Writing for videogame translators (1) – Basic Story Structure
Every game is a story. Even the most primitive and abstract of games, with the possible exception of "Pong", tells some semblance of a story to the player: if it was not for this narrative layer, the aim of every game in the world would be, "Get variable X to value Y by cleverly manipulating a truckload of other variables and functions." Not exactly something you’d spend sleepless nights on, is it?
One of the crucial parts of the game development projects, and one that has been claiming a bigger and bigger share in the last decade, is narrative writing. Also, it’s the part that is most critical for us in the localization trade, since our job is to make this narrative accessible to other languages. Since game writing follows a series of conventions and standards, some concerning narration in general and other more specific to the computer game medium, it can be useful to get to know them a little better and understand some of the inner workings of storytelling, in order to reflect them in the localised product.
Hence this series of articles, which will be loosely based on the outline of Chris Bateman’s "Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames" and will explore some of the basic tenets, and of the issues, of writing an interactive, playable narrative.
The first topic we’ll address is one of basic building blocks of storytelling, one especially suited to games since it is the very archetype of the adventure: the pattern of the monomyth or hero’s journey as described and studied by the American mythologist Joseph Campbell, and its somewhat simpler Hollywood counterpart, the three-act structure.
In Campbell’s pattern, the hero’s journey is comprised of three phases, Departure, Initiation and Return, which roughly correspond to the Setup, Confrontation and Resolution of the three-act structure. Let’s see how they play out, following a well-known example that embodies them both, and how they relate to a game’s narrative.
Departure and Setup
In the Departure stage we see the hero’s everyday life and assist to the event that will take him to the extraordinary that awaits him (Call to Adventure). Oftentimes the hero is reluctant (Refusal of the Call) and it takes a dramatic event and the assistance from a supernatural force to make him abandon his quiet and uneventful life and follow the path to glory (Supernatural Aid / Crossing of the First Threshold) and also entrust him with some supernatural talisman which will help him in his initiation. The hero is now forging a new identity from the old one, lost into a world he never knew anything of (The Belly of the Whale).
In cinematic terms, this is the "first act": the characters and their relationship are established, a dramatic occurrence turns the tables on the protagonist and leads to a turning point that will change the life of the protagonist forever and pose the so-called dramatic question on which the whole movie (or, in our case, the game) is hinged.
A most famous and straight example, by Mr. Lucas’ own admission, is Star Wars: Luke works happily, if begrudgingly, in his uncle’s farm; Princess Leia calls him to adventure; he suffers a dramatic Sand People-related incident; receives Obi-Wan’s supernatural aid (and a talisman: the lightsaber); his uncle and aunt are slain in the turning point that leads him to cross the threshold and end up in the belly of the Death Star (that’s no whale, it’s a space station!).
In videogame writing the first act is usually rather short or used as an excuse for the tutorial - when not skipped entirely and told by way of flashbacks, background expository elements or, in the worst case, some boring, pace-breaking infodump. This happens mostly because the protagonist’s choices, actions and challenges are mostly the focus of the second act, which is the most "playable" of the three and takes a much larger part of the narrative than it does in books or films.
Initiation and Confrontation
In the second part of his journey, our hero faces difficulties and tests (Road of Trials) where he meets helpers and opponents; faces the two opposite aspects of the female archetype (The Meeting with the Goddess/Woman as the Temptress); has a confrontation with a powerful male figure with life-and-death power (Atonement with the Father); undergoes a transfiguration into his "true", destined self (Apotheosis) and acquires the object of the quest he was sent after (The Ultimate Boon).
The second act is a close analogue in terms of plot. It comprises a crescendo of action and reaction, taking the protagonist from the fist turning point (his changed situation) to the second, which is a change in the hero himself: by facing that difficulties that will lead him to solving the dramatic question, and through the help of mentors and co-protagonists, he learns the skills and attains the self-awareness he needs to face the antagonist and triumph.
If Luke’s escape from the Death Star is indeed a road of trials and a crescendo of difficulties, other aspects of the monomyth are less clear-cut: Leia is a complex character, though she retains some facets of the goddess/temptress duality (“Wonderful girl. I’m either going to kill her or beginning to like her.”), and it is Obi Wan who faces both atonement and apotheosis in Luke’s stead (who will have to wait for the sequels for that).
In most games, a huge share of playing time leads the player through the Road of Trials. This does not mean, however, that most of the game’s text and narrative should do the same. There is a balance, with enough storytelling to keep the game interesting and the gamer intrigued and enough road-of-trials to keep the story from smothering the game experience.
Return and Resolution
As the hero is ready to return, often he finds himself unwilling to do so (Refusal of the Return); or, he needs to face a new road of trials (The Magic Flight) and/or be pulled back by the ordinary people (Rescue from Without). He must then return to the common world and try and fit back into it (Crossing of the Return Threshold) while keeping the wisdom and skills he learned in his path to glory and his new self-awareness (Master of Two Worlds/Freedom to Live).
The third act is much more prosaic: the plot nears completion, loose ends are tied up and the protagonist comes face to face with the solution to the dramatic question, which is often a face-off with the antagonist. Finally, the story reaches a final climax and the white hats win and ride off into the sunset… or rocks fall and everybody dies, if the story is a tragic one.
Luke’s third act is much more like a movie than a myth: he blasts off TIE fighters in his magic flight and nukes the Death Star by being the master of two worlds, while Han suffers a slight case of return refusal which he quickly overcomes. Then, medals are handed out, Chewie howls at nothing in particular, the brass section blares out the main theme and credits roll.
As with the first act, the third act is often rushed in games. As with the first act, a good game strives for balance, making the climax more interesting and including more elements than facing off with the final boss.
When considering this basic narrative skeleton and how to apply it to game writing and game localization, do keep in mind that the parallels are not very strict and both models are lifted from different media. The three phases of the hero’s journey and the three canonical acts are not always precisely overlapping (in fact, almost never). Campbell’s monomyth, in particular, has deeper and more complex ramifications than any rough parallel can account for, and should never be strictly applied to anything outside of mythology and anthropology.
The following article will deal with characters and character archetypes (and stereotypes).
 It’s worth noting that the monomyth, being an emergent pattern from a strongly patriarchal epoch of human history, is necessarily focused on a male figure (or on a thinly disguised distaff counterpart of a male figure). This is also why this article uses the masculine gender throughout.