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Three Dimensional Writing in Gaming.

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In another one of the game communities I peruse, there was a thread about whether the setting/background of a game/character was important. A lot of people there said that backgrounds and setting were "filler", and I wondered if it correlated to the notoriously poorly written games that come from that forum.

So, I wanted to bring it up on a larger, more diversive forum.

Assuming games that depend on story such as RPGs and point-and-click adventures, how much development of the background is needed for an amazing story? What should be the minimum that makers of these games consider to make sure the story works in the game?

What about games that don't necessarily depend on story? How much story is good enough, or even too much?

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Try asking that same question about a movie. How much development of background is necessary for a great movie? The answer is that it depends on the genre, and the subject of the story. If the story takes place in a single location over the course of one day, there is limited need for background development. If the story takes place in a real location in a modern time, there is limited need for background development. But, if the story presents a whole fantasy or sci-fi society, a lot of background development is necessary, and part of the charm of those genres. Historical too needs a fair amount of background development, and again that's part of the reason fans of that genre like it. Fantasy, science fiction, and historical are collectively known as milieu genres (milieu basically means setting).

But I agree with the general idea that people who think story is just a bit of bling slapped on the surface of a game are going to make crappy shallowly-developed stories.

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Sounds like they had a lot of poor ideas.

A lot of people there said that backgrounds and setting were "filler"

They're not filler and they serve two roles.

The first, which is very important to making a game intuitive, is as a metaphor for elements of the gameplay itself.

e.g. Instead of saying "when my fillbar fills up, I get a 4.3.2 stat unit and that changes the tactical situation", we say "when I'm done researching chivalry, I can use knights". "Knight" is a very good metaphor for that 4.3.2 unit. It's role in the game actually does reflect the role of the cavalry on a battlefield, and it's intuitive that the horse has 2 movement points instead of 1.

e.g.2. Instead of "suddenly, you can't use game piece #4 anymore, because.", we say "Rydia was eaten by a horrible sea monster!"

e.g.3. Instead of "shoot that there for a bonus", we say "Falco's in trouble!" and if you "save" him, he leads you to the alternate boss.

games that depend on story such as RPGs

RPGs are not dependent on stories at all. Final Fantasy, for example, is perfectly playable without a story, and the first three had very thin stories, basically the minimum to communicate that you are, in fact, adventuring and provide some metaphors for gameplay elements.

point-and-click adventures

There are some games like Phoenix Wright, which are sometimes called "visual novels", which are so tightly integrated that the game flat out doesn't function without a story. Phoenix Wright would make no sense; the entire game is, basically, story & reading comprehension. Your ability to pitch the right piece of evidence in an objection is entirely dependent on your understanding of the written story.

These games are the exception.

I wondered if it correlated to the notoriously poorly written games that come from that forum

I don't get the impression that they think very deeply about what the "games" in front of them actually are or how they're put together...

So I mentioned there's two roles. I explained one above; helping to communicate the rules by relying on the player's prior knowledge. Dress up the fast unit as a tank, for example. Or present a story that happens to require you to go from place to place collecting things.

The other role is an additional form of entertainment. Not a game, but weaved in with the game for added effect, like a composite material.

The "minimum", as you ask, is above, like Civilization, the absolute minimum necessary to communicate to the player what's what. For very abstract games like Tetris, there isn't a story that could possibly help explain it, so they skip it altogether.

But there is no "maximum", at least not in any easily measurable sense.

You can develop it in as much detail as you want.

If a game feels like it has "too much story", what that really means is the player doesn't care about the story (it's bad!) and it's an interruption from what he'd rather be doing.

If you can't tell a good story, you go for the minimum as described above.

But very effective ones, with good writing, are enjoyable in and of themselves and people happily watch through cutscenes with Solid Snake or Cloud and so on and enjoy the acting and music and ideas and feelings.

It adds a whole extra dimension of entertainment, helps set the mood, makes people want to know what happens next, etc.

If you want to conduct all that, you need to do it well or else people won't care. This is, of course, very very difficult and many AAA games have terrible writing.

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Original post by ougaming
1. how much development of the background is needed for an amazing story?
2. What should be the minimum ... to make sure the story works in the game?
3. How much story is good enough,
4. or even too much?

1. Good question. It should feel to the player like there is some sense to the game's world. That there is something that happened in this world that led to the game's events.
2, 3. These are bad questions. You shouldn't ask about minimums or good enoughs. A lazy approach will not result in the minimum/good enough background.
4. Don't worry about doing too much. You don't have to include the "too much" background, but you should know it -- so it can inform your writing.

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Re: ougaming

Concept 1: Unit of Development

In your post you asked how much development of the background is needed. I just want to confirm that the quantity in question is not time or money, but a piece of story asset. Story assets are all intellectual product you create for the story, such as:

o The name of a character
o The appearance of a character
o The goal of a character
o The motivation of a character
o The name of a location
o The condition of a location
o A monolog
o A dialog
o A poem
o A famous quote
o A sequence of events
o ...

So when you are asking "how much development of the background is needed", you are asking all of the following questions:

o Must my character have a name?
o Must I describe the character's childhood?
o Must the character know a childhood tune?
o Must I explain the lineage of the character?
o Must I explain the motivation of the villain?
o How many levels of "why" should I answer about the villain's motivation?
o ...

To that my thought is to use priority (Concept 2) and knowledge about minimum sets (Concept 3) below to tell when an asset becomes a requirement.

Concept 2: Development Based on Priority

If you want to solve the upfront budgeting issue, you could use a design method where you expand the details of a story only when it has the highest priority, and free the scope of the story. To do this, you would start the design by summarizing the entire story in one sentence of paragraph. After this first iteration cycle, your story is actually complete and it should already be amazing (compare to other stories that are summarized in a paragraph). It is true that it may be considerably shorter than what you would like, but before expanding it, weigh the values of possible expansions and do the step that would add the most value to the game and the story. You keep doing so until you reach the deadline, run out of money, or when the new addition does not worth the effort.

Concept 3: Minimum Sets

I think in terms of creating an amazing story, "background" is neither necessarily nor always optional, like many other element of a story. For example, a story usually has "characters", but it is not a requirement. You could design an amazing story without any "character"; a story usually has a "conflict", but it is actually possible to design an amazing story without any "conflict".

So if you consider everything that a story could have, you see that for an amazing story to exist, you need something, but there is no single thing that it must have. Regardless whether by "background" you mean "details", "motivation", "explanation", "backstory", or "world-building", it is neither necessarily nor always optional for an amazing story.

So to answer your question, the minimum "background" a story needs is relative to the form, the goals, and the audience of the story. If you are designing a story where you are free to choose the form, the goal, and the audience, you could always design it without "background".

However, if the existence of "background" is dictated by the form, goal, and audience, then it becomes valid to ask "what functions must the background serve?"

When that is the situation, here are some possible functions:
(You might want to clarify what "background" means for you first. In the follow, background could mean anything ranging from "explanation" to "interactions that the player can't observe" to a lot of other things...)

o To give necessary information that the player cannot learn during the gameplay
o To tell the player something that would be misunderstood otherwise
o To connect a character to the player
o To deconstruct the player's assumption
o To deceive the player in order to create a surprise
o To serve as a puzzle that the player must solve
o To provide clues that the player needs to solve a puzzle
o To convey the passage of time
o To convey a change in the environment
o ...

For each of these function, it is valid to talk about minimum set of elements that satisfy each function. For example, to deceive the player, one minimum set might be [A,B,C], another minimum set might be [D,E,F]. There could be multiple minimum sets with elements that may not overlap. Therefore, even in that scope, you may still find the pattern where an element is neither necessary nor always optional. Element A is only necessary if you have decided that you want to use set [A,B,C].

Reasons why knowing the minimum sets is useful:
o Prevents over-design
o Prevents inconsistencies due to over-design
o Prevents redundant descriptions or information
o Keeps you focused, and conscious about the priorities
o Makes it easy to list every assets needed for a story
o So that you know whether an argument presented by the story is complete
o Helps you think in terms of forms and templates (i.e. a drawer of index cards about implementing "celebration")
o Helps you reuse your knowledge without repeating yourself
o ...

[Edited by - Wai on December 12, 2010 3:26:25 PM]

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The free open source (GNU licensed) game "Battle for Wesnoth", along with it's forum, is a great resource for this kind of question.

The game is in a way simply a species of computer aided instruction storyboard storytelling tool that includes the ability to have battles, with some unit-abilities advancement, interspersed with the story.

Or another way of looking at it is that it is a tool for running tactical battles and chaining them together into campaigns that also features the ability to intersperse storyboards, and both the battles and multiple choice (or even text input) questions in the battles or the cutscenes can change which scenario the player goes to next.

Since players are free to create scenarios and campaigns themselves there is naturally often discussion on the forum about story and battle and how to interweave them, with some players thinking some "campaigns" have too much story not enough battle and others preferring to even skip the battles on occasion in order to more easily advance the story, which is what really interests them.

The balance is interesting because on the one hand you can try to use interesting battles to lure battle-oriented players into and through a story or you can try to use interesting story to lure a player into working hard to get through a particularly nightmarishly difficult battle or sequence of battles.

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