In production, we deal a lot with story changes. It’s funny, because story is often one of the first things in the game to get created, but one of the last things to get started, and the last things finished. Chris just recently posted a survey that found 93% of game players require or enjoy story in their games. But, in the game of design, it often just gets in the way.
Why do so many game stories suck? In large part it’s because they’re the first thing in but the last thing out. I can’t tell you how many planning meetings I’ve sat through where designers have debated the finer points of a particular moment’s drama and character motivation while what the primary gameplay was going to be like was still up in the air. And most designer’s will be able to tell you exactly where each level is going to be before they’ve even gotten their hands on a playable prototype. Plus, hey, your executives would much rather hear about your cool story and see concept art then see your game. In the end, though, when you are pressed for time, these last things like story get cut back pretty fast and the drama just falls apart. As much as we may hate to admit it, games, and thus our game stories, are interactive (cutscenes excepted). Handling all those little quirks that comes with interactivity means getting it wrong the first time. And the second time, and the third time. Plus, if all this story was planned first, it’s probably not adjusted for where your game ultimately ended up, making it doubly hard to work with.
So what can we do better? I think it’s time we moved away from stories in a production sense. All you really need for most games is your setting. Everything else can be adjust and tune to better effect as you move through the process. But setting is critical. Think about your game’s setting for a moment. Setting impacts gameplay, sets tone, defines initial impressions, sets expectations, and communicates feedback to players, all without independently from your story. Picking a settings earlier is substantially easier and substantially more useful. Differentiating between story and setting so that you can determine story themes, arc, characters, and pace once you actually understand your game could make the difference between a story that gets thrown into cutscenes or one that evolved to match exactly what a game is about and what you have time to accomplish. Resist the urge to pick your story first! Store those ideas in a safe place. Picking your setting first and putting your energy into the game could get you all the way through pre-production and maybe even into production, giving your ultimate story the time it needs to find the best ideas and the best home in your game.
(Photo by user zeekslider from flickr used under the Creative Commons license)