The “Story-Driven Game”

Mojang pocketed 2.5 billion dollars with Minecraft. In a sense, this is a huge victory for procedural generation, which has taken a backseat to RPGs and story-driven games over the recent years. And so I am sorting through my ideas, figuring out what I want to keep and what I want to abandon.

There was a time when making a successful indie game with a story seemed feasible. Cave Story was released in 2004 and became very popular, around the time I discovered Game Maker. Were Cave Story released now, I doubt many people would even see it, much less play it. And the games I considered popular among the GM scene – Jumper 2, Seiklus, The Legend of Shadow – would be entirely drowned out on Steam or Google Play.

I was (re)inspired to make one of these games when I played Kingdom Hearts for the first time in 2011. But when I began trying to write stories for my games, I learned how difficult they fit together. Story has to bend to fit the gameplay, and vice versa. Games bring elements that aren’t experienced in other media, like real-time interaction. Simply firing the trigger in a game lowers activity in the amygdala, which processes how we manage emotions. This clashes when you have a heart-wrenching story you’re trying to tell.

Tetsuya Nomura’s work in Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts is a good example of where this gets confusing. He is a game designer, but he is also a “director”, which is an unusual term in gaming.

Final Fantasy XV, which he’s leaving for other projects, is no doubt beautiful and has great-looking gameplay, but in the trailer that takes a backseat (no pun intended) to the cutscenes. The Final Fantasy series showcases a lot of things that don’t naturally occur in games. Dialogue, character relationships, serious emotional situations, plot twists, the story’s effect on the “character” rather than the “player”, and so on.

Here is a quick history lesson. In the 80s and 90s, graphic adventures such as point-and-clicks were very popular on PC thanks to LucasArts and Sierra Entertainment. Cyan World’s Myst became the best selling PC game in 1994 (until The Sims in 2002). These games had rich graphics and engrossing storylines, but difficult interfaces and puzzles.

Then something happened on June 23, 1996. It was called the Nintendo 64. More specifically Super Mario 64, which gave us full control over a character in a 3D world. Playing in 3D games had an intoxicating novelty back then. By the time Myst’s sequel Riven came out in 1997 it was ignored, and point-and-clicks felt dated.

Graphic adventures were more interesting in a literary sense, but weren’t as “fun” as interacting in 3D. And so LucasArts and Sierra shut down at the turn of the century, while most console games developed absent of depth beyond “save the princess, kingdom, whatever”.

I get frustrated with the “cutscene, gameplay, cutscene” formula games still follow, as it makes gameplay and story feel detached. But the biggest problem is – linear stories add very little replayability. Unless you truly enjoy the game engine or story, you’re just re-experiencing what you went through before. Linear game-stories have lost their novelty just like graphic adventures before them.

I started designing games at a strange time, looking back. Indie games could be counted in the thousands then – not millions. There were no indie markets, so many of us gave our games away. I can’t recall a single indie developer selling their games ten years ago. Even Cave Story was free. We all survived on word of mouth, not paid advertising.

Another history lesson. I’ll use poetry as an example. This is the sixth entry from Sylvia Plath’s diaries: “Today is the first of August. It is hot, steamy and wet. It is raining. I am tempted to write a poem. But I remember what it said on one rejection slip: ‘After a heavy rainfall, poems titled ‘Rain’ pour in from across the nation.'”

This is how I feel indie games have become, in the extremely short span of ten years. Most of us are just writing rain poems now, to be lost in an ocean of other indie games.

Ludum Dare has become very popular. Game jams are everywhere now – even the White House ran one. To me, this is further indication that game design itself has become something casual, like writing poems or music.

The problem is that “game design” wasn’t originally an art form where one person has 100% creative control. In this sense, games do bear more similarity to movies than visual art, poetry, or music. And there aren’t many movies made by one person. While game development is becoming more of a hobby, games are still multimedia, and flourish from the synergy of people working together, sharing their ideas.


About Dylan Franks

My name is Dylan Franks, and I'm a game designer and musician. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. View all posts by Dylan Franks

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