Anatomy of a Story Game


What are story games, and how do they differ from other games? What about adventure games and interactive fiction? What are some of the issues that arise when writing story games?

This is the first part of two episodes that explain story games and how to write them.

What is a story game?

A story game is a game in which the stoy drives the game, rather than the gameplay driving the game. In general, if you can take the story out of the game without losing the game, it’s not a story game. But if the story is so tightly integrated into the game that you’d have to change the shape of the gameplay in order to take the story out, that’s a story game.

To design a story game, tell a story, but let the player cause story events. Make the story interactive. Traditionally, this is done with an external conflict. The things that the character needs to do to resolve the external conflict, turn these into puzzles for the player to solve. This is why adventure games are commonly detective or science-fiction stories.

Adventure games usually don’t have strong character-based stories, though there’s no conceptual reason why they can’t. In future episodes, I’d like to explore variations that make for strong character-based story games.

What’s the difference between an adventure game and a story game? Some adventure gamers will tell you that the puzzles are central to an adventure game. Others will tell you the story is central. Many games appeal to both of these perspectives by offering strong puzzle-based gameplay with a tightly integrated, driving story. But by “story game,” I mean to refer to any story-driven game, whether it has puzzle elements or not, and whether or not it has other gameplay elements.

At, you can play good, short, graphical story-based Flash adventure games, on-line for free. In particular, check out The Goat in the Grey Fedora, a humorous detective story in a film-noir style.

Plot branches

… or, a maze of twisty passages, all alike.

You have to give the player choices as to which plot-branch to take the story down. Otherwise, he feels led around by the nose, and this can destroy the illusion of reality. However, you really only have to make the player believe he’s choosing which way the story goes. He may just be choosing the order in which events are told, but not how they come together. Sanitarium did this pretty well.

These plot-branches can multiply exponentially, like rabbits. This can make the stories very complex. But we can manage this complexity by writing the story as multiple story threads. Each story thread proceeds independently as events affect it. However, story threads can spawn, join, and feed into other story threads. So they are independent, but related.

Think of how you might plot a novel. One common method is to write a summary of each part of each subplot on an index card, then lay out the index cards in story threads, so you can see how they go together. This is the same thing we do when designing a story game, except that we also take into account alternate storylines, where the player chooses one path or another, but not both.

Some story games have multiple alternative endings. I prefer a story with one good ending, rather than a story with multiple not-so-good endings. I first noticed this playing The Pandora Directive, which has a number of endings, depending on what you make the hero do and say. Whenever I played it, I’d Google for a walkthrough, a cheat, that would tell me at the critical stages exactly what I should do to get the ending I wanted. I did not consider this cheating, since I was not playing for the gameplay, but rather for the story.

The player is your co-author

A story games greatest strength is also its greatest liability. The player is taking part, indirectly, in the writing process.

As the author of the game, you must anticipate what the player will be thinking and what he will want to do, and you have to give him the ability to do it, or at least to try them, within the rules of the game. Otherwise, the player will feel like the environment is unrealistic, and the game will interfere with his suspension of disbelief.

Also, the player will tend to make mistakes beginning writers make. He’ll want all protagonists to be copies of himself. And he’ll go out of his way not to hurt the protagonist. Of course, writers know that you have to put your characters through hell, no matter how much you love them, in order for them to triumph over it. But the player isn’t going to want to do this, unless you give him a compelling reason or force hell on the character.

A sample story game

This is the beginning of a design to a sample story game, a mystery. I’m starting with rough story snippets, each of which corresponds to one of the index cards you might use to plot a novel. This doesn’t represent the whole story, and they aren’t all arranged in order. Also, some of these need to be tweaked, depending on which alternative the player chose earlier in the story.

Next week, I’ll enhance the design. I also hope to post a JavaScript or HTML version of the game, like an electronic “choose your own adventure” novel, just to demonstrate how this can work.

Have you seen my collectible copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? It is the rare 1990 U.S. hardcover edition, with the colorful “42” puzzle on the front. And through a miracle that I need not go into right now, if you flip open the front cover, you’ll see the late Douglas Adams’s own signature.

I ask whether you’ve seen it, because it went missing. It must have disappeared during the dinner party. The book was on display on its shelf when Jane arrived that evening. I noticed it missing after we said goodbye to Pat and Dory. We were the only ones in the apartment that evening.

Search the apartment.

I searched the bookshelf, thinking maybe someone whose name I won’t mention–but it begins with the letter D–accidentally put it next to The Illustrated Sherlock Holmes. I saw it nowhere. Hmm. I wonder what Holmes would do. I searched the floor, thinking it may have fallen, but there weren’t many places it could have been. I had no luck.

Ask Jane about the missing book.

I pointed out to Jane the empty display stand. “Did you see what happened to my signed Hitchhiker’s Guide?”

“No. I was telling Pat about it before dinner.”

“Did he take an interest in it?”

“As much as anyone might expect.” She paused a moment. “I’m sure it will turn up, Martin,” she said definitively.

“What about Dory? Was she there?”

“I think she was using the bathroom. What are you getting at?”

“Dory did have that big, oversize purse.”

“This will stop right now. I’ve known Pat and Dory for years. I trust them implicitly. Besides, Pat wouldn’t know what to do with it, except maybe sell it on eBay. And Dory’s… Well, you know Dory. I love her, but she wouldn’t be able to appreciate Douglas Adams if God Himself pointed him out to her.”

“Douglas Adams is dead.”

“So not the point.”

“Yes, it is. She may not appreciate Douglas Adams, but she can appreciate how much a signed first edition is worth.”

“Same thing to her, Sweets. She had no motivation to take your book. You might as well accuse me. At least I have means, motive, and opportunity.”

Give in.

“Okay, point taken.”

“I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you search the apartment? Maybe someone misplaced it–”

“My collectible?”

“Call me tomorrow, and we can ask Pat and Dory if they know anything more.” She kissed me. “And get some sleep, okay?” She left me alone with my thoughts.

Call Jane the next day.

The next day, I called Jane as she had suggested. She made a conference call so we all could talk to each other. Cell phones are cool.

(Go to “continued.”)

Accuse Jane.

“Why not? Maybe you got Pat to hide it in Dory’s purse.”

“A three-way conspiracy? I’m through with this conversation. Call me when you come to your senses.” And she stormed out, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

Call Jane the next day, and apologize.

The next day, I called Jane on her cell and apologized. “I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that. I trust you implicitly, and if you vouch for Pat and Dory, that’s good enough for me.” Maybe the book is just misplaced. Can you call Pat and Dory, see if they noticed it anywhere?”

“I’m not going to accuse them.”

“I don’t want to accuse anyone. I just want to find my missing book.”

“Okay. Stay on the line. I’ll do a three-way call. So you can hear that I’m not lying to you.”

“Not necessary,” I said, and then quickly added, “but thank you.”


Jane couldn’t get Dory. So she then tried Pat. He confirmed that Jane told him about the book, complemented me on owning it, then expressed his sympathies when we told him it was missing. “We were looking at it. That was just before dinner. But we left it on the display case.”

“Wait,” I said. “Where did Dory go while Jane and I were clearing the table? Remember? It was while we were talking.”

“She had a slight headache and wanted to lie on the couch for a minute.”

“So she might have seen it.”

“I doubt it.”

“I mean she might have been looking at it while we were in the diningroom.”

Jane interjected, “Dory doesn’t go in for that kind of reading, hon.”

“Did you search the apartment?” Pat asked. “Maybe it just got misplaced.”

“No,” I said. “I searched the apartment.”

“So what does that mean?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

Call Dory.

Jane left Dory’s number with me, on the condition that I would be civil. And I was able to get in touch with her that evening.

“Hello?” said the woman on the other end?

“Hi. This is Martin Hall.”

“Oh, hi! How are you?”

“Not so good.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“Did you get to see my autographed copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?”

“Uh. Why? Do you want to show it to me?”

“No. It was on a display case before dinner, and now it’s missing.”

“Well, I didn’t take it!”

“I didn’t say you did. I just wondered whether you had seen it. Maybe you were looking at it and put it on a shelf somewhere instead of back on the display case.”


“Don’t you even want to know what it looked like?”

“Okay. What did it look like?”

“It’s bluish and has what look like colored jelly beans on the front cover.”

“I think I would have remembered seeing a book about jelly beans.”

“Uh, yeah, I guess you would have. Well, if you remember anything, can you let me know?”

I gave her my phone number and set upon a plan.

Part 2

Here is Part 2.



4 responses to “Anatomy of a Story Game”

  1. Cayendi Avatar

    This was a very interesting episode. Though I listened more from the perspective of the mother of a son interested in designing computer games when he grows up ๐Ÿ™‚
    I’m thinking of letting him listen to this and related episodes, if he’s a: interested and b: able to follow it, since English is not our mother tongue.
    I’ll be saving them for him, that’s for sure.

  2. J. Timothy King Avatar

    Thanks for the kind words, Cayendi. What boy doesn’t want to design video games? ๐Ÿ˜‰ When I was growing up, we all wanted to be firemen. Now they all want to be game designers.

    Most commercial games these days don’t have a strong story. Rather, most of the creativity goes into cool new gameplay, things like graphics, physics, non-player characters (AI), and so forth. They say video games push technology forward now.

    My perspective is that of a storyteller and writer, which is very much different from that of the video game industry. I’d love to be a game designer, but the creative role I really want doesn’t even exist, except in a few small studios, and in those studios it’s something the founder does.

    Also, from what I hear, many big game studios have really screwed-up software development processes. As an experienced, professionally minded software developer, I just can’t go there. Basically, the video game industry takes new programmers, chews them up, and then spits them out. So there are few senior developers to shepherd the next crop of college graduates that will be trying to hold back Niagara Falls. (At least that’s what they say. And there are exceptions to every rule.)

    In summary, I’m not in the video games industry, and I won’t be entering it by traditional means. Still, there are a lot of new studios popping up, and some of them are developing story games. (Yea!) So there’s much hope for the future. ๐Ÿ™‚


  3. Cayendi Avatar

    Well, I told my son about the nature of the podcast and blog, and he sounded interested. I explained to him what a story game was (more like an interactive story than a game) and he was still interested.
    Not that he doesn’t like the graphic part of it, but he has realised that he isn’t very good at drawing, or at least, that’s what his teacher keeps telling him with the grades he gets. No matter how much effort he makes, there is apparently always something wrong. Is it a wonder he hates the teacher?

  4. J. Timothy King Avatar

    Hi, Cayendi. I’m glad you both find this interesting. And I can understand why he wouldn’t like that teacher. For me, it was always the social sciences, especially history. But I did great in western civ. And after college, I discovered I did like history after all, but not the part of it I remember being taught in school.

    The whole family’s been sick all weekend. They’ve been taking turns getting several viruses, and now I feel a sore throat coming on. And that’s why I’m behind (again) with this week’s podcast.


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