There’s been some talk in the office for the last couple of weeks about the challenge of writing compelling game narratives. Some of us have worked with narrative designers and table-top RPGs and have an understanding of the topic of interactive “narrative design” and story-craft in general.

Learning Influences

Much of our learning comes through osmosis and critical analysis. However, writers and game designers like Robin D. Laws, John Rogers, and Chuck Wendig have influenced our design philosophy and methodology. While some of their advice is specific to three-act plays, serial media, or role-playing games, there do emerge some prominent general theories for designing a compelling story.

When it comes to games with stories, it basically boils down to this: Games require players to make decisions and players have a psychological need to assign meaning to those decisions. The game’s story provides the context that helps players define that meaning.

In other words, without a sense of narrative, many players will not see meaning in their game decisions. They ask “What does this mean?” and “Why should I care?” These essential questions of meaning are what a narrative designer seeks to answer by creating a story with compelling characters and plots.

Compelling Storytelling

So what makes a story compelling? A lot of it has to do with its characters and their motivations. In general, compelling characters have complex motivations that are brought into conflict by the situations that arise in the plot. This becomes the character’s (and audience’s) stake in the conflict. Once you present a conflict with dramatic stakes, the audience begins to feel tension and engagement.

So, when wondering whether a scene seems compelling or not, try to identify the dramatic stakes. Scenes work best when there is at least one “dramatic question” which the audience is waiting to see resolved. If the dramatic question involves a conflict with the motives of one or more characters, then those characters have stakes in the outcome and the conflict seems meaningful.

In regards to this theory for narrative design, there are three types of conflicts:

  • Personal Conflict: Two of a character’s motivations are in conflict with each other. Drama and tension arise in a personal conflict because the character may advance one goal at the expense of another. The resolution of a personal conflict helps define the personality and complexities of that character by bringing to audience attention their priorities and how they respond to mixed successes and setbacks.
  • Interpersonal Conflicts: Different characters have seemingly incompatible motivations. It is these conflicts that help develop and redefine the relationships between various characters. How these conflicts are resolved determines if the dramatic tension between characters becomes either aggravated or relieved for future scenes. Like the personal conflict, it can also serve to help define the characters involved by their contrasting qualities.
  • Procedural Conflict: There is an external conflict that can be resolved without a dramatic cost to the motivations of the characters. The name of the procedural conflict comes from the fact that there is generally a strategically or morally accepted procedure for the character to succeed. Crime mysteries, superhero adventures, medical dramas, and morality plays are all traditional examples of procedural conflicts. In other words, the procedural conflict is a perplexing obstacle to be gradually overcome. The character simply confronts the threat or challenge and succeeds or fails as the plot sees fit. That may sound boring, but a procedural conflict can still have dramatic stakes by posing as a threat to the goals of the characters. It differs from the personal and interpersonal conflict because it has less potential to dramatically define or change the characters.

It’s important to note that these categories of conflict aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s possible that a procedural conflict reveals a character’s personal conflict and then leads the character into an interpersonal conflict, all of which need to be eventually resolved for the audience. Having these conflicts interweave is how successful writers maintain a sense of constant tension and engagement, even as they give their audience occasional closure.

Bringing This Back To Design

This theory of dramatic stakes works great for troubleshooting a problematic narrative, but it can also help you workshop and plan your stories from early development. After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and we might as well make sure our concepts for characters and stories are compelling from the start. When creating the protagonists and a cast of your story, consider what their motivations and goals should be. Imagine what it is they hope and fear and jot that down for later. Remember that you’re not just doing this to flesh out their personality, but to figure out why they are invested in the outcome of the story’s events and where they might come into conflict with other characters and events.

Likewise, consider what situations and conflicts might highlight, challenge, and redefine your character motivations and relationships. It’s those dramatic moments that will determine how compelling your characters and stories are. These events become the beats of your story which you must carefully pace to keep your audience engaged.