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30 May 2014

Keeping Your Indie Game’s Story Simple

If you read last week’s post regarding starting small on your first indie game, then you will probably find that today’s post is quite similar. In the same way that first-time indie developers feel the need to develop an ambitious game for their first indie game, so too do many first-time developers feel they must create ambitious stories as well. We see it all the time in indie games, too, and while it may seem as if epic stories are a must for your first indie game, know that nothing could be further from the truth.

At their core, the best stories are simple. Look at the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example. Sure, it’s chock full of a ton of lore, unique languages written by Tolkien himself, and so much detail that it’s enough to make your head spin. But at its core? It’s about a group of misfits traveling across Middle Earth to stop evil.

Now compare that to a Metal Gear Solid game. While I love the franchise and the stories the games tell, I couldn’t tell you everything you needed to know about any of them without doing some research beforehand. I’ll prove it to you: in the original Metal Gear Solid, Solid Snake travels to Alaska to investigate a base, his brother is trying to take control of a new Metal Gear weapon I think, and… yeah. That’s about the only thing I can remember off the top of my head.

Some video games are like that, and while it’s fun to talk about the crazy things that happen in games like Metal Gear Solid, not all games need to have an epic storyline to be good. There is value in keeping your indie game’s stories simple while adding enough ‘meat’ to the story to captivate players all the same. Below are a few ways you can help yourself to keep your story simple while ensuring it’s captivating.


Be able to summarize your story in one sentence

It will make it easier to fill in the details later on. Moreover, it will also help you to explain the concept of your indie game to anyone as well. For example, Gone Home has a story that keeps unfolding the longer you play, but if you had to summarize the story in one sentence? It would be this:

Gone Home is about a young woman that arrives at her family’s new home only to find that everyone has mysterious disappeared.

We call this ‘the hook’ of your game. If you build your game’s story around its ‘hook,’ this will ensure that you are able to keep your game’s story on track.


The starting point is crucial

Almost immediately, you need to introduce your players to the protagonist of the game’s story. There are two ways to do this:


  • Introduce the protagonist to the player
  • Throw the player into the action, introduce the protagonist immediately after


Both concepts work. Personally, the best way to introduce players to your protagonist depends on the tone of the story you are trying to tell. For example, if the world of your indie game needs to be mysterious to the player, throwing players into the action and introducing the protagonist after the conflict is the best approach to take. When it was originally released, Episode IV of Star Wars did this to near perfection, as it threw viewers into the action without telling them what was going on.

If you want to use the tried-and-true method of introducing the protagonist at the beginning and transition into the natural order of conflict, climax, and resolution, then you can do this as well. One of my favorite games of all time, Chrono Trigger, does this perfectly. The main character is introduced immediately in the game, followed by a few of the companions that will be by the player’s side throughout the game (it’s also another game that, at its core, is easily summarized in one sentence). Epic story, epic game, but at its core, the story structure is extremely simple.

Above all, choose the best starting point for your indie game. Your game will benefit as a result.


Make it feel organic, personal

Simple stories must also have simple, main objectives. For example, Super Mario Brothers has one of the most simpler stories/objectives in all of gaming:

Find the princess by searching each castle in the Mushroom Kingdom.

As you already know though, Mario cannot simply walk into each castle. He has to run, jump, and attack enemies in an effort to get there. The beauty of this is how he gets to each castle is entirely up to the player. Want to eliminate every enemy in the game? The player can do so. Want to merely run and jump through each level with minimal casualties? The player can do this as well.

Along the way, players bond with Mario. They don’t want him to fall into a pit because they want him to save the Princess. They want him to collect all of the coins in each level so he can have the maximum number of chances to save the Princess.

In the player’s head, they are telling a story to themselves about how Mario ran from one level to another eliminating all enemies (or again, bypassing them if the player chooses) in their path. The actions your players take should feel organic and natural, and should expand the story and make it personable.

The best way to do this? Ensure the story and main objective are simple and straightforward.

A more modern example is the game ICO, in which the game’s protagonist is exiled into an abandoned castle, meets a princess that is unable to speak, and must escape with her out of the castle to secure their freedom. Sounds simple enough, right? It is, but the events that occur (i.e. the actions the player takes) fill in the gaps to make this game a truly epic experience.


To summarize:

  • Stories and objectives must be explainable in one sentence.
  • The starting point of your protagonist is vital.
    • It truly sets the tone for your indie game’s story.
  • The actions a player takes must feel organic, and must evolve the story based on the player’s actions.
    • This can be as simple as giving the player the option to pick up a machine gun and eliminate a wave of mutants.
      • In the player’s mind, the character is evolving and performing actions that is moving the story of the game along.


Do you have any questions for keeping your story (and to an extent, your story’s main objective) simple? Any advice? Let us know in the comments below!

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