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 TropesVideo 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, ChoicesAs 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.
- Computer Games are played on a computer. Computers typically have some of the most powerful hardware available, capable of running Crysis at full settings... but they also have some of the worst, since you basically can't control what kind of hardware is in your consumer's tower. They come with a mouse and keyboard, which is a good interface for strategy-oriented games where you need a lot of things to be available at the press of a button.
- Video Games are played on a console. Consoles are easier to program for because the hardware is standardized: every PlayStation 4 has the exact same things inside it as any other (with the sole exception of hard drive space). You know exactly what the console can do. However, this requires a fair bit more in terms of licensing fees, and a bit more bureaucracy to wade through, since most console manufacturers want to do at least a little bit of Quality Assurance before they let the game released on their machines.
- Mobile Phone Games are played on cell phones, particularly smartphones these days—Android Games and iOS Games are proliferate. They benefit from extreme portability, as well as the (relative) ease of touchscreen controls, but but most people don't have time to play a smartphone game for more than about 3 minutes at a time, so you'd better design the game accordingly. Additionally, whereas computers come with a 101-key keyboard and mouse, and consoles with a minimum of Thumbstick, D-Pad, 4 face buttons and 2 Shoulder buttons, a touchscreen phone has only... its touchscreen to display controls on. With such limited real estate, the game will need to have very simple controls.
- The more traditional model has been described as the "Games As Product" model. You create a game, you sell it for a very large chunk of change ($60 per game for The Eighth Generation of Console Video Games), and once it's on store shelves, you never touch it again. The game exists as it is, bugs and all. While you make fewer sales, you get larger chunks of money, and you can always create Expansion Packs if your game is successful.
- The model pioneered by MMORPGs and Microsoft are the "Games As Service" model. You create a game, you release it, you update it frequently. There are multiple places you can make money: MMOs charge a monthly subscription, for instance, while most Mobile Phone Games that use this model place limits, sometimes artificial ones, on gameplay and then offer "In-App Purchase" options to let you get around it—FarmVille forces you to expend Energy on every action and regenerates it slowly (1 charge every 15 minutes, one charge every hour, etc), but allows you to purchase more for real money. They may also allow you to Level Grind your way to certain bonuses or simply buy them for convenience and time-saving. This can verge into Bribing Your Way to Victory, but the company's not likely to care, since they're the people you're bribing—and, in well-designed games, the fact that players can buy power will be worked into the Competitive Balance.
- The model pioneered by Collectible Card Games and Card Battle Games is the "Games As Collection" model: you buy pieces of the game. Such games typically incorporate a Gotta Catch 'Em All mentality to encourage continued purchasing. They require you to continue releasing Expansion Packs in order to keep the game fresh, and as such it's very easy to release Game Breakers on accident. But novelty is a very powerful factor, and a game that is constantly new, the metagame constantly changing, can be addictive on a "Crack Is Cheaper" level.
- A single-player game features just you, your skills and your abilities. This kind of design is discouraged because (it is believed) it offers fewer hooks for IAP: players who want to triumph over other players will happily shell out money to do so, but not when facing only the computer. Careful balancing of the difficulty curve could avert this. It also, well, lacks multiplayer. Two heads are better than one, and two people playing a game results in more interesting experiences. Having said that, a 1P experience is the absolute best platform for actually telling a story; most multiplayer games that attempt to thatch their 1P campaign into the multiplayer experience (Age of Conan, Titanfall) do not succeed, and indeed have become laughingstocks to a certain extent for how poor the attempts actually were.
- Co-Op Multiplayer is when you and other players work together to achieve a shared goal. Successful video games (Left 4 Dead, Borderlands) and board games (Forbidden Island) have been created that utilize this model. Such games can be extra-vulnerable to trolls and griefing, so the developers need to work in countermeasures, but when done correctly they create Fire-Forged Friends from strangers and can result in chaotic, spectacularly fun experiences.
- The hybrid child of Co-Op Multiplayer and Single Player is Drop-In-Drop-Out Multiplayer, perhaps best illustrated by Dead Space 3. During the 1P campaign, the first player controls protagonist Isaac Clarke; when a second player joins, an NPC, Sgt. John Carver, becomes their avatar, and fights alongside Clarke as he progresses through the plot. Visceral Games took pains to seed "trap doors" throughout the game's script, so that Carver could be Put on a Bus (or have The Bus Come Back) at a moment's notice, without impacting or even changing the plot.
- Competitive Multiplayer is when you and other players compete to achieve different goals. The vast majority of video-game multiplayer, from Fighting Games to First-Person Shooter Deathmatches to sports games and more, take place in this space; they can use (theoretically) equal teams, or be giant free-for-alls. Typically, each competitor has the same goal—"Capture the Flag," "Kill ## people," "checkmate your opponent's King"—but recent games have begun to experiment with Asymmetric Multiplayer, where players have different goals. Some Unreal Tournament or Team Fortress 2 matches involve one side attacking a fixed position and the other defending it, which has significant impact on the strategies and tactics each side uses, and the recent First-Person Shooter Evolve revolves around this trope: all matches are 4v1, with human Hunters pitted against one very large alien Monster.
- Synchronous multiplayer is the traditional experience. Two or more people sit down and play the game at the same time, competing or cooperating in real time. Doing this requires a certain amount of infrastructure—servers, for instance, that the players can connect to so that their control inputs are thatched together properly—but provides the most thrilling experience. Almost all eSports involve synchronous multiplayer.
- Asynchronous multiplayer is when only one person plays at a time. While this sounds ridiculous, it's Older Than They Think: Play-by-Post Games of chess have been a thing for centuries. In video games, it's typically combined with Asymmetric Multiplayer: the player has different roles depending on whether they're logged on or not. In Clash of Clans, for instance, players can only be attacked whilst offline, with the AI controlling your defenses on your behalf.[[NOTE]]You also get to design your city in ways that funnel attackers towards your defensive towers, but that's more technical detail than this discussion really needs.[[/note]] When it comes to co-operative, it typically involves borrowing a friend's gameplay assets for use as Assist Characters. For non-combat, we turn again to FarmVille, who pioneered the (for lack of a better term) "token economy" system: if you want to do [X], it requires special reagents, which can only be provided to you by friends who also play the game. (...Or in-app purchase.)
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