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As games have become more complex over time, they have been able to incorporate more complicated narratives into the game’s overall flow. At the beginning, narratives often needed to be fairly simple, in many cases being told in brief snippets (even sometimes through an introduction in a physical instruction manual). This constraint, of course, was caused by the limitations of the games themselves. The games had to be fairly simple, and also relatively short, which meant that a complex story couldn’t really be told through those systems. But as games grew, the potential for the narratives grew as well.
Stories in and of themselves are not an essential element of a game. You can imagine plenty of video games that have no narrative element whatsoever. Often games that focus on a particular system (such as puzzle games, or multiplayer games) will leave out stories because they aren’t the point of the game itself. Of course, these are still video games in every sense of the term, so the lack of a narrative doesn’t harm their status.
You can also think of games where the narrative is there more for the sake of having something, than because it’s necessarily needed to justify the act of playing. Fighting games might have story modes that are simply a series of fights with a brief ending to say something about the chosen character. Some puzzle games might have a paper-thin narrative to drive the player from puzzle to puzzle. If you’d like an even older example, the original Super Mario Bros. game, with its quest to rescue Princess Peach (and going from castle to castle until you finally reach your goal), is an example of this same phenomenon. These thinner narratives are often put in due to constraints, or like the former category, because the point of the game isn’t the narrative.
But while these kinds of games exist, there are still definitely narratives that exist in many games. And a lot of those narratives aren’t very good. And since narratives play such a big role in a lot of games, it’s worthwhile to examine video game narratives and where they can go wrong, and ways in which they can be better.
The unfortunate problem is that there is no one-size-fits-all method for creating a good story. What is required of a story in general depends on the underlying narrative. So trying to copy certain techniques that work in one context won’t guarantee success in another context. And that problem becomes even more complex when talking about video games, since the narrative also has to be constructed around a particular way in which the story has to be told.
But there are some basic principles that we can develop to help us think about what makes a good story and what makes a bad story. And in particular, what makes a good or bad video game story. Because one thing I want to explain is that a good narrative in general may not make for a good video game narrative.
The value of good narratives in general is that they can make the gameplay experience feel “fuller.” Players can enjoy games in a lot of different ways, but narratives can help players to more completely latch onto a game and feel immersed in it.
So in this essay I want to try to explain what makes a good narrative in general. I also want to explain what makes a good video game narrative. And in doing so, I will try to draw forth some basic principles that I hope might be useful in how to make good narratives and video game narratives.
Stories serve numerous purposes. At their most basic level, they can provide entertainment, allowing people to enjoy themselves through comedy, drama, or excitement. But on a deeper level, stories can be used to explore complex ideas, visiting particular themes and weaving those themes throughout a narrative in order to understand better what that idea means in different contexts. These explorations can even be used to help convey such complex ideas in a more simplified setting, allowing those who might not be normally interested in a deep dive into the intricacies of philosophy or science to attain some newer understanding without having to carefully study the underlying concepts.
Storytelling in games fits this same mold. Sometimes stories are merely there to entertain, and sometimes they have a deeper purpose behind them. It isn’t my objective here to say that all stories must have a deeper purpose. But regardless of the purpose, good storytelling in general is still an important skill to have. Also useful, perhaps even equally important, is being able as a player to spot these problems in a game’s narrative. I say the second component is important because the greater demand that players put on the quality of stories in their games, the more likely that developers will put in the required effort to really craft a good narrative.
Stories in general can fall short in various ways. Sometimes characters feel flat or dull. Sometimes plotlines are predictable or boring. Sometimes the broader world the narrative fits in is uninteresting or overly complicated. These pitfalls exist for stories of all types.
Where games in general can often run into problems, even just with the task of making a story, is in trying to figure out the story’s overall purpose. I do not mean here the deeper idea that is being explored (there doesn’t need to be one, as I said above). But rather the simple question “Why is there a story in this game?”
The simplest answer can sometimes be “Because something had to be there.” That is, the game itself requires the player to push through a series of tasks, and that series cannot be justified to the player without some plotline to pull them through.
The answer in and of itself isn’t wrong. Often the purpose of making a game may be simply to make a game. The story is functionally an afterthought. Even when there is a team writing the story and putting a good deal of work into it all throughout the development process, the story’s overall message can still convey that “afterthought” quality. And again, there’s nothing wrong with putting less emphasis on the narrative in order to focus on the gameplay.
The ultimate key, though, is trying to make sure the player isn’t asking the question “Why is there a story in this game?”
To begin on this topic, I think it useful to make a sort of distinction. Game narratives can often be so thin that it’s almost as though they don’t exist. Think of most Mario games (not counting the actual role-playing games such as the Paper Mario series). While they have plotlines, those plotlines tend to hold little relevance, to the point that players can easily ignore them, since the focus is on playing the game. In these situations, the player doesn’t bother to ask “Why is there a story?” because they’re essentially distracted by the game.
If a game can hold attention on its own in this way, then it doesn’t need to have a carefully crafted narrative and a meticulously built world. The storyline can be an afterthought, and that doesn’t ultimately harm the game as a whole, because the storyline is genuinely not the focus.
But that response is not viable for all games. Other games will tend to put their plotlines front and center, whether for a specific purpose (i.e. exploring a theme or showing off a carefully crafted narrative) or to provide better context for the player’s actions and overall role in the gameplay. When the plot becomes more central to the game’s “core,” then it becomes necessary for the developer to think more carefully about the story they’re telling. Because now that the story is being pushed into the player’s face, it’s going to be noticed. And it’s at this point that a player can begin to wonder why the story is there.
The principles of crafting a good story apply more to this second category. The first category, the one where the focus is genuinely on the game and gameplay themselves, merely needs to make sure the storyline isn’t terrible. But when the storyline becomes a central focus (again, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the point of the game, but how much emphasis is being put on it as part of the player’s experience), then the pitfalls become a major problem.
I’ll keep my discussion here very minimal. In part, because I can’t convey everything here too well. In another part, because as I said before there are too many variables about particular stories to say what will always work and not work. And in yet another part, because arguably the best way to learn these principles is through experience. Going out and collecting stories through different media (books, movies, plays, other games) is the most valuable way to understand how stories can go wrong, and how to avoid those problems.
Major pitfalls tend to fall into a few categories. The first of which is the basic plot of the story. Often the basic plot gets the most attention from a writer, and so is expected to work well. Obvious traps include things like plotholes or plain confusing storytelling. Obviously, whoever is actually experiencing the story should be able to understand what is going on and why it’s important. Not that there can’t be little details here and there that might be missed and become important later on, or that a player can’t ever be confused. But it’s important to ask whether the player is supposed to be confused, and why such confusion is good or necessary. Because if a player is confused when they shouldn’t be, that speaks to an underlying problem with the narrative itself: some part of the author’s intent isn’t being handed over to the player.
Just as important, though, is avoiding making the storyline too simplified or bland. This principle doesn’t mean that it’s necessary to avoid all sorts of tropes or archetypes. Indeed, it may well be impossible to avoid such things. But leaning too heavily on them can lead to the story feeling like the kind of afterthought that raises the question “Why is there a story in the first place?” In this case, it brings to the player’s mind that the story genuinely had no work put into it. That may not be true, but if that feeling is what is ultimately being pulled from the experience, it doesn’t ultimately matter how hard a writer or writing team worked. So doing something to make the story feel unique, so that the overall plotline and its core details can better stick in the player’s mind (and not be confused with other, similar plots and details) is also going to be of central importance.
The second major pitfall is characterization. Games often have non-player characters that serve a multitude of functions. Some of these characters are literally there to fill space. Townspeople might not be capable of being interacted with, but just there to make a town feel like a town. Some characters are designated to give quests, and might have no purpose beyond being a brief beginning and/or middle and/or ending point for that quest. And of course, some characters serve a more central role in the game’s overall plot.
Focusing on that last set, the problem can often be that there are so many characters that they feel interchangeable, or have personalities that are meaningless. Usually those two problems go hand-in-hand. As a game has more and more characters, each character gets less and less time to be fleshed out, meaning they have to be reduced to a very specific detail.
The solution to such a problem is to do one of two things. The first option is to put in the time and effort to flesh out those characters more. Give them more time, more dialogue, and make them more unique. This, of course, requires a lot of effort. Which leads to the second option, which is certainly viable: cut them out. One thing that’s useful to ask is if it seems like there are too many characters to adequately flesh them all out, do you really need all of them? Try to approach these problems from a viewpoint that less can be more: step back and ask what is absolutely necessary for the purpose of conveying the plot, and how the characters genuinely fit into that plan. You may find that a number of characters that were originally included ultimately serve no purpose other than to be there. Which is something that isn’t good.
The final pitfall is worldbuilding. Every story has to take place in a world, and that world needs to have rules. Sometimes the world is our own world, and so the rules are intuitive and need no further elaboration. But when the world is changed – whether it is by adding future technologies (even when it is still set in our world), or having a full-fledged science fiction experience, or by adding magic, or something else – the rules get changed. And once the rules are changed, those changes need to be explained so that actions and behaviors make sense. If, for instance, you have a science fiction story that involved space travel, you’d probably want to lay down what is and isn’t possible: how fast can ships fly, how durable are they, how do they fight, etc.?
Note that there does not need to be a dozen pages written on every tiny detail. Rather, there simply needs to be some level of thought put in so that a set of rules for the world can be understood both for the writer (who has to make sure that everything fits within those rules), and for the player.
Where a lot of stories can often fall short is in not giving much time to those rules, or in not really explaining the rules of the world to the player. If you can imagine some important plot event happening, and a hypothetical player asking “Why didn’t the hero just do X?”, then you’re potentially running into a problem. Because while an answer may exist, the answer should generally head off the question: it shouldn’t even arise in the player’s mind in the first place.
These are some of the basic elements for how a story might go wrong. To the extent that a writer can avoid these pitfalls, they are hopefully on their way to making a good story. Why do I spend so much time here talking about good stories, though, when my objective is ultimately to talk about good video game stories? Because a good narrative on its own a necessary building block. A good story in general might make for a mediocre or even bad video game story, but it will not be the case that a bad story in general can end up being a good video game story. So the basic principles of good writing are necessary for this endeavor.
Video Game Narratives
Every medium for telling a story offers something unique that can affect how a story gets told. A novel can use the written language to describe things and events in detail that can help the reader paint a picture of the world and story taking place within it. A play or movie can add a visual and audial element that circumvents the need for imagination, and instead allows for the viewer to better understand things like emotion and subtle cues that might be lacking through writing.
By the same token, video games offer some unique tools that can be made use of for storytelling purposes. Just because these tools exist does not mean they are inherently being made use of. But the fact they exist is important, as I will explain shortly.
I will first lay out two tools that are special to video game storytelling. The first is interaction. Books and shows can have fantastic narratives, but the reader’s or viewer’s immersion is ultimately limited in some way by the inherent disconnect between their experience and what they are reading or seeing. Games, however, allow the player to be directly engaged in the action. Rather than merely reading about or even seeing a battle, the player is actually placed into the combat (albeit not literally). And in many games, especially role-playing games, the player character can become a sort of vessel for the player, so that the player can view themself as the person being affected by the game’s actions. In short, while all storytelling allows for immersion, video game storytelling allows for an even deeper level of immersion through the ability for players to interact with the game.
The second tool is exploration, which follows in some sense from this interaction. Other stories can build a world, but the experience of that world is necessarily limited. A large and vibrant city is only fleshed out to a very limited degree. Townspeople are mere faces in a crowd, and buildings or shops are only of importance as long as they are part of the story. But since those elements are often irrelevant to the book or show, the world can still feel a bit flat. Video games, however, allow the author to make those otherwise ignored elements shine forth. A shop or house can now be explored and tell its own little story, in a way that would have to be ignored in other media. This exploration is not only valuable because it allows the player to craft a more unique experience, but also makes the world feel more real, in the sense that it is a world with real people in it, rather than a world that merely looks like it has people in it. This can be true even when the world itself is entirely fictional.
But all video games are interactive, and nearly all include some degree of exploration. So does this mean every story in a video game is by definition a video game story? No. Because there’s one important component that is missing.
Namely, a “video game narrative” is a story that can only be conveyed through the medium of a video game. That is, if you were to try to tell the same story through a novel or a movie, you’d be able to get across the basic plot points, but the whole story wouldn’t get across properly. Something incredibly important would be missing. That is what distinguishes a normal narrative from a video game narrative.
With this important component in our minds, we can see how a lot of video games don’t necessarily tell “video game” stories. That is, they tell stories, sometimes even good stories, but those stories can often be told in other ways without losing anything.
To help explain this distinction, let me point to The Last of Us. The game is renowned for its narrative, and I would argue that praise is well-deserved. But as good as the underlying narrative is, there is little about that narrative that cannot be conveyed just as effectively through some other medium. That is, while the player is interacting with the game and even exploring a bit, that interaction and exploration is not a requirement for the story. It’s a really good story, but not a good video game story.
Note that a lacking a good video game story does not make a game bad. There’s definitely more that goes into the judgment than just that one thing.
Of the two tools for creating video game narratives, the first, interaction, is the more important. Exploration can be useful, but cannot really transform the experience. You can imagine, for example, various open world games that have plenty of exploration, and within that exploration, small stories that get told. Indeed, that can be seen as part of how sidequests work in role-playing games. But the mere existence of these little side stories, or even more minute details, does not make the story a video game story.
What is lacking is still the component that really changes the quality of the narrative itself. The distinction between a game with sidequests and a game without sidequests is merely the amount of content in the game itself. But the existence or non-existence of those sidequests does not – in and of itself – transform the underlying narrative into a video game narrative.
When we think about interaction as a transformative element of storytelling, we might first think of alternative endings or narrative branches. The player can be offered a set of choices at different junctures, and those choices can lead to different outcomes which alter how the story progresses.
These are arguably the crudest ways of getting at a video game narrative, but they start us on the path. Because now the interaction is important to the storytelling experience: without the interaction, the primary narrative would (potentially) take a different path.
I call them crude, though, because they still rely heavily on a “standardized” narrative. In one sense, the narrative can be standardized by having so few choices that really matter, up to only having one major choice that might affect the ending the player gets. In another sense, the storytelling itself is standardized because the interaction’s effect on the narrative is constrained.
To get beyond this crude tool, we’d need to do one of three things. The first is to continually expand the number of choices offered and make more and more branches. This allows for a variety of narrative experiences where the player’s interaction has more and more of an impact. I think this is the simplest way to solve the problem, compared to the others, but I also think it doesn’t seriously elevate the storytelling experience. But for bigger games, it might be the best way to tackle the issue, since it requires the least work of the three.
The second is to make the narrative more reactive to the actual gameplay itself. That is, rather than having the story react to specific “choices,” the story reacts to how the player is playing the game itself. This is probably the hardest of the three to describe. A good example of this kind of storytelling can be found in The Stanley Parable, which is admittedly operating more as a proof of concept of how storytelling could work. The idea behind this system, though, is that the world and story would change depending on how the player spent their time. Unfortunately, making a game like this is difficult.
The third is to make the player’s choices more “organic.” That is, the player is still making choices, and those choices impact the story, but the choices aren’t being presented as choices. In other words, the choices are essentially hidden from the player in such a way that it is only in reflecting back that they realize what choices were being made and why they were significant. I think a good example of this type of storytelling is Undertale, which hints at what you ought to do to get good endings, but doesn’t directly push you towards any path, essentially allowing the player to keep experimenting with how they play (something that is aided by making common gameplay elements such as saving/loading part of the overall narrative).
These are some of the ways in which video game narratives can be constructed. There is no single best way to go about doing this, because ultimately the way to construct a good video game story depends more on what the underlying narrative is and how the gameplay mechanics work.
But in trying to think about video game narratives work, it’s useful to step back and think: could this story be told through some other means? And just is important is what interaction is really adding to the storytelling experience. Because while every individual player’s experience is going to be unique, and so the “story” that each player gets is going to be unique based on their personal interactions with the game, that mere interaction is not going to turn that experience into a video game story. It is the interaction that is part of the storytelling itself that is going to make the difference.
Every medium has its own unique properties, and the ideal to be reached is to make use of those properties to their greatest potential. When it comes to video games, the role of interaction as a way of engaging the player with an experience marks its unique property among various methods for storytelling.
Not every game needs to have a story. Sometimes games can revel in the enjoyment of gameplay. But when a game aspires to tell a story, it should try as best it can to tell a story that can only be told through that game. To make the story not simply unique in its details, but unique down to its very soul.