Storytelling in Game Design
“A good story hands together the way a good jigsaw puzzle hangs together. When you pick It up, every piece is locked tightly in place next to its neighbors.”
— Katie Salen
The relationship between games and story remains a divisive question among game fans, designers and scholars alike. In this article I would like to discuss about the role of storytelling in game design, what it would transfer to players and how to utilize it to better immersive play experience.
What is a Storytelling Game?
According to the Wikipedia definition, a storytelling game refers to a game where two or more persons collaborate on telling a spontaneous story. Usually, each player takes care of one or more characters in the developing story. In a broader definition, as long as the game has a pre-structured context, which is crucial for user experience throughout the game, it is a storytelling game.
Why Storytelling Matters?
Storytelling is the oldest form of teaching. It bonded the early human communities, giving children the answers to the biggest questions of creation, life, and the afterlife. Stories define us, shape us, control us, and make us. Not every human culture in the world is literate, but every single culture tells stories.
Telling a story is actually compiling a dream, real, magical, inspiring or touching. A story is a medium for emotional transfer. It must be delivered in a way that listeners can feel and appreciate so that the information is best delivered. To build a story, the most important thing is to understand people.
What do Stories Convey to Players?
Knowledge / information
Storytelling can be understood as an effective means to convey information to players. It can be either what the speaker, narrative or other player passes to the people through the story. The story would be about hope, dreams, beauty, cruelty, reality, etc.. The plots and characters are delivered to the heart of players with great energy.
Energy / experience
In addition to information gain, the players would also get individual playing experience when probing deeper into the story development in a game. For instance, in the game Onmyoji, in each round, players have to beat all the enemies so that they can unlock the key to the next story script. Although they did not gain much information in the combat, they would gain a sense of accomplishment and even social relatedness if it is a group combat. This experience / energy flow would also engage players in the storytelling game.
Emotional connection / identification
A good story can build empathy among audience. Similarly, when it is embedded with games, players would tend to identify with the story characters and have emotional feelings.
I still remembered that in my middle school, many of my peers were obsessed with the game The Legend of Sword and Fairy, and they were so mournful about a character: Yueru’s death, though they knew that it was just a virtual character.
At the very beginning, the story designer intentionally made players identify with the protagonist, and hoped that the protagonist would survive. The protagonist has just passed a desperate situation, and the situation is getting better. It seems that when he sees hope, he “slaps!” The story shoots the hope to death and shoots the protagonist to death. The prelude to the stage made players emotionally engaged and then destroyed it in an instant, causing this psychological gap, making the audience feel shocked and unacceptable.
A complete and good storytelling game, generally speaking, tend to embed its own cultural value on the basis of which the game world is operated in order.
The “This War of Mine” has been highly praised by players and the media. This game has caused a great shock to the players, allowing players to experience the cruel and terrible war in reality through the game.
Some people commented on this game: “Developers have brought real morality into the game, and when players make brutal choices for survival, they impact on the player’s realistic moral values.”
How to Engage Players in a Storytelling Game
Good storytelling will give me an immersive from the beginning of the game, as if it opened a new world, although it is not very real, but it will gradually deepen as the game progresses. I will take every detail of the game process very seriously, because I am so curious. I am even afraid of missing a certain detail, which may affect my subsequent game process. The more I pay attention to the details, the more I will find surprises from the details. When I was fully immersed in the game world, this was the real beginning of the game. My emotions fluctuated with the development of the game story, and I could not identify more with characters’ fate.
Flow Channel Wave
Here comes the question: how can we bring players into the immersive state via good storytelling?
Inspired by the flow channel wave from the book “The Art of Game Design”, immersion is a flow state which requires the subtle balance between skill and challenge — “appropriate” challenge. If the challenge is too easy, the player would be bored; if the challenge far overweighs the player’s current skill, he may probably get anxious and would like to give up halfway. How to balance the challenge and skill, boredom and anxiety would be a key concern in game design.
Story Construction Framework
When it comes to the storytelling game, I think there are three key features for a good story construction framework.
- The player grows with the story. The character’s skills, world scope, interaction within the map would vary and go deeper when the story goes on.
2. The Game world changes with story progress. The world structure and map presentation should also change with the story development so that players would get a more authentic feeling when engaging in the adventure.
3. Stay consistent with the values. Although the characters, the world and scenarios vary rapidly in story development, the hidden values / basic rules to operate the world should be consistent, or players would be confused about the game mechanics.