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What are the top most important key elements for a computer game story?
I am a programmer and in the middle of developing a TBS (turn based strategy) computer video game. Those kind of games have a flow of what is commonly known to gamer as 4X, that is, explore, expand, exploit and exterminate, from a position of an empire/faction/race leader position.
So far so good for me, but i shall need a short story to build a campaign mode. And here is where my skills run out. I could make up things but if i knew some key elements in this particular concept it would certainly help me most be accurate on that part which is out of my specialization field.
The requirement is that, the story should give the player a reason for acting through different game stages that are connected via the story. The player assumes the role of the protagonist which would be the supreme leader or a great general some role of power where he is assigned with the task to, usually, "save the world". The "world" itself now is a future setup where different intelligent beings, including humans, live and prosper in space (and planets wherever possible), have armies of unmanned combat starships for their security and expansion and so on.
When thinking about the story of a videogame it is important to first think about how important the story really is to your audience. Sure, a better story will in general be better, but if it's taking too much time or it's feeling strange because you are not a goof story writer it might just distract from the game. A lot of this depends on your genre and in your specific case that means that many fans will be satisfied with a simple setup similar to the following:
- Who is your character and why are they in the position they are in?
- Who was your character in the past? Did your character go through military training and is now simply at the next step of the career ladder? Did some magical coincidence teleport your average-Joe to a magical world where he is thought to be the great saviour?
- What happened that made their position necessary? Did some new enemies appear and your character has just what it takes to combat them? Was everyone else killed and people were just desperate for someone to try their luck?
- What does your character want to do? Is it their dream position? Is it just a means to end the war so they and their family can live in peace again?
- Who is the enemy?
- Are there many enemy factions? How do they interact? Are there alliances? Is there only one left and humanity is trying to finally stop them?
- Is there one person behind the curtains that needs to be stopped? Why does the person do this? Or is there some sort of court that controls the enemies?
- Where is the enemy?
- Where is your starting position in relation to the final enemy? At the outskirts of some region? A small part of the greater enemy territory?
By answering these questions you can learn a lot about what you have to show to your players through story means. Often there will be advisors, friends and family that interact with your character to explain what is happening in the and how everything works. For example if your character has trained all their life for their position they might have a devouted follower that helps your player take the first steps. If, on the other hand, your character is new to everything happening to them the advisor will explain the rules of the world and why things are happening.
Answering who the enemy is will give you a clear goal to communicate to the player, which is important so that they will have a greater sense of their position in the game. The game genre you describe is all about crushing your enemies, so having a clear image of the enemy will make it easy to see the goal and interpret what is happening through that lens.
Answering where the player character is physically located will often help you to understand why there are certain enemies. If you are in the outskirts of some middle-age type empire you will likely only have contact with small standard troops in the beginning and slowly get to the stronger forces. Starting in a lab in the heart of the enemy territory will mean that your player will have contact with enemy technology fast. It's important to have these things in mind as many games in the genre introduce different mechanics and enemy preferences in regards to tactics and equipment throughout different stages of the game.
For a story you need:
- a starting point
- a goal
- a few important key points in between, for example to show your character growing mentally
- a couple more or less points between the key points.
Going from the big picture of "You are a general and that's the enemy" towards a more fine-grained "And to defeat the enemy general you need to kill all three enemy advisors" will lead you to the really fine-grained "And to kill the first of these three you need to infiltrate his laboratory by sending in small elite troops", which is what you want for mission objectives.
Most stories in the genre start with an inception and end with an enlightenment. What exactly these entail depend on the story genre/setting you are working with.
For example, I can take your space exploration:
- The inception is something like the discovery of FTL travel. It means something about your setting changes to such a degree that the game's central action is now either possible or vital. This will set the tone of your whole game. Alternative inceptions could be the declaration of war by a much greater power, a natural disaster, or anything.
- Between it and the enlightenment are a series of advances and obstacles. Advances tend to be either new information or the removal of problems, while obstacles introduce new problems that are solved either through gameplay or meta-actions (such as something your advisor is doing while you are managing the big stuff.) In storytelling terms, these tend to follow a "Yes, But/No, And", structure. Every mission should have at least one of these advances or obstacles, and preferably both.
- Finally there is the enlightenment. This can be either a physical or metaphysical great achievement which makes the main action of the game further unneeded. You could ascend to a higher plane of existence, end the great war, or have everything be destroyed. If it does not make sense to return to the main action afterwards, that is your enlightenment. In some cases, this is directly preceded by a crisis, which resolves any remaining obstacles.
Now, there are two general ways to tell your story; either through gameplay or through inter-mission cutscenes/text scrolls. For a game series that I personally feel tackles both methods quite well, I would recommend Tropico.
As a life long player of the best known 4X game, Civilization, the "story" of the series is the rise to power of your "empire" and much of the play is about becoming the strongest world power on the map. Recently (Civ III and beyond) the games added features to make each nation unique in terms of play styles and victory conditions and many 4X or similar games use the goal of going for a victory condition a part of your play style, though the players who keep interested that long are rare (I myself usually peter out as it becomes clear I'm in the endgame and locked into a certain victory condition I don't particularly want to do). Since so much of the genre is influenced by Civilization's dominance, the victory conditions tend to be:
Conquest: The simplest goal to achieve, though probably the longest, conquest is about taking over territory by military force once all viable land is claimed. Usually it's a precentage of non-oceanic land though civilization also allows conquering every civ's first city or "Capital".
Science: Less strict, but only because the achievement is dependent on the end game era, but Science victory usually requires you to get nearly all available techs and unlock items to build the biggest tech achievement possible. In Civilization, this was building a space ship to reach and colonize Alpha Centari (the colonization of it became the story of quasisequels that used the same game engine: Alpha Centari (sequel to the original game) and Civilization: Brave New World (sequel to Civ V)). Civ used this as a default route to a pacifist victory and the components and real space program builds have had various roles (real builds used to make production of the components quicker to assemble, while they are now the first builds required and play to a "space race" element they historically belong to).
Diplomatic Victory: Introduced in later games, Diplomatic Victory was an option that allowed for players to be more pacifistic than Science, and almost always require a non-agressive use of military resources (i.e. only fighting other nations if war is declared on you). The trade off was that it meant you had a reputation as an honest dealer with friendly AIs and they would be more likely to give you favorable deals and even ally and help you defend yourself. Victory was usually achieved by recieving the vote to be leader of the world in the game's UN. Also opened up the game to have civs who's military was historically lacking.
Religion: The victory required you to be a civ that founded a religion (there were usually more civs than religions but the lock out occurred early enough and most civs with religious oriented mechanics either had another mechanic that allowed a second path, or were all but impossible to not get a religion first). Victory required most cities to have the same religion you founded usually to the tune of 75% of all cities in the game.
Culture: Opposed to being the scientific world authority, the spiritual leader of the faithful, the consumate negotiater who everyone elects to lead the world, or taking over the world, here your victory represents being the arbiter of cool. This nation usually had abilities geared to producing once a game unique buildings and patronage of the arts, though others were cool for culturally unique land marks only you could build. This route usually had a point system attached to it, so like science, you won by outproducing. Later instalments added a tourism mechanic, so you needed to get other countries to visit, which required being someone not-hostile though some nations could reliably go to war, with France and the U.S. having powerful war and cultural machines, the former representing it's European powerhouse status and usually being a Napoleon flavor, though the recent game's military strength is in the espionage system. The latter represents the United States' under Teddy Roosevelt, and relies on the nation's natural beauty and playing with the nascent environmentalist mechanics, as well as being ready to fight back if you start trouble on his backdoor step.
The Points that Don't matter: A final victory is the game's assignment of points based on achievement. If no one wins via a default condition, after a preset number of turns, the game declares the winner based on highest total points. At best, you and your opponents played a mean jack-of-all stats, and at worst, the person achieving this victory sucked the least.
It's also important to note that other games are similarly 4X-esque games that are different when compared to Civ (and even then, Civ is so important to the genre, fans will frequently compare games to it as a high water mark), but Civ is vitally important and story is rarely game generated, but player generated. The lone exception may be XCOM, which is 4X and does have a story, but it focuses mostly on military combat, sometime to the point that it's all about that. The Alpha-Centari game and Brave New World have some story elements, but it's born out in a need to flavor the leaders for play style (Brave New World basically created several super-national regional governments that were flavored strongly after some nations, but had cultural fusions of nations from similar regions or continents as a whole. While not giving any nation a strong parallel to modern nations, most leader's backstories did list what present day extant nation they were from (The Slavic themed Eastern European nation's leader was from Russia). Again, these were all put out by the same companies behind civilization so expect to see similar game engines.
Another player, though it's not true 4X are the main titles of Paradox Interactive, which use similar map engines and base stories on large swaths of actual historical periods, (Crusader Kings (middle ages, from about the 900s to 1400s, Europa Universalis (1444 - early 19 century, Victoria (19 century to World War One), Hearts of Iron (post world war one to early Cold War), and Stellaris (2200s to 2400s). These games are real time rather than turn based, but are all empire management like most 4x games. With exception to Stellaris, the games are also intercompatible with their most recent iterations (EU is in it's IV version, Stellaris is in it's first version, and everything else is in it's II version). You can start in Crusader King's earliest start period and port that completed game to EU IV then Victoria, then Hearts of Iron and continue on in a world that has a much different history than our own. While you can't do it in Stellaris, it's easy to generate a nation starting on earth and make it based on earth as united under your nation in the play through. Paradox games usually have most of the features of Civ in terms of diplomacy and interacting with nations, but offer a larger breadth of nations, including some hidden ones that you can't start as and must form during the game, but it also considers the internal politics of your nation much more then Civ (Crusader King is basically 4x mixed with a palace intrigue sim and dating sim) and leaders do change as the years progress, so you have succession crisis's, elections, and annexation by marriage to consider. As most of the more desirable nations to play start as Monarchies, the Player is basically fallowing a ruler's dynastic line.
As I said, fans usually play these games for alternative history, and thus story is largely divergent from each play of a game to completion. Both Civ and Paradox games have a notable form of fanfiction called the AAR (after action report) which are told as a historical recount of a war, or an entire national history of one campaign. Civilizations often go for a "Weird world" were the map and neighbors are nothing like this earth, and many nations can get a bizarre cache of world wonders, such as the Aztecs building the Colossus of Rhodes and the Great Wall and you can nuke India, led by famous pacifist Ghandi, in a justified retaliatory strike (early games, this was a bug based in the game mechanics, where Ghandi suddenly became an aggressive militarist on adopting democratic governments, though later games are deliberately hard coding Ghandi to favor use of nukes as a joke reference to the original games). Paradox games use the world map and your starting position will default correspond to a nation's real-world position on the world stage at that time. Paradox fans do tend to recognize that the game's nature will result in wildly different historical events to occur, and some of the events that pop up can result in historical events that never took place, though they tend to favor histories that result from logical play, not gaming the system to the desired outcome, though the degree of gaming the system differs.