As far as I can tell, game narrative is much more integral to marketing games than it is to the final product. People buy games because of ‘the story’, but a quick look at global Steam achievements will also tell you that the vast majority of said people never get anywhere close to the end of them.
This seems relatively unique to the medium. Imagine discovering that 70% of people walk out of a movie theater 45 minutes into the screening. Picture somebody reading two of those massive Game of Thrones books, stopping halfway through the third one, and going, ‘These are pretty good, but I’m going to go start Lord of the Rings now and not finish those, either.’
You can let the short shrift that narrative gets in a lot of games break your heart, but it shouldn’t break your expectations. For developers, it’s clearly viable and even strategic to make a lot of noisy promises about how complex and mature the narrative is going to be on a giant screen at E3 and then actually do none of that.
Why not? It’s much easier to start a great story if you don’t have to worry about where you’re going with it.
And we all deserve what we keep falling for.
This is why Peter Dinklage is in Destiny, but sounds like he wants to throw the script through a window. This is why Emma Stone said more in the press junket for Sleeping Dogs than she did in Sleeping Dogs. I didn’t catch Kevin Spacey in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, but Polygon says that much of the dialogue is gibberish. Still: Nine out of ten!
But I digress.
After all: As an indie, you aren’t really in that boat, are you? You’ve got good reasons to actually build a decent narrative into your game. You can’t attract celebrity endorsements, you don’t have legions of suckers at your command, and a strong narrative could be an affordable differentiator for you in a marketplace where your competition might have every other advantage.
Even if I’m coming from a place where narrative is more or less the only thing that matters to me in terms of the games I’m making, I think nearly every indie could benefit from a greater consideration of it. Hopefully this article can provide some helpful advice regardless of whether you’re a narrative designer, wearing that hat out of necessity, or just trying to understand why the writer you’re working with hates you.
It’s not about talent. I’m not a talented writer. All I do is keep a few relatively straightforward ideas in mind as I make shit up and consciously test my work against them. If you can do the same, I think you’ll be happy with the results.
1. Respect the Unexpected
People are inherently drawn to mystery. It probably has something to do with our ancestors worrying about predators waiting in the tall grass, but what we can only discern faintly will always capture our attention.
Take a look at the teaser I wrote for Planet of the Eyes, which contains a voiceover from the first audio log you find in the game:
In addition to establishing a dark and brooding tone, I’m also doing very specific things here. My goal is to essentially establish an intriguing unknown with nearly every line. Watch it one more time and try to spot them all – I’ll be waiting in the next paragraph.
OK. In the space of just 46 seconds, consider all of the things you now know but still don’t really know anything about. Some kind of unique, classified mission. Some sort of relationship between the speaker and the robot. The possibility – but not the certainty – of other survivors. And survivors of what, exactly? And above it all: Stakes of life or death.
If your game narrative doesn’t start out with something like this, it won’t necessarily be bad. You can buy time, especially with humor, but I’m just saying: You can’t go wrong with the unknown. It grabs people and gives them faith in what you’re doing to hang on, at least for a little while.
So give it a shot! Even if you’ve got a story already, take some part of it and hide it up-front while finding a way to hint at it. You’ll be amazed at how much more interesting it suddenly is.
2. People are Interested in People
I don’t want to get into the monomyth, but it serves a purpose that so many game narratives seem to miss the point on: Realistic and meaningful depictions of human beings. This is another one of those things that everyone is inherently interested in, and for which we all have a strong unconscious sense of when something about it is ‘off’.
Plus, in the context of a narrative, changing those people – even if it doesn’t necessarily make a difference in what happens to them – is what matters to sustaining the interest of your players.
Why is the ending of The Last of Us so powerful? Because Joel and Ellie go through traumatic events. You learn about what they can and can’t accept about those experiences, and in turn you see how their own experiences shape their understanding of each other. The zombies are a crucible and a catalyst, nothing more.
Why is Silent Hill 2 so amazing? Because it’s about a person coming to terms with their own past, the consequences of what they’ve done, and the reasons why they did so.
But before that, even, comes realism.
Why is Life is Strange so weird and jarring? Because the people don’t act like people. If you saw somebody get murdered in a washroom you would be getting the fuck out of there — not hanging out on a lawn, time-rewound or not.
Why is Watch_Dogs art crime? Because the people don’t act like anything. They don’t change, they don’t grow — they barely even make any sense to begin with.
I said no rules, but I lied: The inclusion of the supernatural should not undermine basic human nature unless there are specific reasons for it to do so. Also, doing nothing is always bad.
Then again, maybe this doesn’t apply to you. Maybe your game narrative isn’t even about people or how they struggle, grow, and change. That being said, if you can find a way to include that aspect, I would strongly recommend it.
If a slice of bread can become a protagonist, what is your excuse? We are a vain and selfish species who want everything to tie back to us and ourselves. Things that don’t mean anything to us as people don’t tend to really mean much of anything at all.
So give it a shot! Create narratives that are about people who behave realistically and who are shaped and changed by the events of that narrative. If your protagonist is a hardened, cold-blooded killer at the beginning of your game and is exactly the same at the end, save for the fact that some other character died before they could bone them, your narrative is probably bad.
3. The Unfortunate Underestimation of Theater
For my final point, I’d like to toss in a bit of personal bias.
Read plays. Read contemporary plays that are in plain English so you don’t have to spend time wading through footnotes. Shakespeare is fantastic, but starting there is like reading the Bible from Genesis: You’re gonna end up quitting when you get to the huge, tedious list of who begat whom.
Read David Mamet. Read Eric Bogosian. Read Say Goodnight, Gracie by Ralph Pape. Read none of those people and find playwrights who resonate with you instead.
People have said playing Actual Sunlight is like reading a short story – it is not. This is its secret: It is a play. It is a one man show with a few extra characters.
This War of Mine is theatrical. The Stanley Parable is theatrical. Papers, Please is theatrical.
Read plays. They often focus on dialogue and monologues in a stylish-yet-realistic way that I think dovetails beautifully with the way that stories are typically well-told in games. To an extent, I even think theater can help you grapple with the limitations that you may face as an indie. For the sake of an audience in the distance, theater is broadly emotive in the way that your simple, non-facially-intensive character animations might also be. Sets and props are often static, simple or merely suggestive in the same way that yours probably are.
This is a big thing that I’m only skating the surface of, but suffice it to say that David Cage makes narrative games that are cinematic – you don’t. As an indie, you’re almost certainly better-off shooting for something that feels small, intimate, and connected to its audience in a lifelike and immediate way.
In other words: Theatrical.
Read plays. If you live somewhere that you can see plays, great, but unless you have an unlikely budget for professional quality voice acting, I’d advise you to focus on text that will be read rather than performed. Meditate on how a good play is written in a way that ‘sounds’ like people talking even as you are merely reading it.
You’re indie: Run with your strengths.
That seems like the perfect note to end on.