CRAFT: Call it What it is! (Why Approaching Story Like a Craft Helps You do it Better)
The following is a video recording of a remote talk delivered at the excellent Yorkshire Games Festival in February 2023. In this 20 min pre-recorded talk, Hannah speaks about how naming the tools of story (and equipping ourselves with centuries of story theory) will help us tell better stories within games. The talk is a 101 introduction to story vocabulary and how it can apply to game storytelling. The theory being: the more you can name what you're doing, the better you can practice it, and the better you can advocate for it in game development!
Play the video below. There's a full transcript below and closed captioning on the video. Bear in mind the transcript is verbatim, so you will have a better time just watching/listening to the video.
We hope you enjoy! And if you feel like you'd like to read more on this subject, we have a brand new discount code for Hannah's book Writing for Games: just head to the Routledge site and use the code LLJM20
Okay. Hello and welcome to "Call it What it is!" (Why Approaching Story Like a Craft Helps You do it Better).
Now, I actually, I had a different title in mind for this talk when I was just pitching it to the organisers. And it was something along the lines of "Literary Theory: It can be useful and fun".
And I was advised that that would not be a particularly attention-grabbing name for a talk. So I put an exclamation mark in the title, and I instead focused on the word "craft" which actually turned out to be a really useful framework for what I want to tell you today about storytelling.
So let's get to it.
Just a little introduction to me. So I'm Hannah Nicklin. I'm the CEO and Creative Director at an indie called Die Gute Fabrik, which is based in both the U.K. and Denmark. I'm based in Yorkshire, hurray!
Here I am- but we're sort of based all around Europe and the world.
Now, I've been working in video games for about a decade but crossed over a little bit before then as well, and I've been practicing as a storyteller ever since I sort of graduated from my playwriting Masters, way, way, way down in the 2000s.
I have done a PhD at some point in interactive practises, including games influence practises as an anti-capitalist practice. But that's a whole other thing.
And if you really want to know more about that, you should definitely just pop my name into Google. You'll find my website, and there's a link to everything that you need to know there.
So let's go ahead and think more about what it means to think about storytelling in games as a craft.
And I think we have to start from a position of what games aren't. Games aren't special, they aren't important. They aren't exceptional, they aren't revolutionary, and they aren't the medium of the modern age.
I say that because I think that, I understand why games historically has tried to shout out about how special it is in order to just be paid attention to alongside other art forms.
But actually, if you have in your head that games are especially good at telling long stories or especially good at interaction then there's a lot of long-durational interactive theatre practices, for example, that would beg to differ.
Just because games can do a thing doesn't mean that they are inherently that thing. And that, as practitioners allows us to think about how we can make them better, more important, more exceptional and more whatever it is that we want them to be.
So I asked us today to consider games a craft and to consider storytelling a craft too.
So if a thing is a craft, it has tools, materials, components you can name, and it has a lifelong practice along which you can specialise in their use. So story is a craft.
It's not just a magical piece of kind of powder you can sort of sprinkle on the top of the game at the end. It's something for which you need to use tools in order for it to happen to be put together.
It has components that need placing, and games is the medium in which you are all sort of sat here, hopefully, interested in practicing the craft of storytelling so we can finally use this sort of craft metaphor to also think about storytelling in games as something which deals and materials, a piece of oak is different to a piece of beech wood.
A piece of porcelain is different to a piece of stoneware. They're technically both clay.
Technically, both wood, right? But they'll have different grains and be used for certain things and have certain qualities about them.
Now you can choose to work with or against their grains. The most important thing is that you do so thoughtfully, so that's hopefully what I mean when framing this within craft is to think about the tools, materials and components of storytelling as practitioners interested in specialising in the area.
And I'm going to now offer you five takeaways, five craft thinkings in order to helpfully hopefully help you build a toolkit and a vocabulary for expressing story as a craft practice within the material of game.
That's just the first thing because if we name the components we can do two really important things, we can communicate with others about our specialism.
We can ask for the tools we need in order for our practice to be effective and then also just within our own minds, if we can properly name the components of story, then we can do thinking in our heads that we don't have to go through physically in order to discover that this isn't working and I'm not sure why.
If you know the difference between plot and narrative, you can say to yourself, I think that this plot is too complicated and I need to make some decisions about cutting in order that the narrative design be more effective.
Here are some meanings and the last thing I guess I have to say before telling you the meanings is that there's a hill on which I long ago died, where I'm sort of buried under the grave marker. It's not narrative-driven games, it's story-driven and that's just because the word "story" and "narrative" mean different things.
And I think it's just really useful to know that, and to be able to express that right, I think people started using narrative because it sounds fancier. Sounds more technical, right?
And sometimes as a storyteller within video games, you often get the feeling that people don't respect your practices, as something technical.
But it is just as technical it has components, it has vocabulary and if we can use them properly, then we might be able to better communicate that to non-specialists in the area in which we specialise.
So there we go. There's a hill, I'm dead on it. But here we are.
Story is the total thing that you will communicate. The story world is the world in which that total thing is set. Plot are events that you may choose to show in order or out of order. Narrative is the entire design of the telling of the story.
So, therefore, narrative design as a term makes a tonne of sense. That means the design choices you make within a game with the telling of the story at their heart.
There we go, knowing those things allows us to understand that narrative design is not writing. Narrative design is design, with the story at its heart within the game design context, writing our words, both of which can be used to tell a story and both of which are part of telling many stories.
But writing isn't the beginning and ending of storytelling, and they are different practices in which you will have to develop different skills.
So writing as a sub-discipline of storytelling, really beautiful example of beautiful storytelling without a single word of dialogue, The Gardens Between which is a game from, like, three or four years ago now. So I recommend that you look that up if you're interested.
So within that context, we can understand that game storytelling is so much bigger than writing. It's also not just narrative design choices. It can be the situation of the player, the players sort of way that they encounter the thing.
It can be art. It can be aesthetics, and it's also mechanics. It's the physicality of play, game feel, all of these things.
So if you are the lead on a project with regard to storytelling, you need to have input into these things, depending on how prominent story is. And that brings us to the next thing.
What's the Verb?
So there's a really, uh, sort of old, I mean, definitely dead theatre director called Stanislavski. Sorry. That's a bit of a funny way to say, historical character called Stanislavski. He liked to action lines in a script and we're essentially asking; "What's the verb of this line"?
So if my line is, "Where's my breakfast"? And I were to action it with "to accuse" or "to beg", I would deliver the line in these two different ways.
"Where's my breakfast?!"
"Where's my breakfast?"
Alright, there you go. I'm not an actor, but hopefully, that demonstrates what I mean by actioning.
And we can also use that concept really usefully in games in a couple of ways. So one we can talk about the many registers and modes of game writing, right?
So there are lots of different ways words can work in a game, and sometimes a tutorial might be a main verb to explain how to play.
But a secondary verb might be to give to characterise a character, so to give the player a sense of a character, in which case you may want to think carefully about whether or not you give those tutorial lines to the character or if you speak as the game and then the characters sort of commenting as they go through the tutorial.
Lots of different things here but hopefully that one example gives you a sense of what you can do with the question. "What's the verb?" "What does this writing need to do?"
Equally, when we come to writing itself, we can dig deeper in there and ask, "What's the verb of this writing"?
"Is it to move the story forward?"
"Is it to reflect on or update the player on something that's happened?"
"Is it to give them a clue?"
Or "is it to develop their character", right?
And then within the style of dialogue, I think one of the big problems with dialogue in a lot of kind of indie games, a lot of people starting out within the discipline is that they tend to have the same voice across all text in the game, right?
So the characters speak like the game speaks to the player, and also they're all sort of just the author.
They're just the writer's voice, and very often those are kind of lighthearted kind of comedy, quips, that Marvel-style thing, which isn't always the wrong choice but the important thing again is that we do things thoughtfully.
In that context, if you're trying to write characters which are convincing, even if you're trying to write comedy, the big question for like, how to write good comedy right is not- I mean there are lots of things that I can't go into right now, but in terms of this sort of verbing stuff, right- it's not like that one kind of comedy where it situates the comedy in the heart of we're laughing at this story.
There are lots of other kinds of comedy so you can have character-driven comedy where the comedy is situated in the dissonance between what the character thinks of themselves and what the world thinks of them.
Think Basil Fawlty, right, in Fawlty Towers.
That guy thinks he's super competent, and it would all be fine if the world just sort of got in line and did it was supposed to. The world is very aware that Basil Fawlty is not very competent, and therein is the sort of tension from which comedy arises.
Again, I'm going to link to my book at the end, and I go into much more there about comedy and kind of citing where from where arises here I'm just going to add that writing for characters in games It's also useful to ask yourself, what should this do on the screen as well?
There's lots of different types of dialogue out there in different mediums and formats, right?
In a book, we've got all of our attention we've just got the words on the page, and the book is a certain size and format, and we expect lines to feel like full sentences.
It's fine if they go over many lines, but it's accompanied by a narrator often or just descriptions of what's going on around that that line.
And that's a very different piece of dialogue to the kind of dialogue that would be in a script which expects, for a, you know, a body on a stage and the full attention of the audience. It expects for that to be accompanied by delivery.
Now, neither of those things is like like the kind of writing you get in games without VO, which I would say is closest for writing for reading like speaking.
So it's not writing for speaking, and it's not writing for reading. One is the script, the other is a book.
I think it's closest for comics and I would really recommend digging into good comics because they also got limited real estate on the page.
They're working with visuals. There's amount of pacing that needs to occur if you get good, character-driven comics, take a look at how those lines are different to lines in books and lines and scripts, and you can sort of, critically sort of pull them apart and think about them as a practitioner.
We're going to keep going because we've only got 20 minutes for this talk.
Genre is a beautiful thing because it's a bunch of work that's just been done by the body of storytelling throughout the ages, onto which we can hang things because that shape of storytelling is already in our players' heads.
The challenge of storytelling and games is that there are two competing genres are often there's game genre. And then there's story genre. These are just some examples, right? It's not exhaustive.
Please don't @ me. But for example, the expectations of story in a block-pushing puzzle are really different to the expectations of story in an adventure game.
The amount of story, the amount of character development, the verb of the writing will be different things. The mask, the verb of story in a block-pushing puzzle is probably just to support and lighten the puzzle-solving tasks, right?
It's delightful rewards the, you know, the verb might be "to reward". Or it might just be to situate as opposed to an adventure story where it might be "to drive" that it might be story-driven as an adventure game, right, in which case you'll want character development, you want clear situation. You want to make some decisions about all of that context, equally story genres, beautiful things already shaped in people's minds, off which you can hang certain expectations.
But again, you can work against those expectations. The important thing is to think about your practice as a craft and to work with it thoughtfully.
That leads us to:
Form, Format and Formula
We've got three new pieces of vocabulary here, not new, I'm sure you've heard these words before, but in this context I offer form.
Form is just a shape or container, right? I like to describe my practice as historically, as I worked across different art forms as form-driven so I would often sit down with a story and not just say "what's the story", but actually "in what form should I tell this"?
"Is this an installation work"?
"Is this a piece of live performance"?
"Is this a piece of digital artwork?"
I made those decisions to support the story, that's what I meant by being form-driven, and we can be form-driven in game design as well.
You're not going to sit there and go, "guys, I think this should be a piece of theatre, actually". Right?
That's not what you're going to be doing. But instead, you can be thinking about your process of, "Okay, I've been asked to put this game genre together with this story genre, and actually that form, is not compatible or is grating in a difficult way and I need to talk to my creative director about that.
Format, another beautiful thing.
It's a commonly used shape, so format might be something like a heist or a body swap or an audition. Now you'll watch, like film, TV where those formats appear. You know how they work, and the pleasure is watching them play out or watching them be subverted, right?
Again, all of the things you can get from players' heads to help support your storytelling and formula is just something that I encourage us to think about when we think about the craft of storytelling and games, ask yourself, "What's the formula that builds the story in our players heads all of the things which come together to make it effective?"
It's just a useful little piece of vocabulary. So I encourage you to think about how storytelling, defines or fits into the design that you are being given or working with.
Story structure is essentially the shape of the action. So it sort of describes the tension, the stakes at play, either for a community or a hero or a number of people. It's not the same as the plot, the events.
But it is the dramatic moments that give the storytelling momentum. And often these diagrams there sort of describing dramatic tension, right? Like how tense is the action in this moment? That's where you get these line drawings.
Now I offer structure as part of your practice as a storyteller within the craft of storytelling in games, in particular wanting to highlight that one of the most commonly used structures is the hero's journey, and I would just suggest that you just learned that there are others.
It's very film influenced, and it doesn't mean it's the wrong like structure for the story that you're trying to tell. But it's not the only one.
And because film theatre, when they use the hero's journey there very often, you know, 2,3,4 hour pieces of dramatic storytelling. A lot of video games are a tonne longer than that, which can make the hero's journey feel quite thin.
One central character where everything serves their forward arc, where N.P.Cs and environment are just there to be exploited to develop that character, it can often because sort of victory has to kind of be inevitable in that context, right?
It can cause a kind of bagginess the story structure, if you stretch over too much time and that jeopardy, especially in a video game where you might die a lot, that jeopardy can also get really deflated.
Finally, the psychological focus of a single hero is often in film shaped by, you know what the camera chooses to tell you, the pacing, both things you might hand over to a player. And in that context, there are other examples of structures you can use, and I'm just going to touch on one here.
The ensemble cast, think Star Trek, think Bojack Horseman, think The West Wing, right?
This story structure is favoured by long-running TV shows, and it takes a community in context of the environment and one another from which drama emerges.
Having different characters you can focus on gives you variety allows you to tell longer stories over generations.
Tone can vary between comedy and drama in a single part of that story, telling and conflicting points of view mean that you don't always necessarily know what sort of truth is which can be a dramatic tension that the player can investigate.
In that context, this is a story structure which I have sketched. That's my sketch. You can probably tell.
I tend to think about that storytelling in an episodic format. Even if you're not delivering episodes, maybe a certain area of the game can be considered a chapter or an episode from your point of view is the designer and then you need to think about what the main plot is and how each chapter develops that main plot.
What the "A Plot" is like the single sort of question or theme for that particular area or chapter.
Maybe it's one character being developed. Maybe it's a you know, one question being developed. A "B Plot", which you still can switch to, is sometimes useful. It's normally something that contrasts interestingly with the A plot and then "C Plots" are just little things.
Little funny asides. A really famous Star Trek DS9 "C Plot" is two people trying to sell self-sealing stem bolts. So there you go.
Okay, so we've hit the 20 minutes and I'm going to conclude.
I'm asking us to try and think about writing for games, storytelling in games, all of those things as components of a craft of a practice, we can develop over time.
So we start by not saying games are inherently anything and understanding that as a thing, a material that we work with thoughtfully we can make them all of the things that we imagine and hope that we can be.
If a thing is a craft, it has tools, materials, components you can name, and it has a lifelong practice where you can specialise in their use.
Finally, Writing for Games has a tonne more vocabulary, a tonne more story structure that little aside on comedy in case you want to go find out more, go to WritingFor.Games
It's a book. What I wrote. So I hope you like it if you do read it. And then finally, here are three texts for better storytelling in any medium, I recommend that you read Stephen Jeffreys Playwriting, How to Be an Artist and What It Is. Beautiful investigations about what it means to tell a story from different perspectives.
Finally, super, super grateful for you coming and listening to me today. And I'm really excited to learn more from you about the stories that you want to tell.
Do find me on Twitter if you want me to link to any more of these resources if you can't find them and I hope that you have a wonderful rest of your festival, take care.