Getting the story told

Plot development in videogames

Here is the extent of my thoughts on getting a story told and a videogame played at the same time, after nine years of iterative development on Scout’s Journey.

Most players’ attention span will peak near the beginning of a game. After a certain time, players may lose interest or go off to farm items or repeat a boss fight indefinitely, thereby halting the plot completely. It’s unknowable. The largest cohesive block of player attention is likely toward the beginning. So if cohesive plot development is going to happen anywhere, it’s in the first half of the game. Probably the first third.

This coincides roughly with the first act of the three-act structure. The three-act structure works for storytelling, but games are non-linear; either the plot can develop several ways according to player choices, or the player can stop or even reload the game. By comparison, the controlled 90-minute setting of cinema is a pristine lab environment.

In cinema, we can say that a story has 40 beats or 12 major beats and these beats fall on this or that minute. In games, we’re not so fortunate. We cannot tell after how many minutes the player will pick up the Macguffin or listen to the audio log. It’s possible that they completely miss it. The most we can do is make the main plot really obvious by massive signposting or physically funneling the player into a cutscene to sort of make sure it even happens.

For Scout’s Journey, I’m toying with the idea of large, bright, rotating camera symbols for the player to collect, signposting “here is plot advancement”. (Yes, I do have a better idea than that, but you get the drift.) It’s better than the classic funnel method.

Back to the three-act structure. If it’s assumed that we can best do coherent plot development early on, then the classic structure needs to be skewed to the left. Show more things earlier. Drop more hints. Get the hooks in while you can, before they go off in search of the +5 magic longsword and the ideal ascension kit.

This is actually a blessing in disguise, because gameplay- and content-wise, the early game is usually basic. You don’t want to give the good stuff away too early. The player’s skills and the quality of enemies or obstacles needs to rise somewhat linearly throughout the game. So instead, in those early beats, lay on the storytelling!

If we can skew the ending of Act 1 toward the left far enough, pack that with goodies, and resolve into Act 2 earlier, maybe opening up new skills and content for the player to enjoy, then maybe we can get there before their attention starts to wander. I’d roughly put this at the 30% mark. At that point, we must open the bag of toys.

Because if we skew the plot structure to the left, Act 2 is gonna be a hell of a slog.

If it’s a comedic structure, where the protagonist is on a downtour from their earlier successes and en route to their all-time low, the point where they doubt they can toss the ring into the fire and just want to go home, then there’s going to be a lull in the game right about now, or a feeling of waning rewards for the player story-wise. So what could lift it up again?

Gameplay and content.

Player skills, options, tools and the amount of content accessible to the player are going to be on the rise at this point in a game. They need to be, or it gets very boring. The player has leveled up, so to speak. They’re ready for some challenge. They have better gear. So give them action, and give them exploration. Let them go and do their thing. This is where the plot can stall, it matters little as the key is for the player to enjoy themselves. Here’s the game designer’s playground. Let them go nuts.

Get Act 2 in among the fray, in bite-sized chunks. The player — if they’re still playing — is busy elsewhere, so this is where we need to bring plot and lore from different angles. This is the place for audio logs, encrypted messages, NPC dialogue, environmental storytelling with cutscenes more sparse and more judiciously paced. Control has firmly been planted in the player’s hands, so let them collect information like loot. Hide the nuts for them to find like a busy squirrel. When the crisis hits, it’ll be even more of a contrast – the player has become a powerful agent, but the character feels crushing hopelessness. This needs to be driven home by the player, too, losing something, or else we get a ludo-narrative disconnect. Here is the place for the +5 sword of ruthlessness being flung away into the lava, or half the controller becoming useless when the older brother dies.

Just make sure it makes sense.

In Act 3, the character picks themselves back up, rediscovers their strength and starts aiming for the Big Bad. The player has a lot of agency left even without the +5 longsword and should relish the upswing. This is when you throw the hardest stuff at them, and when the risk of ludo-narrative dissonance is smallest. Up and up! The character becomes the hero with and through the player’s support. All is pulling in the same direction, to the resolution.

If this all sounds like “railroad them into Act 2 while they’re willing, shower them with toys in Act 2, top it off with a joyride”, then yeah, that’s not far off. Just make it a good ride.

The early railroading, getting in as much of the plot as you can, is less of a problem because the player doesn’t have full agency anyway. You’re not instantly giving them the endgame skills and monsters. They’re getting their feet wet with the game, growing into it. They may even welcome the plot development if it helps them in that.

Please note that railroading here doesn’t mean “non-interactive”. It just means the first 30% of the game look more like they’re “on rails” compared to the middle, which is the “candy store” part. There’s no branching plot and no open world before that point. It’s just a careful string of breadcrumbs. Then the big thing happens, we’re in Act 2, and bam!, the world is your oyster.

Two main dangers: Act 1 is so boring that they stop playing. This can be countered by bringing Act 1 storytelling in line with the player discovering the world and its mechanics, supporting rather than hindering. To a large degree, it will help if the player can strongly identify with the protagonist and begins to root for them. Or the protagonist’s crisis at the end of Act 2 feels so disconnected from the player’s state of power that they can’t get over it. This may be prevented by solid storytelling and making the crisis a consequent outcome of the player’s own actions (the try/fail-cycle).

Of course some players really just want to let off steam, or relax for a while. These players will see story as an obstacle. They will balk at the idea of cinematic cutscenes. We’ve all heard it: “Don’t take control away from the player”. That’s fine, it’s just the point where it needs to be said that there are other games for that. That is not our audience. You just can’t please these players with a story based game. There’s no use in trying.

For story-based games, though, and for everyone who looks forward to the cutscenes in classic games and feels for the protagonist, this is the best stab I can give it and it’s the method used in Scout’s Journey.


Took advantage of the Steam sale to buy a bucket list of games I had missed earlier. I’ll give the lowdown on why I liked or disliked each of them here.

Elite: Dangerous – more yay than nay, for the fact that the base mechanics work well and deliver hours of fun. It’s a space dogfight game at heart, so one shouldn’t expect a space adventure or any amazing plot or characters, but what’s there is enjoyable. The upside is that it hands you most of the tools right away and lets you go off and play however you want to. The downside is that there’s no character progression for the player except grinding for money to buy a bigger ship to keep grinding with, to eventually have a chance to compete against players who already completed the grind. I didn’t care for that aspect of it and eventually uninstalled. I did spend more than a hundred hours with it, so it must do something right.

Crysis 2 – more yay than nay, for the agency offered you by the nanosuit and the relatively open level design. You are given special powers and the freedom to pick your own approach to a mission. The story is hogwash, and I didn’t care for the design of the enemies the game throws at you (generic mercenary and tentacled squid alien). The movement and combat feel entirely solid and empowering, though. It’s a popcorn scripted setpiece shooter and not ashamed to be one, it has terrible on rails vehicle sequences, but I still felt motivated to finish the campaign because of the solid core gameplay. I didn’t care about the nanosuit “skill tree” or the weapon doodads and found them utterly inconsequential. By and large though. the game is OK with me and even fun. If you like the original Crysis, you won’t be totally disappointed.

Rage – Has some of the prettiest scenery I’ve seen in any videogame and breathtaking environment artwork skills on display. Great sightseeing tour. Has textbook FPS interior level design and solid gunplay. Has slightly generic enemies and a racing aspect nobody needs. The story is rubbish, the end is disappointing but some genuine shooting fun is to be had. Good solid weapon lineup, choice of ammo is actually fun and the exploding bolts and EMP shells made the guns more useful instead of less because they made each weapon fill a niche. So the special ammo actually helped differentiate the various shooting tools more. Go figure. Overall more yay than nay, but no replayability to speak of, so – uninstalled after finishing once. Was disappointed that enemies and loot didn’t respawn in the various dungeons. Didn’t play any of the minigames, ever. Didn’t feel like I missed anything.

Bioshock 2 – surprisingly disappointing since I love the original Bioshock, but this feels too obviously like more of the same without the character. You play as a Big Daddy, the first game’s signature enemy, and you have to save a little girl, both of which are tired, worn out tropes. I didn’t care too much after a while and just uninstalled.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst – I didn’t get to play this one yet because it wanted to force me to install EA’s Origin store software. Hold on, two unwanted online shop systems being forced down my throat before I can even play the damn game is just too much. I dropped it right there. The first game was awesome, so I’m disappointed with the marketing bull obstructing the sequel. I’m just not taking that crap anymore. This just reminded me why I should buy games from GOG, and I will look there first in the future.

Tomb Raider 2013 – Had high hopes for this one but after half an hour of “Mash this key to escape / climb / kick / grab” I just uninstalled it. I just don’t have the patience anymore for this kind of thing. Perhaps it gets better later on, but a landslide of scripted events and button-mashing turned me off very quickly. Another dream shattered. I love Tomb Raider, but the kind that lets you explore lost places, not the kind that forces you on a rollercoaster ride of scripted bullshit. This made me want to reinstall TR: Underworld more than anything. Disappointing.

Dishonored – Instant like because of the freedom in gameplay. You’re dropped in a beautiful world and left to your own devices. Didn’t care about the stealth aspect that much. Found myself turned off by the weak story and characters – the empress has been murdered, you’ve been unjustly framed for it, here’s some weapons, go kill people. What in the world is this? Who cares for this? Also, you’re being handed a stabby sword and a host of murder tools, but using them is counted against you by the game’s “chaos system”. That’s a bit of a shame. I also didn’t care for the dual wielding in this one. I generally find alt-fires and juggling guns and plasmids, spells, superpowers at the same time distracting especially if there are too many options. Give me one tool that does the job well. I liked the blink ability and I can deal with that, but if I constantly have to switch alt-fires, I get annoyed. Better to make things like the see-through-walls an innate ability or something that just lasts 30 seconds after eating a magic fish – more of a powerup instead of an alt-fire.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Quickly turned off by the lack of interest in the characters and plot. Another man is turned into a cybernetic fighting machine. Big deal. Stilted movement and wooden combat, the blocky looks of a late-nineties shooter game, visuals ten years behind the curve for its release date, it all did nothing to engage me. Perhaps I didn’t give it enough of a chance, but I couldn’t figure out what all the hype was about. Dropped it after a while.

A few takeaways for the game developer:

  1. Agency! Give the player tools and abilities and opportunities to use them. Don’t treat the player like a dunce, don’t tell them exactly, repeatedly what to do. Give them the tools and give them the choice.
  2. Make the player care. Motivate them. Make them sympathize with the protagonist, with the characters. Give them a job they want to do. No cookie cutter Robin Hood fascist regime resistance fighter alien invasion bullshit.
  3. Solid base mechanics. Movement and combat, or stealth, or crafting, whatever your game is doing, have to be spot on. Make them feel empowered.
  4. Default controls have to make sense. Don’t make them press Left Control with their pinky finger to do the second most important thing in the game. The fewer keys used, the better – the simpler the input scheme, the better. Don’t overload the controls.
  5. Cut the crap. Don’t give us information, upgrades, toys, alt-fires and minigames that aren’t quintessential to the game. Keep it simple. The only exception I found was the different ammo (electric, armor piercing, explosive) – Rage and Bioshock (and Stalker, and Crysis…) all do this successfully. Perhaps it works because you don’t have to constantly manage it, it’s rather long term customisation of your gear. It goes back to #1 – tools and options.
  6. Exploration – the more open and interesting the world, the better. This also goes back to #1. Make the player feel in control, give them options, let them take their own decisions.
  7. Consequence. If you give them a deadly arsenal, reward them for skillful use of it. Don’t punish them for using the tools you hand them.
  8. No scripted bossfights, no scripted vehicle turret sections, no quicktime events, nothing that requires the player to follow a predetermined sequence of actions in order to proceed. This drives me nuts. It also goes back to #1. The best bossfight is the one where you just pump the bad guy full of lead, or rockets, or blow him up with the exploding RC car, not the one where you press a button or shoot the glowing thing.
  9. Perspective. Dangle something in front of their nose that’s worth going for – not just a bigger spaceship, but a better position, a different approach, a new location, a plot twist, a new enemy, a new game mechanic. Real development.
  10. Replayability. Give them a reason to come back.

I find more and more that the better games work just like chess. Give the player the game pieces, keep the rules simple, but give them options. Complexity will emerge.

Here’s what’s new. I’ve been really busy with my comp sci studies recently. Improving all the time. I have little leeway for gamedev, but I want to get back into level design. To that end, I’ve been studying several games, for instance Rage and Crysis 2. Especially Rage (1) is very inspiring for a level designer when it comes to indoor environments and encounter design.

As you can see, I also have a recent version of Blender installed, and am getting to grips with the sweeping UI changes (which I like). I forgot a number of keyboard shortcuts, but it’s slowly coming back. Muscle memory is still working.

I’m debating whether to finish one of my shelved level projects, although it would probably take more time and energy than I would be happy to invest currently – I could always better spend the time on Scout’s Journey.

The coronavirus is making my life, just like everyone else’s, even crazier to manage. On the up side, I’ve settled in at my apartment and got all my gear up and running, something that for some reason also was a glacially slow process.

Now I’m flexing my Blender muscles – not too far from getting back into levels. I do need a bigger harddrive (Unreal eats a ton of space), a bigger monitor and a better keyboard, but, baby steps.

Still here and at it, though. Hope you’re all well. Keep it up.


Living without a guitar is a little like living without an arm, so after a year of abstinence I bought one. My main stuff is still in storage, but this will let me make music again at least. Which in turn, has a way of putting the mind into creative mode. Which is good.


Continuing the massive script edit, I decided to work on paper and was surprised how much easier it is to spot problems with your script. For some reason, superfluous dialogue and jumbled action parts are much more obvious on the page than on the computer monitor. It is also much simpler to correct these with a pencil than with a computer keyboard.

You can see how this method is much more immediate and the nice big print makes it easy to fully grasp the impact of a line of dialogue or an action sequence. You can write a lot of stuff very quickly on the computer, such as a first draft or a wide-ranging story edit, but for the fine work such as this, you can’t beat paper.

Example of an audio log and work being done to shorten it, giving it more impact. You can see the last couple lines simply struck, because you can’t end on a stronger line than “strike these people down”.

This is the first chapter / first level printed out for editing. The first 12 pages — the introduction — have gone through so many changes and edits that I lost count. They’re very close to rock solid now.

Script writing is not the most interesting part of game design to most people because it’s not as immediately impressive as level screenshots or videos. Nonetheless, it is very hard work and totally underappreciated by most gamers.

Spare a thought for the people writing your game. It’s more common these days than you might think, and it’s back-breaking work.

Kind regards.


Rarely do I endorse products, but I will say that “The Nutshell Technique” by Hollywood script consultant Jill Chamberlain is probably the best writing book I have read so far. It’s been helpful.

Like all how-to authors, Jill is adamant about her technique’s merits. One should keep in mind that there probably is no one right writing method, but hers is pretty damn good. She bases it upon thorough analysis of dozens of Hollywood blockbusters, stripping them all to the bones, and points out the story elements they all have in common, and how they line up with the flow of Greek comedy or tragedy.

She has some videos on youtube that I find both entertaining and good.

The book has given me food for thought. I’m in the middle of a massive script edit for Scout’s Journey anyway, so paying attention to a few of Jill’s tenets can’t hurt.



The opening of Scout’s Journey has been slashed from 8,000 words to 5,500 after I put the script under the microscope for the first time in two years. This means, as KIT Scenarist tells me, that the player gets control after 10 minutes now. For some games, this might still be considered long, but SJ is more story based than most.

I cut several scenes and kept just the best parts of others, focusing on the perspectives of major characters while losing a lot of fluff. Among it all, I cut a tutorial section, a phone call, lots and lots of dialogue, a little dog, a little girl, a bunch of soldiers and a raft of odds and ends. I kept most of the action, introduced antagonists earlier and dropped strong hints about a conspiracy surrounding Scout’s arrival.

In the rest of the first level, I removed or pushed back anything that breaks the sense of Scout being lost in an overwhelming catastrophe, and put some of the backstory in the first couple audio logs. There is generally more information in dialogue now instead of cutscenes, things being hinted at for the player to form their own impression of the events leading up to Scout’s arrival. Dialogue was really slashed in a lot of places overall, though.

I also pushed back all combat and decided that Scout will rely on stealth and cunning, underlining the fact that she is alone and outgunned, until after about the game’s halfway point.

As a result, the first level kicks off with a “B story” that brings inciting events, a lot of action and backstory, and introduces impact characters. This soon merges with the “A story” of Scout’s arrival and the circumstances of that. It’s all pretty streamlined and focuses exclusively on setting up the atmosphere and introducing the main characters and their conflict.

As for gameplay, it’s exploration, looting/collecting, light puzzles, a bit of lockpicking, a bit of stealth and light platforming.

Part 2 continues with the A story, with Scout finding some allies and being pulled into their conflict, and more on the B story relayed directly to Scout by friendlier B story characters. Gameplay there is heavier into stealth. Fighting might still arise if the player, say, decides to mess with a patrol, but it’s decidedly ill-advised.

Part 3 is all A story and Scout crossing paths with the main baddies. Gameplay there revolves around dealing with patrols and enemy camps, only to finally encounter Big Bad himself, kicking off a string of midgame story events and a big character development for Scout.

Lots of work, yay. But progress! It’s good to see how some heavy cuts make everything better, from action scenes to audio logs. The cut parts are not lost, rather now a nice pile of material I can pull bits and pieces from to embellish the main script where it fits.


Spent the night poring over the SJ script, something I hadn’t done for two years, and trying out a variety of screenwriting software and other tools. It’s going to be so much work knocking this into shape.

It’s meandering, full of subplots and exposition casting light on past events, the minor characters and their relations, and the history of the various factions. While that stuff is nice — there are some genuinely fun and action-packed scenes that I regret having to cut — I decided to take a sharp look at anything that doesn’t:

  • feature Scout, the protagonist
  • alternatively, feature an impact character (not so many of those)
  • directly further the plot.

Having to mark some of these characters as “minor” is depressing, because they’ve been around so long and all have a backstory. Having to remove key scenes that explain how faction X came to be, or how they fought faction Y, hurts as well because these scenes tend to be entertaining and full of action. I like the virtual smell of napalm in the morning and the sound of explosions as much as anyone, but these scenes all lack a key detail – the protagonist.

As such, at least a fifth of the pages need to be cut. 150 pages of script is too much. The program says the script is 180 minutes long, twice the length of a feature film. Now a lot of that is pure action, namely gameplay. Still… I’d like to get that number down.

This is one of the screenwriting softwares I’m currently testing. It’s not that Libre Office wasn’t adequate, but it tempts me to include colours, headlines, and images. That doesn’t further the script’s readability. A dedicated screenwriter (Trelby is pictured) doesn’t let you mess with the layout. It automatically picks the safest choices for you and provides only building blocks such as scene, character, and dialogue.

In Trelby’s case, the most common blocks are (mostly correctly) guessed based on what you’re writing, or you can press TAB to chose between them. If you need something less common, like a note, there is a popup menu. It goes fullscreen for a distraction-free experience and is very tweakable. A light theme is default, I just changed the colours.

These programs also feature reports and statistics; how many lines of dialogue does a character have? In what sequence do characters appear?

This can be incredibly useful in telling which characters are actually important and what the general flow of your plot is. Notice how Scout, the protagonist, has a line going almost straight through the plot (the topmost one), and how more characters are introduced gradually. (Some are counted twice because lines are marked as (V.O.), meaning the same character speaks from the off.)

Another good free scriptwriting tool is KIT Scenarist. I find Trelby has the edge where usability and simplicity are concerned, though both offer good distraction-free writing experiences. I also checked out Scrivener, a writing tool with many a glowing review, but I found the Windows version lacking and full of clutter. The better features are only available on Mac, and I don’t run MacOS.

A nice free tool (well, free in 500-word chunks) is Pro Writing Aid. It checks your text for many style problems (wordiness, passive language etc) in realtime. Very impressive. The full version is 20 bucks a month, which I might cough up at some point, but not yet.

Another helpful writing aid with a Google Docs plugin is SAS Writing Reviser.

One of the surprises about the SJ script is that there are several antagonists, but none of them are very important. Nothing I would call a major character. I guess it’s just not about beating the bad guy that much. It’s definitely not Batman vs The Joker.

Rather like Voldemort or even Sauron, SJ’s big bad is often mentioned but just a little of a douche. He does swing a sword in the endgame, but not to great effect. He looks scary, though. That’s where the logo comes from.

It’s nice getting back into game dev after all the craziness. It’s a lot of work, but work I can enjoy. In fact I’m itching to get things done.


The “About” page is back, looking much like it did on spawnhost, but with MOAR CONTENT, including music from Scout’s Journey in FLAC format and many levelshots that probably haven’t been seen outside the #rmq IRC channel.

I won’t port old posts from spawnhost but I will maintain the site and have made full backups. I might implement things like a gallery again here, though.

I will have to sift through the script and do substantial edits there, and I need my workstation up and Blender running so I can get back to work. Now if only that PESKY virus would go away, I could get my household out of storage.

Is 2020 the worst year so far? Let’s all give it the finger. Let’s get up and do something.


Once again it should be possible to sign up for e-mail notifications about new posts. You can do so from the sidebar or from the form added below every post (as long as I remember to add it!).

Spawnhost had a lot of subscribers at the time and I’ll try to port the mailing list to the new site or, at the least, send a mail to everyone on that list containing the new subscription link.