Who needs a game narrative?24 December 2013
Steve Ince, the story-writing talent behind the famous Broken Sword series, recently gave a talk on game narratives at Birmingham's LAUNCH Conference. He was quick to point out that with the boom in game apps for mobile devices, story writing and dialogue quality have fallen to the wayside. There are a few reasons for this, including the popularity of mechanic-driven games dominating the marketplace. A game like Angry Birds doesn't even try to include a story - it's a simple game about flinging birds at pigs after all, but could a story improve that game? Does it need a story? Probably not, and that's okay.
But games need to commit to one or the other. Does it tread the same route as Angry Birds and offer an experience that is purely gameplay focused, or does it attempt to offer a strong narrative that melds with its gameplay mechanics for an immersive and fun experience. The key word here is "attempt"; while many developers that want to make a story-driven game are prepared to give this a go, they in turn risk losing out by not hiring a dedicated, experienced professional to write an engaging narrative. This is not by any means limited to the mobile space, as it's been a problem that has plagued mainstream AAA game titles for years.
"How hard can it be?"
The trouble with trying to craft a story without proper experience is that it's easy to miss key components on narrative design. Can you plan for structure? Foreground, background and subplots? Subtext, motivations and suspension of disbelief? It's easy to assume that a story you've written is a good one - after all, the original creator is the one who will know the most about it. If the story forgets to explain something, would you honestly notice that it's not been conveyed to the players? When you want to craft an epic with multiple character arcs and are worried about continuity, isn't it best to leave it to someone tried and tested? Even if it's just in an advisory role?
"Who cares about quality when good gameplay will disguise and story problems? Who cares about the believable bad guy? Just give him cool looking weapons and a gravelly voice!"
Unfortunately, that's what a lot of video game stories and dialogue consists of these days. Many games will fall back on heavily used tropes for the foundation of their stories, perhaps in the hope of appealing to established audiences. There's a lot that a good narrative can bring to video games, but it seems almost pointless to bother with a story at all if it's just going to emulate something that's already been done. It's okay to build upon existing themes if need be, but will anyone care about a carbon copied story? You can push engagement by having users try and figure out what's coming, and the use of plot twists will keep them on their toes. It's not going to be a very good plot twist if the obvious happens!
But why? Why should games be considering the narrative during development? It all comes down to the lasting impression, the discussion points, and how you want your game to be remembered. Games like Half-Life 2, Final Fantasy 7 and Portal are fondly remembered and discussed even now because of their stories and the narrative execution. More recently, titles like Thomas Was Alone, Device 7 and The Stanley Parable prove just what can be achieved when the stories are conjured with genuine adoration. But won't such a focus side-track the rest of development?
"Contrary to popular belief, story writers will only deliver what you need for your game. They don't wish to impose unnecessary narrative where it's not wanted or needed. They don't even have to work on a project full-time, just as and when it's required. They need to work with developers to ensure that narrative enhances the gameplay and doesn't become the sole focus, unless that's what the brief demands."
But if you're looking for someone to write a story for your game, who do you hire? This is a judgement call; if your game only requires a simple, charming story, why not try out some fresh talent? There's no end of designers looking to step into the industry, and if it's your first game, why not learn together? If you're already established as a game develop and are looking for a guaranteed professional edge, who do you go for? The best writer in the world would be no good if he can't get his head around at least the principals of game narrative.
"Game writers should play games, without a doubt. They should understand the principals of game design at a high level, as well as how the development process works. They must also be willing to work with the development team. If they class themselves as a professional, this is the least they should offer on top of their writing skills."
As gaming progresses onto new hardware and new standards, attention to narrative is becoming more and more important to stress. What does the future of gaming look like if well-written stories become a niche? It's something that the entire industry can stand to benefit from should more developers actively look at adopting it where applicable, so developers would do well to give it some thought. To reiterate, it's not like games like Angry Birds are in dire need of a gripping story, but rather if your game wants to tell its own narrative, be sure to make it the best that you possibly can.