Look to Pixar. How we can look to Pixar to create better RPG stories.

Pixar got something right. That's undeniable. From Toy Story, Up, Wall-E they can reproducibly create wonderful movies that resonate with audiences. They're outliers in the movie; from world creation to character to story. Let's take a critical look at Pixar, ask how they create and see if we can takeaway some lessons to apply to our games.

Game developers and some gamers obsess over polycount, duration, frame count, number of lights, shadows and whatever is currently cutting edge. One might assume these are the features that drive the most sales, the Call of Duties and Grand Theft Autos of the world. But that's not necessarily true. Look to film one might assume the empty-headed summer blockbusters are where all the money is made but is that all there is to the story?

The Current Path

Narrative dominates. Game narratives improve as we hire better writers, borrow expertise from film (camera work, lighting, framing) and as tech improves to push more effective rendering.

Compared to movies, games are still terrible. Take out all the gameplay for Metal Gear Solid or Bioshock and it wouldn't make a good movie. We're getting better at this but everything still feels quite crude.

The Pixar Effect

In the Pixar Lesson article by , that this article is riffing off, Raph Koster writes:

movies that in the long run have earned the most are the ones with the most emotional connection, not the biggest explosions.

[...] I always use the example of Die Hard.

Yeah, you get the big explosion and jumping off the roof of the building with the crashing helicopter behind you, but the crucial emotional moments are a phone call or two, and picking broken glass out of Bruce Willis’ feet. Why? Because the whole movie is about him walking over metaphorical broken glass to get back to his wife.

How does Pixar achieve that emotional connection so well? Pixar movies aren't filled with explosions, gunfire and mutants and yet they captivate.

Pixar's Rules of Story Telling

Here are Pixar's internal rules for story-building. These can help us build better games-as-stories.

  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 v. 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.

It's interesting to think how these rules can be applied to games. For interactive movie-type games these rules are directly applicable but for more emergent experiences you need to get a little creative!

The Path less traveled

Games are most interesting when they're not aping film but are true to themselves. Interactive movies are enjoyable but that's just one small facet of the game design space.

Many people say the what makes games unique, makes them special is they're interactive. And while I agree they are interactive and that does make games special -- I don't think that's the soul of games. I would phrase their special property as:

> Games are alive.

Games have a spark of life in them. Things happen in a game if you interact with them or not. That's what is most exciting about games. From the Sims, to Dwarf Fortress, to even Grand Theft Auto these are experiences unique to the medium. Life and story aren't mutually exclusive.

Take Aways

Good stories about characters and emotional connection. Use Pixar's rules for stories as lens to examine your game. Is there a way you can push your game to make it more personal and emotional?


And just as a by-the-way Pixar are obvious extremely skilled at graphics programming. If that's something that's interests you they've teamed up the Khan Academy to create an introduction to this field, well worth checking out.