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As some of my faithful readers from the old days at thePuckWrites may remember, I wrote the story, quests, and designed the classes for an upcoming online game called Ghostees!. It was a lot of fun and a lot of work, and since I know that many young creatives feel drawn to games (I know I do) I thought I would do a series about what is necessary when writing for a game.
For the purposes of this series, we are going to assume your game is a role-playing game because these require the most writing. If you are writing for action or strategy games, you will need to tighten up your dialogue and plot a great deal, but you have much less to worry about in the long run because there are fewer possibilities. While in an RPG each decision and will have different possible results, your average FPS or RTS has only two possibilities: live or die.
How to Build a World
Your client or boss has a basic idea of what kind of game she wants. A number of other titles are thrown at you as examples. Genres are considered and abandoned. Finally, all that will be done for you is done, and you have to create your world plot. Now what?
A world plot is the story that the player, whether with others in an online game or alone, has their story take place within. This is the background history of the world, the basic conflicts at work in the big picture, and the basis for your general quest progression. An example is in Warcraft: the storyline originally comes from three real-time strategic games and was adapted for World of Warcraft. This background story defines the locations of gameplay (Azeroth, the Outlands) and establishes the basic factions (Human, Orc, Undead, Night Elves, Dwarves, etc) and their various conflicts. Additionally, the events of the prior games established even more history, defining new conflicts and specific enemies.
Now examine how all of this world plotting works to create the rest of the game. Once you have your world plotted you have a place for the player’s characters to be from, groups for them to both identify with and have conflicts with, and a set of larger plots for them to take part in as their characters become more powerful. In the case of WoW, their world plot has given them an almost endless supply of material for expansions, quests, races, classes, and locations. So when first conceiving your world plot you have to take all of this into account.
So what does it take to make a good world plot?
Your world plot must be consistent in its history and rules. This doesn’t mean things can’t change, but it does mean they have to change for a reason. In the plot of Warcraft, the orcs went from demon-worshipping necromancers bent on destruction to tribal warriors profoundly concerned with honor and loyalty. The game mechanic that drove this decision was a desire to make players better able to identity with the orcs and to render the duality in Warcraft, which had before been about good and evil, a bit more ambiguous. This was a money-decision…they wanted more sides and races so they could attract more players. However, in-game they made sure to justify the change using information from the game lore. Always make sure the events in your world plot are consistent, because contradictions make for a weaker story and a weaker game.
A good world plot is defined enough to make writing quests easy but flexible enough to give birth to new sub-plots, creatures, and NPCs. More content will be the cry you will hear from happy project managers, supervisors, and players, so if you wrote yourself into a corner you are screwed. You can’t have there be a single big bad boss, because then you have nowhere to go when your players beat that boss. You can’t have the whole world divided up between two factions and then introduce a third as the project leads you. A closed story, however easy it becomes to build your conflict and plot your quest progression, is a mistake. Instead, build worlds where there is plenty of information to add depth, but plenty of unknowns to leave yourself room for expansion.
The game Mass Effect does this perfectly: the main storyline is truly epic, with a plot spanning millennia. However, the world plot of the game allows for new races, locations, sub-plots, and now a sequel to branch off convincingly. This is because the world plot of Mass Effect is open…its basic premises define it without limiting it. Do likewise.
Tropes and Atmosphere
Tropes are repeating motifs that exist in stories. They are things like “the haunted house”, “the wise old man”, “the lover lost and regained”, and so on. Specific genres have specific tropes, so science fiction has the monster that turns out to really be a man and horror has the man that turns out to be a monster, and both of them, once identified by the audience, can be predicted. However, tropes are useful; they are like cliches in that they sort of work. The secret is not to avoid tropes, but to use them sparingly and well to create an atmosphere that guides the expectations of the audience. You can’t lead them by the nose, but you have to let them know there is something to be led to, otherwise they will get bored.
In a game, tropes are often used to establish the kind of game you are playing. A science fiction game like Fallout 3 will use different kinds of monsters and plot devices to characterize what sort of story it is than Oblivion, another RPG made by the same people using the same engine. An easy way to figure out your tropes is to think about the monsters and locations. While Dead Space and Silent Hill both feature themes of isolated locations with visually disturbing enemies, and both are indubitably horror games, they use the “abandoned town” vs the “abandoned ship” motif to characterize their genre. This example is meant to be obvious, but tropes can be very subtle (and should be!), and also illustrates the proper use of tropes: tropes characterize and establish atmosphere, they are not a replacement for real characters and stories. In your world plot you must use tropes to quickly and easily create the player’s expectations and allow them to see what kind of game they are playing, but avoid simply using generic tropes as your plot points.
That’s it for this installment. Next in this series we will cover lore writing and the details of how to write good background stories. Please feel free to ask questions on world plotting or add pointers of your own below.