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How To Tell Your Video Game’s Story
Video games offer a multitude of ways to convey story, but each method has its own benefits and drawbacks
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When it comes to video game writing, there are many ways to tell stories, and at some point in development, you’ll have to figure out the best way to tell yours. Whether you want to keep it simple or go big and complex, it’s important to understand the options available to game developers, what each of them has to offer, and when is best to utilize each.
5 Basic Methods of Storytelling in Games
There are countless ways to tell stories in games, with some games blurring the lines between them, but for the sake of simplicity they can be narrowed down to five basic methods:
Each method possesses distinct benefits and drawbacks and will affect the texture of your story in different ways. For an example outside of the gaming industry, consider books that are adapted into films: a clever screenwriter will understand that, while narration may work well to paint a picture or capture a mood in a book, the same narration in a film adaptation may come off as patronizing to the audience and doesn’t play to the medium’s strengths of telling stories visually.
It is your job to understand the benefits and drawbacks of each video game storytelling method, as well as your goals and limitations, to determine when and how best to use them.
When To Tell a Video Game Story in Cutscenes
What are cutscenes? Cutscenes are the moments in a game where the player is basically watching a video. Perhaps they’ll have to push a button occasionally, but for the most part, they’re watching something play out without their input.
For video game writers, cutscenes are incredibly flexible. Whether they’re animated by hand and pre-recorded or play out in real time in the game’s engine, things can happen in a cutscene that are impossible in gameplay due to the technical limitations of the game mechanics. As such, they’re ideal for technically complicated moments and those where finesse and precision are required.
However, cutscenes are also highly controlled, in that the player usually has no say in what happens. As such, it’s important that the events of a cutscene don’t contradict the player’s experience with the gameplay — if the player character has been soaking up tons of damage during gameplay, it can take the player out of the experience for the same character to react dramatically from getting small cut across their arm.
Cutscenes are also typically very expensive, as they may require the use of every available resource, including visual design, animation, music, sound effects, voice acting, sound design, video editing, programming, and scriptwriting.
When To Tell a Video Game Story in Dialog Boxes
What are dialog boxes? Dialog boxes are those moments where a beautifully drawn/rendered character (usually) takes up most of the screen accompanied by a text box containing their dialog. The player may or may not be able to interact by selecting dialog options or advancing to the next line. If a cutscene is a movie, think of a dialog box like a comic book, telling the story with text and static images.
Dialog boxes are great for (go figure) dialog. If you have a character expositing to the player, or a few characters talking to each other while just standing around, dialog boxes are a great option. They require fewer assets than cutscenes, making them less expensive and time-consuming to produce. However, they’re also limited in the information they can convey, and run the risk of seeming stilted if characters unnaturally take turns waiting for each other to speak, especially during heightened emotions.
When To Tell a Video Game Story in Barks
What are barks? As I explained in my article on how to write video game barks: “a bark is a brief line of dialog delivered by a character in response to an event, often triggered by the player’s action.”
Barks are one of my favorite forms of storytelling in games because they help to seamlessly integrate the story with the gameplay. If your story or scene can play out during gameplay, I advise that it does. Not only is delivering the story through barks immersive, but it’s relatively affordable as well since you typically don’t even need any special animation or art. The downside is that barks are dependent on gameplay and player choices, meaning that players may not trigger a bark to be spoken or they may not hear it if they’re concentrating or listening to something else in the game.
When To Tell a Video Game Story in Lore
What is lore? Lore in a video game is basically any type of storytelling that fleshes out past events. This can be through character dialog (in a cutscene, dialog box, etc.), through reading an in-game document, or through the environment.
Lore is great because it can make the world of the game feel as if it existed long before the player set foot in it and that it exists outside the actual limitations of the game. Plus, players love searching for and uncovering new bits of lore. Fortunately, lore doesn’t necessarily require a lot of resources to include, making it an affordable way to expand the scope of the story and engage with players.
However, keep in mind that depending on how lore in your game is delivered, players may completely miss it. As such, optional lore should add texture to your game’s story but not play a vital role in delivering a satisfying story.
When To Tell a Video Game Story in Gameplay
What is gameplay storytelling? Gameplay storytelling is when you use the gameplay or environment to tell your story. If you’re a video game writer, you may not have a lot of control over this, but that doesn’t mean you cannot take part in influencing it — remember that your role extends beyond simply writing and try to get involved in gameplay storytelling to ensure a high-quality and seamless storytelling experience for the players.
Like barks, gameplay storytelling can be incredibly immersive because it passively conveys information to the player, and like lore, it can make the game world feel bigger than it is. If a picture says a thousand words, then gameplay storytelling can say a billion. To return to my analogy about a savvy screenwriter: games are the only medium that can use gameplay to convey a story, so it’s smart to use it as often as possible.
That said, not every player is going to be savvy enough to understand your gameplay’s intended meaning — even I am guilty of playing through games like Fallout without thinking twice about why those skeletons are positioned a certain way in the room I walked through looking for caps. That said, don’t feel like you have to spell it out for players, as doing so can come off as talking down to them and also limits the potential for fun discussions and theorizing to arise in your community.
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