Game writing is not easy. It's confusing and complicated and messy.
How can we get better at it?
One way is by borrowing a mode of thinking that we don’t usually learn in creative-writing classes.
It's a mode that's taught in math class, and business school, and Army officer training.
And that mode is strategic thinking.
We already use strategic thinking when we play games. We scheme, we evaluate the playing field, we min/max our options. Why not use the same approach when we make games, too?
Here's how you could use strategic thinking to solve a storytelling problem on your project.
Here's your challenge: Character arc versus player agency
Imagine you work at a studio. There you are, minding your own business, hoping for the best, keeping an eye out for snacks.
Then one day, in a meeting, the designer says, “Hey, we need you to create a character arc for the player avatar. It needs to stay consistent. But remember, you have no control over what the player does. Cool? Let us know what you come up with."
It's the kind of question that game writers face all the time. It’s not an easy question to answer. Often we flail and scramble and throw a lot of spaghetti against the wall, story-wise, and hope that something will stick.
But let's not try to come up with a solution right away. Instead, let’s pump the brakes and ask the question one of my favorite teachers asks all the time, which is:
What are we solving for?
Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”
So first, let's make sure we understand what the real goal is. We want to get to the question beneath the question. Why do we want to create a character arc for the player's avatar?
(If the answer is a shrug and “Well, because we should, right?” then maybe it's not such a good idea after all. You could just let the player avatar be a a blank slate, and let the NPCs be the ones with all the personality. Plenty of successful games have taken this approach.)
But if the designer comes back and says, “YES, it’s definitely important, we want a real arc for the avatar,” then keep digging. WHY is it important?
Here’s what the designer might eventually say:
“Because we want the player to feel like they’re IN the game. We want them to feel like they’re having an effect on the world, that what they do matters.”
That’s one possible answer. (And it’s a good one.) There could be other answers. Every team has their own idea about how a story and a game should work together. The key is to define YOUR team’s vision clearly.
This thread is an example of this principle in action:
Once you know what you’re solving for, the next step is to ask:
What obstacles are standing in the way?
In other words, why aren’t we doing this already? Again, the goal is to keep asking questions.
I bet you can think of some reasons this would be tough to pull off. What if the player hates his character's arc? What if he tries to break it? What if the player acts one way for a few levels, and then decides to completely change up her in-game behavior?
This is the bummer phase, obviously. It can get discouraging. But can't solve a problem you can't see. And again, like getting to the real goal, you want to be sure you're clear on the real problem you face.
Once you've got a clear of picture of what you're up against, and you've had a snack break, it's time to start brainstorming:
What are the solutions?
That's solutions, plural. There's more than one way to get the job done.
For example, when Walking Dead came out, people LOVED how the game delivered two things in one package: player agency, AND a compelling story. People said, "This game's branching choices must go on into infinity!"
Telltale pulled off this magic trick by focusing player choices on character relationships, instead of plot points. When you're barricaded in a room, under attack from zombies, and an NPC asks you to throw them the gun, you can choose to help or not. Either way, the zombies are breaking down that door, no matter what. The only thing that really changed was your relationship with that NPC. But this focus on character really worked for people. And because choice was an illusion - one that worked - the developers were able to build a good character arc and keep players happy.
Here's another approach.
In RPGs with lots of choices, or even a FPS like Portal 2, most often the NPCs are the real protagonists of the story, and they put their own self-interest first, regardless of what the player does.
That solves the problem of "giving player agency" - but that leaves the avatar a blank slate. Going back to our real goal, aren't we trying to show that the player is having an effect on the world?
If that's the case, then one option is to change the world, not the avatar.
This is the approach Arkane Studios took for Dishonored. My friend Jack is a walking encyclopedia of game knowledge, and he has high praise for this title. He says, "The overall story remains mostly the same regardless of whether you kill a lot of people or take a more peaceful route, but your decisions push the world into 'high chaos' or 'low chaos.' Over time the more people you kill the darker the world becomes, the rat plague gets worse, etc. The final level is pretty different depending on how you played the rest of the game, and the darker you play it the more pessimistic an ending you get."
(Seems crazy to think that it would be easier to change an entire world than change a character, doesn't it? But that's games for you.)
You may end up adopting another developer's strategy. Or you may end up coming up with a brand-new approach. It's up to you! The good news is, this is a problem with solutions. Plural. Whee! And once you've come up with a solution that works, it'll be time for snacks.
Now I'd love to hear from you. Have you played games with great characters? Which ones? Let me know 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.