Design Essentials: Of Story in Games


Stories are a core element of game design but the art of storycrafting for games is truly arcane. This article looks at some kinds of story, their basic composition and how the types may apply to both development, presentation and play.

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Creating just the right story for a game design is a cryptic skill. It can be demanding as novel-writing or easy as paint-by-numbers. A good story-to-game match can synergize and accentuate both, while a mis-match can detract from either. Selecting a winning combination sometimes comes down to instinct, a gut-level sense beyond a textbook understanding of what stories are and how they can be used. Much of the craft's magic machinations can be learned through experience, discussion and analysis with active storycrafters -- if they are willing to share.

Designer's Story and Player's Story

In GD:T&P, my oft and over-quoted reference guide, the author Rouse discusses game stories in two categories: Designer and Player. The example of a Designer's Story is the GDI and Nod conflict provided between missions in Command & Conquer, a mostly fixed and linear format. The Player's Story is described as the one generated during play, a 'unique' story of the player actions and results.

The described Designer's Story is a common presentation method and used across the spectrum of game genres from table-top to massively multiplayer and all the arcade, console and handheld formats in between. A rigid example of this would be the now unpublished Knights & Merchants (Settlers-class medieval strat-sim) where the story would unfold only as level missions were completed successfully. Not clearing a level means the game halts in Groundhog Day fashion and repeats until the player wins or gives up and stops playing.

Several variation advances on the inflexible, second millenium approach are now common, one being to design story branches. Gameplay direction can vary depending on player choices and results of in-game challenges. In racing games like GranTurismo, different combinations of vehicles and sequence of courses may be used to add play variety while progressing through one mode of the game. Sports games, which are natural settings for repeat play, often allow for unique player choices in avatar-athletes or teams as another example. Similarly, difficulty settings in most PC/CRPG also qualify as offering a difference in challenge.

The Player's Story in GD:T&P is equivalent to the player's experience in a particular round of play. Although the story setting, avatars and goals from the Designer's Story may be constant, a play-run is considered a separate story even if very similar to other play-runs.

From a designer's perspective it may be beneficial to think of the Player's Story subdivided into two or more varieties: the Player's type, the Character or Avatar's type, the Role type, etc., as the game design offers. Thus a game of Chess would provides two Role types, one for the initiating move and one for the second move, and a MMORPG would offer as many Avatar type variations as characters slots and Role types as factions.

No matter how much freedom is allowed, however, the Designer's Story cannot be completely removed from the Player's Story. At the very least it is the existence of the game in the first place, without which there is no game to play. The restriction of the players' roles in game play does not equate a bad game. No lack of story involvement or separation curbs the enjoyment a game of Pacman or Tetris.

Another Story

Tabletop RPGing has another important category: The GM's Story. It is less definite than Designer's Story and more variable than the Player's Story but it is a distinct entity. The GM's influence can be imperceptible with delivery of an adventure with little influence on the adventure as written, or distinct, with the GM's own style engraved into all sorts of modifications.

The topic becomes conceptually interesting when the GM is the one and the same as the designer and yet can be a truely secondary influence by modifying the self-created design on the fly during live play or between sessions. The GM-designer is uniquely positioned to facilitate a Player's Story interactively, a perfect situation for storycrafting for gameplay. The best part of the GD:T&P chapter on storytelling is the inclusion of Chris Crawford commentary on the idea. With some luck the discussions here will be joined by our own Design Scholar for additional enlightenment.

"There are two good examples of the ideal interactive story telling experience. The first is an example Chris Crawford is fond of using: that of a parent telling a child a story. The parent has in mind a story to tell including what characters it will involve, what surprises it will contain, roughly how the story will unfold, and approximately how it will end. But as the child asks questions about the story, the parent will change the tale accordingly. The parent may use a book as a guide, but will stray from that guide as necessary. For example, the story might begin: "As the princess wandered through the dark forest, she was frightened by many different things she saw, including a large newt, a dark cave, and an old shack." As the parent tells the story, the child may ask questions. "What color was the newt?" "The newt was a strange shade of yellow, a color the princess had only seen in the royal spiced mustard." "What about the cave?" "From within the cave came a terrible smell, reminiscent of the smell of sulfur burning." ... "

This example of storytelling from natural human interaction is in stark contrast to dictated styles that are far more prevalent. Even with advancing communication capabilities some designers employ the tools only to reinforce the easier but stolid methods of delivery where the response to "What color was the newt?" could more likely be "Shut-up and listen to my story or go to sleep now, You're in My World Now, child ..."


The mechanics of storycraft for Designer's and GM's are fashioned from various "storytelling devices" to communicate their story. Mechanics may be enacted both in-game and out-of-game before, between and after gameplay sessions. Any method that conveys information about the game has the potential to be a part of storyworks.

    • Visual, Text
    • Instructions or story
    • Hints or notes
    • Visual, Graphic
    • Images, still
    • Images, dynamic
    • Audial
    • Narration
    • Dialogue
    • SFX and BGM
    • Combinations and Hybrids
    • Gameworld Setting
    • Cut-Scenes (Cinematic)
    • Overlays (Map-Text, Map-Narration)
    • Complex Objects Signboards, Books, Graffiti (Image-Text)
    • NPC behavior
    • Technical
    • Difficulty or Level settings
    • Visual, Text
    • Articles, stories
    • Manual, strategy book
    • Visual, Graphic
    • Cut Scenes
    • Images
    • Audial
    • Narration
    • Dialogue
    • Combinations and Hybrids
    • Advertisments (still or cut-scenes)
    • Info-sites
    • Testimonials
    • Events
    • Physical
    • Paraphernalia (regalia, trinkets, swank)

    A Player's Stories could arguably have both in-game and out-of-game facets, particularly if one includes participating in game-related events or conventions as an extension of the player experience. A case could even be made for costume-play to represent a fusion of the Player and Avatar type stories. A less dramatic example could be daydreaming of gameplay, recalling memorable gameplay moments or planning new ones, while involved with activities away from the game.

      For consideration:
    • What does a story determine for the game being designed?
    • Are player actions and choices able to influence the direction or outcome of the game?
    • If play can effect the game, to what degree?
    • What scope (in-game, out-of-game) will benefit the game design?