How to write a great video game & avoid Boringville.
Updated: May 8
You launch the video game with anticipation. The promise of story. The characters. The excitement. Then you get into it and wait, doesn't this all feel familiar?
Sometimes I wonder if the fault is in our engines. There’s a sameness to a lot of video games. A sameness in movement. A sameness in look. And a sameness in character.
Which means a sameness in story.
But in any creative the key to great success is originality. Sure, after a hit game you’re going to see 20 hit games that simply look like variations on a theme. That happens in movies and TV and on the shelves of your local bookstore. Why should video games be any different?
What I’ve been working on is different ways to look at story, different ways to approach things, and asking myself how do you develop iconic characters? Because if your aim is a great game, it begins right there, with a great character living a great story.
That’s what captures people and spins them into the heart of your game. That’s what they remember. And that’s what signs them up for the next ride.
We’re talking story here, which gives rise to character, which underlines your game with iconic force.
I’m not discussing iconic characters in games (because that’s already been ably done right here) but rather looking at ways to pop those iconic character out of your personal brain pod by examining the context of your story.
Now some games are more story focused than others, but every great character has a story, even if that story only belongs to the design team. Every character needs context and that context begins, always, with desire.
What does the character want above all else? To really chew on this let’s look at a simple character that also is arguably one the greatest video game characters of all time: Pac-Man. A simple character in a simple story.
Pac-Man’s whole goal is to survive. And when he doesn’t he lets out that plaintive little cry of despondency, a perfect match to your dead hand on the joy stick. I have failed. I have been eaten. Desire so clear-cut means everybody instantly connects with a character, and yes, everybody apparently connected with Pac-Man. And identified with Pac-Man. Another basic criteria for an iconic character.
The context of Pac-Man is the Maze. He’s caught in a Maze. Aren’t we all? That’s the underlying message of the game and why it was an instant cultural tsunami.
A strong, clear-cut desire in a universal context. You can’t beat it.
Let’s stick with Pac-Man a moment because by examining and re-examining context, we
can deepen our story. What I am suggesting is when you get stuck in your story, check your context. If you find your way forward from the contextual point of view, not only will you uncover new storylines, you will deepen your protagonist’s character.
Pac-Man is trying to survive. Pac-Man is also insatiable. And Pac-Man is trapped. To ultimately survive Pac-Man must escape the maze. The Maze is everything. It defines every single thing about Pac-Man. His world is bound and limited. His hunger is a product of the Maze. His harried scurrying, crazy lefts and rights, and backwards and forwards, his limited choices a product of the Maze. Everything about Pac-Man is the Maze and if you want more character in this little ball of fun, keep returning to the Maze, because the Maze will give you endless ways to develop his character, and therefore his story.
You can write a War and Peace length epic novel about Pac-Man if you keep harvesting context from the Maze. And no, I am not going to do that. I said you could do it.
Let’s say some mean ass game producer gives you the assignment of developing Pac-Man’s character. Where do you begin? The Maze. Once upon a time Pac-Man was bored.
He was bored because he was stuck in the Maze. The Walls were high, the paths limited. The same thing again and again. What would that context mean to Pac-Man? I’d say it would drive him crazy. Pac-Man is insane. In fact, Pac-Man has reached his breaking point. He can’t take the Maze anymore. He snaps. He becomes a homicidal maniac.
What if he escapes the Maze? Without the Maze, he wanders the city in an unconfined rage. He kills and maims and generally becomes Dark Pac-Man. The lack of the Maze is the now context. Without the confines of the Maze he loses all touch with reality. He begins to hallucinate. He starts to babble, but people he meets mistake his babbling for enlightenment. Pac-Man becomes a guru, with followers and a religion springs up. He’s carried around the city in a golden chair.
Umm, The Maze! Always return to the original context to find your story. He decides the Maze now means survival. H needs to escape the crushing pressures of being The One. He must get back to the Maze. But without walls he is hopelessly lost, there are no boundaries, so how can he find the Maze again?
You figure it out.
There’s a million roads to take in a story, but the right ones will be the ones that return to the context of your story. A context can evolve, and shift, and sometimes change completely, but when you get lost in your storyline, step back, check out your context and right there is your new way forward.
Understanding your context and placing your character firmly inside of it can lead you to a protagonist with iconic resonance.