Imagine you’re working on your game’s story. You’re excited about your character and plot concepts, and you’re integrating them into the game design. So far, so good!
But as the game comes together, maybe it starts to feel like the action is going nowhere. Sure, stuff is happening, but it’s not leading to anything. The stakes aren’t building - not really.
It’s become a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Nuts! What’s going on?
First of all, congratulations, you’re in good company. Lots of game writers face this same unpleasant surprise at some point in development. It happens when we create an arc for a character that the player ultimately controls.
When your storytelling skills backfire
Where is this problem coming from?
We all have an idea about how stories should be, because we have been hearing (and telling) them our whole lives. And stories are usually about characters going through an experience - and changing as a result.
It’s incredibly satisfying and fun to watch a character undergo a major transformation. Think of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, or Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption, or Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: A New Hope. Pew pew pew!
Those movies are great because something really HAPPENS to those characters that changes them forever. We catch them in the biggest moments of their lives, and we love to see it.
And as game writers, of course we want to tell great stories in games. Not just because it’s our job, but because it’s why we became writers in the first place - because we love stories and want to create narratives that other people can love.
So we use the storytelling models we know best, and we’re surprised when they fall flat.
The problem that playable stories create
The problem persists because we have a problem that no other medium has - we have to share control of the character with the player.
A character arc is an emotional journey that creates change in a character. But we can’t change characters that we don’t control.
At the end of the day, the writer doesn’t control the avatar - the player does.
So if we’re talking about changing a player avatar, we’re really talking about changing the player.
And we can’t change the player!
So what to do?
One solution: Turn weakness into strength
Here’s one way to approach the problem. This comes from The Anatomy of Story, from John Truby (which is a great book, highly recommended). In it, he describes an equation for creating character change. Here it is.
Weakness * Action = Change
- Weakness = character flaw
- Action = stuff the character does
- Change = the "new" character, changed as a result of the actions s/he took
Let’s unpack that, and then see how we can apply it to games.
If a character arc is a journey, then the character has to start somewhere. And s/he has to have room to grow. So the writer defines the character’s primary weakness or flaw. That’s where the writer will apply pressure, all through the story. The writer will push on that flaw to create change in the character.
It’s just like the gym. Pressure and pain makes characters stronger (or breaks them).
This all sounds good on paper. But it can become a big problem in a game studio, and here’s why:
The challenge is that often, players don’t WANT to play characters with weaknesses or flaws. It flies in the face of most game fantasies, which revolve around “you’re awesome, you can do anything.”
(And game designers may push back on this idea, too, for the same reason.)
So as a game writer, it helps to come at this problem a little differently. It’s all in how you think about it, and how you communicate it to your team.
Instead of starting with the character, let’s start with the player.
Instead of using the word “weakness,” let’s use the phrase “blind spot.”
What blind spot could the player have? How could we use that blind spot as a starting point for our character arc?
Here are some examples of blind spots that players/avatars could have:
- He doesn’t know the truth about himself (BioShock)
- She doesn’t know the truth about the place she’s in (Portal)
- He doesn’t want to face the truth about what he did in the past (God of War)
So the player’s arc becomes a journey of discovery, and the avatar’s arc is a journey of discovery, too. Now your story has somewhere to go, and you can build that all-important arc. Hooray!
Thanks for reading. See you next week.
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Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.