GUNPOINT

    A stealth puzzle game that lets you rewire its levels to trick people.

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Out now! $10!

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Team

Design/Code/Words

Tom Francis

Character/Level Art

John Roberts

Background Art

Fabian van Dommelen

Mission Music

Ryan Ike

Title Music

John Robert Matz

Menu Music

Francisco Cerda

Theme

By Tom Francis. Uses Adaptive Images by Matt Wilcox.

Good Story In Games

Sounds like I’m going to preach at you, but actually I want your opinion: which games have good stories, and why do they work?

I’m asking because I’m in the early stages of writing stuff for Gunpoint, but I’m also interested in general. I’m incredibly impatient with stories that don’t engage me right away: Dragon Age 2 is dead to me, just because it introduced too many people I didn’t care about and didn’t make them do anything interesting in the first hour or so. The other eighty hours of the game might as well not exist.

Cared.

Mass Effect, on the other hand, is my gold standard: I saw Saren’s betrayal in the first mission (even though my character didn’t), and it was genuinely maddening that he got away with it.

The rest of the game isn’t even that well written – I didn’t really understand why I needed the Thorian or Benezia or Liara or the vision or what the Conduit was until I read the wiki afterwards, but it didn’t matter because the Saren thread hooked me so early.

MassEffect2 2010-01-25 22-30-53-15 harbingerDid not care.

What’s yours? I’m interested in games that hooked you quickly, immediately made you want to know what happens next, and why you think they worked. I’m also interested in characters you immediately liked, hated or just cared about on any level.

Most games can do that if you’re willing to read or listen to 3,000 words of dialogue, so really I’m interested in the ones that didn’t take ten hours of investment to make you give a shit. CoughJadeEmpire.

If the answer’s Portal 2, by the way, it would be nice if you could avoid spoilers. Cheers!

More

Jaz: I liked that in the first ten minutes of Portal 2 you discover that Bruce Willis was a vampire all along.

Carl Howard: I'd go so far as to argue that it's not necessarily narrative in story that tells a good story. That might sound weird, bear with me.

Take for example, something like Spelunky, or maybe Dwarf Fortress. There isn't necessarily a "story" outside of the two lines of dialogue at the beginning. It's the games that are so open ended that I've often found make the most compelling story. Things like...Mass Effect 2 are great and all, engaging characters, emotive animations and what not, but everyones had the same experience.

I've found more enjoyment in stories that I can create myself, that I can relate back to friends because I made a straw hat that someone took offense with and trashed a workshop.

Nathan Hardisty: Aha.

SPOILERS FOR: BIOSHOCK, SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS KINDA, FALLOUT 3 KINDA, MASS EFFECT 2.

The best kind of story is the one that doesn't revolve around the player character, but around the player. For example. Half-Life 2 is where the player and Gordon Freeman are seamlessly together and they meet and get to know the supporting characters together. However, in a game such as Fallout 3, we're given around twenty minutes with the Dad character and asked to have him be our main motivation for around half of the game.

The best kind of story in games is one that involves the player less of the "Do this" level. I won't spoil Portal 2, don't worry, I'll just say like the original Portal it's super linear but all of the characters around you are full of deep backstory that you further unravel, like the original Portal. As you get to know some-one in real life, you get to know about their history, it makes them human and - in an interactive medium - that's our strongest power. Making you feel that you know human beings and care about them.

I would say, if you want the game to revolve around the player then there are three primary storytelling techniques in video-games.

Non-interactive: Your Red Dead Redemptions, Fallout 3s and Black Ops where the player has no option to feel part of the narrative or shape it in anyway. They're there to press buttons.

Ironically non-interactive: Your Half-Life 2 and Bioshock, when the lack of choice in a narrative is actual ironic given the whole "A man chooses, slave obeys" thing in Bioshock and Gordon being on a leash in Half-Life. If you make this noticeable, have characters bounce off of it "You don't say much do you?", intentionally place a cut-scene in a certain section of the game (Andrew Ryan's death) then people will pick up on the irony. If you're also asking questions about freedom and the lack thereof (Combine restrict human's freedom, G-man suppresses yours, Bioshock is obvious) then you can do some powerful stuff with an actual lack of interactivity reflect by the usual "Shoot things." Perhaps what these questions of freedom ultimately ask is what it is to be human, and what is free choice but an illusion. Food for thought.

Interactive: Your Shadow of the Colossus's and New Vegas, when interactivity itself is used as a way of getting the narrative across. I've seen many examples that fit in this, but don't use the potential it has with it (the PS3's Heavy Rain for example). New Vegas has dialogue trees, relies on reputation instead of a stupid coin-flip morality system and genuine human relations similar to that of the Gordon Freeman character model. Shadow of the Colossus uses interactivity (stabbing a beastie) and non-interactivity (the beastie falls down in a cut-scene, whimpers and dies) to make the player feel guilty and realise the David vs Goliath thematics at play. New Vegas' allowed me to do stuff with the Boone character (after hearing his tragic story) that I'm not sure whether or not I should spoil.

Some quick tips
- Dialogue trees shouldn't be good, funny/neutral, bad. They should perhaps have some morality, but in a "lesser of two evils" kind of way. Such as in the ending to Mass Effect 2 when the player can have his own reasons for NOT destroying the collector base. Whenever you give the player a choice, through a dialogue mechanic, it shouldn't influence the 'metrics of morality' given it's stupid to quantify such a thing. Perhaps reflect this in the characters or in future plot events that the player isn't aware of. Surprises are good.
- Pacing. Pacing. Pacing. If you have your gameplay progression in line with your story progression, building abilities as you get closer to the main villain, then boom you've got a masterpiece.
- Gameplay and story are not separate. Half-Life 2 has both occur at the same time or through each other. If you want a good example of this, and how a narrative can be interacted with, see Portal 1's final boss fight.
- People will only remember the set-pieces, the beginning and the end and usually the middle is where most of story development takes place. Act One, Act Two, Act Three. Thinking of it in the Greek tragedy gives it more character, given all of the good stuff comes about in the third act.
- Pre-determined relationships or player character dissonance. When I meet someone for the first time, it's for the first time, I don't want Guybrush Threepwood mouthing off how much he's doing it "For his wife" as it is in Red Dead Redemption, when we don't learn the name of my main motivation until halfway through the game. if the player character knows something I don't and refers to it without supporting character's explanation, then something's wrong.

Aaaaaaaand I think that's it.

Just make sure your game doesn't feel like it's on-rails, like Black Ops, I'm not against those ilk's storytelling at all, but the latter two are just more interesting.

Hope I didn't mouth off too much.

James: Keeping it short and sweet; portal (the original, spoilers) has some of the best narrative in gaming history. In my opinion this is down to the lack of exposition and the ability for the player to discover more of the story, featuring early hints such as the rat man chambers. Then when you escape the controlled freedom you have to explore the empty lab helps build the dramatic tension. The companion cube seems to be your only friend in the entire world of that game, hence he is instantly liked. Good story telling can be summed up in one sentence. Interesting likable characters in thrilling situations. Lets take portals ending, Chell is universal being the mute first person perspective encouraging players to put themselves in her position, hence the likable part. The thrilling situation is an escape attempt from the murderous antagonist GLaDos, who in herself is a complex character. On an aside I'd recommend you play the prelude mod for portal, where her initial rampage which is only briefly mentioned in portal is played out. Where Prelude and the original succeed is the development of simple testing into something more serious and thrilling.
The story in Portal grabs you instantly much down to early hints something is not right, (the light going out and sped up Spanish). The evolution to the story is key to its success. James Johnson We're done here. (see what I did there)

Chris: Well, Portal 2, since you asked. And Bioshock. Half-Life 2.

Without being specific, I think a large part of successful storytelling in those games comes from the environment. You're dropped into an interesting place, heavy with history, and it raises questions: What is this place? What happened here? Why are things the way they are? What were they like before? How can I find out more? Instead of just moving through the game for the game's sake, you're moving through the game because you want answers and information, and you're also examining everything for clues and answers on your own.

Take Half-Life 2 and Crysis 2, two alien invasion action games. In Crysis 2, I see a smashed city and spaceships. Okay. Aliens invaded. Kill them. Got it. So, I resent having to sit in a Science Chair while some NPC blurbles on about what's happening, because there's no mystery. I look around, I've got it all in one gulp, basically.

In Half-Life 2, I'm desperate to listen to anything anyone will tell me, because the environment has been giving me clues the whole time. Yes, aliens invaded. Got it. But how did it happen? When was it? How did it all go down? Oh, here's a newspaper clipping. Here's someone talking about a missing relative. Here's a guy warning me not to drink the water. Now, I'm ready to be strapped into a Science Chair and listen, because I've got a little information and I'm hungry for more.

Nick: For me subtlety is key. Sadly this is something that games are, for the most part, pretty bad at. I think there is a tendency towards the Hollywood school of thematics, both visually and in terms of writing and delivery. I can't really remember the last time a Hollywood blockbuster engaged me...

VERY MINOR SPOILER IF YOU HAVEN'T PLAYED CAVE STORY:

I was struck recently by an event in Cave Story. I'd destroyed a boss and water started filling the room. I desperately tried to find an escape, but there was nowhere to go. I swam around the top of the chamber as I watched my oxygen bar drop and for the first time in the game, I eventually died from drowning. The screen went black. It stayed black. Was this a bug? I gave it another second or two. Suddenly I was back in the cave, stood on a platform with an oxygen bubble surrounding me. Beside me was the dead body of my sidekick. In the darkness she must have given me her 'oxygen bubble / underwater breathing' special item. She'd sacrificed herself to save me. There was no dramatic music. No text. Nothing. Just a new item in my inventory. For some reason or another I found this scene surprisingly powerful, but then maybe I'm a massive softie.

------------

The tendency in America is often to make something and then crank it an extra turn. Sometimes I think it pays to do the opposite and bring everything down a notch.

Marcin: Agreed on ME vs ME2.

For me, the consistency of the world has a lot to do with my enjoyment of the story. Take one of the bigger offenders, GTA IV: its protagonist is a world-weary hardened war-veteran that's tired of it all and just wants to retire in some comfort. At the same time, you as Niko are rolling in cash, running over pedestrians, and chortling at the ridiculous jokes at tw@ internet cafe. Doesn't parse!

On the other hand, Saints Row 2: ridiculous world, ridiculous missions/story as well since your character is an utter psycho both IN and OUT of missions. It's not savory, but it works.

ME2 did it too. My Shepard would never work for Cerberus. I don't care how, but it just would not happen. The moment that happened, I only went through the motions. Ditto the casual ditching of old stalwarts like Liara and even Ashley; she might've been a bit of intolerant bible thumper, but she was *my* intolerant bible thumper.

So yeah. Consistency of world with plot is pretty huge to me.

Nathan Hardisty: "James Johnson We're done here. (see what I did there)"

It's Cave.

Cave Johnson.

We're done here.

"because the environment has been giving me clues the whole time"

Intrigue, mysteries and such I'm not sure on. Yes, they're perfect bait to carry on playing and the effect of them carries more power if you let the player discover it themselves. However, if you can't deliver on this intrigue then there was no point of it in the first place. LOST did a bad job of having it become the "Tune in next week!" trope, one massive tease, whereas a game like Half-Life 2 wraps up most of its questions and leaves the internet to speculate over what's left over.

westyfield: I instantly liked Alistair from Dragon Age Origins. His introduction was great - it immediately showed what his character is like, with him arguing sarcastically with someone. No melodrama, no fuss, just endearing, dry humour.

Nathan Hardisty: Last post, swear down.

I think I know why you got mad at Saren more than your main character, given you actually saw the act take place.

It's dramatic irony, a literary device, when the audience knows something the main character doesn't. Interesting to play around with, such as making you turbo mad at Saren. Although don't go overboard otherwise your main character will be chilling while you're mouthing off bad language at the guy who just betrayed you, although I don't think I need to tell you that.

Phydaux: The biggest thing for me for stories in games is purpose. I don't mind if the story is droll, like going to work, or fantasy like injecting rainbows into unicorns. I need the proper motivation and to know what I'm supposed to be doing (or at least why I'm supposed to be doing something). Even if the writers are going to break my universe around me, or if I've been intentionally kept in the dark.

Portal 2 is the best I've ever encountered. At least for a story driven game. Someone else mentioned Spelunky above, and that has all the story it needs, and by extension all the motivation I need. Some games like Minecraft, or multiplayer games (TF2, QL, etc.) the story is the individual match, and all the players are the actors, if the game can construct those moments that you want to tell your friends about (or blog about if that is your thing) then I think the "story" is working.

The rest of the puzzle, that is putting together the different parts of the story so I don't feel like a moron or a schizophrenic, is something I have no idea how to do, or why it works for me. (I think people call it plot, or something like that ;) )

Tom Armitage: As a colleague pointed out in a meeting this week:

"Help! A Walrus Has Stolen My Friends." is pretty much ur game story right there. It helps that it is accompanied by a picture of a Walrus stealing your friends.

It has: drama, conflict, an antagonist, and a mission, all at once.

Of the Valve games, I actually think that some of their best storytelling is in the Left 4 Dead games (if you really want to talk about environmental storytelling). There's lots going on there beyond the obvious stuff.

And otherwise: I like stories about the game itself. So, for instance, Sands of Time works because the mechanics of the story are the game mechanics; the two are bound together. Recently, I've done my best to enjoy Crysis 2's story; it is told abominably: in easily skipped scenes and heavy-handed dialogue. But the plot - which, avoiding detailed spoilers, basically comes down to being all about the Nanosuit itself (rather than its pilot/wearer) is interesting. Why? Because the game is about the specific tool that enables the gameplay mechanics, and it being important; the Nanosuit is basically the player's abilities turned into a character.

Sadly, unlike SOT, the thing that makes it special isn't a thing you do as a player; it's just "magic". But I still liked the reinforcement that the most important thing in the universe wasn't some dialogue, or some text; it was a collection of abilities.

Bad storytelling: Killzone 3, simply because every time it wrests control from you, to tell the story, you watch your avatar performing actions that are both cooler and more interesting than anything you're allowed to do when you're in charge. Sev-in-cutscenes has way more abilities than Sev-in-game, and whilst wresting control from the player is irritating but sometimes acceptable, constantly mocking their inability to do anything cool/interesting is just shit. Don't let the player do things in cutscenes they can't do in game.

Mr Pink: There are two things that inuriate me with gaming stories:
1. Endless cutscenes. This is not a movie. If I wanted that I would watch a DVD. Let me play the game!
2. Endless text. This is not a book! While having interesting things to read in the environment is fine (a la Deus Ex), don't force the player to read massive amounts of text in order to follow the story. I guess there are exceptions to this (Planescape Torment springs to mind), but in general I think it holds.

Use the strengths of the medium. Tell the story with environments. Tell it with mechanics. Tell it with subtle characterisation. Then I will enjoy the story, and it will enhance rather than get in the way of the game.

Karl: Pretty much any Troika game - Vampire Bloodlines, or Arcanum especially - these characters are all well written and fleshed out very well. On the same token, any character done by Obsidian is pretty damn good.

One of the most iconic game characters, to me, would be HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic. He is quotable, simple, but generally interesting.

I'm with Mr. Pink, though - if you can tell the story without relying on all the stereotypical characters, all the more power to you. Graffiti on walls, log books, journal entries, codex entries, audio logs - this shit is much more interesting than seeing yet another one dimensional character soap box for five minutes with obvious characteristics and points to prove. It's boring, it's been done to death, and nothing turns me off from modern games more than this.

I'd also avoid having Joe Walkie-Talkie pop up to run you through the basics of the game. I read that on Chris Livington's new site - why is it that the guy on the walkie talkie knows way more than he should?

On consoles, some of the more memorable characters I've played as or against - Sweet Tooth (Twisted Metal) and Kratos (God of War). Sweet Tooth is just batshit insane, much like The Joker (Batman) which makes him interesting in his own right - he's a dude you want to kill (or kill dudes with) because he doesn't really need a reason to be an evil dude. Kratos is more one dimensional but plays off well as an anti-hero.

Outside of Video games - The Punisher, he's a great character. I'd also check out the Graphic Novel 100 bullets, which is a fine example of a medium that requires both a HBO series and a serialized video game adaptation.

Hope that helps, this is an interesting blog post and an even more interesting question.

Jeremy Springfield: Coming from a LARP background, here. Kinda weird place to start, I know, but there are some great lessons to learn from people who throw RPG and LARP events. They are always trying to write 'plot'. And they are always failing.

The great lesson of RPG's and LARP's is 'create characters'. Don't write "Plot". Plot is a four letter word (a swear word, in case there is a translation error) in writing a story. Avoid it at all costs in a game. In a lot of cases trying to have a player follow exactly along a set plot line is what gets computer game creators in a lot of trouble.

It works very well in Portal because being forced down a hallway through a series of challenges is what the game is about. However being forced down a long hallway in Never Winter Nights, just gets annoying. WoW is the obvious counterpoint as it possesses more characterization than any other game EVAR. But in the end still feels hollow, because ultimately the player can never actually impact the game world beyond what the fixed plot allows. Blizzard writers are great at writing plot... But that doesn't mean its any more fun than being forced into a LARP with a local tyrant. It's still fixed plot.

As a starting point for the narrative create compelling characters and then have the characters interact. Whether they are in your own head, or in the collective heads of a group, doesn't matter. The "plot" or story will be uncovered by the interaction of the characters. If you don't know whats happening with your story, you haven't spent enough time thinking about the characters (btw a 'character' can be a place, a person, or any detail about the world really).

Take The Silmarillion for example. Generations of back story to help explain why the characters of two stories (one shortish, one very long) do what they do. I'm not suggesting that you go into that much detail, but do put some time into the characters and their motivations.

Tom Francis: Cheers everyone, lots of interesting stuff so far. In Gunpoint you're a freelance agent, so the 'writing' bit is mainly people explaining what they want you to do and why, then reacting to your performance after the mission. I've written a branching dialogue engine, so my plan is to keep the brief brief, but let you ask questions if you're unclear on anything or curious about details. You also have an overriding personal reason for needing to take on work and do well at it, beyond profit.

Nathan - that guy's name actually is James Johnson, he was just adapting the Portal quote.

roBurky: My approach is: You should only be including as much context as needed to access the schemas in your players' heads that you want to use to help them understand what they're doing in your game, and why it might be cool.
If you're going to go beyond that to include an actual story beyond what's necessary, you'd better have a damned good story worth telling, to justify taking the player's attention away from the rest of your game. Something fucking life enriching.

Noc: Hmm.

I think, story-wise, that I've always been most effected when my actions as a player have meshed as closely as possible with the actions of the player-character.

Like, Planescape: Torment is usually held up as the GOLD STANDARD of "a game with good writing," mostly because it is fairly esoteric and has a lot of writing. But the only time I was really engaged was at the very end, when I was confronting the Transcendent One and REALLY wanted to figure out a way to get my party members out alive.

Throughout most of the game, I didn't really care about them: Annah was abrasive an annoying, Morte was snarky but unreliable, Dak'kon was kind of a basket case who's crisis of faith I had to tediously sort out . . . but I'd brought them with me to the final dungeon (against Deionarra's pleading), and it'd gotten them killed, and even though it wasn't commented upon when I completed the game without having sent them home I felt like I had lost. So I replayed the final encounter until I figured out how to get them out of the Fortress alive.

. . .

Compare something like Final Fantasy: Tactics, where the real stars of the game (at least for me) were the generic, voiceless NPC party members who began as a team of knights-in-training and ended up following Ramza to the very gates of the underworld. They didn't have any dialog, but by the end of the game they'd acquired personalities and it really bugged me that the narrative failed to acknowledge them -- at one point, Ramza even laments about "being alone," and "having no one he can rely on," despite the presence of that stalwart, unwaveringly loyal cadre of NPCs who have even by this point stuck by his side throughout all manner of horrors.

. . .

The third game that comes to mind is Blue Planet: War in Heaven. It's a really good mod for Freespace 2, which does a lot of awesome things I won't get into now -- but the relevant one to this discussion is a mission where you are tasked with talking your commanding officer out of a suicidal depression. With a dialog tree. Which gets interrupted by an ambush, at which point you abandon the conversation in favor of fighting for your life.

ANYWAYS: the high point of the mission is, when reinforcements arrive and you survive the ambush, there's some closing dialog, some amused chiding from said C.O. about another NPC having sent you to "meddle" . . . and then, if you did it right, a little fanfare and a "PRIMARY OBJECTIVE: COMPLETE" notification on your HUD. It's a small touch, but a surprisingly effective one, to the extent that it provoked a fit of spontaneous fist-pumping.

. . .

I think it's things like that that have always made the difference for me: games where the "story" is closely integrated with the gameplay, where you are actually doing the thing, even in small ways, always seem a million times more effective than being told snippets of a story through cutscenes in between sessions of otherwise unrelated gameplay. The story doesn't have to be vast and open-ended and procedural to manage this -- and can even be entirely linear in its progression -- but invariably it's the small touches, the little moments of integration with the gameplay and the environment and so on (i.e, the moments where you suddenly notice that something is different now) that really make it compelling.

Tyshalle: Even though overall I wasn't completely in love with the game, I do think GTA IV had a great opening sequence, and immediately hooked you with a personal connection between your character and your character's brother. It helped tremendously that both characters had loads of personality right from the start, especially the brother.

My only piece of advice is to make the characters as funny as possible, without making them caricatures or slapstick foolish. There's a reason people fell in love with the crew of Serenity almost immediately. Hell, there's even a reason people cheer on Dexter. These are funny people, and when you can make someone laugh, they wind up being so much more invested in your characters and story and will overlook their flaws. Contrast this with say, The Tudors, which while I can dispassionately acknowledge it as being a really good show, I dreaded watching it because I just didn't really feel like any of the characters had any redeemable qualities whatsoever.

Jason L: Shamefully recent-biased list of game storytelling that I remember grabbing me:

World of Goo
It has no story! But every level is a place I remember in the story it doesn't have, of saving (some of) these little creatures from the World of Goo Corporation and MOM.
Darwinia
Give me little people I care about to save, and you have a story for the ages. Of course, the caring part is the ineffable part. It undoubtedly helps that I had read all the fluff on Dr. Sepulveda and cared about him too. When he talked about the webcam moais...constructive carewave interference; edge of tears.
Crimson Skies
Less the overarching story here than each individual mission having a story arc built around good characters.
Uplink
ICO, SotC
Valve stuff
Fathom
Command and Conquer 1 and Red Alert 1
What can I say, the cutscenes worked on me. Helped in TS by the genius installer that made me a potentially mercenary operative for a given side, rather than necessarily a full-fledged member, and in RA by hilarious Hitler-killing time-travel Einstein and clownStalin.
Beacon
Mirror's Edge
Until the first moment of the first cutscene. Faith and the city tell all the story it should have had.
What I've seen of Brink
The Ark is of course the main character.
Fire Emblem something or other
Emblematic (ha) of the paradigm of caring about a character because they're the tool you use to subtract hitpoints from your enemies. Also the pegasus spear attack animation was addictively badass.
Grim Fandango
Ben There Dan That/Time Gentlemen, Please
Curse of Monkey Island
I know. I liked it best of the series. Sorry.
Homeworld/Cataclysm
Saving little people I care about again. Also killing them; I'll never forget the Gardeners of Kadesh. The (post-Dembo) sequel that apparently turned the Hiigarans into expat Nazis does not exist.
Sword of the Stars
A hybrid, this one; the nearly-nonexistent plot is insulting nonsense but I eat up Dembo's backstory fluff with a spoon, and in the course of gameplay it uses a combination of customisation, the care-for-tools paradigm and Total War-style interlayer dependency to turn generic starships into characters. That there is my favourite Dreadnought; I built it around mass drivers to break the Hiver gate at our main GalSouth outpost, and it arrived just in time. It limped away from the defeat at the Liir shipyard. Now, a bit obsolete, it's nonetheless steaming for a supporting role in my second attempt to cut apart the Liir empire.
Star Control 2 and 3

If you want me to overreach on a theme to tie them together, Jeremy's got it bang on the head. Character is bricks, plot is mortar, and you can build quite a decent wall without mortar. Write character, but the environment in which 'characters' act is also character. This is why World of Goo works, it's why hard sci-fi puzzle stories work.

Jason L: The formatting was already an impossible compromise and then the blog took out my indents! Sorry folks. Should have bolded, I guess.

Bret: Just played Digital: A Love Story, (Quite excellent) and it made me realize something.

Most impressive thing games do is make the player feel responsible for the bad things that happen. Worst is when you feel like the game forced you into them.

Also, agreed on the making characters you have to deal with likable, or at least entertaining. Nothing as unpleasant as hours spent with an unlikable ass. Thinking of Match Point here.

Drug Crazed: Portal 2 is, but it's difficult to say why it has good writing without spoiling. All I'll say is this: The ending is like the Sherlock sketch Michtell and Webb did a while back - Hilarious, while also poingant.

Also, the trick appears to be not to use the standard SPACE MARINE IN SPACE thing. Mass Effect bores me, and I think it's because it's SPACE MARINE IN SPACE.

Bret: Oh, right. Games.

Digital: A Love Story was aces.

Marathon's pretty alright. Durandal's a nice solid mad AI, up there with the greats.

Portal (Well, let's just leave Valve's entire HL2 and onward library here to some degree)

System Shock

Republic Commando had likable squadmates, no small feat.

World of Goo, yeah.

Last level of Braid was clever.

Minerva Metastasis.

First Metroid Prime set the stage nicely, and the logs of sheer fear of the player were good times.

About all that came to mind for the moment. I've heard Alpha Protocol is worth a look on this front, as well.

JoJarJam: Red Dead Redemption had a really good story, as the characters are obviously bastards, but some of them can evoke empathy. It also provided you with a great narrative, giving you reason to want to push on.

Portal 2 also had a good story. It had a great technique of putting some small twists into it throughout. It continued to surprise me to the last scene.

Obviously, I need to mention Half Life 2 here (It's a law were failure to comply is death by firing squad). It placed you after shit had gone down, leaving the player to fill in the gaps. It also had good pacing. It had gameplay as well but that's less important.

As for any narrative technique for your game, I would recommend suspense. Suspense will keep the player going. Obviously I don't mean that you should place questions here, there and everywhere, but instead have one underlining motive, and build it throughout the game. When you do reach the conclusion, I would not recommend giving a twist that could completely destroy everything the player has worked for, as this this will leave him or her feeling cheated.

Jason L: Continuing on the glib suggestions for what Ed Stern's labeled 'Instant Deep Context', the environment as character thesis means that Wikipedia and a generic Web browser were important characters in EXPLODED. That supposably 'throwaway' joke shared between the protagonists tells us much in two lines about what kind of world we're in (previous to that it's only as narrow as 'has TV news'), how well they know each other, and that they intend to at least 'tune' telling their spouses. It's something presumably other Machine of Death protagonists immediately do upon getting their cards, but yours are shown doing so.

Writing character into a system or happenstance is something you're demonstrably good at; in addition to EXPLODED, the GalCiv sagas are full of it and the tooltips in Scanno Domini and your contribution to Pride and Falls both make it ultra-explicit. If you don't consider it typecasting yourself, the mission delivery system is not only your sole low-content means of story delivery but probably also your best character. Is the spy mission network aboveboard, and is that a meaningful word? Is it resented or opposed by anyone significant? Is the information it conveys to agents reliable? Consistently? Is the information it conveys from agents to employers reliable? Can the player lie to employers? If there are gaps in the network's function, are they known or suspected by anyone we talk to? Are they systematic? Are they systematically in any party's favour? I would start by thinking of the way the net filters the first 'character' as the first character.

verendus: The story itself is pretty much irrelevant - it's all about how you tell it. The idea is to give the player the sense that he's discovering the game world, rather than having it be presented to him. So, for instance, in the beginning of HL2, you awake on a train with only the barest hint of exposition from G-man, and you emerge into a train station, and then escape into the city. But what you can glean from your experiences as you do so - from Breen's enormous face lecturing you about survival, or the combination of of mundane and alien technology strewn about, or the bleak look on the faces of those around you - tell more than any lines of dialogue can.

For specific examples, you can me to the group touting Portal 2, though some other notables are Bioshock (1 more than 2), Batman: Arkham Asylum, and Shadow of the Colossus. Heavy Rain is a great example of a good concept poorly executed - I thought the writing was absolutely amazing until I realized that your choices on the dialogue tree had little-to-no effect on anyone's dialogue other than your own, and that the story was only effected by a few very obvious points in the game.

You should already know that to imply is better than to state, and that a single line of clever dialogue is better than three of mundane. (This does not apply when describing vital gameplay functions). Dialogue, however, is only going to get you so far, especially since I suspect yours is going to be purely textual. Powerful images, choice pacing, and ensuring that the player feels what you want them to, are all far more important. You've probably gone through all of Valve's developer's commentaries, you know what I'm getting at.

Do not go out of your way to make the protagonist "witty" - it will come off as affected, and he will seem more vain than personable. In fact, you should probably have the protagonist say as little as possible - or, rather, have him say plenty but speak infrequently. People do not talk to themselves, after all. When writing dialogue trees, cover as many bases as possible - if a player does not see an option he totally agrees with, he or she will lose immersion.

Finally, ensure that the player is always hooked, so to speak. Do not pose too many questions overtly, but ensure that questions are being posed, and often - even if they are just, "how does this thing work," or "why does this building have no windows?" Work closely with your artists to make sure that their work reflects your story. I don't want to give too much away, but the ending - and, really, the beginning, and also the middle - of Portal 2 was amazing for reasons that had nothing to do with dialog.

Gap Gen: I like stories that blend well with the game. Alpha Centauri is a good case, because the fiction worked well in the context of social philosophies dramatically altering how each faction worked (despite them all having the same tech tree) and hence how the game played out.

Otherwise, I tend to prefer minimalist show-don't-tell over reams of exposition. Mass Effect's universe is pretty generic, so it dwells too much on background in some cases. Half Life 2 is a masterpiece of teasing the player with bits of background information scattered around the place while overtly stating as little of it as possible as exposition. It's also one of the most compelling alien invasion stories in a game, too. But still, I think exposition kills stories unless it's handled with great care.

Jason L: I'll shut up in a second. A couple of sparks off that last bit about the network. They're obviously logically connected because I thought of them in this order, but are all intended as independent starting points, not as an attempt to lead you to any specific scenario.

If this is some flavour of noir, are there or have there been people on either side of SPINet who really should not have ever gotten on it? Maybe somebody has mistaken it for a place to hire a hitman, or starts waving around their access to a certain room. Do they ever realise that they're out of their depth, and if so when? Would a character who is or has been in over their head a good contact point or focus for the initially ignorant player?

Does anyone troll or Rickroll a network full of potentially-lethal PI/spies and shadowy Powers That Be? What happens to someone that does? If they live, do their doors ever work properly again? How long might such a community hold a grudge?

Is the mission always to reach a terminal and get out? Do we ever try to set up state for a scenario that occurs later with the avatar offscreen ('the next day') or is carried out in the level by scripted AI? Driving the hacks for a heist? An extortion?

Kadir: One thing to notice is that videogames with good writing often have very basic plots. In L4D 1 and 2, there is almost no plot whatsoever, but the characters are entertaining and people are entertained as a result. In the first Portal, the only plot that the player is forced through is "You are testing a portal gun. Glados is evil, kill her". The enjoyment comes not from the twists and turns in the plot ala inception, but from the excellently written character of Glados. Portal 2 is a little more complex, but again the enjoyment comes from the characters and not from "woah! didn't see that coming!".

I think that if you must have twists, try and have as few as possible but make them huge. KotOR is a good example of a single twist doing wonders for the game.

Also, PLEASE make your story gel with gameplay. Nico Bellic getting all angsty about his war crimes after he's killed hundreds of people on the drive over is irritating to say the least.

Colthor: There are some interesting things about game storytelling and writing in several episodes of the Extra Credits videos on The Escapist about this (and many other things):
http://www.escapistm... ...ra-credits

I really like it when games give lots of back-story to their world for me to sift through at my leisure, like Dragon Age and Mass Effect. After the game's started, however, I prefer being left in an interesting world with interesting rules and mechanics to discover my own stories, rather than being dragged by the nose through somebody else's regardless of my will or actions. Yeah, I know you wanted to be a film director, Mr. Game Designer, and you got lumbered with this job instead - but don't take it out on me, OK? I'm not here, as Nathan said, just to press buttons. Give me a game to play.

A good way of making me not care about a character is to have their fate decided regardless of my actions. If you kill a character in a cut-scene and there's nothing I can do about it? I won't care. If I had to slog to keep them alive in order to get them to the cutscene you're going to piss me off.
But if I get someone killed through my own stupidity, I'll feel guilty and miss them as the game goes on. If I save someone who could be killed (without just going to Game Over) I'll feel like a hero. This is probably why everyone was so fond of Dogmeat in Fallout 1.

Character-wise, I particularly liked Alistair, Morrigan and Leliana from Dragon Age. Alistair for the reasons mentioned before, Morrigan because I felt sorry for her despite her being genuinely powerful and witty (pathetic, miserable and whiny characters you're supposed to feel sorry for - Woe-Is-Me-My-Wings-Have-Rotted-Off from Baldur's gate 2, for instance - just annoy me), and Leliana... Mostly for her voice, I think, which isn't helpful for you.

SHODAN, of course. For being everything a villain should be.

And maybe Dr. Breen from Half-Life 2, although for the wrong reasons. I didn't get on with the game the first time I played it. I felt lost, confused, and didn't know why I was doing what I didn't have any choice but to do. So at the end, when Breen did his "I'd like to take a moment to address you directly, Dr. Freeman..." speech, I was agreeing with him. I was desperate for a "Sit down and have a paddy in the lift" button, but it wasn't in the manual. So I killed him, after all his work protecting humanity from extermination, and the G-Man popped up again to whisk me away with a "Rather than offer you the illusion of free choice".
Ironic that Half-Life 2 is hailed for never taking control away from the player, when really it never gives the player any control to start with.

Someursault: Shortest intervals between a game's start and my investment in its story specifically, not other aspects of the game? Okay.

When you start a new game in Planescape: Torment, a conversation begins. I was hooked by the end of this conversation.

Since that's my all-words example, I guess I'll give a no-words example: the beginning of Ico.

Random Stranger: On Dialog, I am sick of having the Good/Neutral/Evil option.

Why? Because intention does not equal action. The NAZI final solution started off with good intentions. Good intentions do not always equate good intent.

I want to chance to do horrible things in the name of good intentions. Sacrificing babies in the fire to Ba'al is suppose to send them straight to the afterlife, so its a good thing, right? Also let me be an evil SOB who works towards a good cause.

This also applies to gameplay:

If you send me to rescue someone I want to be able to kill every hard working honest security guard between me and them leaving a trail of blood and orphans on my way to rescue one person. Or should I be sent into an evil corp, I want to option to bypass or just use non-lethal takedowns because I like the suits the guys wear.

Random Stranger: Ugh, I need to proof read.

Good intention do not always equal good result.

Jason L: Yeah, I strayed into 'good storytelling' rather than 'immediately gripping storytelling'. SotC in particular was wrong - great story, takes time, that's the point.

Darwinia
Dr. Sepulveda, who I liked because of both his fluff and his well-balanced terse, put-upon, unwelcoming initial contact, told me he cared about the Darwinians. Therefore I immediately cared about the Darwinians.
Crimson Skies
Newsreel about your gang. Your gang talks about how they found out about the gold, and who else is on their way to it. Then you're in the air. Bam.
ICO
The only other person in the world, and the goal of your first puzzle. Then you hold her hand. Making the first goal to make/earn contact with a stranger, rather than seeking the approval of a stranger the chracter already knows: Probably a great general starting technique.
Command and Conquer 1 and Red Alert 1
Installer cleverness and good high-budget cutscenes. Irrelevant to you.
Mirror's Edge
Pure brute-force visual art. The opposite of what you need to aim for.
Grim Fandango
How else could this have started than with a sales pitch and bawling-out? So he's a skeleton but he wears a suit, has a job and a lousy boss. Sold.
Homeworld/Cataclysm
This actually probably has something to say. The Hiigarans find out their goal as we do. They manage orbital chemical rockets, send up their first radar satellite and holy shit! There's a giant damn spaceship in the desert! Wait, it makes sense? It's from us?! This could have easily been a horrible dispiriting start that would have tainted the whole game if Karan S'jet had simply told us 'we were banished and want to go home epic quest time'.

New examples:
Beyond Good and Evil
Even the initial dialogue really never goes above 'good', and there's plenty of poor stuff throughout the game, but I bought into Jade in seconds - http://www.brainygam... ...-jade.html - and bought into her world minutes later when A. I saw her house - She has a home! It has rooms! There's no reason for it to have rooms except that it would be lame if it was a 'functional' savepoint hut - and B. I was told to take a picture of one of the animals in the beautiful world around me, making the animal and the world real instead of scenery, and promised that if I kept looking around there would be other animals going about their own business in complete irrelevance to anything else that happened in the game.
Flashback
I have been shot down off a hoverbike by a spaceship over a vertical jungle. My own face is telling me things I don't know. I can do sweet acrobatics and have a gun that is loud and deadly and hitscan. OK, onward!
Out Of This World/Another World
Sort of unfair given that it's only arguably even a game, but starting you off drowning in a tentacle-beast pit is a great way to make you press the up key like you've never pressed it before, and let you know that the place you're in means business.

Josh: This more more of a "Please don't fall into this well" rant, so I'll need to preface it with the fact that I love the games I'm talking about. I'm only picking at tiny gripes to create some constructive criticism.

Mass Effect (&ME2) Spoilers ahead.

Major issues stem from games that put you into a role but rather than building on the fiction and drawing you into the story, instead do things that are completely ridiculous for the character they're trying to portray.

Mass Effect (and by association ME2 & 3) suffer from this problem. They imbue you with this amazing title as Specter that is touted as one of the highest authorities that there is in citadel space, and it makes you feel like you're going to go into space and kick ass - and yet the first planet I tried to visit was Noveria at which point the local security starts giving me attitude and telling me to holster my weapons.

That made me want to kill them all on the spot - and I'm they guy who always does the angelic approach in games like ME or Fallout.

This isn't even going into the whole "THERE'S REAPERS!" "We don't Believe you" issue that while I understand is a necessary plot device, is just plain stupid. Maybe it would make sense if the council all had Reaper brain slugs.

Another example is the lack of choice to join Cerberus or not - these are bad dudes who have killed me numerous times before, and given the choice I would have planned a daring escape and killed the guards and stolen the Normandy, which would have actually been awesome.

I've said too much.

Bret: verendus, what are you talking about?

I mutter to myself in a faux noir manner all the time! It's how I know I'm not underwater.

LeSwordfish: The trouble games and story have, is that a good story does not make for good gameplay. A good game keeps you feeling good by having you win. Right from the start of any game, you're winning. You carry on winning until the end. When you win. (This is high-level stuff, but bear with me.) Good stories have you start off losing, carry on losing until you reach the end, and then you win.

Lack 26: The people before have written most of what I want to say, but I will say this.

Character death should never end the game.

Don't force a reload if an important character dies, the people's stories wouldn't just end there, I want to see the impact and fallout of someone important dying. If lots, or every, character dies then the game becomes a tragedy, potentially resulting in the mental breakdown of the main character as everything he touches turns to dust. Or if people live it is an epic tale of survival against the odds. Both are games I want to play.

In the same vain, I don't like a character death being completely out of my control. At the time of death it might be, but there should be events in the past that would have changed that; so I can wonder, what if I'd done this or done that.
But don't make the choices obvious, make them subtle (i.e. don't highlight 'THIS IS A CHOICE', but reserve opaque choices for a real gut punch (otherwise they can be frustrating).

I also reckon that an enforced 'no-loads' option (i.e. you stick with the choices you make, for better or worse) should be available in more games (I want to play no-loads, but don't always have the willpower. I'd prefer it if past me made the choice for me, it's also great for adding tension, see Uplink. I'd still allow for a reload on death unless you're in 'Super-Iron-mode'), in addition to any normal loading system, that way you'd cater for both crowds.

Chris: I think Gunpoint should have an ARG. But one mere mortals can solve.

Nathan Hardisty: "Nathan - that guy's name actually is James Johnson, he was just adapting the Portal quote."

I'll have my desk cleared by the afternoon and my resignation notice on your desk in an hour.

Jonas: Take anything I write with a grain of salt, since the best game story I've written had 195,000 words of dialogue. I'll echo what others have said about environmental storytelling - posters, notes and graffiti on walls, little scenes of the aftermath of events that took place in the past, and opt-in text such as e-mails, letters, newspapers and bulletins. That's how you make people care without shoving it in their face. In fact they'll almost certainly care more than if you shove it in their face.

Basically, split all the information you want to give the player into three categories: crucial, pertinent, and fluff. Crucial information is what the player has to do, and it should always be available (preferably flashed in giant letters across the screen to begin with and then available in a menu screen from then on). Pertinent is what the player's options are for how to do it, and it can be more or less obvious - you can put NPC's in the player's way who talk about it when the player comes close, or you can secret it away in an email in some corner of the map, depending on just how important it is for the player to know. The rest is fluff and should always be opt-in - something that the player has to actively seek out and something they can skip through if they change their mind. It can be useful to tie each narrative mechanic in your game to a certain information priority level, eg. info ticker at the top of the screen is for objectives, NPC dialogue is for pertinent dialogue, e-mails and newspapers and wall decals are for fluff.

You seem to regard characters as very important, and that's absolutely an admirable attitude, but one of the hardest things to get right is the balance between gameplay-relevant information and character development in dialogue. Ideally NPCs should deliver gameplay-relevant information in a way that gives the player an idea of who they are and what they want, but I think you'll always be better off with too little character development than too much. If the player has a way to initiate conversation with characters, you can do what Deus Ex did: have their first conversation with gameplay-relevant information fire when you get close to them, then give them an extra conversation or two for all the fluff, or even just a set of one-liners, which only plays if the player clicks on them after the first conversation is finished.

But yeah... squeezing personality into your average "The code to the basement is 'wildebeest'"-type conversations is super difficult and I don't think I've mastered it myself (yet?)

Jonas: Oh sorry for the double-post but here's a very specific lesson that I learned from working on The Nameless Mod: if you want players to give a shit about a character, make the character impact the player character's life and give the player a chance to impact the character. The most popular characters in TNM are the ones that help you out on missions and the ones that you can help out by doing side missions for them - if the player feels like they've been helped out and have helped out a character, they will be much more likely to grow fond of that character in my experience, simply because they are personally invested. I hope that's not TOO obvious a piece of advice :P

dual_barrel: I'll try to keep this simple and effective.

To be honest, I wouldn't start judging a game based on its story immediately starting it. I'd try it out further if the gameplay is good enough. Anyways, I've categorically provided the names of some games further down. Some of them take some time investment, some of them don't. Hope my words help.

I don't think stories in video games can be made to work like in movies or books. Because most of the stories in games, in some ways get diluted by the gameplay, mission objectives, etc halfway through. And the ones that become exceptional, become so by staying cohesive till the end and keeping the player hooked from start to finish. (More on this a bit later.)

So, this is where presentation (including soundtracks) come in to make sure that everything stays cohesive and to the point. That is, the story, gameplay and presentation all work together to deliver the designer's true vision as much as possible!

Sounds like Gunpoint's going to follow a main personal story and a secondary story involving clients. This is fine. Reminds me of Burn Notice.

My first suggestion for Gunpoint is - try to keep as much angles open as possible for the future so that you if want to take things to a new direction, everything still makes sense. For example, Max Payne 1 was outstanding even with its cliched story(I mean the Payne family tragedy and the following revenge by Max). What it couldn't do with its story made up for, through its presentation. But when Max Payne 2 came out, the story in it lacked the smooth cohesion like its predecessor and lacked the same kind of driving force. This is because the devs didn't think about the sequel until they started working on it.

A successful example of this is Assassin's Creed 2 and it's follow-up Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. The following was clearly in the devs' minds while ACII was being developed.



What I like in a story are twists not seen before and cannot be predicted. If I can predict, then it's a problem for me.

From a gaming perspective, this can be constantly rewarding for the player. Like, I finish a level, the story unfolds a little and a part of my brain explodes. Why? Because something happens I didn't see coming. Then, what can I do to find out what happens next? Simple. Finish the next level of course! Thus, a solid story with solid twists can work like a driving force for the player to play the game.

This isn't very different from what happens in The Dark Knight. Joker is always ahead of his game and the audience has no way of knowing what he's going to do next. And the only way to find out is to sit patiently and continue watching the movie.

In terms of twist in stories, the first game I liked was BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic. The twist was based on the identity revealation of the game's protagonist and is such that a lot of people never saw coming. And it happens when over half the game is over.



I've also loved stories taking place in the protagonists' lives; protagonists, whom and whose overwhelming worlds I've gotten attached to. Garrett and his medieval + sci fi themed world acted very powerfully for me behind liking the Thief series' story.

Another example is Half Life and Half Life 2. I don't really see the Half Life series having much of a story but whatever story they had worked for me. Also, the Longest Journey: Dreamfall. Awesome, powerful, female lead and the game's over the top world.



The other kinda stories I love are personal stories. Examples include Max Payne 1, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin and Assassin's Creed 2.

Although the story in Max Payne 1 is one seen before elsewhere but the writer and devs made sure that we understand and experience his pain psychologically by going through his nightmares, seeing as to how and why he couldn't save his family, his guilt because of holding himself responsible for the death of his loved ones and how he sees the world around him dying along with him. This game, I tell you, was too ahead of its time.

We are what we are. I love Hitman 2's story because 47 gets his chance to live a normal, peaceful life denied and soon finds himself pursued by the life he once chose to leave behind. What is remarkable about the story is stone-cold 47 who is known not to care about anyone ends up saving someone voluntarily in the game's grand finale. The ending was just too overpowering. In general, as a character what I found so inspirational about 47 is this guy doesn't have a life and yet he lives his life without complaining and doing what he's good at.

There are a lot of things to say about Assassin's Creed 2's story but I'm only including this here because of the part involving what happens in Ezio's early life. This game was a celebration for me from start to finish. Because I really loved each of the Ezio's family members and wanted justice for what followed. I fell in love with each of the family members because of their innocence, the believability of their characters, their innocent accent and Jesper Kyd's soundtracks. I've never in my life felt so emotionally connected to any other video game characters like this.


Above, the characters I've mentioned are also my favourites and I think I've explained why.

In general, I love rated-R stories. Stories that have psychological and emotional aspects with characters that can be hated, loved or cared for.



Gunpoint crazy, crazy story angles:
- The superhero/savior
- The morally ambiguous, rated-R - antihero
- The rated-R, for the greater good - antihero
- Self-centered lone wolf
- Enemy Doublecross-er
- Secretly schizophrenic
- The spy with the fake license to kill


All I can think of right now.

MartinJ: I hope the Gunspoint detective isn't looking for his father, a middle-aged guy. Maybe you've seen him?

dual_barrel: My second suggestion is to develop a concrete single-player-campaign story in terms of appropriate characters and world until you feel confident that it's going to work. If needed, take a look at your story after waking up every morning for a certain number of days.

Once you're done, spice up the just developed story with sub-stories to increase the depth level of the overall story and disabling other people from understanding it just by looking at it. The idea is to make them play the game to figure out the whole story.

An example is Matrix 1, one of my most favorite movies. Someone with no idea wouldn't understand the whole movie just by watching some 1 minute clip from somewhere within. Also, the movie involves the marriage of 2 main different fields (i) man vs machine - war & (ii) virtual reality, an example which shows how the depth level in a story can be increased by merging different fields, ideas, etc.

Hope my words help.

dual_barrel: I hope there are villains in Gunpoint and if they do exist, it is imperative that they possess some kind of devious personality that is exposed to the player as the game progresses. Otherwise, I wouldn't feel the compulsion to defeat them when I face them finally.

Mr Dan: There's so many comments that I feel my own comment will get a bit lost, especially since I'm going to mention stuff that has already been mentioned.

In regards to stuff that I think would be applicable to your own game, I'd suggest you look into / play Uplink. Although I imagine you're a big fan already as you love you're a massive Introversion fan.

The good thing about Uplink is that the majority of the story is done through text, you can just stop playing at any time, yet it still feels like it has forward momentum and tension.

I think some of the greatest moments in games are when an old environment is turned into a new environment / challenge. For example, Deus Ex, where UNATCO HQ is a friendly hub at the start, but later you end up there and you have to escape.

The opportunity for you to do this in your own game is obviously there. You could possibly have a friendly level, where you get your missions from at the start. Only to later have to go back to that friendly level later in the game to break in and steal something.

Delacroix: Alpha Protocol got me good. It's probably the only game where you could play it 3 times (I know I have) and still come across something you didn't know talking with another fellow gamer.

And it blows my mind how it has moral ambiguity and completely justified actions regardless of how much of a baby killer you are. There is one path where you can side with terrorists in Saudi Arabia (as a US agent burn noticed) because the reason behind the whole conflict is due to an American company desiring to sell weapons to both sides in effectively a cold war scenario.

This level of intelligent writing and lack thereof in mainstream gaming is disappointing, because if anything Mass Effect has effectively told me that your actions are either good or radiating a aura of red and puppy-kicking.

A great story, but I imagine a majority has overlooked it due to the mediocre reviews it got on release (which more likely than not didn't finish it/witness the shades of grey due to insane work schedules). A flawed game but darn, did it raise my standards of game writing. I actually chuckled when people discussed the choices in paths you can undertake in ME2 ("Wow, you chose what I chose?") after playing AP.

MartinJ: Also, there should be a femme fatale.

Lobo: I could talk for hours about story in games, but if I could push just one point above all others, it's this: Make it simple.

I think most games mess up their story, not because the plot is terrible or the characters are terrible, it's because players don't get what's going on. You, the writer gets what's going on, because you wrote it and you care about it, and you have context for it, but the player won't absorb everything because there's a good chance they won't care (at least not to start with). Some simple rules to avoid this...

1. Show don't tell: If you have a bad guy, don't just tell someone he's the bad guy, show him doing something bad. If you have two guys who are friends, don't just tell people they're friends, show them going through trials together that forms the bonds of friendship. If your setting is meant to be a dystopia, don't just tell people it's a dystopia, show elements of control and repression in the environment (oppressive security, propaganda, repressed civilians, queueing for rations, etc).

2. Keep the number of main characters low and use easy to understand archetypes. Too many games go for big casts of characters, or introduce tons of villains (usually so they can have a bunch of boss fights), but give lip service to each. The player needs a lot of screen time to really invest and care in a character, so it's better to limit the number of characters and really give them the time they deserve.

3. Only FORCE the absolute basics of the story on the player. Just basic motivations like: Escape the city. Make everything else optional (audio logs, environmental narrative, etc). If you keep pausing gameplay to deliver lengthy dialogue explaining every detail about your story, players are gonna skip it and miss even the basic motivations that might have given them some context for what they're doing.

For more info, I'd really recommend Creating Emotion in Games, by David Freeman (http://amzn.to/hn9miC). Also check out Ken Levine's GDC talk on Storytelling in Bioshock (http://bit.ly/i9I9vc), and finally, Red Letter Media's Star Wars reviews are actually a great 101 on common storytelling mistakes (http://bit.ly/hVvLWF).

Chris: Wow there are alot of long posts here, I'll keep mine brief (although I could write an equally long post).

What really grabs me the most is a story that unfolds "naturally", where I'm not given a full background in to who my character is, where I am etc as I start... Cave Story springs to mind. It keeps the mystery, it keeps me wanting to know more.

Rasmus Widengård: Oh, darn. Portal 2 would've been my example of a simply perfectly told interactive story.
As for Mass Effect, I agree that the original's plot had a more immediate impact. Mass Effect 2, while sporting a significantly more interesting cast of characters, never had that central drive. It was a tad trite and plodding in the way it progressed.
Sorry to hear you didn't respond to Dragon Age 2, however. While it's obvious they would've needed more time to truly exploit all the inherent potential of that game and story, I think the end-product we were left with is the most morally ambiguous and interesting high-profile game since Far Cry 2.
As opposed to Origins, the thematic contents of which never really ventured beyond "beat this reptilian manifestation of evil over the head with a big stick" (a finely crafted big stick with the best of intentions, but a big stick all the same), DA2 seemed to have a genuine interest in exploring more complex socio-political climes.
Also, it doesn't hurt that Isabela is BioWare's most brilliantly realised character and romance yet. Sheryl Chee is such a brilliant writer. Leliana, Sigrun and Isabela are my favourite characters in each respective incarnation of the DA franchise so far. And all of them her creation.

Other stories worth mentioning ought to be Grim Fandango (a given), The Longest Journey (a classic portrayal of a young girl coming to terms with her purpose and mortality), Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars (a templar murder-mystery done right) and Alpha Protocol (simply put one of the most ambitious and imaginative stories I've encountered in a roleplaying game).

Rasmus Widengård: P.S

As for why I think these titles work...I think it's a matter of sensing the narrative is enriched by being subject to interaction.
Portal 2 is dependent on the tenacity of the player, Dragon Age 2 lays emphasis on the wider implications of your role, Grim Fandango evokes a sense of purpose through Manny's efforts to atone for past mistakes, etc.

All of these titles and their respective qualities are innately tied to the player's input, rather than a passive account of a formulaic storyline.

D.S

Ronin08: Characters need to want things--and not just the good guys. The bad guys have to want things too. And it's not just plot-related stuff--the megaweapon, the love of their life...they've got to want something more. Something that getting that object is going to attain. Even "true love" isn't good enough, it's more than that. In good love stories, it's about the characters making themselves ready to love--in action movies, it's usually the heroes coming to terms with themselves in some way, or making themselves something they weren't in order to stop the threat.

I think the difference between Mass Effect 1 and 2 is that the villains care about massively different things, and how much we know about them is different. In ME1, Saren CARED about saving the galaxy in his own way, and I think that helped motivate him. It made his betrayals punch, his sliminess succeed, because at the end there was something he wanted.

In ME2, you're just fighting the nameless, faceless reapers--which is really just Space Cthulhu--we don't know quite what they want or why they want it--it's so nebulous it doesn't motivate. I think we do get a better grasp of the side characters in ME2 like the Illusive Man and all of the ship's crew, because you spend so much more time delving into their wants and needs---but at the expense of the villain's. Suspect this will be compensated for in ME3 though.

Video games have the interesting possibility to play with what the PLAYER wants though--think that's what can separate them from films, books, etc. Bioshock has done a fantastic job with this, with the player's motivation being focused to align with the character's, so that when the big twist hits, the PLAYER is the one who wants to see things through, not just the character.

Lobo: Ronin makes a good point: The best stories are focussed on characters and their motivations.

Ultimately a lot of game stories fail because they don't focus on characters, they focus on events: Insurgents have gained access to a nuclear weapon and they're threatening to detonate it on American soil unless your special forces unit can kill a bunch of people. <--- That type of thing.

It's far more interesting if you take that same story and focus it on the people. Perhaps the insurgents are members of your old unit. On your last mission, your unit was captured, you escaped, managed to reach a radio, and were ordered to leave the men behind and complete your mission alone. It's been tough for you since then; racked with guilt, you've hit bottom, your relationships have suffered and you've taken to the bottle. When your unit returns seemingly from the dead, angry at the nation that abandoned them, you're plucked from the gutter to go deal with them, after all, you know these men best. You're still have a sense of duty to the mission, but you're conflicted about taking these guys out, after all, they used to be your friends and you did abandon them.

Ok, so that's pretty cliché, but you get the idea: Focussing on the characters is more interesting than focussing on the events.

groovymann: Personally I am willing to give a game time to see if I enjoy a story; as a youth being affected by the rise in university prices I can't afford to give up on games, it doesn't make financial sense. What I prefer is games which leave a good amount of time between story elements (by good i don't mean long I mean enough time for a reasonable amount of play, but not so much you forget the story). this is the reason why I find, as games with story the mass effect games so good you are never playing too long without talking to someone or overhearing a conversation in the street, which keeps me interested.
I feel I must talk about Portal 2 as I have just finished it and am currently enamored with it; the writers at Valve seem to know the amount of time that I can last without hearing something or (often as not in Valve games) seeing something that pulls me back in; especially in the second act where the tension drops the timing of the disembodied messages kept me pushing forward.
Helps if the story and characters are good though,

thanks,
groovymann

LeSwordfish: You know what i cared about in Mass Effect 2? Samara's loyalty quest. Now, i hated Samara. Overbearing holier-than-thou sister-of-battle-knock-off in the second stupidest outfit in the game; I only did her loyalty mission for the acheivement. Plus, once i kew you could hire the crazed sexual maniac, i kinda wanted to, to get her mother out of the way.

And then i cared. I looked through the victim's stuff, listened to the tapes and... dammit Bioware. It's almost cheap in its intensity. Crying parent, cheerful naive messages, room with vestiges of childhood. Yeah, yeah, i've seen it all before, and why are my eyes suddenly watering? I went from genuine sadness to sudden anger. The most emotion a game has ever made me feel, the most emotion any piece of media has made me feel: this girl was never on screen, but i cared about her more than Eli Vance, more than Saren, more than any of the galaxies i'd saved. Aeris? Screw her. I role-played a strictly lawful good Shepard, but had the option come up, i'd have shot the Ardat-Yakhsi myself. I cared for that never onscreen girl more than anything else in any game ever.

That's how you make me care. Cheap tricks. Hitting a BIT too close to the reality bone. And i dunno, maybe she had a really good voice actor.

LeSwordfish: Also, getting thanked. Those little e-mails in Mass Effect 2 touched me. For all that i save the world, how many people actually thank you? I'm sure it added a bit more of a touch to everything in that game, knowing these people might send me a little thank-you note next week.

groovymann: Hate to post again but also having characters acting irrationally is an easy way to get me to start disliking them. People who argue about their trivial affairs while the world, or galaxy, is at stake annoy, me mainly because I am too logical a person.
Prime example, the council in Mass Effect, they continue to ignore and disregard all information you give even when you have an established track record. With the Saren debacle I could see why they didn't believe you, after that they had no excuse. Still saved them though, losing the three most important people in the galaxy would have had negative repercussions for many years, at least in my mind.

Sorry for posting twice,
groovymann.

Wednesday: Mass Effect was great, but only because it let me create a Sheppard to be awesome and thus absolutely fall in love with.

It's Mass Effect 2 that has a great story. Perhaps not a great plot, but it's pretty much a character piece with explosions. It put my Sheppard in interesting places and gripped me like nothing else. Shame about the terminator-goliath at the end.

Splitintwo: I personally think my engagement to the stories is partly based on how the game pushes me through it. I thought Alpha Protocols dialogue system should be implemented for pretty much any RPG conversation system. Actually having a countdown to pick a response brought up the excitement level by forcing my hand. I spending hours agonizing over decisions in Dragon Age and although I still regret a couple spending five minutes staring at a screen breaks the immersion. Forcing me to do it makes it more real.

Good dialogue is really important. I thought Alpha protocols was realistic and genuinely funny. I liked how if you just constantly picked the sarcastic option people got pissed off pretty quickly.

Dragon age was more surreal but I thought the conversations between characters while travelling were one of the highlights of the game and drew me into the characters. Mass effect never quite emulated this charm to me.

Someone else mentioned it but wildly different storylines I love as well. Me and my brother both played Alpha Protocol but we found completely different things. Rather than finding it annoying I'd missed out on the game I wanted to go replay it.


*SPOILERS* (DRAGON AGE 2) Unlike Dragon Age 2 which gave you decisions and then made you watch while it shoved the same result down your throat anyway..... Damn you Merril and Anders why wouldn't you LISTEN! *SPOILERS*

Lastly consequences of your actions. Dragon Age, Alpha Protocol, Dragon Age 2, all failed on this in my opinion. I've sunk 60 hours into a game (DA:O) I want personalised clips, I want to bump into people I've saved and have them invite me to dinner, I want elves to run screaming away from me and hate me because I killed or insulted every elf I met. I need mini resolutions through a game which feel personal (at a basic level characters in AP would refer to your actions) and I need an exciting summary at the end with personalised clips. Hmm now I'm ranting.

TL:DR
- Needs good dialogue, engaging dialogue system (AP)
- Wildly varying plotlines
- Good resolution at the end.

clayton: One thing I think nobody has mentioned (although Noc touched on it in his post): Dissonance between the player's situation/motivation and the character's. The silliest feeling in gaming, for me, is when You Have To Hurry And Save The World but you can actually run around doing sidequests for 15 hours first (more or less every final fantasy ever, and most other jrpgs as well). This is something Leigh Alexander and *** talk about in their recent Final Fantasy Letters. One game that got this right, despite its other storytelling flaws, is Metal Gear Solid. Snake is manipulated by the characters around him, sent into obvious traps, and denied the freedom to walk away from the mission; the player is manipulated by the storytelling methods, forced by the plot to do things that are obviously mistakes, and can only walk away from the mission by turning off the console. These are all storytelling cliches, but since Snake is stuck in the same position, the player's frustration actually functions as empathy for the character.

clayton: ah. *** is Kirk Hamilton. forgot to fix that.

BigTomHatfield: That's kind of a tricky one, because 'story' like 'writing' is so often used as an umbrella term for the entire narrative experience of gaming, which really has a lot of parts.

For instance, I think you're right that Mass Effect has a better story than Mass Effect 2 if by story you mean the main arc of the plot, however I think ME2 has much better writing overall. There characters were generally better, and there were more of them, their personal narratives were better, the sidequests were better crafted and more original and the dialogue itself generally worked better and it had really strong dramatic turning points at each end (The attack on the Normandy and the Suicide Mission). However it was so character dominated (no bad thing in my book) that the main narrative was a bit withered. Aside from these two big events it was mostly episodic, it lacked the grand narrative of the original (I for one actually really liked the conduit thing, the Protheans are the real heroes) and, as has been mentioned, had trundle through some ludicrous plot holes regarding Cerberus and the Spectres to justify the changeover from the first game.

So Mass Effect has a better story, but Mass Effect 2 has better writing (and is a better game) in my book.

I really love Bioware games, but they're often held up as the gold standard for Story in Games, and I'm not sure that's true, I think they're the gold standard for Characterisation in Games, Dialogue in Games, maybe even Writing in Games overall, but story is actually one of their weaker aspects. Again this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's down to the freedom they like to give you in the middle section.

One thing I'll say I'm not actually a fan of, despite it's popularity, is the HL2 narrative method.

Basically, it's not very good,

I mean, it's all very well talking about 'show, don't tell', and 'interactivity based narrative', it's the kind of thing that sounds fantastically arty when you write about it, but it has a lot of serious problems, namely, it's ludicrously easy to skip right past it.

If you've not been briefed before on how narrative works in HL2 (as I wasn't) there's a fair chance you'll not look at the newspaper clipping for the requisite amount of time or somesuch and simply not trigger the explanation. I usually consider myself very good at following and remembering details of even poorly explained plots, but I played most of HL2 without the foggiest idea what any of the back story was. If you have to be told how to play the game in a certain way to actually get any exposition, then you have failed at exposition. You're supposed to communicate your information clearly and discretely to the audience, HL2 absolutely fails at this.

In short, I really, really hope that the Valve method isn't the future of narrative in games, because I'd take a sumptuously delivered, fully interactive Mass Effect conversation over running around staring at bits of wall in the hopes people will act as if I asked them a question any day of the week and twice on Tuesdays.

BigTomHatfield: I didn't actually talk about what I thought was good didn't I?

Well as I said I love Bioware games and I love their writing, but story isn't necessarily the best part, so what does have good story?

Well not a lot really, it often gets let down by the plotting, having a big padded gameplay section kind of messes up your narrative flow. However here's some ones that work in some way:

I think Alpha Protocol really shows you how to do a flexible interactive story that responds to your choices if you like that sort of thing (and I do).

I think CoD4, despite being the fratboy multiplayer game of choice, actually did some really good things with the single player narrative. It added a note of bleakness and pessimism that made it feel real and traumatic in an arena of military bravado shooters, it felt like news footage of war, not a war movie, and wasn't afraid to take a downbeat tack for narrative reasons (games tend to go for a win condition, which can sometimes feel like a tacked on happy ending). The sequel completely failed to realise what the first game did right and did the exact opposite.

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, is a prime example of how good characters and their interactions can lift mean an oft used story is perceived as 'classic' rather than 'overused'.

BigTomHatfield: Yes, one more, just to try and summarise one of the points I was getting at in the earlier post.

One of the main problems games have with narrative is pacing, if you give the player any freedom at all you lose the ability to control the pacing of the game. Thus non-linear games are often at their best when they deliver bite sized episodic narrative rather than grand story arcs. Everyone can name a well done sidequest in an RPG, naming a good main story is harder.

Kirk: I think it is very important to take into account the way in which the game is designed when considering how to portray the story. As has been noted above, it is less the story itself, and more the implementation which makes the story memorable.

Because of the ability of a FPS to submerge the player in an environment, the "ambient narrative" of their surrounds is a powerful method of communicating story. Body language, visual juxtapositions, overheard conversations, subtle mise en scene and interactive tableau. Sure, you may miss some minor details, but the organic nature of discovery makes up for any amount of exposition. Your investment stems from your natural curiosity and empathy.

A more detached RPG, particularly of the older hex-based style, ropes you in by offering up relationships to the player. Our choice of whom we connect to based upon our own personal preferences is what builds investment, and develop organically on the part of the player. Actual conversations, deep pasts, complex motivations and no judgement on the part of the game in regards to our choice of companions. Don't punish me for hanging out with slave traders with a universally applied binary morality. Do be courageous in confronting me with the honest consequences of slavery.

The further you step away from the character you control, the more powerful dramatic irony becomes. You are able to grant more player-independent personality to the character, because the game becomes more of a cinematic experience, where you rely less upon gameplay to hold attention, and more upon narrative tension.

Tension does not arise from uncertainty in regards to the story will end. (SPOILER) We know that we will kill Andrew Ryan at the end of Bioshock. We know it within the first half hour. There is never any doubt throughout the entire game. What holds us on the edges of our seats is not knowing what it will cost us. Not our lives (we can reload a saved game,) but the lives of our friends, our humanity, our freedom, the affections of a lover, our job, whatever. Establish early on, through whatever means are available to you, what is at stake. Games that fail to do this, either fail because they mistake uncertainty for stakes, or because they misplace what is at stake. I don't give two shits about Dad in Fallout 3, and have nothing else to hold onto because he is the sole narrative stake provided to me. Dad buggered off, and now because of an imposed familial bond I am expected to go after him. I can choose whether or not to care about my slowly water-starved Vault in the original Fallout, because am not expected to have an emotional attachment to it. The Vault is not what is really at stake - what is at stake is my humanity. Will I let thousands of people die of thirst? (Not that the game actually lets you play it out like that, but at first glance that's how it looks.)

With a 2d platformer based game with some conversational cutscenes, I think you've got ample opportunity for some neat mise en scene going on during the game. Little set pieces that you can't miss because you've got a godlike sectional view of the building, but still create ambient narrative. You also have opportunity to distance your player a bit from the character, and implement some dramatic irony. Knowing what is going on behind the scenes creates that wonderful slow dawning horror of watching your character stumble into it. If you don't interview characters in-game, its no loss, because whether or not you allow conversations with the bad-guys and civilians, you can still listen in on their conversations, and if you do that with recurring characters, it would be relatively easy for the player to become attached to certain ones and make choices around those characters, even if they never really interact with them directly. Voyeurism is a powerful tool. Just be sure to clearly differentiate between what your character is able to view, and what you the player are able to view, if you are going to do some player/character splitting.

Anyways. I've said too much.

Kirk: Reading through some other comments, especially leswordfish's comment about the loyalty quest. This is what I think -

Empathy, empathy, empathy. Extend empathy even to the bad-guys. Its easy as a writer to just like the good guys and hate the bad-guys, but that is your audience's job. Its your job to be merciless in your depiction of their humanity, even if it hurts to show compassion to a rapist. Empathy is a powerful tool, and as human beings, we are kind of hard wired for it. Take that wonderful trait and use it to twist a knife in your player's guts.

Lampica: Of course you already know that the original Deus Ex had a great story. Even if you think that all the conspiracy theory stuff was ridiculous. Because what made it a great story was not so much the plot. It wasn't the dialogues either which is where the meat of the plot lived. What made it a great story was the pacing, and the active role of your character. Ultimately, the game did a really good job of making you feel like you were a badass renegade operative with cutting edge cybernetic implants in a future were the socio-political fabric of civilization was on the verge of unraveling completely.

It gave you such a sense of involvement through action as much, if not more than, through traditional story telling. Though actually this is more traditional than many realize when looking at it from a written novel perspective, it is just that this particular writers device has not been too well incorporated in a lot of video games. There is also the issue of a great many modern day authors, even many very successful, well known authors, having either forgotten, abandoned, or maybe simply never learning about this particular writers device, and instead relying completely on exhaustive description.

See, there is an old saying for writers, "show, don't tell". This saying stresses the importance of telling a story through action rather than description. A good example can be found in the introduction of a new character in a novel. Rather than giving the reader a long detailed description (which is what a lot of authors are prone to doing these days), instead fill in a few details about the character through action (the man's thin frame was silhouetted in the doorway as the flickering candle light glinted off his wire rim spectacles). That is not going to tell the reader exactly what this guy looks like but you can flesh out more details, through action, as the story progresses.

You can also leave plenty to the reader's imagination anyway. If presented with an easy to read account which engages and suspends disbelief then the human mind will naturally fill in many details without consciously even realizing it is doing it - leaving plenty of room for this helps create a story that appeals to the reader personally as well, because subconsciously, they helped write the story, and the characters looked exactly the way they imagined.

If you give a description readers will tend to have to consciously think about your description and then try to picture it in their head. But if you present details through action, the reader will have an effortlessly visual sense that the author is conjuring images in the reader's mind.

In games, we don't have to worry about any of that, because we have detailed visuals to show the audience. No need to describe the people or the places, we can just show them. But I think "show, don't tell" still very much applies to video games. We don't need to ask the audience to read long explanations, or have the story spelled out through dialogues.

a couple defining moments in the original Deus Ex:
The first time I was at my brothers apartment, I climbed down the fire escape to leave. The next time, authorities were busting down the door, but I had new leg implants so I didn't need to climb down the fire escape. I just jumped, and the bum in the alley below said something (I forget what exactly) which punctuated the uncanny nature of what I'd just done.

On the way to HongKong we got sidetracked and wound up stuck in some facility for a short time. I had a cool sword at that point and I was hiding in vents, using a silenced gun and my sword to kill everyone in the place stealthily from the shadows. I'd hear the guards saying things like, "where the hell is he?", "he's like a ghost!".

We often here about how great this game was, but usually the praise is about the plot as related through dialogues, which was fairly involved, and more intelligently crafted and presented than in most games. Or it is about the freedom to approach objectives from many different angles. Or it is about the scope of the game mechanics, being an action FPS with RPG elements (we have heard of plenty of those but few, if any, pulled it off so well). All of these are praiseworthy, but without that masterful pacing and active involvement in each of these elements to bring it all together it just wouldn't have had that same feel, that sense of immersion, that level of suspension of disbelief that all conspired to give the deeply engaging sense that you were your character.

The story unfolded gradually, filling in details as you made your way through the world, at times you knew who you were and what you were doing - you were just going along with the story. Then you weren't so sure, so you had to find out - you wanted to know the truth, so then you were chasing the story. Then, at times, the tables were turned and the story was chasing you.

Ultimately, even for all the games non-linearity, it was a mostly linear story, a linear plot, with a few choices along the way, that would ultimately lead you back onto the linear story sooner than later. But it didn't feel linear. It felt like you were involved. It felt like your character was not following a predefined path.

It also took you to many different locations, giving that potent sense of global intrigue. Here again, lots of games take you to many diverse locations. But more often than not it feels like more of the same, just using a different color palette. A part of what made the first deus ex so immersive was that there was plenty of breathing room. There were plenty of subdued parts of the game, where you could walk around and talk with people, buy some stuff, but you still had direction, you still always had a motivating force and were never left wondering what to do next. You had reason to talk to NPCs and usually were rewarded with actually useful information, not empty small talk, and not long winded descriptions of NPCs back stories in order to create some context for some irrelevant side missions that you couldn't care less about but that you still don't choose the "do it yourself, I'm not your errand boy!" response to even though that's what you want to say, because you need the XP and you don't want to miss out on some good reward.

The downtime between battles, the exploration and dialogues with NPCs, as well as the believable story-related puzzles gave you the chance and plenty of time to really get a strong sense of place. You had the time for it to sink in that you were in this city and this city was distinctly different and felt far away from that city. Yet that time didn't feel forced as it does in most RPGs where they desperately want you to spend many hours playing errand boy and doing boring stuff to get the feel of each new central location.

In those RPGs - more often than not each location has distinctly different cultures, politics, ettiquette, technology, etc. (though usually you would only know about these differences by being "told" by NPCs. Almost trying too hard to make sure you get that this is a different location. But your time is spent doing essentially the same things in these different locales, so despite the fact that NPCs will drone on and on about the social details that set this location apart, it doesn't really feel like a different place. There are basically two locations in most RPGs, friendly areas, and dangerous areas (though you may occasionally run into some danger in otherwise friendly areas, and vice versa).

In the end, I think it all mostly comes down to very traditional, tried and true, story telling devices, which have been helping authors write engaging novels for ages. Things like pacing, repetition of form, metaphor, subtlety, contrast, etc. It is just that for video games these devices must be re-purposed.

I also think that a big part of the problem with todays games is that the big publishers think games must be accessible. Was Deus Ex accessible. I think it was far from it. Dumbing down games to get a larger audience is the wrong move. The reason why games don't have a larger audience is because many people don't take them seriously. Maybe you can pull a few more people in by making the game simpler so its can be approached more casually, and won't intimidate. But games will gain a much larger audience when they are taken seriously as a real artform and a powerful medium for story telling, dumbing down games does the opposite to general public perception. The point here is that many may fully grasp the tenets of good engaging fiction, but they don't believe that the audience of video games will find it appealing, they think it will go right over our heads.

On this website, in your posts, and in your readers comments, I see people dying of thirst - so desperate for deeper, more engaging, more meaningful games witch have more internally consist, well thought out, thought provoking stories and greater attention to detail in the game mechanics. So desperate that your picking apart the socio-political meanings of games like Hitman, and FarCry. Someone give these people some water!

Popeye Doyle: System Shock II. It's built around a simple concept; something is wrong with the space ship... go! And there are three sides (yours, hers, theirs). Always have three sides; it makes things interesting. Four is too many, three is enough to weave something compelling without losing yourself in the details. To make a good story you need a simple problem with three different sides involved in resolving it. Done.

MUZBOZ: "THIEF"

I love the Thief series because Garrett's voice has a great tone. He is a smarmy anti-hero playing outside the factions that exist in the game (something that many gamers probably identify with - perhaps a generally endearing human quality?)

He introduces the missions with his great voice, and machinates about the state of the upcoming mission, what the main challenges will be, and how it might implicate the different factions and players in the story moving forwards.

The missions are simple enough to just have one key core goal, and a little "dressing" to spice up the description, and then you're GO!

MUZBOZ: But I guess the main reason I love the THIEF games is because I'm immediately attracted to "the fantasy".

A medieval game world that's richly simulated and atmospheric, where I have to sneak about, eavesdropping, stealing, and occasionally getting into a bit of biffo if I'm in a tight spot.

It has a tight, focussed vision, and all the elements of the game support that vision.

nate: Coming in really late!

So, first of all, story isn't one thing. In video games, it's at least composed of setting, character, and plot, and while they interact, they're kind of independent. Games can have good settings without good characters, and maybe there's even a game someplace with a decent plot, although I never played one.

I've been playing Merchwarrior 4 Mercenaries lately, because it's free. It has its share of problems, but for a free game, it's pretty good. One of its strengths is the character that sort of administers your company, a sort of super-secretary who never pilots a mech, and it made me think about why this is such a strong, likeable character.

1) She is distinctive. She is the only character with an English accent. So you can keep track of her. This is easy to overdo. Overly distinctive characters get annoying.

2) She is unfailingly polite. I think this is really important. If you want a character to be liked, it is pretty much impossible to make a character too polite. Players have zero tolerance for rudeness from video game characters.

3) She only ever gives, never takes. She's portrayed as the reason for for several unexpected arrivals of allies. At the same time, she never asks for anything from you. And when I say she never takes, I mean something that's easy to miss: she doesn't even take your time or attention. When she speaks, it's because she has useful information, and she delivers it concisely.

If your likeable character is going to make demands, those demands have to be late in the game, and your character needs to have earned the right to make those demands.

4) She has next to zero attitude. I think most game designers err on the side of over-characterization, which is really just the use of stereotypes as shorthand for characterization. Your player is meeting the characters in your game for the very first time-- they expect those characters to be as deferential and reserved as any other people we meet for the first time. You can be sassy or whatever, but only after we've had a few hours to get to know each other first!

5) This is one where this particular example (MW4) fails, but it's important. To be likeable, a character shouldn't lie to you about game mechanics. I will blame the game developer when a character tells me, "Hurry, we don't have much time!", because I know it's bullshit, and we have as much time as I want, but I will also blame the particular character that is lying to me on that front.

It's easy to miss that most gamers will like your characters by default. You don't have to make them likeable, and efforts to do so can backfire. But there is very little tolerance for any unlikeable behavior (just as there is little for a RL stranger!) If you make a character, and I play a game next to them for a few hours and they don't irritate me, I will have found them likeable, and I will probably have ascribed character and motivation even where none exists or is intended. So if you're going to err, err on the side of subtlety.

sohila zadran: Heya just wanted to give you a brief heads up and let you know a few of the pictures aren't loading correctly. I'm not sure why but I think its a linking issue. I've tried it in two different internet browsers and both show the same results.

robmobz: I suggest Uplink by Introversion and both "Digital: A Love Story" and "don't take it personally, babe,
it just ain't your story" By Christine Love.