One question that indie developers commonly ask is “how do I come up with a narrative for my game?” Many developers don’t even know where to begin, since building a story requires a very different approach than just laying down code or building a prototype to test your mechanics. Coming up with a compelling story from scratch and making sure that story fits your game’s scope and mechanics can seem like a daunting task, however being able to craft a narrative is absolutely vital to the process of game development.

Narratives are immensely important to every game, since they provide emotional context to what is otherwise a series of repetitive actions. For example, without narrative context, a first person shooter wouldn’t be a heroic space marine shooting monsters, it would just be the player repeatedly clicking a colored blob on screen until it goes away. Instead of a hero going on an epic journey to conquer his enemies, RPGs suddenly become numerical optimization assignments, as boring as any spreadsheet you’d find at the office. Even a very simple game, such as Tetris, which doesn’t necessarily require anything more than differently shaped blocks and a scoreboard, often comes with highly memorable Soviet music, so that the player doesn’t get bored or lose focus.

Mechanics might make a game, but a good narrative keeps people playing.


Mechanics First:

Although narrative development is important, it is more important to develop your game’s mechanics first. There are three reasons for this: The first is that while narrative provides context for what goes on, narrative alone does not result in a game. A good narrative makes for a good story but it cannot and should not be the sole determinant for how players interact with the game.

Secondly, the gameplay defines what sort of narrative your game can have; for example, a highly frenetic arcade shooter is unlikely to be a good platform for a game which takes place entirely within the confines of a formal tea party in Victorian England. Conversely, a game which teaches the player how to farm vegetables won’t be served well by having the mechanics of a flight sim. The most important thing is to determine what sort of mechanics you want in your game and what sort of mechanics you are capable of implementing.

Thirdly, unless you determine the size and scope of your game, it can be very easy for a narrative to be far larger than the size of the game. Writing more story material than needed is not necessarily a bad thing, since it gives the design team more material to work with. However, too much writing is just wasted effort and there are other things you can spend your time on.

World Building:
World building is a very important aspect of narrative development. However, detailed world building instructions are beyond the scope of this particular article. A good way to get started on world building would be to come up with the very basics of a setting first. All you need would be a phrase sentence description, such as “a post apocalyptic wasteland” or “a high fantasy kingdom”. After that, you can come up with some characters. Ask yourself how these characters will interact with each other and how the setting might affect these interactions and you will slowly begin to build up the finer details of your setting.


Be Specific:

The best way to tell a compelling story is to be specific. Tell stories about specific characters and their struggles. Painting in broad strokes isn’t as memorable or interesting as talking about how a specific character overcame his or her struggles; most of us prefer to get our broad strokes from history books in any event.

For example, your if your game has a war between cyborgs and aliens, don’t tell the story of the campaign to liberate the Andromeda galaxy from the foul tentacles of the alien menace. Nobody really cares about what the 8th Star Destroyer Fleet is doing. Tell the story of Tim the Cyborg, who enlists in the Galactic Navy after the death of his brother. Don’t just say that the alien mothership was destroyed, tell the story about how Tim heroically boards the alien mothership in order to plant a bomb in its warp drives. By telling more specific stories, you make your narrative more relatable.

Even if your game is very small and doesn’t have named characters, you can still do things like put little details in the game to make the world more immersive. Things like the game’s soundtrack or details in the artwork that reveal more about the world can also make your game more immersive and help to keep the player’s attention.


Solve a Problem:

The last part of developing your game’s narrative is to come up with problems for the character to solve. In the same vein as making a specific character, you should also make specific problems for your characters to solve. While the conflicts your characters might have don’t necessarily have to be personal, they should be meaningful, relevant and have some sort of effect on the world they live in.

Lastly, a major problem many games have is that they don’t really have a reason for the player to be there. Before assigning a conflict to a player or player character, make sure that other characters, for some reason or another, actually need the player’s help. Having your player do the game world’s equivalent of busy work is going to be neither fun, nor engaging. Instead of making yet another fetch or escort quest, put some real thought into what the player’s doing and how it will help advance the plot.