Six Ways to Tell Stories in Video Games

We’re just starting to make great progress with Spellirium, our word puzzle/adventure game hybrid. For the past few months, it feels like we’ve been building pieces and elements of the game. Now that they’re built, we’re starting to assemble the actual game.

Spellirium has two main modes: the lightning-quick Blitz Mode, where you try to rack up mad pointz with a 3-minute time limit, and Story Mode, where we’re putting the bulk of our efforts. i thought i’d take today to talk about our storytelling technique in the game.

We have a BIG story to tell in Spellirium – so big that it’s becoming a real creative challenge to convey it within our budget. Here’s a list of common storytelling techniques in video games. i’ll tell you which ones we’ve settled on for Spellirium and why.

In order of el crappo to awesomazing, they are:

1. Ugly-Ass Block of Text

Visit any free-to-play Flash game portal and you’ll see this one in full effect: just an omnisciently-written big ugly block of copy that no one’s ever gonna read (much like this blog post). If you really want to punish your players, you’ll drag this on for multiple pages. This is the least expensive way to tell a story in your game. Spend a few bucks and spruce it up by making it crawl up the screen a la Star Wars, and/or by adding some voice over.


Braid. Bad prose optional.

2. Comic Book Stills

Tell your story in comic book-style panels. You can add some animated touches, or pan the camera around to keep things interesting. Again, voice over might really spruce this one up.

Beneath a Steel Sky

The talkie version of Beneath a Steel Sky added voice over to its comic book intro.

3. 90’s-Style RPG Dialogues

Throw all your dialogue and exposition in a little blue text box at the bottom of the screen. Add the speaking character’s name and a colon so that the player knows who’s saying what. For authenticity, make the text spell itself into the box letter by letter. If you do this, for the love of all that is holy, add a mouse click or space bar event to speed things up.

Final Fantasy II

Final Fantasy II took a no-frills approach that some games still employ twenty years later.

4. Aughts-Style RPG Dialogues

The 90’s style dialogues evolved to depict static close-up character artwork instead of names and colons to indicate the speaker. Most often, these dialogues slide in from the left and right edges of the screen. With a slightly higher-budget game, multiple static close-ups are drawn in case the character needs to show emotion. i have never seen this technique add lip flap (randomly animated mouth charts) to make it look as though the character was speaking. This would add a whole lot more visual interest and personality to the technique, without a very large cost. Slide-in lip-flapping dialogues have been on my radar for Spellirium for a while, but they’re still too ghetto for my taste, and i hope we don’t have to resort to using them.


Disgaea used lots of static character art with no lip flap, but voice over helped it out a lot.

5. Graphic Adventure Style

This method requires you to build animated puppets of your characters. You tell the characters’ mouth charts to randomly cycle as they “speak”, and it helps to give the heads a little random tilting to add personality. Copy is displayed at the top of the screen, and each character gets his or her own colour to help the player sort out who’s speaking, but it’s not crucial. Adding voice over clears up that mystery, of course. To use this technique efficiently, you have to build a scripting system to make your puppets walk around, play discrete animations, and face different directions.

The Secret of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge

Have you heard? Monkey Island 2 is the greatest game ever made.

6. Full-On Animated Cutscenes

The pinnacle of straight-up non-interactive storytelling is the canned cutscene, which is essentially just a video you play between the interactive parts of your game. We’ve been working on a few of these, but the process is very expensive and time-consuming. Here’s the process:

  1. Write the script
  2. Draw some storyboards
  3. Cut a leica reel together using the storyboard frames (a leica reel is where you play the static frames in sequence with rough timing)
  4. Record scratch (temporary) voice over and apply it to the leica
  5. Draw and animate on top of the static shots, and lip-sync all the mouth charts
  6. Add the backgrounds
  7. Re-record the script with the pro voice actors
  8. Integrate the final audio and adjust the lip sync and shot timing

Full Throttle

Full Throttle boasted some pretty slick (for its time) fully-animated cutscenes at key points in the game

Yikes, for real. It was clear from the get-go that we wouldn’t be able to tell our entire story this way, and it became even more clear as we progressed through development. We’re still aiming to complete a few key scenes using this full-blown cinema-style technique, and they’re looking great so far! But in the interest in actually completing the game, we’ve fallen back to the graphic adventure-style technique of storytelling.

Spellirium storyboard sample

We’ve storyboarded some scenes that we can’t actually afford to give the full-blown cinema treatment.

The Verdict: Adventure-Style Storytelling FTFW

This makes a lot of sense for the game, because you bounce around between Travel Mode and Challenges/Battles. In Travel Mode, you click to move your characters around the screen, traveling from location to location and clicking on points of interest, much like you do in a graphic adventure. It made perfect sense, then, to spend the last few weeks building a scripting system so that we could control the in-game puppets to make them walk around and talk to each other.

Spellirium screenshot

Will we have to fall back further to even more efficient (but additionally crappy) forms of storytelling? It’s possible … it all depends on how quickly we can bang out scenes using our wonderful new scripting system. i have a lot of faith that we can effectively convey most of the game’s scripted scenes this way, and that you’ll really enjoy them.

Some of you may be thinking “why don’t they just cut down the story?” Because we’re billing Spellirium as an word puzzle/adventure game hybrid, we want to make sure that the “adventure game” aspect gets its full due. When Spellirium launches, you’ll be treated to a game with a rich, exciting and well-told story, with lots of innovative tricky word puzzly fun. Prepare for a good time, and tell your friends by clicking the “Retweet” button at the top of this post, or with our Share and Enjoy social media toolbar beneath this post. Thanks so much for your help in getting the word out!


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20 thoughts on “Six Ways to Tell Stories in Video Games

  1. kaolin

    color me impressed! I haven’t been keeping up, didn’t know where you were going with spellirium. I can almost see the animation in that last pic, and love it. :)

  2. Nick

    What about if you have to spell the story i.e. You cram all the big unwieldy smarty-pants words into the story and as the last sequence in a level-clear they fly into the centre joined by all the adjectives/verbage to form 2 or 3 sentences at a time? Each level you move ahead a half-paragraph or so?

    1. Ryan

      Nick – i struggle to understand what you’re saying, but Spellirium DOES have a mode where you see a bunch of words, like in a poem, and you have a limited time to spell all those words to complete the challenge.

  3. Bwakathaboom

    With such great artwork and characters you might be able to make a few side dollars from merch. I suspect wordies are a pretty devoted audience so if they love the game they might be willing to buy shirts, mugs, etc.

    1. Ryan

      Bwakathaboom – thanks, and good idea! i really wonder what fans of the game would consider buying. What’s the staple? T-shirts? Buttons? It would be my first time doing merch, so i’d want to stick to the safest road.

  4. Andy Smith

    As a man who likes to wear t-shirts, if you are going that route, I would pay a little more for a higher quality shirt. I’m talking American Apparel vs. Fruit of the Loom. I know it doesn’t seem important, but I threw in a dozen or so words about it.

    1. Ryan

      Andy – point well taken. But alas and alack, i believe that American Apparel has gone (much like its billboard models) tits up.

  5. Greg

    I feel like “atmospheric” (or something to that effect) might have been one as well. Like Portal or Half Life where the surrounding environment tells the story. It doesn’t have to be explicit, but it is usually intriguing (when done well). I feel like they’re onto something, it seems to be building up into the “show don’t tell” of game story where the authors don’t patronize their audience/players anymore and allow them to make connections on there own which seems to be in keeping with the medium of gameplay in general anyhow given the added agency the player has with interactivity.

    1. Ryan

      Greg – i was worried someone would mention atmospheric storytelling. i suppose you would call Spellirium 100% patronizing :)

      i’ve seen atmospheric storytelling work best when the story being told is comparatively simple. Portal’s story was told very well by its environment and that hilarious voice over. Something like Mass Effect requires a different technique.

      i don’t mind explicit storytelling when the writing is good and the story is interesting. JRPGs tend to bother me because they go on and on for hours telling very flat, stock stories. i get it, i get it – he’s an androgynous emo prince, she’s a spoiled robot angel, and their kingdom has been at war for centuries. Please stop talking.

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  7. Bwakathaboom

    For merchandise the default offerings seem to be T-shirts, coffee mugs, etc. I don’t know how successful they are but they’re the easiest to get going. The quality of services like CafePress, etc. is always a bit meh but the amount of investment required to print your own quality merch and do your own shipping, etc. I just don’t know if it’s feasible to do it any other way.

    Being lazy and greedy I’d try to think of things you can price higher and get a greater margin – in the process delivering something really cool for the fans. Like, If you have lots of cool concept art you could have one of those “coffee table” art books printed. People are used to paying $30 bucks for “collectors” materials and by giving the user insight into the behind the scenes you’re giving them something more than just another disposable tchotchke.

    1. Ryan

      Bwakathaboom – apparently, buttons have a super-high margin. We’re actually toying around with an idea for corporate merch, and it’ll be something pretty fun. i’ll let you know how it goes. Should be ready by FanExpo in Toronto next month.

  8. Chris Harshman

    Stories really make or break a game for me, more than anything else except for the User Interface, which isn’t really and issue here.

    1. Ryan

      Chris – we have a few UI challenges with this one, most notably the Dictionary that works like the Pokemon Pokedex. But i’m with you – story really turns my crank when i play video games.

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