Gamify Your Storytelling

3 strategies to gamify your storytelling

Hey — it’s Nathan.

World building is an underdiscussed aspect of storytelling. And the best world builders are video game makers.

Amy Hennig, who directed the Uncharted series of games, says:

Storytelling in games is very different from in movies; that's why I always get into trouble when people say, 'Well, write a story for a game.' It's not about writing a story. It's about creating a world.

Here’s a wild stat: The video game industry pulls in $347 billion in revenue annually. That’s more than Hollywood and the music industry combined. So, to my wife’s chagrin, I spent a bunch of time digging into how video games build worlds. It’s fascinating.

From Zelda to Pokémon to Skyrim, you're the protagonist. You level up, go on quests, make friends, fight bad guys, and save the world. But most powerfully, your decisions affect the course of the story.

And while you can’t (yet) write a book or a speech that’s unique to every member of your audience, there’s so much you can take away from how games tell stories.

I recommend three strategies to ‘gamify your storytelling’:

  • Levels, Progression, and Rewards

  • Setting as a Character

  • Story Engines

Let’s dig in.

1. Levels, Progression, and Rewards

My friend Nicolas Cole says your “Rate of Revelation” means how quickly new info gets introduced to your audience. Generally, the higher the RoR, the faster the perceived pace of your writing.

Similarly, I’d argue for a “Rate of Progress” metric. How quickly your story progresses your reader from one part of your story to the next.

In video games, there’s a million metrics to show the Rate of Progress. To name a few:

  • Levels — Advancing from level 1-1 to level 1-2 in Super Mario.

  • Milestones — Beating a certain part of a mission.

  • Collectibles — Pokemon’s “Gotta catch ‘em all” goal.

  • Experience points — In Zelda, Link gets XP which lets him get more skills.

  • Development trees — Skyrim’s character development trees.

You’re always “just a few minutes more” from making progress. And progress is addicting.

But in other storytelling mediums, progress is less obvious. Notice I don’t say progress is necessarily slow. That may not be true. What’s often missing is clear signs of progress being made.

Here are two storytellers who nail signs of progress:

In Brandon Sanderson’s book Mistborn, the main character gets into a fight against seven enemies. Sanderson clearly tells us there’s seven enemies at the start of the fight. Then, as Vin knocks them out, he tells you how many are left. You see the number ticking down.

And in The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien establishes early on that the fellowship consists of nine members: the four hobbits, Gandalf, Aragorn, Boromir, Legolas, and Gimli. As their journey progresses and the fellowship breaks, Tolkien updates you on who’s still remaining in the core group. You feel the dwindling fellowship becoming more vulnerable as their numbers decrease. The count creates tension and momentum (signs of Progress) carrying you through the major transitions.

A few ways I’ve seen people accomplish the same:

  • Lists

  • Signposts

  • Countdowns

  • Milestone Moments

  • Chapter or Act Breaks

If you think of your story as a line from Start to End, Progress is everything in the middle. Avoid the trap of the boring middle.

Give your audience moments of payoff throughout your story, not just at the end.

2. Setting as a Character

In games like Red Dead Redemption or Fallout, the environment isn't a static world. It’s a character in its own right. One that reacts to and evolves based on the actions you take. Every ruined building, every piece of old-world technology tells a story of what once was, adding layers to the story without a single line of dialogue.

If your setting at the start and end of your story is the exact same, you’d likely be better served not talking about it at all or honing in on the details that do matter. Often, like Hemingway’s Iceberg theory, we’re better off leaving out more details than feels natural.

The key to great settings is that they change, alter, and frame the story themselves. What drew you to Hogwarts? To Middle-Earth? To Pandora? For one, their associated story depends on the setting.

Three few questions I like to ask myself about setting:

  • How does it enhance or alter the story?

  • How does it change as the story progresses?

  • How does it frame the story?

Whatever your answers, those are the aspects of your setting to highlight.

3. Story Engines

A storytelling engine is a repeatable narrative structure used to crank out a new but similar version of the same story.

Every 3–5 years Pokémon releases a game that will inevitably sell millions of copies, but the game features the exact same story as the previous ones. Here’s that story:

  • The Hero goes through the same fundamental transformation in each game.

  • At the start: you’re a nobody who has never even owned a Pokémon.

  • The bad guys and the gyms fill in the middle part (clear signs of progress!).

  • And at the end, you’re the best trainer in all the land.

The result? Nine generations of Pokémon games with three games in each generation. 27 games following the same story. That’s an incredible storytelling engine showing no sign of slowing down.

Let me give you an example of how I do this with my internet writing. Three of my favorite (and most viewed) pieces follow the exact same structure.

  • Short story about someone else but from my perspective.

  • A few non-obvious insights from the story.

  • A short thought to pull it all together.

The pieces are this one, this one, and this one. As you can see, similar structures.

Now, I’m on the lookout for other stories or insights that fit this structure. When I find one, it’s that much easier to write because I’ve got the hard part — the story structure — already done.

Start small. Pick one aspect of your story where you can apply these principles and give them a try.

Have a great weekend,


PS: In May 2022, I had 0 newsletter subscribers.

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Nathan’s Notes

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