momominecraftworld

How To Write A Good Game Story

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,ย 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 ๐Ÿ˜‰

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.

71 Comments
  • Wallysson
    Posted at 18:17h, 19 August Reply

    Well, i was searching for other things at web, and i dont know how i got at this website… The thing is…

    Actually i`m developing a game with unity, and i was having trouble with the story line… I was making the character background on the game, but everytime i was getting lost, forgetting about details, making some mistakes about each character other specifc things…

    Using this pattern, creating the world first, geographic, them create the character history is better! Thank you by posting this article, it’s helping me a lot to write my history…

  • Wallysson
    Posted at 01:51h, 20 August Reply

    Also, i would like to know if i can translate and post this article at my blog with all credits and links pointing at original source… Awesome information, need to share it with my friends, i’m from Brazil… Thank you!

    • Derk
      Posted at 10:58h, 20 August Reply

      Hi Wallysson,

      Thanks for your kind words. I’m glad that the article helped you out!
      If you want to translate and post, that is okay, please get in touch with me at derk [at] paladinstudios.com and we can discuss the details. Perhaps we can arrange it as a guest post on your site.

      Cheers!
      Derk

      • Vishal
        Posted at 07:51h, 28 August Reply

        Hello Derk.. I am having Great story.. Wih Characters look and all things included.. but the thing is.. I am still looking for features of story line up… How Can I add it??

        • shyam
          Posted at 13:24h, 06 August Reply

          Use u r creativity don’t mind of grammatical mistakes &spelling mistake
          All the bst

      • Md anees
        Posted at 03:52h, 19 January Reply

        Hey derk I don’t know how to present a story in kinds of paperwork please help me

  • Jalal Sela
    Posted at 15:02h, 07 January Reply

    This is really good… thanks ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Derk De Geus
      Posted at 18:04h, 07 January Reply

      It’s my pleasure! Glad you found it useful. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • godspower
    Posted at 16:05h, 19 January Reply

    I want to creatE a game titled ENTRAPED.does this means my game will have all that you have said or just some major stuffs.

    • Derk
      Posted at 17:35h, 19 January Reply

      Some games don’t even need that much of a story… but I recommend to think a bit about the world and the main characters in the game. And if you’re building something like Tetris, you may not need anything at all except for a theme.

      Good luck! ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Alejandro Villarreal
        Posted at 10:18h, 04 January Reply

        hello Derk thanks for taking your time in helping out others who also shared the same passion for videogames. your outlines have really helped me a lot also wanted to ask you if you need to be necessarily a game producer or can you just be a story writer for a game. also what career do i have to take in order to become a videogame writer.

  • Icetrap
    Posted at 23:31h, 12 April Reply

    amazing! thanks for the tips.. gonna try really hard and spend my time on details, plot and the whole stor… wish me good luck..

  • Derk De Geus
    Posted at 22:03h, 15 April Reply

    Thanks Icetrap! Good luck with your project ๐Ÿ™‚

    • MARACONT
      Posted at 13:53h, 22 June Reply

      Thank you so much. I’m writing a comedy rpg, and its very story heavy.

  • AGGER
    Posted at 21:54h, 03 July Reply

    Hey Thanks alot! this helped me in so many points on my rpg game progression! and i learned something! thanks once again! great writtin!

  • Awes01
    Posted at 04:23h, 05 August Reply

    Oh thank you so much I am outlining a game on animal survival but I didn’t know exactly how to go about it. But now I know exactly where to start thanks to you. I’m not really sure about the storyline but I guess animals are unpredictable so why not make the game too? Thank you again this is so helpful I hope more people are able to stumble upon your advice!

    • Derk De Geus
      Posted at 09:32h, 10 September Reply

      Thanks Awes01, great to hear that the post was useful. Good luck with your game!

  • Bryan
    Posted at 04:32h, 25 August Reply

    Thanks alot for the advice, im just starting my first game but wanted to get a better understanding on what I should be doing. This helped alot ๐Ÿ™‚

  • etaash
    Posted at 10:05h, 28 August Reply

    Thanks for this advice, I really needed this, as the current game i am making needs an epic storyline.

  • waqar
    Posted at 22:18h, 09 September Reply

    hello Derk De Geus, i am waqar from pakistan.i want to apply for Bachelor in game design next year in kyUAS Finland.please tell me some Idea….how i can pass the entrance exam…
    Last time i had participate in the test..but refused because my entry test was not so good.
    the question was that.
    examiner give us some pictures (apple/spoon/mug/ball/racket)etc and ask create a game by using these things…and also draw the characters and environment of the game)means create a whole game.

    • Derk De Geus
      Posted at 12:01h, 10 September Reply

      Hi Waqar,

      Here are some tips to get you started:

      – Create your design with your players in mind. What will they do? How will they react to the things you’re presenting to them? How will you give them feedback?
      – Creativity is combining things to form new things. Mixing up objects or concepts can be very useful to come up with innovative ideas. Your examiner seems to know this, because the assignment is tailored for this. You can work you “idea muscle” by coming up with new combinations / ideas every day.
      – A related notion is that you should also look at the real world, and your own experience, to come up with unique ideas. Don’t just look at other people’s games, but think about what you’re seeing in the news / on TV / in your real life. How could you turn this into a game?

      Hope this helps! Good luck ๐Ÿ™‚

      Cheers,
      Derk

  • Sebastian Perry
    Posted at 21:06h, 20 September Reply

    Thank you so much for this advice! Truth is, I’ve been spending YEARS developing this one little plot… I’m at a point where I really want to actually make it, but the plot has a lot of holes in it. I’m going to try out this method and see where it goes. I’m a programmer, which means I’m a terrible artist XP, but thanks!

  • Koro
    Posted at 10:50h, 02 October Reply

    Hi,

    I am a young director, with above average interest in art, fantasy and science. I loved the GOT example, it seems to be very accurate. you have summed up what I have been searching for a long time, Effective story telling within the modern arts (and in particular the game genre) however, I was wondering how does one approach the game industry with this “Bible”? Are there certain rules for submitting your “bible”?

    Thanks again,

    Koro

    • Derk De Geus
      Posted at 19:57h, 13 October Reply

      Hi Koro, well to be honest, the “bible” approach is probably not going to be enough. What you require is funding, and most game funders are overwhelmed with great concepts. If you want to sell a concept to them, you will need to blow them away – and a hundred pages of storyline are not going to do that.

      I recommend to create a prototype if possible, or at least a visual storyboard (preferably animated) of the game you envision. After all, the backstory is just the context for gameplay – and it probably won’t determine the fun factor as much as you would think it does.

      Before you start building, I would also recommend to ask people in the games industry for feedback. If you don’t know anyone, you might want to try an online forum. It’s scary but will usually provide you with some honest criticism and a good sense of where you are in terms of breaking into the games industry.

      Team up, ask for feedback and help – it is unlikely that the idea will get stolen and with a bit of luck you will get your first bits of momentum for the game.

      Good luck!
      Derk

  • Dave.
    Posted at 17:27h, 18 October Reply

    Hi, I am in my last year of a screen writing degree so the writing part is not a problem. What do I do next? How do you get your idea made and how do you approach the company, who do you talk to?

  • raie
    Posted at 13:32h, 27 November Reply

    Once upon a time in the year 1800 , there is this pet collector named Al-Jazari. Al-Jazari likes to collect unique pets from all over the country. On his 50thbirthday , he got a 2-headed dragon from china, an elephant from India and a bird from Malaysia. Al โ€“ Jazari kept the 3 pets together at a wasteland near his house. The dragon, bird and elephant live happily together at the wasteland until one day when the bird laid a golden egg. Since the relationship between the bird and the dragon are rock solid, the bird will ask the dragon to take care of the egg when he is away to hunt for food. However due to the curiosity and greediness of the dragon, the dragon stole the golden egg from the bird when he is away and ran into the forest with the help of the elephant . When the bird found out that his egg is missing , he ran into the forest as fast as possible hoping to catch the dragon when suddenly they met at the forestโ€ฆโ€ฆ(can you check this storyline,it is right??)

  • ColdArrow
    Posted at 05:18h, 19 December Reply

    Hey I’ve read this article, an omg it’s really inspirational… As two side questions do u know a good game maker program I could use to help, and secondly would it be a big thing to Kindof have two worlds type ????

  • Alex Hart
    Posted at 10:46h, 19 December Reply

    This is very enlightening, thank you!

  • Carla
    Posted at 03:09h, 12 February Reply

    I still havn’t finished secondary school yet but I was thinking of going into the gaming industry. But I don’t know where to start. I like, actually I love, writing stories and thinking of plots etc.. But how do you succeed as a story writer? And thank you for all the useful tips ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Tran Bich
    Posted at 11:01h, 18 March Reply

    It’s really useful for me. Thanks for ur post. I’ve learnt much

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    […] How to Write a Good Game Story –ย http://www.paladinstudios.com/2012/08/06/how-to-write-a-good-game-story-and-get-filthy-rich/ […]

  • Shailesh
    Posted at 19:52h, 17 September Reply

    Hi, Carla. I’m also focusing on going to game industry but I don’t really make storylines and plots properly, my brain makes me think of hectic things half way through the plot. I’m more into puzzles and making worlds. BT Dubb Z. I’m in Grade 5.

  • Eve
    Posted at 17:16h, 24 September Reply

    Thank you very much! this was really helpful
    I wanted to write a game concept just for fun but i had troubles
    and was confused and lost on what to do but I’m glad
    I found this guide and I’ll use to aid me.

  • Eric
    Posted at 11:56h, 03 October Reply

    Hi Derk,

    Nice blog you have here. I am actually a game developer looking for a good game writer for my Mafia-themed RPG game. Can you recommend a site or a person who I can hire as a freelancer?

    • Robin Jackson
      Posted at 16:24h, 27 July Reply

      Hi Eric,
      Did you find a writer for your game?
      Robin

  • gianluca
    Posted at 05:22h, 17 October Reply

    i am going to try to get ideas for shooter or first person shooter game. Can you help?

  • Al Amin
    Posted at 01:24h, 17 November Reply

    Hai…I never know this website helps me a lot…thank you

  • Kunal
    Posted at 12:34h, 11 January Reply

    Brilliant article ! Thanks a ton !
    I just have one question…. Are there any variations of these steps suited for Serious Educational Games, or should I follow the same design methodology as presented here ?

    • Derk De Geus
      Posted at 14:12h, 14 January Reply

      Hi Kunal,

      For serious games, there are other considerations as well – for example, you will probably want to model the game after certain real world elements. I would start with the boundaries of the game. Figure out what it is you want players to learn, and which elements of the game are “non negotiable” in terms of realism or educational value. These elements are your boundaries and you should not change them (for example, if you create a game about energy, you will need a somewhat realistic representation of current and future energy sources and how they are used). The rest of the world and story is yours to create, and the steps to get there are roughly the same.

      Good luck and have fun ๐Ÿ™‚
      -Derk

  • Torsten
    Posted at 18:29h, 13 February Reply

    Hi, thx for this articel. I enjoyed it ๐Ÿ™‚ and it helped me to structer my thoughts for maybe creating my own pc-game.

    I also bought your game cause of this articel ๐Ÿ˜‰ It’s a really funny idea and I love the pictures.

    What I don’t like is the music. It’s a sad and fuming story and the sound is like a cheap happy gameboy melody. For me that is annoying. So I turned it off and like the game ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • josh
    Posted at 09:29h, 26 February Reply

    i am not much of a story writer could you send me a story and i could make game with it pls reply at my email Id jijojia74@gmail.com

  • ala
    Posted at 18:59h, 03 May Reply

    just the intro is really very explanatory, yay!! I know now

  • Tinu
    Posted at 12:51h, 04 May Reply

    Hello Derk, how are you? i just came across this article and it helped me a lot. please can u send me your email, i have some things ill like to discuss with you at length and also some ideas i will like to share with you. i was hoping i could seek your advice on a new game i just started working on. hope to hear from you soon.

  • Imshah Madiha
    Posted at 23:57h, 28 May Reply

    a very good informative article indeed. its helping me alot in my game design ๐Ÿ™‚ thank you

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  • vivek
    Posted at 10:55h, 22 July Reply

    hello derk,i m having a good story so i just want to tell my game story to any gaming company so that to create a good game…. how can it will be possible????

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    Posted at 05:17h, 28 July Reply

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  • Staffan Nordstrรถm
    Posted at 02:38h, 20 August Reply

    Hello, like others that ended up here with a different topic in mind I feel as if though my entire career choice was questioned when I read this. I don’t mean that as a bad thing, you’ve really given me the nudge I needed to steer me off the evil 3D modeling path back to prioritizing what I secretly love — writing. this time with a pointier stick! I realize this post was made two years back, if only I had read it sooner, then again I guess it’s never bad to know what your writing will come out like in the end, perhaps even making it easier for artists to wing it themselves? Oh, I’m rambling again, I’ve got a question though if you’re still here. I’m still learning and never worked in the industry, finding things out as I go… ANYWAY to get to the point, what I was looking at as “end game” was becoming an environmental artist telling stories with atmospheres. I also hear this is the department where the jobs are at but that’s somewhat beside the point. what work could one expect, I mean I doubt there’s many people getting to write Mass effects storyline alone, how many jobs as a creative writer is there-ish?Thanks ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Derk De Geus
      Posted at 18:48h, 15 January Reply

      Hi Staffan, thanks for your comment and kind words. Choosing a career path in the games industry is never easy, and I firmly believe that the most important thing is to follow your passion. If that’s all over the place, that’s fine too – you will need many different disciplines. Although you do need many different skillsets, it is almost always best to specialize in one thing the most. The only exception is if you’re a lone cowboy indie developer, then you might have to do everything yourself.

      With regards to environment art and storytelling, you are completely right that there is much overlap. If you are good at one, you will become better at the other. So try it out, see if you have a knack for it and if it’s fun – and then go all the way.

      Although there is little chance you will work on the writing for a franchise like Mass Effect, there is a lot of work as a writer. Lots of games need at least some measure of dialogue, worldbuilding and character design. It is true that a more technical profession such as 3D modeling and environment art will make you more sought-after in the industry, but don’t let that stop you from exploring the opportunities!

      All the best,
      Derk

  • Fish
    Posted at 20:50h, 27 August Reply

    I like how you show how to make a game by making a game

  • himanshu
    Posted at 12:48h, 13 September Reply

    I WANT PROGRAMMERS AND ANIMATORS WHO CAN WORK WITH ME IN CREATING A GAME.

  • Domantas
    Posted at 14:43h, 27 September Reply

    Can someone help? I’m creating a game, and I need story with revenge or something like that. Please help me to crate something original ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Joe Frisch
    Posted at 17:36h, 14 October Reply

    Hi Derk, I am writing a paper on the Video Game writing process for my English 12 class because it is my dream job to get to be a Video Game Writer/Designer. I would like to interview you on the process. If you are willing to help me, please contact me back. Thank you.

  • Maheshkumar
    Posted at 07:27h, 16 October Reply

    Thank you very much Derk sir.. I am interested in writing a game concept your article help me so much sir.My ambition is to place in a good gaming company sir how can i get that company sir. please help me that you now about that sir and contact me sir…thanks

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    If you really want to make money visit this site http://theyouthjob.com/?ref=355277

  • xj-klassic
    Posted at 01:59h, 13 January Reply

    thanks for the info…it has been very helpful.i’ve been writing a game and ive followed your steps.in my story a sorceress is supposed to trick a god into giving her his deity.please tell me how she can do that

  • Max Pliskin
    Posted at 06:36h, 14 January Reply

    Wow! Reading through this, this is an awesome guide that really simplifies the daunting task of writing any kind of stoey, not just for video games. Thanks for the help!

  • Rebecca
    Posted at 00:12h, 27 February Reply

    This was really blooming helpful!
    Thank you so much!
    I already had an idea in my head but with this I realized some important details that I could include to make the story so much more interesting that I would have missed without. I appreciate this very much!

  • POPgum6236
    Posted at 20:10h, 29 February Reply

    you really helped me out with my homework, thanks it was to create a story for a game. i have looked on all the other websites but i never understood them but this one made this homework seem so easy. thanks again.

  • Alaskancrafter
    Posted at 06:39h, 28 April Reply

    How is this “back of the book” for my game?

    Anderson Smith sets off on a journey to find the mysterious Treasure of The Mississippi. But what he finds is a map. This map leads him around world to search for various artifacts. The map eventually takes him to Egypt, where he finds the truth behind the French and Indian war, The American Revelotionary War, The French Revolutionary War, The War of 1812 and The American Civil War.

    How’s that, also (spoiler) the secret is about aleins and the Mississippi and Nyle rivers and a flying saucer crash, which I haven’t fully developed the idea for yet.

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    […] How To Write A Good Game Story | Paladin Studios […]

  • Derp Squad
    Posted at 00:30h, 24 May Reply

    I have a question. How do you get an idea? I’m stuck on retrieving the idea for my game.

  • Nobody
    Posted at 07:27h, 02 June Reply

    Hey would you be able to help me with something I am trying to make a game but my friends and I are in an argument. Should the title be before or after the climax in the first cut scene and thx this article really help change my thinking about the story.

  • C MCMICHAEL
    Posted at 02:45h, 12 June Reply

    This is really comprehensive, thank you! I do not at have a background in gaming (even most basic technology gives me hives!). I am a teacher and have been asked to create a story line for some educational software and didn’t know where to begin. Each time I read one of your points I would begin thinking that it did not apply to our product, but eventually there would be a bullet that spoke specifically to what we are trying to achieve under each of your steps. This will be a very helpful tool. Thank you!

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