Storytelling in Gaming

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I’d like to begin this post with a disclaimer. This is not an in-depth analysis of game storytelling, nor will it discuss rpgs or any game with a clear and predefined plot. Rather, I will talk about games that may not seem to have a story to them, or may not even have intended to have a story to them. I will look at what exactly makes up those games, and then show how we can all take a page of that book to use in our own writing.

There are many different kinds of games. Action games, shoot ’em ups, rpgs, strategy games, etc. Among these, there are games that have been built around a story, games that have had a story cheesily tacked on, and games that seem to have no story at all. The latter category of games are those that revolve around a game concept or idea rather than a plot.

For my examples, I will use two games, one that I have played for quite a while, and one that I just recently started playing.

The first is a game called Timber and Stone. Now, have no fear. You do not need to know anything about the game to understand what I’m going to talk about. Timber and Stone is a settlement strategy game. You manage a group of settlers who are doing their best to create a city, all the while fending off attacks from wolves, skeletons, and goblins that get increasingly worse. You can lose settlers, and have migrants come in, but the game ends either when you decide to quit, or when you have lost all your settlers.

This game has no story.

So how was it that when I was playing, I knew each of the settlers in my civilization by name (there were thirteen of them)? Why did I feel genuine distress when one of them couldn’t make it to shelter in time and was devoured by wolves (this is a voxel-based game by the way, meaning it has a pixelated style, like minecraft)? Why did I make graves for each of the settlers whom I lost (graves have no benefit)? And why did I create imaginary  romances between settlers who happened to work beside each other at their professions, and then set to work building a church for them to marry in along with cottages for them to live in?

All that took place in a game with absolutely no deliberate story elements.

The power behind Timber and Stone? Its characters. Now, in Timber and Stone, the settlers are very simple. You can give them a name (or play with randomly generated ones), choose their profession, and beyond that they have some passive characteristics that are beyond your control (such as good eyesight or cowardice). So how can such simplistic characters draw the player in? It’s because, as a game, Timber and Stone was able to make you feel responsible for the characters. You had a genuine sense of care for them because you knew that if you made one mistake, someone could die, and they would never come back.

From this, I think we can take several things for writing our stories. The obvious one is characterization. Build up personality and backstory for the people in your stories. If the character shows up on at least two pages, it needs depth. Beyond that, character development. People are already naturally inclined to want the characters in your story to become better, so never begin your novel with your protagonist as a paragon, unless you want him to become corrupt.

Beyond this, and here is a point more subtle, show your reader the mortality of your characters. There is no better way to relate to a person than with death. Why? Because it is the one common thing that unites everybody. We all die someday, and by showing that people (important people) can and will die permanently, will draw your reader in. Unfortunately, there is a strong stereotype these days that the main character never dies, or if he/she does, it’s at the end of the book in some over-dramatized fashion, and I feel like there’s a need to combat that. I believe we need more stories with no main character.

That’s right, I said it. No main character. Don’t force the reader to accept the perspective of and follow around somebody they may not even like. Give the reader an option, allow the reader to choose sides. Sure, there’s no way you’re going to be able to give the reader an actual way to influence what is happening in the story (unless you’re writing a gamebook), but by not having a “good guy” and a “bad guy” and a “main character” and “sub-characters,” you’ll give the reader a lot more freedom.

The second game I mentioned was 7 Days to Die. This is a zombie survival game where very move you make my cost you your life. Think the Walking Dead, but super epic game version. This too, has no story to it. Sure, at the beginning you customize your character’s appearance, gender, and name, and occasionally you may find a few quests, but there’s nobody telling you do this first, or do that next. In gaming terms, it’s an open world game.

What do I feel that we can draw from this game? Well, I’ve felt very often with many books that there was no true suspension to the story. In other words, the plot was predictable. I knew what would happen at the end, I had a fairly good idea of who would live and who would die, who was the bad guy and who was not, etc. In other words, stories have become cookie-cutter penny novels which seem to no longer have any originality.

My solution? Shock the reader. Do whatever you can to shock the reader. If that means having a character crossing the road to buy milk from the grocery store and then getting smashed by a container truck, do it. If it means that the serial killer who is on the loose and rampant in the streets saves the life of the child, do it.

Now, obviously I am not advocating for randomness or just writing things for sheer shock value, because that gets old quickly. But I do believe that stories these days need at least one or two of these slaps to the face to really wake up the person reading saying, “Hey, pay attention. This isn’t what you were expecting was it?”

Alright, that’s it. I know this post was late, but hey, it’s still Tuesday, so there.

Tours yruly

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8 thoughts on “Storytelling in Gaming

  1. Great insights! I’m not sure what to think about the idea of having no main character, but it sounds like something cool to toy around with, at least. And Timber and Stone sounds like a fun game; I’ll have to look it up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I do realize that having no main character is relatively revolutionary, but there are a number of stories that I feel have been quite successful with it. Star Wars for example arguably has no main character. I guess you could say that Anakin is a main character, but he kind of slips into the background after his turn, and Luke takes a fairly central position. However, a lot of other characters play very strong roles. Obi wan is present for a lot of the series, as is Yoda. And this diversity is especially exemplified in the Clone Wars when you get a look at all different kinds of characters.
      Obviously the Clone Wars is a tv show, and each episode is fairly centralized around a single character or two, but I think the holistic approach can be taken and applied to stories as well. Shorter ones may have some problems, but longer ones shouldn’t have any issues.
      In fact, Brandon Sanderson’s series which I’ve been working through is an excellent example of my point, where the perspective is constantly revolving, giving you a very dynamic view full of different angles and perspectives of the world and the story.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Yeah I agree, books these days really all have the same story line (movies too) and as writers, one of our goals should be to at least try to be original. Readers need to be slapped in the face sometimes 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I like the writing tips that you draw from these games! It would be interesting to see your take on games built around stories (what makes a game story successful? are game stories always predictable? what can writers conclude from looking at game stories? etc).
    Both games you mentioned are really great, but they’re both based around survival and settling (to a degree). I wonder how a game would fare that didn’t have an element of survival or a definitive storyline..I can’t think of examples XP
    Anna B.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you like the writing tips. Personally I feel that a lot of games built around stories feel quite linear, and for the most part, that’s okay, but then it develops more into a cinematic experience than a game, in my opinion.
      A game that fits your description would be something like Civilization. That is purely a strategy game, but in a sense, you develop your own story, though it is at a much more impersonal level, and feels more like developing a history book than a character.

      Liked by 1 person

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