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).
- 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, which is recommended because of how it makes 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 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 buttonsnote , a touchscreen phone has only... its touchscreen to display controls on. You will need to think hard about your GUI and how you want to display things. This is not to say that you can't have titles on a phone from genres that are normally dominated by computers (such as Real-Time Strategy title Tactile Wars or StarCraft Mockbuster Star Discord, 4X game Civilization VI) or consoles (Hack and Slash Implosion: Never Lose Hope; Action RPG Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition; The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild knockoff Genshin Impact); it is simply to say that it's easier for the player to get in their own way on a phone. (If you really need to avoid this, program for the Nintendo Switch and its two controllers.)
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 use a Freemium Timer to place limits on gameplay and then offer "In-App Purchase" options to let you get around it. 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. Of course, in any situation where players can buy power, you also have to think about the game's overall economy — how far you want the Lensman Arms Race to go. Suddenly you need to understand financial matters like hyperinflation. The good news is that if it works, you can find yourself enjoying the benefits of games like World of Warcraft or Game of War: Fire Age, which at their height consistently earned their creators millions of dollars a day.
- The model pioneered by Collectible Card Games and Card Battle Games, is the "Games As Collection" model: you buy pieces of the game, often randomly selected from Lootboxes. 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.) Finally, a useful form of padding (useful to your wallet, at least) is to have the Lootboxes not give new in-game items but pieces of in-game items, requiring you to collect enough of them before the item can actually be used. This may sound like it won't work, but "Gacha" mechanics are dominant in the mobile space right now, and have been for about half a decade.
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) and 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 are less likely to do this 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 been mocked 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 Desert) 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 Player Character is Isaac Clarke; when a second player joins, a Non-Player Character, 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. The Halo games didn't even bother with a Watsonian justification; they just had extra characters show up and stand around when Cut Scenes happened.
- 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. 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 the "wrong" way, 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 are the Ur-Example. It can be used both for co-operative and competitive play.
- Competitive: In Clash of Clans, players can only be attacked whilst offline, with the AI controlling your defenses on your behalf. The Suda51 game Let It Die is a Dark Souls-influenced permadeath roguelike where your slain character becomes an NPC enemy in a randomly-selected instance (yours, someone else's, whatever). If you kill a former Player Character this way, you get extra loot; if it kills you, its owner gets bonuses. A lot of mobile games use this model because it allows you to "participate" (defensively) in battle even if you are not on your phone; additionally, because AI typically isn't very good, it means that most attacking players will win — a thing most players enjoy doing. And while you might not enjoy losing, the High-Pressure Emotion of a humiliating loss might be enough for you to 1. go play the game some more (which the creators obviously like), 2. spend some money making sure you win (which the creators obviously like).
- Co-operative asynchronous multi typically relies on the Socialization Bonus. In Brave Frontier you form a party of five characters, and are allowed to "borrow" a friend's character to serve as a Sixth Ranger. In FarmVille, you can't complete certain tasks until you collect 20 Bear Asses... but said items can only be provided by friends who also play the game. (Or microtransactions.) This is why Farmville players are always sending you Facebook requests asking for help.
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:
- Write an Adventure Game
- Write a Dating Sim
- Write a First-Person Shooter
- Write a Major MMORPG, Write a Minor MMORPG
- Make a Metroidvania
- Write a Real-Time Strategy
- Write an RPG
- Write a Survival Horror Game
- Write a Western RPG
PitfallsThe 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, StupidThe 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 the Most Triumphant Example of an Action Survivor. ...And, in addition, this increases the impact of the Player Punch when, even as a First-Episode Twist, 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.
This is even true in more complex games. Daniel Friedman, a writer for Polygon, commented on how some of the simplest characters (in this case, Warwick from League of Legends and Reaper from Overwatch) are the best in their titles, simply because their extremely limited gameplay styles foster the development and expression of skill. They force the player to "git gud," as gamers like to say it these days, and offer freedom and creativity by limiting choice. (That's actually the MO of almost all popular video games these days. MOBAs and Hero Shooters like Overwatch and Team Fortress 2 are very specific about what each of their characters can and can't do. Despite the inherent limitations, these games are amongst the most popular, the most played and the most financially lucrative in the world. Take a lesson accordingly.)
- "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
Story Vs Gameplay: Fight!Writing the story of a video game is tricky for the same reason that films are trickier to film, and songs tricker to write, than novels: there's more than one storytelling language being used simultaneously. In all of these media, there is a story — who The Protagonist is, what they want, why they can't have it, and why the audience should give a [Precision F-Strike] about it. But in films there's also "cinematography," which involves the aesthetics of the moving image and how it can tell a story; Lindsay Ellis has an excellent analysis of how Male Gaze-oriented camera work in Michael Bay's Transformers actually obscures the only Character Development in the film. In a song, you have lyrics, but you also have the music, and the two can work at cross-purposes — for instance, the Lyrical Dissonance of a jaunty, happy piano tune to which Elton John sings, "Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself." And in video games, there's not only the story being told by the, well, story, but also the one being told by gameplay. And, just as in the other two examples, sometimes the two stories don't agree.
And this is a problem.
A quick foreward: to formalize vocabulary for this section, we are going to borrow some terms from James Howell's seminal work of games criticism, "Driving Off the Map." Particularly, we are going to talk about Player Objectives — the things which a human being, sitting around in Real Life playing Video Games, hopes to achieve — and Actor Objectives — the things which the Player Character, an in-game entity controlled by the player, hopes to achieve. These two are not always the same; for instance, in the The Last Of Us example above, Joel has the Actor Objective of saving his daughter, while the player has the Player Objective of correctly manipulating the Dualshock 3 controller in a way that results in Joel navigating through the in-game world, avoiding obstacles and zombie attacks. The reason we need these terms is because the two sets of objectives are not always in accord.
Sometimes Player Objectives beat Actor Objectives. 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 One-Woman Wail 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 the krogan with a Sterility Plague, 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. This is a very effective Actor Objective, and the resulting game would have been awesome — arguably, better than what we actually got (and what we actually got was pretty darn good). The problem is, Player Objectives mandate the inclusion of a Golden Path. There's been one for the other two games in the series, and Central Theme of the series is, "You can always Take a Third Option; there is a Golden Path. And, for the two examples described, we've been building towards that Golden Ending for literally the entire trilogy." So they kept the Golden Path; it exists. You can get the quarians and geth to reconcile; you can make the salarians see reason on the krogan. Even worse, situations in which there genuinely was no Third Option—in which you must endure the Player Punch of condemning a Non-Player Character 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, Actor Objectives were defeated by Player Objectives. The story tells you one thing but gameplay lets you do the exact opposite. 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 leading up to it. The resulting disorientation was a big part of why people didn't like the ending.
BioShock had more than one similar issue.
- Actor Objectives mandate that you spare the Little Sisters, Heartwarming Orphans who are victims of a heartless system, but Player Objectives encourage you to kill them, because if you don't, you can't buy new magic powers. And powers are kind of important in Rapture, not just as a plot point (the game takes place After the End was caused by abuse of said "Plasmids") but because your character, Jack, is barely one step up from an Action Survivor. All he's got is a gun! Why wouldn't you level the playing field? And while the game tries to make the Little Sisters into empathetic individuals (and, quite possibly, succeeds), the blunt truth is that they are still just a bunch of pixels and mean absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things, besides possibly helping you understand What You Are in the Dark. It all got wrapped up in the endings — you get the Bad Ending if you aren't skilled enough to Badass Normal your way through — but it was still a disconnect between Player Objectives and Actor Objectives. The game punishes you for accessing all of its content, eroding the escapism and smacking players in the face with an Actor Objective because they fulfilled the Player Objective.
- BioShock is also a political work, directly satirizing the philosophy of Objectivism and its idea of "enlightened selfishness." You can already see how this plays into the above conflict. If It's All About Me — which, under Objectivism, it is — then murdering the Little Sisters to get ahead is the right thing to do; if it isn't, it isn't. The problem is that the Final Boss is the embodiment of Objectivism, and also reveals that he has been your Mission Control all along, and that he is going to keep giving you orders. Developer's Foresight would suggest that, if you intend to truly reject him and what he represents, you should have the choice to do so. But Thou Must! continue to obey him; there is no such option to disobey — aside from just turning off the console. This conflict was so frustrating that critic Clint Hocking actually coined an entire new term, "ludonarrative dissonance," to describe Actor Objective / Player Objective conflict.
Like any other trope, ludonarrative dissonance can be employed deliberately; BioShock 1 did so, as did Spec Ops: The Line. You have to be really careful about doing so, though. While Tropes Are Tools, ludonarrative dissonance, as a tool, has only one possible use: to piss The Player off. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is the poster child for this subversion — especially because it's the game whose critical analysis gave us the Player Objective / Actor Objective terminology. In MGS2, the two sets of objectives were constantly at odds: Raiden might defeat a boss, but would never get to deal the finishing blow; and succeeding at sneaking aboard Arsenal Gear would result in Raiden getting captured (and having to escape butt-nekkid) and the destruction of the Plant which he had worked so hard to save. People didn't like playing as Raiden, because he never seemed to succeed at what he was trying to do. This was very much intentional; the whole point of Raiden as a character was to make fun of, or perhaps deconstruct, the player, and their Player Objective of "Relive Metal Gear Solid and step back into the shoes of Escapist Character Solid Snake." Through Raiden, series creator Hideo Kojima was able to point at players and laugh: "You wanted to be Solid Snake. You are. Contemplate The Perils of Being the Best. Look at what a wreck Snake is, what a wreck Raiden is, what a wreck you are." For some reason, players didn't like that. Alienating your audience is a very dangerous thing to do, even if you do it on purpose. So Do Not Try This at Home, unless you're 100% sure you know what you're doing.
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. Games work best when the Player Objectives and Actor Objectives are the same: You Get To Do [X], and there's no reason, narrative or mechanical, why you can't.
Choices, Choices and More ChoicesYou'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. Developer's 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 via Railroading or other silly obstacles (Insurmountable Waist-High Fence, Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?, etc).
Beware of Moon Logic Puzzles, but also beware of the opposite: Acceptable Breaks from Reality. Video gamers are Genre Savvy. They have played a lot of video games where they tried to Take a Third Option and were unable to because you, the programmer, didn't realize they'd want to. The combination of "most developers are stupid" and "But I'm not" can lead to Unexpectedly Realistic Gameplay and some serious Guide Dang It! moments. Two free examples:
- In 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 them; the Third Option, Firing in the Air a Lot to scare them off, works pretty well... but only because the civilians were programmed to respond to it that way. In many other games, they weren't, consequently leading to players making assumptions about what their options were and doing something they might otherwise not have.
- 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. This is Unexpectedly Realistic Gameplay, because it requires the T-shaped block to have accurate collision physics — which most developers would not give it, in order to save time. But it's also an object lesson: when an object obeying the laws of physics results in Unexpectedly Realistic Gameplay, you know just how large the "Acceptable" Breaks From Reality have become.
Complexity vs. Controls vs. SpeedThis is a tricky one because it's not a sliding scale; it's a triangle, where gaining points in one means sacrificing points in two others. But, to get on with things:
In the ideal game, you can do 1) Lots of cool things 2) easily and 3) in real time. In reality, you will often have to sacrifice at least one of those ideals. The reason for this is simple: the human being is a limited creature which can only absorb, and react to, limited amounts of information at one time. There is only so much a single player can do without getting overwhelmed.
Ultimately, many video games can defined by which of them they sacrifice.
- Real-time action games like Super Mario Bros., Tetris, Portal and Doom focus on Controls and Speed, resulting in a game with the qualities of Real-Time and Ease Of Play. The Player Characters in those games can't do a whole lot, in the grand scheme of things, but it's relatively easy to make them do those things. The upsides to this style of game are the (relatively) low barrier to entry; the downsides are the (relatively) limited movesets available to player(s).
- Turn-based games focus on Controls and Complexity, resulting in something that's easy to play (Interface Screw and Guide Dang It! notwithstanding) and gives the player tons of options, but doesn't move very quickly. Think about Chess, or 4X games, or Pokémon, or even Dungeons & Dragons: there are a lot of things you can do in these games, but you cannot do them in anything even approaching real time, and sometimes you can't even do them efficiently! The result is a cerebral, strategic style of gameplay that will appeal to certain people and bore others to death.
- Real-Time Strategy and Fighting Games have Complexity and Speed, but require the player to commit a great deal of information to memory. They have big metagames, from Tactical RockPaperScissors (or Matching Pennies) to control inputs with Some Dexterity Required to even remembering what the hotkey is for a specific action. This kind of game is good for people who can absorb a lot of information quickly, but bad for people who just want to pick up and play.
Various games have attempted to merge more towards that Platonic Ideal of a video game — complexity, speed and simple controls — with varying levels of success. What's worth studying is the ways games have invented to get around these limitations.
- In Real-time Action games with Non Player Characters, said NPCs may be controlled by AI. This can verge into a hair-tearing Escort Mission, so the AI needs to be either smart (yeah right), helpful in other ways besides combat, or have Gameplay Ally Immortality. Bioshock Infinite was praised for capturing the latter two elements (and doing an okay job at the first one), and even finding ways to justify the last one within the story. Final Fantasy XII implemented Pausable Real Time, as well as the "Gambit" system, which allowed you to program your non-controlled characters to take (real-time) actions when certain criteria were fulfilled ("if [any party member] is [below 25% HP], hit them with [a Heal spell]"; "if [any enemy] is [flying], hit them with [anything Earth-elemental]").
- In Real-time Action games, Complexity can also be divided up amongst multiple players. Consider Gauntlet, Team Fortress 2, Guns of Icarus and MOBAs like Dota 2: players work together to achieve several goals (namely, "1) Don't lose, 2) Win") but are limited in what they, personally, can contribute to that victory (defense, healing, offense, psychological warfare, etc).
- In Turn-based games, the question starts to depend on the scope of the decisions being made every turn. Final Fantasy X created a fluid battle system that only involved one character moving per turn (as opposed to Civilization where you might have to give orders to five or ten cities at once, not to mention your military); 4X games often implement a notification system, creating UI elements that remind you to do one of the (many, many) things you might want to do.
- Complex Real Time games often let you use (or create your own!) keyboard shortcuts to do things quickly. They also focus on the UI, providing you information that you can both absorb and ignore, depending on what you're trying to do at the moment. (Ignore it at your own peril, of course.)
The point we're trying to make is that you may find yourself having to balance two different audiences: the people who take the game seriously, and the people who play it for fun. The two audiences want different experiences — sometimes drastically so — and you will need to weigh the pros and cons of the elements which each audience calls for. The main article has a lot of examples that you can and should study. If you're too lazy for that, check out a Kotaku article on "Dad Builds," which make high-level content accessible for casual players... and then check out the very first comment, a complaint that Dad Builds make it so that a player who has, you know, actual skill can be beaten by someone whose only weapon is the Random Number God. The guy who posted that comment thinks that the better player should, in general, win... And he's not wrong. But it also raises the question of who should be allowed to access your game. For the commenter, it's, "People who have earned their way into it with skill and devotion; the rest of you are No True Scotsman." For Dad-Build guys, it's, "Everyone, even lazy slobs like me." Neither answer is 100% correct... and you, as the designer, need to find the narrow path that walks between them.
(Free idea: lean the ability trees in certain directions. If a casual player just wants point-and-click abilities, give it to them... but don't let them have access to much else. If the competitive player wants to be able to blow people's heads off at 200 yards with a Sniper Rifle, let them... but make them require the help of a casual player, whose point-and-click Crowd Control is necessary to get the enemy pinned down long enough to shoot. This creates natural ramping, as new or casual players can observe those of higher skill while still contributing to the fight.)
Note that this may be a secondary consideration, in the end. The creation of Magic: The Gathering may prove instructive. During playtesting, M:tG designer Richard Garfield realized that certain cards, particularly the Power Nine, were, well, Game Breakers if wielded in large concentrations. He rationalized their existence via his own expectations for the game: namely, that people would spend perhaps $20 total on the game over its lifetime. The odds of one player having more than one, say, Ancestral Recall, were therefore pretty slim. And, if it turned out that the game was successful enough that people did start having more than one Ancestral Recall in their deck... well, Dr. Garfield decided, he'd cross that bridge when he got to it, as it was the epitome of what we today call "first-world problems". The point to be made here is that if you hit the point where people are playing your game very, very seriously, and complaining about the Casual-Competitive Conflict, then you are already doing better than 90% of games ever released.
Some Other Considerations
GraphicsGraphics 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, Limbo, Spiral Knights. 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. Of course, to achieve this, you need (someone to provide) very strong art direction, which is also a rare commodity. It's Technician vs. Performer for graphics, and the question is which one you decide to throw money at. But there's a Sliding Scale Of Photorealistic Vs. Artistic, and the simple fact is that the second one ages better.
Following The Leader... Halfway ThereEvery — or, at least, the vast majority of — game has some new feature in it that changes up how the game plays, relative not only to other games but to other games within its genre. These little tweaks can make or break a title. As such, when you find a new innovation, it can be tempting to copy it wholesale. The problems begin when "copying it wholesale" only goes halfway there.
- Let's take an almost-omnipresent trope in shooter games: the two-gun Limited Loadout pioneered by the Halo franchise. In short, you can only carry two guns at a time. This is a brilliant gameplay innovation because it encourages players to develop skill with every weapon in the game: the selection of guns available to you are controlled by the Random Number God; and the guns you like might not actually be suited to the battle you need to fight. You have to be able to adapt on the fly and use whatever is available. So what happens if you take this feature, as did Bioshock Infinite... but pair it with vending machines where you can buy whatever ammunition you want? The answer is, the feature breaks down entirely. The key element enforcing the trope is not the fact that you have only two guns, it's that you have extremely limited control over what those guns are. Being able to buy ammo allows you to simply stick to your favorite guns, which is precisely what the feature is supposed to stop you from doing.
- Here's another feature: the Color-Coded Wizardry from Magic: The Gathering. Magic in Magic comes in five colors, each of which stands for an ideology; each color is good at certain things but also has things it refuses to do because the color is morally opposed to those things. "Limited Move Arsenal" is built directly into the game. Licensed games have attempted to replicate this to varying degrees. The problem is that an "unimportant" facet of the feature is always left out: the thing that really limits your move arsenal is the fact that you are playing a deck of 60 cards, of which 24 are Lands (the Phlebotinum that provides you Mana), meaning you have at most 36 individual spells (moves) in your arsenal — and quite probably a lot fewer, since you want four copies (the maximum allowed) of your important spells. If you don't include a cap on the number of spells you can wield at any given time, the entire feature collapses.
Minimum Viable ProductBeware, beware, beware 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 and the "Expansion Packs" consist solely of data that is slotted in later. But 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 (including some extremely-well-hidden option that lets you revive Aerith)." 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; Executive Meddling requires us to add [this], whether or not it fits. And it's prey to the current climate of gaming, specifically the "Games As A 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, often by Moving the Goalposts to accommodate the product that currently exists. 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 and Titanfall are examples of games that could have gotten huge... had they been released with sufficient content. But no: someone took a half-finished version and declared it the Minimum Viable Product, even though it couldn't hold people's attention. And didn't.
Now, the flipside is that Moving the Goalposts is a common feature of game development, as artistic, technical and scheduling limitations fall into place. Eventually you will have to compromise. YouTube's Design Doc gaming-analysis channel gives an example of an adapation of A New Hope in which Luke can decline the Call to Adventure and spend the rest of the game in a farming simulator. This is something that, almost certainly, would get cut during production, because its return-on-investment is dismal. Goalposts will move; goalposts have to move. The key is to know which of your goalposts are critical to the game you want to create.
Potential SubversionsSubversions 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.