Making story and game play come together
Narrative. Game mechanics. These two things seem like they should go together, and all the big studios are trying to figure out how to do just that. But so often they just don’t mix in an enhancing way.
Stories are carefully crafted to create the biggest impact, and moving any part would diminish the experience. Gamers want ultimate control over what they do and how they do it, and don’t like games “on rails.” The two are mutually exclusive at their core. And stopping a game for a cut scene is the equivalent sin to exposition in traditional media. So how can the two coexist?
Certainly numerous games are known for good narrative elements, from indie hits like Thomas was Alone and Journey, to visual novels and interactive fiction style games that focus on story. But how do you use the strengths from both disciplines, without diluting one or the other?
I often draw from my screenwriting background when making and thinking about games. In this article, I want to share two storytelling tools for increasing tension, which can be used to good effect in games: setup and payoff, and hiding exposition in conflict.
Set up and pay off
When you are writing a screenplay, the only rule that matters is making the audience constantly want to know what will happen next. Using set ups and pay offs is such an obvious and powerful tool, but it takes careful crafting to make it work. In stories and in games, you can almost always pick any important scene and boost it to the next level by going back and laying down some more set up.
Set up works in two ways. First, when the pay off comes, it hits even harder because the viewer/player recognizes it from the set up, and gets an aha moment, plus has a deeper appreciation or more context. Instead of just another bead on the string of plot, it has meaning from being linked to something earlier.
Second, the set up half (if it is meant to be noticed before the pay off hits) can be used to hint at something important coming up, making the viewer/player want to see what is going to happen, and pushing forward to get to that moment.
Example time. You are outside of a house, spying on someone inside. You can’t get in because all of the doors are locked, but you can see the person repeatedly going up the stairs to the second floor, and then going into the attic for a few moments before coming back down again.
Notice how the narrative and game mechanics fit together seamlessly, each pushing the other forward: you see something odd and want to know more (narrative), so you have to sneak around and peek through the windows to see more (game mechanics). The question is planted in your brain: “What is in the attic?” (narrative), so you need to find a way to get into the house (game objective and more mechanics). And when you finally do get into the attic, the payoff can be meaningful: maybe the guy was hiding all the stolen tools (narrative), which you now can take a use (game mechanics), or maybe there’s nothing at all, he was just doing some cleaning, and you realize he’s not the villain after all (narrative), and you need to figure out who is (game objective). Story pushes game play forward, and game play pushes story forward. The player continues playing, not because the objective tells him to, but because he is genuinely curious.
Hiding exposition in conflict
Exposition is the killer of all stories. It stops the momentum to “catch up” the viewer/player with something they should have already known. It should be avoided at all costs. The best way to do so is to trickle it out through the course of the story in small, prompted batches. But sometimes this isn’t possible, so the next best move is to hide it behind something that has so much built-up tension that the viewer/player will stick around through the exposition to see what happens next.
There is an exercise writers do that goes along these lines: A person is at a door, but cannot open it. Why? (Opening doors is an extremely common game mechanic, and usually very boring, but it doesn’t have to be.)
At first you’ll probably come up with obvious ideas, like, it is locked, or the door is stuck. After that you may come up with something more interesting, like you have returned to your ex-girlfriend’s apartment, but she changed the locks to keep you out. Or the door is your husband’s private safe and you know that if you open it you will break his trust, plus you’re afraid of what you might find in there. Notice how the last two examples immediately suggest story.
Taking this exercise even further, we can use it to sneak in some important character back-story, and increase the tension in the scene at the same time.
You finally make it to that attic. The house is empty, all you have to do is walk up those stairs, and open the attic trapdoor, and the mystery will be solved. You get to the attic trapdoor. You see the indicator of what button to press to open it. You press that button. But nothing happens. You press it again. And again, but it isn’t working. You hear your heart beat harder, your breath quicken, your hands shake. Even though you are pressing the button, your character just won’t open the door. Then we jump to a cut scene, a quick flashback of the character age twelve looking for his dad, opening the attic door of his childhood home, to see his dad hanging in a noose from the rafters. Cut back and the player has to press the button and hold it down for three full seconds to make the character slowly grab the trapdoor and pull it open.
Again, we made the game play push the story, and the story push the game play. We held back the exposition of an important piece of character backstory to a moment that prompted it naturally, and the player had to use the game mechanics to bring it on. If they didn’t press that button over and over, it wouldn’t have played. Likewise, until the player gets that information, they can’t proceed, and afterwards, opening the door becomes a much impact, both in narrative and in game mechanics. Of course, when implementing a moment like this, make sure the story fits the game play style, and the game play fits the story and genre.
Wrapping up, these two storytelling tools show how game play and narrative can compliment each other. The key is not making a game like a story, or a story like a game, which usually doesn’t work, but rather, applying the same principles and tools for successful storytelling to game design, and combining them in a way that they each push the other forward, to draw the player in, and make them want to take the next step in the game and reveal the next turn in the story.