Book Review

Character Development and Storytelling for Games

Author:  Lee Sheldon
Publisher:  Thompson Course Technology PTR
Year Published:  2004

By Gordon Aplin (December, 2004)
As a player and reviewer of computer games I have often commented on aspects of gameplay that have annoyed me. Usually my little rants have been directed at adventure game developers who insist on adding timed sequences or arcade puzzles requiring fast reflexes. Or tone-matching puzzles requiring a 'good' ear which I don't possess. As soon as I hit one of these in a game I reach for a walkthrough and all sense of immersion is lost. Occasionally I will be critical of having to read 5 journal volumes at one sitting to learn about the story or glean one elusive clue. Or endure an ultra long conversation or cut scene for the same reason. At other times I have lamented the missed opportunities where a game character might have done something different or something more that I thought would have rounded out the story or a puzzle, but the designers overlooked it.

I used to think that adventure game designers added immersion-breaking elements on purpose, thinking that I wouldn't mind the disconnection or, perhaps, for a bit of variety, or even in a misguided attempt to appeal to the widest possible audience. A This-Game-Has-Something-For-Everyone approach to game design and marketing that ultimately leaves many players dissatisfied with some elements of gameplay and story.

I know now that this is not always the case. Rather it is more likely the result of game designers seeing story development and gameplay as two separate and, at times, incompatible issues. So gameplay is what the players will do in the game such as solve the lock puzzle or shoot the aliens, and story is large chunks of exposition in the form of cut scenes, conversations, journals, books and diaries. I know now that it need not always be this way.

How do I know this? Simple. I have recently read Lee Sheldon's fascinating insider's book Character Development and Storytelling for Games and, though it is aimed primarily at game writers and designers and not necessarily reviewers, it nevertheless clarified for me many of the reasons I have felt dissatisfied with aspects of some games.

Many adventure game players will recognise Lee as the writer/designer of games such as The Riddle of Master Lu, Dark Side of the Moon and Wild Wild West: The Steel Assassin. More recently he worked on massively multiplayer worlds such as Uru: Ages Beyond Myst and Disney's Virtual Kingdom, and has been appointed by The Adventure Company to create a series of mystery games based on the writings of Agatha Christie. But more than this Lee is a writer/producer who honed his skills over twenty years on TV shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, Charlie's Angels, Quincy and Murder She Wrote, to name just a few. He is also a charter member of the Game Design Workshop and has lectured at the Game Developer's Conference. Excellent credentials to write a story and character development resource book for game writers and designers.

In Character Development and Storytelling for Games Lee roams far and wide, drawing together aspects of storytelling and characterisation from Aristotle and Homer, through Chaucer, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Dickens, to film and television and, of course, games. Yet in all the diverse vignettes the thread of storytelling remains constant. This is not a dry as dust history of writing lecture. Lee uses examples to illustrate his themes and shows the relevance of understanding the art and craft of writing to those who would aspire to create games. As Lee says, it is not a book of rules more a book of ideas and choices.

Nor is it simply a book about storytelling in adventure games, far from it. Lee explores the creative possibilities for developing compelling stories and characters in action, role-playing, simulation, strategy and multiplayer games. Though I must admit that some of Lee's comments on the current state of adventure games caught my eye. In particular:

"Adventure games have more opportunities to tell story built into them than any other type of game. With all those chances, you'd think adventures would be miles ahead of other types of games in thought-provoking themes and rich characters. They aren't." Lee goes on to say:

"This is disappointing and surprising to me. It doesn't cost any more to create games that push the envelope of ideas. If you want to break out of a niche, you have to make waves. I see no more than ripples. The paradigm remains stagnant."

Is he correct in this assessment? With a few notable exceptions I tend to agree but I am also hopeful that adventure game writers will take up this challenge and explore the possibilities that exist within the creative imagination. And this doesn't mean adding reflex arcade sequences and combat to reach a wider audience. There is a wider audience out there that currently ignores computer games, possibly because they haven't found anything to interest them or maybe they are turned off by the way computer game playing is portrayed as juvenile both by the industry and the media. As Lee points out, the game industry has yet to reach mass market penetration when you consider that "the audience for a single episode of a hit TV show is measured in the tens of millions."

Part of the problem, as Lee sees it, is that the story and the gameplay are frequently and erroneously considered to be incompatible and are often developed separately or at least disjointedly. Lee argues that this approach has resulted in immersion-breaking chunks of exposition interrupting the gameplay. As game players we have all regularly experienced this. One moment you are actively involved in the game and then a long non-interactive cut scene takes over and you can only sit back and watch and listen as you are fed more of the story. Or you find the never-ending book that you must read to learn what has happened or glean clues for the up coming puzzles that you haven't seen yet.

Lee observes that writing the story and creating the characters is rarely given the time and resources that go into other aspects of game development such as graphics or programming. This sends a clear message that writing, the crafting of the story, is not important and this is why in so many games the story feels 'tacked on'. One of Lee's themes is about respect. Writers, he says, need to respect their characters ... even the lowliest of non-player characters deserves to have a purpose in the gameworld "beyond the designer's convenience". Writers also need to respect their audience. I'm sure that Lee would not disagree if I add that game developers also need to respect their writers and the craft of writing.

In this book Lee also tackles issues such as linearity and non-linearity and examines the structure of games. He suggests ways to break out of the notion of 'paths' through games and explains the concept of modular storytelling as a way of integrating story and gameplay. He is candid about his own past mistakes and doesn't demand that we agree with his every word, which I appreciated as I did have a few issues with some of his points. Notably, I thought Lee's assessment of Syberia was harsh and his view that Diablo revived role-playing games is probably more urban myth than rooted in reality.

At a hefty 474 pages Character Development and Storytelling for Games contains diagrams and illustrations and has an annotated bibliography. It's no mere 'how to' manual, it's more of an exploration of why storytelling and character development are crucial to the creation of great games. I liked that Lee described it as a journey or a quest and he is an interesting companion to have along as he has mapped the past so we know where we have come from and surveyed the terrain ahead so he can suggest the options that are open to us. He also has a store of anecdotes that he shares which make the journey pleasurable and introduces us to other game designers along the way.

Character Development and Storytelling for Games is a fascinating book for anyone interested in writing as it applies to computer games, and that includes reviewers. For game writers and designers and those even thinking about making their own games it's essential reading.

You can learn more about Lee Sheldon and his ideas at his website

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Copyright © Gordon Aplin 2004. All rights reserved.