Pixar's six tips for telling better stories in games

Toy Story and Monsters Inc story writer Matthew Luhn shared his advice from more than two decades at the film studio with devs at GDC Europe
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If you want your game to carry the narrative punch of Toy Story, Monsters Inc and other Pixar films, look no further.

Matthew Luhn, who spent more than two decades at the renowned animation studio working on the stories for movies including Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc, Ratatouille and Cars, took to the GDC Europe stage to coach game creators on how to improve the storytelling in their titles.

“We tell stories because we want to make people feel something,” Luhn began. “We want to invoke a reaction. That is what you really want to accomplish when you have a story. You want entertainment and ideas, but ultimately to make people feel something.”

Luhn, who also worked as an animator on The Simpsons and has consulted on story for Oculus Rift virtual reality projects, continued by examining the unique interactive narrative benefits the medium of games can offer.

 “Something where the story is figured out for you and you’re locked in, it’s like a rollercoaster ride,” he said. “You have no control over that ride at all. That’s what a 90-minute movie is like.

“That’s not bad, it’s entertainment, but it’s also awesome to experience stories that are interactive story experiences,” he continued, comparing such experiences instead to bumper cars that people can control and choose where to steer.

 “Linear storytelling tells a story to the audience. Interactive storytelling delivers a sense of story for the audience.”

Luhn concluded his talk by offering six ways for devs to make sure a story is working:

Hook: “You need to grab people’s attention from the very beginning,” he explained. “When I’m trying to create a hook, I’m trying to create something unusual, unexpected, an action or a conflict.”

Luhn offered an example of something unexpected in the form of Toy Story 3’s “kickass opening”, while Wall-E’s intro instead posed something unusual.

“What the heck is going on here? Is this the end of the world? You’re asking a question,” Luhn explained. “Pose your hook as a “What if?”

Controlling Idea: Next, Luhn continued: “Describe that hook in one sentence. It should tell your entire story in one sentence – if you can’t do that, you don’t know what your story is about yet.

“Keeps things as simple as possible, because once you start building a movie, game or whatever it starts to get more and more complicated.

“It’s like you have a compass which tells you which direction to go to build your idea.”

Change: Luhn said that key to telling a good story was to introduce a main character and next ask: “Who is that main character and how are they going to change?

“That change can be audience changing, or main character changing and you going through the experience with them,” he expanded. “Great stories are all about characters changing. If you tell a story and there’s nobody changing, it feels shallow. If the audience goes through a change with a character, it becomes a more personal and meaningful experience.

“Go back to simplifying it: how can you describe the character changing as simply as possible?”

Again, Luhn offered examples in Pixar’s own work. Sully in Monsters Inc goes from being naïve to being aware. Cars’ Lightning McQueen goes from being arrogant to compassionate. In Finding Nemo, Nemo’s father Marlin moves from being an overprotective father to letting go.

“After the hook, how are you going to change the audience?” he summarised. “Get your audience to experience the character’s journey through good storytelling.”

Connect: “In order to develop a living, breathing, multifaceted character you must know everything about them,” Luhn said of quality character creation. “Make a list of attributes even if the audience doesn’t see them, to give them relatable human attributes. What do we all have in common? Desires to fall in love, avoid abandonment and accomplish our dreams.

“Do the research to figure out who your audience is and how you can connect to them – what matters to them? Create an interesting world and environment that people can connect to and understand. People will believe whatever you tell them, as long as you explain it clearly and don’t contradict it later on.

“Don’t bring up any questions you don’t want the audience to not ask. Explain the rules of the world in a fun way that doesn’t feel like you’re teaching the audience. Audience wants to connect and share the feelings of the hero. Do it in a way that’s natural and entertaining.”

Authenticity: Luhn said that one key element that made Pixar’s films stand apart from many other Hollywood blockbsuters is that “the stories have heart”.

“They touch us, make us feel something – an emotional response,” he added. “One of the big reasons for that is that Pixar films are director-driven. They came up with an idea they felt the world needed to see and needed to be made. If you want to make your story authentic, make sure it’s something the director is really passionate about. Don’t be clever, just be vulnerable and honest.

“The best creators in the world are vulnerable – they were making things from the heart and hoping people would like what they make. They weren’t trying to please people. Allowing yourself, and characters you create, to be vulnerable allows you to create empathy and sympathy.

“The worst examples of authenticity are when games or movies talk at the player or audience, telling them what to feel. When writing for games, focus less on driving a narrative forward and more on supporting the sense of the story. Work more on making people feel something.”

Structure: Concluding his talk, Luhn advised devs to “put all of this important information in a package people can follow along with”.

“If you want to connect with a large audience, realise how we communicate as people: with a beginning, middle and end,” he insisted. “Setup, build and payoff, it’s built into our DNA. Whatever the content is, you want to be able to have a structure with a beginning, middle and end.”

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