Just wrapped up GDC 2016 in San Francisco. A nice break from our Montreal winter. Last year, I spent most my time here exploring GDC on the short sessions schedule. This year, I wanted to try out a longer Tutorial session on my first day. And man, am I glad I did.
I had the opportunity of attending “Storytelling Fundamentals in a Day” by Evan Skolnick (@evanskolnick). The tutorial focuses on helping game devs understand the basics of storytelling. It was a fantastic experience; I highly recommend it to anyone that wants to better understand the basics of game storytelling.
Skolnick boasts an impressive resume as a writer in both the gaming and non-gaming worlds. Before writing for video games, he was an editor at Marvel Comics, working on titles such as Dr. Strange and New Warriors. He’s currently a video game writer and narrative designer. You can see his work for Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 in this clip:
He is also the author of “Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques“, the book that much of this workshop is rooted in. The book is a great read and covers everything presented in the workshop in even greater detail.
THE WORKSHOP: WHAT IT’S ABOUT
Story is conflict. That’s the core premise with which the workshop starts. In order for a story to be appealing it should present and resolve some form of conflict for the hero. Everything that’s discussed during the workshop feeds into this lens of “Our hero wants or needs something, but is blocked from getting it by someone / something else”.
From this core premise, Skolnick walks the group through the basics of creating captivating stories. Time is spent on defining inciting incidents, plot points, story structures (such as the 3-Act Structure and the Hero’s Journey structure), character archetypes, and some rules and tools for how to expose your world to players and (perhaps most important of all) how to make that world feel believable. All of this is done with the purpose of creating a story where your audience can comfortably suspend their disbelief and “buy into” what you’re trying to sell them story-wise.
In the end, you realize that the Lion King and Terminator aren’t so different after all. Their stories have more in common than one initially suspect. Great movies all share some aspects of great story telling; the same is true for great video games.
There are 3 things I particularly loved about the workshop:
- An Example Rich Experience: We spent a lot of time watching movies and video game reels as examples. Vizualizing the theory was very helpful. Skolnick didn’t focus only on “good” examples. There were plenty of examples of video game trailers that were terrible to watch and made us cringe.
- It’s Hands On & Practical: We did little exercises in small teams as the workshop progresses. You spend time identifying the character archetypes of various “geek classics” movies. You re-build the opening scene from “Metal Gear Solid 2” (watch it here), largely seen as one of the longer, more convoluted video game openings ever made. This was contrasted with the great work done of the Left 4 Dead trailer (watch it here).
- It’s Video Game Centric: While many examples of great stories can be found in movies, Skolnick spends a lot time drawing parallels to specific storytelling cases in the video game industry. Storytelling does differ when you’re working with a fully interactive medium such as a game. A game’s story should be additive to the player experience, where gameplay is king.
IMPACT ON OUR GAME
For the last 3 months, our team @WreckoStudios been working hard and iterating on our game’s world, characters and story. We are on our 5th iteration. Attending this workshop has definitely put me at ease that we are working in the right direction. So that’s a good thing.
I also found that there are many areas of our story that can be improved.
First, we’ve spent a lot of time (so far) defining what our villain’s story was going to be. However, I’ve found that not enough attention as part of our story process has been given to clearly defining other character archetypes. So far, we have well-defined story points for our Hero, Mentor, Villain and Henchmen. However, we still need to work towards filling the roles of Herald (the character that announces the conflict to our hero), Shape Shifters (characters whose purpose is to sow suspicion and doubt) and Trickster (character that adds comic relief).
A Trickster, in particular is urgently needed in our story. We are writing out a story set in a magical world plunged into a cruel war, where the current established government is far from perfect. At times, during our story meetings it feels like the world has gotten so dark that … well … it’s just black clouds everywhere. Injecting some comic relief into this world is needed, pronto Tonto.
Second, because our world is so rich and detailed, I’ve been struggling with how much of this we expose to our players. The workshop definitely helped me understand that as far as content goes, it must be sliced into one of three categories:
- Need-to-know: What the player needs to know to get through the current challenge.
- Could / Should Wait: Content that can be presented to the player, further down the line.
- Incidental: The stuff that can be omitted and / or completely cut.
Assigning weights to our content based on these categories clarified how we need to expose our world to our player. Because our game is a magical military fantasy, one possible way of properly presenting relevant need-to-know information to the player is in the form of short communications from headquarters.
Finally, doing several more reads focused on identifying coincidences in our main plot definitely needs to happen. While small coincidences can happen from time to time, big coincidences break the overall believability of the story. Retrofitting some parts of our story to fix these points is something we will go about doing in the next 2 weeks.
IN CLOSING …
If you are struggling with understanding story basics, this workshop will certainly de-mystify the core concepts. Whether you’re an independent developer, heading up an indie studio (like good ‘ol me) or part of a larger AAA team, this workshop is worth attending. It was a truly fantastic experience. I’ve found it to be time well spent 🙂