Science 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, um, already dead.

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.

 


Events Where I Will Be Speaking

For one whole week in July, it's a 24/7 Lisa channel here in the River City. Or so it seems to me; I've been in introvert mode since the teaching professorship wrapped at the end of May, so stepping out for two public-speaking events in one week feels like a big deal.

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First, PixelPop Festival is a two-day event in St. Louis, Missouri, "celebrating unique games and the people who make them possible." It's the cornerstone conference for a growing local gaming community comprised of a few highly successful start-ups, a major game studio's satellite office, and loads of energetic entrepreneurs and students of game design.

This is one of the reasons I returned to my roots--because I saw this happening.

The past year has been a pretty much near-constant barrage of nostalgia and memory triggers as I've done what people say you can't do: gone home again. PixelPop is no exception. It takes place at my alma mater, St. Louis University, in the student center, a building that served as a sort of "third place" during my undergrad years at SLU. I saw Maya Angelou speak there, and fittingly, I lost a friend to the card game Magic there when he defected from our convo group to join a daily meetup of players. (In retrospect, I should've joined 'em.)

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Here's my session abstract:

In this interactive session, Lisa Brunette draws on her decade-long career focus in narrative design and game writing to tackle a thorny question that really shouldn’t be so thorny: Why does story matter? You’ll design your own game narrative and come away with do’s and don’ts based on a wealth of development experience across hundreds of games.

There's more info on Facebook, and here's where you can find the full schedule. My talk is Sunday.

St. Louis County Library

Like I said, THE VERY SAME WEEK, I'm also speaking at a St. Louis County Library branch, as part of their "Science in St. Louis" series. I know, right? I'm all science-y.

Here's that session abstract:

"The Rock, Paper, Scissors Phenomenon!" Using a simple hand game as a starting point, participants will learn fundamentals of game design and storytelling in this interactive experience led by a 10-year game industry veteran.

And the Facebook event page.

What are YOUR plans for the summer? Exciting career moves? Public escapades? Feel free to promote them in the comments below.

 


The Cover for My Next Book Is a Loading Screen

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I'm excited to announce Unknown Sender: The Woods, my debut interactive novel produced by Daily Magic, releasing this summer. 

I hope you like the cover art loading screen*. It's rare for a writer to get credit on a game's loading screen like this, by the way. You can buy, download, and play it on your digital device like any other game, but since it's text-based and story-driven, the folks at Daily Magic decided to acknowledge that it's largely a written work.

The interaction comes in the choices you, the player or reader, make as you progress through the story. You log onto an anonymous chat app for the first time, and an "unknown sender" reaches out to you--with a life-and-death appeal for help. Alone and lost in the woods, your new chat buddy must escape a broken-down RV surrounded by ravenous wolves. And that's just problem number one.

Your texter's friends and insulin supply are missing, and it seems whoever took them wants to play games through the radio. This psycho geneticist has a thing for riddles and traps--human traps, that is. 

Can you beat him at his own game--without sacrificing anyone? Will you help Unknown Sender uncover the mystery that still haunts these dark woods?

 * For you non-gamers: The loading screen is what you see when the game content is loading onto your device. It's treated sort of like a book cover.