How do I write a good story for my game?
Awards season is here! Congratulations to all these teams nominated for "Best Narrative" by The Game Awards: • 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim• Final Fantasy VII Remake• Ghosts of Tsushima• Hades• The Last of Us Part 2
Hooray! Well deserved, all around. The judges are going to have their work cut out for them.
Nominations and awards are moments that can change everything for a developer. It says, “Yes! You’re doing great work, people love your stuff.”
If you’re a game developer, maybe your dream is not to win an award - it's just to build something great for players.
And maybe you really want to not just make a great game, but a great game with a great STORY.
If this is a dream of yours, it’s one worth pursuing. Your players want you to go for it. Build it and they will come!
And after all, if those other developers can do it, you can do it too.
But...where to begin?
It's a fair question. Because while there are A MILLION resources for figuring out how to write a book, or a film, or even a comic, there just aren’t that many resources for figuring out how to create a story for a game.
And games are so shiny and new (compared to other storytelling mediums) that it can be tempting to throw out the rule book and say “We just have to make it up as we go along!”
But that can lead to confusion, overwhelm, and CRUNCH.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Instead, we can do what star performers and elite athletes do every day at practice: get back to basics, and work the fundamentals.
Start with your most important character
Let’s start at Square One.
Q: What does a story need?
A: Desire and obstacle.
We need a character that is chasing a goal, and then has to overcome many mighty obstacles to achieve that goal.
OK, but: whose desire are we talking about here?
Because we can't focus on ALL the characters. Not all characters are created equal. We need to hone in on the character that matters most, and follow their journey.
If we were talking about a movie or a play, the answer would be easy: we’d be talking about the hero, the protagonist, the main character - the guy Tom Hanks is playing.
But games are different. Games don’t have actors; games have players.
And players have minds of their own.
And since the game is made for a player, it stands to reason that the most important character is…the player.
So let’s talk about the player’s desire. What does the player want?
We can’t know for sure - every player is unique - but we can make some smart guesses. We can start by looking at ourselves. We’re players, after all.
What do we want when we play a game?
We want to play the game. We want to finish it, we want to beat it, we want to win it.
And if the story doesn’t support gameplay, if it gets in the way of gameplay, we ignore the story. (Or we hate on it in the game forums.)
Even if we like stories - a lot - gameplay beats story nearly every time.
Which makes sense - literally every system, every element of the game is calibrated to focus our attention on the game. And it’s what we want to do! It’s why we’re playing a game, instead of watching a movie or reading a book.
(The exceptions are games where the story IS the point - games like Florence, which is all about using gameplay TO tell a story — but those games are few and far between, so this article is all about games where the gameplay is the point.)
So, gamers wanna game. AND…at the same time…players want the gameplay to matter. They want it to mean something. To lead to an outcome, a result, a surprise, a satisfying end.
And that’s where story comes in. So let’s get back to story!
Here's the trick to telling a good game story
Let’s go back to where we started: desire and obstacle.
We know the player is the most important character, and what the player wants is to win the game.
SO - logic follows - what we need to do is create a character that also wants to do the thing that will win the game.
Does the player have to defeat the monster to win the game?
Then the avatar says he will defeat the monster no matter what!!
Ta da! We've got our story.
…Except there’s one problem:
The player already knows, right from the start, how the story ends.
Because they're driving the action.
There aren’t going to be any surprises - they're either going to beat the dragon, or they're going to quit the game.
So if they know how the story ends, then why should they care?
So, completely by accident, game writers can find themselves painted into a corner, where nothing they write seems to matter to the player.
Yes it is very discouraging. (I am speaking from experience, y’all. I’ve been here and done this, more than once.)
But here’s how you solve it:
You design the plot so that the player’s win state is a means to an end.
In other words, you give the avatar a goal they want to achieve - and they think that by “doing the thing that wins the game” they’ll achieve that goal.
For example, maybe the avatar is a convict who wants to be forgiven for his crimes. And he is told that if he can kill the monster, his sentence will be commuted.
This goal works because it belongs to the avatar, not the player. (The player didn't commit a crime, right?) So the writer has more freedom here to do her job.
Will this plan succeed? Or does trouble lie ahead? We don’t know! We have to play the game to find out.
(And yes, there's a way to create a surprise ending in a way that leaves the player happy, not frustrated. I'll talk more about that in a future post.)
I hope this was helpful. To be honest, I’ve barely scratched the surface here. I'll be talking more about this in my upcoming masterclasses, but I'm here to answer questions now, too. Want to know more about this strategy? Ask in the comments below!
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.
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