Gamasutra: Danny Allen’s Weblog – Out of Weak point, Energy: The Three Ds of Narrative Design


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Each storytelling medium has distinctive intrinsic strengths. Books are free from budgetary, design, or time constraints. Motion pictures and TV depend on visible spectacle to promote an emotion. Graphic novels use web page structure to emphasise key moments. The zoetrope exemplifies life’s limitless cycle of futility.

Through the years, video video games have earned a nasty repute as story automobiles, and never simply from snooty literary critics. I’ve heard many players boast about skipping cutscenes as proof of their dedication to hardcore gameplay and nothing else. I’ve had co-workers from different departments inform me that story at all times comes final. And whereas I agree that story ought to at all times defer to gameplay, I might argue that open-world video video games have an unimaginable benefit to have an effect on audiences in a method that no different medium can. 

Dale Carnegie taught that “names are the sweetest and most essential sound in any language…Discuss to somebody about themselves and so they’ll hear for hours.” He additionally emphasised that “the deepest precept in human nature is the craving to be appreciated,” citing a hilariously dated examine that the principle motive “runaway wives” abandon their households is because of “a scarcity of appreciation.” Who would have guessed!

However how does this relate to video video games? We’re not promoting steak knives or deserting a thankless partner (I hope). However we are able to use human self-interest, together with the participant’s capacity to freely work together throughout the recreation to enhance the strengths that exist already in video video games. Story depends on the 4 Ps: Individuals, Place, Plot, and Function, however I argue that video video games include a further Three Ds, and I’m not speaking about dimensions, har har: Dialog, Choice, and (i)Dentity. Hey, it really works effectively sufficient for the Three Rs.

I’ve organized the Three Ds so as of directness: Dialog selections are instantly recognizable as a selection the participant could make. Subsequent, missions ought to current the participant with some kind of choice, giving them an funding within the consequence. And general, the participant ought to really feel that their gaming avatar is an correct reflection of their character, or the one they want to stay via the sport. These standards are solely out there via video video games, and for that motive I consider video games are the way forward for storytelling.

I can’t present something I’m engaged on so as an alternative I’ll use examples from latest video games I’ve performed and some classics. I’m writing this text from the angle of a story designer, and writing it particularly for different narrative designers. Additionally, I cannot attempt to tackle the storytelling strategies of linear video games from studios reminiscent of Santa Monica Studios or Naughty Canine, who’ve created glorious and fascinating tales whereas ignoring each level I’m making an attempt to make right here.


Probably the most direct methods to present the participant a voice is thru branching dialog. This has been a staple of RPGs for about so long as the style has existed.

Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity: Gotta discover these berries.

Mounted protagonist video games reminiscent of Rockstar’s Crimson Lifeless Redemption 2 use modern branching dialog choices as effectively.

Press O to ask a stranger, “Did you swap your face on your ass?”

Whatever the style, dialog ought to present a breadth of choices to match all participant personalities, however the choices must also be refined. Life is refined; the gray space is way bigger than the black and white. Gaming tales ought to mirror this when doable.

That brings us to one in all my favourite latest video games: Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds. The dialog is written as a compelling mixture of darkish company satire and intimate, intertwining character arcs. In lots of conversations the companion characters interrupt to supply their very own opinions, typically considerably altering the dialog. Obsidian has lengthy held a repute for sharp, memorable dialog, and The Outer Worlds exhibits why.

Within the above instance, the participant is given 5 choices, all of which can finish the dialog and result in a struggle towards marauders. Three of the choices are talent primarily based, which means they’re solely out there to the participant if their talent bushes are excessive sufficient. The remaining two result in the identical factor: the participant volunteering to struggle solo. This provides the participant the choice to inject their character. Is the participant heroic or extra of a wise alec? Will they threat antagonizing the stolid Lieutenant or will they defer to her authority?

I like how the dialog choices fluctuate with the dialog. When the participant enters the Unreliable, the sport’s shuttle between the completely different planets, they’ve this dialog with ADA, the ship laptop. ADA questions the place the captain is, who was unintentionally crushed by the participant’s escape pod. The participant is given three response choices: assertive, sympathetic, and impolite.

You may see the identical template right here, when assembly Vicar Max, a future companion character: assertive, sympathetic, and impolite. There’s additionally a fourth possibility for gamers who care much less in regards to the native chaplain’s job efficiency than he does. These choices give the participant a well-known path to comply with. In the event that they have been too completely different from every dialog, it will be tough for the participant to nail down their character id.

However now take a look at the choices. The NPC is making ready to supply a aspect quest. The participant can ask a number of questions: sensible (“How a lot am I getting paid?”), expository (“Why would a cleric such as you  desire a forbidden e book?”), or only a sarcastic retort (“This can be a sketchy favor, isn’t it”). And for the gamers who aren’t within the character’s quest, there’s an exit possibility.

That is the primary dialog out there with Junlei, the house mechanic. Discover that the choices don’t match the usual template both: sincere, secretive, or snarky. These choices are extra attention-grabbing and related to the query than the assertive/sympathetic/impolite template. The Outer Worlds establishes a transparent dialog template in order that its gamers know what to anticipate, but it surely isn’t afraid to interrupt its personal guidelines for the sake of a extra attention-grabbing dialog.

For gamers who set their character intelligence to low, there’s even a “dumb” possibility:

And typically the dumb choices beget even dumber responses:

The Halcyon System didn’t obtain Earth’s greatest and brightest.

I’ve seen proposals about beginning the sport with a character take a look at and utilizing the participant’s outcomes to find out the dialog for all the recreation. As a author, this seems like a herculean quantity of additional work, however the end result may very well be actually cool. Maybe the closest factor now we have to this up to now is ZA/UM’s Disco Elysium. It options an unprecedentedly complicated Thought Catalogue system for branching dialog that will require a separate in-depth evaluation. The ultimate script is over 1,000,000 phrases lengthy! However the intro-personality take a look at has been finished to an extent already by an earlier Obsidian recreation, Fallout: New Vegas:

Thank the mod group for the third possibility.

Offering the participant with compelling dialog is essential, however there’s extra to gaming than simply conversations. As we be taught from a really dependable supply,“Phrases are wind, Jon Snow. Religion with out works is lifeless.” Or one thing like that. To actually have interaction players within the story, they need to have energy over extra than simply what they inform an NPC once they settle for a mission. They should have a say within the mission itself.


“Each choice for one one thing is a call towards one thing else.” –Darkish, S01E07

In season one in all Netflix’s time-travel drama Darkish, (mid-season one SPOILER WARNING), an adolescent named Jonas discovers a time portal that results in the yr 1986. Whereas wandering round city listening to A Flock of Seagulls and bumping into the teenage variations of his associates’ mother and father, he additionally spots his ex-girlfriend’s little brother, Mikkel, who mysteriously disappeared a couple of days earlier. Jonas needs to rescue the misplaced boy, however earlier than he can intervene, he’s interrupted by the Stranger, who warns him that if he returns Mikkel to the current, he may also be cancelling out his (Jonas) personal existence. Within the unique timeline, the boy Mikkel stays within the ‘80s, falls in love with a woman his age, and grows as much as change into Jonas’ father. 

So Jonas can select to reunite a scared boy along with his household, but when he does this he’ll stop to exist. Mikkel won’t ever meet Jonas’ mom on the proper age and so Jonas won’t ever be born. On the finish of the episode he decides to return to the current with out intervening, permitting his father to comply with alongside his unique temporal course. Jonas lives to exist one other day. He additionally has second ideas about getting again collectively along with his ex-girlfriend, who is definitely his aunt…

When gamers make selections, they need to at all times come at a value. That is easy to attain in RPGs: Whether or not you select to return the [quest item] to its rightful proprietor or to the unscrupulous interloper, is a straightforward matter of scripting and branching dialog.

Early in InXile’s Wasteland 3, the participant, in character as an Arizona Ranger, encounters an enemy Dorsey Stalker holding a gun to a fellow Arizona Ranger’s head. The participant has a dialog choice to let the Stalker go in alternate for releasing the Ranger.

“Make like a tree and pound sand, Colorado scum.”

As soon as she’s gone, the grateful freed Ranger warns the participant that the Dorsey Stalker will now alert her cousins in regards to the participant’s presence. Which is precisely what occurs subsequent.

The Dorsey Stalker races to the following display screen, the place her cousins are holding two Arizona Rangers captive. She warns them that enemies are coming. In preparation for a shootout, the Dorsey Ambushers execute the hostage Rangers.


However what would occur for those who select to assault the primary Dorsey Stalker, at the price of the primary Ranger’s life? Would you may have an opportunity to avoid wasting the next Rangers? In-game choices like this could at all times have rippling penalties. Within the brutal world of Wasteland 3, there aren’t any excellent solutions the place everybody might be saved. That is glorious reactive storytelling.

Bethesda’s Fallout 4 is one other nice instance of a recreation that forces the participant to decide on for one factor and towards one thing else. All through the sport, the participant turns into acquainted with 4 fundamental factions. The ultimate part of the sport requires the participant to decide on between them. However regardless of the participant chooses, the remainder are destroyed. This was a tough selection for me. The Brotherhood of Metal appears to have taken a step in the direction of fascism for the reason that final recreation, the Institute is detached to human struggling, and the Minutemen are simply annoying.

Thanks, Preston.

I allied with the Synth-liberating faction The Railroad, as a result of they gave the impression to be the purest of coronary heart, however afterwards I fretted that I had made the incorrect selection. The Railroad was hobbled by their good intentions and would by no means result in significant change to the Commonwealth. A savage land requires a heavy hand to rule it, and the Brotherhood of Metal has the heaviest hand of all: Liberty Prime.


It’s a call I nonetheless marvel about six years later.

That’s considerably extra complicated than the ending of Fallout 3, which boils all the way down to a selection between good and evil: kill everybody within the Capital Wasteland or present them with clear water. This isn’t a posh selection. The Fallout 3 ending did spawn a memorable second in online game logic although, so perhaps it’s a tossup.

Radiation isn’t lethal to mutants, so Fawkes may have turned off the reactor with out the participant having to sacrifice themselves.

Proper now, followers of the collection are agitatedly stroking their duplicate PIP-Boys and hissing at their screens, “What about New Vegas?” As soon as once more, Obsidian is aware of methods to create a posh recreation. New Vegas launched a Repute mechanic, companions characters who react to dialog selections, and an endgame choice level that, excluding one faction, is nearly totally shades of gray. The Caesar’s slaver Legion is clearly evil, however who among the many remaining factions, New California Republic, Mr. Home, or Sure Man is clearly good? The alternatives are extra about participant choice than generic good or evil. Does the participant aspect with budding imperialists, the techno-robber baron, or do they select the tabula rasa possibility with the robo-sidekick? The participant picks their poison.

The examples I’ve given above are all from RPGs with limitless private customization, but it surely’s additionally doable for fixed-protagonist video games to present the participant management over sure outcomes. In CD Projekt Crimson’s Witcher 3, the participant is the gruff monster hunter and tub aficionado Geralt of Rivia.

Who doesn’t prefer to calm down after a protracted day of combating Nekkers and Drowners?

All through Geralt’s quest for the Wild Hunt, the participant is obtainable scores of aspect quests to select from. Many of those are merely killing a beast for a village, however some finish with a selection: ought to the participant kill the godling or set him free? Ought to the participant put the poltergeist to relaxation or flip it in for the reward? Many instances the repercussions of the participant’s choices aren’t made current till a lot later. 

I additionally like how Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V helps you to select which of the three protagonists to kill for the sport’s ultimate mission. I selected to kill Trevor, as a result of I hated him. After being locked into so many cutscenes of him behaving psychopathically, I used to be blissful to lastly put him out of his distress.

“Now it’s Trevor’s flip to get a yee yee ass haircut.”

However talking broadly about players and video games, what drives the choice? I’m not presenting this as some intelligent maieutic. The reply is so simple as the query: Identification. What the participant chooses is determined by their desired consequence, which is the results of who they’re.


Discussing participant id requires a extra holistic view of the gaming expertise. Why would a participant select one dialog line over one other? Why would they select one mission possibility over one other? This is determined by the id they’ve chosen for his or her in-game character.  

Narrative designers, typically don’t have loads of management over the techniques that get put right into a recreation: repute, good/evil, social, companions, talent bushes, crafting, fight, and many others. advert infinitum. The easiest way to contribute to an immersive gaming expertise is to offer efficient writing. This doesn’t imply injecting Nabokovian wordplay into your gear descriptions, however somewhat ensuring to explain the item and its position within the bigger world as totally as doable. 

One thing I realized as a storyboard artist is that readability at all times trumps artistry. A stick determine drawing that clearly expresses a gag is extra helpful to the director and animators than a fantastically rendered mural that doesn’t. The identical precept extends to narrative design. Are your gear descriptions transient and evocative, or are they prolonged expeditions via the thesaurus? Do your NPC callouts/barks mirror the avatar id the participant envisions or are they a run-on string of syllables and clichés? Most likely greater than another artist, narrative designers should be prepared to kill their darlings.

A recreation that does a wonderful job describing its world is Wasteland 3. I need to go over some examples right here, however first a Set off Warning for gore. That is the sort of recreation that retains Joe Lieberman up at night time.

The sport begins with a cinematic ambush that leaves the participant, an Arizona Ranger, stranded and weak atop a frozen Colorado lake. Because the participant’s get together navigates the icy terrain seeking security and management, they encounter horrific sights. Corpses of massacred Arizona Rangers litter the map, every with a singular OST description. That is a powerful world-building effort that pays off in an unseen method.

Are you able to think about seeing a lifeless soldier, his eyes so huge with worry when he died that they now mirror the broader scene of carnage? How do you react as a participant?

Whoever did that is taking no quarter. The participant has been warned.

This might have been a buddy of yours. Now he’s only a pulpy stain on the ice.

This can be a brutally evocative description of a lifeless physique. This tells the participant that the enemies she or he is up towards are vicious. The enemies have tortured the participant’s compatriot to demise. How ought to the participant react to this? Cautious about one other ambush? Looking forward to vengeance? Anxious to get to security?

If Wasteland 3’s OST descriptions have been restricted to simply “Lifeless Ranger,” the participant would have much less data to affect their response, and thus their character id. They may conclude that their very own Ranger HQ is merciless for sending so many courageous fighters to a bloody demise in an odd northern land. They may blame wild animals. They may even deduce {that a} very aggressive abdomen virus goes round Colorado.

You may suppose it’s foolish to fret in regards to the participant deriving so many various opinions in regards to the lifeless Rangers, contemplating they simply watched the opening cinematic of the Dorseys’ ambush, however you’d be stunned by players’ limitless capacity to misconceive and misread.

However the Patriarch’s Colorado isn’t totally a frozen hellscape of demise and torture. There’s nonetheless a silver lining of merriment to be sought out:

Possibly it’s simply lemonade.

One final word, the narrative designers on Wasteland 3 had the benefit of engaged on a recreation that speaks on to gamers. However not each recreation has such a strong OST system. How can the author contribute to world constructing on video games that give the author much less management up entrance? The reply is that not all of a story designer’s work is player-facing.  

Online game creation is a supremely collaborative effort. The author ought to have a consummate imaginative and prescient for any writing they do, be it NPC conversations, character backstories, mission property, mission places, and so forth. They should be prepared and capable of clearly convey their imaginative and prescient to the artists and designers tasked with bringing them to life. Writers must also be prepared to take heed to different departments as effectively. A number of the greatest story options I’ve seen have come from exterior the Story. 

Whether or not on the entrance or the again finish, the narrative designer’s job is to present the participant the data they should construct their character id, which in flip impacts their choices, which determines their dialog.

In Conclusion

Plot, Particular person, Place, and Function dictate standard storytelling, however video video games have extra instruments to immerse the viewers: Dialog, Choice, and (i)Dentity (yeah, I’m sticking with it). With these additional dimensions, we are able to create essentially the most impactful tales our audiences have ever felt. I keep in mind the sense of betrayal I felt throughout John Marston’s final stand in Crimson Lifeless Redemption (and the boredom of serving to him construct a home within the prequel/sequel), and the satisfaction I felt on the finish of New Vegas after I informed the main factions that the Strip was below new administration: mine. The palpable shock and dread I felt all all through Naughty Canine’s The Final of Us Half II was on par with any episode of Battlestar Galactica. The hallucinatory finale of Rocksteady’s Arkham Knight is each bit as thoughts bending as The Simpsons episode the place Homer eats the Guatemalan insane asylum chili.

Video video games are sometimes derided as an immature medium, There is no such thing as a Citizen Kane, Moby Dick, or Sopranos (except you depend the Ps 2 adaptation). Or is there? There’s nothing to cease us from creating tales that can persist with audiences throughout the generations, as many video games have already got. A medium is barely pretty much as good because the tales one makes use of it for, and video video games devs haven’t any excuse for not creating essentially the most compelling tales that trendy audiences have ever skilled. We’re far previous the times of rescuing princesses or mayors’ daughters. 

A ultimate phrase of recommendation from Dale Carnegie: “All males have fears, however the courageous put down their fears and go ahead, typically to demise, however at all times to victory.” Video video games power the viewers to take management and to take accountability. That’s not a weak point; it’s a power.

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