Better Plots
by Alex Kriss


Are you racking your brain, trying to think of that perfect plot that will make your game unforgettable? This article will give you some pointers of what makes up a good plot, and how to get ideas.

First off, you have to make sure that you recognize what a "good plot" is. Doom did not exhibit a good plot. In fact, nearly all first-person-shooters as a whole do not have good plots. Tetris had no plot. Space Invaders had no plot. Yet all these games are some of the best-selling games of all time. So now you need to realize that, despite how much it hurts to say this, not all games require a plot. So now you need to think long and hard whether your game needs a plot, and even if you create one, will anyone pay attention?

More Confused?

Ok, so hopefully now you know in your heart that your game needs a GOOD PLOT. To me, plot means a lot of things. It captures the backstory, the goal, and even the interactivity into one word. So how do we make it great? Well, there are some do's and don'ts that have to be understood:

  1. Avoid cliches! Sometimes the tried-and-true formula has been tried too many times. If you're making an RPG and planning on having it about this great knight who defeats the evil dragon in Medieval times...well, your game better have good graphics. Try to think of something original, and if you use a cliche, put a new spin on it.
  2. Main character! The player's has to be around him a lot, so they better like him. Make sure that the main character has a clear personality and behaves similarly throughout the game. Give him a name, characteristics, and most importantly, a goal. There are too many games where the player is off to save the world...but what's in it for him?
  3. NPC's are people too! If you're doing an RPG or a graphic adventure (or even a FPS), good Non-Playable Characters can make or break the game. Like the main character they should have very distinct personalities and should behave in the same manner all the time. Make sure the player knows the NPC to the same degree that the main character does. If there is an NPC that is the main character's best friend, make sure the player knows that NPC very well. However, if there is some vague and mysterious woman in your game, the player shouldn't be able to read her like a book.
  4. Predictability is a no-no! If the player figures out plot twists and whose the secret murderer, etc, etc. before they are supposed to (and therefore before the main character knows) then you have just lost the player forever. Make sure you have plenty of plot turns and that the main character is always up-to-speed with the player and vice versa.
  5. Don't over-do it! Games nowadays are getting more and more revolutionary. However, don't try to change gaming through least not in your first attempt. Only the greatest storytellers like Ron Gilbert (Monkey Island creator, among others) can actually change the way you play through a story. Try to keep it believable, entertaining, and within the context of your technologies. If you don't have a decent texture modeler don't set your game in a vivid photorealistic world.
  6. Dialogue is everything. Dialogue and character interaction is often considered an unimportant aspect that is only a believable way for a character to obtain information fast. Make it more than that. In an adventure game, dialogue can be a player's only link to the world that you have placed him/her in. The dialogue should offer many branches and ideally could change a particular puzzle's outcome. It is very important that you write out dialogue during the Design phase carefully. DO NOT let the programmer think up stuff on the spot while he's coding the dialogue engine.
  7. It all comes back to backstory. Backstory is the backbone of a game. If it isn't good and involving it could cause a catastrophic domino effect. Bad story leads to no character motivation, which leads to pointless NPC's, uninspired villains and finally an anticlimactic ending. You see? Make sure you put time and effort into your backstory, and think of a sub-genre first! Is your game a comedy, horror, sci-fi, fantasy? Will the world be cartoony, super-realistic, or a hybrid? If the backstory doesn't grab the player AND fit well with the world then your plot is down the drain.

Well, thanks for telling me what I already knew...

Sorry if the above list was very obvious, but even savvy game designers forget the basics as their thinking up the plot, or they get too wrapped up in technology to give the plot the time of day. The seven bullet points above cannot be compromised.

Ok, so now you know what to avoid and what to focus on when designing your plot. But you still don't have any ideas! Thanks for nothing, right? Well, now I'll give you some pointers on how to get some good plot ideas:

  1. Play your genre! Making an RPG? Play tons of RPG's. Making a graphic adventure? Play tons of those. Understand what works and how the designers integrated all of the aspects of our first list. Think of character development, NPC's and backstory. Analyze how the backstory is presented, how the player gets to know the character, why the character is involved, and how he interacts with others.
  2. But my genre is plotless! Ok, so you're making a FPS? Maybe an RTS? A puzzle game? And every game you've played in that genre has a bad (if any) plot? Well, then make one up. Play through Doom and think how a good plot could be integrated though more than text boxes popping up during loading times. Think if the player would have more fun if the space marine s/he is playing as was more developed. Think if the game would be more intense if there were some NPC's that could be stumbled upon (or possibly killed by monsters...).
  3. Back to basics. Despite fancy technology there is no computer program that can generate a good, original plot. So always be using your brain and anticipate the best ideas to occur when you least expect it. Countless game designers will tell you their best-selling ideas came to them in the shower, or waiting at an airport terminal.
  4. Always carry pen and paper! Sure, it's easy enough to hop out of the shower and jot something down, but if a thought hits you when you're hours away from a writing utensil and paper you will not be happy.
  5. Brainstorm with others! Sometimes geniuses don't work alone. If you get some great plot idea, don't write out a 100-page design doc and tell your artist to start making 3D to others first! This is EXTREMELY important! What seems like a great idea to you might be rejected by a roomful of others, meaning that either you rethink your game or plan on only having family members purchase it in stores. Make sure that different people of different gaming levels hear what you're planning to make. Also, make sure that your programmer and artist are very clear on what you're after.
  6. Real life can help game life! So you're a disgruntled game designer spending day after day staring at the blank screen of a word processor. Go outside! Relive real life! Get ideas from what's in the real world and use it in your game's world! Believe it or not, every single player of your game lives in the same real world as you, so if your game has real-world subjects and ideas that you can relate to, they can relate to them also.
  7. Trash is for coffee grinds and stale bread. Don't throw anything away! What was a dead idea three months ago could be your best source for a good plot today. Get an idea, write it down, and keep it no matter what. When you're stuck for ideas or at a dead-end go back to see the evolution of your ideas and modify and combine until you get a new idea. As long as you never toss anything, you'll always have something to work from.

Conclusions, Confusions, and an Angry Mob

I hope that at some point in this article you sat back and thought, "Ah! Now that's a good idea!" instead of tapping your foot while impatiently reading through two lists of what you already knew when you should have been working on your games plot. What I have written is by no means official, and you don't have to believe a word of it. But if you think your game really needs a good plot, I encourage you to use what I've written as a guideline.

Alex Kriss is the President and Project Leader at Atypical Interactive ( They are currently designing a graphic adventure game called "Enigma."

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Date this article was posted to 5/23/2000
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

See Also:
Story Development

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