I want to take a few moments to share my thoughts on the importance of a strong background story in video game design. After joining and attending a couple of different game development groups, I have noticed how many of us struggle to put our ideas into context during the prototyping phase of a game’s creation.
Prototyping Our Games
Regardless of your background, we all follow different processes throughout the creation of a game. Some of us like to start with the creation of innovative new game mechanics or graphics styles, while others like to take original ideas and mix them with the best features of different genres.
The main struggle that I have noticed is that even if a great prototype is created that uses both stunning visuals and mechanics, it can be difficult to develop it into a full game without an underlying story. Regardless of the size or type of video game that you’re creating, even if it’s an entry for a Game Jam, a strong and well-developed background story can help it stand out from the pack.
Furthermore, when prototyping a game, it can help to ask yourself questions such as:
What are the goals of my game? Who is our main character, and what is their background story? What enemies will players face and why are they considered enemies?
Most of all, it is important to make your main character relatable, as the most enjoyable games ensure that players can relate to the main characters in some way.
Overall, our games need a context that makes sense and allows for all of the needed pieces to come together to form a cohesive experience. The more cohesive the experience, the stronger and more appealing the game will seem to potential players. While your storyline can be straightforward – you don’t need to be writing a novel after all – the underlying connections between the game elements and storyline need to make sense.
For example, let’s say that we are prototyping a level for a classic platform game, where the player starts at point A and needs to get to point B. During this journey, players will encounter many different enemies that seek to kill the player when they enter their range of vision. To combat these attacks, players have access to different skills such as climbing walls, double jumping, and fighting back with power-ups.
As our level is built entirely using cubes, and all of our mechanics work perfectly and feel great, we as designers may think that we have made a perfect gameplay experience. However, without proper insight, it is easy for developers to wonder:
Where are we going from here? How do we allow the main character to more powerful in this game? What is this game about, and why do we need the player to reach point B? Why are these enemies trying to kill the player, and what made them enemies in the first place?
The background story is quite possibly more important for the developer’s guidance than for player’s enjoyment, as it allows us to keep developing the game even when we run into questions or doubts like these.
If we can create a storyline that provides reliable answers to all of these questions, then our players will feel more rooted in the game’s world. This will not only make the game feel like a more in-depth experience but will allow them to focus on achieving their goals and objectives while enjoying the game.
The Basic Story
As a guide, let’s work on developing an insightful short story for our game prototype. For this example, our game will be an action platformer where players need to avoid enemies – specifically, players will be controlling a soldier who is sneaking into an enemy base with the goal of recovering a powerful weapon that was recently stolen. The enemies within this game will consist mostly of drones, which can detect players if their movements are not correctly hidden.
To give the game more depth, we can take this basic story and make it even more interesting if we push our imaginations to the limit. Let’s take our initial story about the soldier and modify it a bit with some historical or fantasy elements. Instead of infiltrating a modern military base, players will be working their way through a set of old temple ruins set in the medieval Japanese countryside. This setting works out well, as it fits our level mechanics and will bring exciting concepts to our level designs. Players will need to be able to sneak and have skills like climbing or double jumping, so a ninja concept seems like the best fit for our setting.
We’ve successfully defined our setting and player skills, so it is now time to define the player’s character in greater detail. As a ninja in medieval Japan, he belongs to a secret faction, who has tasked him with the recovery of an ancient and powerful weapon that has the potential to instantaneously destroy the world if it falls into the wrong hands. This puts a novel twist on a classic story and allows us to build out the goal of the game with a clear context.
The enemy drones that we discussed previously can now become Undead Dark Creatures, risen from Hell with only the mission of protecting this powerful ancient weapon in mind. Instead of having motion detection abilities, these enemies will be able to attack when a player’s ninja character enters their field of view. As you can see, once we have defined the basic storyline it becomes far easier to assign behaviors and attack mechanics to both friendly and enemy characters.
In a sense, a game’s storyline is a bit like a glue that helps game designers put all of the pieces of their prototype concept together. Having a basic story in place not only helps to keep designers focused during the prototyping phase, but more importantly establishes a strong foundation for future development of enemy and level mechanics. Defining a basic story allows us to start building a new world that can continually grow in complexity, features, and goals as the development process continues to move forward.
On the other hand, it is vital that we as game designers do not underestimate the power of a good background story. Creating innovative game design techniques continues to become more and more difficult as hundreds of new games are released every year. Soon, a quality story may be the only thing that allows your creations to differentiate themselves from the dozens of other games that use similar game mechanics.
When Should We Develop The Basic Story?
Speaking from personal experience, the basic story should start being developed at the very start of your game design process. This doesn’t mean that you can’t opt to create a story based around an innovative new game mechanic, but it does mean that you should be able to outline the basic storyline before creating your initial prototype. Whenever I get a new idea, I can’t wait to get started, yet trial and error has taught me that sometimes writing a brief game design document (GDD) can pay dividends in the long run when it comes to working through roadblocks and difficulties. Without a GDD to refer back to, it can be very easy to give up and abandon a prototype before it has even really started, as we don’t have access to a greater vision for what we would like to see in our finished product.
These prototypes can be very basic – even using just cubes to see how a game feels can provide great insight into a concept. However, if you are working on a prototype to get funding or get a better understanding of just what a game can be, it is probably a good idea to put some real effort into your creation. To get started, I highly recommend watching this video about fast game design from Gameloft, as they have tons of great insight into the process.
I hope that this guide was helpful and serves as encouragement for you as you work towards writing and planning out your stories before diving into the more exciting yet challenging phases of game development.