Design Tips: Tell A Story

Back in February I attended the 2018 Learning and the Brain Conference in San Francisco. I went to the conference because I thought it sounded interesting and I was hoping I could learn something that I could apply to game design. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that many of the sessions were geared towards traditional educators, so I was worried that there wasn’t going to be much I could take away. But then I noticed that several sessions focused on storytelling and I found that the lessons I learned from them had broad applications beyond education. So now I’d like to take the time to share with you 5 things I learned about storytelling that are applicable to game design.

Why does this matter? Put simply, it’s because we crave stories. Nothing holds our attention and engagement quite as effectively as a good story. So why not increase the immersion and enjoyment of our games by framing them around stories? And even if your game lacks a traditional story structure, there is still the story of your players playing your game.

1) Stories are fundamentally about solving a problem

Broadly speaking, stories tend to be structured like this:

  • The protagonist has a problem.

  • The protagonist tries to solve the problem.

  • The protagonist ultimately solves the problem, or they fail to solve the problem.

This is shockingly similar to a game, isn’t it? Here’s a typical structure for a game:

  • The player(s) have a goal.

  • The player(s) attempt to achieve that goal.

  • Ultimately the player(s) accomplish that goal and win, or they don’t and lose.

So even in games that lack a traditional story (i.e. Tetris, Chess, Go Fish, etc.), there always exists a story centered around the “play” experience of your players.

2) Plots are overrated

When people think about stories, they think it’s all about the plot. But this isn’t really the case. Plot is just the sequence of events that occur in the story. Without giving those events meaning and context they aren’t very compelling. So instead of focusing on the plot, focus your stories on goals. Stories aren’t about going from A to B to C to D, it’s about why we want to go from A to D.

3) The hero needs to struggle

Tell me what’s missing in this story:

“There once was a knight who wanted to save a princess. So he went to the tower where she was locked away to rescue her. But there was a dragon standing in front of the tower. So the knight walked into the tower and saved the princess. The end.”

Okay, so obviously there’s a lot missing in this story. But the main thing missing is a struggle. When our hero confronts the dragon, the main obstacle in the way of achieving his goal, he immediately overcomes it. How is that interesting? If the obstacle doesn’t do anything to prevent the hero’s progress towards the goal, it’s not really an obstacle. What if the dragon posed a real threat or challenge to him? What if instead when he tried to get past the dragon he failed and had to try again? By having the hero struggle and fail against an obstacle it makes their story more compelling. This same concept applies to games. If you confront an enemy and immediately defeat it, was it really ever in your way? This doesn’t mean you should make all your enemies impossible to defeat, but they should at least pose some challenge to the player.

4) Every character needs a goal

The hero isn’t the only character that needs a goal. In fact, every character needs a goal. Using our above story, we gave the knight a goal to save the princess. But what about the princess and the dragon? Why is the princess in the tower? Does the princess even want to be saved? Why is the dragon at the tower? Does the dragon want to keep the princess locked in the tower? Does the dragon want to eat the princess? Does the dragon want to help free the princess? By knowing each character’s individual goals, we can see how they align or conflict with one another to create tension. This same concept applies to games. Whenever a player interacts with a character in your game (i.e. an enemy, an ally, another player, etc.), that character should have a goal. That goal can hinder, complement, or be unrelated to the player’s goal. Use those goals as a guide for how they’ll interact with each other.

5) The hero needs to change

Heroes aren’t interesting if they always stay the same. By the end of the story the hero shouldn’t be the same as how they were at the beginning. Instead, they should have changed based on the events of the story. The players should change as well. The player should have learned something from playing the game, even if it was just how to play it better. If your player didn’t learn anything, they probably won’t want to play it again.

So those were the 5 main things I learned about storytelling. Hopefully you learned something from them as well. Want to make your own stories but don’t know how to start? Here’s a simple template you can use to get you started. Good luck and happy writing!

Once upon a time, there was _______.
They wanted to _______ because _______.
But _______. So, ______. (repeat as needed)
Until finally, _______.

Want to learn more about storytelling? Check out Jonathan Gottschall, Kendall Haven, and Jason Ohler, as their presentations directly inspired this blog post.