Words: 1878 Approximate Reading Time: 12-17 minutes
I recently completed a foray into the game Telling Lies. I realize I am quite late to the party on this one – the game was released in 2019, and followed on the heels of a previous game (Her Story) which came out in 2015. I’d initially written these games off when I’d see them pop up. I usually put them in the mental bin where I put most games that focus on FMVs to use storytelling, which often place a minimal effort in the “game” component and mostly make the player’s journey one of frustratingly trying to puzzle out the proper order in which to complete tasks to meet some arbitrary measure of “success” as determined by developers.
But there was something different here. I first began this foray when I was watching a streamer I usually tune into playing Her Story. I figured it would be a boring journey in watching a bunch of video clips. But I found myself fascinated by the way in which the story unfolded. It was enough that I decided to check out the other two games from the same studio when I had the opportunity.
I write this essay because I am interested in the ways that video games communicate their stories, and particularly how they can communicate stories in ways that other forms of media such as books and movies can’t. A story can be good, and yet be told just as well through some other form. But what makes any story truly live up to its potential is being able to fully take hold of the medium it is being communicated in. When a story in a book or movie or play or video game can only be effectively told through a book or movie or play or video game, and by changing the medium you fundamentally change the story as well.
Player Interface and Player Choice
It would be easy enough to say that the component of video game storytelling that makes it unique is interaction and choice. A novel or a movie doesn’t offer you as the audience a meaningful choice in the narrative’s direction. You can choose to stop reading or watching at any point, but that’s all. You have no real opportunity to shape the narrative.
Also true is that your ability as a reader or watcher is largely irrelevant for most entries in any given media. Whether you have any particular skills or insights into techniques of writing or understanding of character motivations or the like, that doesn’t alter the story or your capacity to interact with it. To wit, a novel will tell a story in such a way that everything will be laid out clearly for every reader, and any special knowledge you have won’t affect your understanding of the story. You can still try to apply that knowledge, but the story doesn’t change one bit.
So how do you make a story special? How do you take advantage of the medium?
The key is radically changing one of these two components.
I say “radically changing” because mere choice is insufficient. Just offering a couple of possible ending branches isn’t enough to take advantage of the medium of video games. And just hiding a few clever details here and there doesn’t change the broader strokes of the story.
Instead, the key lies in more fully leaning into one or both of these criteria. Either you make player agency thorough and meaningful, or you make the player’s skill a central component of how the player experiences the story.
Games like Her Story and Telling Lies seem to ignore the former, but do lean into the latter. Much like a book or movie, these games tell a coherent story that doesn’t change at any point. Much like with a book or movie, you as audience member have the choice of how much you want to “read.” In fact, the game explicitly gives you that choice – at a certain point, you are given the option to be “done,” and can from there choose whether to keep going or to let things stand as they are. In this way, the games are simply making you more aware of the choice to exit, but not changing the player’s interaction with the medium.
But the particular way in which the player interfaces with these games places a much deeper role on the player’s knowledge of the game and its mechanics.
While trying to avoid explicit spoilers, Her Story is about a series of interviews with a woman. The interviews are cut up in such a way that you aren’t watching each interview from beginning to end, but instead watching clips of her answers, interrupted by the questions being asked of her. So you never hear the questions themselves, and can only guess at what they are. This also means that you are experiencing the story in small bites, with it slowly unfolding as you watch more and more clips. Your primary interaction is through a search function – you enter terms into a text box, and if that term is used in a clip, the clip will show up (though you are limited in how many clips show up at one time).
A similar premise exists in Telling Lies. Here you are watching recorded videos of different people having conversations by way of video chats. But you only get the audio from one side. While each corresponding clip exists, you may have to put in work to find the pair. The interface is much the same, with a search bar used to pull clips.
So why does this setup matter? How does it help with storytelling, and specifically video game storytelling?
The thing I found fascinating was not merely the task of piecing together the narrative as a player. That itself can be fun, but to some extent you pick up on a lot of the basics fairly quickly and can get the broad strokes early on. This task of putting together the story and timeline gives these games an air of solving a mystery, but the missing component is that there’s not really a “correct” answer. There’s not so much a “win” state for the game as such, and so the mystery isn’t really “solved.”
Instead what I found fascinating was the limitations placed on the player through the game’s interface. The fact that in both of these games you were limited to five clips/videos at a time meant that you had to be careful in what you searched for. A common term might pull up a lot of results, but as a consequence of only getting five you might pull up five videos you already saw, thus providing no new information. Less common terms would help narrow down the results…but at the cost that the term might not actually show up, and thus you still aren’t getting any new information.
This is where your ingenuity as a player comes in. In Her Story, you are generally trying to extrapolate out from the answers to figure out what the questions were. Doing so gives you some sense of what’s going on and what less common terms could be useful. In Telling Lies, you will often be using clues from the half-conversation you are watching to try and discern what the other half of the conversation is. Your understanding of how people talk, of how these characters talk, and of how to pick out things like names and other valuable information can be a way to find clips you’ve yet to see.
This interface is interesting because it ultimately impacts your understanding of the story as a whole. You still have that fundamental decision about when to stop. After you’ve seen a sufficient percentage of clips, the game gives you the option to stop what you’re doing and be “done.” But what percentage you’ve seen may result in you having a strong understanding of the story, or it might result in you missing certain key bits of information. What is important here is that you not only get to determine how much of the story you get, but the way you play determines how much of the story you get. If you just search for random words and watch whatever new videos come up, you’ll probably find enough to get through to the “end,” get frustrated, and then be done. If you play smarter, you’ll be able to more effectively find clips and get a clearer sense of the game’s narrative.
It is in seeing this impact that we can see why the limitations exist in the first place. If searching for a term gave you every single associated clip, then you’d be able to finish quickly and more importantly, you wouldn’t have to put in any serious effort. In fact, just searching for tiny common words (i.e. “a”, “the”, “of”) would be enough to find everything. The meat of the game can only occur when you have to put in thought and effort, when the game pushes back against you and you as player must find a way around it all.
Usually when I talk about video games stories, I tend to fall back on the same small set of examples, and fall upon them for the same basic reasons. Dark Souls is one such example, and yet I am keenly aware that it is not the only example of an interesting story that makes the use of the video game as a medium for communicating its story.
But certainly something in common with many of the examples I fall back on is how they tend to revolve around the player’s choice to change the narrative in some way. Sometimes subtle ways, sometimes major ways, but generally the focus has been on the story that is told. I think when we tend to think about the unique aspect of video game storytelling, we fall back on player choice affecting the underlying narrative because it is the easiest thing to grasp.
And yet, that aspect is something we’re still trying to really understand, because there are plenty of games that offer players the opportunity to “change” the narrative while making that change feel superficial or meaningless. These become examples where it feels like the story is begrudgingly giving the player control for a moment. I don’t think that it’s the case that writers for these games are trying to tie players’ hands and prevent them from messing things up. Far from it, I think that they are attempting to implement something that gives players a sense of control over things. But I think so many of these attempts fall short.
But what I find interesting about Her Story and Telling Lies – and any other games that might harbor similar mechanics and methods – is how they offer a different lens through which to analyze video game storytelling. Rather than focusing intently on what the underlying narrative is, we can ask how the player’s abilities matter. What can a clever player accomplish that a less clever player can’t? And as a consequence, we might be able to use these kinds of lessons in helping us understand what it means to properly give players a sense of control over narratives.