WARNING: Typos are probably present in, like, every sentence. Excuse random or missing letters, words, spaces, and punctuation marks.
Story games are some of my favourite games out there. I was thrilled to see Camping imitations, but I can’t say I was thrilled about many of the games themselves. Don’t get me wrong—Camping was fun, and the developer’s a nice guy, even if those green eyes stare into your soul just a tad bit too much. Unfortunately, however, story games have become unoriginal and repetitive. How do we fix that?
The problem with most story games is that they all fall into the trap of imitating each other to the point of only having one difference—the setting; in fact, that’s likely why most story games’ titles now possess names implying or simply stating the setting. Camping unintentionally set a blueprint for many games to come:
A) Bobby goes on a trip.
B) Everything seems normal until…
E) Or don’t.
After story games became less popular to develop, we had a new wave, and it’s still here. I know it, you know it, and we all know it—Piggy.
And, of course, all of the games are following its structure:
A) Bobby goes on a trip.
B) MONSTER/MURDERER! This time, though, it’ll probably be a childhood TV show character or Internet meme with red eyes. Oh, and they wake up, which automatically teleports them to your location. What technology, dude.
D) Or don’t.
I like Piggy, too, but that’s a controversial opinion, and we won’t get into that. Guilty pleasures, huh?
We’ve identified the first problem, then.
Move Away from the Same Plot
Writing the story for your game will not work if you don’t write it. That does not mean only changing a camping trip to a trip to the laundry room or whatever the next exciting place you think of. While we acknowledge Camping’s success, we shouldn’t take a piggyback ride on ol’ Samson’s back and go to his house to grab all of his juicy ideas. What should we change?
The first thing I want you to do is to scrap the blueprint we talked about earlier. You might come up with a similar one, but even if you get the same structure, at least it will have come from original ideas, not the other way around. Know what you want to develop before you decide how to develop it.
Step two is to take time to edit the plot. I have the feeling that most developers write the plot out in one hour or less and go with it. If you want a good story, it will take a long time. You might improvise or plan, but either way, you need to spend a lot of time thinking about it.
Get Rid of the Clichés
I know that I’m dealing with the clichés—I had to find a reason to put a fancy accent in this post—the moment I see that someone happens to be allergic to peanuts and that we have to save them by finding some medicine that somehow ended up in the toilet. Things happen, I guess, but the point is that players know that that’s an indicator of an unoriginal story. Below is a list of other events that had been overused to death:
• Find a seat or fall apart into pieces of LEGO
• Characters we never really cared about going to check on something and never coming back
• Characters we never really cared about sacrificing themselves
• Cook meh something now or die!!111!1!1!
• Sudden changes in character that are supposed to be redeeming but are honestly just cheesy and cliché in themselves
• “What are you talking about? I didn’t see that really big monster than was making a bunch of EXTREMELY noticeable noise!”
• Find wood for a fire
I’m not trying to be disrespectful, and what seem to be insults are just me making jokes only better than those of the common wild father, but you get the point.
Give the Player and Characters Goals
The following suggestion is just an extension of the last entry, but here it is: Consider making survival one of more than one goal. Let’s be honest: Many Piggy-based games have had minimal storytelling; ironically, the most storytelling I’ve seen so far is in the original (and Guesty). Now, to be fair, Piggy games do not seem to claim to be story games as much as Camping–based games do, so we can cut them some slack. Still, if you’re going to have cutscenes, your players will expect an engaging story (no matter the genre)!
First of all, each character you want the player to invest in needs a goal, and so does the antagonist. And no, the villain’s goal is probably not killing for the sake of killing or eating, and even if it is, add some zest to that. Besides, in great stories, you rarely see villains that do this unless they’re not the main antagonist. Why is everyone doing what they’re doing? Make it personal as soon as possible (if possible). Bellatrix Lestrange from Harry Potter enjoys killing and torturing, but she didn’t become a racist extremist just like that—her family raised her to be a “blood purist”, and she was a product of incest, which can lead to mental instability. Her sister that went against her family’s beliefs was disowned. And she was held in an unethical prison with creatures that drain the potential for happiness out of you. She’s obsessed with her boss. You hate her, but you understand her.
Make sure the decisions your characters make in the game fit with their goal (if not their personalities or history). Try to make personal goals of your characters unique—the sunny sidekick is not going to want the same things as the snobby salesperson. Both might help the player, but they will do so for different reasons.
Having a goal is nice enough, but what did the character sacrifice for that goal? Show how important it is to the character. For instance, Bobby, our protagonist, murdered his family for this goal. Why? Your players will want to know why we’re with this character and not against him.
Stop Telling Us Everything
Even children playing your game will be able to make inferences. When we’re told something we already know, it annoys us. Trust your audience to follow implications—that eureka moment is often much stronger than reading it straight from the screen. Give players hints.
Explicit example: Bobby walks into the room and is shot in the cutscene.
Implying example: Bobby walks into the room, but due to previous scenes, we know that a murderer is waiting there for him. This is called dramatic irony—when we know something the character doesn’t.
Stop with the Dull Characters
I don’t want to play a game with dull characters. No one past the age of eight wants to follow the story of Miss or Mister Perfect. No real person is perfect, as they say. Your characters need strengths, but perhaps more importantly, your character needs flaws, fears, triggers, and relationships.
Whether or not we’re dealing with a protagonist, antagonist, or neither, give a character both strengths and flaws. Your protagonist should rarely be the strongest, especially not alone (though they may not believe it themselves)—the antagonist is not a threat if the protagonist has abilities beyond their imagination. It should be the other way around, and your protagonist might even seem powerless in comparison to their enemy. Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400) has amazing characters in the Canterbury Tales, which many of you might have studied. The reason why they are so great is that they are ironic—a pretentious fashion- and romance-loving nun, for instance, is one of his characters. Below is a list of flaws you could use:
- Pretentiousness (like Chaucer’s nun)
- Overly optimistic/pessimistic
- Rushes or doesn’t think about actions and decisions
- Speaks before thinking
- Regrets everything
- Doesn’t regret anything
- Weak physically/mentally/emotionally
- Avoids relationships with others
- Trusts people too easily
- Never trusts people
- Ill, dying, etc.
Note that sometimes, these flaws can be beneficial, and they can be situational. Either way, at crucial points in the story, these flaws need to act on the plot and hurt the character or people around them. Someone who trusts people too easily might make a lot of allies, but enemies could take advantage of it. This brings us to relationships.
First, let’s begin with friendships. Characters who are friends will support each other, but that does not mean they will always be beneficial for each other. Friends will disagree, especially if your plot is good. Their personalities must be different, and if you wish for them to be beneficial for each other, have their traits complement the other’s. You may need to challenge their friendship at times—show us how far they would go for each other. Sometimes, the two may split up for a while, and sometimes, mistrust could lead to betrayal. Whether or not they forgive each other is up to you. Just because you have two people on the same team does not mean they have to get along. You’ve probably been on a team in which the leader was horrible, but you had to follow them.
Having tension between characters is an interesting dynamic and can affect the plot in ways other factors cannot. Tension can arise from history, personality, choices, and more, all of which will likely interweave. Make your antagonist angry by having an ally that constantly challenges their decisions, for instance. Below is a list of some ways to create tension between characters:
- Ethical dilemmas on which characters are unable to agree
- Characters that were once on opposite sides
- Characters makes mistake that results in huge loss for allies
- Characters blaming one another for something
- Characters refusing to admit to something another knows
- Conflicting pasts
- Simple arguments
- Characters saying things another character might find offensive
- Failure to trust one another
What about absolute enemies? As you may have inferred from our discussion on goals, antagonists’ goals must get in the way of the protagonists’. Sometimes, a protagonist can also be an antagonist. Antagonists do not always need to be hated, but what they are doing must be stopped (at least seemingly). An antagonist will likely feel like what they are doing is right, though some antagonists do things despite knowing that they are wrong; in other cases, the antagonist does not know for sure.
You will find quite often that the main antagonist’s allies are much more hated than they are (much in the same way your favourite character from a story may not be the main one). This is natural, especially if we see more of them than the biggie; however, you should avoid the “final standoff” with the main antagonist if you have no prior battles. If you have characters tell us about how scary and cruel they are, why should they be defeated in one fight? Have the player lose to them (or at least fail to take them down) multiple times. Make the stakes high. When you read a good book, who has the upper hand? Probably the antagonist.
Develop Your Characters
I’m not going to lie to you—character development is hard, and I’ve seen it fail so many times. In short, character development is exactly what it sounds like. At least your main characters will change with the story, and this will be achieved by forcing them to make hard decisions, meeting new people, or go through life-changing experiences (or fail to do anything and opt out of involvement). If you want a character people care about, make them realistic no matter the genre. A science-fiction or fantasy story is not going to stick to the laws of the present real world, but a good one will keep its humanity (or Derpiness, which is better). There are many types of character development, and I won’t be able to cover all of them here, because everyone develops uniquely, and so should your characters.
I love to see what happens to a character when they’re alone (and most importantly, what they do) or away from the main cast. They will act differently, and they’ll probably reveal more, too. You might see your coldest character break down, and that hurts. It hurts even if we never really saw this side of them; in fact, it hurts more because we’re seeing them in such a dark light. But these moments need to be earned. Trauma and victory will do the trick.
As mentioned earlier, a character needs flaws, fears, triggers, and relationships. What a character loves the most and hates or fears the most should be at least challenged throughout your story; some should change. These changes should affect the story in major ways. That said, these changes should be gradual. Barely anyone changes just like that. Their decisions might, but that is different. A sudden change of sides could still be consistent with someone’s original personality. Maybe they’ve always only been loyal to the likely winners, but when they do change sides, they begin to see things differently.
In order to stretch a character, find ways to force them to make decisions that reveal what kind of person they are or will become. Your player will find it intriguing when they are surprised by a character’s decision. Make sure you have reasons to back these choices up, however, because a ready will only be angry if an odd decision is made and never explained. These decisions will be affected by their flaws, fears, triggers, and relationships. Another way to stretch them is to play directly with their relationships. Are they willing to sacrifice their friends for the greater good? Will they save him or him when given the chance for only one? What happens when a loved one is killed? These are questions that should come in the form of events.
Character development is not always about changing sides, and I’m not going to suddenly fall in love with a character that only does something good when they know they’re going to die. I’ll feel bad for them (maybe), but I will not go up to them and hug them while they lose their life. And that’s okay. Sometimes, it’s the right choice not to have a full arch, simply because it’s not realistic. A politician might not change parties, but they might change some policies that they would not have in the beginning. Just remember that the rate at which people change comes in different degrees, ways, and events. Sometimes, we change because we make a decision instead of a decision being made because we changed. Personality is messy.
Don’t Use a Knife to End It
If you want your players to keep thinking about your story after finishing it, give them just enough to keep asking questions. And don’t answer all of them. It’s cruel, but it works. (Maybe I should make medicine ads!) The story doesn’t end when the main antagonist goes to jail, redeems themself, or dies. Show the effect the ending has on everyone from every side. What the protagonist did probably won’t benefit every person on the planet. Show us the casualties. If it’s a war, not everyone survives. And please don’t bring people back to life. It defeats the purpose. Lastly, show us our characters’ regrets and pride (or lack thereof). People will be hurt permanently by what happened (even if it’s a relatively happy ending). Lastly, show us the effects on the world. What changed since the beginning? It doesn’t have to be the whole world, and each story’s problem will have a different reach. The ending of a story should not be cut off just like that—leave it open so that we can continue to explore it in our heads.
Just like I said, I’m leaving this open. The journey of crafting a story is a story in itself. Feel free to add your thoughts. I surely didn’t write down everything I wanted to (because no one would read something that long), but I might add on in the future in the form of discussion. Enjoy developing your story game!
Extra Tips Added Later
- More on stretching characters:
- Show our characters really being pushed, and abuse their personality. Are they the generous, kind one? When do they stop being nice? Are they the murderous sadist? When do they start considering leaving someone alive? Are they the angry one? When do they laugh?