How to write a game story

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Game story, quests and characters writing: make game development 30% easier

Game story or narrative are all events the player will witness or will know about from the game. Sometimes it’s clear like in The Last of Us, sometimes it’s blurry and almost absent, like in Binding of Isaac. But without the story the player wouldn’t have motivation to play, unless it’s a multiplayer game made just for fun.

Many AAA video games has failed because of poor story: Duke Nukem Forever, Crackdown 3, Devil May Cry 2. And many games with good sales were criticized for the poor story, massive plot holes and lack of interesting characters.

On the other hand, indie games with simple gameplay and graphics become famous because of the great stories they told. There are Hotline Miami, Don’t Starve, Papers Please, Outlast and many more that were remembered by the players because of the feelings they gave to the players.

dont starve art

So, here lies the question: how to write a great story, quests and characters? Big game companies hire professional game story writers. Indie game developers write stories by themselves. You can take the best from these approaches by hiring a game outsourcing team like Kreonit. You give us a brief info about your game, e.g. setting, game mechanics, visuals, iconic items or abilities the game has. We give this info to the professional writer, who creates the story and characters. It’s cheaper, than hiring a famous author, and you can focus on actual development instead of writing.

Now we want to explain how the game story is created and what writers need to do to make the game entertaining.

How to write a game story

The story must have protagonist and antagonist which have a conflict. Obviously, the player controls the Protagonist and sees the story from his eyes. The Antagonist does or wants to do something that the Protagonist won’t like — sets the conflict. Now the Protagonist answers the Antagonist’s actions and defeats him — solves the conflict. Or not.

video game conflict

Here are examples of conflict and solution:

  • Far Cry 3: Vaas kills protagonists brother so protagonist avenges him;
  • The Witcher 3: the evil elf Eredin wants to steal Geralt’s stepdaughter Ciri, so Geralt denies it;
  • The Last of Us: zombie-fungus has almost erased humanity, so Joel defends Ellie who might be the cure.

You may oppose it with “But these games are 20-50 hours long! There are much more stories in them!” Yes, there are more stories to tell, but these are main conflict lines. The player knows how the conflict started and who is his enemy — that’s all he needs to know.

vaas far cry 3

To make the main story more intense and interesting the writer has to fill it with smaller stories: quests, side-quests, collectibles and characters. Let’s expand our examples:

  • Far Cry 3: pirates kidnapped the main character’s friends, so he has to free them;
  • The Witcher 3: Bloody Baron will tell where Ciri is after Geralt solves his problems;
  • The Last of Us: Joel has to help Bill to find some scrap to fix a car and ride to the destination point.

Most quests and side quests are based on characters. Of course, there are side quests about finding a legendary gun, sword or trinket. Still, it’s better to add a quest giver character than to make the quest background on notes.

Game story structure

In the conclusion, the game story looks like a Russian doll. Big main quests contains smaller quest lines, which contain separate quests, which are based on characters. And together they form a game story.

video game story structure

To begin writing a story you need to start from the top and immediately go to the bottom. Simply speaking, you need to create a game world and setting and set a main conflict. To do this the writer comes up with an antagonist and sets a conflict.

For example, the writer can make a fantasy world with an evil dragon, evil sorcerer or evil king who wants to destroy the world. In a future world setting the antagonist could be portrayed as a corporation, enemy fraction or aliens. And in a modern world it may be an ordinary human, who just did a bad thing to the main character or somebody related.

video game antagonist

It is easy to miss the game antagonist motivation, but it is what distinguish vivid bad guys from bland ones. Every antagonist has its goal, and it isn’t “Destroy the world!” like we used to think. Remember, that the antagonist may have a good goal, but its methods are cruel and inhumane:

  • The Evil Within — Ruvik was hurt by scientists who used his brain as a core for the Matrix-like machine. So Ruvik went nuts and tortured all scientists who were connected to local Matrix;
  • The Witcher 3 — Eredin lost his world due to Wolven Storm and now wants to fight it with Ciri’s help;
  • Doom Eternal — Khan Maykr wants to recycle all humans into soul energy in order to revive her world.

Now it’s time to make a main character. First the writer develops the character’s origin. In other words, he tells the player why the character is powerful enough to stop the antagonist. An ordinary farmer can’t fight a dragon, but the Dragonborn can slap it like a fly.

Then the writer has to develop a motivation. Ordinary people aren’t willing to leave their cabbage farms to poke the dragon with a spear. But if the dragon burned their cabbages, they will have motivation to drop shovels and take the spears.

How to write a quest line or a storyline for a game

The storyline is a number of quests tied to one character or event. The best example of great quest lines is Cyberpunk 2077, because most of the storylines are connected to only 1 or 2 characters at time. For example, the detective’s River Ward quest line begins with mostly formal cooperation and ends with saving his nephew or even romance. These quests are filled with conversations and gunfights and sometimes include the investigation process like a real detective job.

cyberpunk 2077 river ward story

To make a storyline the writer has to form a chain from small quests. A video game quest is a local story with 10-30 minutes length. Like any other story, it is divided into 3 acts: set up, confrontation and resolution.

In the set-up act the writers tells the player what is the problem and how to solve it. Cyberpunk 2077 does it by someone calling V and explaining the situation. In other games it may be done with a letter, announcement or conversation with some character. Clearly, the companion names the quest’s antagonist.

In the confrontation part the player has to fight the antagonist or to solve the problem in the other way. It is almost pure gameplay mixed with story. In good games most quests are non-linear in gameplay way. This means, that the player is free to choose how he will get to the resolution act.

In the resolution act the player and his companion witness the consequences. In most cases the antagonist is defeated, but sometimes the only result is a total failure and the protagonist has to solve even bigger problems in the future. video game quest writing

To make a storyline the writer has to write 2-5 small quests and unite them with one character or connect them into full story. For example, a merchant may ask the player to bring him some herbs from nearby forest, then — a few wolf tails and then a unicorn’s horn to make an ultimate potion.

quest scheme

Now there’s only one thing left — to make a quest line more interesting and less artificial. CD Project Red in Cyberpunk 2077 did perfect job: they introduce quest givers in another quests. For example, V goes on main quest with Rogue, and then she introduces V to Panam. V goes on Panam’s quests, and she introduces V to Aldecaldo’s boss.

How to write a quest for video game

To tell the truth, gamers rarely remember the main quest line in details. Most players remember only particular quests with good narrative, extraordinary events or with bright characters. For example, nobody will name every single “Kill the monster” contract from Witcher 3, but most players will remember the drunk witchers partying while wearing Yennefer’s clothes.

drunk witchers quest

So, every quest must be a good little story with at least one shocking, funny or thrilling event and one beloved or hated character. The player will remember the emotions, but not the number of wolf tails he had to collect.

Now it’s time to think about the character that may be the player’s companion or quest giver. If said shocking or funny event is about that character, the player has to feel empathy for it. If there’s no empathy, the player will skip the torture scene or funny dialogue because he doesn’t care for the character.

How to write a good character? Make him look like an interesting human being. Every person has beliefs and life position. Moreover, there are stories which made this person to adopt those principles. The writer’s goal is to portray these through the character’s action. Imagine, that you and your companion are standing before a village while some bandits are attacking villagers:

  • evil character will say: “Let’s kill bandits, then peasants, then loot corpses!”;
  • good character will say: “Let’s help the villagers!”.

Do you think these lines make great portraits? Compare with these:

  • evil character will say: “Those peasants left me to starve when I was wounded and begging for bread. Help them if you want, but I won’t move a finger!” and sit demonstratively;
  • good character will say: “We need to help them! They’re defenseless!” and rush into fight before the player.

What are the differences? In the second example the characters were acting and not just talking. By doing something they expressed more, than any writer can do with only words. And to make the player feel empathy to write those characters to help him in cutscenes, gameplay or dialogues. The best example of companion writing is Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite. She doesn’t need help, picks locks and brings items while the player is short on something.

bioshock elizabeth booker catch

Conclusions

A novel or a movie script are easier to write than a game story, because it has to keep the player’s attention for a 5 or 6 hours. It also has to motivate the player to play further and overcome obstacles just to find out how the story will end.

If you invented interesting game mechanics but are struggling with writing an exciting story — call us. Tell us what do you want to see in the game and what ideas you have — we’ll do the rest. Just fill a short brief below.

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