Video Games: Story and Gameplay

by David Kuelz

(Gotham now offers a course in Video Game Writing.)

The most common mistake new game writers make (which I was guilty of when I first started) is they create a story that isn’t related to the second-by-second gameplay. Essentially, they think of the most awesome story they can—concerning themselves more with awesomeness than the mechanics of the game—and then they slide it in between chunks of gameplay. The gameplay does its own thing, which often has very little to do with the story other than “go kill this boss,” and the writers pepper in some cutscenes when they feel the need to progress the plot.

Best case scenario, the game feels disjointed and choppy. Worst case, the gameplay and the story contradict each other to the point where the player can’t take either seriously.

That’s why most professional game writers start by studying the gameplay—a process that I call “verbing.” It’s the writer\'s job to look at the gameplay and identify all of the different things a player can do. What are the verbs?

Can the player fight? How do they fight? Do they punch? Do they shoot? Can they die?

Can the player explore the world? Can they jump? Can they talk to NPCs? Open chests?

Can the player hide from an enemy? Can they talk their way out of a fight?

First and foremost, taking an account of all the different verbs in our game helps us understand our storytelling and design options. For example, if your character can die, respawning can become a part of the story, like it is in Dark Souls—the undead are connected to the first flame, and so the fact that the player “respawns” at the last bonfire they visited becomes part of the narrative.

Verbing can also clue you into the limitations of your gameplay early on—if your player can’t freely explore, like in most fighting games, you’ll need to rely on cutscenes to move your characters from location to location.

But, even more important than discovering your design options, “verbing” is the first step towards making your gameplay mean something on an emotional level.

A story in a game isn’t just there to be entertaining by itself; it’s there to improve the gameplay. The goal is to make the gameplay not just fun, but emotionally compelling. Games are fun in and of themselves, and so are stories, but the goal of combining them together is to get the player to feel something about what they’re doing.

There’s more than one way to make emotionally compelling gameplay, but I like to start by viewing our list of verbs as the behavior of the avatar character. The player is controlling someone or something (or multiple someones or somethings) and that thing they control is taking these actions. I like to ask: What kind of person does these things? What kind of character participates in this kind of behavior? How does the gameplay give the player insight into who this character is?

The gameplay is how this character is choosing (or is forced) to accomplish their goals, which tells our player something about them. Our goal is to make that behavior a key element of our story. By using that character’s behavior as our first building block, the gameplay actually becomes more entertaining because of the writing; because the gameplay is an insight into our main character, and because that insight is important, the player starts to care about the second-to-second gameplay on an emotional level.

The goal of a video game story is to work together with the gameplay to create something greater than the sum of its parts. The gameplay can help us tell the story by giving us insight into the avatar character, and the story can make the gameplay even more entertaining by getting the player emotionally invested.

Like I said before, there’s more than one way to make a great video game story—it doesn’t have to be about the avatar character—but it should always start with what the player does. Video Games: Story and Gameplay