Moon

Let me tell you a story. It’s got a great setup, a really solid hook – the concept is gold. You comfortable? Don’t be: this baby’s gonna have you on the edge of your seat.

Though, come to think about it, I guess I’m not COMPLETELY sure what happens after our protagonist gets going. In fact, the whole middle part is a bit murky (though it has lots of shooting and explosions). I’m not positive how it ends either. Don’t get me wrong – I have a general idea; I’m just fuzzy on the details. I know there’s a Time Codex involved and some Space Whales, if that helps. Also, the hero’s planet gets eaten (Space Whale) and unless it’s regurgitated within twenty-four hours, it’ll be digested along with everything and everyone on it. Cool, huh?

Sound like something you’d like to invest a few million dollars in?*

If you answered “no,” you’re in good company, though believe it or not, the majority of game developers working on story-centric games do pin their hopes and dreams (and schedules) to half-baked stories and incomplete narratives by violating a rule I’ll call Concept is King, but Story is Sovereign.

Tired Sleeping Developer
Trust me, the story picks up after about the three or four hour mark.

Concept is King, but Story is Sovereign

At face value, this guideline is a simple one: don’t confuse a story concept or smattering of cool story ideas with an actual story. In much the same way that an idea for a novel is not yet a novel, or a bad breakup is not yet a trite love song to be uploaded to Bandcamp at three a.m., a cool idea for story told through the medium of gameplay is not an actionable narrative design that can guide your team through production.

So what’s at stake? Just like that presentation that grinds to a halt when the software you tested that very morning on the very same laptop decides not to work, so development of your story-focused game can bog down as a handful of creatives try desperately to work their way out of the weeds halfway through the production cycle while artists and other content creators twiddle their thumbs and wait.

Story Treatment, Narrative Design, and Dialogue

The design of a story-dependent game can be broken down into three distinct phases: story treatment, narrative design flowchart, and everyone’s favourite (and truthfully the least important), dialogue.

Valiant Hearts Art
The author was privileged to work with Ubisoft Montpelier on the award-winning Valiant Hearts, a game that was briefly delayed during production due to narrative problems.
  1. Story Treatment

Having a solid, actionable story treatment is your best defense against jumping into development prematurely. This is because, unlike its flighty Hollywood cousin whose chief responsibility is to act as a sales pitch, the story treatment for a game serves as the backbone for nearly every creative decision you’ll make during pre-production and beyond. While having a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end are not the only requirements necessary for telling a good story, you can be assured that without them, you are not ready to move on.

Often when I’m called in to help with a project that has crawled to a standstill (or at least a slow trickle) because of story problems, I will put my client’s story though a simple test devised by Brian McDonald in his brilliant book Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories That Resonate (Literary Editions, 2009). In McDonald’s “seven easy steps to a better story,” we seek to fill in the following blanks:

Once upon a time…

And every day…

Until one day…

And because of this…

And because of this… (repeat as necessary)

Until finally…

And ever since that day…

If you can fill in these blanks confidently, if the major turning points and events in your story ramp up from its beginning to a satisfying conclusion, you’re on the right track. If not, you run the risk of being forced to stop and answer them in the middle of production.

Flowchart
The Narrative Design Flowchart – the game’s story as told by its mechanics, from beginning to middle to end – as the player will experience it.
  1. Narrative Design Flowchart

Once you are confident in the story you want to tell, the next step is to plot out the game, step by step, just as the player would experience it. This might be as simple as charting out the core loop present in most f2p mobile games, in which players are treated to a simple cut scene after so many gameplay sequences, or as complex as a sprawling, horizontal flowchart illustrating (at a high level) every cinema, QuickTime event, inventory puzzle, environmental interaction, and branching story path available during an episode of The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones from the masters of interactive entertainment, Telltale Games.

With a detailed narrative design you not only define the what and why of your story, but the how and when. For example, every pre-rendered cinema and interactive sequence in your game is defined in detail – its purpose and chronology in the timeline clear. Environmental artists, animators, game designers, sound designers – everyone on the content side (storytellers all) can build assets with confidence and, more importantly, with the context necessary to support the story visually, auditorily, and interactively.

  1. Dialogue

With the rest of the team kept busy, the poor sap who has been stuck with writing dialogue is now free to write and rewrite scenes to their creative director’s heart’s content without causing a bottleneck for other developers. Much has been written or handed down from theatre and film about the art and craft of writing scenes and dialogue; most of it is applicable to games as well. Most importantly, you can either hire someone who has studied and worked at this craft or you can trust it to someone on the team who has never done it before but thinks it sounds fun and end up with dialogue like, “That wizard came from the moon!” Your call.

Narrative Parademic
Rhianna Pratchett, coiner of the term “narrative paramedic.” Photo credit: Kotaku

Hire Good Storytellers

Rhianna Pratchett, current writer on the Tomb Raider franchise, once referred to herself as a “narrative paramedic.” Far too often, experienced game writers are called in after a game’s story lies gasping for breath, with the dev team standing around, looking at one another, hopeful that someone knows narrative CPR. Having some innate talent and knowledge of the above process is one thing; having to put this process into practice over and over again is how a novice narrative designer becomes an expert. If your game’s story is important to your overall success, hire an expert early in the process. They will more than pay for themselves in time saved trying to patch plot holes while artists and programmers become disillusioned with your game’s vision.

To see how AC+A can improve your game’s story, contact us for a free consultation.

*If you’re thinking “yes,” please contact Adrian Crook & Associates right away (though you should really finish reading the rest of the article).