Using Backstory as a Driving Force in your Game


One of the first steps to creating your backstory is to figure out where your character comes from. Events in his/her past could be influencing their behaviour in each level. Does your character have a hidden past that needs to remain hidden?  How does he/she react to people he/she meets along the way?

Excellent sources of inspiration for backstories could come from movies you’ve watched or books you’ve read. Detailed character lifepath guides from role-playing games can also give you ideas of the different variations possible in your characters’ birth and childhood, family history and landmark moments of their lives.  You can challenge yourself further by writing the backstory from a third-party’s viewpoint, i.e. imagining yourself as the character’s boss writing a recommendation letter or even a private investigator creating a case file. These alternatives could give you more insight into your character.

Once the character’s background is established, working out what your character wants and what his/her fears are is next. Does your character want to be rich, to belong to a group or to prove something? Is your character afraid of being alone? Does looking bad in front of the boss scare him/her? How your character chooses to balance between the two is the main driving force behind your character’s actions and results in his/her behaviour.

Implementing a backstory

By now, you’ll have a complete idea of how your character will navigate the game based on his/her previous experience and life philosophy. How do you convey this information to the player? Here are some ideas to get you started!

  • Level introduction video: This is the most common way to reveal information to the player. At the start of the level, information and the tone of the story is told directly to the player. While it can help set the scene, I’m sure you’ve experienced introductions that have gone on too on. The trick to using the introduction is quick snippets of information. The writing technique of Show, not Tell is very applicable here. Wouldn’t you rather uncover information yourself through exploration, rather than have it given to you by the scoopfuls?
  • Dialogue: Another common way to reveal information is through non-playing characters in the game. These characters are in the game to give you information. They usually approach you, or need to be approached before they speak to you or give you an item. Sometimes, they give you tasks to do before you can get the information. When using dialogue, keep it interesting by avoiding trite speech patterns. This helps ensure that the players of your game actually read what your characters have to say and not just click Next; missing important information.
  • Exploratory Items: Imagine being left in a strange room. You have no idea how you got there. What’s the first thing you’d do? Using exploratory items in your game gives players a great sense of satisfaction in solving mysteries. By giving them items such as newspapers, heirlooms and stories to find, players are able to piece a backstory while giving them room for their own interpretations of what happened.

The last word

There are many mysteries to solve when it comes to backstories. Is your game to discover who the character is? Does the player have to figure out the relationship between their character and another? How did the mystery they’re thrown into start? Once you have your goal, you can choose selected parts of the backstory to reveal and hook the player to the next level.

Above all else, stretch your imagination. If you’re surprised by an idea you have, chances are your players will be too. Don’t give them the first idea that comes to your mind. Instead, take that thought and let it stew. Add a dash of the unexpected with a hint of suspense. Remember, half the fun is in discovering new ways characters relate to one another.


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