Story Writing Basics

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IrinaAvatar.png This is an article written by Irina.

Depending on certain games, story may or may not be the most important thing. In RPG's, story tends to be an (extremely) important aspect of them. But even the smallest games with the simplest gameplay will still have a story to them. There's protagonists and antagonists, heroes and villains, resolution and conflict. The following is a list of things to take into consideration when writing a story.

The Seven Basic Plots

There's an infinite amount of possible stories you can write for a game. But among them are seven categories that story plots tend to fall under. Stories can follow one or multiple of these at a time. Understanding them, what they are, and what they can do for your game will help build an understanding on how you want to write your story.


Overcoming the Monster


Wikipedia Definition: The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (often evil) which threatens the protagonist and/or protagonist's homeland.

In Games: In games, this has now transformed into something more like "Overcoming the Antagonist". The "monster" doesn't have to be an actual monster but an antagonist and/or source of conflict. This can be the villain or baddie that the hero and his/her party has been chasing since the start of the game or a giant evil and/or disaster that they must prevent or halt.

Video Game Examples:

Chrono Trigger: Crono and co. versus Lavos.
Final Fantasy VII: Cloud and co. fighting against Sephiroth.
Kingdom Hearts: Sora and co. fighting against Ansem.

Rags to Riches


Wikipedia Definition: The poor protagonist acquires power, wealth, and/or a mate, loses it all and gains it back, growing as a person as a result.

In Games: This is often the main goal for shop sims, farming sims, management sims, you see the pattern, but it can also apply to certain characters, too, whose sole goal is to get away from their currently unfavorable life state to obtain a better one.

Video Game Examples:

Harvest Moon: Starting with a run-down farm and building it back up.
Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale: Running a shop to break free out of debt and learning the trade of being a merchant.
Moonlighter: A shopkeeper in the middle of a nowhere town trying to make a living.

The Quest


Wikipedia Definition: The protagonist and companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location. They face temptations and other obstacles along the way.

In Games: In games, this doesn't change much from the usual story definition. From seeking the four crystals to finding a legendary artifact or whatever, you see these stories all the time in games, and especially in RPG's. An objective is given to the player by the game and that object needs to be cleared. That's as simple as it gets for a quest, or "the quest".

Video Game Examples:

Final Fantasy V: Collect the four crystals, the legendary weapons, etc.
Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning and co. were turned into l'Cie, with objectives to fulfill with their lives.
Super Mario RPG: Mario and co. aim to save Princess Toadstool but later discovering that they have to also repair the Star Road by finding the Seven Stars.

Voyage and Return


Wikipedia Definition: The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to them, they return with experience.

In Games: In some games, this could be about exploration and the adventures the protagonists goes through. In others, it could be about survival and making it through until the protagonist is capable of escaping. In traditional RPG's, this tends to be a supporting plot as some of them tend to have world-wide traversal.

Video Game Examples:

Bravely Default: The main cast travels to many worlds and even parallel universes, for the sake of returning everything back to normal towards the end.
Nier: Automata: 2B and 9S travel to relatively unknown machine world.
Secret of Mana 3: The six playable characters travel across various parts of their world, facing various challenges before eventually returning home.

Comedy


Wikipedia Definition: Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. Booker stresses that comedy is more than humor. It refers to a pattern where the conflict becomes more and more confusing, but is at last made plain in a single clarifying event. The majority of romance films fall into this category.

In Games: In games, you see these as misadventures, possibly happening with joke characters, or with a joke plot in general due to how ridiculous it is (but makes sense in-universe).

Video Game Examples:

Disgaea: The whole plot is full of nonsense. Funny nonsense.
Hyperdimension Neptunia: The series is about anthropomorphic video game consoles reliving the console wars.
Earthbound: The game is raw satire in video game form.

Tragedy


Wikipedia Definition: The protagonist's character flaw or great mistake which is their undoing. Their unfortunate end evokes pity at their folly and the fall of a fundamentally good character.

In Games: Happens in game stories as they would in regular stories. Though the tragedy does not have to be a character flaw, but rather, something that happens to the character(s). This could range from a character's death to the destruction of a hero's hometown, what have you.

Video Game Examples:

Final Fantasy X: The whole thing is about a ruined world.
Persona 3: A huge focus of the game is on death, the wrongs of the world, and accepting it.
Final Fantasy XV: It's a tragedy how Final Fantasy Versus XVIII had to become this.

Rebirth


Wikipedia Definition: An event forces the main character to change their ways and often become a better person.

In Games: Just like the last few story plots, rebirth is another one where it can happen in games as they would in regular stories. In recent trends, this is often seen in an antagonist more than a protagonist, but it can very well happen to the protagonist, too.

Video Game Examples:

Final Fantasy IV: Cecil, the Dark Knight protagonist, is reborn as a Paladin.
Undertale: A lot of the monsters in the game hate humans, but decide they aren't so bad after all.
Persona 4: The majority of the main cast tend to have issues with themselves, where, after confronting their true selves in the form of shadows, learn to accept who they are and turn it for the better.

The Importance of a Good Antagonist

A misconception with writing a good story is that the focus is on the hero, and therefore, the most important character in the story is the hero. However, this could not be further from the truth as the biggest driving force for the story is actually the antagonist. Designing a good antagonist should be one of the first things you do.

Why is the antagonist so important?

That's because the antagonist is the source of most (and in some cases, all) of the conflict found in the story. Without the antagonist, there is no quest for the hero to set off on, no journey for the party, and no chaos found in the world if the antagonist reaches that scale. Here's a number of a things that antagonist can affect:

Worldbuilding

The antagonist can be responsible for shaping the current state of the world by either throwing it into chaos, changing the status quo, or driving the story's world to action.

Unity

The antagonist can very easily be the root cause of why a hero's party forms and binds together and/or be the very reason the hero's party splits apart.

Pace

The actions of the antagonist can determine the pace at which the story goes at. The hero and his/her party is almost always a reactive force to the antagonist's actions, meaning that depending on how and what the antagonist does, the party will have to react to it in tandem. Wherever the antagonist goes, the party is sure to follow after.

Growth

The antagonist is often the driving force to make the hero grow. The hero must acquire a certain level of strength, find a way to overcome the antagonist, and become a stronger person either physically, mentally, and/or emotionally. The hero would need to come up with ideals stronger than the antagonist.

Tone

The tone of a story will revolve around the antagonist. How the antagonist behaves, acts, and responds will play a major factor in how the tone of the story turns out.

A good antagonist can make a story write itself given how much he/she can impact. Design your antagonist well and the rest of the story is likely to follow.

Common Mistakes in Video Game Writing

The following is a list of things I deem to be common mistakes found in video game writing.

Having too much pride

Being a content creator in any form tends to result people having some amount of pride. This also applies to writers. As a writer, nobody will know your story better than you do. And for that reason, it's not unusual for writers to forget that they have yet to explain a certain aspect of their story, plot, etc. to the reader/player, making certain segments of their writing confusing. Some feelings that you, the writer, may try to convey might not reach the audience. This does not mean they do not appreciate your work or that your work isn't for them, but instead, it may have to do with the way you deliver your work.

More is Less, Less is More

A common mistake is that writers tend to throw in a ton of unnecessary words in dialogue, narrative, and/or descriptions. Doing so actually detracts from player experience. If a cutscene has a protagonist walking towards the heroine, you do not need to narrate that out. What if they're nervous as they walk towards the heroine? Do you narrate it? You could, but you're better off visually showing it. Showing is always going to be more in a visual medium than a written one. Putting in too many words in a scenario would take away from it.

Design your story around your game

Design your story around your game, and not the other way around. A common mistake is that game devs who are initially writers will try to design their games around their writing. This is because writing is almost always more flexible than the ability to reproduce inside the game what the story requires. You can write out the most menacing monster out there out, but do you have access to the artistic skill to replicate it? You can conjure up the most complex magic system out there, but do you have the programming ability to create it? You can make the most complicated branching scenarios out there, but do you have the time to actually make them? Instead, you can always cut away and meld your story to fit what you have access to in terms of ability, resources, and personnel.

Neglecting to make notes

Neglecting to make notes on certain parts of your game can hamper your ability to keep your story cohesive. Always write down notes, make small character biographies, outline out plots, and more whenever you are coming up with ideas. Your mind is your greatest asset when it comes to story writing, but it is far from the most reliable in terms of memory.

Writing in Chronological Order

You do not need to write your story in chronological order. Coming up with an introduction, then writing the initial events, how the party forms, etc. is not a necessity to starting out your story. This is a trap amateur writers often fall into. It's extremely easy to fall into the "I have to make an intro" trap or get stuck on "What should my title be?" Instead, plan and write out major events first if you have to, then piece them together. You will have a far easier time rearranging things into chronological order and even have an easier time writing out the parts that need making.

Avoid Word Salads

Using Latin names as substitutes for naming conventions is pretty darn cool. However, it's also extremely confusing for readers. When you name nearly everything in your game with some obscure unique and fancy name, they not only lose their fanciness, but they also become an annoyance for readers and players alike. If you can call something by their common name, it's best to stick to that and save the unique fancy name for something else that truly does deserve it.

Aim for Simplicity, not Complexity

There's a mindset out there that stories have to be complex. This is not true. Instead, a story that aims for simplicity tend to work better in relaying what the author wants to the intended audience. There's four ways to write a story:

Simple Stories
told simply
Complex Stories
told simply
Simple Stories
told complexly
Complex Stories
told complexly

Avoid making a simple story told in a complex way. They tend to frustrate readers and players once they get the gist of it. You almost never want your audience to feel like your work is a waste of their time.

Short Stories are Okay, Long Stories are Okay

Like with simplicity, there's this mindset out there that stories have to be a long, epic story. That's not true. Both short and long stories are fine to make. In fact, if you're an amateur game dev, I highly recommend making a short story first before a long one. Amateur writers and/or game devs aiming for long games tend to pad out their work with filler content that's often meaningless to the audience. Instead, what you should aim for is to make it memorable for the amount of time they put in, rather than take up all their time instead. After all, it's better if a game is "too short" than "too long".

Trying too hard to be different

People tend to mock tropes, cliches, and other commonly used techniques in story telling. To some writers, there's more value in being different than making a proper story and this can seriously hamper a good game. Believe it or not, readers are more likely to enjoy a familiar story told well than a unique story told poorly. Work with what you're more familiar with and expand upon that. Do cover your weaknesses, do try to make your story different, but understand that being different for the sake of being different has little to no merit.

About Memes

Avoid the usage of memes in writing. This is not to say that memes aren't enjoyable, but instead, memes have a very short shelf life. By the time your game is released, story is put out, or whatever, there's an incredibly high likelihood that the memes you're using in your story are outdated, don't make sense anymore, and/or phased out entirely.