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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.