Deadly Designer Sins: Story and Plot

We live in the 21st Century. Although some might say we are constantly pushing the pinnacle of our technological advancement ever further and further, making games almost as real as my dreams, there is something I would wish to talk to you about. Deadly Designer Sins. This series is dedicated to one thing only, telling you, the reader, what I consider the ultimate mistakes in video game design. No matter, whether it is an FPS, action game, Strategy or a puzzle game. In today’s article I would wish to touch upon a subject which is very sensitive to myself: Story and Plot.

This article is a part of our Deadly Designer Sins series.

Bioshock - Big Daddy

The Big Daddies from Bioshock... Questions to ask. Why were they created? Why, are they protecting the little girls? Why can't they speak or function like ordinary "people"?

Every world has its setting. How did things come about as they are now? Why is Mister X the ultimate baddy? Why the creatures from Zug Zug land are misunderstood? Why do we wage a war over a crystal which has no apparent use? The setting falls under the story in part (though it would deserve its own article), since a Story in order to make sense needs an appropriate setting. The Plot is what drives us to want to know more. Or in simple terms, the Story are the bare facts, the Plot is the spice added to the Story. The emotions, the causes. It is not just “Tommy lost his teddy and toppled his tower of bricks.” but “Tommy toppled his tower of bricks in anger, when he realised he lost his teddy.”. In the first example, we have the Story. In the second case, we have a Plot.

Holding all this in mind, let us look at games. Most games have a story, and a plot. The debatable part is whether each game has a suitable Plot, or is it a Story, without a plot. In raw form, most FPS have highly similar Stories. The sequences of events are more or less predictable, and those who sit in the genres long enough know what to expect from the beginning. But in all this raw form comes the plot. The Drive behind it all. The reason why Captain Price wants to stop Zakhayev in MW1. Why do the chaps in Gears of War do what they are told to do, etc. etc. But, I am not impressed. A lot of the Stories, as I said, are generic and predictable. So, I went to the next best thing. I said “Surprise me, make some unique plot that will rip my head off.”. I was never impressed.

Much like Yahtzee points out in a lot of his reviews.Characters are often cardboard cut-outs. Their motives are questionable, and often, when tied up with the story, the sequences of events do not make much logical sense. The cause for the start of war in Modern Warfare 2 would had been acceptable… if I could honestly believe that the Russian Secret Service did not have any information on the attackers, at all. But for Pete’s sake, there were cameras everywhere, I am certain. Getting a clear mug shot of the terrorists and taking it up with the CIA? Case closed. Why in the end, does the conflict have to start? Why is it ignited? Plenty of questions, no answers. Of course, it’s a good introduction to a sequel, but considering how things started in Modern Warfare 1 it reeks of artificial prolonging.

Flat character

Not exactly what I meant... but you get the point.

Am I being demanding? Not at all. Let us take a look at the Bioware/Bethesda titles. You are always conscious at some point what you are fighting for, and why. Money? Power? Ideology? The decision is yours, but you are always presented with a clear picture. I shall not lie, I took part in the Star Wars: The Old Republic Beta and that was an example of excellent plots and stories. In true “Sith” fashion each character has a deeper under tone to all their actions, and often the main plot for your class sucks you in like a high powered vacuum cleaner.

For example, the main plot of the Sith Inquisitor is focused first at your trying to beat your competitors to the rank of Apprentice for a Sith Lord. The Overseer is bias toward one of the other students and sends you on all manner of dangerous, life threatening tasks. Although we all know that these tasks essentially look like any generic MMORPG style quests the reason why you have to do them is supported by the background. You end up in ruins infested by dangerous creatures because the Overseer *wants* you dead. Later on when he sends the other students to kill you, it no longer feels like a generic MMORPG, but a full story. You know why? Because the students sent to kill you have nothing against you. They were promised they would go home if they did. Every single character you meet in SW:TOR is like that. You have your masochistic Sith Lords and their underlings who beg you to work a bit differently, the military officers who are more concerned about their own future and ask you to silence somebody and finally, the dedicated Jedi who will go out of their lengths to stop you. We should not say that Bioware/Bethesda are the only ones who have a compelling Plot or story. But after my SW:TOR experience they are high on my rankings.

Good or Evil?

Sometimes, deciding whether you want to go "Good" or "Evil" is much more than just a fashion choice.

On the most basic level, Project Zomboid, although lacking a long-term Story/Plot which is often scripted or prepared for the player, here you make up as you go. Your only aim is to survive, by any means necessary. You have a choice between killing your wife from the start, or keeping her safe. The decision is up to you, but here is the catch. You actively become part of the Plot. That, is what makes a story, or plot much more compelling.

Let us put it simply however. What makes a good plot? I would wish to say “Versatility”, so you have the biggest influence over the ending, setting your own motives into the plot. But this does not always work, especially since making a game which will take all things into account is impossible. But as mentioned before, the Bethesda/Bioware games these days have the “Monopoly” on the player having a number of possible ways to play the game, usually balanced between “Good”, “Evil” and “Neutral”. In some cases individual companions will have their own endings, which are dependent on how much you tried to help them in their own story lines. In other words, a good way to enhance the feeling of plot is to allow the player to shape it.

On the other hand, you do not always have to make things that complicated. You could make a much simpler plot where the player has limited choice in his actions, and instead follows a linear story/plot. But, this is where the writer’s have to shine with their ideas and writing quality. Painkiller is one example of a linear story, as is Dungeon Keeper 2 or any of the Modern Warfare games. You have limited choice in your choices, and it all bogs down to “Finish this chapter, and move on to the next”.

How to write a successful linear Story/Plot? Step one, write down the entire story, from start, to finish. Realise what is the main sequence of events. Do not start half-way, then add the plot, and continue the story from there, you could get muddled up and lose focus entirely. In turn, when making the Plot consider one important component, Characters. It is easy to make a Cardboard Character. Make him a mindless hero, or a suicidal maniac. Another generic crusader, or a mage searching for ultimate power (though, why does he need it in the first place?). Characters have their own motives, their thoughts, experience. A mage could be dwelling into dark necromantic secrets in order to bring back his lost love, because the Temple of Light told him she could not be brought back. A seemingly heroic crusader could lead a war campaign wanting only the treasures of another civilisation, because his own holdings are in debt.

Twists help, of course.You want to shock the player in some way, but that is why you write the whole story first, and then add the plot. For example the player, being a Knight, might be sent with his men to the nearby woods to destroy a bandit camp, and when they return from their expedition discover that the King prepared an ambush for you. If your men die among the bodies of the bandits it would seem like you were cooperating with them. And the reason the King could do that? Perhaps he wanted your personal holdings? Perhaps you were too pious, or devoted to a cause that did not agree with him? Or maybe he considered your a Pretender to the throne?

Plot twists

Too many plot twists? Complicated Story? Characters deeper than the Pacific Ocean? Follow the K.I.S.S. rule. Keep It Simple, Stupid.

There is one useful question to ask yourself, when you write a story, plot, design characters or a setting. “Why?”. Each action and event has some reason. When you suddenly push in something completely unrelated it feels like artificial climax. The way to battle that is to always justify, one way or another, why did something happen. It is fine to leave the player in the dark for a long time, however, the suspense has to be created for a reason, not just for its own sake. In Amnesia: The Dark Descent you do not discover the entire story head on, but instead find scraps of it, in time. You realise who you are, and what is your purpose. Keeping some information to the very end is not a bad idea, much like a Criminal story, a bit like what we had in Bioshock when the player meets Andrew Ryan and discovers he was controlled by Ryan’s opponent all this time (although it is not the end of the game, yet).

Let us put it in a few simple points. The story are chronologically listed events. Write it, before writing anything else. The Plot is the spice. Why did the events happen, motives, emotions, all that jazz. When designing your characters remember they are also “Human”. They will have their strengths, and flaws, but also they can hide their real motives behind an action. Lastly, always ask the question “Why?”. If you are unable to answer your first “Why?” that means you should not even start writing. When should you stop asking yourself? When you feel that the player would know enough himself not to dwell deeper. If you cannot imagine how can every NPC be unique, look around you. Every person is unique, each person has their own “Story and Plot”. Even yourself. Sometimes the simplest inspiration is to look at others. Do not forget about the setting. Make the characters fit into the setting, and make certain the plot and story has a “relationship” with it. Setting is not only the “World”, it is also the culture of a location, the religion. Do not throw in things that do not make sense, or otherwise ruin the idea behind your characters. Such as, throwing in a Temple of Light inside a Dark Keep. Or making all the psychological maniacs suddenly become perfectly obedient to a Lawful ruler. The world simply does not work that way.

There will be more mind bogging writing, but next week I would wish to focus on one thing. The characters themselves. A much shorter read, but I hope it will be thought provocative.

This article is a part of our Deadly Designer Sins series.

Alex “WriterX” Bielski

About The Author

Aleksander "WriterX" Bielski
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Student of Psychology, he was identified as a Nut-Job even before he started the course. Having done some small work as a Modder for a number of titles, and worked as a Game Designer part-time, Alex now writes in third person. As Co-Owner and Editor of AlterGamer.com he aims high, while being armed only with a sling. In the future, he hopes to become a fully qualified Newspaper Editor, and purchase Google.

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