Part 2 – Creating Narrative Flowcharts

If have haven’t read Part One of this series (Story Seeds & Treatments) – click here

Overview

This is the second installment of a three-part blog post on narrative design which focuses on a tried-and-tested process that has been taught to game writers by their predecessors for years. This process is simple, yet adaptable, and gives us a clear roadmap so we don’t get “lost in the weeds” while integrating story and game design during pre-production (or later). Not all games will require us to use all of these steps, but the process is presented here in its entirety for those who wish to understand it.

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 
  5. Writing Dialog

In this post we’ll focus on the third step, as it requires the most research, preparation, and thought.


Step #3 – Laying out a Narrative Flowchart

With a solid treatment (or treatments) under your belt it’s time to zoom in on your vision for the game’s narrative by mapping out the story within the larger context of the game itself. Using our Narrative Flowchart we will decide exactly when, where, and how our story is told to the player. It is usually the longest and most labor-intensive part of the process, but well worth the time to get right. The steps after this become relatively simpler with a well-thought-out Narrative Flowchart in place.

A Narrative Flowchart can take several forms. For a game with a single gameplay mechanic and a strictly linear story, such as a Match-Three game, you may need only an outline which is similar to the treatment, but more specific. Let’s take a look at a match-3 game that uses our hypothetical story, King Midas 2: Gold Harder, from the first of this series of blogs:

For games that contain a variety of gameplay features and storytelling methods, as well as branching (nonlinear) narratives, traditional flowcharts are more useful.

Whenever possible I like to create Narrative Flowcharts on-site with a dev team, using a whiteboard, some different colored markers, and the collective energy of a group of creatives jazzed about the game they’re making. Yet any commonly accessible flowchart app will do for a writer working on their own, and in a pinch Excel is just fine, too.

Before we start, let’s again consider all the features we have to work with in regards to the our example, King Midas 2: Gold Harder:

  • Cinemas (player is passive), 
  • Interactive (branching) dialogs: player guides a conversation with one or more non-player characters (NPCs). 
  • Combat: in our case, turning people into gold statues and possibly, to flesh again afterwards.
  • Environmental Puzzles: turning liquids into solid gold and back again. Turning an object that’s light (a feather) it into solid gold so its increased weight affects the environment (example: nest containing the feather falls out of a tree).
  • Exploration: In our hypothetical game, exploration is a catch-all that includes finding collectables, discovering items that add to the world’s lore (scrolls, books, tapestries, paintings, chatty NPC’s, scripted events, etc.), as well as important items the Player’s needs to progress through the game, and more.

The best way to get your flowchart started is to use the major story moments in your treatment as guideposts, then work backwards, continually asking yourself the question –

“What has to happen for the Player to get here?”

Let’s start with a dramatic moment from our Story Treatment:

And because of this the statue of his [Midas’] daughter was stolen.

I’m going to drive that stake in the ground, then work backwards towards the beginning of our game. This is a big moment, so I’m going to make it a cinema. To keep track of how many cinemas are in the game and where they occur, I’m going to color all cells in my flowchart that contain cinemas red.

But what needs to happen prior to this?

Thanks to the treatment, I know that King Midas, along with his dimwitted man-at-arms, Cadmus, make a rare foray from their castle because Dionysus –  the Greek god that gave Midas the “gift” of Golden Touch – had been spotted not far away in an ancient temple. I know that Midas will confront Dionysus, and what will happen as a result of that confrontation. I also know that afterwards Midas will rush back to his castle to try and cure his daughter, Zoe, only to find Zoe’s gold statue missing. 

So before discovering Zoe’s statue is stolen, Midas needs to return to his castle. Perhaps while doing so he is set upon by brigands watching the roads for an easy mark (a nice excuse to use some of the new gifts Dionysus will give Midas after their confrontation). In our flowchart, all combat sequences will be green.

But what needs to happen prior to this?

Perhaps before Midas can leave the Ancient Temple in which Dionysus gives Midas the ability to reverse the Golden Touch, Dionysus asks Midas for a favor (Greek gods, amirite?). This could be a good opportunity to teach the Player how to use this new gift to solve environmental puzzles. I see our Dionysus as a party animal who serves as some comic relief, so perhaps his pants are stuck some place where he can’t reach them (or won’t, because he’s lazy and has a bad hangover).

Obviously, I’m not getting into any detail regarding the puzzle (or anything else). The pants-finding I can leave to the game designer in charge of puzzles. The combat I can leave to the game designers in charge of combat, and the cinema I can describe further in the next phase, the Walkthrough.

But what needs to happen prior to this?

We’ll need Dionysus to reveal to Midas that he’s not going ANYWHERE until he finds the god’s pants. We can do that with a brief cinema.

But what needs to happen prior to this?

Midas finds Dionysus in an ancient temple built to honor the god. Perhaps BEFORE Dionysus ropes King Midas into retrieving his pants, but AFTER the god gives Midas the cure for the Midas Touch, Dionysus allows King Midas to explore the ancient temple, knowing full well that the only way in or out is now sealed (again – devious buggers, these gods). This will allow the Player the opportunity to find a collectible we’ve hidden for them, and interact with items in the environment that will fill them in on some backstory (a mural depicting the first meeting of Midas and Dionysus would be a nice touch). They could also briefly interact with Cadmus or Dionysus’ Hairdresser (another NPC), if they so wish.

In my flowchart, Interactive Dialog sequences will be blue and notable exploration opportunities will be orange. Note that these three new gameplay sequences are stacked vertically – they can be done in any order (or skipped entirely, which will be made clear in the upcoming Walkthrough).

And so on and so forth.

Using this process, I can keep working backwards until I get to the very beginning of the game. With all of this added to the flowchart, I can then look ahead to other key moments in the game’s story and work backwards from those until I reach this sequence. In this way the entire game can be plotted out (bonus points to the narrative designers who have the least amount of red cells (costly Cinemas) in their flowchart.

Branching Narrative

Allow me to skip ahead and give an example of how we’d handle branching narrative. At this particular moment in our story, King Midas needs to reach a harbor on the coast and find a boat, quickly, so he can stay in hot pursuit of the pirate prince who stole the gold statue of his daughter, Zoe. We’ll give the Player two paths they can use to reach the harbor — one features more environmental puzzles than combat. The other offers the opposite experience. Players who prefer one or the other will be able to choose the gameplay experience that suits them best.

The Interactive Dialog at far left (blue) is placed between two alternate paths. Once the player chooses a path, they’re stuck with their choice (at least with that particular saved game) until they emerge from either Fist City or Puzzle City, after which Midas will reach the harbor and the alternate paths will converge so we’re back to one main story path for a while.

Narrative flowcharts (also known as “dependency charts”) aren’t sexy, but if you put in the time to get them right you’ll be in great shape throughout development, and so will be the rest of the team as they work to create the assets and functionality needed to tell the story.

There is more to Narrative Flowcharts, but this should be enough to get you on your way. Remember, this is the meat and potatoes of narrative design.


Ed Kuehnel, Mobile Game Doctor Senior Writer
Ed Kuehnel, Mobile Game Doctor Senior Writer


Ed is a story consultant, narrative designer, and writer with twenty years of experience, having written on over seventy-five games across a wide range of platforms, publishers, developers, and mediums, including casual, mobile, and free-to-play.  Ed recently led the writing efforts for The Goldbergs:  Back to the 80s idle game built in partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment and East Side Games.  His game writing debut, Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude, earned a Game Developer’s Choice nomination for Best Writing in 2005. His work on Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts earned the game a win for Best Narrative at the 2014 Game Awards.

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