ON STORY STRUCTURE

The basics of story structure and flow of information

I hear a lot of murmurs lately about how hopeless story-telling in video games is and how everyone who tries it is wasting their time. This is a flawed argument, akin to saying you can’t write a novel on paper or can’t paint a masterpiece on a canvas. Of course you can, but not everyone has the actual ability to do so. The problem here is with users, not the medium. I have seen far too many people lacking in even the very basic storytelling abilities try to pass their project off as “powerful” or “epic.” But that doesn’t mean that someone can’t make one if they know what they’re doing.

But some of you seem convinced you can make a better game with no story at all! This is a mistake for a couple of reasons. Even if you’re not trying to tell a tale and just want the player to dive into your awesome gameplay, you’re overlooking an important aspect of story; that it can be used as a tool to convey information.

So it’s time for a refresher course. And for those of you who think story is worthless, let me share a few ideas on why it can be helpful.

Story Structure

In most stories you’re going to have a character who serves as your protagonist. This is generally the “main” or “lead” character. He or she is often the first character we are introduced to in a story and is the character we will spend the most time following. In some works there can be multiple protagonists, but in a video game you're probably going to only be focusing on one. A common mistake is to assume the “protagonist” is the “good guy” in the story, this is not quite true, often times a villain can be a protagonist. Though in RPGs in particular protagonists are often set apart from their peers or exceptional in some way, generally a protagonist is just sort of an average person for the reader to identify with. We’re usually introduced to the protagonist in his normal, every day world where we learn a little about what his life was like up to this point. Eventually the protagonist is faced with some kind of problem he needs to overcome, leading to the story’s Conflict.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that because we spend the most time with the protagonist, then the protagonist is by far the most important character in a story and it is imperative that the protagonist be able to capture and hold our interest. We must be able to not only identify with the protagonist but be able to cheer him on and root for him as he faces the challenges before him. A dull, boring protagonist is a death sentence to your story. The protagonist is not merely a vessel for you to transport the player from one plot point to the next, the protagonist must be involved and we must get a sense of his emotional state and what is at stake for him. If there’s nothing at stake, and no consequences for his actions, or he doesn’t really care what’s going on, then what was the point of the story?

Just as the protagonist is the lead character in our story, the Antagonist is the source of conflict, an obstacle the protagonist must overcome in some way. Although there may be other story events happening concurrently with the conflict, the interaction between the protagonist and the antagonist, especially in RPGs, is generally the core of a story. It is common to believe that “antagonist” is synonymous with villain, but this is not quite true either. If a “protagonist” of the story is a murderer trying to escape his crimes, the detective pursuing him would be considered the “antagonist” even if his motives are entirely noble and good. What is important is that the antagonist is the opponent of the protagonist. An Antagonist need not necessarily be a person either, possible antagonists could be non-specific entities like “nature,” or “society,” to more abstract things like “fate,” or "time."

In RPGs though, the heroes generally need someone to beat the crap out of at the end of the game, so antagonists tend to be corporeal entities rather than philosophical concepts. This will generally be a person or some kind of evil demon, god, or other type of villain. Since the antagonist is usually the main source of drama and tension as well as the final obstacle in a game, it is also imperative that an antagonist’s goals, ambitions, and motives are clear and make sense. Blowing up the world because you’re evil generally isn’t a good justification for a story. Not knowing what the villain wants or why he’s doing what he’s doing can be equally frustrating. From a story perspective, your “villain” and his actions must make a logical sense. If we have no idea who the antagonist is, why he’s doing what he’s doing, or what the consequences are if he is not stopped, then there’s no tension or drama.

Conflicts in stories aren’t always violent by nature. Some conflicts might involve the protagonist needing money to pay his taxes on time, his father might be ill and he’s not ready to let go, or maybe he just can’t get that cute redhead to notice him. (What is it with RM games and redheads anyway?) However, in RPGs, the conflict usually involves swords and swinging them at people. A threat to your hero and his friends, and often the entire world, has arisen, and it is up to you to stop it. Often the player will have to suspend their disbelief for certain things, such as why the various nations of the world are entrusting the future to a band of teenagers, but for the most part, there must be a logical and coherent reasoning behind the conflict. This generally involves what the protagonist wants as opposed to what the antagonist wants. If the hero has no emotional stake in this conflict, if he’s just kind of there and you don’t know why, and there is no logical reason for him to have come to this point, then you should really consider stopping your story until you come up with an answer that satisfies you.

Also it is a frequent flaw for antagonists to be the driving force behind a conflict and for the heroes to be purely reactionary, having their only goals be “stop the bad guy.” Heroes are people too! They should have their own objectives and goals and should be acting to carry them out. If the antagonist is the only person in the game doing anything, I’m probably going to question why he needs to lose and the lazy people who never did anything deserve to win more than he does. At the other extreme, if the villain has nothing to do with anything and just kind of sits on his throne waiting for the heroes to come and kill him, that’s generally equally as bad, because if the antagonist has no interest or emotional stake in what’s happening, I’m going to question why he was doing any of this stuff in the first place.

Also as part of the conflict you’ll have something called Rising Action which is basically a way of saying drama or build-up. As the characters get closer to accomplishing their goal, the tension mounts. Will they succeed? Similarly the characters might constantly have everything going against them. How will they get out of this one? If everything constantly goes your hero’s way, there’s no drama or tension. If your villain fails every time he tries something, he starts to look like an idiot.

Eventually your hero will reach some kind of low point where all seems lost. The villain’s plan has come to fruition and doom is at hand for all. Or the hero and the villain just realize that their ambitions cannot be reconciled. It is time for the final showdown. This is the Climax, the culmination of all the tension, drama, and character development where one side triumphs over the other. After this you’ll generally have your Resolution where any final story threads are usually wrapped up and we learn that the character is somehow better for his experiences. This entire sequence is known as a Story Arc. Sometimes plot threads are not resolved, but are left hanging. Sequel Hook, anyone?

Not all stories need to conform to this exact structure, sometimes you’ll have a story that consists of multiple conflicts, multiple story arcs, multiple climaxes (oh, stop it) and multiple resolutions. There can be tension and drama between a protagonist and his supporting cast, too. They may not always agree. They may not even all like each other. But eventually the protagonist usually wins them over and gains their acceptance by the end of the narrative. It is the interweaving of these multiple Plot Threads that can make for a compelling narrative.

Now, a lot of you have been rolling your eyes at me this whole time because of how pointless you think it is to add any kind of story to a game. “My hero is a silent protagonist!” you say. “He doesn’t have a character!” Sorry, but yes he does. He is going on this adventure, isn’t he? He must have some reason. Something motivated him to get off his couch and go kill the bad guy. Even if he never says a word of dialogue to anyone, your character still interacts with and influences others through his actions. He’s still involved in a conflict with someone. There still need to be consequences if he fails, otherwise there’s not much reason for him to be doing any of this. Your character can go through a fully realized story arc, all without saying a word. If your character literally materializes out of nowhere and kills a bunch of bad guys for absolutely no reason, then yeah I suppose he has no character, but you probably don’t have much of a game either.

Flow of Information

Even if you have no intention of having the story carry any weight in your game and have it focus entirely on gameplay, chances are you’re going to need at least some story anyway. I yelled a lot earlier about how important it was for your audience to know what the hell was going on, and to do that, it's important that your player has a solid grasp of what the premise of your game is and what exactly it is you need to do. This is called Flow of Information and it is important in even the most minimalist of games. A lack of information is simply not acceptable. Telling your player nothing makes it seem like you don’t care. And if you don’t care, why should I?

Dropping your characters into the world and saying “Heroes, defeat the villain!” will not suffice. The first thing I’m going to ask is “Okay, how?” If there’s no immediate answer to that question, then your player is probably going to be lost and not have any idea where they’re going. Even saying “Heroes, defeat the villain, he’s to the north!” is better than nothing. This leads me to a very important point, even if you don’t want to have any story at all you probably still need just enough to guide your character where they need to go and tell them what to do. This is called Context, and your player needs at least some of it for them to be able to succeed.

Obviously, there are many ways to do this, varying in their degrees of right and wrongness. Here are a few examples.

A: “Heroes, go kill Bactor the Evil One.”

This is borderline useless. Where is Bactor? How do we find him? Do we need any magic swords or such to beat him? Is Bactor coming to kill us or do we need to go find him? Some people think its fun to wander around lost in RPGs, but not everyone, and its important that the player can figure out what their goals are. Don’t mislead your player and don’t deny them information they need.

B: “Heroes, go kill Bactor, the Evil One! He’s in Gar Castle!”

This is a little better, because now at least we have a destination. We find Gar Castle and we find Bactor, the Evil One. But we still don’t know where Gar Castle is so we’re forced to wander around until we find it.

C: “Heroes, go kill Bactor the Evil One! He’s in Gar Castle, to the west, across the treacherous Wastes of Regnar!”

Now we’re getting somewhere! Now we know where Bactor the Evil one is, Gar Castle. We know Gar Castle is to the West, and we have to cross the Wastes of Regnar to get there. We now have everything we need to know to find our objective and deal with it.

D: “Heroes, go kill Bactor, the Evil One! He’s in Gar Castle, to the west, across the Wastes of Regnar! If you do not defeat him soon, he will awaken the Dragon Morkai who will destroy us all!”

Now we not only know where to find Bactor the evil one, but why we need to kill him and what the consequences are if we fail to defeat him in time. This approach also raises other questions as well. Will we have to fight the Dragon Morkai? If we wait too long to complete this quest will Morkai destroy the kingdom? Not only do we have an objective, we also have tension and drama because a threat has been established. For a minimalist approach, this is probably the most ideal amount of information to give your player. It tells them what to do, how to do it, and why it is important that they do it

E: “Heroes, go kill Bactor, the Evil One! He has sworn eternal enmity to our kingdom after he was banished years ago for being a total prick! He’s in Gar Castle, built in year 1641 by Lord Tyrellius, to the west, across the Wastes of Regnar! Our armies have waged war with his forces for months on end without cease, but we have been unable to reach his fortress! If you do not defeat him soon, he will awaken the Dragon Morkai, who is an ageless destroyer as black as eternal night, who will destroy us all!”

Here we have a lot of useful information, but it is also mixed in with a lot of irrelevant information that the player may or may not be interested in. For a minimalist approach, this is probably not the best choice because useful information may get lost in the sea of text. Things like the history of Gar Castle may be interesting optional history, but its not something your player needs to know.

Thus, it is important to let your player know exactly what they need to know even if you’d prefer not to have any epic sweeping plots. At the very least you have to provide a reason to go from one area to the next and tell them how to get there.

Your protagonist is more than just a vessel that carries the player from one plot point to the next. Understanding the role he plays in everything is essential. And by the same token, you can’t deny story to the point that you deny your player information they need. Even if you hate story and are all about gameplay, you still need to provide at least some context for them to proceed. It’s all about finding the balance you need, even for the staunchest anti-story enthusiast.

Posts

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As someone who is completely useless at storytelling and writing, this is a very valuable resource. Thank you for this. :3
halibabica
RMN's Official Reviewmonger
10775
Good article, Soli! Sometimes the basics are the best spring board a person can get.
It's good to see writing tutorials being covered so well here.
(What is it with RM games and redheads anyway?)


redheads > *
Solitayre
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
18012
I really wouldn't even consider this a writing tutorial. It's really just Fourth Grade English Literature condensed into one page.
I object to the implication that you cannot beat the crap out of fate.
Solitayre
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
18012
Perhaps, but the metaphysical ramifications of such a thing are beyond the scope of this article!
This is great stuff for someone starting out. I like it.

I hope you don't mind if I plug something that I think will also help in this area of game making. Strangeluv made an article (I dunno if you could call it that since it's almost a book) on this and I feel this is a great time to share it if you guys missed it from GW. It's long, but I learned a lot from it, and I hope it helps if you guys want something that's more...lengthy.

http://rpgmaker.net/users/Neophyte/locker/StrangersTips.doc
Solitayre
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
18012
This is a really interesting read, Neophyte! Thanks for posting it.
I hope I don't sound like a jerk by expecting a little more out of this read =)

This kinda seems like a response to the "Craze" way of making games, wherein story takes a backseat (or a complete vacation). I emphatically agree with Soli's ideas that a story backbone doesn't just help round out a game and lace it with a more unique feel and setting, but it can also provide useful information about how the game should be played, what to expect, and motivation behind all of the player's input. No offense to Craze intended, of course, he has a style all his own, I just prefer to see even the most simple of games drive me with a little motivation. For example, Katamari Damacy would not be half as fun without the quirky story backdrop, which emanates to the rest of the game's design choices, such as colors, graphical style, and music.

The examples provided for the individual components of a story arc are quite elementary, and while this should be pretty apparent for most people, I'd just like to emphasize that these factors are not nearly as restrictive as conveyed. For example, Soli indicated that a protagonist has to care what's going on, when he or she doesn't necessarily need to (in which case you must establish satisfactorily why he's being dragged along a series of events and why we, the reader, should care about it). Also, the flow of the story can be very loose, and you can build up tension and expectation in far more creative ways than just, things are dire, odds are against hero, final showdown, resolution.

All in all, the meat in the middle is a very beginner-ish approach to telling stories, but I applaud Soli for highlighting the elements of story structure that should be considered in SOME way or another.
Solitayre
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
18012
This was completely intended to be a "Beginner's Guide to Storytelling" and I never claimed it was anything else. I do not claim to be a good enough storyteller to do a Master's Dissertation on the subject. I even said so myself a few comments above! So no offense taken. =)

I personally cannot think of a good example of a story where the protagonist has no interest in what's happening around him. If anyone has one I'd love to hear about it.
Soli: FF7, of course =) In the beginning, Cloud just goes where the money goes, and he doesn't care what effect his actions have on his allies or his enemies.

I'm sure we're talking about different situations, or differences in specificity, it's no big deal. I just wanted to offer a change in focus regarding characterization and plot advancement.
Solitayre
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
18012
Cloud is an extremely hard character to judge early on because it is not clear if he really doesn't care, or if he is just pretending not to, but is there to look out for Tifa, who he has a lingering desire to protect because of his perceived failures to do so in the past. Anyway, Cloud has a huge emotional stake in the story before long.
This was a nice, basic lecture on the importancy of story. You could do one on gameplay too if you have time. Though I'm not sure if anyone would need it 'sides me. (I'm a story person :D)

Oh and, in most Elder Scrolls episodes, you are simply forced into saving the world, and don't have much choice. The main character has absolutely no personality, so the player decides whether the the hero would like to save the world or just wander around and do side quests endlessly. And the game still does fine in the story department because of the detailed world and the entertaining side quests. Or at least III and IV does.
It's probably not exactly the example you were looking for, but I think this is as close as it gets to an unintrested lead character.
What it's said in this article somehow reminded me of 'Legend of mana' where you can choose among other things: your hero's gender, and its home location in the world map; And then all you do is run aimlessly through several other places you 'plant' arround your house... I never made heads or tails out of that game, I can't even remember if I finished it, I can only remember the basic stuff that all Mana games are about and that the art was pretty, Heh;
Taken from Wikipedia on Campbell work on comparative religion and myth :

''The hero starts in the ordinary world, and receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events (a call to adventure). If the hero accepts the call to enter this strange world, the hero must face tasks and trials (a road of trials), and may have to face these trials alone, or may have assistance. At its most intense, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help earned along the journey. If the hero survives, the hero may achieve a great gift (the goal or "boon"), which often results in the discovery of important self-knowledge. The hero must then decide whether to return with this boon (the return to the ordinary world), often facing challenges on the return journey. If the hero is successful in returning, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world (the application of the boon).

Very few myths contain all of these stages - some myths contain many of the stages, while others contain only a few; some myths may have as a focus only one of the stages, while other myths may deal with the stages in a somewhat different order. These stages may be organized in a number of ways, including division into three sections: Departure (sometimes called Separation), Initiation and Return. "Departure" deals with the hero venturing forth on the quest, "Initiation" deals with the hero's various adventures along the way, and "Return" deals with the hero's return home with knowledge and powers acquired on the journey.

The classic examples of the monomyth relied upon by Campbell and other scholars include the stories of Osiris, Prometheus, the Buddha, Moses, and Christ, although Campbell cites many other classic myths from many cultures which rely upon this basic structure.''

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/61/Heroesjourney.jpg

Check that picture, take a game or a movie that is famous, like Final Fantasy VII or Star Wars, and you'll see that even if there is minor details that may add something, it follow up that pattern.

I'm not saying to use that pattern, but invariably, most of the myth invented by humans follow this pattern. So if you don't want to write shit because you don't know how to write decent story structure, well follow the pattern, at least you'll have something that human subconscience will recognize.
This is great, thanks. All though I thought the story was a little lacking. J/K. But this is very helpful for someone like me. I find it very hard to make a video game and having an epic plot helps immensly. thanks.
i recently jus stared developing the story and once i got started it really started coming together
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