My Game Story: Thoughts on Design and Storytelling

Legendary game designer Richard Lemarchand on the importance and joy of playful storytelling.

In a “peaceful village” sequence, Nathan Drake walks through a Himalayan village on a sunny morning. Screenshot from “Uncharted 2”, via Mocah.org

The story of my game begins in 1991 in the rural west of England, on the eve of a video game revolution. I was a 23-year-old Oxford graduate with a hard-to-apply degree in physics and philosophy, an unpleasant case of undiagnosed situational depression, and a lifelong search for meaning in art, including video games. I couldn’t believe my luck – fast-growing American game publisher MicroProse had a small British studio, where I had landed a job as a junior game designer. Despite my lack of professional experience, I discovered that the creative tinkering that I considered a game during my childhood and adolescence meant a lot, and I threw myself into learning from my brilliant colleagues.

Four years later, I had moved to Palo Alto, now as a prematurely senior game designer at Crystal Dynamics, a studio founded by executives from Sega and Fox TV in the spirit of “Siliwood,” the confluence of Silicon Valley Tech Chops and Hollywood Tales. I wanted to make games that told stories, stories that meant something in the same way that my favorite stories – from “Star Wars” to “Do what it takes, “Guardians” to “Sexing the Cherry.“Game console storage had just exploded in size, and now we had room for the audio and video files that made radically new things possible in game storytelling. I was working on “Gex“, a series about a wisecracking gecko trapped in TV land, collecting remotes and 1-UPs. I loved “Gex” for the wall gameplay and the dad jokes, but I wanted to do After. Then I met Amy Hennig, the game’s director, who introduced me to “The Writer’s Journey,” Christopher Vogler’s famous screenwriting manual that brought Joseph Campbell’s anthropological ideas on the “hero’s journey” to Hollywood. . The Hero’s Journey, or monomythis the universal history, archetypes and values ​​that Campbell (building on Jung) saw under mythological systems around the world.

In naive hands, the hero’s journey often results in stereotypical stories that value the actions of individuals over those of collectives or communities.

Video games have often struggled with history. Game developers and game studies scholars have hotly debated the role of storytelling in games, with some saying it’s irrelevant or a distraction, while others see the promise of spaces for Richly interactive and immersive storytelling. For me, everything in every art form can be considered storytelling, because the mind is a storytelling mechanism, and my whole career has been built on meeting the challenge that game developers and writers games face when trying to put games and story together. a way that really works. In many video games, the player is embodied in a player-character and is transported into a fantasy world of mystery and surprise. Together they cross thresholds, learn new skills from mentors, defeat foes and complete tasks, progressing to ultimate victory and savior status. This all fits very well with the hero’s journey, and so it’s perhaps only natural that we game developers turn to the monomyth as we begin to learn more about storytelling.

Of course, there’s a big problem with a storytelling pattern that revolves around brave boys traveling to distant lands to seize treasure and bring home prosperity: it’s easy to identify the hero’s journey as colonial and patriarchal. (The same goes for certain genres of games, such as the “4X” style of strategy game, with its macabre four Xs of “explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate.”) Another problem is that, in the hands of naïve, the hero’s journey often results in stereotypical stories that value the actions of individuals over those of collectives or communities. But Campbell and Vogler got me thinking and started me on my own quest to learn more about what we now call story structure, looking for patterns that would help game designers create storytelling games where gameplay and story work well together, instead of pulling apart at the seams. I have a fairly analytical brain, and while the stories had always washed over me, weaving their magic spells of emotion and interest, I began to understand what was going on under the hood of the stories I loved, and to realize that maybe by reverse-engineering them, we might find out what storytelling techniques would like to work in a video game.

Amy Hennig and I worked together for about 13 years, first on the cult “Gnostic Horror” game series “Soul Reaver” at Crystal Dynamics, then at Naughty Dog, a studio in Sony’s video game division, where our team created the world of “Uncharted” (you may have seen the recent “Uncharted” movie starring Tom Holland as treasure hunter Nathan Drake). We continued our studies of story structure at Naughty Dog, using other storybooks like “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder and “Story” by Robert McKee. Both of these books were influential on ‘Uncharted’ as we learned how to introduce likable and interesting characters, steer them towards their goals and the obstacles in their path, and then show them grow as people through struggle. which ensues. For example, McKee speaks of the “gap”, the differential between what a protagonist expects to happen when taking action to achieve a goal, and the actual result that results. “Narrative” and “Save the Cat” aren’t perfect, but they’re useful for storytellers learning the ropes, and great for storytellers in non-linear fields – like game design – trying to separate the story and reconstruct it for an interactive context.

In my book “A Playful Production Process: For Game Designers (and Everyone)”, I talk about “Story Structure for Game Designers”, laying out some ideas about Aristotelian dramas in three acts and the famous pyramid of Freytag, both of which have a tidy structure. “beginning-middle-end” structure of configuration, development and resolution. This helps game developers see the same patterns of rising and falling intensity in the stories that they see in the games they create, as players compete against each other, or against the game system, to achieve their goals and win. Intensity spikes in gameplay and story can sometimes work together to create wonderful moments synergistically, but at other times they can cancel each other out.

For example, in the “Uncharted” games, we made sure to alternate gameplay sequences of intense popcorn movie action with quieter spaces of exploration and reflection – something radical for the time. , in high-budget games – to provide emotion in the story space. breathe. I was part of a group that created the “peaceful village” sequence in “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves”, where the game’s combat systems are disabled, and Drake walks through a Himalayan village on a sunny morning, visiting to nice people with whom he shares no common language. This was considered a risky game design choice in 2009, and we were delighted with the overwhelmingly positive responses it received from critics and fans alike.

In the “Uncharted” games, we made sure to alternate gameplay sequences of intense popcorn movie action with quieter spaces for exploration and reflection.

There’s also “sequence structure,” a storytelling model offered by Frank Daniel, screenwriter, director, and sometimes dean of the USC School of Cinematic Arts. For Daniel, the three or five acts of a story can each be considered a stand-alone tale, and each act can be broken down into sequences, which can also be seen as miniature stories, one leading to the next. This led me to an idea from Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley of “Dramatica” fame, who tell us that stories are fractal – as acts are made up of sequences, sequences are made up of scenes, and further down in individual “beats”, where a joke is told, a fierce gaze is shot through a room, where a tender moment is shared.

It transformed my thinking about both storytelling and games, which I now see as modular, interlocking, layered patterns of beginning-middle-end, repeated with variation to create endlessly compelling situations. If we can identify every beginning-middle-end in a gameplay sequence or story fragment, we can be deliberate about how we glue them together to create exciting and moving effects for our gaming audience. A good example of this is how, at the height of an intense, action-packed lightsaber battle, a D. Vader drops key family information for his opponent, turning the climax of a fight to the sword in an unforgettable cinematic moment. the story. If you’re a fan of “Uncharted 2,” you might remember that game’s betrayals, which play a similar role in twisting the story in unexpected and exciting new directions.

Players are very goal-oriented, just like characters in stories, and if we can keep the tension between what the player-character (the hero or avatar in the game) wants inside the world of the story of the game, and what the player going at some point, so we’re on a good design path. I believe that superior game stories are those where the player-character’s concerns and goals are aligned with the player’s own concerns and goals, a place where game design, narrative design, player psychology and even the cultural, social or political context of the game are braided together.

Perhaps thanks to my deep dives into art, culture and design, my situational depression has improved over time. I’ve always found solace in art and found much of the meaning I’ve been looking for, from art museums to the progressive and emotional accomplishments of indie game designers. But more than that, I found meaning in creating art, in the art of game design and development, collaborating with extraordinarily talented people to push the boundaries of what was possible in storytelling games. Hopefully introducing a healthier next-gen game development process can help sow a few more seeds of change.


Richard Lemarchand, a game designer who has worked in the video game industry for more than 20 years, is an associate professor in the USC Games program at the University of Southern California. Among many other projects, he led or co-led the design of all three games in the PlayStation 3 Uncharted series, including the award-winning “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves”. He is the author of “A Playful Production Process: For Game Designers (and Everyone)”.

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