We’re through the dark days when we thought video games were harmful to young minds. Hindsight is 20/20 (or 8-bit?) and with a few more decades under our belt, it's much easier to recognize video games for the multifaceted art form they really are. They're unique vessels for imagination, appealing to our senses of adventure, logic and problem solving and transport is to fanciful worlds. And while some knowledge of computer programming does come requisite with the video game designer’s job, less likely disciplines (like storytelling!) also come into play. Here's five ways designing video games is like writing fiction.
Writers and game designers know that in order for a good story to appeal to the player (or reader) they must present compelling characters. In video game design, this refers to our avatars (those we control), the enemies in the game or the NPCs (non-player characters). They're represented on the screen in a format called “sprites” and depending on the graphical capabilities of the system housing them, might be just a few pixels (like the original mario) or a full bodied character with a voice and back story. We teach numerous classes using programs that involve character design including Bloxels and Scratch, just to name a few. Regardless, writers and game designers know: good characters make a good story that an audience WANTS to engage.
Great fiction transports us somewhere else. Whether a fantastic world fantasy world across interdimensional space or tie recreation of a teen’s bedroom, setting essentially creates the housing and sheen upon which all the action in the story reflects. Game design settings are generally called “levels” and are used to evoke certain moods. From dank dungeons to lush jungles or faraway space camps on some undiscovered planet. Whether blocky pixelated recreations or stunning machinations of CGI, if the levels aren't at least somewhat compelling to the audience they won't want to spend any time in them. So too with fiction.
Fiction requires a dilemma, some kind of conflict, to move itself forward. These dilemma vary in size and scope of course, but whether restoring balance to the cosmos or trying to find the missing purple crayon, this dilemma is what's going to set the audience on their journey into your world. Games are exactly the same. Whether rescuing princesses or tasks more abstract (for whom and what purpose am I arranging these Tetris blocks?), the dilemma must be one the player finds enjoyment from solving. Something which causes the action to rise to climax.
The Action Concludes
Stories must end, and we know that “Happily Ever After” isn't always the case, but the audience needs to feel they just invested all that effort into your story for something. I'm fiction, the narrative resolves itself somehow. In film, the credits roll. Games are similar. We need an indicator that what we've been doing has a purpose. Some games end when the player satisfies all the objectives, queuing further storytelling or an exclusive cut scene. Others end when the player has finally been defeated by the game, lives and resources exhausted, a score left for the record books. Games need to end somewhere. (And if we’re talking about sandbox games, those often have a story component which does in fact end even if game play does not).
Storytelling and Narrative
Oh yeah. We know stories need this, but how are they manifest in games? Multiple ways. From text boxes and character dialogue, to cut scenes and triggered response sequences, games are LOADED with ways to propel narrative forward. And while much of the movement in the video game story comes from the literal playing of the game, moving through the levels, good game designers know to include these narrative devices in their worlds.
Know of any more similarities? Let us know in the comments!