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We think in stories. Narratives are tools we use to make sense of the world, both in life and in games. Seeing how all stories work in a similiar way, and how all gameplay loops share their structure with stories, we will explore the similarities and look for tools that will help us design better games. This talk, inspired by John Yorke's book "Into the Woods. How stories work and why we tell them", and based on over ten years of experience in the industry, aims to present a consistent narrative-driven approach to game design.
The road ahead
2. How stories work?
3. Stories vs gameplay loops
4. Storyteller’s take on games
5. Narrative-driven game design
Story and Game Designer (background in data analysis)
● 11 bit studios
● CD Projekt RED
● Lodz University of Technology
Into the Woods
How stories work and why we tell them
Story Designer’s Dilemmas
1. How to tell stories in games?
2. How good are games for telling stories?
3. How can I use gameplay to tell stories?
4. How to design stories in games to make the best of the medium?
How to use our knowledge of stories
to make better games?
Once upon a time...
there was someone living a normal live...
until something happened and our hero had to leave the safe home …
in a search for something that was important and was lacking …
only to learn that to find it, the hero must face a grave and deadly danger …
the odds seemed impossible, but our hero overcame all opposition…
and returned home with a prize that brought peace and happiness to all.
Every story has the same shape
Nothing interesting happens
Something unexpected happens
Something unexpected happens
Nothing interesting happens
Three Act Structure
1. ACT ONE: Set-up
a. character with a flaw/need
b. inciting incident
c. turning point
2. ACT TWO: Confrontation
a. desire vs forces of antagonism
b. learning about a new world
c. crisis: confrontation or escape
3. ACT THREE: Resolution
a. climax, final battle
b. using learned skills
We think in stories
When we play, our brain creates narratives,
looks for motivations, attributes emotions, etc.
Can we prevent it?
Kuleshov Effect says: not really
● character development
● audience engagement
● audience satisfaction and subverting expectations
● motivations and empathy
● dialogues and exposition
● emergent narratives
Storyteller’s take on games
What makes a hero?
Consider these situations:
● In a bar, a woman walks up to a man who is drinking alone, and says…
● A boy who is bullied at school finds a magic lamp, and asks the djinn for...
● A man loses his family in an accident; one day he wakes up and decides…
● A huntress stands at an entrance to a cave, she sniffs the air and…
What makes a hero unique, is the the decision made in the moment of crisis.
In a game that decision is usually made by the player.
Two types of a hero
Three dimensional hero
● has a true self hidden behind a mask
● desires one thing / needs the opposite
● has a flaw that can be fatal
● must confront own flaws
● discovers true self
● lasts for just one story
● deeply satisfying (when done right)
Two dimensional hero
● is transparent, needs no mask
● desire = need
● has a deficiency of knowledge
● must confront external opposition
● re-asserts true self
● stays the same
● perfect for series/sequels
● highly addictive (when done right)
Two dimensional approach:
● gain EXP, learn new skills
● character development = increasing knowledge
● character development ≠ true change
● power creep vs jumping the shark
● requires occasional amnesia
Let’s consider: why was power scaling in Oblivion such a bad idea?
Three dimensional approach:
● make decisions, observe consequences
● character development = progress in the story
● character development ≠ increasing mastery
● player’s desire vs characters need
● may rely on a player’s decision
○ the character arc vs the player arc in Life is Strange
○ why was the prequel to Life is Strange met with mixed expectations?
Facade vs Flaw
Desire vs Need
Opposition vs Hero
Hero vs Opposition (tragedies)
Difficulty vs Skill
Ignorance vs Knowledge
Random thoughts on the topic
Q: Is it possible to make a long-lasting series with satisfying character arcs?
A: Yes, when it is hardwired into the setting. Consider Doctor Who and Zelda.
Q: Is it possible to make a gamey-game with a three-dimensional character?
A: I am not sure. Need for mastery drives learning, but not change.
Audience like to earn their entertainment.
● The “2+2=?” rule.
● Gameplay (high engagement) as storytelling tool; system rhetorics.
● Effort put into learning the game increases player’s involvement.
● When curiosity is your friend, fear is your enemy.
● Dark inversions
○ hero’s “flaw” is his virtue
○ hero’s true self is evil
○ story ends in a catastrophe
○ let’s consider “Breaking Bad” and “God of War”
● Disturbed structure
○ parts of the character arc are missing or misplaced
○ surprise and dissonance creates strong emotional response
○ difficulty curve and fail/reload system as the character arc
○ overused or mishandled causes frustration
○ let’s consider “No Country for Old Men”, “Dark Souls” and “Mass Effect 3”
Drama is based on credible vibrant breathing living empathetic characters.
○ do you believe in your character’s motivation?
○ do you really understand what the antagonist wants and why?
○ how often can you tell how your opponents feel, what they emotions are?
● Red flags:
○ someone’s abilities in a cutscene are radically different from abilities in gameplay
○ important decisions are made for the player, not by the player
○ the only motivation in a scene stems from gameplay
Motivations and empathy
Common problems with in-game dialogues:
● over exposure and info dump
● boring A-B structure
● no tension
● unclear choices
Common answers to the problems with in-game dialogues:
● over exposure and info dump - add a character that needs to know
● boring A-B structure - add conflict to the scene, A-B structure needs beat
● no tension - do all character have a need to be there?
● TL;DR - write less, hire an editor
● unclear choices - first a motivation then a choice, not the other way round
Mindframe for dialogues
Every dialogue is an action scene
● use opposition to present a dilemma
● use the dilemma to characterize the characters
● words show the facade, choices reveal the flaw
● prepare scene for the change or revelation
Mindframe for dialogues
Make players work for their entertainment
● instead of writing “4” write “2+2=?”
● use Kuleshov Effect to make players create their own sense
(let’s consider the father-son scene in Heavy Rain)
● consider skipping dialogue, use system rhetorics instead
(merchant talk in Witcher 3 vs trader interface in This War of Mine)
● surprises, unexpected emotions, new knowledge are perceived as
a reward and a motivator
Players create their own stories and we can do nothing to change that
● obligatory anecdote about user-perceived stories in games
● chain of cause and effect - event sequences are interpreted as stories
● Kuleshov effect - juxtaposed events color perceived emotions and motivations
● emergent narratives are almost impossible to track
● … but may be enhanced by a feedback loop to player’s choices and states
When people talk about games they play, they talk in their personal emergent
narratives. Hypothesis: the better the narratives, the better the word-of-mouth.
Every story is about something
Theme is the underlying question asked by the story. You need one.
1. question - assumption (thesis)
2. exploration - challenging assumption (antithesis)
3. answer - conclusion (synthesis)
The answer is not universal, it always has an author:
● designer’s answer
● player’s choice from presented designer’s answers
● player’s answer, emergent and internal
How does this particular gameplay
mechanism make a good story?
The basic story/gameplay building block
1. discovery - the hero notices/learns something and decides to act
2. truth! - true nature of the opposition/ hero’s flaw reveals itself
3. assimilation - the hero act on that new knowledge and succeeds/fails
● what the hero wants, what the opposition wants, is there a conflict?
● does the player want the same thing that the hero wants?
● where is the moment of choice, what is at stake?
● what does the hero learn, what does the player learn?
● do all actors have a reason to be in this situation, what do they want to gain?
● does the hero change or reveal some inner truth, in what way?
● does this situation end in a setup for a new scene (a cliffhanger)?
● what does the player expect entering the scene?
● what does the player learn from interacting with the scene?
● how can the player use the new knowledge to win the scene?
The Universal Quest
Every story is about a journey,
finding of the missing part,
and making of something whole.
The Universal Gameplay
Every game is a conflict,
two opposites clash
opposites are assimilated
and the conflict is stilled.
Every story and every game is about making sense of the universe,
1. we ask a question
2. test it against the world
3. and assimilate what we’ve learned.
Narrative-driven game design
We can use the universal story structure to create meaningful and exciting games.
1. question - theme, motivation, why the question was asked?
2. learning - testing, development, understanding, decisions, crucial knowledge
3. assimilation - consequences, feedback to decisions, internal stories, change
By hijacking our brain’s learning mechanisms we can create a new game-specific
language to tell engaging and emotional stories.
Looking for a meaning
Every story has an author.
● system rhetorics = authorial voice
● decisions = asserting identity
● cause and effect chain = internal narratives
● fractal structure = consistency of theme and mood
● structure ≠ meaning
In the end we must have something interesting to say.