Storytelling in Games: What Makes it Work

As the medium we all love and admire continues to grow before our very eyes, the various facets of games grow as well. Tech becomes stronger and able to render greater and greater feats of wonder, visual artists push that tech to its limits, and designers create new and fascinating experiences for us, the players. Due to this, there are clearly defined rules on what does and does not make a functional game. However, as games have matured through the years, and we’ve talked at length about the many technical and design aspects related to them, no one has mentioned how to tell a story in a game. This is progressively becoming a greater problem, as more studios push the envelope for what narrative can do within the realm of video games. Before we delve further, a baseline must be established, and not one concerning things such as plot, character, or other things that can be found in other media. While such things are essential, they are another topic entirely and not solely relevant to games. No, what we must define are the standards that set a story in a game apart from a story in a film, television show, book, stage play, flipbook, or what have you. The elements a game narrative must adhere to to be considered functional within the rest of the game. These elements are agency, brevity, game flow, and connectivity.

In games, we interact with a wider world and systems, so the time spent not pressing more than one button must be brief so as not to drive away or bore the player. Another way of thinking about this in a more traditional sense is as agency. In a medium like film or television, viewers feel cheated if characters do little or say nothing because they lack agency. It’s the same in games, however with a complication: Who must be given agency, the protagonist or the player? In games, the player is just as important to how the story plays out as the protagonist they inhabit. Both are, in the end, deciding what is happening in the game and the story at large, so compromises are made. In games such as Fallout or Mass Effect, the player and protagonist are mixed, giving the player control over how the protagonist speaks in non-gameplay sections, which in turn grants them a greater sense of agency over the plot.

However, not all games are equipped to tell branching stories, and, even then, they can fail to captivate their audience. This is due to lack of brevity or an over-reliance on telling and not showing. Have you ever played a game in which characters would talk ad nauseam for minutes at a time, withholding gameplay in favor of these moments? In a game’s narrative, this is telling without showing. Dialog and cutscenes should be brief and concise. Characters and events should show up, say or establish what they need to in as little time as possible, and then move on to the gameplay. A good example can be found in the Fire Emblem series. Good or bad, each game understands that players are here to test their strategic minds as well as hear a story. Hence whenever a cutscene to introduce a character or move the plot along shows up, it is not only broken up with gameplay but rarely exceeds 33 lines of dialog (or about two and a half minutes).

This also helps with the next factor: game flow. Games, like all other media, have a natural rhythm to them to which events play out. In games, this flow is the progression and challenge of the gameplay and should be interrupted as little as possible. This becomes an issue when doing narrative in-game. If planned poorly, then whatever groove the player got into up to this point is halted or gone, taking them both out of the game and the story being told. Gameplay and narrative should go hand in hand, so steps must be taken to ensure the player knows what is going on without removing them from the game. Examples of this being done well are games like The Witcher 3 which uses the quieter, less gameplay heavy segments of the game to move the plot along or flesh out a character. However, a personal favorite is what SuperGiant did in Bastion. That game almost never breaks flow with the entire story told by a narrator who speaks over gameplay as events unfold. This way, even in gameplay heavy segments, the story is still present and continues to inform the player about the world, monsters, and characters in the game without pulling the player out of the game.

Finally, we come to connectivity. To put it simply, connectivity fits gameplay to narrative and vice versa. To demonstrate the importance of connectivity in a game, imagine if Doom was a Real Time Strategy game. Sure the setting and plot could easily transfer, but the core power-fantasy theme wouldn’t. That idea is better suited for a first person shooter, as it puts greater importance on the actions of an individual. That is what connectivity is about, finding gameplay that matches and informs the story you're trying to tell. Lucas Pope gives us a great example with his second game The Return of the Obra Dinn. Here, Mr. Pope creates a compelling murder mystery tied wonderfully to the core mechanics of deduction by casting us, the player, as an insurance accountant sent to take stock of the Obra Dinn’s crew. From that starting point, we are given a magic pocket watch that allows the player to view a corpse's last memory before death, allowing us to better uncover what truly happened to the Obra Dinn and her crew. If the player took control of say, a crew member or just some passerby, then the overall story would lose steam. Why would a crew member be looking for answers they already know, and why would some random chump care? However, since this is a game about deduction, it makes sense to be playing as someone whose job it is to deduce solutions. That is the key to this element. By creating channels between gameplay and narrative that allow them to feed into one another, it enhances the overall experience. They're not separate things, they are parts of the same whole.

That is what makes a narrative in games work properly and is the framework that future discussions will reference when addressing the topic, at least by this author. If you are wondering what led to this conclusion, then I recommend checking out: Slay the Dragon: Writing Great Video Games by Robert Denton Bryant & Keith Giglio and Story by Robert McKee. Each of them informed this article in their own way along with each of the games given as examples. Game narrative is still in its infancy and will remain there unless we begin examining it like other forms of narrative. So hopefully this is the first step along that path to greatness.

Wolfgang Westdorp is a game production management major with a passion for storytelling in games—a passion he'd hoped be his major, but a minor in it is good enough. Originally from Frederick, Maryland, he now attempts to make something of himself at Champlain College.


© 2019 by Champlain Arcade

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