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So You Want To: Write A Video Game
Video games are a vast medium enjoyed by all sorts of people. As this amazing medium expands its gameplay, literary, visual, and audio capabilities, the diversity and quality of video games will continue to improve. While many games have succeeded without stories in the past, the demand for quality storytelling in video games has been high since 1997. So, how do you tell a good story in a video game? First of all, a story is a story no matter the medium, so all the advice for writing novels, movies, etc. applies to writing video game stories as well. The idea of this page in particular, however, is to help you find the tropes and techniques for telling a good story in a video game (specifically). Most notably, it covers how to fully utilize the medium's interactive nature when telling a story.

Necessary Tropes

Video games are a business. What this means is that, unless you can finish making a video game all by yourself (or have enough helpful pals willing to work for free), you'll need to frame your story in such a way that a businessman would want to invest in it. As far as stories go, this usually means adhering to what this troper calls business 101 - "copy that other product that made a bunch of money!" Hence, knowing Video Game Tropes inside and out will help get your video game story that much closer to publication. It's also worth noting that the Visual Novel medium shares many of these tropes, because the visual novel and video game industries have influenced one another over the years.

Choices, Choices

As said above, all choices depend on the game's genre to some degree. For now, let's discuss Video Game Tropes that apply to all (or most) genres.
  • Difficulty tropes are one of the easiest to decide. Do you want to design a game to be Nintendo Hard? Do you want the game to have an Easier Than Easy mode? Do you want to establish Easy-Mode Mockery? This troper's advice is to consider the consequences of the player losing at this time as well (frequent save/check points, unlimited lives, etc.) as well as the target audience (easy games are usually designed for kids, and hard games are usually designed for adults).
  • Do you want your game to be a Deconstruction? Do you want it to be meta? Even though such ideas are specific to the genre in which you want to use them, designing a game around it is best done as an idea from the start because making a game like that requires both a careful selection of tropes and intricate application of said tropes. For example, do you want to use Gameplay and Story Segregation or try to integrate the two? Do you want to use Mission Control Is Off Its Meds as a vehicle for the game's meta value? Do you want to use What the Hell, Hero? and Designated Hero to deconstruct the player's intuition? Does making the world a Crapsack World appeal to some of the meta concepts for which you're aiming (thus allowing you to show the effect of gameplay conventions as if they occurred in real life)?
    • The meta game: These are games whose entertainment lays not in a unique world, but their relation to other video games. They do not tear apart ideas, they show how ridiculous they are. They can be tongue in cheek (Cthulhu Saves the World, Team Fortress 2 has this going on with making the story fit the gameplay to a very odd degree), or they can be serious (BioShock, Metal Gear Solid 2, Spec Ops: The Line is so far in this end it's embedded in the wall), but they can be in between (Borderlands). What these games have, so far as meta value goes, is that they call attention to and sometimes even play with tropes you're expected to find in games. They can be as simple as a Lampshade Hanging (Cthulhu Saves the World is very fond of this approach to JRPGs), or they can be important (A man chooses, A slave obeys!) to the overall story. Done right, the game becomes a big hit because of how it makes the player think about how conditioned they are about the games or how they see everything in videogames.
    • The deconstruction: Although meta-games do overlap with this, it's different. As with any medium, videogames have set traditions, and as with any medium they can sometimes be seen as negative. The best of these games are often meta because they have to draw you into the world and shred your fantasies before you. There is a blurred line at the end of serious meta games and deconstructions. Epic Battle Fantasy 4 is on the lighter end, deconstructing kleptomaniacs running around who happen to care about the world and want to stop it being destroyed. Then you have Spec Ops: The Line, where the game is recommended on the basis that it shakes up the concept of FPS in a way that you end up disliking yourself. As far as popularity, they would ride mostly on the wave of meta-games to be popular, as for a design choice it's easier to make than a meta, although do not expect it to be easy still. The best point about these is that it can help base itself into a game world, and allow you to make a deeper story that is more unique to the video game genera on the merit of what you can do with it.

Pitfalls

The biggest pitfall for any game is to make the gameplay bad, but designing fun gameplay is much easier said than done. This can be seen in The Problem with Licensed Games, which (when based off of a movie with a good story) shows the pitfall of trying to attach a good story to a horrible game. This is the golden rule for all games at all - do not let the gameplay detract from your overall goal for the game.

This is another subject where each game genre has its own tropes, but there are a few overlying ideas you should use to avoid having your game's gameplay flop.

The most important is to never let an idea stand undisputed for a game. Ever. Even if it's a solid idea, ends up making it into the game and being popular, during the creation process don't be afraid to put the idea aside for another one to serve your reasons. If you refuse to make changes to a or any part of the game, then you are doomed to failure. This can best be shown by the "Online FPS" example. After Modern Warfare made it big, every FPS had to have online multiplayer. The producers wouldn't budge on that one inch, had to have it to attract the crowd. This lead to games becoming worse because of this one unchanging factor that ended up taking up time, space, and resources that could have otherwise been used on the single player mode of the FPS. Most people will tell you that most FPS from around 2007 to 2010/11 were not that entertaining, from Singularity to games that didn't even get made because of this halfway switch. Now, that's not to say having a solid idea and doing as much as you can for it is a bad thing, it's what you want to do, but giving absolutely no room for change in an idea has a high chance of causing problems.

Potential Subversions

Subversions to a video game are impossible, but as discussed in meta-game and deconstruction, actual gameplay expectations can be subverted. A good example is the moral choice system. Most players expect either A) The whole thing would have a major, or at least notable, impact on the game and being in the middle ground is pointless in terms of bonuses, maybe with the possibility that your alignment decides things, not what you have done to get it. (Infamous, Knights of the Old Republic) or that B) It's just a small setup to give the player an illusion of choice and doesn't really matter in the end, except maybe for moral choice system having some impact on gameplay Dante's Inferno never really went anywhere with moral choices, but they did buy you upgrades. BioShock Infinite makes a small point in its gameplay on moral choices without actually having a moral system.

Working from that gameplay convention, there could be a few subversions to the expected style. A subversion for type A could be a major shock for people when what they are so used to seeing gets pulled out from under them. Maybe the moral choices actually affect the storyline and characters in an organic way, maybe they affect how people treat you but actually doesn't influence the main story when a sudden story swerve comes out of nowhere and rendered the system pointless. Done well, it can be very meaningful and show players on how morality comes into play on some things, but not so much so for others. Done poorly it can look like a half-hearted attempt at removing the system midgame. This shows the impact of storytelling conventions in games and how players can look at them.

Type B shows how players can expect gameplay and story to be separated and simply another system. A subversion for type B could easily include moral choices having no effect on gameplay, seemingly, and then suddenly spring up as being important and recognized by other characters. A fantasy RPG has a moral choice system that seems to only effect what type of spells or skills are unlocked for the PC, and suddenly in the middle of a game a character mentions how the forces responsible for magic are actually paying attention to the player, and are granting him spells based on how he acts and solves problems. Done well, and followed up upon so it doesn't just look like a Hand Wave, it can actually be a surprise to the player about how this thing they had mentally placed as gameplay is touched upon by the world it happens in and has actual meaning. Done poorly it will still look like a Hand Wave, or maybe even a Voo Doo Shark, and annoy the player that such things were being justified when it was just fine as a gameplay feature.

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