Developers, it’s storytime

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…
C) MONSTER/MURDERER!
D) Survive.
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.
C) Escape.
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

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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

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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:

Flaws
  • Pretentiousness (like Chaucer’s nun)
  • Overly optimistic/pessimistic
  • Unintelligent
  • Arrogant
  • Rushes or doesn’t think about actions and decisions
  • Speaks before thinking
  • Rude
  • Regrets everything
  • Doesn’t regret anything
  • Selfish
  • 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:

Tension
  • 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
  • Blackmail
  • Conflicting pasts
  • Betrayal/disloyalty
  • 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


Period.

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?
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As a past developer of story games I on the whole agree with your points excluding this highlighted one.

If there is one thing I have learnt as a game developer is that players are stupid, you have to spoonfeed them every bit of information or risk them getting confused and leaving.

This isn’t the case for games where the audience is mainly 12+ however since the average age for story games is around 9 trying to assume your player can think is the riskiest thing you can do.

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Hmm… That is possible. Do you have any specific experiences like that?

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One experience is we once made a pipworks puzzle while the players health decreased till they solved it, however players were unable to work out you had to join the pipes

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That’s…weird. And it was just a typical pipe puzzle?

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Yeah but if you’re trying to go horror with your game, you should probably not give too much information. Fear of the unknown is a key horror element. Plus, having your story game be more sandbox while still having the guiding factor will drastically improve it. It gets quite boring to go on exactly one path all the time with 100% predictability.

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Well, there goes my next hit game idea where you get chased and killed by a pair of woebegone socks. What a shame!!1 :pensive:


In all seriousness, this is a fantastic resource. I only have one gripe with it:

I feel it’s important to acknowledge the average attention span of a Roblox player. Most aren’t going to spend hours into one game if it’s just build up and character development. The alternative is to make them change in one saving moment, but you shoot down that idea as well.

Despite this, there isn’t really an ideal solution other than making it longer. Maybe splitting into short “chapters” like other games could work, but that seems like it’d lead to sections feeling rushed if done poorly.

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Something else that also always puts me off- deus ex machina.

For those of you not familiar with the term, it’s when a problem is solved with an unreasonable ending, that nobody predicted, nor could it actually happen.

Take, for example, a situation in which someone is about to fall down a cliff. The story takes place in real life. The story is almost done, how could she be saved?

Then, a magical unicorn swoops in and saves the main character. We’ve never been introduced to this unicorn, and weren’t even aware that magic existed in this world. It’s the very end of the movie, and the ending makes no sense.

This phenomenon that is deus ex machina is something I see way to often in story games, simply because the story writers need a quick fix and don’t know what they are doing.

It’s a terrible practice, please never fall victim.

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If you are able to mix character development in with events and gameplay, attention span shouldn’t be a problem (or your characters may not be interesting enough). Characters can develop without you consciously thinking about it.

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This topic is detailed well and I definitely agree with a lot if not all the concepts you presented. I have to say, it was fun when Camping introduced itself to the public being a new creative game coming to Roblox. Though, nowadays all the story-plots are the same and it’s obnoxious. I don’t want to see Bobby getting murdered by some creature/murderer every time and then you save the day by making them go poof.

Where is the spice.

In addition to all of this, when making a story one should also add more than 3 endings. It’s too generic to have Good Ending, Bad Ending Secret Ending. It would be better to have more than three.
Or, even better…
Leave the players with three endings but each of them are neither good or bad, they just are. This relates to your discussion on how the ending affects society and similar to how there is always a lose in every victory. If you were going to make a story based on a catastrophe, say an incoming tsunami there could be two endings neither good or bad- just are because a tsunami is inevitable.
One ending could be everyone makes it to high ground but all the buildings are destroyed oppose to the Second Ending where you some how build a wall to shift the tsunami’s direction but losing your NPC friend in the process instead of losing buildings.
Neither ending is good and both and one was losing an entire city while the other was losing your friend. This adds depth in a story and can teach someone about how not everything is always good or bad, they just are.

Does that make sense?

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Hi, everyone. I will be adding extra thoughts at the bottom on the post. Feel free to check ever so often!

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Personally, I would love to create one :cough: but I feel like creating a big game with a memorable storyline is a very hard and long task, especially with choices driving the game in different directions.

Additionally, because of how long it would take to make hours of cutscenes manually, there aren’t many story games with that experience.

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This is WAAAY too correct. If we would be able to detect if someone is under 13 or not would be useful (Without getting the age itself, of course. That’d be too much. )

As a person that likes story games alot, it’s definitely visible that other games succeed more. Even if the story is better, the other game’s community will handle it better.

I am currently working on a gigantic medieval game with experienced people. It will be a group based and gameplay based game. My main concern is that the story missions/quests will be too hard to understand for children, we are going out of normal boundaries here. So what are my options? To NOT go so advanced.

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It may be an old comment and I just found this thread and would like to read it all and possibly comment on it later, but I found this too good and felt it would be a crime not to state my agreement of this.

This may be slightly off topic so apologies in advance, but the anecdote I’d like to share is important in highlighting the value of this point and how it’s applicable not only to just story games and what the OP is outlining but to development in general.

I lead the development of a roleplay group rather than a story game or something of the sort. And if I don’t assume my players are stupid, then I just end up generating mob mentality and hate over something I do. It’s difficult to make a change without mass outrage from one side or the other. The people in this community are well into their teens as well, still have to treat them like they’re five.

We currently have a dynamic in our game where prisoners can fight off guards. Guards have riot shields to block bullets. When I announced an update to add armour to give bullet resistance and that shields would be temporarily removed to demo the gameplay dynamic, people didn’t read “temporarily” and assumed I was removing them permanently. This led to all of the following:

  • An entire department threatening to strike
  • Several members threatening to resign
  • Increased toxicity for around an hour
  • Ad hominem attacks to my person
  • A change-org petition to have me removed from my position (I’m honoured to have done something enough to have gotten people to make a change-org petition against me, lmao)

It wasn’t until I had to literally talk to them as if they were five years old that they understood what was happening in the update and conceded (although didn’t want to admit they were in the wrong and found another point of attack, but that subsided and is also irrelevant).

You can trust your players to make inferences or make them gather their own information through gameplay, but you shouldn’t tip the scales by giving them overwhelmingly obvious expositions about current circumstances nor obscuring it and hoping they’re smart enough to know things. It’s a weird scenario that you have to find an equally weird balance for, often impossible to do.

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I really love this! It was definitely worth it to read all of this. I LOVE how you put so much detail into your writing! I would definitely give it a :star::star2::star::star2::star:!

Keep up the great work!

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Indeed, you need a good balance. In the example I gave about Bobby walking into a room in which we know a murderer is waiting, it should be pretty obvious that that’s what’s going to happen—it had to be significant earlier, and we have to at least know Bobby pretty well. Stemming from this, developers, don’t make characters mid-story just to make us like them and have them die. Make them important.

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In November me and a couple of friends developed Do Not Look Up with the intention of creating a story game based off of the SCP canon. In hindsight the entire plot was SCP: Containment Breach without the SCPs, however a lot was learned about story games. I’d recommend looking at games like Detroit: Become Human or The Last of Us for good story games that have interesting mechanics which improve games from a story, to a narrative.

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I work on a game like Entry point, great cutscenes, great story, as much as realistic as can be… (I am not copying entry point, I am making something inspired by it and some post apoc games)

I am working on a game like the last of us, since december 2019…

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I agree with you on this. Don’t get me wrong, whenever I play story games I have a fun time, but I’ve noticed the plot for each one is very similar to each other, which gets repetitive. I’ve actually thought of making a game with a good story with elements from Avatar: The Last Airbender, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and so many other shows that did well, with my own elements added, of course. And when I mean elements I mean adding some of the plot points from them(Not sure if that makes sense, but hopefully you’ll understand it). Anyways nice tutorial, hopefully we’ll see more story games with better plots.

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