How much STORY? How much GAME?

May 11, 2018

So my friend was asking me the other day as to why we need stories in games? He was making references to games like Counter Strike and Flappy bird, trying to make a case that one plays games to perform well in the limited constraints of the gaming setup and should not be concerned with why things happen the way they do.

"We have movies for that, don't we?" He'd say, "And besides, most non-digital games do not need stories, so what's the big deal?"


My friend has got one point right. Games in general do not need a story to still be called games. But then, what is the fundamental requirement that an activity needs to fulfil in order to be called a game? 


Objective Accomplishment via Player Engagement 


Holding your breath, by no means, is a game. However, timing the span for which you manage to hold it, or trying to beat a friend at it is turns a simple activity into a game. As a kid, however, I remember imagining myself to be walking on the moon on a mission to retrieve a moon rock when suddenly my oxygen supply would go off. The only way I'd make it back alive was if I managed to hold my breath for exactly one minute (my record back then), which according to me was the exact time required for me to get back to my imaginary spaceship.


I was probably just 7 when I spent time playing in make believe universes like this one but note how just the addition of a silly yet interesting context enhanced my short play time experience for me.


Yes; on an upper level, any such activity does not require a story. However, what a story does best is enhancing the immersion experience for a player and increasing the believability of the game. 

So the next natural question, the one I started out to answer at the beginning of this write up, stands thus.  


'How much story?'


The need for a story is often mistaken for endless pages of backstories on NPCs,  locations, weapons and what not. Of course those details are always welcome to enhance the richness of the lore but all of that will not appear very evidently in the game.


What we should expect from the story in a game is justification for everything that is important to the player. 


Why are there so many guards in the city? 

- The king must have increased the security preceding the crowning ceremony.


Why is the player not able access this part of the map?

- The scientists insist that going into the restricted area without a customized safety suit will cause respiratory problems and eventual death.


Why do certain NPCs have special abilities?

- They are descendants of a special tribe of super-humans who continue to live in hiding, fearing indifferent treatment in the society.


So essentially with a good story, you should be able to explain every interaction  and event that occurs in the game. And these are not just stand alone answers to certain isolated questions in a game, in fact, when stitched together, all of these as a whole need to constructively convey the main story. So the bare minimum of all the 'must-have' game mechanics and features are to be kept in mind while drafting  a convincing and logical story.

With that said, a game development process need not always start with the story as is the definitive case with movies. Sometimes the process starts with determining the dominant mechanics for the game. Sometimes it could also be an art style. Better still, it can simply start by the type of emotions you want the person to experience as a player. 


If you decide to make hack and slash game, then this would put some definitive clauses on the story - that the protagonist is opposing a supremely powerful character and fighting all his followers/minions in the game in order to achieve some artifact or objective in the end.


If you suddenly come across a fascinating art style in the notebooks a young intern at your office, that could be the sprouting seed for a game concept that solely depends on pencil sketches for character and environment design.


Maybe you want the player to feel spooked out before every step he takes in the game, then the sort of horrifying experiences you intend to set in will start the game design.


Needless to say, all of these need some context to get started, and that's where our story steps in. Ideally, if the game did not start from a story, it needs to be eventually structured by one if you are by any means looking for any amounts of narrative immersion in your game.




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