design chat #1: stories in games

I keep telling myself I’m going to post here once a month, but showing non-spoilers for redneptune is always too much of a hassle. So here’s a new thing, discussions about games I’ve played, design concepts, related ideas. Let’s see how long I can keep this going monthly! =)

First things first, let’s talk about stories in games. Some people say there are two sides to this – Narratologists and Ludologists (though you all know how I feel about sides). Let’s call them Story and Play proponents to keep it simple.

Story folks believe the story is the most important thing. If the story has plotholes, doesn’t make rational sense, or is absent, these people are not happy. They’re the ones asking why Mario gets big when he eats a mushroom and spits fire when he eats a flower. They’re interested in the subtext, the deeper meaning behind a design choice, and often more concerned with the atmosphere and visuals of a game than how it plays.

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Done poorly, this results in a lot of puzzle platformers where the only puzzle is pushing a box up to a wall. It may look cool visually, but the gameplay is tedious, which leads me to the other type of people.

Play folks believe the mechanics are the most important thing. If there are glitches, or unnecessary delays, or cutscenes that drag on for too long, these people are not happy. They’re the ones talking about speedruns, strategies, easter eggs, cheat codes. If the story was re-skinned or removed entirely, these people would not care as much about it as that one-second delay when you restart the level.

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But wait, there’s more! Some games blur the line between these two groups by telling good stories with the mechanics. They make you feel the story as an active participant. When Curly gives you her air tank in Cave Story, you get a new skill and an emotional moment. When Aeris dies in FF7, you experience that loss in your battle party. When Vile wrecks you at the intro of Megaman X, you want to get stronger and beat him. This type of story connects you to the player, makes you want to help them, without any text required.

Ultimately, I believe games are about playing, and if you spend most of your time in menus or dialog boxes then the experience is going to suffer. To me, stories are secondary, and should be experienced directly through gameplay as opposed to text. That is not to say that no games should have stories, or games should have no text, but if you aren’t actively involved 80% of the time you are playing a game, then it starts to become less game and more movie. I guess I’d say I’m 80% ludologist…

I have a related story from a recent game I played, Ironclad Tactics. I’m a huge fan of Zachtronics Industries, the Codex flash games and SpaceChem, but this game makes a fatal flaw in the pursuit of story. Between every level, comic panels with dialog are displayed panel by panel. And while they are beautifully drawn and tell an interesting story, there are way too many, and they have nothing to do with the gameplay. You spend 1-2 minutes reading comics, 5 minutes playing a level, then another 1-2 minutes reading comics before the level ends. The story does not reinforce the mechanics, it just gets in the way. These kinds of “skinned” stories are one of my biggest pet peeves, because they don’t seem to matter to what you’re doing at all.

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Imagine instead that you had character cards where they piloted ironclads, and if their ironclad died they would be injured and removed from the next story segments. Or that the “factions” were based on specific characters in the story, and they unlocked cards (and story cutscenes for that character!) when you used that faction in your deck. You would feel more invested as a player, because you were using that character’s cards to beat levels. So you would be way more interested in their character arc, because you were responsible for it!

I don’t want to turn this into “design rant”, so I’ll leave it there. But just remember that your story is in a game, so you have better options to get people invested in it.

Edit: After playing through Ironclad’s expansion┬áRise of Dmitry, it turns out that a lot of the story suggestions I had were actually used to great effect! Dmitry is a character that joins battles, has special legendary cards, and the faction and cards are directly related┬áto his story in an interesting way (you unlock the prototype after stealing the supplies it needs to be created, etc etc). I kind of wish the main game was more like it, but after beating new game plus fully I think it doesn’t ever incorporate the characters in the same way…

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