Mata Haggis-Burridge, Fragments of Him creator, shares some crucial tips for game developers on creating a solid storyline that the players will strive to follow.
These tips were originally shared in a GDC 2017 talk by Mata, Professor of Entertainment and Creative Games at Breda University of Applied Sciences and game developer who has been running his own company Matazone since 2010 as an indie developer. Mata makes games for himself, for the web, for friends as well as for companies like MTV2 and Channel 4. Mata joined EA and Rebellion as a writer and narrative designer, and later as a lead designer. Mata was nominated for the best writing for the games by the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain.
In this talk, Mata explains why understanding story structures is a useful skill for game developers, describes a reliable storytelling structure you can use, and debugs a few questions to help you fix stories or gameplay that feels unrewarding.
Mata begins by saying that understanding flow in games is an important aspect of game development. If the gameplay requires high skill but offers little challenge it is boring, if it is vice versa, the game becomes pretty anxiety-inducing and overly demanding.
The so-called "flow channel" is the golden mean you have to be aiming for. What it means is essentially that challenge and skill should escalate in a perfect relationship to each other, however, it is more fun when it gets a little wobbly along the line and that keeps the player excited to move further.
Another thing writers have to understand is the tension in stories. A good story has an inciting incident that marks the first tension peak; a low midpoint where things get unexpectedly worse when we try and fix them; and the black moment a.k.a. point of the greatest darkness that we eventually overcome (and this leads us to the very end of story).
Just like the challenge/skill curve, it has two axes, time and tension. If not a lot of time has passed but the player encounters a lot of drama, it feels unnatural, it is way too much to handle; and if a lot of time has passed but everything is too chill the game becomes boring.
As Mata emphasizes, every writer has to have a clear answer to the following question: what is the story of my game? There are things called pre-authored content, and it includes events, content, storytelling, mechanics, the world the game is set in. All these are the things we put into our games to tell the story.
On the other hand, we’ve got the players who make the user-generated version of the story, it is their interaction with the world you built, their interpretation of it. What they see and what you’ve designed might not be the same.
Together, these two things (pre-authored + user-generated content) are what creates the player experience. The wobbly line in the previous graphs is basically it, the player experience.
Storytellers have structured systems that reliably create great experiences so rather than reinvent the wheel we can learn from them and how they guide the emotional journey the players go on.
There are several things that must be taken into account when developing a story, and these are the basics of storytelling. The first one is motivations.
For characters, there are external and internal motivations. External motivations include the desire to change something in the world outside like becoming rich and famous, forming relationships as it changes your status in the outside world. Internal motivations are about the desire to change something inside a person, usually overcoming a problem, an emotional block like grief, a sense of loss, but it also could be the desire to learn something new.
Both things are about change, so any story is always about change, a story that doesn’t have change is boring (and changes are not just about getting bigger guns along the way). A simple yet good example is Tetris: in this game, tension grows over time, we have external and internal goals (we want high scores and have a desire for order). We are driven by the idea that we like the world to be slightly neater than it is and it’s this tiny place where maybe we can make this happen.
Another thing to take into account is the plot structure – a series of events through which change will happen. The plot controls the speed of progress of the tension arc in the experience. You always have to start your story before your big events begin. You set up the character, the situation, and the basic rules (a.k.a. the tutorial mission). And at this point, it’s important to build empathy because the players must want the character to overcome the challenges ahead.
The inciting incident is where we can start to set up the challenges, increase the narrative or mechanical tension, add an antagonist or enemies, a break in the usual situation. However, the player/character usually doesn’t go straight for attacking the problem – they explore, avoid it, or attempt smaller battles.
Then the complexity increases – basic abilities seem less effective, new enemies are added, new story elements show it wasn’t all that simple, etc. Complexity has to increase to make the experience compelling. The player finds new weapons or strategies to overcome the enemies (which is external change through power-ups for instance) and they find the strength they never knew they had (which is internal change).
Then comes the Black Moment where all the hopes of overcoming the problem are at risk. Here is where all the knowledge, the relationships, the strategies developed through the player’s/character’s experience are needed to overcome the final challenge. And right after the Black Moment, you end the story without smearing the grand finale over additional levels, tasks, and dialogues, you have to keep it neat and short.
Now, this structure works for most games but thriller, action, horror stories are a bit different. There is an additional bit of the structure you might want to add which is the grabber (a burst of action at the beginning that promises something exciting). Also, in horror stories you often have a final moment of fear at the end – evil lurks (like when the hand comes up from beneath and grabs you).
Another thing to remember is the scene structure. All scenes must have an objective (a target player goal or experience), a conflict (something that makes the objective more difficult to reach), and an outcome (and to reach it, there needs to be a change).