Whether you’re a seasoned writer or just starting out, there’s a particular sort of challenge when it comes to writing for a short game. As a developer, you find yourself walking a narrow line between creating a world rich enough to draw the player in, but simple enough to be conveyed in those few minutes of game-play. It’s treacherously easy to fall onto either side – a story that’s just too ambitious or a story that leaves too many questions unanswered. So, how exactly do you write for a short game? Read on for some of my favorite tips and tricks!
Find a new starting point
Starting your game planning with the plot and story can often lead to a story that’s far too complex for your short game. So, let’s challenge ourselves and start with something very different – like, say, the number of maps?
Pick a small number of maps that seem like a good and sensible amount for a short game – I recommend something between 5 and 10. There should be enough for the player to explore, but not so much that they’d have to rush through a ton of locations. Then, think about what kind of story you can tell inside just those few maps. Will your story progress in a linear way, with each map being a different experience? Or will you have the player back-track to find a detail they missed the first time around?
Want to challenge yourself further? Write a story that happens on just one map. You could write a horror story about being trapped in a small space. You could write a slice-of-life comedy about hiding in your girlfriend’s closet in your underwear because her parents came home early. Or how about a surreal puzzle trying to figure out your lost identity?
And let’s not stop at the number of maps. You could start with a music playlist, a puzzle number or even the number of character sprites you want to use. Sure, it seems limiting, but…
Embrace the limitations
Sometimes, we’re afraid that limitations are going to end up robbing us of our creativity, but – more often than not- it’s the opposite that happens. Having a limitation can be a great way to boost your creativity, as it forces you to consider new ideas and approaches that you would have dismissed before. Instead of being major obstacles to overcome, limitations can become landmarks that help you navigate through a million and one ideas to find the one that best fits your game.
In fact, you might find yourself slightly addicted to limitations and inspired to keep wondering “What if?”. What if you limited yourself to telling the story from a single perspective – and that perspective wasn’t the main character’s? Or what if your main character was only limited to speaking in movie titles?
Be an editor
Of course, not all crazy limitations and ideas are going to work. And if you’ve landed on a particularly exciting idea, maybe you were a little overzealous and found yourself with a novel-length story…
This is where editing comes into play. You would look at your story with the critical eye and whittle away all the unnecessary trimmings until you’re left with a story that does what it’s supposed to – draws the player in and keeps them playing. But that’s easier said than done, right?
One tip I have for you is to write out the story as a whole. Then remove a detail and see if the story still makes sense. Keep going until you’ve removed all the extras. This should leave you with a list of absolutely essential events. At this point, you can go back through the story again and see if there’s any areas that need to be fleshed out more.
Then rinse and repeat until you’re happy with your story.
Get some feedback
Even with your most brutal editing, sometimes you’re just too close to the story and you find it impossible to tell how a player would perceive it. This is where a tester or two can really help. You can force let your family and friends try out your short game and see what they think. Or you could post it on our friendly forums and let fellow developers check it out.
And, of course, remember to return the favor and play a project or two when you’ve got some free time. If you’re lucky, you’ll discover a great source of inspiration – or make a new friend or two.
Do you have any tips for writing short stories? Let us know below!