It’s hard to find time to these days, but whenever I have a spare couple of hours at home and feel like procrastinating a little, I’ll find myself tucked away in bed jamming my copy of Dark Souls III. I’ve never been the type to game just for the pure point-scoring aspect of it however. I’ve always hated those kids that skip through the cinematics to get to the gameplay and then have no idea what’s going on. No, for me, much like everything else in my life, video games are about story.
They are something I view as being another screen, another medium for a plot to thicken on and characters to develop through. But I do get it, it’s hard for game creators to appease everybody. The see-saw of narrative verses gameplay is a hard one to balance on, swing too far to one end and you alienate a large part of your target audience through either too much downtime while story develops, or not enough purpose for the play through to make sense.
But little by little, I believe we are starting to get things right. And we need to. For video games to survive long term, they need to be considered in the same vein as film, TV and books, that is – as literature. Recently, games have begun to get smart in the way they tell story, because, after all, that’s what needs to happen. Story needs to be strong enough to carry the gameplay, but not so intrusive that it disrupts it.
In Transmedia storytelling we have a term for the particular technique I’ve been observing in recent games. That term, the subject of today’s post, is “Story world” and it is something that judging by the way things are going in the industry, will become more and more important in the future.
So what is a Story World?
Well, in one way, it’s exactly what it sounds like, and in another way, it’s much more complex. A Story World is the world that your story takes place in. It’s everything from geography and environment, to history, culture and folklore.
The world of Trans-media storytelling which I have unwittingly found myself writing for, is all about cross-platform narratives. We’re not talking about adaptions here, nor are we talking about sequel after sequel movie franchises. Trans-media is the act of releasing a franchise on multiple platforms – A film, a Graphic Novel, a TV show, A game, A book and so on and so forth. The trick being, that things like continuity remain totally intact.
To pull off something like this, a great deal of planning and preparation needs to be made, and that’s where our nifty little term of the day falls into play – A Story World is this planning process.
For example, say you have an idea for a franchise, a sprawling epic of Pirates on the High Seas fighting one another for untold treasures, or whatever you want to write about. If you want this franchise to have longevity in the trans-media sense, you need at least three different stories for three different platforms. So your first step is this: detail and record in one place everything you can about this world. We’re talking Family trees, Pirate alliances, Maps of the oceans and Islands, The Religious beliefs of lost cultures, their architecture, any wars that have taken place in the past, any wars that will take place in the future. Think big, think as if you were writing an encyclopaedia on your Pirate heroes and villains, and at the end of it, you have a Story World.
A story world is not a synopsis or a plan of your particular stories. It is a backdrop for which to mine your stories out of. Whereas in the past what has often happened is a mythos or story cannon has come AFTER the story, we place things the other way around.
This technique is crucial for the future of gaming! Here’s why:
In games, like I wrote before, you want story to direct the play, but you don’t want it to interfere or distract. I would suggest that a huge part of this distraction occurring in games is because writers are so often trying to slam weighty chunks of information down on their players.
You’re trying to take out some prick with a Sniper Rifle when BAM!, suddenly you’re being told all about your own backstory and somehow you feel like – God forbid – somebody is trying to teach you something! In the writing business, we call this exposition. Exposition is important, but it can be done sneakily or sloppily. Very often, we as writers opt for the sloppy, unfortunately.
For Storytelling in games to survive, we’ve gotta get sneaky about it. And this is where having a Story World can help. To explain what I mean, I’m going to use an example of a game I’ve recently been slugging my way through.
Dark Souls III is a third person dark fantasy that I guess you would term as being a kind of action hack and slash sort of thing (although as fans of Souls would know, that’s a brash understatement). The game is kind of known for being ridiculously hard as well as having an incredibly complex mythology to it. We’ll be focusing on that second part.
At first glance playing the game you might find it hard to actually believe there’s any story going on at all. I mean, you start off, risen from the dead after a kind of abstract cinematic informs you that some big ugly-ass dudes called the Lords of Cinder have gone missing – or more accurately run away from some kind of world-saving responsibility, and now you’ve gotta bring them back.
That’s pretty much it.
I mean, I’m convinced that it is probably entirely possibly (if one were so inclined) to go through the entire game having absolutely no fucking idea what is going on, just enjoying the fighting and exploration. How then, does the game have a reputation for being so narratively complex?
The game has a Story World.
Instead of clumsy exposition being forced on the player, Dark Souls III prefers to follow the age old writer technique of “Show don’t tell.” We are rarely ever forced into learning anything about the plot. Instead, plot is unpacked subtly through item descriptions, environments, knocked over statues, shield crests, monster designs and many other ways along the same line.
In Dark Souls, story is a reward for choosing to get lost in its world. And I think that’s kind a fantastic to be honest.
Whether From Software (The creators of Dark Souls III) intentionally put together a Story World Bible and worked from it, I don’t know. What I do know however is that having a predeveloped Story World naturally caters to this kind of storytelling in video games. You as a player are essentially plonked down in a fully developed universe, complete with history and religion, architecture and culture, myths and folklore, and you’re asked to do nothing more than play your way through that world. No exposition, the only story you encounter is story that you actively seek out yourself through engaging with and getting lost in the world.
The future of Video Game storytelling lies in writer’s abilities to create a kind of narrative capsule. A universe that players step inside of, and by simply interacting with the pre-established history of the world they are in, they can create their own storyline at their own pace, one that invests in their imaginations and trusts the individual player to engage with their own story and see that it’s worth being told.