Juan Uys

Coursera - Story and Narrative Development for Video Games, Week 1


I completed CalArts’ Story and Narrative Development for Video Games and here are my course notes for week 1.

A quick note about the entire course:

  • find ways to bring creative story elements to the design of the game
  • quantify that creativity into a series of documents that build on each other
  • those documents will be the start a game design document to help you develop your game play
  • see your game at a deeper level
  • think beyond the scope of just the game and to see your game pieces as characters that deserve emotional attention and empathy
  • workshop your own games as stories to help you find that depth and evolve your story and gameplay to something more than what you first expected
  • the more you dig (into your story, and how stories work), the more you can find

Week 1: An Introduction to Story

We analyze the components of three-act structure using a classic fairytale as an example, and examine the characters in the story by figuring out their goals and the main conflict that creates a rising arc of action to keep the audience interested.

Glossary of Terms

Spine: The logline or one sentence description of your story

Story Synopsis: A full summary of a story describing the journey of the main character, his or her goals, the conflict that arises, and how that conflict is resolved.

Character Brief: A description of a character in a story or game. It may include physical description, backstory, and details about their involvement in the story.

Setting Description: An overview of a location in a story or game

Idea Sheet: A list of ideas created from a free-writing or brainstorm exercise

Presentation Scheme: A document that outlines the game story through the gameplay

Gameplay Overview: A description of how the story of a game is revealed through gameplay and cut-scene animations.

Gameplay Flowchart: A visual map of a game’s story

What makes a story compelling?

A good story takes you on a journey, and makes it difficult for the player to tear themselves away from it.

How do we bring the reader into the story in an active way? We look at some examples, all the way from printed, static media progressing through to electronic media:

  • Choose-your-Own-Adventure books: The active reader (as opposed to passive reader) makes the choice and gets a different result. The reader is now part of the story design.
  • Dungeons & Dragons: the DM (dungeon master) adjusts the outcomes and guides to story to what the players want to do with it.
  • Dragon’s Lair (1983): highly animated, like an interactive film (a few years before Bandersnatch), and you’re presented with split second decisions in the animation, to run, jump, duck, turn etc and you either get to live, or you die.
  • video games today: interactive film forms the basis of a lot of the video games we know and love today. It’s not about standing at the arcade, putting in coin after coin, and moving the joystick. It’s about watching the character fulfill its mission; it’s about the story.

How games benefit from stories

  • Stories create emotional attachments between its characters and players
  • Stories can motivate a designer to finish a game project. The more personally invested you are in the creation of your game, the more life you breathe into it, the more motivation you’re going to have to see it through
  • your personal story in a game can give you a voice to speak through
  • a story is going to help you build a framework for your game, start to finish

How to see a game as a story first

Just as book stories have a protagonist/antagonist dualism, so should your game. You need a source of conflict between the two opposing desires/goals. Seeing your game as a story first will help you not only more easily define these two opposing forces, but also assign emotion and character to them.

Define the protagonist/antagonist relationship:

  • what is their history?
  • why is one opposed to the other?
  • what does each side stand to gain or lose?

Connecting emotionally with the player/reader/audience is not enough - you need rising interest as the story unfolds, which brings up the idea of “rising actions” in a story (more on these in later notes). Tensions between pro/an-tagonist need to keep rising until the climactic resolving event. Things need to get worse and worse and worse for the hero before it gets better. You can see this in games - enemies get more challenging, but thanks to the idea of maintaining game balance, the protagonist manages to progress, maybe with better weapons, or upgrades, etc.

And interesting exercise presented to the student is trying to figure out a more compelling narrative behind Pac-Man. Here’s my attempt.

Learn how to see the elements of narrative in existing stories, so it will guide you in understanding how story structure is used and help you create your own stories: find the “beats” of story structure, such as rising actions, in a traditional three-act structure.

Finding your story

  • define your spine, and you should be able to communicate it in one or two sentences
  • characters should move a spine forward, or be cut

A good exercise is to watch a film then try to break it down to 2 sentences. What was the movie trying to say, and what was its most important theme?

Three-act structure, and rising action

Act 1: the setup. Introduce characters, world, setting, and ends with “inciting incident”. E.g. Maleficent shows up to the birth of Princess Aurora totally uninvited and curses the baby purely out of spite.

Act 2: the confrontation. Rise in tensions, actions. Then the final conflict. Usually the longest part of the story. The final crisis: Maleficent turns into a dragon and fights Prince Philip at the castle. He truly is the last thing that can save her. And this is Maleficent’s last effort to stop all the heroes.

Act 3: resolution. The final battle. Then the kiss, as the protagonists claim what is rightfully theirs.

Taking Angry Birds as an example: Act 1: the pigs steal the eggs. Act 2: here are all the levels of gameplay, with rising action (the levels getting harder), and the pigs always just barely escaping. Act 3: the pigs are defeated and can’t make a final escape, with the birds standing over the pig king.

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