Considering Story-Driven Games

What makes a good game, again?

So, to recap the last post, I’ve outlined what I think makes a good game. Choice does. Give people choices. Give them interaction. That will make your game good. If your game has neither, then why is it a game? Out of the two basic types of games, sandbox and story-driven, I think sandbox is the purest form of game. But a game without a story has no direction. The game will work as long as people can come up with their own direction. Minecraft comes to mind. It has no story, but players create their own goals. Survive the first night. Find diamonds. Find the dungeon. Defeat the Ender Dragon. Maybe they’ll install a mod like Tekkit to give them specialized goals. Build a quarry. Build a nuclear reactor. Build a Red Matter generator. It all comes down to giving people a choice of what they want to do, but there has to be something for them to do.

That last part. That’s a huge point.

There has to be something to do.

I don’t know about you, but I got bored with Minecraft after finding diamonds. There were plenty of choices to make. I could do anything, really. But what was the point? There wasn’t a point. After I found a dungeon and killed the Ender Dragon, what would I get out of it? I mean, you never ultimately get anything out of entertainment except a distraction. But did I learn anything from building a giant castle? Not really. Maybe I learned creativity, but what’s the point of a castle in Minecraft when it comes down to it? Well, that is rather the point of sandbox games! That there is no point! Do whatever you want! Nothing’s holding you back. It’s fun sometimes!

Sometimes.

What gives games a reason to be played?

How would you answer the question? Just like how you can’t answer with “money” the question of why you want to start a business, don’t answer this question with “fun.” Fun, like profit is for businesses, is the result of making a good game. You get “fun” from a game built correctly. So what makes a game fun?

Games are fun when the players feel like they got something out of their session. If the game is broken, they’re going to walk away angry that they couldn’t get something out of playing it. Maybe the player learned something. Maybe they were successfully distracted from the world. Maybe they reached the top of the leaderboards. There has to be something they got out of playing the game. The reason to play is mostly to work toward a goal for a feeling of accomplishment. Open-ended/open-world games do that for a while, but then you stop feeling like you’re accomplishing anything because you’ve accomplished everything you want to accomplish. You get bored.

Story-driven games have a different criteria for their reason to be played. You get something different out of a story-driven game. The sense of accomplishment comes from uncovering a story that you care about and are invested in. A story-driven game will be boring not because you’ve run out of things to accomplish, but because you don’t feel like you’ll get anything out of finishing the story. You don’t care about what happens. The reason you play a story-driven game is the story! Of course. Duh. It’s the name of the game. “Story-driven.”

We have to take it one step further. Good stories make good story-driven games. Choices make good games. Story-driven games need a good story with choices to be a good story-driven game. Why does the story need choices for it to be a good game if you’re playing for the story? It all goes back to the reason why you’re a game and not a book or a movie. A book or a movie depends entirely upon having a good story. If you want to tell a story, write a book. Make a movie. If you want the viewer to interact, you make a game.

What makes a good story-driven game?

If you want to tell a story with a game, you better make sure that the player can interact with the story. By allowing the player to interact with the story, you are going to give the player the opportunity to make choices that affect the story. You better make sure that the choices provided cover the basics of what anyone would want to do in any given situation. And then you better make sure those choices somehow influence and change the story or we’re going to wind up with a game that has no point to it again. There’s a lot of “you better” here, but I’m trying to make a point. Given all the things I believe make a good game, this part is simply the logical conclusion:

  • You want to make a game.
    • You want a player to interact with your content.
    • You don’t want the linear presentation of a book or a movie.
  • You want to tell a story.
    • You aren’t making a sandbox game.
    • The player’s interaction is not necessarily with the world, but the story.

Here’s where I make the point to mention Telltale’s The Walking Dead series of games. That is what makes a good story-driven game. You aren’t in a sandbox. You can’t run around and create your own story. You are participating in a story that has already been created for you. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s why you bought the game! Because it’s a story in a game, though, you should expect to be able to interact with the story and change it because you are playing a game. If you couldn’t change the story, you would be better off reading a book or watching a movie. The story has a defined beginning and you start to unfold the story. The story changes radically based entirely on your decisions.

You get to see the consequences of your actions. Not the actions of a pre-defined character in a book. Your actions! This is what makes you invested in the game and gives you a point to playing. Having a sense of accomplishment doesn’t really apply in the literal sense, but you get to see where your choices led you in the end. Because you’re allowed to make choices, you have a choice on which characters to make friends with. You become attached to the characters because you are interacting with them. It’s your world. You’re living in it. Because it’s you.

Okay. Enough reiterating! I think I’ve made my point.

I’ll address what makes a good story sometime.

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