How indie games tell great stories and 2019's best narrative indies

These days, video games are able to tell better stories than ever before. Studios with backing from major publishers are putting out compelling narrative games, with Life Is Strange and Heavy Rain being major standouts. Indie developers are also creating storytelling magic and are at the forefront of these narrative experiences. It often seems as if there are just as many action-packed indie games as there are story-driven titles. The smaller size of these teams means more personal stories can be told, which ultimately leads to more relatable, highly compelling tales.

But what makes the stories from these indie studios so compelling, exactly? Is it just because they're relatable? Is the scope of certain stories more engaging than others? It could be a mix of both, but speaking with Worse Than Death developer Benjamin Rivers and Neo Cab Creative Lead Patrick Ewing, it's apparent that there's more to creating these games and their stories than we may know.

The Power of Imagination, and Good Ideas

“A good story is never about better tech — just about better ideas,” says Benjamin Rivers. That definitely appears to be true with Worse Than Death, a story-driven horror game with light survival elements that blends a little bit of Stephen King with some Alfred Hitchcock to create a terrifying world. The game has a pixelated 2D look to it, and those visuals work really well in creating the mysterious sleepy town setting.

“What drives us is creating moments players will remember for a long time,” said Rivers. “That could be a captivating twist or a compelling character — we just want to tell stories that someone will claim are their favorite one day. All of the work and research we do is just to get those moments and ensure that they feel genuine, even if they're fantastical.”

This isn't Rivers' first foray into the narrative adventure genre. He previously created Home and Alone With You. The growth from game to game is apparent. Where Alone With You is more about loneliness and the human condition, Worse Than Death plays out more like a classic Stephen King horror story, with strong characters who have deep secrets and the town setting itself acting as a character, too. It's this powerful blend of world and character building that makes Worse Than Death one of the better stories in gaming of 2019.

Personal Stories, and Putting Yourself into Your Work

Worse Than Death had a compact studio working on it, but there are other indies that rely on larger teams, which creates really interesting variables in term of storytelling. “We did aim to have a fairly larger 'writers room' on Neo Cab,” says Patrick Ewing. “All in all, we had contributions from 10 different writers on the game, each contributing some combination of world building, story consultation, narrative design, writing, and editing. Though the contributions vary a lot between each member, every individual person left a personal mark on the game.”

If you've played Neo Cab — and if you haven't, you really should as it's one of the best games of the year — you probably noticed how diverse its cast of characters is. No two characters are the same. The dialogue, which there is a lot of, feels unique between the various NPCs. It never feels like you're reading a video game script, but rather an actual conversation. Ewing attributes this to the team behind the game. “We just couldn't have written a game as big and as branching as Neo Cab without a large, diverse writing team.”

Ewing elaborates, saying, “And while I don't have any data on this, I feel like the team we assembled is more diverse — along the lines of gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality — than the industry norm. In part, this is because our studio isn't co-located, allowing us to work with the best fit writers from around the world, with folks streaming in, often at the weirdest hours for them, from Austin, London, San Francisco, Sao Paolo, and Los Angeles.”

How Team Size Affects Game Development

Given the size of the cast of Neo Cab, it makes sense that there was a larger team taking on a more collaborative effort during development. Winds of Change, an open world high fantasy visual novel, also includes a sizable cast of writers and voice actors, and it shows in terms of the game's quality and production values. Tall Tail Studios acquired top level voice talent from major franchises including The Legend of Zelda, Danganronpa, Secret of Mana, Gundam, and more. In addition, the studio crafted a 15+ hour campaign with said voice actors — an impressive feat, no doubt.

While larger teams benefited the development of Neo Cab and Winds of Change, for Worse Than Death, it was best to stick with a smaller studio. “One of the advantages of being small is that you have fewer stakeholders when making a game, so we can work quickly and revise anything on a dime,” says Rivers. “I rewrote and revised Worse Than Death several times just to get it right — sometimes very late in development, too.”

Rivers believes that making games has never been more possible than now, with more tools at everyone's fingertips. That said, being an independent developer still comes with its share of hurdles. “The biggest challenge when you're a small team is time. You can only get so much done in a day, so you can either stretch your development time out for years and years — which we don't ever want to do — or scope down. We definitely want to add a tech partner to our team so we can be a bit more ambitious.”

Chance Agency may have had a larger team, but by triple-A standards, it is still definitely considered a small studio overall. This meant that the development of Neo Cab also faced some challenges, specifically with regard to the team's ambitions. “The ratio of amazing ideas we had versus concepts that are visible as pixels on the screen is at least 10-to-1, and that is entirely due to the team size and budget of the game” says Ewing.

On the flip-side, for Chance Agency, being independent meant that every person involved in the development of Neo Cab could help shape the story. So it's almost like with every difficulty, there was a positive. “We were very scrappy and collaborative in our writers room,” says Ewing. “I learned the 'a good story can come from anywhere' principle from working with Campo Santo, and we really took that to heart, letting everyone contribute without worrying too much about who contributed what idea.

“Our Writing Lead Paula Rogers led us in establishing the tone and writing style, allowing myself and Bruno Dias to work out the core narrative design systems after Duncan Fyffe, Kim Belair, and Robin Sloan created some of our most iconic characters. Being smaller than a triple-A studio also let us be more nimble when it came to changing story requirements or narrative design elements without disrupting the schedule of the other departments. You can really let the story evolve into what it wants to be if you're able to maintain this kind of agility in the creative process.”

Working on an Indie Budget

As Ewing explains, the size of the team is but one aspect of a game's development. Another aspect — and this is a major one — is the studio's budget. So while Chance Agency may have had a somewhat larger sized writing team than you'd normally expect from an independent studio, it still faced the difficulties of working within the confines of a smaller budget.

“We would have loved to have a triple-A budget to work with, especially when it comes to the art side of the picture,” says Ewing. “Seventy percent of the GTA budget was spent on art, which would mean about 220 people working on building their expansive, detailed cities and populating them with interesting characters. We were trying to build and populate a city with three core art team members, five total. There was just no way we could create something of that scope on an indie budget.”

The majority of indie game devs may not have the finances to support a 200-person team, but not even the almighty dollar can stop a good story from being told. Ultimately, it's working within that smaller budget that not only tests the mettle of indie developers, but also allows them to essentially create fantastic experiences that are wholesome and unique in ways different than triple-A titles.

“There's a strong benefit to working with these constraints: focus!” says Ewing. “By paring down the cast of characters and focusing the experience on a few core locations like Lina's car and her sleep spots, we're able to really make those count narratively, and also to polish the hell out of them. I feel like the fascinating cast and the unique vibe of Neo Cab's rides — the lighting, the facial expressions, the feeling of the city streaming past — those are all a product of having to make tough scoping decisions early on in the process.”

Connecting with the Player

I love a good narrative adventure. The Sam and Max games are up there as some of my absolute favorites because they're able to tell comedic, almost sitcom-like stories. But while those experiences are great because it's like lending a helping hand while watching a movie or TV show play out, there's something truly poignant about a game that establishes a direct emotional connection with the person holding the controller. Disco Elysium is a great example that you can achieve the best of both worlds: telling a story that stands on its own, as well as engaging the player.

The interesting thing about Disco Elysium is that it wears a classic RPG coat of paint. And really, all the RPG elements you've come to expect are there, but you don't progress through the game with action gameplay. Instead, it requires you to interact with other characters, get their stories, and learn more about your character and the world around you. Disco Elysium may play a lot like an RPG, but its focus on narrative is unique in that it's meant to tell a story above all else.

Another great example of how looks can be deceiving is Outer Wilds. At first glance, the game resembles a sort of first-person space shooter. Once you get into it, though, you realize that's not the case. What you get is less an action-adventure experience and more an exploratory journey. There are a bunch of characters to talk to, planets to explore, and lore to learn, and you've got 22-minute runs to do so before the local sun blows up.

While not as straight-up story-based as something like Neo Cab, Worse Than Death, or Winds of Change, Disco Elysium and Outer Wilds are proof that story matters, and that smaller studios are interested in telling good stories. These games put the writing process at the forefront of their development. Whether or not players relate to it can certainly vary from person to person, but the important thing for these developers is that they tell a story that stays with the player.

For Chance Agency, creating the story of Neo Cab was, as Patrick Ewing calls it, a tightrope walk. “A story needs specific human experiences woven into it, or else it's soulless and has nothing to say. On the other hand, stories — especially game stories — need empty spaces for players to interpret what's happening through their own lens, and even insert themselves into the story in some cases.”

In Neo Cab, you connect with certain NPCs due to the way they talk, their personalities, or their dialogue. It was important for the studio that the player also feel connected to the protagonist while making her story unique. “We specifically knew Lina needed to be a 'real person' with her own back story, specific qualities, and emotional responses to tell the kind of story we wanted to tell,” says Ewing. “We also knew that if we made her character three-dimensional and made her responses and emotions deeply reactive to player choice, players would find some of themselves in her.”

On the other side of the storytelling spectrum, Worse Than Death takes a more subtle approach at human emotion and the human psyche. It's all their, woven into the game's fabric, but it's not as obvious as something like Neo Cab or Life Is Strange. What you get with Worse Than Death is along the lines of Stranger Things: an experience with a great story that also has characters you can relate to on a personal level as you learn more about them.

“It's all about the goal of a story,” says Rivers. “Do you want a murder mystery with a surprising ending? Do you want to create a universe in which players can get lost? Even if we were to create an epic game with a huge world, none of it would matter if players couldn't connect with our characters and feel real emotions for them.” In other words, a tightrope walk.

The Magic of Storytelling

There will always be games that resonate with players differently. The 2015 narrative horror game SOMA had a powerful impact on me, so much so that I had to hug my dog after I finished the game. Meanwhile Winter Novel, an underrated visual novel, told a solid emotional story about frustrations in the workplace and friendship. A lot of folks out there connected deeply with Life Is Strange or The Walking Dead, while others were fully invested in Beyond: Two Souls.

There are so many stories to tell, and the ways in which developers tell them vary between teams. The end goal remains the same, though: to tell a story that matters. And whether that's coming from a larger studio or independent team, the tools and avenues to tell important and memorable stories are more available than ever before. Even with those tools, though, the most important element is the idea, because games need to be able to hook the player, and you don't need to be a major publisher or developer to have a good idea.

“Games are an art form,” says Rivers. “Though they're technical, the best games are always built on good ideas first, and even the smallest team can excel at that.”