Home > SoulHow > SoulHow to Write an Interesting Video Game Story

SoulHow to Write an Interesting Video Game Story


I know I’ve been away for a while, but I’ve finally finished my final final exam, so here’s a present for you all: a new, long article. Yes, I’m technically putting it into my “soulhow” series, and I probably will be doing more, but the new soulhow articles will NOT be game-maker specific.

Anyway, one of the things so many amateur games are lacking, something that’s VERY important (in many games, but not all), is a story. And the thing that even the games that have a story (including some commercial ones) don’t have, is a GOOD story.

The story is actually one of my favorite parts of a video game, possibly because music in a lot of video games is meant to enhance it. So now, I’ve considered a lot of good game stories, and a lot of bad game stories, as well as some good game stories that have some issues. And here, I’m going to outline what I’ve found, for you, and only you. Actually, for you and everyone else who wants to read. Sorry if you thought you were special or something.

*Warning: I am using examples from stories of commercial games in the sections below. They may contain minor spoilers.*

1. Okay, so I’m playing as [insert main character here]. Why?
One thing that many writers do, which in my opinion detracts from their overall quality, is come up with a situation and then dump in characters simply with the purpose of driving forward their beloved story.

When I play as a character, I don’t want to be some generic character that’s saving the world (or whatever) just because I happen to decide that it’s my job. Even something small like being forced into a situation works. For example, at the start of Chrono Trigger, Crono is some kid who likes to swing around a wooden sword. Soon enough, though, he watches his new friend Marle get sucked into a void, and has enough bravery and confidence to go in after her. That’s who he is; a brave kid who is thrust somewhat against his will into a problem which then he and his friends must solve.

If, on the other hand, the game were to begin as lavos decended upon the town in 1000 AD, yet we play with Crono anyways instead of someone like a military chief, it makes no sense. WHY would some kid randomly decide it’s his job to stop a giant monster if he had no reason to do so besides blind motivation or foolish bravery? It’s unrealistic, and takes away greatly from our ability to identify with our player. When you write your story, make sure we won’t end up asking, “who is this guy, anyways?”

2. Stakes and complications
Because I know you’re itching to ask, when I say stakes, no, I’m not the stakes you use to hold up tents you silly reader. The stakes I’m talking about refer to something that motivates the character to keep going based on some vested interest. For example, the stakes for a character in a movie or video game might be anywhere from the fate of the world, to the success of a master plan, to something simple like the life of the player. These are incredibly important to any story, and are created by devices called complications.

Complications are also necessary for any story, precisely because they create stakes. Without complications (assuming we don’t come into the story in a situation where stakes already exist), there are no stakes, and without stakes there is no intrigue in the story and therefore the game.

Even in games where there is no story, stakes are still required, whether it be the highest score, the farthest level, the fastest time, etc. Otherwise, why bother playing? Many games without stories naturally create stakes, and they are usually of the kinds listed above (score, time, and levels); but if you’re making a different kind of game with an actual story, you need to create the stakes yourself with the complications.

There will of course in every story be sections where there are no real stakes–this will always or almost always be at the start, however, before the complication. The only other legitimate time for having no stakes would be in a story sequence of the game during which the player THINKS he’s accomplished a goal, but another complication suddenly appears to get the player interested again. Sonic the Hedgehog games–just about all except the first few–do this. If you finish a game like Sonic & Knuckles without all the “chaos emeralds” (powerful stones gained through winning bonus stages in the game) you simply defeat Robotnik in the “last” boss fight, and (somehow) land safely on Tails’ plane. The stakes are gone because Robotnik is supposedly out of the picture. If you get all the chaos emeralds however, the ending story sequence is different; we first see Robotnik’s last machine blowing up, and we think everything is all fine and dandy. But then, Robotnik comes back in his final machine and we realize he’s not done yet: we have one more boss to beat.

This brings up a very important technique when it comes to writing stories. That technique is called “raising the stakes.” Essentially, this is where you add another complication to raise the stakes further; it’s similar to the above, but instead of removing the stakes, and adding more later, we simply make stuff go even more terribly wrong in the story, attributing more pressure and suspense to the stakes you already have. It doesn’t HAVE to involve adding “more” stakes; there’s only one fate of the world. Adding more stakes can work, but you can also think of it like taking any particular stake from level 1 to level 2. You can easily raise the stakes multiple times throughout the story to engulf the player so completely he completely identifies with the main character’s plight and THAT’S the ultimate goal of any story writer.

The story Chrono Trigger does an EXCELLENT job of this, so I’m going to use its story as an example once again.

BEGIN SPOILERS WARNING. GAME: CHRONO TRIGGER
If you have not played the game and do not want parts of the story to be ruined for you, do NOT read this section. Please skip down to where it says “end spoilers warning”. This story is really good stuff, so if you haven’t played the game yet, then read the spoilers at your own risk.

We start with no stakes. Crono goes to the Millennium Fair, hoping to have a good time. He meets Marle, and goes with her to see his friend Lucca’s teleporter. Marle, feeling ambitious, decides to try it herself. BUT, her necklace reacts with the machine and opens a space-time rift which she is sucked into. The stakes have just been raised by this complication; Crono now can’t just go home to his bedroom. He feels the desire to save this friend of his that he dragged to the exhibit.

Later on, after a series of ups and downs with raising the stakes–e.g. through the complications of Crono being put on trial, then sentenced to execution–and lowering the stakes–defeating the dragontank and breaking out of jail–and raising the stakes again–being chased by the guards and forced into another time rift that takes them into the desolate future. Throughout this section, the stakes remain the same for a while: the characters must now discover where they are and how to get back to their time period. Along the way, however, the stakes are raised when the characters discover the where and when they are is indeed their country in the future; but after a creature called Lavos destroyed their world and everything they love. Now they don’t JUST have to get back, they have to save the world.

Much later in the game we find out there’s a deranged Queen of the past that’s trying to facilitate Lavos’s growth. Now we’ve taken that stake of “Lavos destroying the world” to the next level. This Lavos stake remains, of course, until the final confrontation at the end of the game. Then we see the final story sequence in which the stakes are finally all gone, and the player is rewarded for a job well done.

END SPOILERS WARNING

Hopefully you read that for the great example, but if not, I won’t hold it against you. For those who skipped over it, here’s the lowdown: Chrono trigger continuously places players on a rollercoaster of emotions by raising the stakes (using a complication), lowering them (through resolution of a complication), raising them again, lowering them, raising them, adding another stake, raising stakes some more, lowering stakes slightly, raising all stakes a bit, etc. etc. etc.

An especially effective technique is lowering the stakes almost all the way, so that the main complication in the story still exists but it seems like the player looks to be in the perfect position to solve it. Suddenly, just before the character’s master plan is put into action, the bad guy outpredicts him and ruins it all, a new complication that raises the stakes possibly more than before. It’s all about putting the player on that rollercoaster of tension and relief.

3. Some things have to go right
As effective as adding complications to raise stakes is, it can’t be the only thing going on. If things just keep going worse and worse and worse, then with no forseeable resolution in sight, we might get frustrated that our hard work playing through the levels and bosses isn’t being rewarded. Even if one stake is removed while another is added instantly afterward, there has to be some resolution, SOMEWHERE, before the ending sequence of the game, or the story gets dry. Again, it’s the rollercoaster that’s effective. Having complications with NO intermittant resolutions is actually more effective than having too few stakes or stakes that are too insignificant, but we’re striving for that ever-present perfect middle-point.

4. I’m just like you
Raising the stakes is great, but there’s one thing that has to be taken care of or raising the stakes won’t work, no matter what you do. Remember when I said stakes are based on some VESTED INTERESTS? Well, if you’re not careful, the character may have the vested interests but the player may not. This is due to a lack of IDENTIFICATION between the player and the character. Why should we CARE about some guy on our computer screen? Why should his problems ellicit emotional responses from ME? It’s not real after all. So how do the best story writers do it?

The key is very simple–empathy. The best story writers employ various techniques that get the player to empathize with the character. Just like we empathize with humans on certain issues, we will naturally empathize with a character we see on the screen based on a number of reasons:

  • The character is interesting
  • It doesn’t matter why. The character has to spark our interest; we don’t care about some everyman who works a 9 to 5 job on the weekdays and has nothing special about him. The main character might as well be some other cubicle worker. It can be a blue hedgehog with super speed, an ambitious kid with crazy red hair and the ability to travel through time, or a super robot who leads a team of robotic agents who hunt down rogue androids.

  • We can relate to their problem, and the problem is realistic; that is, we can imagine ourselves in the character’s position setting out to do what he wants to do
  • Even if it’s an alien looking for rocks to eat, we can (more or less) relate to it because we can imagine ourselves hungry and looking for something to eat. If I can’t relate to the character’s problem (for example, he can’t find his lucky pen), I won’t care. Usually having higher stakes can fix a problem in this area.

  • We can relate to THEM
  • The character might be someone they know or someone they think they are. A middle-class accountant who hates his boss may be able to identify with a video game character who is in the same situation. This one’s hit and miss, due to the wide variety of people in the world; but be warned that if you make your character more general, although more people might be able to identify with him/her, your character will also get much more boring. A better idea would be to reveal more about the character as he/she is; the more we know about someone as a person, the more we will ultimately be able to relate to them and form an attachment.

  • We’ve formed an attachment to them by going through their life with them
  • Television series are of course very good at this, because we see recurring characters across episodes and sometimes seasons. Humans naturally form bonds with people (and sometimes animals; think pets) that we’ve spent a lot of time with; so when a recurring character on a long-running TV show is killed off, we have a horrible sinking feeling because one of our beloved TV-based friends just died. Attachment can appear relatively quickly depending on the qualities of the character, but while we may wince at the sight, we don’t feel quite as upset when we see some brand new character dead at the beginning of an episode of Law and Order.

  • We can relate to their friends, family, or enemies
  • This is rather straightforward. Think of #3 but instead of considering the character and us, we consider the character’s family and our family. Or perhaps we just like the character’s friends and family, we find them pleasant, funny, innocent, etc. Similarly, we may identify our enemies with the character’s enemies. Perhaps one must deal with a bully at school every day and then plays a game in which the main character is also being bullied.

  • Other things
  • Of course that’s not an exhaustive list; but I’m not about to go through them all. I’m not writing a book here, but if you want to know more you can always search amazone or your local store for one that has what you want to know.

Also remember to make the character realistic; and realistic characters have flaws. The perfect superheroes of long ago may have worked back then, but nowadays to make a good story characters have to be multidimensional. Perhaps a bad guy, instead of just being pure evil, has a soft spot for dogs, or is afraid of mice. Or perhaps the good guy, instead of being the perfect human, has a problem with taking orders. Humans are flawed; flaws are realistic. We may be playing as a hedgehog or an alien, but these characters are generally humanized; speaking english, standing up straight, experiencing love, etc. etc.

5. Wait, don’t tell me!
Whatever you do, do NOT reveal too much of the story, too soon. You want to drop the player into the action off the bat, or to do so as soon as possible. But then, you let the story unfold from there naturally; don’t tell more than you ultimately have to at any given point. Mystery creates intrigue. It’s a better idea to make the player work for the rest of the story, instead of divulging all of your game world’s secrets so there’s nothing left for the player to discover as they go through the game. When player’s know something is ahead but they don’t know what it is, they keep playing to find out; and if and when you surprise them with something they absolutely did not see coming (as long as it’s at least moderately believable) they’ll love you for it.

That’s all for now. Mostly, that’s all I can think of. Anyways, let me know what you think of the article, and post your ideas for improving video game stories too!

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Categories: SoulHow Tags: , ,
  1. October 25, 2011 at 7:27 am

    This was a very GREAT guide! It was so helpful to me because i have been trying to create a great story. I have played RPG games such as Lufia, Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy(Especially VII), skies of Arcadia,etc. I have been working on a Lufia fan game in RPG maker and I want to make an amazing story that will keep the player interested as well as having interesting characters. This helps a lot! Thanks!

  2. October 25, 2011 at 7:26 am

    This was a very GREAT guide! It was so helpful to me because i have been trying to create a great story. I have played RPG games such as Lufia, Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy(Especially VII), skies of Arcadia,etc. I have been working on a Lufia fan game in RPG make and I want to make an amazing story that will keep the player interested. This helps a lot! Thanks!

  3. FlakNinja
    May 29, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    Great article! I have never been big on video game story plots because I like the action better. After reading this I realize that with out those story twists the game would be boring. However, long, drawn out stories get boring. This goes especially for introductions.

    When I start a new game the worst thing that could happen is the game goes into a 15-20min introduction. I just got a new game! I want to play it not watch it! Other then that the story is what keeps you playing.

    • soulred12
      May 30, 2010 at 3:16 pm

      Thanks. You’re right about introductions; the usual formula for that goes something like thrusting the player into an action scene so they can play as their character, get some fun along the way, and then after the first level or so the bulk of the background information comes in. In that way, it might be best if the intro is one of the shortest story sequences in the game.

      In addition, in my opinion it’s the second story sequence (counting the intro as the first) that should be the longest and most informative of the game, not counting (possibly) the ending sequence. Since by that time, the player has some experience with the game, and is eager to play more; in other words, you have an excuse to throw info at the player because he’s less likely to leave XD

  4. killer336/giver336
    May 9, 2010 at 12:50 am

    Soul, that was a VERY good blog post and I loved it. As a person who loves good plot I have to agree with everything you said here.

    Makes me feel better than my fanfic covers a lot if not all of what you said xD

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