It’s a multi-billion dollar industry that just seems to be growing bigger and bigger. It’s now at the point where people will willingly spend their time making their own indie games without even thinking about getting money back from it.
A very large portion of the population plays video games as well. Statistics show that a whopping 48% of women game. 39% of gamers are also over the age of 36, so it appears that there's no limit on that either.
But what is it about video games that make them such an integral part of the post-modern human experience? Many would make the case that it’s about escapism. Getting away from the real world for a few hours a day to enjoy something else. And it definitely is about that, although escapism is just one part of what makes certain games so successful.
Others would suggest video games to be successful because they allow players to act out ideas and desires that would be otherwise taboo in the real world. Like dreams, they allow us to steal, kill and screw to our hearts content without any real-world consequence to our actions.
There’s also the simple answer, that video games are just good old fashioned fun, and they definitely are. At the heart of the gaming industry is a desire to entertain, to tell a good story, and that is definitely a positive tick for everyone involved.
But really, what it all comes down to in the end is empowerment.
In this post-modern western world, people are feeling more and more dis-empowered. Whether its their governments not listening to them, TV telling them they don’t have enough, or their relationships with other people becoming increasingly isolated, most people feel as if they have no control over their lives.
They feel like what happens to them, their friends and family are mostly just a collection of random events, unpredictable chaos that can one day grant their wildest wishes and the next destroy all they hold dear.
Because of this, it's important for the sanity of society that we have a way to leave this world of chaos, to step into another world and be empowered. And that’s what video games provide — a kind of therapy for the mundane horrors of real life.
Every game, every genre of game is at its core about this. Even games like the new survival horror Resident Evil 7 do this. Perhaps not in the same way that fantasy epics like my own Path of Exile do, but they do it all the same.
How empowerment fantasy works is that the narrative or the gameplay (ideally both) are constructed specifically to give the audience some kind of power over their situation. Whether its infusing them with magic powers and letting them lay waste to hordes of enemies like in Path of Exile, or simply giving them a game where they know they can survive to the end, it’s all a form of empowerment.
Narrative is incredibly important in this aspect because a constructed narrative is different to real life stories. A constructed narrative has reason, it has progression; it’s not random chaotic events thrown together, and the simple act of knowing that it has been constructed is often enough to grant the player some form of feeling in control. A narrative structure gives gamers a sense of destiny, like it’s all going to work out in the end.
To capitalize on this need for empowerment, game designers need to do several things, because there are definitely games that fail at empowering their players, and those are the same games that tend to flop hard.
I know it’s a bit entitled to say it, but I do believe it all falls to the narrative designer to do this job. Narrative Designers or Game Writers, otherwise known as World Builders, have to do three things:
1. Construct a world worth escaping to
All of this jobs are of equal importance, but number 1 really has to be done before anything else can be attempted. The first step of empowerment is offering an enticing world for players to want to escape into. This is where escapism factors into it as well as the games being fun argument.
A Narrative Designer needs to lay the foundations of their story world, whether it’s the gritty fantasy wasteland of Wraeclast in PoE, or the Louisiana Backwoods in RE7, a world needs to be created and established through the use of backstory, history and lore prior to the creation of the narrative plot.
An encyclopedic knowledge of the setting is important as escapism requires the world to be fully immersive, which means having its own history, cultures, stories, traditions, geographies and biology.
2. Develop a strong, smart, intriguing and living plot
An empty world is no good without story. How many times have you played a game in which the story was average, or confusing, or both? How often have you played a game where when you return to an area after the plot has progressed on from that place, and it feels like an empty backdrop to a stage show which took place the night before?
If you want your players to keep coming back to your game, to effectively live in your world, you need a plot that is going to engage them. One that doesn’t hand feed them, but that isn’t so arrogant as to assume a position of ambiguity to the point of misdirection.
You also need a living, breathing plot. You’ve created a world with history, history is nothing more than event after event after event layering itself on top of the prior. That means that even after the main plot points set in a particular area in your game have been expressed, that area still needs to be a buzz of activity. Even simply having NPCs continuing to live, talk and work in the area is enough to create the illusion of history being made.
This is an easy suggestion to give open world fantasy epics who have been attempting to achieve that for several years now, but what about other kinds of games? It’s the same principle. If you have an area, stuff needs to keep happening in it. Whether its wild life passing through, or change of weather, this is all narrative direction and creates a realness to the game.
3. Pander to your audience
"Pander" is generally a word with negative connotations, but it simply means to give somebody what they want. Work out who your audience is and give them what they want when it comes to empowering them. If your audience are fantasy fans, then you need to give them a medieval empowerment fantasy — make sure they’re swinging axes around, taking out hordes of goblins and uttering epic one-liners.
If they want to feel epic, make them feel epic. If your game is an adventure like Uncharted 4, then it’s a safe bet to say your audience want that kind of adventure, so remember to give them that.
In movies, a reoccurring problem tends to be that act one of a film is awesome, act three is awesome, but the second act just straight up sucks. This tends to be because act one sets up the premise, and act three concludes the premise, but act two can often be a random jumble of things.
The best advice I’ve heard on this issue is that act two is about the unpacking of the premise. If anything happens in act two that is not directly related to the premise, then it’s going to ruin your pacing.
Translating this to games, think of it this way: If at any point in your game, the game play or the narrative is not connected to your premise or your hook, you’re going to run into trouble when it comes to empowering your audience.
If you have a game about discovering a lost civilization and there’s a large part of the game that revolves around not exploring or uncovering ancient tombs and temples, then the empowerment fantasy is broken. That’s not to say that the pacing has to hit hard a fast constantly — we’re not talking about the pacing in this context — it’s all about sticking to your narrative theme and your gameplay theme all the way through.
Let me unpack this a little further. Uncharted 4 was a great game because it did just what I am talking about now. It had its narrative theme — Nathan Drake’s retirement, his feeling of needing to grow up, settle down and live a normal life, and its gameplay theme — exploring lost jungles and ruins. The game stuck to its guns on both these things pretty much the whole way through and became a very strong experience.
At the end of the day, it falls to everybody to create empowerment fantasies, but it's integral that narrative takes a front seat in the process. We're writing a story to entertain and to make players feel like they have agency — a purpose, like they are in control in some way or other.
If we remember this, our stories will stay strong, the money will come in and players get exactly what they’re needing in this modern age.