Mystery Feed

Why Does Story Matter in Games?

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Clementine, from the The Walking Dead. Image source: Wikipedia

It would be easy to say that everything is better when you add a story to it. You know, like bacon, story makes everything better. But unfortunately, that has not always been the assumption in the game industry, where writers sometimes find themselves fighting for story territory in the games they're working on, or brought in too late in a game's development, when they're expected to shoehorn a story into a game that doesn't have one--and desperately needs one.

I've also seen story handled badly in games, which only perpetuates the problem.

But since the primary reason players come to a game is TO PLAY A GAME, it begs the question: Why does story matter?

We can approach this by first brainstorming from our own observed experiences. What does story add to the games you've played? What would your experience of the games be like if there were no stories?

As a writer first, and a gamer second, I'm someone who comes to games LOOKING FOR THE STORY. But the reason I'm drawn to games at times instead of books is for the interactive experience. I want to co-create the narrative, and that can mean anything from making choices that shape my player character, as I did in Firewatch and The Walking Dead, to uncovering clues about my character's past in the Gardenscapes series of Match-3 builder games. 

I also want to play. I enjoy the hunt for clues, the Match-3 game, the strategizing, decision-making, and puzzle-solving. By the way, I don't like to kill in my games and kind of think it's weird that we associate video games primarily with killing, but I don't mind shooting at targets. I struggled with this aspect of The Walking Dead even though my victims were zombies.

Next, to find evidence to support story's place in games, we might look at what experts have said. I like this quote from Jonathan Gottschall's book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human:

Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can't resist the gravity of alternate worlds.

"Suction" hits it for me. Just watch a person's eyes light up when you say, "Let me tell you a story..."

We can also look at this more scientifically, and more specifically about games, through data. The Entertainment Software Association surveys players annually, and they ask what drives their purchase decisions. Story is always a major factor.

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Image source: www.theesa.com

Lastly, I can share what experience has shown me to be true about games. I've worked in the industry for more than a decade, and about half that time I spent at Big Fish, a major publisher of a wide variety of games.

Big Fish published its first game in 2002, an online version of mahjongg. So, not much story there, but the game did very well.

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Image source: www.bigfishgames.com

Next, the design team at Big Fish hit an untapped nerve in the market with hidden-object games (HOGs). They were popular with the older, mostly female audience--a demographic albeit ignored by developers at the time. HOGs harkened back to traditional I-spy games found in newspapers and magazines.

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Image source: www.bigfishgames.com

The hidden-object game genre evolved quickly at Big Fish, and in a narrative direction that drew on a cultural legacy of text adventure games. The hidden-object puzzle adventure game (HOPA) was born. I've covered this in more detail over at the Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games magazine, but here's a trailer to give you an idea of how story-driven and cinematic the genre has become.

The reason for this move toward greater narrative content and development is simple: It helped sell the game. We knew from customer survey data and game performance that great stories made great games, and customers loved them.

So there you have it: Data, game performance, and playtesting feedback tell us stories make games better. But maybe you already knew intuitively that a good storyline sucks you in, no matter what the medium. What are your favorite game stories? Comment below!

Note: I'll be speaking on this topic July 29 at PixelPop in St. Louis. Next week on the blog, I'll continue with some guidelines for good narrative design.

 


From Mystery Novels... to Interactive Mysteries

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Books, games... they're all on devices now anyway!

I recently renewed my membership in the venerable organization Mystery Writers of America, and for the first time, I qualified for active-status membership. MWA is "the premier organization for mystery writers, professionals allied to the crime writing field, aspiring crime writers, and those who are devoted to the genre." To qualify for active status as a fiction writer, you have to be a professional author, and the criteria for that is listed here, but essentially that means you need to have earned more than the threshold in one calendar year on "mystery works."

Note that the MWA motto is 'crime doesn't pay... enough,' and that's for a reason. The threshold is not what would constitute a full-time livable wage. This might be surprising to anyone who thinks that authors these days earn gobs of money the minute they put their works out into the world. But, heh, heh, no. See this post for more on that. But anyway, back to the active status. What pushed me over the hump in 2017 was my writing for games, not books.

Last year, I wrote and designed four game titles that involved a mystery of some kind. Two were squarely in the mystery camp, and narrative driven, so I based my active status application on those.

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Images courtesy Pixelberry Studios

The first is my latest release, a choice-based narrative for Pixelberry Studios, just out in June. Pixelberry is a market-leader in this space, and it was an honor to get to work with the creative, smart team, especially my editor, Andrew Shvarts, who also writes both books and games. In Veil of Secrets, what should be a lovely wedding in charming Birchport, Massachussetts, goes horribly awry when the bride, your bestie from college, turns up missing. As a journalist, you're naturally hot on the trail and uncover a strange mystery--not to mention dead bodies. The choice is yours in this interactive romantic suspense story. Which of Birchport's hotties gets your attention is up to you, as well as who lives or dies.

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This title is what you might call a 'visual novel,' as the text is accompanied by character and environmental art, sort of like a comic book. One of the design aspects I enjoy about this work is the chance to weigh in on those art decisions.

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Images courtesy Daily Magic Productions

The second mystery title qualifying me for active status in MWA is the text adventure Sender Unknown: The Woods, published by Daily Magic Productions and released in fall 2017. I've written about this project previously on the blog (here, here, and here). It was featured in the App Store on release and was nominated for an International Mobile Gaming Award. GameZebo called it "the next leap forward in mobile."

Here's the description: Through a text message, fate connects you with a total stranger. Now you are Morgan's only hope to survive. Will you serve as a lifeline, or return to your own life and let a stranger's fate go unknown?

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I think the reason it's received so much attention is that it represents an innovation in the 'chat fiction' genre. The studio owner and I took the text-adventure model exemplified by leading games in the genre and added an element that she and I know well from our work together through Big Fish: hidden-object scenes and puzzles. So while the bulk of the game looks like text messages, the fictional app you and your 'sender unknown' are using also has the capability of sharing images, which allows you to help this stranger solve some odd traps.

Working on games like Veil of Secrets and Sender Unknown holds enormous appeal for me because of the mashup of left- and right-brain activity. My techie side gets to play with my imaginative side, and the two sort of roll around in the paint together. Yeah, and sometimes that gets sexy. ;)

If you're a budding writer out there who thinks writing your novel as a game is your ticket out of a day job, you might want to do some more thinking on this. First, you really have to have a passion for the game. Full disclosure: I was a total nerd as a kid, and that was back in the 80s, when you got beat up for it. I secretly played games like Stellar Lifeline on my dad's "trash 80" Radio Shack computer, and that's also when I encountered my first text adventure, Haunted House. I also read every one of these I could get my hands on.

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Image source NeoGAF

It's not that you have to have played games as a kid to do this work, but thinking you can take your novel and publish it as a game is a sure sign that you're doing this for the wrong reasons--and that it won't work. Both of the games above were conceived of as games--not novels first. After more than a decade as a game writer and designer, I can tell you this is a medium of its own, with its own history, best practices, and techniques. Too much for this post, but feel free to join me July 29 at Pixelpop, when I lead a workshop on this very topic! 

If you're a regular reader of mystery books but have never given games a chance, I recommend diving in. Try one of the above, and let me know what you think. And stay tuned for more coming out in the next year!

For those of you who've played these games or other story-rich games, what do you love about them? What do you think we could do better? Tell us in the comments below.

 


What Would You Like to Read on the Blog?

 

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Image courtesy of Pixabay.

It's been a while--since January, actually--since I've posted on the blog, and for that I apologize.

Long story short, I've struggled with what amounted to two full-time jobs for the past year, since I took that visiting professorship at Webster University, AND AT THE SAME TIME, MY INDIE GAME STUDIO BLEW UP. Don't get me wrong; this is a good problem to have these days. But when your priority list exceeds the number of hours in a given week, some things need to drop off, and sadly, this blog was one of them. 

But I've missed it. And you--its reason for being. As I look ahead to hopefully a more life-balanced rest of the year, I'm mulling over what this blog should and shouldn't be, and I'd love to get your opinion. So I created a survey.

It's short. Survey Monkey tells me you can take it in two minutes. If you've got two minutes to spare, please weigh in on the types of topics and guests you'd like to see on the blog.

The survey is completely anonymous. I'm not collecting any data on who fills it out or when or why or what your first-born child's name is, I promise. I will analyze the results in the aggregate and pay attention to any "other" comments you've written, no names or strings attached.

And if you'd rather share your opinion in the comment section below this post, feel free. The survey asks general questions about reading and gaming habits and interests, and then basically asks what you'd like to see here on the blog in the future. I'm all ears. Thank you!

In case you missed that survey link above, here's a button! Go ahead and push it! Or click on it! Just go there!

 

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