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  • Storytelling In Games: Theme And Mood

    - Robert Renke

  • Application

    Before any story comes to life it first has to be lined out on paper. Jamie Antonisse(2014) defines a narrative game prototype as "a playable, flexible outline of the premise, rules, events, and choices, built to answer the following questions: what is the "hero's journey" for the player? Do these pieces fit together into a compelling experience? Does it all make sense?"

    According to Antonisse, a paper prototype should be made with a short deadline (3 days, or 1% of the planned development time), with few people, based on simple rules, including reference points, within a personal storytelling experience level, and focus on the central question of game narrative.

    The first step is then an initial write-up, synonymous with writing initial notes for a book. This should include the premise, the player's role, goals (what motivates the player), conflict (what obstacles are in the way of those goals), actions, resources (simple to understand, elegant, giving opportunity, information, and challenge), and events.

    Antonisse goes on to provide examples of his principles for the build-out.

    The speaker recommends always showing the player their goal. In Journey, for example, it is the mountain with the light. There is no need to be told to go there, due to the strong visual cue.

    Characters can be used as goals, resources, and conflict. In classic JRPGs, actions are personified as characters, as Antonisse states, and Donkey Kong is holding the goal but also throwing obstacles.

    Finally, story events grow around the action. Keeping all that in mind, story points can be cut out that don't "reinforce or showcase goals, call the player to action, give the player feedback on their choices, or provide a break or reward after a heavy action."

    The second step to a paper prototype is drafting out the rules. Actions should be simplified, as at this point we are not testing mechanics. Dice are a method to emulate a challenge since they stripe down player actions to a probability outcome, or a dartboard can serve for sequences in shooter games where mechanical aim is important for the story. At this point, "you may be simplifying action, but you want to keep the element of choice strong in the prototype. Identify your most important choice points and figure out what's behind either door."

    The final step is to set up a game space that's going to abstractly represent the world for the player. This "board" should "have weight, be flexible and sticky, and have some simplicity and focus on it."

    Once this system is built and makes sense to you, you want to build out your presentation. This is where you want to figure out how to communicate those rules and systems to the player in order to finalize and iterate on the prototype.

    Similar to technically executed content, a story can be debugged as well to find issues, as Mata Haggis(2017) mentions. Those steps should ideally be followed periodically after any addition to avoid future time-consuming complications, but especially during the initial period.

    Figure 16: Haggis, M., (2017).Storytelling Tools to Boost Your Indie Game's Narrative and Gameplay. Game Developers Conference.

    Once the vision is defined, outlines and tentpoles are clear, and a playable prototype is greenlighted, it is finally time to build out the story in its entirety, little by little. This is where the story bible (usually a Confluence space or, on smaller projects, a Trello board) comes into play, as Mehrafrooz explains, "it is important to "put everything together in a way that's easily searchable so that any time someone on the team works on it, it's all clear and coherent."

    At any time, it is important to keep scope and scale in mind, and only iterate upwards on the MVP. In that regard, Laidlaw(2020) introduces us to the concept of "crumple planning", in other words, prioritization to prepare for the worst-case scenario. He proposes to classify tasks into critical or important, and, in the worst case, to be prepared to cut out over a quarter of the content.

    Figure 17: Laidlaw, M., (2020). Empires to Ages: Storytelling Lessons Learned in 14 Years at BioWare. Game Developers Conference.


    Further resources and recommendations

    Even in seven parts, there is still a limit of information to fit into an article. The following section comprises a list of all the resources recommended by the referenced sources that were not explained thoroughly here, and some more.

    Ayeesha Khan's(2019) recommendations:

    • tecfalabs, narrative theories
    • David Kuelz, narrative design tips I wish I'd known
    • tomkail.tumblr, irreducible complexity
    • Youtube, Extra Credits
    • Five act model
    • Hero's journey
    • Katie Chironis, getting a job in game or narrative design
    •, game writing, writing IF, narrative
    •, game voice casting
    • Into the Woods, John Yorke
    • The Anatomy of Story, John Truby
    • The Game Narrative Toolbox, Heusser & Finley

    Callum Langstroth's(2021) recommendations:

    • Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
    • Screenplay: Foundations Of Screenwriting by Syd Field
    • Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them by John Yorke
    • Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer
    • The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human, and How To Tell Them Better by Will Storr

    Forest Paths Method for Narrative Design(Alexander Swords, 2020) and his GDC and GCAP talks

    Christopher Alexander's A pattern language(1977), The timeless way of building(1979), and The nature of order(1981)

    Patterns in Choice Games, by Sam Kabo Ashwell

    Any artbooks as referrence for worldbuilding

    The Writer's Journey, by Christopher Vogler

    GDC talks that didn't fit in here entirely:

    • Warren Spector, 2013, Narrative in Games - Role, Forms, Problems, and Potential
    • Kent Hudson, 2011, Player-Driven Stories: How Do We Get There?
    • CJ Kershner, 2016, The Lives of Others: How NPCs Can Increase Player Empathy
    • Richard Rouse III, 2016, Dynamic Stories for Dynamic Games: Six Ways to Give Each Player a Unique Narrative
    • Winifred Phillips, 2020, From Assassin's Creed to The Dark Eye: The Importance of Themes
    • Anna Kipnis, 2015, Dialogue Systems in Double Fine Games
    • Miriam Bellard, 2019, Environment Design as Spatial Cinematography: Theory and Practice
    • Matt Brown, 2018, Emergent Storytelling Techniques in The Sims

    Analysing narratives. play a lot and think about how the story is told, look especially for games out of your expertise and for those which are not necessarily story-centric, like casual mobile games.

    Case studies used here can be found on Fallout 3 in Tynan Sylvester's(2013) book, or Wei et. al. On time and space in Assassins Creed.

    Finding inspiration by looking at narrative in entirely different mediums, such as non-fiction(news, marketing, or simply everyday occurences and encounter) or music. A good example of a lyrical narrative analysis is given by Polyphonics on Aesop Rock's None Shall Pass on YouTube: 

    "The intention to live as long as possible isn't one of the mind's best intentions,

    because quantity isn't the same as quality."

    - Deepak Chopra


    Don't think about easter eggs and sublime clues until the very end, unless a core mechanic is about finding them. As Kennedy(2016) summarizes, content, if not noticed by the player, didn't happen. The more the player notices it, the more it happens. And the more happens, the less will the player be able to notice what happens. Attention is a finite resource - prioritize quality over quantity.

    "If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on

    a kind of track that has been there all the while,

    waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.

    Follow your bliss and don't be afraid,

    and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be."

    - Joseph Campbell

    As Van de Meer(2019) concludes, "What you need to remember is that these explanations of the narrative structures are not hard and fast rules." Despite all the tech talk, research, and organization in the world, storytelling remains a form of art. And just like any art form, the quintessential aspect is to stay true to one own, individual, unique self. Stories are stories, are not structure! (Rouse, Abernathy, 2011)

    As writers and designers, we also have a certain responsibility as our work can indeed represent a driver for social change, both positive and negative. According to Murrar and Brauer(2019), "While educational institutions and workplaces are increasingly taking steps to promote openness to diversity in public spaces, the real power to change people's hearts and minds may lie in the television programs, books, and other media we consume on a daily basis."

    This notion of responsibility is furthermore emphasized by Nagler(2015), who states that it is important to add breaking points "to let the player reflect, get out of character again. We do not want to condone a character's actions, especially if they are morally difficult. It is something only games can do, and I think we should try to do it as good as we can."

    "Confidence comes from doing the same thing over and over again,

    but it takes courage to change that."

    Mick Gordon, GDC 2017

    Thanks to the people who commented, both on social media and on the articles themselves, your feedback is highly valued!

    Anyone can free to reach out on LinkedIn to discuss or simply network.


    Previous parts:

    Part 1: Prologue

    Part 2: Setting and Tools

    Part 3: Freedom of Choice

    Part 4: Structure and Devices

    Part 5: Character Design

    Part 6: Time and Space


    Laidlaw, M., (2018). Empires to Ages: Storytelling Lessons Learned in 14 Years at BioWare. Game Developers Conference.

    Mehrafrooz, B., (year unknown). The Ultimate Guide to Game Narrative Design. Pixune.

    Weekes, P., Epler, J., (2016). Dragon Age Inquisition: Trespasser - Building to an Emotional Theme. Game Developers Conference.

    Dark Horse Books (2011). The Art of Alice: Madness Returns

    Rouse, R., Abernathy, T., (2014). Death to the Three Act Structure! Toward a Unique Structure for Game Narratives. Game Developers Conference.

    Kaufman, R., (2019). Narrative Nuances on Free-to-Play Mobile Games. Game Developers Conference.

    Remo, C., (2019). Interactive Story Without Challenge Mechanics: The Design of Firewatch. Game Developers Conference.

    Phillips, C., (2016). All Choice No Consequence: Efficiently Branching Narrative. Game Developers Conference.

    Horneman, J., (2015). The Design in Narrative Design. Game Developers Conference.

    Briscoe, R., (2013). The Art of Dear Esther - Building an Environment to tell a Story. Game Developers Conference.

    Antonisse, J., (2014). Building a Paper Prototype For Your Narrative Design. Game Developers Conference.

    Laidlaw, M., (2020). Empires to Ages: Storytelling Lessons Learned in 14 Years at BioWare. Game Developers Conference.

    Haggis, M., (2017).Storytelling Tools to Boost Your Indie Game's Narrative and Gameplay. Game Developers Conference.

    Kennedy, A. (2016). Choice, Consequence, and Complicity.

    Van de Meer, A., (2019). Structures of choice in narratives in gamification and games. UX Collective.

    Murrar, S., & Brauer, M. (2019). Overcoming Resistance to Change: Using Narratives to Create More Positive Intergroup Attitudes. Current Directions in Psychological Science28(2), 164-169.

    Howitt, G., (2014). Writing video games: can narrative be as important as gameplay?. The Guardian.


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