Every Game Is Its Own Medium

In traditional media–films, television, novels, comics, etc.–a creator usually assumes a level of familiarity with his medium of choice on the part of the audience. As a filmmaker, you know your viewers expect a movie to run around two hours. That helps you pace your scenes, as the audience will have an instinctive sense of how far through the story is. If your protagonist appears to die ten minutes into the movie, you know your viewers will be wondering “how will she survive?” and “when will she come back?” rather than sitting confused, trying to figure out if the film is over already.

Similarly, a novelist needn’t worry about readers assuming each page is a self-contained unit, as if it were a scene in a play. Basic literacy comes with a knowledge of the existence of section and chapter breaks. Novels may vary dramatically in length, form, and viewpoint, but certain fundamentals remain the same.

Comic books are a little trickier. Movies and novels are ubiquitous–it’s safe to assume that your audience has long since learned the basics of those media. But comics?

Everyone knows how to read this:

Calvin and Hobbes

Calvin and Hobbes. Image via GoComics.com

Even someone who’s never read Superman or Tintin can follow a basic comic strip’s panels from left to right one line at a time. But someone unfamiliar with comic book layouts might have substantially more trouble with, say, this:

Sandman: Overture #2

Sandman: Overture #2. Image via ComicBookResources.com

The panel flow and shapes used here (by artist J.H. Williams III) are intended to create a very particular effect, but they ask more from the reader than the Calvin and Hobbes strip above. It’s not an impenetrable page by any means, but it rewards a familiarity with how comics work and penalizes readers still learning how panels and word balloons direct the eye across a scene.

The point being, creators in every medium take advantage of an audience’s familiarity with the form, and individual audience members may desire works that are more challenging or take greater advantage of a medium’s particular strengths.

But video games aren’t a medium. Not in the same way, certainly. The formal differences between Papers, Please, Call of Duty, and The Walking Dead are far more significant than those between film and television. Yes, we can easily group many games into “genres,” but even two apparently similar first-person shooters may have substantial formal differences. (One may have highly nonlinear levels and seamless multiplayer integration, say, while the other may be virtually “on rails” and be delivered episodically on a monthly download schedule.) Certainly two role-playing games may play and feel entirely different.

Every game is, in effect, its own medium. So how do we write and design our narratives accordingly? (And we’re really just talking narrative here–otherwise, we’ll be talking about tutorials alone for 5,000 words.)

Take these thoughts into account:

Every Game Requires a New Narrative Design Philosophy

Of course there’s an immense library of knowledge you can carry from game to game. But every game also requires a thorough reexamination of conventional wisdom and lessons learned. New design elements–including new combinations or the removal of old elements–can have unpredictable effects on a Player’s engagement with the narrative. Changes in gameplay, pacing, delivery, and so forth must all be accommodated by writing.

Take, for example, the “seamless multiplayer integration” mentioned above. Suppose you’ve already produced one first-person shooter with a strong central narrative and a heavy reliance on environmental storytelling (visual cues, ambient audio, and so forth). Your sequel allows Players to jump into their friends’ games to play and chat. Suddenly, your environmental storytelling methods may need to change–if Players are talking and laughing over the subtle background noises that let them piece together the story, or rushing to get to the next combat area instead of lingering over the visuals, your old approach to narrative becomes much less effective.

You could solve this problem in a number of ways (making the environmental cues more visible or tying them more directly to gameplay, reitering whatever the Player might learn from the environment in periodic cutscenes, adjusting the multiplayer functionality itself, etc.) But that’s an example of an adjustment needed from a single design change–the adjustments needed when moving between different game genres is appreciably more!

It’s fine to do things that worked before, or worked in other games. But always remember to consider the context of the entire game when designing your narrative, and build an approach uniquely suited to your particular project.

Don’t Just Find What Works; Find What’s Great

Sure, you can probably take your favorite storytelling tricks and methods and find a way to adapt them to your current design. And in some circumstances, you’ll probably want to. But is that really why you got into this business?

Consider what the design of your game does well, and craft a story to suit that. Craft new narrative mechanics that build on those strengths. A mood of tension and horror might be made to work in your multiplayer, beer-and-pretzels, watch-each-Player-try-to-one-up-the-next-with-combo-moves shooter–but a fast-moving comedy in which distracted Players miss out on nothing but a snippet of extra humor when they’re chatting might work even better.

Or it might not, depending on everything else about the game! The point is, yes, a good enough craftsman can get a square peg into a round hole, but is that really the best use of your time? Or the Player’s?

Consider Your Audience’s Touchstones

As we already discussed, experienced audiences have certain expectations and preconceptions of media. This can be useful or problematic in different circumstances, but it’s always something to keep in mind.

For example, Players are used to skimming or skipping “flavor text”–technology descriptions, faction writeups, and so forth–in 4X strategy games. If your strategy game has a narrative conveyed largely through flavor text (and if it’s important that the Player does, in fact, follow the narrative), then you’ll need to find a way to train the Player to pay attention.

Perhaps your tutorial calls out the flavor text explicitly. Perhaps your Player is prevented from progressing past an early point without demonstrating understanding of the narrative revealed. Perhaps your flavor text has voiceover attached that doesn’t turn off when the Player leaves the text screen. None of these may be great or good solutions, but neither is assuming that the Player will magically intuit that your game works differently.

Don’t blame the Player for expecting your narrative to be delivered the same way it is in other, similar games. Teach your Player to become “literate” in your new medium instead.

The More Original the Design, the More Basic the Story

The more you need to teach the Player, the more you’re going to need to start simple. Your Player is going to pay a lot less attention to your narrative than you did–your years of painstaking craft will be consumed in frantic sessions between dinner and putting the kids to bed, and if most of the Player’s attention is spent figuring out how the narrative even works, well…

There’s nothing wrong with a simple story told adeptly. If your abstract puzzle game tells its narrative entirely through controller feedback, you’d better keep it bare bones. As the Player’s “literacy” increases, you can up the complexity (to a point)–either within the same game (starting with an apparently simple narrative and slowly adding elements) or in later games using the same techniques.

Build In Time and Flexibility for Narrative Iteration

Game design–narrative or otherwise–isn’t a science. Experienced writers can’t look at a game design document and know with certainty what will work and what won’t. Experienced designers can’t look at a game design document and know what the game will end up looking like, either!

Whenever possible, make sure your game allows for narrative iteration. If every game is a new medium, every game is a learning experience for the creators, too–you don’t want to be bound to an approach you later realize doesn’t work particularly well, nor to an approach which becomes invalidated by changes to other design elements.

Flexibility isn’t just about asset pipelines and scheduling, either. As important as it is not to, say, build all your environments in detail before you’ve locked down your gameplay, it’s also important not to become too emotionally attached to the first narrative you create. Passion is wonderful, but not if it gets in the way of revising and reshaping a story to make it as strong as it can be within the context of the final game.

This can go both ways, depending on the project–game design elements may need to change to better fit the narrative, as well–but when it comes to fruitlessly maintaining an ego-driven grip on a particular, original vision, can anyone beat a writer?

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None of this matters without a sound understanding of fundamentals. Knowing you need multiple tools and approaches isn’t helpful without knowing how to use those tools in the first place. But it’s easy to feel like you’ve mastered game narrative when in fact, you’ve only mastered a particular type of game. Remember there are plenty more challenges–and opportunities–out there with each new game you explore.