The Solutions

Story and gameplay are a match made in heaven, despite the vocal naysayers and armchair literati. These critics cite the forced exposition of flashbacks, narration and journal entries as trite techniques that unsuccessfully overlay story on top of gameplay. This section analyzes the ways to weave story and character into the fundamental fabric of an interactive world to create a seamless story/game experience.


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Level Design

Developing Character-Driven Combat

Great story is great character and great character is active character. Naturally, the narrative power of a level is only as good as the active characters involved.

In the pursuit of making every level a narrative experience, we must agree on the basic tenet of drama that characters drive conflict. Backtracking, padding and filler are commonly used techniques to add more action to a game, but when seen through a literary lens, they simply fail to move the story forward. In many of today's games, roughly 90% of this backtracking and filler simply has no bearing on the story.

Active characters, however, are able to drive the story on a fundamental level. A great active character not only instigates the conflict, but progresses and changes throughout the course of the combat. If, by the end of the level, the characters' emotions, psychology and relationships aren't different, then the level isn't needed. If they are different, however, then the level is on the right path towards dramatic greatness.

Answer these questions: How are the characters' lives different? How do the characters feel different about themselves? About others? The world around them? How have their relationships progressed? Regressed? Begun anew or fallen apart?

So what does an active character look like? To use Star Wars again (King Lear is a better example, but not high on everyone's reading list), Leia is actively stealing the Death Star plans, Vader is actively trying to get them back, R2D2 is actively trying to deliver the plans to Obi-Wan and C3PO is actively trying not to get killed. Active, active, active.

Examples of character-driven scenes can be found in the games like Halo, Half-Life 2 and Final Fantasy. When Master Chief makes a decision to drive the story, the audience is thrilled. When he and the player randomly fall into a three-hour slug-fest with unending waves of alien-zombies, the frustration is palpable as the story grinds to a halt.

Likewise, the best moments in Final Fantasy, Half-Life and Bioshock can all be identified as character-driven scenarios, where our principle personalities make dramatic decisions that advance the plots. When the player is force-fed backtracking, padding and filler, the story loses its momentum.

Thus, when creating great story, each and every level must be character-driven. Likewise, every level must see characters grow and progress.

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A Cast of Thousands

An Argument For Multiple Playable Protagonists

Since character must drive every level in a story-driven game, we're looking at a HUGE amount of character-driven action in a 10+ hour title. As we dissected previously, no film or TV show in history has succeeded in creating 10+ hours of single-character progress. Star Wars, again, features many scenes driven by different characters. Luke, one of the most memorable characters in history, is only able to drive less than an hour of conflict. Lost, Heroes, and many of the popular action/adventure TV shows succeed year after year simply because of their huge casts of personalities.

So how do we make character-driven levels while still offering the requisite amount of game time?

The answer: Multiple playable protagonists

So instead of one lone hero attempting to stay emotionally active for 10+ hours, we spread the narrative wealth between multiple protagonists. Offering multiple playable characters means we allow the player to control different characters, each on their own active journeys, at different points in the story.

This not only makes for a far more interesting story, but it also allows us to get rid of backtracking, padding and filler. The player only takes control when the character is, as previously discussed, active. When that scenario is finished, we transition over to another character, bypassing needless time spent traveling between towns and levels.

Give the story a handful of great characters, anywhere from a half dozen to a dozen, and we're able to justify 10 hours of gameplay. Done right, every single level in a genuine character-driven experience that can be on par with scenes from film and television.

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Integrating NPCs

The Key to Character Dimensionality

In the quest for developing great characters, playable personalities are only a fraction of the characters in the game. NPCs (Non Playable Characters) fill up the rest of the world and can, when constructed correctly, be some of the most powerful characters in a game story.

Today's games are already using central NPCs with great results. After Half-Life 2 and the following two episodes, it's abundantly clear who's wearing the pants in this relationship. Alyx is, by all narrative standards, the main character while Gordon, the playable character, simply does what he's told, when he's told, without so much as a peep. Alyx, along with the other NPCs are, in fact, the main characters of HL2.

By combining multiple playable characters with multiple central NPCs, we start approaching the needed dramatic saturation to warrant 10+ hours of gameplay. For every playable character we are able to justify the existence of two, three or more NPCs, each with their own personalities and plots. Multiply these numbers by adding additional playable characters, and a video game is starting to offer casts comparable to film, TV and literature.

Also, by focusing dramatic attention on central NPCs, we are able to offer characters outside of the typical game cliches. No longer does the world need to be filled with indestructible space marines. Rather, we're allowed to create characters who are flawed, weak, terrified and, above all, dimensional. The supporting NPCs found in Half-Life 2, Bioshock, Portal, Gears of War and God of War follow this model with obvious success.

Central NPCs can also do something the playable character cannot -- die. The player is preconditioned to know the hero is, for all intents and purposes, immortal. For NPCs, however, serious mortality, and the resulting drama, is possible.

One of the most widely-cited moments in gaming history is the death of Aerith in Final Fantasy VII. While almost entirely random and illogical, the moment was dramatically powerful because the audience suddenly realized this fantasy world had real consequences. Seeing this innocent flower girl we saved at the beginning of the game suffer a horrific murder launched FF7 into the pages of game story history.

NPCs have the wonderful flexibility all the dramatic arts afford them and shouldn't be ignored as background filler, running inns and armories, but recognized as a critical ingredient in creating great story.


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Cut Scene Logic

Intra-Level Vs. Extra-Level

The typical cut scene, as previously discussed, is an easy place to dump all the exposition needed to justify a lone soldier fighting hordes of aliens, zombies, vampires or some combination thereof. Critics of cut scenes rightly point out how players will bypass these exposition-orgies to get to the button-smashing action.

But a cut scene done right is a beautiful thing.The key is understanding when and in what capacity to use this nuclear bomb of story.

There are two kinds of non-playable cut scenes: intra-level and extra-level. Or, more specifically, a scene that happens within the scope of a playable level and a scene that happens in its own space and time, separate from the main character and the immediate conflict.

An example of an intra-level scene is Aerith in FF7 getting Sephirothed mid-level. The gameplay and the cutscene integrate fluidly and occupy a uniform time and space.

An example of an extra-level cut scene is when, in any number of instances in Halo, the commander breaks down the situation before deployment. The player doesn't experience the cut scene in the same location as the level itself. Rather, the cut scene is separated, sometimes by months or years in the cases of flashbacks, from the immediate conflict the player experiences.

For dramatic purposes, the intra-level cut scene is the right choice to make because it keeps the dialogue and character development in line with the playable action. The cut scene that removes the audience entirely from the theater of action neuters the story pacing and tends to devolve into passive exposition almost immediately.

That's not to say the extra-level cut scene doesn't work -- after all, Final Fantasy, Halo and even Starcraft use extra-level cut scenes with amazing results. But to create the most intense, dramatic story possible, intra-level cut scenes are the ticket.

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Cut Scene Pacing

Handling Player-Controlled Levels

It could be said that pacing is everything in drama and timing is everything in comedy. Games, however, have another ingredient: user-playable sequences. Pacing and timing, previously the domain of the director and editor, now find themselves in the hands of the player.

When writing the game, we have some control over the ratio between cut scenes and playable time. Typically, this ratio varies from game to game, but we usually experience anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes of cut scene followed by 10-60 minutes of gameplay (depending on a number of factors), only to be repeated over and over again.

This ratio is an artifact of levels built around characters with passive objectives. The player is informed through an extra-level cut scene what must be done and then the next 10-20 minutes are spent achieving that objective.

The right way to handle intra-level cut scenes is by weaving them into the playable action, not in large chunks, but in a steady flow of conflict.

In a 20 minute level, the place to put the dialogue and character interaction isn't just at the beginning and end but throughout the action itself -- 1-2 minutes of cut scene at the beginning of a level, 30 seconds spread out in multiple chunks throughout the level, and then another 1-2 minutes at the end.

This allows for 2-3 times as much "story" in the same amount of gameplay. And by spreading out the dialogue, the players never feel they're pulled away from the action. Done right, the players are integrated in a seamless narrative and genuinely excited for the next piece of plot. The players are no longer outside observers simply achieving trivial tasks, but active participants in the story and driving the story with their actions.

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But Will It Blend?

Putting All the Pieces Together

Let's review the points thus far:

GENRE: FPS/TPS, action, adventure and RPG offer the most possible story saturation.

MULTIPLE ENDINGS: Single endings, not only easier to write than multiple endings, have proven to be the best structure for great story.

BLANK SLATE CHARACTERS: Backstory and active character psychology are critical ingredients in cooking up great characters.

CLICHE CHARACTERS: Typical soldiers, metrosexuals and femme fatales hinder a story more than they help.

SINGLE PROTAGONISTS: One character carrying 10+ hours of gameplay is a herculean feat.

CUT SCENES: Intra-level cut scenes keep the action fast and furious while offering the maximum amount of dialogue.

ACTIVE CHARACTERS: Characters, not plot devices, can drive all levels. When done right, the levels become narrative scenes equal to the best of film and TV.

MULTIPLE PROTAGONISTS: In making every level free of backtracking, padding and filler, only multiple playable protagonists are able to justify non-stop character-driven conflict for 10+ hours.

NPC IMPORTANCE: Unlike the gun-toting playable characters, the NPCs can be weak, vulnerable and conflicted. NPCs have a wonderful dramatic flexibility that allows the writer to integrate characters that don't conform to typical game stereotypes.

CUT SCENE INTEGRATION: By breaking up the timing and relationship of a cut scene to the gameplay, the story becomes fluid and seamless, not disjointed and frustrating.

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Perfect Writing

If Only It Was That Easy

We've now discussed the methods for integrating story with video games in the most effective and dramatic ways possible. But how does one write great story in the first place? The truth is a game's thematic and dramatic core is no different from that of a movie. The medium is different, but a scene is a scene and a conversation is a conversation, whether it's on the big screen, small screen or computer screen.

Alas, no one has succeeded in distilling the primal elements of great story into a just-add-water recipe (though many have tried). The good news is that hundreds of years have been spent in near-constant analysis of the dramatic principles. From Aristotle to McKee, much ink has been spilt, and the best writers working today quote these drama gurus like venerated religious figures.

Moving Forward

The Great Journey

We've reached the end of the VG Story Design method. As you're aware, these principles are just the tip of the iceberg, with each paragraph worthy of its own chapter. VG Story Design is presented as a method for achieving the most story-driven games ever and the hope is this information fosters your desire to explore the narrative possibilities games have to offer. With a little luck and a lot of work, we'll be able to prove the critics wrong and show that games can offer story on par with anything else out there.

To see how these methods translate into the game environment, read the Iron Hearts script.

If you have any questions, send us an email.

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