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10 Questions to Ask Before You Write Your Game

video-game-writerHere at Game Dev Fort, we hope to have a variety of experienced writers, artists and designers contribute their knowledge about numerous aspects of games. In my case, this is the beginning of a series on writing in games that will touch on several different topics. I’ve written several freeware and commercial games and each one has been an immense learning experience. One thing I know by now is that it helps to have a lot of early plot elements worked out before you start writing in-depth. With that in mind, here are 10 questions to ask yourself as you begin to mold those wonderful ideas of yours into a real story.

When will the player start playing?

I know, this sounds counter-intuitive for an article about writing, but it’s important. We have to be careful not to be so eager to get our story told that we make the player impatient early on. A few minutes of introductory cutscenes is no big deal, but the general rule is that the quicker the player gets to try out the game mechanics for themselves, the better. There will be time to give important backstory or setting information as the game goes on. Don’t assume players have to know that stuff immediately to enjoy the game.

What is the game about?

In other words, what is the premise? How can you describe the game in a few sentences? This one isn’t just useful for planning the story out, but for marketing as well.

What is the game really about?

In other words, what is the theme? What do you want to say with this story? People sometimes mistake this for a political statement, but that’s a narrow view of the concept. A theme can be as simple as triumph over adversity or the importance of friendship. Granted, there needs to be a certain amount of story involved with a game to support a theme and the more strictly gameplay-centered games don’t always have them. However, if you are looking for emotional resonance, themes are essential. We’ll go into theme in more detail later in this series.

What is the hero’s personality?

Players will be spending a lot of time with the playable character(s), so it’s good to get this ironed out as early as you can. I’m not talking about in-depth characterization, that’s for later, but how will the character initially come off to the player? Is the character funny? Quiet? Full of righteous anger? A prim and proper type? These broad strokes help immensely when you begin writing.


Another question: Have you brushed up on your spelling and grammar?

What is the central conflict?

Flash back to your English classes for this one. There are a number of different conflicts that can drive a narrative, which one is yours? Hero vs. Villain? Hero vs. Nature? Hero vs. Himself? Hero vs. Society? It’s very hard to craft a storyline without thinking this through.

What are the key events in the story?

When writers first come up a story idea, they typically know two things – how it will begin and how it will end. The next step is to get a broad sense of how to get from the beginning to the end. What has to happen? Details will come later, but this sort of thinking helps figure out the scope of your game. On that note…

How long is the game?

We don’t know exactly how long a game is until it’s done, but it helps to make an early estimate so you have an idea of how much story content to plan out. Leave a range for yourself (i.e. 10-12 hours) so that you still have a lot of leeway with last-minute plot ideas.

What is the setting like?

Having a sense of the world the characters live in will help you set the game’s tone quickly. Is it a peaceful land disrupted by the sudden arrival of evil? Or is it a corrupt dystopian city about to get shaken up by a righteous rebellion? The more complex lore stuff can come later, for now it’s important to get the tone right and the setting does a lot to inform that.

What happened just before the game begins?

This is useful for understanding the frame of mind of the playable character(s) right away. Even if the player never finds out what happened right before the game’s story starts, knowing how the characters got where they are makes early scenes more convincing.

How much dialogue is needed?

The genre and mechanics of the game you’re working on do a lot to determine how much dialogue is appropriate. For instance, people playing a platformer probably don’t want a hugely detailed story, if there is one at all. But an RPG relies heavily on a storyline and cast of characters. Keep this mind when coming up with the particulars of the plot.

Hopefully this is a nice bit of initial help. However, we plan on going much deeper when it comes to what makes a game’s story come alive. This is the first of a full series that will cover numerous aspects of storytelling. The list of topics is below and they will be updated with links as they become available. Keep checking the blog!

The Nature of Evil: Making Your Villains Interesting
Avoiding the Cipher: Writing A Memorable Hero
It Takes A Village: Thoughts on Supporting Characters
It’s the Little Things: Dialogue and Characterization
Past is Prologue: Exposition and Lore
Does This Remind You of Anything? Subtext and Theme

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