Storytelling in Open World Games

A Writer’s Guide

As a former game creator, I’ve met many people over the years who wanted to “tell their story” within the medium of computer games. This article contains advice for people who want to do just that. It’s based on my experience both as a game player, and someone who has worked on games of this type.

Human beings are storytelling animals — we have a genetic predisposition to understand our environment in terms of stories. Our brains are wired for this. But to leverage this wiring requires following certain rules and conventions. Some of these have been around since the invention of writing; others are relatively new, and relate to the specific medium of computer games.

The term “open world” refers to a style of game in which the player has the freedom to explore in any direction. This includes the freedom to decide which stories they want to experience, and in what order. Examples of open world games are Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto. This essay will focus specifically on the task of writing stories for open world games like these.

Throughout this essay, I will use epic of the Grail Quest — the tale of King Arthur — as an example that most readers will be familiar with. Part of the reason for choosing this tale is that the Grail Quest is really about the stories of Arthur’s knights and their adventures; this is an example of an over-arching major arc that encompasses many smaller arcs within it.

Story vs. Interactivity

Player choice and alternate endings

Unlike games with a more linear story structure, players in an open world have a great number of choices available to them. This does not mean, however, that the individual stories have a “branching” structure or allow for a large number of possible endings. An open world game is not the same as a “choose your own adventure” (CYOA) novel, where the reader is constantly being asked to decide the direction of the plot.

Game developers generally avoid the CYOA structure because it has a number of serious failings.

Cost of multiple endings

First off, it is very expensive to implement a story with many endings, especially given that the player will likely only experience one of them. Animation, voice acting, scripting, and level design are all expensive activities; if there are a hundred possible endings, then the development cost must be spread across all of them, as opposed to spending the resources to do one or two endings really well.

For example, in Skyrim, there’s a quest where you are recruited to join the Shadow Brotherhood, a guild of assassins. You can either accept, in which case it unlocks a long series of quests in which you carry out assassinations; or you can betray them to the guard captain, in which case you get a quest to wipe out the Shadow Brotherhood. In either case, once you have made this choice, all of the quests and story content for the alternate path are no longer available to be enjoyed (unless you play the game twice, which most players will not do). Having a dozen different possibilities would not be cost-effective.

Having a small number of alternate possibilities can enhance the player’s sense of agency, making them feel like their choices really matter. But as the number of possible endings increases, you (as a designer) get less and less bang for your development buck, without any real increase in entertainment value for the player.

Tactics vs. Narrative

The other problem with CYOAs is that they are not good drama.

Playing a game and reading/watching a story unfold are fundamentally different activities. One is active, while the other is passive. One puts the player in control of what happens next, the other puts the game author in the driver’s seat. It is hard to do both at the same time.

When the player is presented with a decision to make, the tactical part of their brain becomes engaged. There is a strong (although not irresistible) temptation to strategize — to choose a path which they believe will give them an advantage in play. For many players, this calculation overrides considerations of drama and storytelling. Good drama often entails putting the characters in emotional distress or even physical torment, but few players would willingly choose that option for their avatar if they could avoid it.

Even when a player does decide to choose the option that they think will yield the best story, that decision is primarily an intellectual, rather than an emotional, one. Decision points within the game are less like reading a book, and more akin to making a move in chess. At that point, the story effectively stops dead until the player has made their decision.

(There is an exception to this rule — players will often avoid making choices that are morally repugnant to them, even if such choices would be in their strategic interest, and this decision is often a gut-level reaction rather than a tactical calculation.)

Most games resolve this conflict by rapidly switching between “game” (interactive) and “story” (passive) modes . Non-interactive dramatic sequences or “cut scenes” are an example where the story plays out with no pesky player to mess things up. But even within something as interactive as a conversation tree, there will be moments when the player is choosing what to say, and moments where they experience what the other characters are saying to them, with rapid alternation between the two modes.

There are some techniques that can be used to minimize player strategizing, so that players will follow their heart rather than their head when making choices:

  • If the consequences of the choices are clearly minor or short-term, then tactical considerations have less weight when making the decision. For example, most conversational “dialog tree” responses are informational only, with no lasting effect on gameplay. (Designer Chris Crawford calls structures like this “fold-back”, alluding to the fact that the diverging branches of the story eventually converge, so no matter which path you choose you end up in the same place.)
  • Similarly, if the consequences of a decision are hard for the player to predict, they may simply choose the most appealing option rather than trying to work out which choice is most advantageous.

Story Arc Swarms

One can still allow a large selection of player choices while avoiding the problems of CYOAs, by providing the player with a large number of linear or mostly-linear stories, and letting the player choose which ones they want to involve themselves in — a process of self-curation. Since the events within the individual stories are arranged such that the narrative cannot advance without the player’s participation, the player also gets a sense of agency by driving the narrative forward, even if they cannot control the final outcome. And the linear format is more conducive to compelling drama than a format in which the player is constantly steering the plot.

Thus, in our Grail Quest example, each of Arthur’s knights can have a linear story — the tale of Sir Gawain, the tale of Sir Lancelot, and so on. There may be multiple story arcs for each Knight. The player can decide how many of these stories they want to involve themselves in.

Note that in almost every case, the player must actively participate to advance the plot, otherwise the story is “on pause”.

This can be taken to ridiculous extremes — for example, in the “Big Game Hunter” quests in World of Warcraft, the famous hunter tasks you with killing ever more dangerous animals until finally go after the big prize yourself, but never seems to do anything themselves. (It seems odd to travel all the way to the jungle and then sit around drinking tea while some random bystander has all the fun. Might as well have stayed back at Stormwind, where the tea is better and they have ultra-modern conveniences like plumbing.)

As a writer, your job is not to fix the limitations of game technology, but rather to make those limitations seem natural and reasonable to the player. Because the player is often the sole active agent in a world where people seem oddly unable to help themselves (because if they did, the player would be missing out on the action), you often have to come up with excuses to explain the other characters’ lack of action — “I can’t fight, I’m just a mechanic!”. (It’s also best if you don’t over-use the same excuse too much.)

Laundering Violence

Another function of story in game is justifying violent acts on behalf of the player.

Let’s face it: combat represent a kind of challenge that many people enjoy — I know for myself that I find it quite calming, after a hard day of work, to be able to blow away a bunch of mindless enemies on the computer screen. A difficult and fast-paced combat scenario lets me get into that “flow” state where all my everyday cares and worries drop away.

Physical combat is also popular in games because it’s easy to simulate — it’s much easier to model a gunfight on a computer than a cocktail party.

I’m not going to try and debate the ethical issues around violence in computer games here. That being said, most of us are not sociopaths, and are uncomfortable with the idea of killing innocent people — even fictional people within a computer game. At the same time, however, we can enjoy the excitement and thrill of violence within entertainment media (books and movies, as well as computer games), so long as the moral justification for that violence seems sufficiently plausible. Part of the writer’s task is to supply that justification.

The easiest way around this is to make the enemies not people — robots, monsters, zombies, or any other kind of mindless, soulless creature. The opponents are literally “dehumanized”.

Another common technique is to use the “self-defense” excuse — they attacked first, so you are fully justified in retaliating with deadly force. However, from a moral perspective, this isn’t as simple as it seems. In my own moral framework, putting yourself in a position where you know in advance that you’ll be forced to defend yourself is equivalent to assault. So we need a stronger justification, or at least a narrative fig leaf that the player can use to rationalize their use of force.

One approach is to make the villains unreasonable. For example, a lot of in-game cut scenes start out with a tense negotiation — you’ve walked into the enemy lair, fully armed and ready to fight, but also willing to walk away if the bad guy is willing to be rational (or at least, that’s the expectation that has been established by the narrative up to this point). Unfortunately, the plot is pre-ordained and dictates otherwise. The bad guys are either too scared, stupid, greedy, or just generally lack the self-control needed to refrain from attacking. The inevitable betrayal or double-cross plays out, the shooting starts, and you are free to lay waste to the enemy cannon fodder — which is really what you wanted to do all along. Only now you can do it guilt-free!

Or at least, this is how it usually plays out in most games. There are of course games that deconstruct this pattern, subvert the standard assumptions, which are often entertaining for different reasons.

Another way to justify force is by way of protecting something or someone — if you fail to use violence, then worse harm will result.

In all of these situations, the quality of the plotting and dialog is critical to making the scene work. If this is done poorly, it can leave a bad taste in the player’s mouth — they really didn’t want to kill those guys, but the game forced them to in order to progress, and the result is not at all satisfying.

Story Arc Independence

Typically in a game like this, at any point in time the player will be progressing through multiple stories simultaneously.

In order for this scheme to work, the stories must be arranged in such a way that they are mostly independent from one another. If the outcome of one story can affect the plot of another, then the stories are not really independent, which can create problems:

  • If Sir Gawain must encounter the Green Knight before Sir Galahad reaches Castle Perilous, then the player no longer has the freedom to choose the order in which they experience stories — the world is no longer as “open” as before.
  • If the Green Knight somehow manages to kill Sir Galahad before he reaches Castle Perilous, then that story is “broken” — the events of the narrative can no longer play out.

Being independent does not mean that the stories are completely isolated. Stories can share the same characters and locations; stories can be related thematically, or reference common context. Independence simply means that the outcome of one story will not normally break another.

Of course, there will be cases where stories are in fact tied together, but to maximize player enjoyment these should be relatively few. And the player may deliberately choose to “break” a story, perhaps by killing a key character, out of a desire to rebel against the constraints of the game, or curiosity to see what will happen if they do.

One downside of pursuing multiple stories simultaneously which share characters between them is that you can occasionally get a kind of “conversational whiplash” when you switch topics in mid-conversation:

King: There’s a dragon attacking the castle! Quick, go defeat it before we all die!
Player: Where can I find a red rose?
King: Rose? I think there’s some in the garden? Ask the gardener.

These kinds of transitions can sometimes be made smoother, or covered over with literary smoke and mirrors; it all depends on your skill as a writer and how much time you want to spend on it.

Nested Story Arcs

The Grail quest is an example of a nested story — one large story containing many small ones, each one following the trail of a different character.

Another kind of nested story is where you have several independent arcs that are each exploring different aspects of an overall situation. A town suffering from a famine, for example, may have multiple story arcs that involve dealing with hunger. This is the game equivalent of what, in literature, would be served by having multiple narrative viewpoints.

One challenge for the author is to ensure that the over-arching narrative does not conclude too quickly. An open world means that the player has the freedom to omit stories that are not to their taste, but it does not mean that the player can skip to the ending without doing any work — that’s just a bad game experience.

Although we do not compel the player to finish every last sub-quest (unless driven to do so by their own internal completionist impulses), we do require them to complete some number of tasks before the main story can progress. Often this is a matter of simple arithmetic, or an accumulation of points: “Help three of my citizens and I will name you Thane”, but the choice of completion criteria is really up to the author and designer.

Story and Geography

One of the attractive features of open world is that they offer a vast area to explore. However this blessing also comes with a curse — you must fill that landscape with interesting and unique experiences, otherwise the player will get quickly tired of trudging across the terrain with nothing to do. There needs to be a certain density of stories per unit of area. Stories may be more dense in some areas and less dense in others, but there should be no “story deserts”, large expanses of terrain with no dramatic content.

“Every place has a story” is a design principle that has been the core of many successful adventure games — one I first encountered the game Planet’s Edge, by New World Computing in 1992. In that game, there are more than 30 planets you can visit, and each one drops you in to an ongoing narrative from the moment you land. The same structure can be seen in the classic grail literature — each time Galahad arrives at a new castle, there’s a new story to go with it.

Stories can be discovered by chance meetings in the wilderness, by discovering an object in an obscure location, or even having a messenger walk up to the player and handing them a note. However, most stories will likely be discovered at a specific location.

Towns, castles, sleazy dive bars, shopping malls, space stations…any place where humans meet regularly can function as “quest hubs”, places where a curious and enterprising protagonist can pick up a quest or three. (“You meet at a tavern.”). But give the place a back-story — why is this place interesting? Why should the player go here? And why should they care?

Similarly, there will be places of danger — dungeons, lairs, crypts, sewers, caverns, and shipwrecks, each full of peril and opportunity. Again, think about the backstory: Why is this place interesting? What’s dangerous about it? Why bother coming here, what’s to gain?

Stories and Quests

In games like this, the term “story” and “quest” are mostly synonymous. When the player discovers a quest, it will be made “active” and added to the player’s quest log. The quest log helps the player track which quests have been completed or are still in progress.

The quest log may also contain a hint as to what they should do next, although this should generally be more of a reminder of what they have already learned, rather than new knowledge. The reason for having this is that when you talk to dozens of characters in the game, it’s very easy to forget the detailed instructions or guidance you have been given.

Most quests are linear, in that they consist of a series of steps which must happen in a particular order. “Branching quests”, with alternate paths, are possible but should be relatively infrequent for reasons discussed in the previous sections.

The number of steps or phases in a quest can vary widely. A “major” quest line may require the character to talk to dozens of characters, visit dozens of locations, fight numerous battles, before the quest is considered complete.

Stories and History

Often stories will make reference to historical events within the fictional game world. When the player is exploring an ancient crypt filled with hellish denizens, for example, it’s not just a random crypt — it’s the crypt of someone who actually lived, who was notable for some reason. And the reason the crypt is haunted may have something to do with the story of that person who is buried there. The same logic holds true for other areas that the player may explore.

As the player travels through the world, they will come across books or records which tell the tales of past ages. No one book contains the entire story, but a patient player who is interested in the lore will gradually learn about the history of this land.

Some players won’t be interested in reading these books, so any key/critical clues that are present in the books should also be obtainable via some other way as well.

There’s another type of story arc in which the story has already concluded by the time the player arrives, but the sequence of events is initially hidden. The narrative is then gradually revealed by the player’s actions, much like the way a paleontologist slowly exposes a fossil through careful digging. This type of story can be quite poignant and dramatic if done well. This works especially well for tragedies, because the player is powerless to change the horrors of the past — but there is also the opportunity for redemption, if the player can locate the survivors of the tragedy and help to relieve their current situation.

Phasing

“Phasing” is a technique for altering the game world in response to the player’s choices, but without the player actually seeing when the change happens. It’s a technical detail of how some game engines work, but also one that has an impact on how the stories are written.

Here’s an example: the captain of the guard tells you to meet them at the entrance of the catacombs. So you travel to the catacombs, and sure enough, the guard captain is there, waiting for you.

How does this work? Does the game engine literally cause the guard captain to walk all the way to the catacombs? No, because the catacombs are far away, and in a large world most game engines will only simulate one area at a time. And having to travel all the way from the guard house to the catacombs is a complex operation, which the game designer would much rather avoid.

Instead, the guard captain exists in both places —but only while this phase of the quest is active. The instant that the captain told you to meet them, the engine spawned a second copy of the captain at the catacombs entrance. Once you complete the quest, that second copy of the captain will de-spawn, and there will only be one captain again.

The player will never actually see the captain spawn or de-spawn — it always happens “off-stage”. Like the space between the panels of a comic book, you never actually see what happens in the transition, but your mind fills in the details because you know how the real world works.

If you return to the guardhouse before the quest phase is complete, the captain will admonish you, “I told you to meet me at the guard house.” Since there is no location in the game world which allows both captains to be viewed simultaneously, the game engine can maintain the fiction that there is only one guard captain shuttling between locations while out of your sight.

One can have a lot of fun with this — characters that seem to have an annoying habit of making the player’s life “more interesting” by always being one step ahead of them.

Character Development and Dialogue

For some games, part of the in-game function of stories is to allow a means for the player to develop their personality traits or “virtues”. Games such as Mass Effect, or Divinity: Original Sin have a feature whereby the dialog choices made by the player have an effect on the character or reputation of the protagonist, and a sufficiently high attribute score unlocks additional game options.

Stories can both affect, and are affected by, these intangible qualities. However, the effort to improve one’s character is only satisfying to the player if they get to use the resulting benefits frequently. This will be one of the key challenges for the writer — finding numerous opportunities to earn or use the character’s personality attributes within conversation.

Most virtue checks will happen when engaging in dialog with other characters. For example, in Mass Effect, the player has a choice to make a “virtuous” or “non-virtuous” response. “Non-virtuous” does not mean immoral or bad, it merely means that the response is not exceptionally virtuous.

As an example, suppose we have a game where “mercy” and “justice” are psychological attributes, and the character is asked what should be the fate of a condemned criminal:

  • [Mercy] — “Everyone deserves a second chance. Spare his life.”
  • [Justice] — “There must be consequences for actions like this. Carry out the sentence.”
  • [Non-Virtuous] — “It’s not my decision to make, you should decide.”
  • [Informational] — “What does the Law require?”

The “Mercy” choice is only available if the character has a sufficient Mercy score. If they don’t, then the option is still displayed (offering an enticement to the player of what they could earn), but is disabled or “grayed out”. Similarly, the “Justice” choice is based on the character’s “Justice” score. A disabled choice does not mean that the character is incapable of uttering these words, but rather that the character’s reputation is insufficient to be persuasive in this matter — the response would not be taken seriously.

The “Non-virtuous” answer is always enabled and does not require a reputation check. Choosing that option ends the dialog, but grants no special benefit to the player.

The last choice, “informational” defers the question for a moment and allows the character to gather more information before making their choice. Once they have navigated through the informational subtree, they are returned back to the previous conversation choice.

Conclusion

There is of course, far more to the craft of writing for games than can fit in one article, and there are many resources out there for the aspiring creator. I hope this essay will have been useful in your quest.

See Also

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I’m not a mad scientist. I’m a mad natural philosopher.

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Talin

Talin

I’m not a mad scientist. I’m a mad natural philosopher.

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