Developing a Story for Your Game: A Practical Process in Three Parts – Part 1

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Part 1, Developing Your Story Seed & Treatment

While there are many different ways to go about developing stories for games, in this three-part blog post on narrative design we will focus on a process that has been passed down to multiple generations of game developers over the industry’s relatively short lifespan. This process is simple, extensible, and allows us every opportunity to stay on track and not get “lost in the weeds” during  pre-production. Note that not all of these steps are needed with every project, but the process is presented here in its entirety for those who wish to apply it to their current projects or practice it on their own. This simplified approach boils down to 5 steps:
  1. Developing a Concise Story Seed (covered in part 1)
  2. Building out the Story Treatment (covered in part 1)
  3. Laying out a Narrative Flowchart (covered in part 2)
  4. Documenting the Walkthrough (covered in part 3)
  5. Writing Dialog (covered in part 3)

In this post we’ll take a working example through the first two steps in this process

Step #1 – Developing a Concise Story Seed

Known elsewhere as the “logline” or “pitch” (what’s the use of being in games if we can’t have our own jargon) is the step in which you will do your best impression of a salesperson or a Hollywood producer – for good reason. If your Story Seed intrigues project stakeholders there’s a good chance you’re working with an idea that can be developed into something truly memorable. Another advantage to Story Seeds is that they are short. If you need that perfect concept for a sixty hour epic, ideas can be dreamt up and discarded quickly. If you need lots of brief stories for an ongoing episodic concern that has an insatiable need for new content, lots of ideas for stories can be quickly sanity-checked before they are allowed to move along to the next stage.
For our example, we’ll pitch a sequel to one of the oldest and most enduring Greek myths, that of good ol’ King Midas – King Midas 2: Gold Harder. Midas, if you remember, asked Dionysus (the god of wine and ritual madness, among other things) for the power to turn whatever he might touch into gold. It did not end well, especially for his daughter (we’ll forget for a moment that this last part was apparently a wrinkle added by Nathaniel Hawthorne in the mid-nineteenth century. Another lesson for you — never let facts get in the way of a good story).
A quick note on gameplay: For simplicity’s sake let’s assume that King Midas 2: Gold Harder is a game in the style of Half-Life 2 – a shooter at its heart, but one with “real-world” or “in-game” puzzles that sometimes involve physics (example: pushing a crate up against the outer wall of a building in order to gain access to the roof). In our game, Midas will have the power to turn people and objects (including liquids) into solid gold, but also to return them to their original states. He will shoot golden orbs from his hand that, while they look exquisite, are very painful for enemies to get struck by. It is only with the game’s mechanics in mind that  we can create a story that we are confident will dovetail nicely with gameplay to the point in which gameplay can become  a storytelling device all on its own.

With all this in mind, let’s take a crack at our Story Seed:

When King Midas leaves his castle to beseech Dionysus to rid him of the “Midas Touch” and give him the power to restore his daughter Zoe to her original state, Zoe’s gilded statue is stolen, and he has just forty-eight hours to find her before she is lost, this time forever.

A good Story Seed clearly defines for us three things:

  1. A strong protagonist, in this case King Midas.
  2. An emotional hook – the theft (kidnapping?) of his daughter in gold statue form
  3. A clear conflict – Midas has just forty-eight hours to retrieve it from those who stole it
Note that having these qualities does not necessarily guarantee that anyone will be entranced with a given Story Seed, but the absence of them will undoubtedly lead to the writer having to revise it or let it fall to the cutting room floor in favor of another idea.

If however, the project’s stakeholders feel you have a real winner on your hands, you may be ready to move on to the next step.

Step #2 – Building out the Story Treatment

In my personal experience the Story Treatment phase is the most overlooked step in the game writing process. I have personally seen many game developers leave pre-design with little more than a Story Seed, a few plot twists, a possible ending or two, and a hazy idea of what happens in between. Beginning development of a game in which the story matters with only a vague idea of how the story unfolds always courts disaster later – the type that invites wasted art assets, wasted time, and grumbling from the dev team.
The most important thing to establish in the treatment phase is a solid beginning, middle, and end(s) to your story. If that sounds obvious, consider again that many game developers start development of story-centric games without these guideposts to navigate by. Even a brief Story Treatment will need more high-level details than these however, if we’re going further things along while keeping project stakeholders on board. To that end, you might consider building out your treatment using this practical outline offered by Brian McDonald in his excellent book on writing, Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide To Building Stories That Resonate.
  • Once upon a time…
  • And every day…
  • Until one day…
  • And because of this…
  • And because of this…
  • Until finally…
  • And ever since that day…

Let’s give this a try with King Midas 2:

Once upon a time there lived a king named Midas who was given the ability to turn whatever he touched into gold. After his “gift” turned his only daughter (Zoe) into a gilded statue, he lapsed into despair. Now at the end of his life, Midas is miserable, alone, and has had most of his legendary wealth stolen from underneath him, save for this statue that serves as a haunting reminder of his greatest shame and deepest regret.

And, as the decades passed, every day he cursed himself for being so shortsighted, while his few remaining subjects scouted the country for the one thing that might cure his daughter.

Until one day one of these scouts “struck gold” by spotting the god Dionysus, who had made another rare appearance on earth.

And because of this Midas set forth from his castle to confront Dionysus and strike another bargain with him, leaving the statue of his daughter unprotected.

And because of this Midas confronted Dionysus, who let him keep the power of “golden touch” but gave him the ability to transform anything he’d turned into gold back to its original form with this caveat: Both gifts would disappear forever after forty-eight hours.

And because of this Midas was forced to do Dionysus a favor in return, which kept him away from his castle longer than he expected.

And because of this the statue of his daughter was stolen.

And because of this Midas was forced to pursue a Persian Pirate Prince through hostile territory, using his gifts to defeat enemies, escape traps, and manipulate his environment (puzzles) en route to retrieving his daughter’s statue before his gifts vanished.

Etc., etc. 

Here you can keep going, touching on each major plot point, character, and conflict — including any major allies, antagonists, unique scenarios, major change in setting, and more, but  saving any “B stories” or side quests for their own Story Treatments (but perhaps hinting at them here if they have any significant overlap with the main storyline).

Until finally, King Midas lay dying, but is able to transform his daughter back to flesh just before his gifts disappear, and with just enough time to wish her goodbye, and to see that she is now safe from harm.

And ever since that day, Midas’ soul was at rest, and his Daughter lived happily ever after, the Pirate Prince (now reformed) at her side, helping her to restore her father’s kingdom to its former glory.

There is no set length for Story Treatments, though you should keep them focused on the big picture. For brief stories of an episodic nature, a few paragraphs might be enough. Even for an epic tale that supports sixty hours of gameplay, a truly “high level” treatment might not exceed a single page. However, you should also consider that for more robust stories several Story Treatments of varying length might be necessary. For example, stakeholders may want you to go from a Story Seed to a one-page treatment to make sure high-level executives are still on board with things before a writer spends the time to write a separate, two to three page treatment that will also make the rounds (albeit with probably fewer busy executives to scrutinize it). As for style, I like to write these almost as if I’m writing prose, as I feel it keeps readers entertained. As with nearly all phases of this process, you’re continually trying to reassure those around you that this is a story with investing considerable time, money, and energy into. However, there’s nothing wrong with breaking the fourth wall here and there to illustrate your point. Examples:

I imagine the ‘bargain’ Midas strikes with Dionysus to be the start of our tutorial

Here’s our classic: ‘lose-the-world-yet-gain-your-soul’ ending”.

Special thanks to Erin McGechaen at East Side Games for her excellent insight into story pitches. Thanks to author Brian McDonald for sharing his wisdom in Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide To Building Stories That Resonate and special thanks to David Grossman and Noah Falstein for their wisdom and insight for sharing this process with me early in my career.
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