A lot of smart people have thought long and hard about how to bring story and gameplay together. It's not easy. There are so many ways to get it wrong.
But when story and gameplay DOES come together - when there are no seams between the narrative and the game design, when players really are living inside the story - that’s when we start to see what’s really possible in games. We start to see how much awesome is in store for us as players in the next 5, 10, 20 years.
How can game writers bring story and gameplay closer together?
By using the same tool that designers use: mechanics.
That's right, MECHANICS!!!! Yeahhhh 🎉 !!! Doesn't that sound exciting?
OK look, if you don't work at a studio, this may not sound so interesting. I get it. But if you do work in games, you know it's a topic that gets discussed for days, weeks, months on end. So there's something there. Let's take a closer look.
So what IS a game mechanic, anyway?
Depends on who you ask.
Here’s how I would explain game mechanics to my 9-year-old niece:
"Mechanics are what players use to interact with the game."
I'd say something like, "Every time you do something that affects the game, you're using a mechanic. See?"
And my niece would shrug, say “OK, if you say so!”, and get back to her glitter bombs. ✨
Here’s a different answer, one that's a lot more dense (but it's also a lot more accurate). This comes from a certain level designer who's worked on some of the best games out there. He says:
- The player uses controls to interact with the game. When you pick up the guitar in Guitar Hero, you're holding the controller.
- Those controls give the player access to systems. For example, you can hold down fret buttons on the guitar to make specific sounds.
- It’s the combination of systems that creates mechanics. In this case, music is the mechanic.
I ran this explanation past a narrative-designer friend of mine. He said,
“Huh. That sounds like a GDC talk that I slept through once.”
Clearly it's a complicated topic. But however you define them, the thing to remember is that mechanics are the tools that let the player enter the game (and the story). So they’re powerful, they’re fun, let's use them.
Step 1: Figure out what players want to do (in the story)
Mechanics give us, as players, certain abilities. Right? Mechanics let us do things like run and jump and fly.
And we do these things because they’re fun. We WANT to do them.
We can apply the same “I want” lens to our story. What are the characters in our story trying to do? What’s their intention? What’s behind their words?
Actors are all about this. They want to know what their character's motivation is.
The movie begins with a meeting in a dive bar. A car salesman walks in, sits down, and tries to broker an arrangement with a couple of lowlife grifters. The scene is perfect and ridiculous. AND it’s a great example of characters who know what they want, even if they won’t come right out and say what they want. They have an agenda. A goal. And that goal drives every word they say.
We watch this argument play out, and we don't get involved because a) it's a movie, duh and b) because we don’t have any skin in the game. We’re not these guys. Their problems are not our problems. We’re just eavesdropping.
But what if this were a game, and we were one of these guys? Would we know what we needed to say in order to get what we want in the end? (As game writers, can we count on the player to choose the right response every time?)
So let's take words out of it.
Step 2: Replace dialog with mechanics
Once you know what needs to happen in the story, you can start thinking of ways to turn those plot points into something the player DOES, instead of something the player SAYS. Something that uses mechanics.
Florence is a perfect example. I love this game, it kills me. Watch her go on her first date with someone. First dates are ALL about talking. So what happens? Watch and see.
We don't need words to understand what is happening here. We've ALL been on first dates. We all know the feeling of fumbling for the right words, struggling to get over our nerves. And we've all been on GOOD first dates, too - where we start to connect, and the words come easily, until in the end we don't really need to talk much at all.
Step 3: Profit
Is there a way to turn scenes like that Fargo argument into a playable sequence? I bet there is. Could it be just as funny? Who knows! It's possible. You'd just have to think about the scene in a whole new way.
Game writers have their work cut out for them. We don't have the same tools as screenwriters or novelists. Dialog, for example, is the weakest tool in our toolbox. But the flip side is that we have tools that belong only to us. And we've barely scratched the surface of what's possible in games. Somebody somewhere is going to figure out how to create a hilarious game without writing a single word of dialog. Maybe that somebody is you.
I'll leave you with this 2017 GDC talk from the makers of Oxenfree: "Building Game Mechanics to Elevate Narrative." From the jump, they were focused on finding ways to bring story and gameplay together. Oxenfree is proof that it can be done! Hooray for Night School 💌
Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.