ECGC: Keynote Speaker Mary DeMarle of EIDOS

Posted on Updated on


“The purpose of a story teller is not to tell you how to think but to give you questions too think upon.”
Brandon Sanderson the way of kings.

Can the story be art? Can Video Games tell meaningful story? These are bad questions to ask. The real questions should be: “HOW do we combine narrative and play to tell  the story? CAN we use the mechanics of gameplay to evoke emotions on a deep and meaningful level? How do we offer meaningful choices to our players?”

Players should explore and a well-crafted game should force us to make decisions and react or discover consequences, and confront the result of our decisions.

Artists use lies to tell the truth

Interactivity and the gameplay loop
nothing in game world happens without player interaction.

The four major ways in which our players advance through their games are by the same simple mechanics:

  1. Encounter a difficulty
  2. Acquire an ability
  3. Overcome a challenge
  4. Get a reward

The question is, “Will they get the reward?”


Step 1: Recognize that the mechanics of a story operate like a gameplay loop. Break the story into specific sequences of gamelplay within each level.

At this point in the conference, DeMarle showed us an excel sheet which broke down a level of Deus Ex Human Revolution. It did not stay up long  😦

The materials approached the story level in a manner similar to how a project managers breaks their projects down into tasks as part of the critical chain. The level required that 2 sequences be completed. Each sequence was broken into tasks, and each task was broken down into blocks of gameplay. Each block of gameplay included a difficulty, acquiring an ability, a challenge, and a reward.

Example Level: The Compound
Sequence: infiltrate the compound & secure the prototype.
Two items: Infiltration, Securing Prototype
5 blocks of gameplay for each item.
For each level, we introduce the tension, escalate it, reveal in a climax and resolve the situation with a twist!

A reader must have some point of contact with the story to make him feel at home in it, only then can they accept the wonder.

Step 2: Understand what your player can and cannot do

An important thing to keep in mind when creating your games is balancing ability vs Challenge. Too much challenge and game quickly becomes frustrating. Too much ability and the game quickly becomes boring. Challenges evoke fear. Ability evokes hope.

Engaging the player
Player time & energy spent playing a game is equal to the level of autonomy. Do they control their destiny?

Story vs. Autonomy
A great story allows both choice and deviation. A great example of this is the Witcher 2. That said, it is important to grasp and understand that autonomy is not freedom. Autonomy is being in control of choices, and endorsing the path you are on.

If the story isn’t about the hearer, they will not listen. If its isn’t about everyone, it will not last.

Stories take us on a journey and teach us about the human condition, the world, and ourselves. Stories which do not are flat, cheap, and unnecessary.


Step 3: focus the narrative on deeply personal and familiar events. Focus the story on the people, not the events.

Encourage autonomy in your games by offering choices! Choices should show players the emotions released and how their choices affect the other people. But, you cannot hide the choices. You are free to make the choice, but you are not free of the consequence of the choice. Reactions may not be what you expect, but they should at least make sense. Show the consequences, but do not judge the player because of it.

Half the art of storytelling is to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it or retells it. Showing consequences without judgement allows the player to get their own meanings from it.

One last thought, keep your choices clear of conflict by keeping like choices together. A great example of a failure in this regard is as follows:

“You are running out of time to capture the villain! Should you take the door on the right and save the life of the little girl, or take the door on the left and receive the repeating combat shotgun?”

This is a terrible choice. You are forcing your players to choose an emotional success (saving the child), or a tactical success (getting the repeating combat shotgun). Tactical players will choose the weapon because they want to WIN. Emotional gamers will save the child because they don’t want to see anyone die. This unbalances the game, because the player with the powerful gun breezes through the next few levels, while the rescuer has to fight tooth and nail until the end of the game.

Unless you want some players to complain, later in the game the rescuer needs to receive a powerful weapon to re-balance their odds. So, if both characters receive powerful weapons, the choice to rescue the girl was a wasted and unneeded choice, resulting in no difference between the paths. That choice should be removed or reworked. A better solution would be to choose between 2 characters, with one surviving and the other paying the ultimate price.

In the end- stories should take us on journeys, teach us, reveal things about us, and always keep us wanting more.