I'm always encountering people who think game development is like what we believe rocket science to be--extremely technical and difficult, not a pursuit open to anyone who isn't an Einstein. As someone who is decidedly less than Einsteinian, I'm here to tell you that it's not.
I've developed a talk meant to demystify game design and get the average person of any age excited about it. I've used versions of this presentation in college-level introductions to game design and with general audiences, including families with young children. It's meant for my special brand of highly interactive facilitated discussion; after all, games are an interactive medium, so why should our talks be any different? And I always start by getting the audience to play a simple hand game: Rock, Paper, Scissors.
You can see this in action here:
The above talk was for the St. Louis County Library's "Science in St. Louis" series, and I don't think I've ever had as much fun with any audience as I did this one. Singles, couples, and families with kids showed up, enthusiastic about the topic and ready to participate, and not a single person wanted to know if I'd worked on Fortnite! A really cute thing happened at the end, too, when two young boys asked me for my autograph. I'm just thrilled that they've got an image of a silver-haired woman in their minds now associated with the phrase "game design."
game design, game principles, hand game, narrative design, Rochambeau, Rock/Paper/Scissors, RPS, science, Science in St. Louis, St. Louis, St. Louis County Library, visual narrative, zero-sum game
Clementine, from The Walking Dead. Image source: screen cap.
Last week, we talked about why story matters in games, looking at how we experience games as well as what data and market performance has told us. Now I'd like to dive into how to make story work in games. In my own narrative design, it comes down to these three elements:
You'd think conflict would be a given, the default first step for any game designer working on a narrative project. But at least in my experience, you'd be wrong. I can't tell you how many games I've been asked to triage, and the first thing I see is that while there might be a lot of WORDS in the game, there's actually no story. Because there's no conflict. And without conflict, you have no drama, no story "stuff."
To quote my buddy Evan Skolnick:
The fuel of fiction is conflict.
- Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques
Let's take an example from a highly successful game that managed to suck me in despite its lack of story. (Because that happens. All the time. Just because I said last week that story can make games better, and that's been proved by data, doesn't mean stories without games are failures. Or that every game needs a story. These are not absolutes, people.) Anyway, the game is Farmville 2: Country Escape. I love, love, love this game. But there's no story in the game because there is no drama. What it does have are a lot of cute characters with little vignettes about them that you may or may not read because they are pleasant little scenarios, but no more. There's no conflict and therefore no drama, nothing for any of the characters to struggle against or triumph over. To return to the quote from Jonathan Gottschall, there's no "suction of story" for your mind to "yield helplessly to." Maybe that's OK, but it seems to me if you are going to go to the trouble of putting a lot of words in a game, you can use them to craft a conflict and get some more suction.
The first way to create conflict is to use the nature of the gameplay itself, but creating a STORY REASON for the gameplay. For example, in Matchington Mansion, players get to restore and redecorate a mansion. So it makes sense for the first bit of drama to be related to that, as in, uh-oh, this mansion I just inherited is falling apart!
Image source: screen cap.
One of the most obvious ways to create conflict is to add an antagonist, as we did with the introduction of the character Rex Houston. He's the only surviving relative of the woman who left you her mansion, and he wants to take it from you--so he can raze it and build a casino on the site.
Image source: Screen cap.
Now let's talk about mystery. Adding story can mean giving players something to investigate, but it's important to let them find the answer through gameplay, since this thing is a game first and a story second, most often. Then reward them with story reveals.
"Mystery" can apply to any genre, so it doesn't have to be a straight-up detective tale to give you that sense of something to discover or solve. In fact, I'm working on a game called Survivors: The Quest, and providing players with new mysteries to solve is getting me through hundreds of hours of new content in a game that I've been working on for more than a year.
Image source: screen cap.
In Matchington, we gave players something to investigate in the environment itself, as part of the builder interactions.
Image source: screen cap of in-development build.
Lastly is connection. While strict puzzlers like Tetris certainly have their appeal, players love game worlds filled with other people their player character can interact with. That's something that the aforementioned Farmville 2 has going for it, despite the lack of conflict. One of the best parts of that game is meeting a diverse crop of farmhands who help you find resources you can use in the game, like quartz from the mine, that you can turn into farm products, like a glass bottle for your wine.
Here we have your neighbor Edna Downing, a source of quirky amusement as she drops passive-aggressive comments like the one below or quotes from her downer poetry. But she also has a game reason for being there: She introduces players to the feature that allows them to visit other mansions.
Image source: screen cap of in-development build.
It's good when creating story in your games to think about C-M-C: Conflict, Mystery, and Connection. Watch these moments from The Walking Dead and see if you can spot conflict, mystery, and connection in them.
I'll be speaking on this topic this weekend at PixelPop! Hope to see you there.
I love a solid Match-3 game, and my latest release is that and so much more. In Matchington Mansion, you can hone your interior design skills while protecting your house from a mischievous cousin, unlock new rooms, renovate your kitchen and garden, and discover secrets hidden among the furniture – all with a cast of quirky characters in tow. You can even spy on the neighbors and check out their room design choices.
As a (no longer closeted as of right now) HGTV addict, I said "yes" immediately when a producer with Firecraft Studios approached me about working with him on this game. It was a great opportunity to craft a robust narrative for the Match-3 genre, with an added sim mechanic in the form of home decorating and gardening! Like a match made in heaven for me.
Plus, those of you who've heard my game-industry presentations know I've talked about how games that don't seem to lend themselves easily to story could actually be much more popular with players if story were part of the package. Matchington Mansion proves me correct. The game released to featuring on the App Store and is currently trending at 4.5 stars on nearly 5,000 reviews on GooglePlay and 4.5 stars on more than 500 reviews in the App Store.
If you're a fan of my quirky character dialogue in the Dreamslippers Series, you'll see that writing style on full display here as well. Writing dialogue for your interior design bestie - not to mention villains like the scheming Rex Houston - was a fun challenge.
The game starts off with a twist on the "I've inherited a mansion" scenario... the woman who bequeaths it to you was a famous novelist. While living out the dream of getting your own mansion to fully customize to your liking, you uncover your late friend's secret life... and love.
As always, the story is in service to the game. You'll decorate your mansion in this match-3 makeover puzzle game, design new home decor and furniture by matching pillows, power-up with levels, and renovate your entire house, including your kitchen and garden.
You'll have a blast as you match and swap pillows in a game to innovatively decorate your mansion, with these features:
Secrets, rewards, and an intriguing narrative – piece together all the hidden objects and learn new secrets
In-game characters to meet and interact with – follow their interesting stories while you play
Play levels with tons of room design options and thousands of DIY Decorations – unlock hidden areas for rewards
Power-up combos, incredible boosters, and tons of levels in a fun game of matching!
I hope you enjoy this game. Please feel free to email me with your feedback using this handy link.
"I highly recommend this game! It is fun and challenging and fantastic!" - Ami Weller, GooglePlay
"This is a cute little game that progresses along quite nicely. I like the storyline." - Chrisp one, App Store
"I'm really loving this game. Enjoying far more than Homescape or Gardenscape." - Candace Orman, GooglePlay
"Addictive." Nate Nate, GooglePlay
"This is a lot of fun! Tiffany has a good sense of humor and I love her 🐈." - Diane Wood, GooglePlay