This article on game design has been brought to you courtesy of John Garrison.


Is story telling important in games? What's the story in Tetris or Super Mario--plumber attacked by turtles? Clearly, simple games often don't have, or don't need an explicit story. Even so, players will often project a story onto the game. For example, in the text adventure Zork, the player has to find twenty treasures in a dangerous cellar and place them in a trophy case. Some players interpreted this as stealing the treasures, while others saw it as returning them to their owner. A little story goes a long ways. (In case you were wondering, Mario's goal is to save the princess.)

Falling blocks just won't cut it in today's market. Some kind of story, and often a complex one, is required for most new games. The script for Wing Commander IV was over 300 pages long and games aren't getting any simpler. Even games that don't claim to be "interactive movies" have need of a setting, characters, and a rhyme and reason for the action. In the real-time strategy game "Command and Conquer", the individual missions are sewn together with cut-scenes which tell the story. The addition of a context in which the missions have a larger meaning enhances the players enjoyment, and involvement, in the game.



In an introductory fiction course, one of the first axioms you'll learn is that you should be able to summarize your story in one sentence. This is good advice for the game designer as well. Let's try it.

Wing Commander I is a first-person space shooting game set in a future where mankind is engaged in a long running war with cat-like aliens.

Our little summary may be short on details, but it provides the format and basic action of the game, the literary genre (science fiction), and a basic story (war, fighting for survival). Often plot and story are used interchangeably. Here we'll use story to refer to content and plot to refer to chronological structure. There are a limited number of stereotyped stories (standard plots) which are the basis for almost every work of literature. Stories like: Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back. Or how about: Two people, one with status or power and the other poor, trade places and each acquires new wisdom. People have attempted to catalog and analyze these basic stories. The interactive fiction links are a place to find out more about this subject.


In "Citizen Kane", the story would be the same if the death scene were at the end of the movie rather than the beginning. The choice to place it the beginning is part of the movie's plot. Plot refers to the structuring of a story--the choice of when to reveal the story's events. In general, a story should be plotted to have a hook (reel the audience in), followed by rising action, the climax, and a shorter period of falling action. Each scene or chapter should also follow this pattern on a smaller scale.


Games can produce memorable characters like Maniac in the Wing Commander series and Dupre in Ultima. Here's a suggestion for a simple minded formula for creating characters: catch phrase + trait + goal = character. Let's try a few examples and see if it works.

  • Catch phrase: "Ħi caramba!"
  • Trait: prankster
  • Goal: mischief

Anyone come up with a spiky haired, three fingered cartoon character? Let's try another one.

  • Catch Phrase: "That's absurd."
  • Trait: pompous
  • Goal: Maintain a luxurious lifestyle while living in a tent, in Korea, during the Korean War, at an Army hospital, mobile.

Ok, so I had to give you some hints. Charles Winchester from MASH is the character we're talking about.  

This formula isn't going to turn anyone into Shakespeare, but it might be a starting point for creating a Homer Simpson or an Al Bundy.

(To be continued...)

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Date this article was posted to 7/16/1999
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

See Also:
Game Design

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