Storytelling in Games: How Details Can Destroy Your Work

Before I had the grand idea to become a game designer, I was planning on writing for my career. I have been a fiction writer since about third grade, and later decided that Game Design was the perfect compilation of my creativity and writing, storytelling and design skills. Since attending the University of Advancing Technology, I have learned that while writing is critical to Game Design, writing for games is not the same as writing fictional stories. I will explain this in more depth in a later post, but for now I want to focus on one subject in particular: details.

Details are amazing tools if you know how to use them right, as every good writer should, and as our generation of games becomes more interactive and advanced, game designers should master this as well. Even if the game you are working on doesn’t have much of a story, details are a necessary part of every game. However, too many details can destroy your work.

The main audience of most, certainly not all, games are typically not too focused on details, at least not story-driven details. The average gamer appreciates details, but is more interested in playing the game and mastering its mechanics. A game is meant to be an interactive storytelling device at best, but if it bogs the player down in back story and useless information, then it becomes boring. A good example of this is the Final Fantasy series. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the series, but sometimes I just find myself pressing the next button to get through all the dialogue and miss something important by doing so. Dialogue is a fantastic tool for storytelling, so finding the right balance between having details and keeping the player interested so they don’t miss anything is imperative. A great way to find this balance is to have someone play test a section with a lot of dialogue, someone who has a short attention span or is known to skip through the majority of dialogue in a game. If they can’t stay focused long enough to learn what to do next, then you probably want to re-evaluate the amount of dialogue you have. Most players aren’t going to want to read a novel on the back story and history of the game world just to find out what the next mission is.

Back stories in games are either hit or miss. In some games, a back story answers all the questions a player might have and draws them deeper into the game, while in others, this has a more negative effect, and discourages players imaginations. A good example of incorporating back stories into a game without a lot of boring dialogue is World of Warcraft, where the history of the races are revealed through the various quests the player undertakes, and can also be seen in the cities in which a particular race dwells, such as Silvermoon City for the Blood Elves. On the other hand, some games do not provide a back story whatsoever, but promote the players to essentially “fill in the blanks,” which leads to fan-inspired products. This can be a great tactic, since it typically develops a strong fan base, but also leaves the game a bit lacking to first-time players. Other times, the game simply does not need a back story, so as a designer, it is important to decide which course you will take for your game and which method will better suit the game play overall.

As technology becomes more advanced, so too does the interactivity in games. These days, it is more about giving the players choices, which means a multitude of story paths. While alternate endings are nice, players would like to effect the game on a larger scale by being able to make substantial decisions which actually affect story and game play. This can be extremely difficult to write for, since there are so many possibilities, but ultimately, they will provide for a more fun and interactive game. Interactivity in games is key, so in this case, having details which split into more details, creating many paths and roles for the player, is a great thing.

What I feel is the most important thing to remember when it comes to storytelling in games is that the story should draw the player in and support the mechanics, never turn the player away or overpower the mechanics. The simple fact is that while storytelling in games is great, it is either make-or-break, and is largely dependent on the genre of the game. Story elements can slow a game down, which is why most FPS games do not have a very rich story, but can also draw the player into a whole new world where anything is possible, such as in RPG’s or MMO’s. Whether you include a lot of details or not, make sure that the story supports the game play. After all, a video game is an interactive form of media, so don’t incorporate so many details that you take away from the interactive component, as that is what makes games fun to play.

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