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6 Sep 2013

What Indie Developers Need to Know About Crafting Compelling, Story-Driven Games

When it comes to the topic of stories in gaming, I’m incredibly biased. Some of my all-time favorite games are considered favorites because of the story they crafted within the game, and while some of them may not have contained revolutionary gameplay (I’m looking at your Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater), the narrative was so compelling that it took the good gameplay and made it feel phenomenal. Why? Because I cared about what was happening within the game.

You see, if you have a story-driven game, you could work all day trying to perfect the gameplay, but if nobody cares about the characters within the game? You are going to lose your audience in a heartbeat. Case in point: Mass Effect. I felt as if the gameplay was fairly generic, yet the story was amazing. The conflict felt epic, the characters I had at my side felt genuine, and I felt as if my protagonist was special; not because he was Dusty Shepherd (whom I created), but because the character was strong, bold, and you felt as if he could literally take on the galaxy. Every iteration of Mass Effect had a sense of wonder about it despite the quality of the gameplay declining with each sequel (in my opinion, anyway). As a result, the Mass Effect series is one of my most memorable series.

Let’s shift to indie games real quick. I love the games developed by Wadjet Eye Games. They have developed incredible adventure games such as Resonance, Primordia, and Gemini Rue. The gameplay is the same as you would have found in a ‘point and click’ adventure game roughly 20 years ago, so their games do not have revolutionary gameplay by any means. Yet each game has a compelling story and conflict that makes me wish each game would never end. If the games were boring and I didn’t care about the characters? I wouldn’t bother playing them, but because each game’s story is carefully crafted, they’re some of the most memorable games I’ve played in years.

So is there a formula for creating compelling stories within a story-driven game? If there was, every game that focused primarily on story would be winning awards left and right, yet there are a few things indie developers can keep in mind to help them to create tales that will keep players coming back for more.


Make the Protagonist Relatable

It doesn’t matter if your protagonist is a Greek god or an ordinary individual like you or I, the player has to relate to them on some level. Take Batman for instance: sure, he’s a larger-than-life character that performs amazing feats and constantly overcomes evil, but why does he fight crime every night? It’s because he saw his parents murdered as a child, and from there dedicated his life to defending the innocent, the weak, and fighting evil.

He doesn’t fight crime just because he feels like it; he has a relatable purpose. How many of us have wanted to correct a wrong that we may have seen on the news, read about on the Internet, or experienced in our own lives, yet we felt helpless to do so? All of us, yet the beauty of Batman is that he felt the same thing and did something about it.

That’s how you relate to your audience: you create a character and give him/her a purpose of existing that is relatable on some level to everyone. From there, you have a ‘hook’ that is bound to make your audience care about the protagonist in your game.


Create Relatable Conflicts

Conflict is just as vital as the protagonist in your game. Going the comic book route again, how interesting would superheroes be if they were not fighting memorable villains? Sure, Batman is relatable, but if he is only fighting random thugs that he continuously overpowers, that isn’t very interesting, is it? Yet, when you introduce a villain such as The Joker or The Riddler that seem to be a serious threat to Batman and the innocent citizens of Gotham City that he has vowed to protect, then the situation becomes much more interesting.

While none of us know what it’s like to get into a fight with a psychotic clown (at least I hope that’s the case), the constant struggle between Batman and The Joker are relatable because of the emotions you feel in the struggle. When Batman is punched in the face, you feel the pain that he is going through his body and the doubt that is gradually creeping into his mind. In some stories, Batman has no idea if he will be able to win a fight, and he wonders if he will survive the night. All of these emotions that are portrayed in Batman’s adventures are emotions we can relate to: fear, worry, doubt, etc.

A recently released game called Papers, Please perfectly exercises this point. In Papers, Please, you essentially play yourself: you do not have any dialogue, a name, or even a face. The only thing you know about yourself is that you are a border patrol officer that is responsible for accepting or denying individuals from entering into your Communist country. Many of us probably have no idea what it’s like to try to enter or leave a Communist country, but as the game unfolds, you start feeling doubt, worry, and you begin questioning your own morals.

  • “Should I take a bribe so I can buy my son a birthday present?”
  • “Should I take a penalty in pay just because I accepted a person that needs to enter into the country, yet does not have the proper paperwork?”
  • “Should I help this group of people overthrow my country at the risk of being caught and executed despite the way they are treating its citizens?”

The game makes you feel doubtful and guilty about your decisions, yet makes you question if you should place yourself before your fellow man or help them at the risk of the livelihood of your family. We all have feeling of doubt, guilt, regret, and so on, which is why Papers, Please is such a powerful game. It makes you wonder, “what if;” and if a game can make you do that, the story in said game has done its job.


Keep Dialogue Strong, But Know When to Use it

Actions speak louder than words isn’t just a generic saying, it’s the truth when creating story. If possible, show the player a conflict instead of having it explained in dialogue. For example, it isn’t very compelling if your protagonist wakes up from his bed and says to himself, “wow, that was a crazy night, I can’t believe how many people I beat up.” Rather, allow the player to playthrough that crazy night and experience everything the protagonist experienced; even if it’s a side plot that strays from the main plot for a few minutes. Players will grow closer to the protagonist, resulting in the story being stronger in the process.

When using dialogue, do not waste it. Every sentence needs to have a purpose at some level, whether it is to continue the plot, explain a bit of information about another character, or something else entirely. People notice dialogue that doesn’t serve a purpose, which then takes them out of the game for a moment.


Story Comes First (at Least in Story-Driven Games)

Finally, when developing a story-driven game, create your story first rather than attempting to shove a story around gameplay. It seems like a no-brainer, but this happens all the time: a developer creates a game, then tries to fit dialogue and cutscenes into the game afterwards. The story comes first in story-driven games while the gameplay comes second. Remember this rule (and of course, the rules above), and you will have a game that will prove to be as memorable to players as it is to you.

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