Building story and gameplay simultaneously makes for better narrative

Developers can build game stories that better mesh with mechanics by building them side-by-side incrementally, setting up small chunk of gameplay and layering in narrative elements as they go along, according to Frictional Games' creative director Thomas Grip.

Speaking at a panel at GDC today Grip — head of the studio responsible for survival horror games in the Penumbra and Amnesia series as well as upcoming title SOMA — explained how instead of creating gameplay that provides an engaging narrative, developers can solve both design issues at once by building in shorter stages. This kind of storytelling allows developers to create a "denser narrative," Grip said.

"You can't have a horror game that isn't just 100 percent abstract," he explained "You need something that's more than expectation. You can't just have 'boo' moments — story is crucial."

Grip said too many developers treat narrative as a "waste product" after already setting up the game's mechanics and building puzzles and challenges. The main goal when making a game should be to tell players a specific story. Interactive storytelling should not require players to watch cutscenes or read in-game notes; players need to be completing objectives and playing. All interactions players have with the game should also make sense in the context of the narrative; there should be no padding, no extra puzzles that don't connect back to the storyline.

Grip said games like BioShock and Heavy Rain don't follow these rules. Players watch too many cutscenes in the former and have too many possible actions that don't make narrative sense in the latter — plasmids, physical weapons — for these two games to work. Games like 30 Flights of Loving, however, are small bits of story with mechanics that make sense for the moment, making a well put-together game.

Developers should start by determining gameplay mechanics before coming up with the goal of the narrative and then fleshing out the details. Gameplay must have some sort of relevance to the world and to the characters, making general sense within the context of the environment. There must also not be too many steps for players to surmount; too many mechanics can make games feels clunky. Too many disjointed mechanics can also prevent players from feeling a sense of accomplishment, which is the ultimate goal of completing any game, Grip said.

Games also need smaller, short-term narrative goals that are motivated by gameplay. Having both story and mechanics working in tandem will keep players focused on the game and entice them to stick around to finish it, Grip said. However, you don't want the player obsessed with the game's systems — you want them centered on completing the story. Simply searching for a key to a door without some sort of narrative motivation makes the action meaningless; the key needs to be connected to a storyline goal, otherwise players will be hard pressed to care.

"This approach turns focus back on the storytelling," Grip said. "Story and gameplay become entangled and can this can complicate development, but I don't see that as a problem — that's an issue we want. We can use this method to make the game with things we already have."

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