Four lessons in emotional storytelling and plot structure from Pixar

Matthew Luhn shares his wisdom with games developers

Four lessons in emotional storytelling and plot structure from Pixar

Pixar are undoubtedly one of the best studios when it comes to cinematic storytelling, but how much can they offer to the world of storytelling when it comes to video games?

Well, quite a lot as it happens.

Speaking GDC Europe 2016, Pixar’s Matthew Luhn took discussed how he came to be a key member of the storytelling team at the animation outfit and how the games industry can learn from the storytelling found in some of Pixar’s greatest creations.

Luhn has worked on Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and many other productions during his time at Pixar.

As such, there really aren’t many in the industry better to give a few words of advice how to create a story that is both engaging and memorable.

1. Creating emotional attachment

As far as Luhn is concerned, whilst highly important, entertaining the audience is only one piece of the puzzle.

Having been a key influencer in creations such as Finding Nemo, Up, and Toy Story 3, Luhn argued that creating an emotional attachment between the characters and the audience is just as important as being entertaining.

He explained some of the techniques that Pixar has utilised over the years in order to connect the audience to their new worlds. All of these techniques primarily focused on the development of the main character and their journey.

For Luhn and the team at Pixar, having the lead character go on a journey, one that the viewer can relate to, is one of the most important processes when it comes to creating an emotional attachment with the audience.

Finding Nemo focused on the journey of Marlin as he searched across the ocean for his son, Nemo.

This is something he exemplified through characters such as Marlon in Finding Nemo, Sully in Monsters Inc., and Lightning McQueen in Cars. All of these characters go through their own journeys and end the story a very different character to who they started as.

This takes the viewer on an emotional rollercoaster ride alongside the characters they are watching, he said, making them feel like they have shared this experience and creating a lasting impression on the viewer.

Furthermore, this is something that is aided by having the lead characters not only feel authentic, but by also having them hold human attributes, even if they aren’t human.

Whilst Pixar focuses on all demographics when creating its films, to Luhn this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case when it comes to game production.

Rather, his advice was for developers to focus in on what their specific audience is, and work out how to connect best with them specifically through both the game’s world and characters.

2. Keep a solid structure

Luhn went on to speak about the importance of structure in storytelling.

He argued that whilst in many aspects a creator should make something original, messing with the core structure of a beginning, middle and end is not something he advises.

Pixar often gives its characters human traits, even when they aren't all human like in The Good Dinosaur.

In fact, having tried himself to fight against this structure for years, he found that it has lasted so long for good reason - it works.

3. Setting the scene

As a part of this discussion into structure, he also went on to focus on the importance of ensuring that the beginning is both engaging, and importantly, informative.

He argued that at the beginning of a story, creators should ensure that both the rules of the world, and all of the information the audience will need to enjoy their creation is delivered in a way that is fun and accessible, rather than something akin to a lesson.

He then went on focus on just how integral this point is when it comes to games development.

Luhn said that not only will getting this right assist in connecting the game to the story, but also the importance of it.

Furthermore, this is a skill that can be especially be applied to games development in relation to ensuring a game’s tutorial is engaging and not boring.

4. Explain your story in a single sentence

Finally, Luhn arguably left the audience with the most valuable piece of advice that can be given to a creator: Ensuring that you can easily explain your story in a single sentence.

Up's emotional introduction is a good example of creating an instant connection between the viewer and the lead character.

Whether creating for the silver screen or for a gaming audience, there is nothing more important to selling the merit of a creation than being able to easily explain it to someone who has never come across it before. No matter how complex the entire plot may be.

It’s a trait that is definitely more than applicable to not only Pixar’s works but also many of the very best gaming experiences.

Developer Evangelist & Big Indie Pitch Manager / Special Features Writer

Queen of all things Indie. Sophia is Steel Media’s Big Indie Pitch Manager and Developer Evangelist. She’s also a global speaker and lifelong gamer with a fanatical love of all things Nintendo and Japan. So much so that she’s written a thesis on one and lived in the other.