A good story is key

The most successful kind of plot for computer games – and indeed for all kinds of other stories, from international folk-tale, to medieval romance, to the great fantasy works of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, is the quest. The hero sets out from home on a quest to find something or with a mission to do something imposed upon him. So in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is tasked by Gandalf and Bilbo with destroying the Ring by casting it into Mount Doom. On the way the hero acquires companions, encounters helpers or donors who give them the special, often magical, means to achieve the adventure, they are threatened by villains and quite often they fall in love. The Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp analysed his country’s folktales and identified the chief ‘functions’ as he called the characters’ roles as: Hero, Sender, Donor, Villain, and False Hero – who pops up to claim the credit. Propp also suggested that stories often started with a need or a lack; the hero might have to face many challenges in gaining the means to succeed; when the hero has defeated the villain there may be still more obstacles – like the False Hero to face. Here’s a link that lists Propp’s story-elements, or ‘narremes’ as they are sometimes called – smaller items that are used to build up a whole narrative. If you were writing a computer-game plot, which ones would you want to use? And what kinds of people would you create to fulfil the different functions of Hero, Villain, Sender, Donor and so on?

A really successful computer game – like a really successful fantasy world – will very likely consist of more than one single and linear plot. There may be more than one hero, many different villains, and several different storylines and quests being narrated at the same time, taking place in different parts of the imagined world. So, as well as Frodo’s quest to rid himself of the Ring in The Lord of the Rings, we have the adventures of the other Companions, the story of Aragorn’s winning the throne of Gondor, and the rise of the Ents to overthrow Saruman.

Likewise, in the Harry Potter series, while Harry’s quest to defeat Lord Voldemort drives the main plot of all seven books, there are numerous other plotlines, a major one of which is Harry’s school experience: he attends class, completes (or doesn’t complete) his homework and participates in school sports. In parallel to this are his, Ron and Hermione’s coming-of-age experiences as teenagers, in which they make friends, have arguments and fall in love for the first time. But the focus is not always on Harry, Ron and Hermione—other plotlines also involve different characters, locations and even time periods. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a political resistance takes centre stage, changing the course of the main plot significantly. Then, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, we relive a series of memories from various characters that intersect to explain Voldemort’s past, and we even briefly see Voldemort’s rise to power from the point of view of the UK’s Prime Minister. While these plotlines all contribute to the overall effort to vanquish Voldemort, they do so through intersections between characters in different time periods and in different parts of the world. It is not until the final book that Harry sets out on a quest in the traditional narrative sense, highlighting the importance of alternative plotlines and story elements in this series.

You don’t have to stick to the quest plot – though it will help to structure and move your game forward – you can bring other kinds of story-telling in too. Fantasy and other kinds of story set in imaginary universes aren’t just escapist or simply made-up; they often find ways of talking about the contemporary.

Your task

When game designers make a game, they often create a useful story structure (just like the one pictured below).

A designer uses important story plot-points as obstacles, disasters and crises in their game, making them into enemies or object-finding quests for the protagonist (and player) to solve in order to continue the story. An obstacle in a game could be a conversation, a combat sequence or a puzzle.

Climaxes at the end of acts are known as ‘Boss’ levels, very important checkpoints in the gameplay and story where the main character adapts and changes in a very significant way.

Using the ‘three act structure’ below, take your favourite story and turn it into a video game.

Video game storyboard (from "A good story is key" by Carolyne Larrington)
(click to view full size)


Professor Carolyne Larrington

I teach medieval English literature in the College, ranging from the earliest Old English to the beginning of the Renaissance period. I studied medieval English language and literature at St Catherine’s College, Oxford and my DPhil was on Old Norse and Old English wisdom poetry. Before starting graduate work I taught English in Japan for two years. My research often takes me to Scandinavia and Iceland, and I also travel widely for pleasure.