Quick Intro: I’ve been telling stories my whole career. Both as a filmmaker and a writer. These days I’m working on my largest and most ambitious writing project; the entire story and script for an RPG. As a result I’ve been reflecting on the most common mistakes I see across the games industry regarding storytelling. I’d like to share a few with you today in the hope it’ll be useful to somebody working on their own games.
Your story doesn’t have a controlling idea
There’s a reason for everything that occurs in a story. A reason why characters act a certain way and a reason why events happen the way they do; this is your controlling idea. It’s the lifeblood you draw every action from and is more than just a message or the “moral of the story”. It’s the reason the story exists and motivates every decision both you and your characters make.
Ever been watching Yu-Gi-Oh and wondered why the characters make speeches about friendship almost every episode? That’s because the controlling idea of Yu-Gi-Oh is: Friendship makes you stronger. Since it’s a kids show it can be a little preachy about this, but your controlling idea can be as subtle as you want.
Let’s look at The Lord of The Rings’ controlling idea: Chasing power will corrupt you.
Think about how many decisions characters make in LoTR that follow this idea. Boromir fighting Frodo for the ring. Galadrial moving into isolation to avoid her temptations. Frodo’s relationship with Sam falling apart over the ring’s power. Saurons obsession with finding the ring and why he created it. Smeagol’s entire character is literally just a lust for power. Saruman turning against his people to gain power. Denethor refusing the rightful King’s return so he can retain his own seat. You get the idea.
Once you’ve decided on your controlling idea, write it on a piece of paper and stick it somewhere you see every day. Any major decision you make in the story, ask yourself if it aligns with the controlling idea. Or even better, if you’re stuck on how to progress the story, use the controlling idea as guidance.
Your antagonist’s motivation is not believable.
We’ve all seen the generic supervillain. They’re going to destroy the world because they are evil. Or perhaps there’s some vague backstory about them wanting revenge. The problem is, the player has to believe the motivations of the antagonist, or their entire purpose is lost. Just remember this: The bad guy doesn’t think they’re the bad guy.
“That’s the thing that no one tells you about evil. They make it seem like there are two clearly marked paths with flashing signs pointing out each way: sin, redemption. […] But the truth is, evil comes when the righteous path is so hidden, it just looks like there’s only one way out.”
- Ozark: Season 2, Episode 7
Once you look at things from this perspective it’ll completely change the way you create your antagonist. The thief is just trying to provide for their family. The hacker is fighting against government censorship. The rebel leader is trying to protect their own people from suffering. The righteous path is hidden from them, so they believe their actions are the only way forward.
The protagonist and antagonist are direct opposites. The conflict between them is caused by their opposing values, but both of those values should be valid and believable motivations for their actions.
Your twist was unpredictable
That’s not a typo: your twist was unpredictable. That’s the fundamental piece of a twist that gets forgotten. Too many writers get wrapped up in trying to create that “Ah ha” moment where the player’s mind is blown because they didn’t figure out a character was a spy all along. The problem is, when your twist is unpredictable it means you never foreshadowed it. You never laid the foundations, so when your player reaches the reveal, their reaction is far more likely to be “Wait what?”.
The true beauty behind a twist is when the player goes back in their mind to previous events and says to themselves, “Oh I get it now. I understand why that character said that thing before. It all makes sense now”.
There’s often an obsession with creating twists that break the rules of storytelling. Wanting to do something different or unique for its own sake, rather than following decades of established writing structure. Stories with a premise like: “The protagonist is secretly the antagonist”, "The protagonist dies in the first scene”, or “There is no antagonist” will fall apart in the hands of inexperienced writers. Before you can break the rules of storytelling, you have to understand the rules. Good writing follows a structure for a reason, and you need to deeply understand exactly why these rules exist before you can begin to decide how and when it’s appropriate to break them.
You never raised the stakes
First scene, your villain announces “I’m going to destroy the world because I’m so evil” and thus begins the epic adventure to save humanity. Well, at least it might start off epic but it’s only downhill from here. By starting the story at maximum stakes you’ve got nowhere to go. The intensity of the conflict which drives the story should ramp up over time.
The conflict that resolves the end of the story should be on a scale so much larger, that the incident which started the story seems utterly insignificant in comparison. Final Fantasy IX began with a story about kidnapping a princess, and ended with fighting a creature that literally wants to destroy the origin of life and return all living things to a zero world of perceptual nothingness. Kind of puts things in perspective.