Storytelling

Navigating the Maze of VR Scriptwriting & Storytelling for New Writers

Where Do I Begin?

Virtual Reality is an immersive computer technology allowing its participants the opportunity to partake in a simulated environment. The chance to immerse ourselves in a uniquely alternate reality certainly is enticing — but how do you construct the skeleton of a story for the meaty VR body to hang on, and hold your audiences’ attention?

A lot of the same principles of storytelling apply to VR storytelling and scriptwriting, as they do to its conventional counterpart. Yet in VR storytelling you must consider your audience as an immersed participant. What pitfalls do you need to look out for? That is the right question!

Storytelling Checklist

Pacing

The pace by which you reveal your VR world to your audience is crucial. For the vast majority, VR will be an entirely new experience — and at first, an uneasy one. You need to allow them time to adapt, ease them in gently so to speak. Oculus Story Studio suggest a 30-second settling in period, as most viewers will be more familiar with flat screen viewing. This time period is enough for the participant to relax into the new VR environment.

A slower, introductory pace at the beginning will allow the narrative to shine at the more important, later stages. If you rush your audience into the narrative immediately, the unfamiliarity with their VR surroundings will give them a sensory overload, causing many audience members to just walk away.

The Audience

VR is the medium for audience autonomy and freedom. Instead of writing your script with a confined narrative, your storytelling should embrace the space and explore the world you’ve built.

“There are, of course, plenty of tricks to use to navigate this pitfall  and their use depends on the autonomy you as a creator wish to relinquish to your audience,” explains Andy Hays, a Game Writer at UK Top Writers and Study Demic contributor. “Lighting cues, sound cues, the character’s POV, and especially the arc of additional characters can all aid in directing the attention of your audience along the path of the narrative.”

First Person POV

One of the more challenging aspects involves writing a narrative that a participant can lose themselves in, remembering that we still naturally assume ownership of the virtual environment with which we’re engaged. First person POV is certainly the more difficult choice, but has the advantage of looking through an active participant’s eyes.

The Reality of VR

This is not just important in navigating the pitfalls of POV, but we cannot forget that the participant must actively believe the environment they are immersed in. The reality of their Virtual Reality must be engaging.

Writing a story where supporting characters break the fourth wall, engaging directly with the participant, adds a sense of realism to the participant’s experience. The intimacy of these moments is more likely to leave a lasting impact on your audience.

Player Decision-Making

Nowadays, giving autonomy to your audience in terms of story is common practice — particularly in the gaming industry. VR should be no different.

If your audience desires freedom and autonomy of the world, give it to them. Ensure the character arc is engaging and the narrative is constructed with arc-altering decisions. Not only do these decisions develop a believable reality by giving your participant personified responsibility, but it also allows you to retain control over the story and direct your audience once more.

Spatial Storytelling

The key thing to remember here is that the VR space is not just background, or filler. It is an active component in your immersive environment. The world must shift around the participant. Use it to drag their attention in the direction the narrative desires; this again relates to the cues we mentioned earlier.

It is important to note the reverse sensory action of behaviours: How does entering a café, library, or school, affect you on a sensory level, and what then do you add to it to make it distinguishable?

Formatting

Regardless of the media you’re writing for, formatting should always be top of your list. If you wish to write in POV, you can add it to your scene heading. Others choose to write with a more theatrical freedom. Whatever your preference, there are some great tools to assist new writers in polishing off your VR script:

What Next?

Following these tips will set you on the right path to successfully navigating the pitfalls of VR scriptwriting and storytelling. The reality of VR is essential to your audience. And though they seek autonomy and freedom within the world, using the outlined tricks and skills above allow you to retain this power via the narrative, dynamic spatial design, and immersive character arcs you’ve written.

NYFA guest author Freddie Tubbs is a script writer at Paper Fellows. He regularly takes part in film conferences and writes posts and guides for Big Assignments and Write my Australia.

Game Storytelling – 3 Rules of Thumb that Work

By Felipe Lara – Instructor, New York Film Academy Game Design

Adding storytelling to your game can help you connect emotionally to your players, add meaning to the experience, and increase long-term engagement. But stories can become a bit of a nuisance if not implemented properly. Following a few rules of thumb will help you add storytelling that does not clash with the rest of the experience.

Screenshot 2017-10-11 12.06.01

Why Story

As I mentioned in a previous article, a combination of good art and fun game mechanics is a very effective way to attract players and create immediate engagement. But even good game mechanics can get repetitive and tedious over time unless they are accompanied by a larger meaning or drive, which is often provided by other elements like story, and social connection.

storypexels-photo-256546

Events are much more meaningful if they are tied to a larger story. When playing basketball, scoring a basket is fun, but the experience is much more meaningful and powerful if that basket is the winning basket at the end of a game against a long-time rival team, even more if winning will let us get a scholarship to a renowned college … and will make us the first in our family to get a college degree … which will eventually let us to help our family get out of poverty and … you get the idea.

What is so powerful about stories is that they can wrap up the combination of ideas and emotions that form our experiences in ways that we can easily understand and link to our values and other experiences in our lives. A story can turn an abstract goal into something that relates to our values and views of the world.

Here are 3 rules of thumb to help you determine if you have a story that works to make your game more compelling without annoying players:

Rule of Thumb 1: Start with a Clear Conflict

armorpexels-photo-289831

There is one single element that fuels a good story: conflict — says Evan Skolnick in his excellent book “Video Game Storytelling, What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques.” He is right. Story is not a lot of blah blah blah, it is not fueled by details about characters, feelings, and places; it is fueled by conflict, by someone wanting something and not being able to achieve it because of something else. Make that conflict clear as soon as you can in your game.

The more your players can relate to the story’s conflict and to what is at stake, the more compelling your story will be for them. The faster you can introduce your players to that conflict and why it matters, the sooner the easier it will be for them to find meaning in the activities and goals they need to complete.

The first conflict you show your players doesn’t need to be the only conflict. It doesn’t even need to be the main conflict, but it should be the conflict that helps the player makes sense of what he/she needs to do in the game next.

Rule of Thumb 2: First Do, Then Show, Then Tell

fantasypexels-photo-326055

There is an old axiom in Hollywood: “Show, don’t tell.” If you want to communicate how courageous a character is, don’t say it; instead, show the character doing something courageous. In the same book for video game storytelling I mentioned above, Evan Skolnick says that in games, where the players are active participants, this axiom can be modified to “Do, then show, then tell.”

If you want to communicate how courageous and powerful a character is, give her powerful abilities and give her big challenges to face. Instead of telling the player the attributes of her character, let her experience them herself.

If you cannot find a way to communicate story through actions, then use visuals as a second option. Only use dialogue or text if there is no other way of conveying important information that your player needs in order to make sense of what she is doing.

Rule of Thumb 3: Keep It Simple and Minimal.

simplepexels-photo-399161

The right story makes the game more intuitive, but it needs to start simple. Story can get deeper and more complex as the game progresses, but focus on utilizing story to make your game’s goals and rules easier for players to connect with and easier to understand. If the story is not making it easier to play, chances are it is not the right story.

The story introduction should also be minimal. One of the main mistakes that game developers make when adding story is trying to communicate all the background to the players at the beginning of the game. Players do not care about your story details or your characters until they are more invested in the experience as a whole. It is important to provide meaning, but you don’t have to provide the player with more information than the bare minimum to make your immediate goals and activities make sense. The worst thing you can do is present your player with a bunch of information that they don’t yet care about. Long dialogues and explanations are usually skipped and all your work will be in vain. Start simple, and add complexity only if the rules and goals of the game require it.

Evan Skolnick divides story facts into 3 categories: first, facts that you need to know right now to understand what you need to do in the experience; second, facts that will be important later in the experience but you don’t need to know yet; and third, facts that maybe add flavor but are not essential at any time in the experience to understand what you need to do. As a rule, the only information you really need to give the player is the one related to the first category. Save the rest for later and even then try to convey it first through actions and visuals.

Chess

chesspexels-photo-260024

Let’s look at Chess as an example. It may be an extreme case but it exemplifies the points I am making.

The conflict is simple and easy to understand: you are a king with a court and an army, your enemy is another king with his own court and army and you need to defeat him. There are other details in the story about who is in your court, which characters are important and powerful, how big is your army, etc., but all that information is communicated through actions and visuals.

You know whom your enemy is because your team is one color and your opponent is the opposite color. You know that there are different characters because your pieces have different shapes. You know who is in your court and how powerful they are because your different pieces have different attributes and behaviors, and some of these attributes prove to be more powerful.

The story is simple and minimal. It helps us make the rules and goals of the game more intuitive — like the fact that only knights on horses can jump other pieces, or that the most important piece is the king — but it does not give us additional information that is not essential to understand what to do next.

Conclusion

mario-luigi-figures-funny-163114

Story is an important tool to help us add meaning and connect emotionally to an experience, but the wrong story could turn into an annoyance for the player. By following these three rules you can avoid wasting time and resources developing stories that don’t help your game: 1) Introduce a clear and easy-to-understand conflict as soon as you can, 2) Communicate your story through actions first, visuals second, and only as a last resort through dialogue and narration, and 3) Keep the story simple and minimal, give you player only the information than helps him/her understand what he/she needs to do in the game at that point.

Learn more about Game Design at the New York Film Academy.

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Game Storytelling: 3 Rules of Thumb That Work

By NYFA Instructor Felipe Lara

Adding storytelling to your game can help you connect emotionally to your players, add meaning to the experience, and increase long-term engagement. But stories can become more of a nuisance if not implemented properly. Following a few rules of thumb will help you add storytelling that does not clash with the rest of the experience.

Screenshot 2017-06-21 13.05.04

Why Story

As I mentioned in a previous article, a combination of good art and fun game mechanics is a very effective way to attract players and create immediate engagement. But even good game mechanics can get repetitive and tedious over time unless they are accompanied by a larger meaning or drive, which is often provided by other elements like story and social connection.

Events are much more meaningful if they are tied to a larger story. When playing basketball, scoring a basket is fun, but the experience is much more meaningful and powerful if that basket is the winning basket at the end of a game against a long-time rival team, even more if winning will let us get a scholarship to a renowned college … and will make us the first in our family to get a college degree … which will eventually let us to help our family get out of poverty and … you get the idea.

What is so powerful about stories is that they can wrap up the combination of ideas and emotions that form our experiences in ways that we can easily understand and link to our values and other experiences in our lives. A story can turn an abstract goal into something that relates to our values and views of the world.

Here are three rules of thumb to help you determine if you have a story that works to make your game more compelling without annoying players:

Rule of Thumb 1: Start with a Clear Conflict

Screenshot 2017-06-21 13.06.40

There is one single element that fuels a good story: conflict, says Evan Skolnick in his excellent book “Video Game Storytelling, What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques.” He is right. Story is not a lot of blah blah blah, it is not fueled by details about characters, feelings, and places, it is fueled by conflict, by someone wanting something and not being able to achieve it because of something else. Make that conflict clear as soon as you can in your game.

The more your players can relate to the story’s conflict and to what is at stake, the more compelling your story will be for them. The faster you can introduce your players to that conflict and why it matters, the easier it will be for them to find meaning in the activities and goals they need to complete.

The conflict you show your players first doesn’t need to be the only one. It doesn’t even need to be the main one, but it should be the one that helps the player makes sense of what he/she needs to do in the game next.

Rule of Thumb 2: First Do, Then Show, Then Tell

Screenshot 2017-06-21 13.11.43

There is an old axiom in Hollywood that says: “show don’t tell.” If you want to communicate how courageous a character is, don’t say it: Instead, show the character doing something courageous.

In the same book for video game storytelling I mentioned above, Evan Skolnick says that in games, where the players are active participants, this axiom can be modified to: “do, then show, then tell.”

If you want to communicate how courageous and powerful a character is, give her powerful abilities and give her big challenges to face. Instead of telling the player the attributes of her character, let her experience them herself.

If you cannot find a way to communicate story through actions, then use visuals as a second option — and only if there is no other way of conveying important information that your player needs in order to make sense of what she is doing, say it through dialogue or text.

Rule of Thumb 3: Keep It Simple and Minimal.

Screenshot 2017-06-21 13.08.46

The right story makes the game more intuitive, but to do that it needs to be simple. It can get deeper and more complex as the game progresses, but the primary goal is to make your game’s goals and rules easier to connect with and easier to understand. If the story is not making it easier to play, chances are it is not the right story.

The story should also be kept to a minimum.

One of the main mistakes that game developers make when adding story is trying to communicate at the beginning of the game all the background of the story to the players. Players generally do not care about your story details or your characters until they are more invested in the experience as a whole. It is important to provide meaning, but you don’t have to provide the player with more information than the bare minimum to make your immediate goals and activities make sense.

The worst thing you can do is present your player with a bunch of information that they don’t yet care about. Long dialogues and explanations are usually skipped and all your work will be in vain.

Start simple, and add complexity only if the rules and goals of the game require it.

Evan Skolnick divides story facts into three categories: first, facts that you need to know right now to understand what you need to do in the experience; second, facts that will be important later in the experience but you don’t need to know yet; and third, facts that maybe add flavor but are not essential at any time in the experience to understand what you need to do.

As a rule, the only information you really need to give the player is the one related to the first category. Save the rest for later and even then try to convey it first through actions and visuals.

Chess

Screenshot 2017-06-21 13.07.14

Let’s look at chess as an example. It may be an extreme case but it exemplifies the points I am making.

The conflict is simple and easy to understand: you are a king with a court and an army, your enemy is another king with his own court and army and you need to defeat him. There are other details in the story about who is in your court, which characters are important and powerful, how big is your army, etc., but all that information is communicated through actions and visuals:

  • You know who your enemy is because your team is one color and your opponent is the opposite color.
  • You know that there are different characters because your pieces have different shapes.
  • You know who is in your court and how powerful they are because your different pieces have different attributes and behaviors, and some of these attributes prove to be more powerful.

The story in chess is simple and minimal. It helps us make the rules and goals of the game more intuitive; like the fact that only knights on horses can jump other pieces, or that the most important piece is the king — but the game does not give us additional information that is not essential to understand what to do next.

Conclusion

Story is an important tool to help us add meaning and connect emotionally to an experience. But the wrong story could turn into an annoyance to the player. By following these three rules you can avoid wasting time and resources developing stories that don’t help your game:

  1. Introduce a clear and easy to understand conflict as soon as you can.
  2. Communicate your story through actions first, visuals second, and only as a last resort through dialogue and narration.
  3. Keep the story simple and minimal, give you player only the information than helps him/her understand what he/she needs to do in the game at that point.

Pixar’s Rules For Great Storytelling

Emma Coats, a former story artist at Pixar Animation Studios, tweeted a series of “story basics” a while back which not only illustrates the kind of talent that Pixar employs, but serves as a fantastic guide for aspiring screenwriters to learn some very basic and essential tenants of storytelling.

Pixar’s overwhelming success is easily demonstrated by the numbers: seven of the 14 Pixar films have been nominated for Best Screenplay at the Oscars, and the company won the Animated Feature Academy Award seven times. They have 14 consecutive box-office toppers and two Best Picture nominations.

If that’s not proof of their genius, then we don’t know what is.

Steve Jobs purchased the studio in 1986 for $10 million. It was originally a hardware company with only one animator on its staff. Now it’s widely reputed to be one of the best film studios on the planet. Here’s a quote on Deadline from the producer of the Pixar hit Brave, which debuted at number 1 at the Box Office upon release, going on to gross over $500 million internationally. They attribute their phenomenal success to the basic wisdom that story trumps all.

It was not easy. The biggest challenges at Pixar are always the stories. We want really original stories that come from the hearts and minds of our filmmakers. We take years in crafting the story and improving it and changing it; throwing things out that aren’t working and adding things that do work. All of that is just the jumping off point for the technology and how we are going to make this happen.

Without further ado, here are 22 pointers from a former Pixar story artist for creating a compelling story and building a mega-successful franchise. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to learn more about our animation and screenwriting curriculum.

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

The Lifeblood of Broadcast Journalism (Hint: It's Not Technology)

Author: Bill Einreinhofer, Chair, Broadcast Journalism Department, New York Film Academy

Broadcast Journalism

At first glance, talking about Broadcast Journalism means discussing technology. Microprocessor-based HD cameras produce stunning images. Nonlinear editing software allows for intuitive, imaginative editing. “Live shot” reports are sent back to studios via powerful microwave transmitters. Stories are uplinked to satellites, and then distributed around the world.

Technology is useless, however, without meaningful content. A good news story must always address what in Journalism School are called “the 5 W’s” – Who? What? Where? When? Why?

Classic narrative storytelling actually dates back to the start of human civilization. It is the most basic, and most effective, way to share information. The structure is deceptively simple. In every story there is a beginning, middle and end.

Often this is termed “writing a story in three acts.” The first “act” provides basic information: the time of the story, the place where it is taking place, and the characters. This locates your story, and the people within it, in an understandable context. Without context, most information is meaningless.

The Weather Bureau says it is going to snow tomorrow. But where will it snow? When? Why?

In the second “act” complications and conflict are added. Good journalists know that there are at least two sides to every story. Sometimes there are five or even six. Like life itself, these stories are complicated. As the storyteller, you have to make sense out of them for your audience.

“Act” three provides a resolution and outcome, or sometimes sketches out what might happen next. Because complex stories can continue for days, months, even years. After all the votes are counted, it’s usually clear who has won or lost an election. In life things are seldom resolved so neatly.

While Shakespeare had the luxury of time, broadcast journalists don’t. We work in an environment where a two-minute news package is considered “long.” That’s one of the reasons why we are always looking for “compelling storytellers.” Audiences respond to intriguing, empathetic characters. In fact, when you are sent out to cover a story, you become something of a “casting director.”

But the people you are dealing with aren’t “characters,” they are real people. In telling their story, you must respect them. It is their story, not yours. You have a duty to honestly represent them in your report. One of my mentors once provided me with a basic guideline to judge the accuracy of my reporting. “If you show your story to the people in it, will they feel they were authentically represented?”

If they don’t, then I haven’t done them, or my audience, justice.

Narrative Storytelling is a technique you can use in a variety of ways. In fact, look at the structure of this essay. It has a beginning, middle, and an end…

Bill Einreinhofer is Chair of the NYFA Broadcast Journalism department. A three-time Emmy Award winner, he has developed and produced programming for PBS, CBS, ABC, Discovery and HBO. His work has been seen on major broadcast and satellite channels in North America, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East.