How, exactly, do you write your first videogame?
Well, to be honest, that’s an incredibly broad question, and the answer can vary heavily depending on the genre you’re working in. However, after completing my first indie game — Depths of Sanity, a 12–15 hour metroidvania nightmare set entirely at the bottom of the ocean that releases this Halloween — I think I have at least a few guidelines that can help all of you starting the journey to get your story into shape.
A bit of background so you know where I’m coming from: I was brought onto the team about two years into the game’s development, after all the basic mechanics were established as well as the general level flow and initial premise. I’d written a lot of other work, but this was my first videogame.
Here was the basic pitch I was given: You are Commander Abe Douglas of the G.O.A.A. (Global Oceanic and Atmospheric Association). A few weeks ago, every oceanic base picked up a massive vibration at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean. A crew was dispatched to investigate the signal, but they went dark a week ago. As the commander who assembled the crew, you take it upon yourself to bring them home and find out what’s going on.
And then…that was it. After the intro, there really wasn’t much story established. My job was to figure out what was actually going to happen over the whole adventure while utilizing the pieces that already existed.
Here are three things that helped me build from that pitch to a full game:
TIP 1: You Need to Earn the Right to Stop a Player In Their Tracks
Moreseo than most mediums, how you tell the story in a videogame is just as important as the story itself.
Every game has a different level of fidelity and narrative tools to accomplish this, but generally, when you’re talking about an indie, voice acting is a luxury you will not have. For many of you, that means your story will be entirely conveyed through written text and art.
This begs the question: How much is too much reading to force on a player?
While this depends a bit on the type of game, for me, far too many indie games just shove reams of text down your throat. In 1997, I had no problems with this, but in the year 2022, I can’t stand it. To reign yourself in, I think you need to keep this motto in mind:
You need to EARN THE RIGHT to stop the player in their tracks.
If you use this as your guidepost, you will naturally make story choices that prioritize and respect the player experience, only stopping the player when you TRULY need them to witness something that can’t be shown any other way.
Here’s how that works in practice: Depths of Sanity opens with a short action scene taking place late in the game. When the player finishes the area, we jump back to the beginning of the game and have a 2–3 minute cutscene with a psychiatrist establishing what is going on now that we’ve peaked their interest.
Then we let the player loose, and for the first several hours of the game, all story moments are “player directed” through optional areas the player chooses to explore, notes they choose to read (below, left) , and audio logs they choose to pick up (below, right). Notes would slot into the player's inventory to be read when they saw fit, and audio logs would trigger an immediate cutscene. Either way, the player opted for when they wanted to engage with the story.
Choice was the key. Script-wise, there is actually quite a lot of text in the first third of the game, but because the player decides when to engage with most of it, it doesn’t feel that way. With the exception of end-of-area cutscenes, you’re generally choosing when to engage with the plot, and this makes all the difference in the world. The same amount of story given in a non-optional way would DRAG the pace to a crawl, and I want the player to be intrigued enough on their own to delve deeper.
Of course, that means the first few things a player can choose to pick up better be GOOD (and this is something I agonized over) but that’s at least a more controllable problem for yourself.
TIP 2: Discover your immovable story blocks early.
Point blank: I would not have been able to write Depths of Sanity without doing this first.
Game development is constantly shifting, and the story is no different. Because of that, writing a video game is like constructing a Jenga tower: some pieces of the story can be moved around as necessary without affecting the overall structure, and some blocks, if shifted, will entirely collapse the story.
That’s why your first job is to figure out just what those immovable blocks are.
Because Depths of Sanity is a metroidvania, the majority of the initial work was around figuring out what story elements would be mainline — i.e., every player will need to see/experience them to get a complete experience — and those that would be optional, and structured for players who explore the game more deeply.
To do this, I took the initial two page treatment I wrote (I wound up writing several at first, each going in broadly different directions, to give the team different ideas of where we could take the story with the elements that already existed), and expanded it to ten pages, telling every facet of the story that I could. I then went through and highlighted what I considered the main plot beats, and built the main story script out of those.
These were the scenes that couldn’t be moved.
Once those were locked, the VAST majority of my writing time went into optional story content that would enrich the main beats. I wound up structuring much of the story around each member of the crew, and because so much of the game would be told through text/audio logs, I purposefully wrote things that could be viewed out-of-order and out-of-context.
This was probably the best decision I made, because I could move these moments around as the game changed without having to worry about losing critical plot information. Below you can get a glimpse of the horror that was the narrative organizer, which kept track of the movement of notes, audio logs, and more.
TIP 3: Once your story is in, play your game like a casual player.
This is one of the toughest things to do in development — particularly on a small team where you will also likely be helping to test large sections of the game — but I think it’s important that once a major area is done (or even the whole game) that you take the time to play it casually, approaching it like a regular player would, without the stress of deadlines or bug squashing getting to you.
After we finished our Early Access build of Depths of Sanity, I took time to play through the entire 15-hour adventure over the course of 3 weeks, every other day or so, like I would any other game.
Why? Because it’s easier to find holes in the story, or issues you might not have noticed when you just had to slam through it.
For example, say you foreshadow a late-game event very early in the adventure — can you expect the player, who may have seen the set-up two weeks ago, to remember it? Lots of story elements got tweaked or expanded once I played through sections at a slower rate and I realized that players going through the game leisurely might not be able to keep track of details that were important, or might find too little story between certain beats.
Obviously, you won’t be able to do this all the time, but you should make an effort to do this as much as possible. It strengthened the writing from the game overall, and particularly if you’re just dealing with text, editing dialogue and scenes is a much simpler process than if you have the stress of voice acting. Use this limitation to your advantage when it comes time to polish.
I’ll be following this up with a deeper dive (filled with spoilers) in a few months on how to handle your game’s big moments, but I figured this was a good primer for some of you that might need a bit more direction on how to tackle the plotting of your game.
If this was helpful or if you have your own experiences to share on your game’s development, drop them below! And go ahead and check out more of Depths of Sanity here.
Bomb Shelter Games Team