Juan Uys

Coursera - Story and Narrative Development for Video Games, week 2


I completed CalArts’ Story and Narrative Development for Video Games and here are my course notes for week 2.

Week 2: Game Story Structure

We draw a parallel between the previous week’s discussion on rising action and how that relates to gameplay. Taking Angry Birds and StarCraft II as examples, we learn how to identify story structure and themes of rising action, just like we would with traditional stories and movies. We also evaluate the role that primary and secondary characters come to play in the unveiling of a game’s story and discuss the importance of understanding how these games present their stories in the actual gameplay.

Writing your own story synopsis

First of all, what’s a story synopsis? Well, it’s a summary of the story line in paragraph form. It lays out the spine of the story. It introduces and tells us about the characters involved, and what they do throughout that story. It also sets the tone and the pace of the story, as you want to tell, it in a concise document, that can be maybe a few paragraphs long to a maximum of a couple of pages.

It uses the 3 act structure. You have to answer these questions:

  • what is the inticing incident?
  • how does the action escalate?
  • what is the final crisis?
  • How does the resolution come?

8 parts of story synopsis:

  • Where are we; where/when does the story take place?
  • Who are we following in the story (the protagonist) and why them?
  • Who or what force is opposed to the hero of the story, and why are they in opposition (the antagonist)?
  • What do these characters want to accomplish; what is at stake for them?
  • What is the ensuing conflict, and why does it exist?
  • How does the action rise; how do things get more tense?
  • What is the final crisis, and how does it play out?
  • How do things resolve and wrap up?

This gives you a clear idea of who, of what, and where, and when, why, and how.

Defining characters and character goals

Characters are our portals into the game world. The better we understand a character, the most engaged we are with the underlying story.

(Unless, I think, you have a character you know nothing about, a mysterious character, who can be like an anonymous lens onto the world, or just a messenger. Maybe like first-person peripheral, like the narrator/witness who isn’t the main character, e.g. Nick Carraway in Great Gatsby. Could this work for game worlds? Maybe this is somewhat done e.g. in Portal, with GLaDOS. Or maybe more-so even with games that actually have a narrator, which turns out to be a minor character (can’t think of examples right now).)

It’s a nice challenge to think of your non-story game’s pieces as characters that have personality, emotion, and life.

If your game is going to have a story, define your character as deeply as possible and give them wants and needs that go beyond the scope of your immediate game to help motivate their actions and their personas in the game.

Using secondary characters

Even though the pro/an-tagonist dualism drives the plot of the story, often it makes sense to use secondary characters to help facilitate the story. E.g. your character comes to a fork in the road and can just read the sign that says “cave to the left”, or instead the character could encounter the drunk village fool who tells a tale about the cave as he’s been there, and your character can learn about the cave’s whereabouts that way. You can go deeper by not making the village fool readily available, but having to go to the tavern and seek him out by talking to the tavern keeper first.

So once you have thought of your game’s spine, and you’ve been able to summarize your story line, and you’ve settled on how your primary characters drive the story, your next task is to think of the secondary characters that fill out and help tell that story, like we’ve just done with the village fool.

Writing a character brief

Make a character list, and character briefs/descriptions.

  • Who is he/she? Are they a primary or secondary character and how do they relate to the game story?
  • What do they look like? What are they wearing or carrying with them?
  • What is their personality like and how does that personality help fulfil their role in the game story?
  • How do they relate to other characters in the game?
  • What are their strengths and weaknesses, and how can that affect the game story?
  • What are the motivating character goals for this character?

Setting descriptions

Create your settings description briefs with the following points in mind:

  • Where are we?
  • What does this place have to do with the game story?
  • How does this place relate to the characters?
  • Where did we come from and where does this place lead?
  • What does this setting look like?
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