a world destroying maniac appears out of nowhere and wants to destroy everything (yes I’m referring to a specific videogame here and no I’m not telling you what it is and you can probably guess if you’ve played it).

Are his/her reasons for wanting to destroy the world connected to this evil empire. Or are the evil empire somehow aware of this destructive force and are secretly planning to prevent the worlds doom? If not then don’t make a ridiculous plot transition like that.

However a game which manages to connect tropes together well can make for a very engaging experience because you get to watch the world change and people change, you get to see how certain events can impact the player’s characters and their personalities. A story of epic proportions requires a plot that is not only ambitious but can connect seamlessly with each plot point to keep players engaged. Tales Of Vesperia is an example of a story which didn’t manage to do this very well.

6. Subtlety

subtlety

Though it isn’t required to be subtle, it certainly makes a story more interesting. Foreshadowing is something that may appear completely irrelevant at first but once the event does happen, you will remember that moment and you will realize that you have been fooled. This can and most likely will shock the player when the time comes and it keeps the story fresh, entertaining and most importantly, engaging. Some games however can make things a bit too obvious.

I find it amusing when the game shows the villains in a room talking amongst themselves as to how they are going to defeat the good guys, giving away all their sinister plans and then they swap back to the good guys who are completely oblivious despite the fact that the player is informed.Lets say there’s a box and you know not to open that box However the game forces you to open the box and inside that box is a trap that you saw coming, it makes the player feel as if they lack control over the story and can be quite frustrating and sometimes even boring.

So be sure to keep things a secret from the player when you need to. Remember that the purpose of the player is to be connected with the characters. Unless you are in direct control of the bad guys at some point in the game, don’t reveal their plans right away. Even so, you can still give that character control and make them subtle to make things even more interesting. Make the character a puzzle that the player has to unravel. This can be done with both abstract and exposition. This makes players feel more rewarded if they figured it out.

7. Keep characters fresh

keep character's fresh

I would have put character development here but let’s be honest here, character development is pretty unrealistic in some cases. Watching someone completely change over the course of a night can sometimes feel awkward, it is almost as if they have been swapped brains with someone else. Character development is often demanded in story driven games but it isn’t always the best approach nor does it work in some cases. Like they say, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, at least not without a good reason.

That being said though, characters take the spotlight in the story, they are the pillars that hold everything up. If the characters are uninteresting, the pillars holding up the story will begin to deteriorate until there is nothing left. It is important to at least have one character who gives mixed feelings to the player to make a story engaging. If all the characters give the same impression for an entire game, it really does get sterile.

However it is possible to change the player’s perception of a character without character development. Like I said in #6, a subtle character can prove to be one of the most engaging of characters because you learn more about them at a slower pace and you feel more rewarded for figuring them out and that alone can be a game in itself, a puzzle someone will need to solve.

8. Don’t forget to illustrate your stories

Don't forget to illustrate your stories

Videogames can be more engaging than books sometimes and this is often the main reason. When you are in a fictional world, you expect some aesthetic appeal in that world. While this may be more connected to visuals than storytelling, the visuals do have an impact on a game’s story and can set the mood for a particular event or abstraction in a story.

Sometimes, a strong ambiance can speak greater words than any story. The same has been said about art. Illustration speaks a lot of words and if you can illustrate your world well and make it look interesting, even if your story fails, at least you have a brilliant looking world set up for you in the sequel (so long as you maintain the level of visual quality).

Remember that stories don’t need to have any narrative whatsoever. An example of this would be Kirby 64 The Crystal Shards where the characters don’t speak and only gesture but the world is so picturesque that you are immediately engaged in the story. It is important however to remember to make the aesthetics fit in with the theme of the story so the player doesn’t get distracted by an inconsistent visual style. Sunshine and rainbows have no place in a story where people are being enslaved and beaten to death.

9. Don’t just make videogames

don't just make videogames

It may sound silly but sometimes a story is better told in words and in such a case a book would be more appropriate. Videogames are great and all but if you can make an engaging book to go alongside it can get people more invested in the game’s story and they grow more attached to it. This is usually the ultimate test. A book written within a game’s world can be daunting. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t. It is a good chance that if you do manage to pull it off, you probably had some good material to work with.

Successful videogame stories are perfectly evaluated this way, if you can tell a story in a videogame you can also tell a story in a book. However, books have been going on for years now and there are much higher standards set by readers than there are with gamers. If you are going to write a book, make sure that your world is well-built and that you have a lot of potential to expand your story beyond the game’s story.

This can involve characters that may have had very little opportunity to shine, it can also involve characters you played as in the games. You could make a completely new story altogether with new characters if the world building is good enough. Warcraft managed to do this and it did it so well that sometimes I find the books to be more engaging than the games themselves.

10. It’s not about what you write, it’s how you write it

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A story can be great in concept but can be very shallow in writing. Good writing can make a huge difference in storytelling. While average writing does get a pass most of the time, good writing is what helps games stand out. I know it may seem obvious but when your vocabulary is limited to the basics, the story can become stale very quickly. Good writing allows you to create memorable lines that can be either witty or hammy to make for an epic moment.

There is no straight answer to what makes for well-written dialogue, you just have to experiment. Using a thesaurus can be handy if you wish to bring the best out of your dialogue. Try to deliver your writing in a way that is not only clear and concise but is also quirky.

Remember to make sure that your writing matches the mood you wish to portray to your audience unless you are deliberately trying to alter the mood of the game. That being said writing something funny in a serious situation can be a good thing at times as it can add an unexpected twist to suppress the melodrama a little which can be handy should a situation cause a game to stray away from the narrative style the writer wishes to portray.

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In any case, those are ten ways to make a story engaging in a videogame. A lot of it may be simple and perhaps somewhat vague but nobody said it was easy. If you are playing a game, try to pay attention to these things and see if they are up to snuff. It may help you evaluate your experiences better and it may also help you inform others too, something I may also have to keep in mind.

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t really looked too closely at storytelling in videogames and that it mostly due to the fact that I haven’t experienced many stories in videogames which I can consider to be masterful. I’m not a critic of narrative, I am a critic of videogames in general and as such I try to be an all-rounder. Even then I will miss things that a writing critic would point out. I do my best though, after all it is my goal to create a review that is as accurate and detailed as possible.

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How to control your backlog and spending habits in gaming

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As a reviewer, I often find myself overwhelmed with the responsibility to buy and play lots of different games and as such I am left with a huge backlog of games just lying around waiting to be played… but then a new game catches my attention and I drop everything just to play it. Then I get fed up again.

Now you must understand that I have been writing on the Destructoid C blogs for 3 years now. I used to be a proactive writer, I would take a pick out of a game that took my fancy and just throw out a review. However, the quality of them was appalling among other things. To make a review is pretty easy if you think about it, all you need to do is write what you’re thinking. However it’s not easy to make a solid review. In fact the moment you start improving as a reviewer is the moment when you start to realize that it is hard work.

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Sure there are a lot more harder things to do but reviewing is considered a hobby to me. Unfortunately with this mindset, I have to become a lot more close-minded. Since this isn’t my job, I’m not going to play every single game on the face of the earth and throw out a review… though I may occasionally try something new, I want to stick to writing about games that I am passionate about or manage to gain my full attention and considering the fact that the gaming industry is changing for the better, I have to change to adapt to that, as a writer.

In any case, how is this relevant to controlling your backlog/spending? Well you see in the latter half of the seventh generation, I hit a massive burnout. Games just stopped coming out (games that I cared about anyways) and I had to change myself as a gamer, I had to be open-minded and explore new areas of gaming which I hadn’t before. In a way, I had grown as a gamer, I had grown away from my nostalgia barrier that led me down a narrow path in gaming. I feel better as a gamer for doing that and to be honest, I don’t think I would have become inspired to write without that.

With this however came its own issues. Though I am often careful with my money, I came to the point where I simply couldn’t turn down a cheap deal. If there was a game that interested me even a little, I would buy it without a moment’s hesitation. This had it’s fair share of ups and downs. I got to discover new games that I otherwise would have never tried but I also picked up some dreadful games that I simply got tired with.

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Despite what many people believe, I played Painkiller on a whim and guess what? I loved it!

I’m a cynic, I hate what the gaming industry has become and this changed my perception on gaming but it was more than just that, the industry’s change affected the games available. It is the end of 2016 now and games have been great this year but the past few years have been utterly dreadful, it was like a gaming drought. Trying to find a top quality game was a nightmare. Many of the top rated games I have reviewed are from past generations. Those days were good, it wasn’t until 2010 where things started going wrong.

I still say that 2011 was the worst year for gaming since the videogame crash, only 1 game released in 2011 managed to entertain me and that was Kirby’s Adventure Wii. Everything else was horrifically bad or just mediocre. 2012 wasn’t much better, Farcry 3 was probably my game of the year and that’s not saying much considering the fact that the game was an open world shooter with a dubstep soundtrack… ehhh.

The biggest question was “where are all the JRPG’s”? We had our Tales, we had our NIS shovelware along with a few others which were equally as bland. Seriously why do the Hyperdimentional Neptunia games still sell? Those games depress me because they take away all the passion and the effort that went into old school JRPG’s and instead these games are released every single year and as such the quality of those games takes a nose dive (at least in my opinion).

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Sure Exist Archive may have re-used assets and all that but at least they were trying. Most JRPG’s of recent years don’t even feel like they are trying to impress us. Someone has to give all those lazy JRPG devs a boot up the ass so we don’t get shit like Time and Eternity anymore, that game was an insult to all JRPG fans.

Sorry about my soapbox rant but I’m trying to get you to understand why I felt the need to spend money when in truth you really don’t. I was prepared to give anything a go because I was lost in the massive labyrinth of gaming. I was desperate, I needed a game, anything to keep my passion inflated, a passion that I knew still existed after I was reminded by Grandia 2. There was still something there… the world just moved on and abandoned passion but I hadn’t given up, even now I’m still confident that we will someday see rainfall again in the gaming industry, Star Ocean 5 gave me hope, hope that I had been praying for years.

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Grandia 2 re-ignited my passion for gaming

In fact it amazes me that games such as Halo can be considered classics now, yes I’m talking about Halo 3. How can a game like that be considered a classic by today’s standards I cannot fathom… but it is, it has been nearly 10 years since it was released. The state of the gaming industry completely blinded me of just how much time had passed, it was a depressing time for me and possibly for many others. Heck I was on the “Gaming industry is dying” bandwagon at one point, even people like Razorfist mentioned it in one of his videos during the dark days of the year 2013… that was a terrible year for a lot of reasons… and for gaming also.

Now that we have hit the eighth generation, as bad as the modern consoles are, there is still hope for change. A fresh start, something the industry has needed for a while. Now it has come to the point that there are far too many games coming out that I simply can’t keep up, I just have to buy them all, I owe it to myself and the readers to do so… or do I?

Not only does buying lots of games cost money but the more games you buy, the less invested you become in them. Here’s one of the reasons some of us younger gamers are possibly suffering from this gaming “spending spree” and what we need to do to prevent it is:

1. Think back to when you were younger…

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It sounds so simple doesn’t it. For some, it may work better than others. If you were spoiled as a child, this may not be the way for you, if you are an older gamer, this may also not be the one for you but if you are in your 20’s like myself and think back to your childhood, you will remember the small selection of games you owned and how dedicated you were to finishing them. They were all you had and you made the most of them. Be is Pokemon Red/Blue Legend Of Zelda Ocarina Of Time or for the older gamers perhaps it was Castlevania.

We valued our games back then because we didn’t have the ability to purchase them ourselves, we were funneled gifts from our parents at xmas or our birthdays and those were usually videogames (for those who were lucky). We were all excited back then. I remember the excitement of getting not only a Gamecube for my birthday but also A Playstation 2. Those were the best consoles I played in my life (well besides the SNES which was before my time but we’re talking about my childhood here). I had so many great moments on both systems, especially the Gamecube. There were so many games to play… but I couldn’t play them all. All I had to play was Smash Bros and a few other games. It wasn’t until way later where I looked back and tried out other games such as the legendary F-Zero GX.

So try to remember those moments and be responsible for your spending. I don’t care how well off you are. Be responsible for the psychological impact that buying tonnes of games brings and try to pick and choose your games. I know it’s hard for the more dedicated individuals out there such as myself but remember, gaming isn’t going anywhere, you can always pop round at a later date and play them when they’re cheaper, sure you’ll miss all the craze but for single player games especially, it may be for the best. However you might want to:

2. Avoid using digital distribution services like Steam/GOG/Humble Bundle

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My Steam Library is chock full of unfinished games

Ah the temptation of steam sales. That moment when you realize just how cheap games can be. The moment when you find out that just about everyone can be a gamer regardless of how poor they are. Not only that but you can also help charity’s through gaming too? It sounds like heaven doesn’t it? Well… it’s kinda cool at first, however you don’t want to overdose on this trend. Remember, these are digital games, they cannot be sold off when you’re done with them (though you can refund them on steam but that’s not what I’m talking about) nor can you keep them on your shelf as memorabilia. These games are the equivalent of an economy flight to Benidorm, a cheap break-away but it gets old after a while.

As a PC gamer, reviews are more important than ever because there is so much choice. However you cannot just read reviews that say “this game is awesome” you have to be 100% sure that you are prepared to play the whole way through because only then will you get your money’s worth. If it helps you can:

3. Play games with a shorter length

shorter games

Need For Speed Carbon may be short but it keeps me engaged better than any other game in the series.

For the casual audience, this is your best bet. Games like Child Of Light are great, yet small diversions away from the gaming ghetto bringing back the quality of old games at the cost of its length. Sure I would have liked it better if the game had an epic final dungeon at the end but to be honest, I was glad that it was short. It gave me the quality I was looking for without the investment required, plus it was a challenge.

However it can be difficult to know when games are short or not. If you’re looking for more detailed information on length for any game I reviewed, just leave a comment. I will tell you a more detailed explanation. For the most part I will only cover it if it’s relevant to the game overall such as Exist Archive: The Other Side Of The Sky. However, I have and can not play every game out there so relying on me isn’t always the best bet. I can only try my best after all. As such one thing you really need to do is:

4. Do your research!!!

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Spec Ops: The Line wasn’t a bad game, it just wasn’t for me.

Do you really want a game? Do you want it enough to work for it? To find out if it’s really worth your hard-earned money? Reviewers like me exist for a reason, demos exist too, so do forums and wiki’s. Look up everything you can about the game. Watch lets plays if you have to. I’ve always had a saying that you shouldn’t just read 1 review, you should read 50 because every review is different, if there was truly a definitive review out there, I wouldn’t be writing reviews to begin with.

If you aren’t wetting your pants with excitement, consider waiting. Sure you might not get that pre-order bonus but chances are it will be available as paid DLC later on anyways and if not, it’s not like you missed much. However wasting £40.00 on a game you get burned out on isn’t worth it and you want to get the most out of your money. You may also want to consider doing some price comparison, if you can find the game considerably cheaper elsewhere, you may re-think whether or not the game is worth giving a go, however don’t forget that price isn’t everything and that you also have to control your backlog. Make sure it’s a game that you can dedicate your time to finishing, it doesn’t matter how long it takes, just finish it!

Finally the last and most simple way is:

5. Take a break from gaming

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This doesn’t mean you have to quit gaming, maybe your gaming lifestyle needs adjusting… or perhaps you need to bring a few friends over or just consider doing something else with your time for a while. Consider what I do as being a “productive gaming hobby” I’m not playing anything as I write this, I’m doing this simply because I would rather spend my time writing rather than gaming right now. Even the most die-hard gamers know that gaming 100% of the time isn’t fun, you have to break it up. I don’t care how you do it but you need to change every so often. Heck it could be as simple as playing 2 games as once and going back and forth. Be warned though as this can cause more backlog issues. As such, Pick a game that you have already beaten and try replaying it again. That way you can play both familiar and new games so you have a mixture.

Variety is the spice of life, its never fun to be doing 1 thing constantly every single day, though some people would disagree with that (I.E MMO gamers) but the majority of gamers want something more from gaming rather than something to sink time into. Games need quality to make the experience memorable. It’s why I hate on games like Legend Of Dragoon so much (you probably won’t know that unless you read some of my old Destructoid blogs though), that game was ridiculously long. It wasn’t a bad game by any means but it over-stayed its welcome. It took years for me to finally complete it. Never again. Oh and also:

6. Know your limits

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I want to play God Hand, I really do, but if it’s going to be another masochistic game then I’m just going to have to pass up on it, at least for now. Sometimes you just want a nice relaxing game that you can just pick up and play rather than something which is going to kick your ass on a consistent basis. Think people! Before you pick up Dark Souls 3, think for a moment, are you truly prepared? Do you truly seek a challenge? Or are you simply starved for a new game and like the look of it? If the latter, put it off. I swear if you can’t handle those types of games it is often the best idea to just save them for later. There’s a time and a place for game like that, moments when you feel like you’re up for a challenge.

Games like God Hand and Devil May Cry are designed with replay-ability in mind, they are designed for players who want to invest time into the meta-game and constantly learn. F-Zero GX is the same, by all means as much as I love to preach about it, don’t just dive straight into it if you aren’t ready. F-Zero GX may be the best racing game ever but to truly embrace the awesomeness that F-Zero GX is you must develop patience and determination to get through it. Until you attain those qualities you are unfit for the task. Playing F-Zero GX is a reward in itself, a reward you should savor for a time in your life when you’re feeling like a winner. A time where you’re motivated to experience a true adrenaline rush. Of course you don’t want to hold off on getting F-Zero GX by any means, get it as soon as you are ready for some hardcore action. Heck if you really can’t cope with hard games, just play it on Novice. It’s not that hard.

So keep this in mind when you are considering purchasing games. Don’t just purchase something because everybody else is playing it. Find out whether or not the game is going to be valuable to you first. Read reviews (not just the ones on mainstream sites like Destructoid/IGN), research as much as possible, pay close attention to trailers and you may notice a few things that may alter your experience for better or worse.

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Don’t make the same mistake…

Have a great new year everyone… and don’t forget to keep your wallets sealed during the January sales unless there is something you absolutely must have.