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.
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.
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).
- Note, additionally, that there are different kinds of difficulty. Players might have difficulty grasping the overall picture—"What's that Most Annoying Sound mean, and why can't I ignore it?" They might have difficulty grasping the particular nuances of That One Rule, or be overwhelmed by Loads and Loads of Rules. They might have trouble with the physical motions of using the controller (Some Dexterity Required). When designing, keep in mind which of these flavors of difficulty you happen to be good at, and make sure to get a second opinion on the difficulty level you've created.
- 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.
You should do some thinking about what platform you want your game to be on. The PC vs. Console
argument has been going on for ages, partially because Both Sides Have a Point
- 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.
You need a business model. As mentioned, video games are a business, so if you are smart you'll build profit possibilities into your game.
- 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. The upsides are that 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. The downside is that it's very easy to release Game Breakers on accident. You're also going to have to deal with Complexity Creep, since you keep adding on new features and such. Players who leave the game will have trouble returning, because so many things may have changed in their absence. (All of this is true of the "Games As Service" model too, by the way.)
You do not have to choose only one of these models. World of Warcraft
requires (or required) you to purchase the game and
pay a subscription fee. Angry Birds
requires you to purchase the game (on iPhones; Android players get the game for free
has IAP options. Decide how you want to do it and go from there.
You should decide whether other players will be a part of the gameplay experience.
- 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 having any impact on the story.
- Competitive Multiplayer is when you and other players compete to achieve 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.
- Symmetric Multiplayer is a situation where both teams have the same goal—"Capture the Flag," "Kill ## people," "Score goals," "checkmate your opponent's King." While this may sound boring, it should be pointed out that the vast majority of sports and games throughout history use this model. It's also way, way easier on the developers when it comes time to institute Competitive Balance.
- Asymmetric Multiplayer is where the two teams 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. The recent First-Person Shooter Evolve revolves around this trope: all matches are 4v1, with human Hunters pitted against one very large alien Monster. Again, the downside of this is in balancing. Each character / ability / job class / whatever is probably stronger at offense than at defense (or vice versa), and yet it still needs to be viable when being used on the "wrong" side, so that the "Stop Having Fun" Guys don't make too much noise.
You should decide on the timing
of your multiplayer experience. This is true even if you want a solely single-player campaign, as we shall shortly explain.
- 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 When it comes to co-operative, it's instructive to look at Brave Frontier. For each dungeon, you form a party of five characters... and are allowed to "borrow" a friend's character to serve as a Sixth Ranger. (It helps that Brave Frontier has Loads and Loads of Characters, creating incentive for you to make friends and providing more options for you.) 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, which is why Farmville players are always sending you Facebook notifications asking for help. (Their alternative is in-app purchase.)
And finally, you should probably decide on what genre
your video game is going to be in. There are a lot
of these, a number of them already encapsulated by their own articles:
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.
Keep It Simple, Stupid
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, and thus the devs needed to spend time, resources and energy on it. As a result, the other elements of the game(s) suffered in quality. Most people will tell you that most FPS games 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, if it's what you want to do, but giving absolutely no room for change in an idea has a high chance of causing problems.
Also note that taking gameplay elements out
of the game can, believe it or not, actually improve the product. One of gaming's most recent rave successes, The Last of Us
, provides a compelling example. The entire duration of The Teaser
, you have extremely limited control over your characters: you can move your character, you can move the camera, there are a couple Quick Time Events
, and that's it.
"How could that be fun," you ask, "that's bordering on Controllable Helplessness
." And the answer is, Yes, it absolutely is... and what else could be more compelling in a Zombie Apocalypse
? Heck, you don't even have a gun! Sure, Joel
has his little revolver, but the only time he fires it is in a Cut Scene
, and after that he gives it to his brother Tommy to wield. You, The Player
, never have a gun. And that increases the sense of triumph when you reach the military perimeter: despite having literally nothing but your feet, you have not only escaped from zombies, but you have carried your daughter Sarah to safety. You are an Action Survivor
par excellence. ...And, in addition, this increases the impact of the Player Punch
when Sarah dies
; all that hard work, all that desperation, all that sacrifice, for nothing
. It's a brilliant Establishing Character Moment
for not only Joel
but for the game as a whole, and it's accomplished by, essentially, not
letting the player play the game.
Story Vs Gameplay: Fight!
Gameplay and Story Segregation
is a significant problem. You need to make sure your story and gameplay are encouraging The Player towards the same goals.
Sometimes Story loses to Gameplay. Mass Effect 3
, and its notorious ending, is an example. Per Word of God
, the Central Theme
of the story is, "You can't save everyone
." War Is Hell
, and somewhere along the line you're going to have to choose [A] over [B] and watch [B] die a fiery, dramatic, slow-motion death with full One-Woman Wail
soundtrack in the background. In other words, there is no Golden Path
where you get absolutely everyone on your side. The salarians still believe that inflicting a Sterility Plague
on the krogan, and resulting Childless Dystopia
, was justified? Then you have to pick between them and the krogan. The quarians won't stop fighting their Robot War
against the geth? Then you have to choose one or the other. The problem
is, having no Golden Path
—especially in the final game of a trilogy, where The Player (correctly) expects you to wrap up all your loose ends—is a bad gameplay experience. Besides, the previous two games features ample chances to Take a Third Option
, the doing of which often keeps you on their Golden Path
; it wouldn't do to suddenly remove it from the last title of the trilogy
. So they kept the Golden Path
; it exists. You can
get the quarians and geth to reconcile; and the salarians come around if you stick to your guns on the matter of the genophage. Even worse, situations in which there genuinely was
no Third Option—in which you must condemn someone to death, with no recourse whatsoever, as you did on Virmire—were Dummied Out
. (It was to have been on Thessia: Liara and the Virmire Survivor were going to be your mandatory squad members, and you'd only have time to save one when the temple floor collapsed.
) Thus, Story was defeated by Gameplay. And, even worse, the writers weren't told about it
, with the result that there's no Golden Ending
even though there is
a Golden Path
. (That disconnect is why the ending was so notoriously ill-received.)
had a similar issue: the story encouraged you to spare the Little Sisters, Heartwarming Orphans
who are victims of a heartless system, but gameplay
encourages you to kill them, because if you don't, you can't buy new magic.
And the magic is kind of important in Rapture, not just as a plot point (the game takes place After the End
was brought about by abuse
of Plasmids) but because your character, Jack, is barely one step up from an Action Survivor
, and needs all the help he can get. Ken Levine at least had the wit to include Multiple Endings
depending on which decision you made, but it still eroded the escapism
that video games often offer as one of their prime selling points. In this example, Gameplay lost to Story, because, in the ending at least, you're actually punished
for having fun and playing the game to its fullest extent. This conflict was so egregious that someone actually coined an entire new term, "ludonarrative dissonance," to describe situations when Gameplay says to do the opposite of what Story does.
The point is this: games are supposed to be fun, so make sure the story is encouraging you to have the same kind of fun that gameplay is. Don't punish the player for accessing basic features of the game. But likewise, don't come up with story reasons for the player to be locked out of basic features either. Everything should point in the same direction: You Get To Do [X]. And there's no reason, narrative or mechanical, why you can't.
Choices, Choices and More Choices
You'll need to consider player agency. Video games are an interactive medium, where players are given choices—or, at least, the illusion
of choice—and expect to see those choices respected and reflected in how the game proceeds. Sometimes this is merely a gameplay aspect—"I chose 'Burning Fist' instead of 'Frost Punch,' so I better be able to use Burning Fist when I press Circle-Circle-Square"—and if you're having problems you need to talk to your programmers or your Quality Assurance team. But sometimes it's a story choice. So if you give players choices over the events of your game's story, they have
to play out over the course of the rest of the game. This is why Railroading
is so decried as a trope: it not only renders the player's choices moot, but it pokes holes in the Willing Suspension of Disbelief
. Mass Effect 3
had some bad examples of this. In the first game, you made a choice whether to wipe out an alien who was the Last Of Its Kind
or not. In ME3
, that alien reappears in a specific mission... regardless of what you chose. It was kind of cool
to have said alien appear no matter what, but—once again—this writing decision made the choice in the first game retroactively meaningless
. (And it was one of the most significant emotional beats of the first game, so having the writers just throw it out was a little disrespectful.)
Writing a game means making sure you give players choice. And that can be difficult, because every option The Player has? You had to decide to give it to them. In other words, (the illusion of) choice is something you have to create
. Developers' Foresight
needs to be mandatory
for your process, because if you don't, there's no game. It is your job to decide what actions are available. And that means you need to sit down and think about as many possible actions that a player could
want to take, for fear of spiking Willing Suspension of Disbelief
or other silly obstacles (Insurmountable Waist-High Fence
, Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?
Beware of Moon Logic Puzzles
, but also beware of the opposite: Acceptable Breaks from Reality
. Video gamers are Genre Savvy
enough to know that everything they can do is something you gave them the option to do. They have also played a lot
of video games where they tried to Take a Third Option
and were unable to because you
, the programmer
, didn't think of it. The combination of "most developers are stupid" and "But I'm not" can be some serious Guide Dang It
moments. Two free examples: in God of War II
, there's a puzzle that you solve by raising a timed platform, which is shaped like a T, and then wedging it in the air using a pushable block. The problem is that you can only do this if the T-shaped platform has the collision physics of
a T-shaped platform, instead of just being a giant rectangle, which is the way most programmers would do it to save time. The other is from the seminal Spec Ops: The Line
. Late in the game, one of your NPC friends is strung up by a civilian lynch mob, with your characters coming across the process too late to stop it. The game suggests either letting them go or slaughtering the civilians; the Third Option
, Firing in the Air a Lot
to scare them off, works pretty well in Real Life
but might not in a video game because the civilians might not be programmed to be intimidated that way. These are just two examples where the Dev Team Thinking Of Everything actually resulted in the Dev Team Failing To Think Of Everything. Developers' Foresight
near as prevalent as it could be, and players know that
. So never forget: players know that their choices are artificially limited by your
decision-making capabilities. It will take a lot of coaching, and a lot more excellent gameplay design, before this fact ceases to hold sway over gamers.
Some Other Considerations
Graphics are always a big thing in video games these days. Everyone wants good ones... but creating good ones takes a lot of time and effort. It can also require a great deal of processing power in terms of the hardware necessary to run your game. Even worse, graphics age
. Games that were considered to have stellar, cutting-edge graphics ten years ago (The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
, The Sims II
, Battlefield II
) look dated today. One simple workaround is to look at games which don't
look dated—The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
, Team Fortress 2
come to mind. What do these games have in common? Simple: they don't try to be photorealistic. Instead, they have an art style
with graphics that aren't supposed
to look like "reality" and instead like... well, whatever they're trying to achieve (cel shading, sliding silhouettes, etc). And, since they achieve it, their graphics become timeless. There's a Sliding Scale Of Photorealistic Vs. Artistic, and while both of them take money, the second one lasts longer.
the trap called the "Minimum Viable Product." As the term suggests, this is a benchmark that you and/or your team sets, representing the absolute most bare-bones version of the game that can be released to consumers. Exactly what this benchmark consists of — what the core loop looks like, how many extras are available, how much content you have, if there is multiplayer, etc — is going to depend on the nature of your product itself. For instance, for Telltale Games
, the MVP is "An engine and 20% of the content" because their games are episodic, whereas if you're on the team that made the original Final Fantasy VII
your minimum is "the engine, all
the content, and every bell and whistle we decide to add." This can vary even within your genre; the creators of the MOBA League of Legends
decided to ship their game with 40 characters, whereas the competing Demigod
went out with a mere eight
. (And that's why you've never heard of Demigod
.) Additionally, it's going to go up and down as the product evolves — this is done, that is not; we can't implement this feature for various reasons; our investors want us to have [this] in it, so we have to add it in. And
it's prey to the current climate of gaming, specifically the "Games As Service" model that dominates. Because games can be, and are, updated on a regular basis, it's become increasingly acceptable to take an Obvious Beta
, declare it meets your MVP, and ship it. Whatever you do, don't do this.
Very few games that shipped half-finished were financial successes, because the simple fact is that if players are going to spend a full game's worth of money, they want to receive a full game's worth of content for it today
, not tomorrow. Even worse, because of the way people play games these days, they're gonna go through content fast. People who make smartphone games can tell horror stories about how they shipped games which, they thought, had months of content, only to have players get through it in days or even hours
. When this happens, players lose interest, and fast. The fate of games like Fallout Shelter
, Pokémon Go
are examples of games that could
have gotten huge... had they been released with sufficient content. But no: someone decided that the Minimum Viable Product were half-finished versions that couldn't hold people's attention. And didn't.
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 Voodoo Shark
, and annoy the player that such things were being justified when it was just fine as a gameplay feature.
Suggested Themes and Aesops
Set Designer / Location Scout
The Epic Fails