Stories are an essential part of games. Surely there are games that don’t seem to have a story – but if you look closer, you see that they actually have a lot going for them.

Look at chess – chess doesn’t seem to have story. But if you look at it closely, it has characters, a world, progression, and a plot. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even little pawns have an adventure and a transformation ahead. It’s all-out war, with conflict, death and victory. There are kings, queens, even horses. I say chess has a story, dammit.

Another example is Angry Birds. The story of Angry Birds is very short. Is it a story at all? Yes. The birds are on a mission. They hate the guts of these pigs. The Angry Birds story is one of thievery, sacrifice, parenthood, and ultimately revenge.

Stories are essential. In games there are heroes and villains. There is conflict, there is an imaginary world. We need to provide players with stories to give them context as to what they are doing.

With that in mind, here is my process for writing stories.

How to write good stories for games

Step 1: Create the world

The story starts with the world. Geography is important, and it gives you a whole range of ideas to work with.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Which continents does this world have?
  • Which cities are there?
  • Who lives here?
  • Are there interesting landmarks?
  • What could spawn conflict in this world?
  • How did the nations come to their current form?
  • Are there contested borders?
  • Do people have enough resources? (food, water, wood etc)
  • What technologies exist? (magic? teleportation?)
  • Are there specific cultures?
  • Is there free trade? Freedom of religion?
  • What kinds of governments are there?
  • Are people thriving or struggling in this place?

When you have the world set up, you can use it as a guideline for your characters’ backstories. The world will also be your point of reference for any future games you might be making in the same “universe”. Think hard about this step, and the rest will be much easier.

(I generated the world of Momonga in Minecraft. I’m lazy.)

Step 2: Create the characters

The characters are the most important asset. A good character is someone the player can relate to. This means that he or she is “human” (even when they’re not). What makes someone “human”? They have flaws, a history, and somewhere deep down they have good intentions, no matter how messed up they are.

Characters are constructed. They have emotions, assumptions about the world, goals, likes and dislikes, enemies and friends. But most importantly, they have a history. This is where you start the construction.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • In what environment did they grow up? (Link this to the world design!)
  • What were they like at age 5? At age 15? 30? 50?
  • Do they have particular skills? (Use this for your game mechanics!)
  • Were there life-changing events in their past?
  • What is their personality like? How would they react in specific situations?
  • What do they look like?

Note that we start in the past. The events and environments shape a character, and this in turn determines their personality. Then, and only then, do we define the looks.

(Note that I am guilty of defining the looks first. This is the easiest mistake to make.)

(Also note that if you are a man, it is very easy to forget to add women in your game. I am guilty of that too and I am ashamed of it. So please add women. And let them talk to each other.)

(if nothing else, your game characters make for some great business cards)

Step 3: Write the Grand Storyline

The grand storyline is the overarching conflict. You probably don’t want to reveal this in your game all at once, but with little bits. In the case of Momonga, we are stepping into all-out war, with the momongas at the center of it. But when you play the game, you only see a tiny little bit of that grand story. You see Momo’s village under attack, and you see that Panda rescues him. The true scope of the adventure is still hidden, and that gives us plenty of opportunity to raise the stakes and introduce new characters and obstacles.

The Grand Storyline should tie in with the World design. A great way is to ask these questions:

  • Which nations / rulers are in conflict?
  • What is the history of these nations?
  • What is the role of the hero in the grand scheme of things?
  • Is there an event (in the past or future) that shakes up the world?
  • Which unknowns are revealed along the way?
  • How are different characters plotting and clashing?

A beautiful story to take as an example is Game Of Thrones. The books and series alternate between lively “close-ups” of the main characters. You see them breathing and bleeding, and you get to know them. But every now and then, there are events that shape the course of history. These events should be mapped out in your Grand Storyline.

Step 4: Write the Game Story

When you have your world, your characters, and your Grand Story, it is time to take a tiny little piece of all that fluff. It is like framing a photo so that only a little bit is visible. You zoom in, and leave things out. Only tell the things that are important.

A good checklist for writing the dialogue and in-game story:

  • Is this moving the story forward?
  • Is this revealing something of a character?
  • Can a third-grader understand it?

It’s a simple checklist, but every line needs to follow these rules. And that can be tough to accomplish.

That third one may be a bit controversial. After all, not all games have to be kindergarten material. But please, pretty please, keep things simple. One line on screen at a time. No fancy words. No extravagant grammar. Simple punctuation. A guy from Popcap gave a great speach at GDC 2012, about the dialogue in Plants vs Zombies. He called it the “sophisticated caveman”. Write as though someone from the ice age would say it – except without the grunting and skullbashing.

This is not because your players are stupid. It is because they are impatient. And when you write lines that they can understand at a glance, they will pick up on the story even though they skip through the dialogue. They might even forgive you for throwing words at them.

Step 5: Make the Storyboard

Yay, we get to draw now! The next step is to make the storyboard and show your teammates how it should all look on screen. There is not much to be said here, but storyboarding is an art in itself and it takes some skill to communicate cutscenes clearly.

Here is the storyboard for the introduction cutscene:

(read from left to right, and note that this is not finalized yet)

Step 6: Implement the story in the game

Great, you have a story! You have worked for weeks on end to get that done. But now it turns out, you are making a chess game! Ohnoes! Chess doesn’t have a story, right?

When implementing the storyline in your game, you are in charge. The trick is to mix and match the game mechanics with the narrative. And this can be tricky – especially when you are making a chess game (or in our case, a pinball game).

You have a lot of tools at your disposal. Here are a few:

  • Cutscenes – simply pause the gameplay and show some dialogue or pre-scripted action.
  • Environment – Your levels tell a lot about the world and its history.
  • Enemies – The bad guys tell a story by just being there.
  • Allies – Your teammates can make scripted decisions that progress the story.
  • Loading screens – give them something to read or look at while waiting.
  • Artbooks, blogs, special content – it doesn’t have to be all in the game.

We mostly use cutscenes and the environment to tell the story.

This is what that looks like in Momonga Pinball Adventures:

(still work in progress, but it’s getting close)

Step 7: Iterate!

This is the step that allows me to be lazy. Because when you iterate, you can delay the hard work of writing a bit. But only a bit, mind you.

I don’t have time to write a 500 page world bible. So I don’t. I wing it. And that is how it should be when you’re making a game.

I like to start from the top: Make the world, characters, grand storyline. After “sketching” that out, I take the plunge all the way down to the dialogue. I want to see if the story fits with the game mechanics. And play around with it. But then it is time to take a step back and see if it all still works in the grand scheme of things.

When you do this, you will have to re-think certain characters, or even change big chunks of the world. This is no big deal, except if you reach a dead end street. And being cornered is the one thing to avoid. So you always need to think two steps ahead and have a plan ready for when things don’t turn out well.

With a bit of luck, you will have a good world with great characters. And with enough hard work, it will all fit together. And when it does, you might be having your hands on the next Lara Croft ;-)

Your Turn

How about you? Do you have any tips to share? Leave them in the comments so we can all write better stories! And get filthy rich!

Cheers,
-Derk

PS: I will be at Gamescom next week, and the week after I am at Got Game Conference (giving a talk on Momonga on Tuesday) and Unity. So my posting schedule will be a bit different than usual.