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Thursday, April 9, 2020

On Writing Main Stories in Video Games

This post was largely inspired by a video by Razbuten where he talks about why he doesn't find it easy to roleplay in games marketed as "roleplaying" games. I'll link it below:

Razbuten on Roleplaying Games

Although the focus of this blog post will be something entirely different, talking instead about main story-lines, primarily in open-world games.

Game developers and writers are faced with a tremendous and seemingly insurmountable task; how do you give complete control and agency to the player, while simultaneously making a coherent story that makes sense?

Writing a novel or short-story is daunting in and of itself, but one thing that us fiction writers don't have to worry about is the choices the reader makes. If books were an interactive medium where the reader got to affect the outcome of the story, that would make our jobs infinitely more complex than it already is.

Yet with video games, open world games in particular, that's the very task the writers are given. How do you make a story that is original, entertaining, thought-provoking, fun to play, and makes sense no matter what the player does?

I'll be listing the six main ways in which writers and game developers best pull it off, both with open world games and non-open world ones.

However, out of these six I really only recommend five. The first one is much more tried and overdone.

1. The Cinematic

The cinematic game is the easiest to make but also the least rewarding. The cinematic game is essentially a movie with a couple of tightly-controlled moments where the player actually has any control. These are usually story moments--long strings of expository cut-scenes--with moments of combat and boss fights in between cut-scenes.

Just to be clear you can make a good game this way. The Uncharted games and the Tomb Raider reboot trilogy both do this by also adding in platforming and puzzles. In my opinion, Uncharted has a better story while Tomb Raider has better puzzles and gameplay, but that's just my take.

Yet the problem with making games this way is that it stuffs both the creators and players in a box. The creators don't get to explore different alternate endings, branching story-lines and interviewing narratives in the same way the other five styles do.

Not to mention, many other bloggers and game journalists have already noticed that most new AAA titles are starting to feel more like movies than video games, and that's purely because they've taken interactivity out of the equation. Again, with some games it works really well; like with the Hitman games. Since in the Hitman games you roleplay as Agent 47, the focus is on the narrative of the story surrounding him and the ways you choose to handle threats. Who do you kill? Who do you let live? How do you kill them? The focus is largely on the gameplay and stealth mechanics, but there were some instances like with Hitman Absolution where the narrative was quite potent. Yes the game was linear, but the story surrounding the character you're playing as is full of intrigue. The gaming market is currently over-saturated with this style of game, since it's easier to mass-produce games quickly this way. Most games of the current generation are going to be limited to online PvP games or single player "cinematics," where the game is basically just a movie with some combat in between cut scenes.

Which leads me to the next game type, and the most rare:

2. The Shockingly Interactive

The shockingly interactive game is the exact opposite of the cinematic, where you not only have lots of agency and control, but it seems like any tiny thing you do has some effect. I can only think of a very small handful of games that pull this off.

The Stanley Parable does this by having a really small world.

In the Stanley Parable, you only have an office building to explore, but every tiny thing you do in the office does something. Touching a computer does something, clicking on a door a few times does something, listening to the narrator does something, ignoring the narrator does something, hopping on a desk does something, going through a door does something, not going through a door does something--I can go on.

Razbuten did a video talking about what it's like for a non-gamer to play video games, and one thing he noted was that his wife was always frustrated by her lack of control. The games always had some place or some thing that they wanted her to do, and she was frustrated that she couldn't do anything she wanted since a lot of the stuff she wanted to do was cooler in her head than the things the game enabled her to actually do.

However, the Stanley Parable gets away with letting you do a shit-ton of random stuff that you didn't think you could, purely because its world is so small that they were able to focus all of their efforts on letting you do almost anything you can think of in that limited space.

In a game like Uncharted or Skyrim, that wouldn't work. If the writers and developers tried to make the story work for every possible choice imaginable that the player might want to make, the game would never get finished. There are too many possibilities.

Yet in the Stanley Parable that's precisely what the developers at Crows Crows Crows did. I first realized that the game was shockingly interactive when I encountered a lift that went across the warehouse.

Once you step on this lift, it starts to move and it will raise you up and carry you across to the room on the other side of the gap.

However, this little lift has several branching story-lines attached to it.

In most games, a mechanic like this would have two outcomes; either you take the lift or you don't. Yet in the Stanley Parable, there's several other ways this can play out.

One thing you can do is get on the lift, spot the walkway off to the side, and jump off to land on the walkway. If you do this it leads to a completely different ending.

I was personally surprised by getting the lift to leave without me. Since the lift starts to move as soon as you step on it, I thought I could outsmart the game by stepping on the lift and then stepping off so that it would leave without me, but the writers thought about that too. if you do that, you'll be stranded on the side of the platform, since the lift was the only way off, and the narrator will say:

And then you jump to your death and it's all very tragic.

You can also jump to your death right from the get-go if you feel like it. Also if you jump from the lift too many times, the narrator will put a fence around the lift to trap you in so that you can't jump again, in response to your jumping from it.

Yet because of the rarity of this type of game, I'm hard-pressed to think up any other examples, although I suppose Portal is sort of in the same basket.

3. The Metroidvania

For the uninitiated, Metroidvania is a genre coined from the Metroid and Castlevania games.

The most puritan interpretation of the word defines a Metroidvania as a 2D non-linear exploration game, but I'd classify Dark Souls as a Metroidvania, at least as a 3D one.

More specifically, a Metroidvania is a game where the player has complete agency of where they go and what they do in what order, but certain things act as "locks" to progress. It could be a door that you need a key to unlock, or an object that you need in order to survive a certain area, or it can just be really difficult enemies or bosses that low-level players won't be able to kill without certain items and upgrades first.

In Dark Souls, this is everywhere. Locked doors that you need a key to open, bosses that drop objects that unlock new areas, rings that enable you access to a region, etc.

For example, in the game you die instantly if you try to enter the Abyss without a ring. However the ring is guarded by the giant wolf Sif, so in order to traverse the Abyss you need to kill Sif first.

Likewise, while you can beat the game with only 10 Estus flasks (health potions), some areas are basically impossible without at least 15 - 20, meaning that players are encouraged by the game mechanics to kill a "boss" (boss.... good one!) called Pinwheel to get an object called the "Rite of Kindling," which allows them to create up to 20 Estus flasks.

So while some areas aren't actually "locked" off, they're blocked by a difficulty barrier, where you can only get through them if either:

A: You get certain upgrades to equipment and stats (things like the Rite of Kindling)


B: You've already played through and beaten the game a bazillion times and have trivialized it enough to beat the game just fine at a low level. There are people who have beaten Dark Souls quickly at Level 1, so it is possible, just not plausible for new players experiencing it for the first time.

Another example of a modern Metroidvania is Hollow Knight.

In Hollow Knight there are so many different ways to get around that it yields thousands if not millions of possibilities.

Some areas can't be accessed on foot and require some other way to get to them.

Maybe you get the wings and fly there, maybe you combine the leap ability with wall jumping to propell yourself backwards, bypassing the wings--maybe there's a locked door that can be opened with the right key, maybe there's a lift somewhere that will take you to the area. Like Dark Souls, Hollow Knight offers multiple ways to access areas.

This means that there are essentially countless possible ways to make progress through the game; it means that not everyone will progress through the game the same way.

With Dark Souls, some people might have done the Depths before Darkroot Garden, others might have done the Catacombs before even getting to Undead Burg, and there are multiple lifts, ladders, and locked doors with keys that can access different areas. How one person progresses through the game isn't how another does, and there are endless possibilities.

The key to making a good Metroidvania is offering tons of alternative ways to get to places and accomplish things, but make it so that each one progresses the game in some way.

That way, no two players will progress through the game the same way, but every player will be making progress in some way.

With the old Metroid games, that wasn't entirely the case; in fact there were things called "Hard locks," which is where you can't progress at all in any way without doing X or accomplishing Y. However a good Metroidvania is one that offers multiple ways to make progress through the game.

Take a look at this map in Rise of the Tomb Raider:

Not every area in Rise of the Tomb Raider is this linear, but it's a good summary of these types of games. You have a little bit of room to explore, but you essentially just start on one side of the map and make your way to the other.

However, with a Metroidvania, the maps loop, interweave, and connect in all sorts of ways, almost in a maze-like way. Here's the Hollow Knight map for comparison:

As you can see, it's much more elaborate and complex, and this is because there are countless ways and numerous routes to progress through the game, so that the player can proceed however they want.

The same goes for the Dark Souls map, which looks similar to the Hollow Knight map at a glance, except it's 3D instead of 2D, and is very vertical.

With Metroidvania games, the only effective way to tell a good story is by utilizing environmental story-telling, where the world itself reveals what's going on and what the lore is.

There can be a main narrative too, but without environmental story-telling it will be impossible to link the player's experiences and decisions to the story being told.

Metoridvanias are quite rare these days but they aren't as hard to come across as styles like the "Shockingly Interactive" game type of which, to my knowledge, only the Stanley Parable epitomizes.

4. The Blank Open World RPG

This is usually what comes to mind when people think of RPGs. This is a game where there is no main character, rather you create your own character--usually with your own backstory and stats--and then roleplay as that character. These are most famously found in open world Bethesda and Obsidian games.

In games like The Outer Worlds and Skyrim, you get to create your own character, choose their race, gender, height, name, and in a good RPG, their backstory. In The Outer Worlds you get to choose the profession of your character and their personality type. Maybe they were a doctor or a medic, maybe they were an engineer or a lowly janitor. Maybe they grew up with a rich family or in poverty. You get to decide.

Based on my experiences with Bethesda and Obsidian games, I can safely say that the best way to write a story for these types of games is to make hard decisions that have a big impact.

In the Outer Worlds it's possible to fuck up so bad that you launch a space colony into the fucking sun, killing everyone, and in Fallout New Vegas you can choose from a whole bunch of different factions and side with whoever you want. You can join the NCR, essentially being a military man (or woman), you can join the Legion and be an evil dictator with an army of slaves, or you can join Mr House and lead an army of robots.

The key to writing these types of games is to not actually have a "main" story. Well, they might have a main story, but the main story is actually just an excuse to expose the player to the side quests where the game is actually at.

We see this the most evident with games like Fallout 3. Nobody actually wants to finish the main story and end the game, they just want to play around with their character in the wasteland doing as many activities as they can before putting the game down.

Most of these open world RPG games don't have a very interesting main story. And that's kind of inevitable.

In a game like Skyrim where you can create your own character and do whatever the fuck you want, how do you make a story that will make sense for everyone? By making it as generic and cookie-cutter as possible.

Skyrim and Fallout 4 have generic main stories because they don't know what your character will be like. They don't know if the character you choose to create is good or evil, tall or short, male or female, or if they're even human in Skyrim's case. How are they supposed to make a story that makes sense in every possible context?

It's an insuperable task.

So instead they make up the most generic main quest possible, say "You're the chosen one, slay the big bad dragon and win the game," and that's it. With Fallout 4 it's finding your son and that's the only force behind the main story-line.

But what does that mean? That making a good storyline for an open-world RPG is impossible?

Well, no. It just means the writers have to adopt the right point of view.

Instead of making one main storyline like Skyrim or Fallout 4, there should be one main storyline that branches into multiple "main stories."

The main story should only be the start of the game, and it should change depending on the player's actions.

In Fallout New Vegas, the main story is simply, "Someone shot you in the head to steal a valuable item from you," and then from there you can proceed however you please. You can try to track down the chip for yourself and kill Benny, you can seduce Benny, you can forget all about it and let Benny keep the chip, you can steal it, you can retrieve it for yourself or for your faction leader, should you choose one--the choice is yours. New Vegas and the Outer Worlds--both Obsidian games mind you--work because the main story is only the start of the game, and then it branches into multiple possible paths depending on your actions and decisions.

While this isn't necessarily a requirement, one good way to implement this is to have each "faction" or side that you can work with embody one specific ideology.

The Brotherhood of Steel operates under the idea of preventing dangerous technology from falling into the wrong hands.

The NCR operates under the assumption that they're the saviors of the wasteland and it's their duty to save everyone from poverty and corruption.

The Legion operates under the philosophy that only the strongest deserve to survive and reproduce, and that he with the most might should conquer what he can, and Mr House operates under the philosophy of a neutral, capitalist society being the optimal outcome for the wasteland.

This can also make it so that there is no "good" and "bad" ending per se, but rather a menagerie of different endings that are usually bittersweet in some way. This also encourages replayability; it makes the player want to come back for a second, third and fourth playthrough to experience each of the different possible story-lines. As much as I liked Fallout 3, there's not much nuance to the endings, as it's basically, "Do I get the good-guy ending or the bad-guy ending?" whereas in New Vegas and The Outer Worlds there are several branching endings that aren't purely good or purely bad.

In my opinion, this is the optimal way to write "blank" open world RPGs. Make them dripping with personality and have multiple "main" stories that the players can pick and choose from, along with side quests, so that they can experience the game in countless different ways since there will be countless possibilities. The exploration and gameplay won't be non-linear in the same way as that of a Metroidvania such as Dark Souls, but the narrative will be. And that's the key focus here; New Vegas and Outer Worlds are almost like narrative Metroidvanias, where the narratives and stories can be changed and affected by the different choices the player makes and in the order that they're made in.

Writing these types of stories isn't easy, but it's completely doable and Obsidian has proven that it can be completely worth the team of writers if done well. The thing to note with these games is that they either aren't that big of an open world or they're a semi-open world.

The world of Fallout New Vegas is tiny compared to GTA V, Breath of the Wild or The Witcher 3. Whereas these games are more than 100 square miles, Fallout New Vegas is only about 2. However the map doesn't have to be that big if it's dense. Just like how the Stanley Parable offers more than 3 hours of gameplay in a little office, New Vegas can easily offer more than 40 hours of content in a relatively small map that's only a couple miles large.

The Outer Worlds isn't even completely open like New Vegas is; instead it has open world "zones" and you travel between them with your ship, and all of them combined are probably around the size of New Vegas or Fallout 3. Yet because there are so many different ways to play through the numerous stories, these games can be replayed multiple times and still be fun each time.

*oinks softly*
 5. The Semi-linear Explorable World

I'm not actually sure what to call this one but I think that's as good as I can get. These are games with linear stories but lots of room to explore, like Dead Space and Bioshock. These games are just as much story-driven as they are gameplay driven; in Bioshock it's finding out what happened to Rapture and in Dead Space it's finding out what happened to the survivors on the ship. These games don't have massive open worlds but they aren't completely linear either; Bioshock let's you explore an underwater city while Dead Space has you exploring a large space ship. These areas are dense with content, story and combat. There isn't some huge set of branching stories like in Obsidian games or Mass Effect, and you don't create a character with their own stats and backstory rather you roleplay as one specific person.

Bioshock has you roleplaying as "Jack," and Dead Space has you roleplaying as Isaac Clarke.

In many ways I'd say Metro Exodus fits most snugly in this category, although the larger open world areas make it not a perfect fit. Yet at the very least Metro Exodus captures the spirit of this category and does it brilliantly (just like Bioshock and Dead Space which are both masterpieces).

However while I don't want to say that Metro Exodus is necessarily better than say, Bioshock, it's easier to explain how it works so I'll be using Metro Exodus as my example (I really love Bioshock too please don't come after me with pitchforks).

What would you say the biggest difference between a car and a train is?

The size? The speed? The fact that one drives on tires and the other on steel discs?

It's clearly that one can drive anywhere with road and the other is on a fixed track. A car can go left, right, forward or back in any combination of the driver's choosing, and because roads are effectively everywhere where people exist, they can drive almost anywhere.

However a train is on a fixed track--it can only go forward or back on said track. Sometimes a track can branch onto another track, but once on that other track it's the same situation.

This metaphor can explain the difference between non-linear games and linear ones, but it's also used literally in Metro Exodus.

In the previous Metro games, you explored underground tunnels during the aftermath of a nuclear war.

However in Metro Exodus, you and a team of skilled Marine-like soldiers get a train up and running and flee the metro station, plowing ahead on the train to find out if there's any other survivors or civilization in the outside world.

The train takes you to an area, you explore that area, then the train takes you to a new one.

The story is linear in this way; when the train breaks down or runs out of fuel, you have to go out into the dangerous wasteland and find a way to fix the problem so that you and your wife and comrades can continue on your journey.

And once everything is settled in one area, you get back on the train and head to the next one. The winter area called "Volga" and the desert area called the "Caspian Sea" are the two main large "open world" areas you'll be exploring, but once you leave one area behind there's no going back. The train will continue forward into the next area after you're done in the current one or solve whatever problem needs to be solved.

And there's a lot of story going on in each area or "zone." In the cold Volga, your wife almost dies, religious freaks worship a giant fish that they feed bodies to, and they'll kill anyone on sight that they see using modern technology (you). You can rescue a missing engineer and find a little girl's lost teddy. You can save merchants who were kidnapped by bandits and explore every nook and cranny of the world for supplies. In the dry Caspian Sea area, there's a local warlord that you can help take out with force in order to get the support and aid of the locals. There's also cannibals somewhere along the line that you might cross by accident, but that's neither here nor there.

You also get Best Girl™ Anna which contributes to the story in leaps and bounds which has nothing to do with what I'm talking about but would be a sin to exclude.

I think Metro Exodus captures this sort of style so well by getting as much story out of the train as possible.

If the train runs out of fuel or runs into an obstacle of some sort, any "progress" (i.e., the train reaching its destination) is halted until the train can get up and running again, and just like how linear story-telling tells a story from A to B, the train can only go wherever the tracks take it, and by extension, wherever the tracks take you and your family.

But the brilliant thing about the train is that it gives the player a tangible, grounded feeling. Whereas a lot of linear games can feel gimmicky, as if the player is at the mercy of an invisible, omnipotent game developer choosing what happens to them and when, with Metro Exodus it feels like you're at the mercy of the train and whether or not you can keep it going. It acts as a catalyst for that invisible, omnipotent writer to control how the story goes. If they want the player to experience things in a certain order, all they have to do is have the train tracks encounter those things in that order.

In many ways, the omnipotent writers behind the scenes get to tell their story vicariously through the train, and I think it's one of the most brilliant ways any linear action game has been executed.

Moving on, the last major way of telling a main story or narrative in a video game is:

6. Large open-world as one person

This is one of the harder ones, but it can definitely be done. I'll be using the Witcher 3 as my example, but GTA V also does this well.

The term "Open world RPG" might confuse people because of the two major types; blank and one-person.

A "blank" role-playing game is one where you invent your own character and backstory, whereas the "one-person" style has you roleplaying as a pre-written character. In the Witcher 3, you don't create a character, you roleplay as Geralt of Rivia. Everyone that plays the Witcher 3 will be Geralt of Rivia.

GTA V is slightly different because it has you roleplay as three different people, alternating between them and their respective stories, but for all intents and purposes we'll extend the definition to a handful of people, as rare as that is.

Someone playing a game like Skyrim or The Outer Worlds will have a very different experience from someone playing a game like the Witcher 3.

The Witcher 3 is interesting however because it actually has a damn good main story. Games like Skyrim and Fallout 4 don't really have a good main story, and people play instead just for the exploration and side quests, yet the Witcher 3 let's you explore an absolutely massive open world and do whatever you want while somehow not ruining the main story in the process.

How is that?

Take a look at a map like the Breath of the Wild world map and compare it to one of the Metroidvanias above.

How can you create a story where the player has the agency to explore this massive continent and do whatever the fuck they want, while simultaneously making a main story that makes sense and is actually good?

It's at least possible with this type of game because of one key difference; the player doesn't get to create their own character.

Since you don't have a blank-slate character, the writers get to tailor their main story to the character in question's personal life and experiences.

With the Witcher 3, the games are also based on books, and even though the books and games diverge in many massive ways, large sections of the game are taken right from Geralt's story in the books. While it isn't a fully open-world game like Witcher 3, Metro Exodus is also based on a book series, which gives the writers of the game a lot of existing material to work with.

When you hop into the Witcher 3, you're hopping into a character with their own established story and life. You're roleplaying as them with all of their relationships, history and baggage, so the writers get to write a story that involves those numerous relationships and baggage. They also have a lot of freedom to work with the side quests and other activities.

In the Witcher series, Geralt is a Witcher, or a monster-hunter for hire, so when you go around exploring caves and killing monsters for money in between the events of the main story, it feels like something Geralt would actually be doing. If Geralt was attending to some serious business in Velen trying to track down someone, he would do some monster contracts along the way, after all, he's a professional and that's how he makes money, which he needs to pay for life expenses like gear and supplies.

So even though the player has this absolutely massive map to explore...

Everything that you do or can do in this world feels like something Geralt would or might actually do. You can't go around slaughtering random people like you can in Skyrim, but there are lots of side quests and activities with branching possibilities, and the main story branches off in several ways to create many possible endings. The main quest and the side quests complement each other; since Geralt is a Witcher, he'll be doing Witcher-things during his journey, and the writers crafted a journey that they knew would be interesting, thought-provoking, and entertaining.

Half of the fun of the game is discovering Geralt's past, his history and his baggage, and the other half is in finding out what happens next.

These are the major ways that games can tell a story, but of course, none of these are even necessary; you can always design a sandbox where the player explores a randomly or procedurally generated world like in Minecraft or No Man's Sky.

Although these games don't have any real story but rather are about the fun of experiencing the game world for yourself. Obviously online games also exist, many of which don't have a story of any kind (like battle royales), but this post is focusing on single-player experiences. There are online games that have a single-player story or "campaign," like Call of Duty for example, but those games are usually purchased for their online-play and not their campaigns, whereas a single-player RPG is purchased just for the single-player experience and writing.

This was a big topic and I hope I was able to shed some light on just how challenging and complex game writing can be, and if you learned anything from this post then I would consider it a tremendous success.

And as always,

May all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.


  1. I'm trying to decide what category World of Warcraft falls into. It seemed close to The Blank Open World RPG--you choose your race, class, profession, and you can go wherever you want and do whatever you want. Back when I played the game, I remember spending days blowing off quests and traveling to continents I didn't belong in just to look for a cool new pet. But you don't create a backstory for your character, so this category doesn't seem to quite fit. Every race comes with a preloaded backstory, which differs from the other races. Plus the different quests (if you choose to follow them--a lot of higher levels just like to fool around on the game) do include some semi-elaborate story lines. So I was thinking maybe WoW falls into the category of Open World as One person, but given that the player who creates a character in this category also creates a backstory, it still doesn't fit. HELP. ;)

    1. Oh yeah haha, yeah I stayed focused just on single-player games because if I included multi-player games and MMOs like WoW the post would have been a bazillion miles long, but luckily most MMOs handle story essentially the same. World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, PlanetSide 2, Black Desert Online, Elder Scrolls Online, they all have a similar way of doing that so I just lump em all together.

      One thing that I find interesting is that when it comes to blank RPGs, they should try to be as close to D&D as possible when it comes to character creation--or they should be a one-person RPG where they have the player role-play as a single, per-written character. Because if you're going to give them the option to create their own character, you might as well let them create the entire character top-to-bottom instead of the half-assed method of letting them "create" a character by choosing from a handful of characters that already have backstories. I dunno maybe that sounds elitist ¯\_(ツ)_/¯