[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly new GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us.]

About thirty levels into World of Warcraft, I realized that I did not need to read two paragraphs of text to justify killing twenty specific woodland creatures. It was at this point that I realized something crucial: in these two paragraphs, the only words that held any interest for me were “kill” and “woodland creatures.” It was very liberating to know that aside from the very few quests that tied into a larger narrative, I wasn’t missing anything at all.

Video games have a complicated relationship with narratives. Some games do just fine without any story at all. Other games make story their main focus, while others use it as convenient way to glue together the disparate elements of a game into a cohesive whole.

Meanwhile, the video game community is caught between the two extremes. On the one hand, we ask for video games to be have more sophisticated narratives, but on the other hand, we’re frustrated stories that drag us along and break up the game’s rhythm. Getting the story across without killing the mood is the greatest challenge to narrative gameplay, so it’s no wonder that there are plenty of games that drop the whole thing altogether.

It wasn’t always the case, but it’s quite mandatory nowadays for cutscenes and story segments to be skippable. While I would never call for a return to the heinously obnoxious past where we were forced to watch the same fifteen-minute movie every time we failed to defeat the boss we saved immediately before, when story is considered skippable it probably doesn’t belong in the first place.

We want compelling stories in our games, but we also want them to not forget their chosen medium in their quest to hold our attention. Some games let the world speak for itself rather than putting words in its mouth. In writing, it’s important to be efficient with words. Some games create gorgeous environments without any at all, while others drown themselves in listless text that players don’t bother to read and designers don’t expect them to.

Who What When Where Why

If learning to play a video game is like learning to live in another world, then narrative is particularly helpful since it provides a framework with which to understand it. Simple games like Tetris don’t need require anything more than basic geometric patterns to convey what’s going on, while more complicated games like Doom use a huge number of images to convey everything from switches to monsters to helpful items to dangerous floors.

Doom is virtually plotless, but the game world is very strong both when it comes to conveying what the player is supposed to do and at providing an emotional experience. Doom terrified a generation of children who grew up playing the game, and the grisly violence and grotesque monsters were a large part of its success. The imagery of Doom ensures from the moment that you start playing that killing monsters is exactly what you’re going to do, and something you want to do, since the creatures in the game are both repulsive and dangerous.

Doom was a successful game because it delivered exactly what it promised. Doom is a terrible example of a good story, but it is a fantastic example of how world design, from the pathways of the level to the imagery and sound effects convey the game’s atmosphere. Doom is the video game equivalent of a perfectly executed B horror movie. It’s not just a successful game, but one that delivers thrills, no matter how cheap they may be.

The World vs. The Story>

Narrative is optional for videogames, but world building is not. In other words, Tetris doesn’t need a story, but you can’t have Tetris without the blocks. In fact, many games are recognized for creating a high level of excellence in this respect alone, such as the frantic visual and aural experience of Rez. Videogames straddle the line between narrative and non-narrative art.

We can say that narrative starts at zero and is added as it becomes required. Since every game has some kind of title, it might be more accurate to adjust that number to one, but even a simple title like “Asteroids” may be all that’s needed to bring life to floating images on a screen.

This isn’t to say that narrative (or world design, for that matter) should exist only to explain to players what they’re supposed to do. But just as every good writer knows to cut unnecessary words, the same should apply to games. A common mantra in creative writing classes is “show, don’t tell”. Which even a game like Doom does, and even if it’s horror film camp, does so much with imagery alone. Players will become at worst frustrated and at best bored with extraneous narrative.

What sort of experience is the game supposed to create? How can dialogue or text help this process? How will text or dialogue be better than any other medium for creating this experience? This last question is the most important, since it’s not enough to just tell a story. A story should be read, so if it’s told in a way that players will ignore or skip (or wish they could ignore or skip) it doesn’t matter how good or bad it is.

Fat Games>

If there’s one game that really puts the flab on its narrative, it’s World of Warcraft. WoW’s quest text is like some sort of gaming appendix that the designers feel needs to exist but completely oversteps its requirements. There is simply no need to read two to three paragraphs about why you should be killing woodland animals, especially when endgame boss encounters central to the storyline might not have that much text.

If it isn't being used to enhance the experience, it simply doesn't belong. If players skip the story, the designers have failed. Players don't skip story because they hate stories. They skip it because the story's bad or because it interrupts what they're doing.

WoW’s quest text is compensating for the fact that the monsters are simple and the encounters with them are often difficult to distinguish from others except for the differing models. When everything from a dog to a dragon behaves the same way, it’s hard to find them interesting. But rather than have the monsters themselves behave in an evocative or unique manner, the player is then supposed to imagine the qualities of the monster he then goes off to fight. This happens often when what a player reads in quest text isn’t reflected in the actual game world.

Page to Stage

Making the world come to life requires a different approach, one that has been successfully executed more than once in WoW itself. For example, there’s a mine full of babbling prospectors who have gone insane from an evil god beneath the earth that constantly whispers insidious things to players in the area. This is conveyed from word bubbles from the miners, and private messages from the god in the player’s chat.

Because all the text comes in through the game’s chat screen, you aren’t forced to read it to continue. It happens as an organic part of the world rather than something you sit down to read. This is writing that doesn’t interrupt gameplay and is a far more vivid scene than what could ever be found in a snipped of quest text, removed from the rest of the game. Rather than making the player read about something, this brings the event to life.

The problem is fitting it into the game. With videogames, less is more. Text and cutscenes stick out awkwardly when they don’t fit. Of course, context is everything. While Metal Gear’s cutscenes are infamous for straining even the patience of fans, it’s an expected aspect of the game. VNs are also nothing but scrolling text with still images, but they still manage to captivate their audience.

Rather than feeling that story is a burden, it should be celebrated and integrated as fully within the game experience as possible. If that means cutting what doesn’t fit, that’s fine. Story isn’t measured by the pound, but by how much it impacts the player.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which hasn’t been updated for an embarrassingly long time, and can be reached at AndrewVandenB@gmail.com]