Opinion: Once upon a time…
by Poya Manouchehri
[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday opinion piece, former Microsoft software design engineer Poya Manouchehri shares some advice for writing the story of your game.]
I have a theory: everyone has or will have, at some point, an idea for a story they want to write. Or tell. And I don’t mean a real life story, but a story that is a creation of one’s imagination.
Now it might be a passing thought… Maybe it’s a person, a news report, a real life event, a book, or a game that suddenly triggers an idea for a story. The process of turning that idea into something complete and finished is a whole other…well, story.
Currently I’m writing the story for the game Connectorium. It’ll be the second story I’m writing in full, after co-writing the Revival short film (I’m not counting the one or two short stories here and there, and a failed attempt at writing a fantasy novel after watching the first Lord of the Rings film. Who didn’t do that, right?).
Here are just a collection of random thoughts, observations, and experiences about the process. Obviously these are not the opinions of an expert; I’m merely hoping it opens up the way for a conversation and invites thoughts from you.
From abstraction to realization
This is something that is universal to the creative process. You begin with an empty canvas. Maybe a concept that is completely abstract and vague. Then with every sentence, with every stroke of a brush, with every added note, or with every line of code, you bring that abstraction one step closer to existence (and also the number of possibilities of what that end product will be reduces with every step).
But there is a key thing I have realized: this is a tw- way process. The original idea, or concept affects what you create. But what you create also affects the idea over time. To a point where the final product may in no way resemble the original idea. I think this a very important part of the creative process: the organic nature of it.
As far as a story goes, that initial concept and idea can be many different things. Maybe it’s a particular character, or a specific plot point. Maybe it’s a particular setting. Maybe it’s a mechanic in the game you are designing. Either way, it’s important to keep in mind that your completed story may be nothing like what you had initially conceived. And that’s OK. In fact it’s more than OK. It’s usually a good thing.
When I first started working on Connectorium, I had a general idea for the story. The game is about systems and connections, so the story was going to be about a little girl who wakes up one morning to a world where all connections have gone missing. Her adventure would be about her meeting various characters, helping them restore the missing connections, and solving the mystery.
For some time, though, I stalled fleshing out the story more. Eventually I asked myself, why am I wasting time? Why don’t I just write the story? And it occurred to me: it’s because I didn’t know how it’s going to end.
So one morning I decided to take my iPad, go to a quiet park, and not come back home until I figured out how the story will end. It took a couple of hours, but eventually I came up with an idea, quite suddenly really. I had a big smile on my face right at that moment, because I knew I could start writing the story now.
Maybe this is more a function of the kinds of story that I enjoy and like to write, but I find that I really need to know the ending early on. Everything in the plot, the characters, and the gameplay in the case of a game, is pushing the audience towards that ending. It’s what keeps the story coherent to me.
Characters or plot
One of my favorite writers, Isaac Asimov, is often criticized for having somewhat uninteresting and 2D characters. Nevertheless he is an amazing story teller.
But one can’t argue that the best of stories combine a great plot with believable and great characters. What I have noticed is that personally I’m much more interested and focused on the plot. So I always need to be conscious of the “flatness” of my characters.
For that reason, after I have written the initial draft of the story, I’ll do an iteration where I’ll focus specifically on each character, writing more back story, fixing the dialogue, descriptions, and so on, of course adjusting the plot where necessary. I can imagine the reverse can work just as well: building a detailed and interesting character, and developing the story around that character (or characters).
Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue
For me, probably the hardest part of writing a story is the dialogue. Not only is it really hard to write a believable, natural, and flowing conversation between two or more characters, it’s even harder to have all your characters not sound exactly the same! Exactly like…you!
More than anything, it just requires time, and rewrites to improve this. It is also important to have back stories for characters, even if none of it is ever revealed to the audience. Where do they come from? What do they do? What do they eat? What was their childhood like? What are their relationships like? What is their motivation? All of these impact how a character speaks, how they would react to a situation, and how they’d express themselves.
Another thing that has helped me is trying to picture a real life person acting out that character. Maybe someone you know, or an actor. Putting a face and voice to a line of dialog goes a long way to help you see if it’s the right fit. Sometimes reading it out loud in the voice that you think the character would be speaking in also helps here.
On the subject of games
I’ve been talking a lot about stories, and haven’t really talked much about games. Here is point I want to make which I can expect at least some to disagree with.
I feel that the gameplay must reinforce the story as much as possible. At the very least it shouldn’t contradict it, because that takes you out of the immersion that you might otherwise have. How often do you run around in a game, killing various things, and collecting numerous items, stats, etc, just to be reminded by a cutscene that you’re actually trying to resolve a much greater conflict.
And here is another (potentially less popular) thought. Given that there are practically infinite possible stories, why is it that a good percentage of games, especially those with plots and characters, include combat in some form as their core mechanic?
Is it that we are simply avoiding stories where combat isn’t an integral component? Or are we throwing in combat into the mix, regardless of whether or not it reinforces the story?（Source：gamasutra）