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  • Toiya Kristen Finley

Keeping the Player at the Heart of the Story

The following is the first chapter in Narrative Tactics for Mobile and Social Games: Pocket-Sized Storytelling (CRC Press), due to be published on August 15, 2018. It has been excerpted and modified for the blog-post format.

Here’s a premise for you:

It’s you against the world . . .

A fight for survival, you have to wipe out all of your enemies, or they’ll obliterate you from existence. You must do whatever you can to stay alive. Outwit them before they figure out your plans. If you want to defeat them—all of humanity—you’re going to have to do destructive things, horrible things.

But you’ll get to live as a conqueror if you do.

Would you consider the above premise story oriented? (We’ll get back to this a little later.)

Get into a discussion about what makes videogames special, and it’s not long before someone brings up that they’re an active medium, unlike prose fiction, comics/manga, film, animation, or TV. The game involves players are involved in what happens. Through gameplay and controls, players change what’s happening to the world. In a level, they may destroy every building on the map while hunting aliens. Or they may help all of the non-player characters (NPCs) in a town capture or kill a group of bandits. They can interact with certain NPCs and choose responses in dialogue trees. Other choices they make might alter the story’s plot or characters’ lives. Videogames, an active medium, feed player agency.[1]

In addition to player agency, many console, PC, and online games offer increasingly realistic levels of immersion. They place player-characters (PCs)—and players, by extension—into a world where players can roam around and explore. Whether that world is rendered in 2D, isometric 3D, 3D, or VR, it has terrains to walk, run, or climb. Players can look at their screens and see NPCs interact with player-characters. They might hear a “BOOM!” followed by shouting behind them, alerting them to backtrack to see what the excitement’s about. Through mechanics, sound, animation, art, and other assets, these traditional games[2] have multiple techniques that engage players and hook their interest.

Because of technological limitations and smaller storage capacities on smartphones and tablets, mobile and social games have historically been at a disadvantage when it comes to facilitating immersion and player agency. With the advancements in mobile devices, more and more mobile and social games have the characteristics of these worlds found in console, PC, and online games. However, many still can’t render the complexity of the worlds we’ve become accustomed to in traditional videogames. They don’t allow players to complete a mission based upon a certain play style (like stealth mode or no killing), which would in turn affect variable story and gameplay outcomes. They don’t let players side with one character over another, unlocking a new branch in the story. And they don’t have multiple endings. In effect, many of these games have linear stories the player doesn’t influence at all.

These technological disadvantages of mobile games can lead to a storytelling consequence: players feel as if they’re watching a story instead of participating in it. Players also complain that the typical mobile game does not integrate the story, world, and characters into its gameplay. Additionally, some of the techniques we use in traditional games, like the cutscene, may not be feasible in mobile. A lot of players dread cutscenes in traditional and mobile games because they take away from the action and gameplay—the parts of the game they care about the most. A cutscene in a mobile game may be even more frustrating because it cuts into the limited time players have for sessions while waiting in the doctor’s office. Or they don’t feel a part of the game’s story because there’s no avatar representing them in the game, and the PC is unseen. Even worse, developers don’t take the game’s narrative design into account at all.

But all of these are solvable problems. We can make mobile and social games player centric even though we don’t have the same technological advantages of traditional games.

I was working as a narrative designer with Relevant Games on a mobile game that was never released. Our story was interstitial between the gameplay segments and linear with no player choices. We realized the unseen PC was passive and at the whims of the NPCs’ decision-making. As we puzzled over fixing this problem, creative director Joshua Mills asked a provocative question: “How do we keep the player at the heart of the story?” Whether the game is story oriented or not, there are tricks we can use that aid players in feeling like they’re driving the action and/or plot.

There are a few things we need to keep in mind: 1) we can think of mobile and social games as a game space, 2) we need to remember that narrative design is just as essential in mobile and social games as it is in traditional games, and 3) players’ imaginations are powerful tools that aid us in telling stories. We can use great narrative design to keep players engaged in the game space and use that game space to reflect every aspect of the story.

Story Delivery vs. Story

We can use the game’s space for its story delivery.

Storytelling goes beyond dialogue and cutscenes. Storytelling is more than words, and a game’s narrative design can use any aspect of the game to contribute to its storytelling. A common way for explaining the concept of narrative design is “It serves as a bridge between gameplay and story.” That’s pretty good, but I don’t think it’s quite complete. Suggesting there needs to be a bridge between the two says that gameplay and story are separate.

I like to say that narrative design ensures that the story and world embody the gameplay. After all, gameplay and game design are types of storytelling, too. Players use all of the things they can do in a game to create their own narratives. (How many times have you heard a friend recount what they did during a playthrough, as if they were actually there, amongst the polygons? How many times have you done this? :) The story and world can influence and inspire gameplay so that players can stay immersed and tell their own stories.

So, any part of the game players interact with is the game space, and any part of the game space can be a part of the game’s narrative design.

Game writing, then, is what we think of as traditional storytelling:

  • plot told through campaigns,

  • plot told through missions and quests,

  • dialogue, and

  • cutscenes and cinematics.

Narrative design uses writing and other aspects of the game as storytelling vehicles. Depending on the game’s needs, you may implement narrative design and writing, or only narrative design.

Story Delivery = Narrative Design

We can simplify game writing vs. narrative design even further and say that game writing = story, while narrative design = story delivery.

It’s important to note that for some jobs, you may only work on the story part of the game. However, if you’re working for smaller studios or clients who are new to game development (or the development team is only you), you may see yourself working on other areas of the game or informing your clients that they need to pay attention to these details.

In addition, narrative designers and game writers work closely with the entire team to implement the game’s story.

Story Delivery and the Player’s Imagination

As writers, we’ve had the maxim “Show, don’t tell,” pounded into our brains. As game writers and narrative designers, we’ve learned “Play, don’t tell.” But we don’t need to show players everything in a game, and they don’t need to play (or experience) everything to make the narrative design believable. We can suggest and let the players’ imaginations take over. Any and all story delivery techniques aid in engaging players’ imaginations. The following mobile games are very different in genre and story, but they’re effective at suggesting and making their narrative player-centric.

Mystery Match (2015)

Emma Fairfax is Mystery Match’s (Outplay Entertainment) fixed character.[3] Because of her bloodline, she is one of only a few people in the world who can operate peculiar (and sometimes diabolical) puzzle boxes. Emma runs a detective agency with her partner Julian Beaumont, and the two uncover a secret society’s centuries-old conspiracy. Traveling the world, they encounter several NPCs who turn out to be both friend and foe.

Players don’t get to make any decisions for Emma in this linear story. They don’t get to choose whether they’ll trust characters or what Emma will say to them. However, the game has a clever way of getting the player to identify with Emma. At the very beginning, the game shows players how to move gems around the puzzle boxes. Emma’s animated index finger appears on the screen, guiding players as to which direction they need to swipe. Players literally touch and move gems on the screen with their fingers, just as Emma does. Using smartphones’ and tablets’ touchscreens is a huge advantage mobile games have over traditional games. Unlike controllers and keyboards, touchscreens provide a level of interaction and emotional engagement through direct contact with the game. In tutorials, Mystery Match delivers story via its mechanics to connect Emma to the player. The player, in fact, is Emma.

As the game introduces new puzzle mechanics, Emma and Julian analyze the puzzle box and quickly assess what to do. The player sees Emma’s index finger and then mimics its movement. It’s important for the player to see this once in a while. It reconnects the player to Emma every so often as the story progresses.

Each puzzle box is a level. After the player completes several levels, the story progresses. In addition, some puzzle boxes reveal important clues to Emma’s past and the conspiracy. Some puzzle boxes are weapons spewing dangerous poison, and Emma has to solve them to keep the danger from spreading.

When the player completes a level, Emma solves a puzzle box. Emma’s victories are the player’s victories. Her heroism belongs to the player. Through the game’s mechanics, the player feels in control of the story and Emma’s successes. Emma (the player) advances the story only by completing puzzles. (Also of note—the all-important “SKIP” button at the top right of the screen.)

You might want to include cutscenes, but you have budget or technical limitations. There are ways to get around those issues, too. Mystery Match has cutscenes using character portraits and text boxes. Each character in the game has a few portraits with different poses and expressions. Those poses and expressions change based upon the characters’ emotional states and what’s happening in the story. So, cutscenes are created by switching between these portraits and giving dialogue in text boxes.

Notice that they’re talking about a jaguar. In this part of the story, Emma and Julian are exploring Mayan ruins, but we don’t have any backgrounds to suggest that. The dialogue is enough to let us know where they are. (Screenshots are taken from an earlier version of the game.)

Plague Inc. (2012)

As I mentioned earlier, one thing to keep in mind is that players’ imaginations are powerful storytelling tools. Games are successful whether they have photorealistic or retro graphics. They’re successful experiences when their stories are 80-hours long, and there are lots of NPCs to interact with, or the game takes less than half an hour to play, and there’s nothing but text on the screen.

We don’t have to show or tell players everything for them to find the narrative enjoyable.

In fact, a game can make as powerful (or even more powerful) an impact on players if they fill in the unseen with their own imaginations. Instead of us telling them what’s funny, scary, or heartbreaking, they can picture or hear what is the most impactful from their perspectives.

Remember that story premise I shared with you at the beginning of the chapter? That’s based on the conflict in Plague Inc. (Ndemic Creations), a game decidedly not story focused. Plague Inc. states absolutely nothing from that premise anywhere in the game. However, based on the gameplay, it’s easy for me to come up with that scenario as I play. The game itself is part strategy and part simulation. Players take the role of a disease (bacteria, virus, bio agent, etc.) that slowly infects the world, evolves, and grows more and more virulent. As the nations of the world learn of the disease, they shut down seaports and airports, kill off animals that may carry the disease, hand out bottled water instead of letting their citizens drink diseased water, and burn infected corpses. They work together to develop cures and eradicate the disease.

The main screen engaging players is a map of the world where they see how the disease spreads, how quickly country populations die off, and which countries and scientists are fighting back to find cures.

Players see a dynamic world. They’re able to see how their choices are literally changing the map in front of them. That’s effective worldbuilding. They witness the conflict between the disease and humanity unfold. When I play Plague Inc. and see a beaker pop up because a country’s started research, I can picture in my imaginations the scientists gathered in a lab. The game doesn’t need to give me a cutscene or even an image of this. It does a great job of showing the dynamic changes happening globally, and so my imagination adds details.

The game gives players strong, coded visuals of what’s happening in the world. Ships and planes carry the disease from infected countries into healthy nations. Their travel routes trail behind them in red, the game’s color for signifying infection. The goal is to cover the entire map, the entire world in that blood red. A bloody, red world means the death of all humanity. As infected airplanes and ships travel back and forth, players can see the direct influence of their disease on the world. Whenever a country works on a cure, a “cure bubble” pops up. This is a blue icon with a lab beaker. Tapping the cure bubble and “popping” it slows down scientists’ efforts to make a cure. Players also see the cure spreading from country to country. A large, blue airplane leaves one country on the map and flies to another, streaking a blue trail behind it. This is in strong contrast to all of the red infection trails planes and ships carrying the disease leave behind.

Little by little, blood-red pixel by blood-red pixel, the map fills up with infection. There’s a sense of triumph when one of the last infected countries, usually a difficult to reach island, receives one of those red ships or planes, and a sense of defeat when they lock down their airports and seaports without a single person in the country being infected.

The Player’s Imagination and Emotions

Engaged imaginations make emotional connections. Animations create a sense of urgency through their movement and sudden appearances. There’s a sense of urgency when cure bubbles start popping up all over the place. Even though killing off the planet instills a sense of achievement within me, I’m still horrified when a nation’s government decides to execute its infected to keep the disease from spreading.

And how dare nations close down seaports and airports to stop the spread of disease! How dare nations research cures and spread medications throughout the world! How dare the world try to fight back and save humanity from extinction! I can see my actions and the world’s counteractions in real time, which creates a sense that I have a very active villain fighting my efforts.

The game engages me with visuals and animations, but it’s also pleasing in a tactile way as I tap the screen. It’s soooo satisfying to “burst” cure bubbles, slowing down the race for the cure, and tap DNA and mutation icons that help me strengthen the disease.

Plague Inc. is high drama—at least it is in my head.

Getting the Entire Team Involved with Story Delivery

If you’ve worked in games before, you know that getting any project released is a collaborative undertaking, unless you’re working on every part of the game all by yourself. Narrative designers are facilitators—we’re responsible for encouraging the rest of the team to contribute to the game’s narrative design and story delivery. This means that we’ll sometimes have to prove to our teammates that they are storytellers, and their unique skill sets are perfect for impacting the game’s story delivery.

As illustrated through both Mystery Match and Plague Inc., there are so many nontraditional ways to communicate a game’s story and world. The following members of any team influence and contribute to a game’s narrative design and story delivery:

  • programmers/engineers/scripters,

  • game designers,

  • level designers,

  • artists (concept, character, background, 2D/3D, etc.),

  • UI designers,

  • animators,

  • sound designers,

  • composers,

  • narrative designers, and

  • game writers.

Depending on a mobile and/or social game’s requirements for story delivery, any or all of these disciplines may be involved.

Coming up with a Plan

How do we get everyone involved, then? You’ll need to come up with a narrative design plan that everyone understands and create an environment where they feel free to contribute and improve upon that plan. The fun thing about collaborating is that you have no idea how far someone can take your original concept. Because it’s their area of expertise, what they come up with might be ten times better than you would have ever thought.

First, you’re going to need to understand the technical constraints you’re working with. Team members responsible for programming will be able to tell you this. Does the game support 2D or 3D art? How many sound assets can you have? These are some of the kinds of questions you’ll need answered because they will affect the game’s story delivery.

Studios and clients have different processes for how they implement a game’s narrative design. This means that when they bring in the narrative designer or narrative design team varies. If you really want your game’s narrative design to be as strong as it can be, have a narrative designer and/or writer in place when you start working on the game. (Or, if you’re wearing several hats, and one of them is “narrative designer,” start working on your game’s story delivery from the beginning of your development cycle.) It’s common practice to bring in the narrative designer in the middle or even at the end of a game’s development. However, this will make it even harder to implement nontraditional story features into the game, and you may discover you don’t have the time or resources to incorporate some narrative design ideas. For example, you’re working on a hidden-object game set in the Ancient Egyptian afterlife (Duat). Each level of the game takes place in one of the twelve regions of Duat. The narrative designer joins the team toward the end of the project. She suggests that the menus themselves can change from level to level to reflect each region as the player progresses. This will not only serve as a small reward for the player’s success, but it will also be a part of the game’s worldbuilding. Everyone thinks this is a great idea. There’s just one problem. The UI designer has already finished the menus. Going back to redesign them will take too much time and cost more money when it’s not in the budget.


When narrative designers plan with the team at the start of the project, they’re able to work with everyone to see what is and is not possible for the game, according to scope, budget, technical constraints, design, and schedule. As a narrative designer, you’re a facilitator who encourages the entire team to contribute to the project’s narrative design. You can use the concept of story delivery to help team members who don’t believe they have storytelling skills see how their valuable expertise improves the game’s narrative design.

The Story Delivery Checklist

Here are some ways you can make sure players always feel they’re the driving force behind a mobile game’s story, whether that story is a major part of the gameplay experience or only reflected in the mechanics.

Come up with a plan for story delivery with the entire team. You won’t be able to execute the game’s narrative design without knowing the constraints you’re working with. Once you understand those, you’ll want to encourage all of your team members to use the entire game space, including the touchscreen, to tell the story.

Use all of the game’s features as much as you’re able. Every part of the game has the potential for storytelling.

Use the player’s imagination as a storytelling tool. Player agency is key. Think of ways you can use players’ imaginations to keep them connected and engaged to player-characters, mechanics, and/or the story.

Remember that you don’t always have to show—suggesting is sometimes enough. You don’t have to show players everything, nor do they have to experience everything. Suggesting is enough. Let their imaginations do the rest.

Tips for Working with the Development Team:

  • Discuss with the members of the team how the game can encourage and facilitate player agency.

  • Discuss with game designers how to give narrative explanations for mechanics.

  • Decide whether the game needs more traditional story delivery techniques, like cutscenes and dialogue trees.

  • Use environmental narrative to communicate with players whenever possible.

  • Look for ways to deliver story via non-story features of the game.

[1] Player agency is the sense that players have autonomy or control over their gameplay experience. Of course, they don’t have complete control because they can only do what the code will allow. But everything that happens during their gaming sessions—whether they’re successful, whether they fail, when they choose to tap the screen, how they move the thumbstick, the NPCs they choose to talk to or not talk to, whether they decide to fight a boss or stealthily get around it—these are the players’ decisions, and they have meaningful outcomes.

[2] I’m using “traditional” to mean PC, console, and online games (MMOs, MMORPGs, and MOBAs).

[3] Unlike customizable characters or customizable characters with fixed backgrounds, players can’t determine the backstory, personality, or appearance of fixed characters.

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