Guest post: Developing the Storyteller within the Game Designer

Hi all — hope you had a great Thanksgiving if you are in one of those turkey-consuming regions. Earlier this year the New York Film Academy got in touch about a guest post (see shiny new policy on the about page), and subsequently provided this great piece by Chris Swain. They have a nice-looking program with some great faculty. Enjoy!

Developing the Storyteller within the Game Designer
By Chris Swain, New York Film Academy—Game Design School

My students tell me that the best movie this year was the videogame Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. I like this comment because it clearly shows how far story has come in modern videogames. The game is a landscape, a structure, a set of rules that bind the players while simultaneously allowing them to live and play. Ideally, the game compels the player to return again and again eager to express his or her own story each time they do.

Game designers have to be both storytellers and structural programmers. This may seem like a challenging interplay, but for the graduate of a game design school it is an essential mix of skills. Most students enter an academic game design program simply because they love game play. They are armed with the audacious notion that a happy player makes a happy game designer.

On that point they are right. It is a great thing for the designer to love playing. But that alone does not guarantee the game designer’s success. They may never be a true programmer, but they should have a working familiarity with the skill so as to be effective in overall game design. More importantly, the game designer must be willing to learn about the structures and methods of storytelling if they plan to be a versatile and skilled creator of compelling games.

At the New York Film Academy, we guide the game designer-storyteller as follows:

  • Learn a playcentric design language of games – There are three systems that comprise the canon of modern game design: Dramatic systems, which include character, pacing and story structure; Dynamic systems, the emergent qualities of games in motion; and Formal systems, basically the rules, procedures and resources available to players. With a common vernacular, game designers and programmers can effectively collaborate.
  • Learn the human history of games – Game play is identified far back in human history. “The casting of lots” is referenced in the Judeo-Christian bible. Very early versions of dice used 3,000 years ago have been discovered in Iran, while board games have been discovered in pre-dynastic Egypt (5,500 years ago) and China (2,200 years ago). Gaming seems to touch a universal human characteristic to tap into the imagination and competitive spirit. Games instruct and are passed from one generation to the next. The student needs to understand this very instinctive behavior as the fundamental basis for why people will play their games.
  • Study improv – One benefit of the NYFA Game Design School being within a larger school of performing arts is that all students take a semester in improvisation acting (the class is mandatory). There are clear parallels between acting within the rules of improv and the rules of a game: In each, players interact with a set of dynamics while working toward a goal or outcome.
  • Practice interactive writing – The theory, craft and tools of storytelling within an interactive medium should be examined within the past several decades’ successful and unsuccessful game concepts. There are reasons why certain games (think of the biggest-selling titles) are as popular as they are much of it owing to the appeal of the story to the player.

The relentless human appetite for stories is easy to find throughout the culture in movies, books, television and games. We all have our own stories, or wish to be in more interesting or exciting narratives. Providing players with this opportunity is both the task and the opportunity of the game designer.

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Chris Swain
Chris Swain is a leader in the games design and development industry, with two decades experience that includes co-founding the Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California while a professor in the School of Cinematic Arts. Chris developed games for Disney, Microsoft, Sony, The Los Angeles Times, Rockefeller Foundation, U.S. Department of Defense, Discovery Channel, Intel, among others and garnered many awards. Serious games that Chris has created include Ecotopia, Play the Game Save the Planet, a cinematic, story-driven game focused on environmental protection, and The Redistricting Game, which was funded by the Annenberg Center for Communication to educate citizens on the U.S. congressional redistricting process. He is the creative director in the Game Design program at the New York Film Academy.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
The lines between passive and active entertainment are blurred in the landscape of this videogame-inspired movie.